Edwin Muir 1887-1959
Twentieth-century writer of sonnets, ballads and lyric poetry; author of literary criticism, novels, and autobiography; translator of German and Czech literature, who introduced Kafka to English-language audiences.
The following entry provides information on Muir's career from 1953 to 2000.
A mid-twentieth century Scottish poet, Edwin Muir is also known for known for his literary criticism, his autobiography, and for translating, along with his wife, Willa Muir, the works of Franz Kafka into English. After establishing a career as a journalist, literary critic, and translator, in his mid-thirties Muir turned to writing poetry. Muir's mystical, visionary poetry did not resemble that of his Anglo-American modernist contemporaries. Informed by the Scottish ballads and incidents from his Orkney childhood, mythical, religious and psychological themes, and the work of Nietzsche and Kafka, Muir's poetry explored the struggle between good and evil, life and history as an existential journey, and the ways myth informs our individual and collective history. John Holloway considered Muir “the outstanding British love poet since Yeats.” T. S. Eliot declared that Muir “will remain among the poets who have added glory to the English language.”
The Scottish poet Edwin Muir was the youngest of six children born to tenant farmers in the Orkney Islands on May 15, 1887. Muir's parents were strict Calvinists, and the young Muir's exposure to books was limited to the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress. In 1901, when Muir was fourteen years old, high rent and poverty drove his family to Glasgow, where Muir began working full-time as an office clerk. By 1906, two brothers and both Muir's parents were dead. Now on his own, Muir began writing fiction and poems, a few which he published under the name Edward Moore. In 1918, the depressive and self-doubting Muir met Willa Anderson, a confident and extraverted teacher and linguist, whom he married in June of 1919. Muir considered their marriage “the most important event in my life.” They moved to London, where Muir found work as an assistant editor of The New Age, and also began psychoanalysis. In 1921, they moved to Prague, where he wrote journalism and essays that earned him acclaim in England and America. Through the 1920s, he also partnered with Willa in translating the works of Gerhart Hauptmann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Franz Kafka, and others. Muir also published literary criticism and two books of verse, First Poems (1925) and Chorus of the Newly Dead (1926). The Muirs returned to Surrey, England, in 1927, where their son, Gavin, was born, and moved to St. Andrews, Scotland, in 1934. In 1941, Muir accepted a position with the British Council; through this position, he was assigned first to Prague in 1945, where he witnessed the Communist seizure of power in 1948, and then to Rome in 1949. During the 1940s, Muir published The Narrow Place (1943), The Voyage, and Other Poems (1946), and The Labyrinth (1949). He was appointed warden of Newbattle Abbey College near Edinburgh in 1950, and a few years later he published An Autobiography (1954). After teaching at Harvard in the mid-1950s, Muir returned to England and completed his final poetry collection, One Foot in Eden (1956). Muir died January 3, 1959; his epitaph is from “Milton,” the first poem in One Foot in Eden: “His unblended eyes / Saw far and near the fields of Paradise.”
The archetypal story of man's expulsion from Eden and his resulting journey resonates throughout Muir's poetry. Muir draws upon his rural childhood in the isolated Orkneys, his traumatic move to industrial Glasgow, the Bible and classical literature, waking dreams, German philosophy, and contemporary events to explore his overarching concerns with time, human history, and eternity. In an early collection of literary criticism, Latitudes (1924), Muir suggests that we can never know “reality” except as the myth, dream, and archetypes that inform our lives. An early poem, “The Ballad of Hector in Hades,” describes in detail the afternoon when, as a child in Wyre, Orkney, a boy chased him on the way home from school. According to Muir, the source for this poem was a waking dream from psychoanalysis, and writing the poem freed him of a terror that had haunted him for thirty years. Many of Muir's poems, such as “Tristam's Journey,” “Hölderlin's Journey,” “Troy,” “The Mythical Journey,” “The Return of Odysseus,” and “The Journey Back,” are dominated by the metaphor or the journey or pilgrimage, and address, in a complicated way, the relationship between humanity's potential goodness and its capacity for evil. Many of Muir's poems, such as “Merlin” and “The Enchanted Knight,” rework well-known literary legends and convey a sense of timelessness. The Labyrinth is considered by Muir and others to be his best volume of poetry. Written during his second stay in Prague, it contains poems that describe the terrors of war. Clearly influenced by Kafka's nightmarish vision, Muir's later work consists of poems such as “The Helmet,” “The Combat” and “The Interrogation.” Rilke's influence is evident in “The Good Town,” and “The Usurpers.” In “The Refugees,” Muir describes those displaced by war: “We saw the homeless waiting in the street / Year after year. / The always homeless, nationless and nameless.” Muir's last volume, One Foot in Eden, continued the themes of his earlier volumes. In addition to translating the works of Franz Kafka, Muir wrote two autobiographies, three novels, and several volumes of literary criticism and essays.
