‘Iwas born before the Industrial Revolution,’ Edwin Muir wrote in The Story and the Fable (1940),
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 days’ journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life I have been trying to overhaul that inevitable leeway. No wonder I am obsessed with Time.
The family moved to Glasgow after Muir’s father gave up his farm on Orkney. His father and one of his brothers (who contracted tuberculosis) died almost immediately; within four years his mother and a second brother were dead too.
A bright, sensitive teenager, Edwin ‘haunted’ the city’s huge Mitchell Library and ‘a dingy reading-room in the Gorbals, where I pored over all sorts of academic reviews’. He worked first as an office-boy; then, worse, spent much of his twenties in a Clydeside ‘bone factory’ where ‘fresh and decaying bones, gathered from all over Scotland, were flung into furnaces and reduced to charcoal’ that was sold to refineries to purify sugar. The stench was terrible. ‘The bones, decorated with festoons of slowly writhing, fat yellow maggots, lay in the adjoining railway siding, and were shunted into the factory whenever the furnaces were ready for them.’ He considered suicide – ‘When one’s life is going wrong in one way it seems to go wrong in every way’ – but eventually a friend helped him get another job.
Reacting against the fundamentalist Protestantism of his childhood, he read voraciously, turning to socialism and the philosophy of Nietzsche. He began to publish articles and aphorisms in A.R. Orage’s periodical, the New Age, and to meet Scottish intellectuals including the composer Francis George Scott (to whom Hugh MacDiarmid would dedicate A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle) and a French lecturer at Glasgow University called Denis Saurat (who is often credited with giving the 1920s Scottish literary renaissance its name). Most important, ‘in the early winter of 1918 I met Willa Anderson … My marriage was the most fortunate event in my life.’
Willa’s background was very different. Her parents came from Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Islands, but she was brought up on the mainland, in Montrose, and was a prize-winning student at St Andrews. After graduation she worked as a teaching assistant in Latin at the university, before going to Bedford College in London to write a thesis on child psychology. By the time she met Edwin at a mutual friend’s house in Glasgow, she was a lecturer in English, psychology and education and vice-principal of Gipsy Hill Teacher Training College in London. Marriage scuppered that. When she showed her fiancé’s new book, We Moderns, to her boss, the college principal was horrified. There could be no place in the college for the wife of such a godless man. Willa resigned.
Throughout their long, sometimes difficult marriage, however, the Muirs had a gift for falling on their feet. Soon after Willa persuaded Edwin to move to London, Orage made him his assistant at the New Age. This led to his meeting Aldous Huxley, the Sitwells, John Middleton Murry, Katherine Mansfield, Ezra Pound and other writers including the young Slovene Janko Lavrin, with whom Edwin would later edit the European Quarterly. Willa became headmistress of a part-time vocational school offering classes to young female employees of West End drapery stores. Edwin, still affected by his experiences on Clydeside, was advised by Orage to consult the Jungian psychiatrist Maurice Nicoll, author of Dream Psychology. Son of a famous Scottish journalist and Free Kirk minister, Nicoll had recently published his fifth novel, a pandemic fantasy called The Blue Germ. The two discussed dreams and visions, and Edwin developed a lifelong fondness for recounting his dreams in both prose and verse, not always with enthralling results. He was withdrawn at times, and his dreams troubled Nicoll. Willa decided, as Margery Palmer McCulloch puts it in her new study of their marriage, ‘that remoteness was clearly a Muir family characteristic, “a built-in power of withdrawing into some inner fastness of their own”’ – an Orkney of the mind.
One of the strengths of McCulloch’s book, which draws on the autobiographical writings of both Muirs, is that she does not follow some earlier critics in presenting Willa as the guiding partner who steered her otherworldly husband. The photograph of Edwin on the dust jacket of the 1925 American edition of First Poems shows a confident, Homburg-hatted young man; later in the 1920s the picture was published in the New York Times, which devoted considerable review space to his first novel. Championed in America by H.L. Mencken and others, he was soon a well-known reviewer on both sides of the Atlantic, writing for the New Age and Athenaeum in London and the Freeman and Dial in New York.
The promise of money from the Freeman gave the Muirs confidence to follow the advice of Janko Lavrin and head to Prague in 1921. Willa wrote about cultural life there and about their new friends Karel and Josef Čapek. Josef, an artist, coined the word ‘robot’, and Karel made it famous in his 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots. The Muirs didn’t meet Franz Kafka, although they later became the first English translators of his work. In 1924 an American publisher commissioned the couple to produce English versions of three plays by Gerhart Hauptmann; this was the start of a new career for both Muirs as translators of German-language literature for US as well as British audiences. McCulloch gives a full account of the Muirs’ European activities, which sometimes put a severe strain on their relationship. In Germany Edwin came close to leaving the marriage and going off with a student of eurythmic dancing who had been translating his early poems into German.
