Writing her diary one evening in January 1951, Edwin Muir’s wife Willa reflected that her husband’s poems would live on, but ‘of himself, only a legend’. Why? Contemporary poets united in marvelling at Muir’s gifts, not just as a fellow poet, but as a human being. T. S. Eliot recognized in him a more ‘complete integrity’ than he had known in any other writer; Kathleen Raine envied his stillness and stability in a hurtling world; George Barker was moved by his visionary insight. Edwin Muir, Barker wrote, was ‘like a silent clock that showed not the time but the condition, not the hour but the alternative’. Surely something more solid than ‘legend’ should survive of such genius?
Yet it was an aspect of Muir’s goodness, of his extraordinary ordinariness, that he was a person who felt no need to be a ‘personality’. And if this is the reason that little survives of him by way of anecdote, and that he has never had the biography he deserves, it is also what makes the work he left behind so rich and rewarding. His writing, as the poet George Mackay Brown once observed, is not the product of ‘one mind working in isolation to impress the world’, but gives off the feeling instead of being ‘very old, strong, and fragrant’, as if it has ‘taken generations of patience and skill to produce’.
It was in researching a biography of George Mackay Brown, who was in a sense Muir’s protégé, that I first came across Edwin Muir’s Autobiography. I would not have believed it possible that anyone could write as beautifully as Brown himself about an Orkney childhood, but the first few pages of this book plunged me immediately into what must be one of the loveliest and most thought-provoking evocations of infancy and innocence in the English language.
Muir was born in May 1887, and his earliest memories were of the Bu farm, where his father was the tenant, on the Orkney island of Wyre. Wyre is tiny – just three miles by one – low, green, undulating, treeless. From wherever you stand on the island, you can look across the sea to the curve of the horizon, and see that you are on a globe. ‘The sky filled the earth,’ Muir writes, ‘and the earth the sky.’
Life was tough, the cycles of the agricultural year endless and arduous, but the Orkney Muir was born into was a place where the ordinary and the fabulous were interwoven, so that the mundane was constantly shot through with the marvellous. There were men who believed still in mermaids, ‘fairiks’ and selkies – seals that swam ashore at night, cast off their pelts, and danced like humans on the sand. Muir’s own father had known several witches, who had ‘taken the profit of the corn’, turned the milk sour, and wrecked ships by raising storms. ‘When my father told his witch stories we sat up very late,’ he writes. ‘We were afraid to go to bed.’
In a place where the lives of ordinary people passed naturally into legend, the boundaries between past and present were indistinct. To the infant Muir, it seemed that his parents, and he himself, must always have existed: ‘Where all was stationary, my mother came first; she certainly had always been with me in a region which could never be known again. My father came next, more recognizably in my own time, yet rising out of changelessness like a rock out of the sea.’ Timestood still ‘on the wrist of each day’, he writes, ‘with its wings folded’.
Muir’s memories of this early world are vivid, and his telling of them luminous. At a local dance, he remembers a farm boy staring longingly at a neighbouring girl like ‘a shaven ox, slowly basting in the fires of love’. He describes how the passing from winter into spring was marked by the day ‘when the cattle were unchained from their stalls in the six months’ darkness of the byre’ and ‘shot through the opening, blind after half a year’s night, maddened by the spring air’. Then, around the time of the spring sowing, ‘the world opened, the world grew higher, the sea deeper, as the summer colours, blue and green and purple, woke in it’.
But the idyll was short-lived. When Edwin Muir was 8, his father was driven out of the Bu by his cruel and capricious landlord. The family moved to the Orkney mainland, to a farm called Garth, and at Kirkwall Grammar School Muir developed an ambivalence about the benefits of compulsory education that would remain with him for the rest of his life. Pupils were routinely beaten with a variety of straps. Some teachers flogged monotonously, day after day, ‘as if they were pounding some recalcitrant substance, not the hands of living boys’.
Much worse was to come. Garth was a poor farm, and when Muir was 14 the family packed up once more and, in a catastrophic move, headed south to Glasgow. From a community rooted in cooperation, his parents were thrown into a society governed by competition, which they could not comprehend. ‘The first few years after we came to Glasgow were so stupidly wretched,’ Muir notes, ‘such a meaningless waste of inherited virtue, that I cannot write of them even now without grief and anger.’ With almost mathematical horror, the family began to fall apart. First, Muir’s father died, longing ‘for a glimpse of the sea and the fields’. His death was swiftly followed by those of Muir’s older brothers and then of his mother. ‘I was’, Muir writes, with bracing concision, ‘too young for so much death.’ At just 18, he was left to make his own way in the world.