By the time Muir first published his poetry, he was already well known and respected as a literary critic and translator. Humbert Wolfe of the New Criterion proclaimed First Poems (1925) “new, vigorous [and] breathing” despite Muir's “still incomplete” “power of expression.” Poetry reviewer Marie Luhrs believed “Muir's virtues are also his faults” but celebrated Muir's “mysticism and simplicity and peace” as “rare qualities … more valuable than metric fluency or fashionable mannerism.” In the London Mercury, the poet Stephen Spender praised Journeys and Places (1937) as having “some of the most serious, interesting, and individual poems of our time.” Spender noted that Muir's “poetry is not poetry for poetry's sake” but “develops an argument about time.” Roger J. Porter of the South Atlantic Quarterly called Muir's work “a radical statement that the past is a function of our present, that memory is a design and not merely a fact.” Joseph H. Summers, in the Massachusetts Review, called Muir's achievement “larger than the merely literary.” According to Summers, “Implicit in all of [Muir's] works is the recognition that there are things more important than literature—life and love, the physical world, the individual spirit within its body: those things in which the religious man recognizes the immediate work of God.” Muir's autobiographies, translations, and literary criticism were also highly praised, although his contention that “Scotland can only create a national literature by writing in English” angered Scottish poets such as Hugh MacDiamard. V. S. Pritchett called Muir “the best novel reviewer between the wars” and Horace Gregory declared An Autobiography “one of the best autobiographies of the present century.” According to Elgin Mellown, author of Edwin Muir, Muir “must be ranked among the most important of the twentieth-century British poets.” After Muir's death, Kathleen Raine wrote in the Texas Quarterly: “Time does not fade [Muir's poems], … Edwin Muir, a poet who never followed fashion, has in fact given more permanent expression to his world than other poets who deliberately set out to be the mouth-pieces of their generation.”
First Poems 1925
Chorus of the Newly Dead 1926
Six Poems 1932
Variations on a Time Theme 1934
Journeys and Places 1937
The Narrow Place 1943
The Voyage, and Other Poems 1946
The Labyrinth 1949
Collected Poems, 1921-1951 [edited by J. C. Hall] 1952
One Foot in Eden 1956
Collected Poems, 1921-1958 [edited by Hall and Willa Muir] 1960; revised edition, 1963
Selected Poems [edited by T. S. Eliot] 1965
We Moderns: Enigmas and Guesses [as Edward Moore] (criticism) 1918
Latitudes (criticism) 1924
Transition: Essays on Contemporary Literature (criticism) 1926
The Marionette (novel) 1927
The Three Brothers (novel) 1931
Scottish Journey (nonfiction) 1935
Scott and Scotland: The Predicament of the Scottish Writer 1936
The Story and the Fable (autobiography) 1940
Essays on Literature and Society (criticism) 1949
An Autobiography 1954
The Estate of Poetry (lectures) 1962
W. S. Merwin (review date summer 1953)
SOURCE: Merwin, W. S. “Four British Poets.” The Kenyon Review 15, no. 3 (summer 1953): 468-72.
[In the following review of Edwin Muir's Collected Poems, poet W. S. Merwin compares Muir to Robert Frost, W. B. Yeats, and William Wordsworth, and explores the duality of Muir's idealism as reflected in poems such as “Variations on a Time Theme,” “The Annunciation,” “The Island,” and “The Animals.”]
I assume that it was immediately for the work, for a particular aspect of the work, of his own generation that Mr. Eliot wrote the essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Mr. Muir is of that generation (though for some reason I am reminded of...
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Kimon Friar (review date April 1954)
SOURCE: Friar, Kimon. “The Circular Route.” Poetry 84 (April 1954): 27-32.
[In the following review of Muir's Collected Poems, Friar provides an overview of the major themes of Muir's poetry: the tension between time and eternity, the horror of the first and second world wars as symbols of “life at its most material and unreal,” and life-long the journey from childhood to old age and death.]
Although at the age of sixty-seven Edwin Muir is one of the best poets writing in English today, we in America have known his work only by scattered pieces, for not a single volume of his poetry has ever been published here before. We have known him hitherto by an...
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Hayden Carruth (essay date August 1956)
SOURCE: Carruth, Hayden. “The Separate Splendours: Homage to Edwin Muir.” Poetry 88, no. 5 (August 1956): 389-93.
[In the following brief essay, Carruth, an award-winning American poet, praises Muir's treatment of time, our moment in history, and eternity in such poems as “The Escape,” “The Interrogation,” and “All We.”]
1. “TO FASHION THE TRANSITORY”
The problem of time in Edwin Muir's poetry dominates all others and hence allies him to the metaphysical tradition in modern verse. But it is a loose and problematical alliance. If the metaphysical tradition is characterized essentially by certain habits of significant...
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R. P. Blackmur (essay date summer 1959)
SOURCE: Blackmur, R. P. “Edwin Muir: Between the Tiger's Paws.” The Kenyon Review 21, no. 3 (summer 1959): 419-36.
[In the following essay, poet and literary critic R. P. Blackmur argues that Muir is an “unprofessional poet” who nevertheless produces “hard and interesting things … out of honest and endless effort and the general materials of [his] language.” The essay provides an assessment of Muir's contribution to poetry, comparing him to John Keats, Emily Dickinson, and Virgil along the way.]
Young Englishmen when asked how they felt about the poetry of Edwin Muir answered by and large that they had not troubled to make an opinion about it because it...
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Daniel Hoffman (essay date 1967)
SOURCE: Hoffman, Daniel. “The Story and the Fable.” In Barbarous Knowledge: Myth in the Poetry of Yeats, Graves, and Muir, pp. 225-56. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
[In the following essay from an academic book on myth in modern poetry, Hoffman draws upon Muir's autobiographical and critical writings to uncover the significance of myth in Muir's early and later poetry. Particular attention is given to “The Ballad of the Flood,” “Scotland, 1941,” and “The Combat.”]
In the last poem before his death Edwin Muir wrote,
I have been taught by dreams and fantasies Learned from the friendly and the darker phantoms And got great...
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Kathleen Raine (essay date 1967)
SOURCE: Raine, Kathleen. “Edwin Muir.” In Defending Ancient Springs, pp. 1-16. London, New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1967.
[In the following essay from a book-length work on mysticism in poets such as Yeats, Blake, and Coleridge, Raine—a poet and literary critic—considers the use of fable and universal archetypes, along with influences from Scottish ballads and German literature, in the poetry of Muir.]
When Edwin Muir died, in January 1959, at the age of seventy-one, he was still at the height of his poetic powers, and many of his finest poems are among his last. Time, that so remorselessly fades some poems which in their day seemed...
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Allie Corbin Hixson (essay date 1977)
SOURCE: Hixson, Allie Corbin. “The Natural Poet.” In Edwin Muir: A Critical Study, pp. 137-76. New York: Vantage Press, 1977.
