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.”