We had another very satisfying poetry evening reading Edwin Muir using his Selected Poems (published 1965) edited and with a preface by T S Eliot. Here is a passage from the preface which Ruth read to us at the start of the session and which very much bears repeating
“All my correspondence files indicate, it was only in the last years of Edwin Muir’s life, when he brought his later poems to me for publication, that I saw much of him, and I cannot say that I ever came to know him really intimately….his personality made a deep impression upon me (for) one very rare and precious quality…..complete integrity…..I stress this unmistakable integrity because I came to recognize it in Edwin Muir’s work as well as in the man himself”
Muir’s understanding of civic unravelling in the absence of integrity is an element in The Good Town (P.68) – a morality tale of the downfall of a city once “Good men are made evil” and “Straight minds grown crooked”
We were surprised at how relevant many of the poems are to our world today – there are two poems concerning refugees both taking the reader straight to the heart of the subject but never, as T S Eliot remarks, striving to convey a message. We looked at “The refugees born for a land unknown” (P.93)
I have fled through land and sea, blank land and sea,
Because my house is besieged by murderers
And I was wrecked in the ocean, crushed and swept,
Spilling salt angry tears on the salt waves……
How very prescient in the light of the current migrant crisis.
Margaret read The Child Dying (P.67) which we found very affecting. We reflected on the fact that the death of a child was very common in Muir’s early years. He himself lost 3 siblings soon after the family’s disastrous move to Glasgow.
Here is a much-quoted entry from Muir’s own (much-later) diaries which expresses the basic existential dilemma of his life
“I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two day’s journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. No wonder I am obsessed with Time.” (Extract from Diary 1937-39.)
Selected Poems also contains one of Muir’s most famous poems The Horses (P.85). Here is a very elegantly expressed piece by Robert Pinsky on the subject – “Of all the many pieces of writing spurred by the Cold War and the threat of nuclear apocalypse, and of the other kinds of 20th century apocalyptic writing, his poem “The Horses” may be the most effective, perhaps because it is the most calm and gentle. The plainness of the writing, the persuasive speech rhythms under the almost hidden iambic pulse, manifest immense art, culminating in a last line that could be incised in stone.”
And finally, although it is not in Selected Poems, we discussed “The Confirmation” *. Who can fail to be moved by a couple of opening lines like these?
Yes, yours, my love, is the right human face
I in my mind had waited for this long…
There are rather a lot of quotations in this post. The aim is to illuminate thoughts from the evening’s discussion and curate some of the erudite published comment on Muir’s work. Hope it succeeds – do let us know in the comments.
*Yes, yours, my love, is the right human face,
I in my mind had waited for this long,
Seeing the false and searching for the true,
Then found you as a traveller finds a place
Of welcome suddenly amid the wrong
Valleys and rocks and twisting roads. But you,
What shall I call you? A fountain in a waste,
A well of water in a country dry,
Or anything that’s honest and good, an eye
That makes the whole world bright. Your open heart,
Simple with giving, gives the primal deed,
The first good world, the blossom, the blowing seed,
The hearth, the steadfast land, the wandering sea.
Not beautiful or rare in every part.
But like yourself, as they were meant to be.