by John Greening
Edwin Muir (1887-1959) has had no lack of distinguished admirers. T.S.Eliot published him and edited a Selected Poems for Faber, noting in his Preface the ‘rare and precious quality’ of Muir’s personality and the ‘unmistakable integrity’ of his poetry, admiring the way that ‘under the pressure of emotional intensity, and possessed by his vision, he found, almost unconsciously, the right, the inevitable way of saying what he wanted to say.’ He was one of the mighty handful of such visionaries championed by that great English mystic Kathleen Raine (David Gascoyne, Vernon Watkins were other moderns she found fit to stand by Yeats and Blake). The late John Haines recognised in Edwin Muir – as much as in his beloved John Muir – a kindred spirit, another doughty individualist whose Eden was not Alaska but the tiny isle of Wyre, off the coast of Scotland; Haines provided the introduction to Graywolf’s 1993 edition of Muir’s essays, The Estate of Poetry. Seamus Heaney, too, considered Muir important enough to write about him at length (and not uncritically) in Finders Keepers, while one of the last things that Mick Imlah published before he died of Motor Neurone Disease in 2009 was a new Faber edition of his fellow Scot’s poetry. It hardly raised a ripple. In an age when poets routinely come out from under the shadow of Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop or (in the case of UK poets) Edward Thomas, how often do we find anyone claiming the influence of Edwin Muir?
Most readers will have come across the name indirectly, through the translations of Kafka he made for Penguin with his wife, Willa (whose 1968 memoir,Belonging, is well worth seeking out). Their versions of The Trial, The Castle and the short stories are still among the best. Having lived in Prague after the First World War and during the Communist take-over in 1948, Muir knew and fully understood what ‘Kafkaesque’ would come to mean. He has been criticized for missing an opportunity to write from first-hand experience about life under Communism, to analyse the upheavals he lived through, yet it seems to me that this reveals a profound misunderstanding of his art. He was never going dramatise his experiences; he was no Vaclav Havel and certainly no Miłosz. Yet almost everything Muir wrote in his later years bears the mark of his experience of mid-twentieth-century Europe. Read ‘The Good Town’, a longish poem from his most powerful collection, The Labyrinth (1949) for example, which shows how a settled community ‘with streets of friendly neighbours’ can lose what it took for granted, and become a place with ‘a fine new prison,/The house-doors shut and barred, the frightened faces/Peeping round corners, secret police, informers,/And all afraid of all.’
Muir’s achievement as a poet is to have avoided the temptations of propaganda, or direct political pronouncements. When he writes, as he often does, of a way or a road, of a hero or a leader, it is not part of a cry to arms. When he tells us of poverty it is with passive resignation, but with wisdom and sympathy too. Only in his third collection, The Narrow Place, published during the Second World War, does he produce anything that could be called satirical, and even here the blame is turned inward, and the impression is of a disillusioned bitterness. In ‘Scotland, 1941’, it is ‘we’ who are to blame: ‘We were a tribe, a family, a people’ he begins, then adds: ‘Wallace and Bruce guard now a painted field’ (the latter a phrase taken by Scottish poet, Robin Robertson, as title for his 1997 collection). Towards the end of the poem, there is a simmering of outrage, but it is really the kind of thing that Eliot did better:
[…] We, fanatics of the frustrate and the half,
Who once set Purgatory Hill in doubt.
Now smoke and dearth and money everywhere,
Mean heirlooms of each fainter generation,
And mummied housegods in their musty niches,
Burns and Scott, sham bards of a sham nation,
And spiritual defeat wrapped warm in riches,
No pride but pride of pelf