[In the following essay from a scholarly book on Muir's life and work, Hixson suggests that reading First Poems (1925), which Muir published at age thirty-five, alongside The Labyrinth (1949), written after the Second World War, provides an understanding of the development of Muir's “exceptional poetic imagination.”]
… since I came out that day, There have been times when I have heard my footsteps Still echoing in the maze. …
—Muir, “The Labyrinth” (1947)...
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Elgin W. Mellown (essay date 1979)
SOURCE: Mellown, Elgin W. “The Poet: Poems of the 1920s and 1930s.” In Edwin Muir, pp. 88-104. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.
[In the following essay, Mellown provides an overview of First Poems (1925), Chorus of the Newly Dead (1929), Six Poems (1932), Variations on a Time Theme (1934), and Journeys and Places (1937).]
Although Edwin Muir stands apart from the experimental poets whose innovations have changed the course of twentieth-century literature, he holds an important place in the tradition of contemplative verse. His poems reflect not his age but rather traditional wisdom seen through his age, while his philosophy,...
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Roger Knight (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: Knight, Roger. “The Three Mirrors.” In Edwin Muir: An Introduction to His Work, pp. 123-38. London and New York: Longman Group Ltd., 1980.
[In the following essay from an academic study on Muir, Knight examines the influence of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil in Muir's poetry, particularly “The Three Mirrors.” In addition to analyzing several other poems, including “The Myth” and “Comfort in Self-Despite,” the author draws upon Muir's An Autobiography and other autobiographical essays to explicate Muir's understanding of Nietzsche's ideas.]
The Narrow Place collection closed with a prayer, “The Day.” It is a poem that...
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Thomas Crawford (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: Crawford, Thomas. “Edwin Muir as a Political Poet.” In Literature of the North, edited by David Hewitt and Michael Spiller, pp. 121-33. Great Britain: Aberdeen University Press, 1983.
[In the following essay from an anthology about Scottish writers, Crawford reflects upon the ways in which such poems as “The Good Town,” “After a Hypothetical War,” “The Interrogation,” and “The Castle” address “particular and general aspects of man's inhumanity to man.”]
In Britain, as I write, over three million persons are unemployed. In Scotland, hearts are faint and spirits are low three years after the devolution referendum; the nation seems in...
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David Daiches (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: Daiches, David. “Types of Vision: Edwin Muir and Hugh MacDiarmid.” In God and the Poets, pp. 176-90. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
[In the following excerpt from a longer chapter in an academic study, Daiches considers the ways in which Muir's poetry and autobiographical works communicate “his shifting visions of human fate through the exploration and adaptation of history and myth and personal feeling.” Particular attention is paid to Christian theology and Greek myth, along with Muir's use of personae, in “The Return,” “Adam's Fall,” “One Foot in Eden,” and “The Transfiguration.”]
Edwin Muir was buried on a cold,...
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W. S. DiPiero (essay date winter 1990)
SOURCE: DiPiero, W. S. “On Edwin Muir.” Chicago Review 37, no. 1 (winter 1990): 80-8.
[In the following essay, DiPiero reflects on Muir's contributions to poetry and concludes that Muir's poetry embodies a struggle against what Muir called “the cry of historical necessity over the life of the individual.” The author calls Muir a religious poet whose language eschews “sacred decoration,” and whose works are informed by “a sense of decency” and “human goodness and kindness.”]
Reviewing the Collected Poems in 1955, Edwin Muir criticized Wallace Stevens for following too obediently aesthetic patterns contrived by his own mind, and for allowing...
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George Bruce (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Bruce, George. “The Integrity of Edwin Muir.” In Edwin Muir: Centenary Assessments, edited by C. J. M. MacLachlan and D. S. Robb, pp. 1-18. Aberdeen, Scotland: Association for Scottish Studies, 1990.
[In the following essay, Bruce considers the integrity—meaning the consistency, soundness, and sincerity—of Muir throughout his career as a literary critic and a poet.]
