Edwin Muir (1887–1959) was born in the Orkney Islands at the northern extremity of Scotland. When he was 14, his family went through a move — which was traumatic for Edwin — from their farm in Orkney to industrial Glasgow. He later described it as like being expelled from Eden into the fallen world — and the journey felt like setting out in 1751, before the industrial revolution, and arriving in Glasgow in 1901. Over the next few years his father, two brothers and his mother would all die.
Muir saw his life as echoing the loss of Eden and a gradual regaining of it — a lifelong spiritual journey. He struggled with the harsh Calvinism of his upbringing — and briefly abandoned faith altogether. Becoming conscious of immortality was an important early step back. He wrote many poems relating to faith and the scriptures. “The Killing” for example paints a picture of the crucifixion:
-------------That was the day they killed the Son of God
-------------On a squat hill-top by Jerusalem.
-------------Zion was bare, her children from their maze
-------------Sucked by the dream of curiosity
-------------Clean through the gates. The very halt and blind
-------------Had somehow got themselves up to the hill...
In the early 1950s Muir was Warden of Newbattle Abbey College near Edinburgh. He became a significant influence and encouragement to the poet George Mackay Brown (also from Orkney) who was a mature student there. In 1955 Edwin Muir became Norton Professor of English at Harvard.
During his lifetime he published seven separate volumes of poetry. In 1965 T.S. Eliot edited and wrote an introduction to Edwin Muir’s Selected Poems.
They could not tell me who should be my lord
They could not tell me who should be my lord,
But I could read from every word they said
The common thought: Perhaps that lord was dead,
And only a story now and a wandering word.
How could I follow a word or serve a fable,
They asked me. `Here are lords a-plenty. Take
Service with one, if only for your sake,
Yet better be your own master if you're able.'
I would rather scour the roads, a masterless dog,
Than take such service, be a public fool,
Obstreperous or tongue-tied, a good rogue,
Than be with those, the clever and the dull,
Who say that lord is dead; when I hear
Daily his dying whisper in my ear.
This is the first Kingdom Poets post about Edwin Muir: second post, third post.
Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca