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 on
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