First I wish to acknowledge the considerable debt I owe to Professor Butter for his critical biography, Edwin Muir: Man and Poet. All interested in Edwin Muir owe Professor Butter a debt for his clear presentation of the central issues in connection with the making of Muir's poetry...
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Margery Palmer McCulloch (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: McCulloch, Margery Palmer. “Edwin Muir, Calvinism and Greek Myth.” In Edwin Muir: Centenary Assessments, edited by C. J. M. MacLachlan and D. S. Robb, pp. 75-86. Aberdeen, Scotland: Association for Scottish Studies, 1990.
[In the following essay, McCulloch,explores the relevance of Muir's strict Calvinist upbringing to his poetry and examines his use of Christian and Greek myth.]
One of the recurrent aspects of Edwin Muir's work which puzzled me when I first began to read his poetry was his recourse to Greek myth as vehicle for his themes. Why should a writer who had spent the formative years of his childhood in the cultural ambience of the Norse-influenced...
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Margery Palmer McCulloch (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: McCulloch, Margery Palmer. “The Single, Disunited World: Edwin Muir and Prague.” In Scotland and the Slavs: Selected Papers from the Glasgow-90 East-West Forum, edited by Peter Henry, Jim MacDonald, and Halina Moss, pp. 131-40. Nottingham, England: Astra Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, McCulloch analyzes how Muir's experience in Prague, translating Kafka, and working with Czech refugees influenced his religious and political views and his development as a poet.]
The city of Prague intersected with Edwin Muir's life and work at two distinct periods in his development as writer and with a gap of over twenty years between them. In 1921 Prague was the...
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Robert Richman (essay date April 1997)
SOURCE: Richman, Robert. “Edwin Muir's Journey.” The New Criterion 15, no. 8 (April 1997): 26-33.
[In the following essay, Richman explores the theme of mythic journeys that pervade Muir's poetry and laments the loss of “a sense of communal past” that appears to preclude popularity for poetry that, like Muir's, addresses “great themes” rather than focus on the personal.]
In his Autobiography (1954), the Scottish poet Edwin Muir expressed bitterness at the late start he got on poetry. “I was thirty-five … and passing through a stage which, if things had been different, I should have reached ten years earlier. I began to write poetry at thirty-five...
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Andrew Frisardi (essay date winter 2000)
SOURCE: Frisardi, Andrew. “The Anomaly of Edwin Muir.” The Hudson Review 52, no. 4 (winter 2000): 576-85.
[In the following essay, Frisardi suggests that unlike the work of Muir's more explicitly political contemporaries, his poetry reimagines history as an internal event, which it depicts economically and with compelling imagery. Frisardi draws upon poems such as “The Usurpers” and “The Clouds” as examples.]
Muir [was] concerned with imagination not only in order that there may be good poetry, but in order that man himself may survive.
Octavio Paz has pointed out that...
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Russell Fraser (essay date January-March 2000)
SOURCE: Fraser, Russell. “Edwin Muir's Other Eden.” The Sewanee Review 108, no. 1 (January-March 2000): 78-92.
[In the following essay, Fraser elaborates on images of Eden and Christian themes in several of Muir's poems, including “The Journey Back,” “The Myth,” and “In Love for Long.”]
T. S. Eliot, patting Edwin Muir and Scotland on the head, said Muir was among the poets that Scotland should always be proud of. On the other hand there hadn't been many. Muir, however, said harsh things about Scotland. He saw it emptied of itself after the Act of Union (1707), and he called Burns and Scott “sham bards of a sham nation.” “Annie Laurie” made him...
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Hall, J. C. Edwin Muir. London: Longman's, Green and Co., 1956.
An early book-length literary biography of Muir.
Kinzie, Mary. “Edwin Muir and the Primal World.” In By Herself—Women Reclaim Poetry, edited by Molly McQuade, pp. 132-54. St. Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2000.
A biographical essay that addresses Muir's upbringing and use of archetypal imagery in his poetry.
Muir, Willa. Belonging: A Memoir. London: Hogarth Press, 1968.
Willa Muir's well-respected memoir of her life with her husband.
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