Rudderless, he drifted from one bleak job to another, ending up in a factory in Fairport to which fresh and decaying bones from all over Scotland were gathered to be reduced to charcoal. Muir would later become the first translator of Kafka into the English language, and the Fairport bone factory was a place of Kafkaesque horror:
The bones were yellow and greasy, with little rags of decomposed flesh clinging to them. Raw, they had a strong, sour, penetrating smell. But it was nothing to the stench they gave off when they were shovelled along with the maggots into the furnaces. It was a gentle, clinging, sweet stench, suggesting dissolution and hospitals and slaughter-houses, the odour of drains, and the rancid stink of bad, roasting meat. On hot summer days it stood round the factory like a wall of glass.
At night, Muir would waken from nightmares to the chilling realization that his life had gone wrong. Walking by the Clyde one evening, he wondered idly whether to throw himself in. It is hard to imagine what might have become of him had he not, in the winter of 1918, met Willa Anderson, a teacher of Shetland descent. They were married the following year. ‘My marriage’, Muir writes simply, ‘was the most fortunate event in my life.’
They moved south to London in the autumn of 1919 – ‘The weather was bright and dry, and the trees in the parks were putting on their autumn colours; the atmosphere had the suspended stillness which comes when the year is hesitating on the turn: a crystal density in which even the roar of traffic seemed muffled and remote.’ Here, they established themselves as teachers and reviewers, and Edwin Muir underwent psychoanalysis. Then, for much of the Twenties, they travelled in Europe, living and working in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, Austria, France, relishing ‘the solitude of two’. Gradually, the sense of pain and degradation that had dogged Muir with ‘post mortem persistence’ since his parents died, receded, so that when, at the age of 35, he began to write poetry, his memory reached back beyond the wet, gas-lit horrors of Glasgow to his lucent infancy on Wyre. ‘Art’, he writes in a postscript at the end of An Autobiography, ‘is the sum of the moments in which men have glanced into that yesterday which can never change.’ It was certainly so for him.
Many, perhaps most, people live through experiences of great pain, and come out the other side. What made Edwin Muir remarkable was his comprehension that pain not only fitted into, but actually made possible a larger pattern of love and compassion; that surrounded by the horrors of the twentieth century, he could nevertheless keep ‘one foot in Eden’:
. . . famished field and blackened tree
Bear flowers in Eden never known.
Blossoms of grief and charity
Bloom in these darkened fields alone.
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love
Until was buried all its day
And memory found its treasure trove?
Strange blessings never in Paradise
Fall from these beclouded skies.
The journey that Muir retraces in this book is not just factual and psychological, but spiritual. His parents had been naturally pious. He recalls his mother teaching him the story of Jesus out of a book for children. ‘It must have been written in a vein of mawkish sentiment,’ he writes, ‘for it gave me the impression that Jesus was always slightly ill, a pale invalid with the special gentleness of people who cannot live as others do.’ Muir, at the age of 14, felt himself ‘saved’ by a visiting revivalist preacher in Kirkwall. But during his Glasgow years, in anger and despair, he abandoned all belief in God, throwing in hislot instead with the beliefs of a succession of philosophers – Heine, Hegel, Nietzsche. Only in middle age was he able to recover an infant belief in immortality, paving the way for an eventual belief in the Christian Incarnation.
Perhaps the most striking chapter of this book is the very last, in which he reflects on his brief spell as director of the British Institute in Rome in 1949. He and Willa were moved not only by Rome itself – ‘the riches stored in it, the ages assembled in a tumultuous order, the vistas at street corners where one looked across from one century to another’ – but by the Romans, and by the way in which they spoke and acted directly from the heart. Their humanity, Muir writes, ‘was perfectly natural, but I knew that naturalness does not come easily to the awkward human race, and that this was an achievement of life’. Befriended by these people, and surrounded everywhere he moved by images of Christianity, he came to a firm and final conviction that Christ was not some imaginary figure in a child’s story book, but had been ‘born in the flesh, and had lived on earth’.
Muir was never conventionally religious. What he experienced in Rome did not tempt him to become a Catholic, nor even a churchgoer. But his late-flowering faith enables him to end his autobiography on a note that is as moving as it is uplifting:
As I look back on the part of the mystery which is my own life, my own fable, what I am most aware of is that we receive more than we can ever give; we receive it from the past, on which we draw with every breath, but also – and this is a point of faith – from the Source of the mystery itself, by the means which religious people call Grace.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 17 © Maggie Fergusson 2008