(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

From 1937 to 1956, Edwin Muir published six collections of poetry, culminating in the Collected Poems, 1921-1958 in 1960. Muir’s poetry exists on a rather abstract and mythological level. Despite his lack of formal education, his work builds on allusions to biblical, epic, and literary traditions, and his technique is fairly traditional. The recurring themes in his poetry are the relationship of time to eternity, the role of memory in shaping and consolidating experience, and the challenges of inhabiting liminal spaces when moving from life to death, from past to present to future, from dream to waking, and from the personal, individual experience to the world of universal human truth. Muir draws especially on Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, the idea that certain ideas and archetypes inhabit the collective human mind. He also used his early experience of undergoing Freud’s new technique of psychoanalysis to explore the significance of dreams. Although Muir never embraced institutionalized religion and was hostile to his early Calvinist upbringing and ideas, in his later life, he moved increasingly toward a Christian worldview, as evidenced by poems in his later collections, The Labyrinth and One Foot in Eden. Working outside the prevailing modernist and experimental mainstream in poetry at the beginning of the twentieth century, Muir was not as critically heralded as his compatriot Eliot. However, his work contributes a thoughtful, mature, and insightful voice to English poetry of the mid-twentieth century.

Journeys and Places

Muir’s first major collection after rededicating himself to poetry was Journeys and Places, which explores the motif of the journey. The book is roughly organized into three parts: seven poems dealing with journeys or stages of the journey; seven poems treating mythological, fictional, and historical personages; and ten poems describing places or destinations.

These poems concentrate on one of Muir’s most persistent ideas: the role of the imagination in journeying through time. The mind can journey back through memory, although those memories may be lost or distorted in various ways. The tension between the urge to look backward through the history of humankind and the temptation to look forward to some ultimate destiny can at times be paralyzing. Muir’s dreamlike and mysterious journeys employ the recurring image of roads circling around hills. In Muir’s circular imagery, time becomes timeless and the end of the journey becomes the beginning. In his view, personal history is submerged into the cultural history of the entire human race. Muir traces the journeys or quests of individuals—real or mythic—who have faced loss and connects their stories to the universal experience....

(The entire section is 1148 words.)