In 1925 Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press brought out two slim volumes: Edwin Muir’s First Poems appeared in April, and Willa Muir’s Women: An Inquiry a few weeks later. Modern feminists have been put off by Willa’s belief that women’s ‘creative power’ was centred on childbirth and childrearing: ‘Men will create systems of philosophy or government,’ she wrote, ‘while women are creating individual human beings.’ McCulloch argues that ‘anxiety about childbirth and mothering may explain Willa’s arguments in the Hogarth essay,’ and mentions a letter from January 1925 in which she describes a recent miscarriage. In August 1924 Edwin had published an article called ‘Women – Free for What?’ in which, channelling Thomas Carlyle, he wrote that ‘the age is an age of work; woman desires freedom, the right of every human being; and freedom in such an age can only mean the freedom to work.’ It was Edwin who sent Women: An Inquiry to Leonard Woolf at the Hogarth Press, but often his own writing took priority and his wife felt consigned to playing second fiddle.
In We Moderns (1918) Muir had been one of the first people to apply the word ‘modernism’ to new movements in art and letters, but his own poetry was as far from modernist as it was possible to get. The best thing in his First Poems is ‘Childhood’, about a boy lying on a hill above ‘his father’s house’ on an unnamed island, an echoic place where time can seem to stop:
Over the sound a ship so slow would pass
That in the black hill’s gloom it seemed to lie,
The evening sound was smooth like sunken glass,
And time seemed finished ere the ship passed by.
Grey tiny rocks slept round him where he lay,
Moveless as they, more still as evening came,
The grasses threw straight shadows far away,
And from the house his mother called his name.
This poem stands out in a group of sea-haunted poems where childhood is recalled and time both pauses and passes. Muir’s diction can sound old-fashioned. In ‘Houses’ the ‘green estranging land’ echoes the ‘salt, estranging sea’ of Matthew Arnold’s lyric of islands and isolation, ‘To Marguerite’; in the ‘far-northern’ landscape of Muir’s poem ‘Remembrance’, the speaker recalls his childhood and youth, lamenting ‘comrades’ who ‘each have perished, silent and alone’, evoking William Cowper’s poem ‘The Castaway’, whose speaker mourns his ‘comrades’ and writes that ‘We perish’d, each alone.’ In May 1925, just after her press published these poems, Virginia Woolf sketched some ideas for her next novel. It would ‘have father’s character done complete in it; & mothers; & St Ives; & childhood; & all the usual things I try to put in – life, death &c. But the centre is father’s character, sitting in a boat, reciting We perished, each alone.’ As To the Lighthouse developed, Woolf changed the book’s setting to Skye. She had never been there, which may help explain why her Skye has no lochs or Cuillin mountains. But she had published Muir’s poems and encountered there a sensibility, like hers, nourished by the sea, an old house and a Cowper poem her father had admired. To the Lighthouse begins with a boy on a Scottish island, is preoccupied with time passing, and features Mr Ramsay declaiming ‘We perished, each alone.’
When Muir reviewed To the Lighthouse in the Nation and Athenaeum in July 1927, he wrote that the ‘Time Passes’ section, with its account of the erosion of a childhood island home, was ‘probably not surpassed in contemporary prose’. He had already reviewed Mrs Dalloway, which he thought ‘wonderfully successful’, adding that ‘there is no English prose at present, except Mr Joyce’s, which in subtlety and resource can be compared with it.’ While Woolf was still working on To the Lighthouse, the Hogarth Press republished this assessment along with Muir’s pieces on Joyce, Lawrence, Huxley, Eliot and other distinctively modern writers in Transition: Essays on Contemporary Literature; they also published his second collection of poetry in 1926, and in May 1927, along with To the Lighthouse, his first novel, The Marionette. This makes it sound as if literary relations between the Woolfs and the Muirs (and particularly between Edwin and Virginia) were cosy to the point of mutual back-scratching. There is obviously some truth in this, but the Muirs weren’t personally close to the Woolfs.
As well as continuing to visit Central Europe, the Muirs spent some time in the mid-1920s in Montrose, where Edwin became close to MacDiarmid. But even in Montrose, where Willa had grown up and her mother ran a draper’s shop, the Muirs felt themselves to be visitors, not residents. Always feeling displaced, and conscious of their far northern roots, they called themselves in private ‘Peerie Breeks’ (‘wee breeches’ – Edwin’s mother’s nickname for him) and ‘Peerie Willa’: Edwin’s First Poems was dedicated ‘To P.W.’
In 1927 Willa gave birth to their only child; her labour lasted ‘about 65 hours’ and she was left ‘badly torn’. They called the baby Gavin after Gavin Douglas, the Scottish medieval poet and translator of the Aeneid, but neither of them was suited to parenting. Willa’s relationship with her own mother was difficult and she avoided contact with her handicapped brother. As a new parent, she kept a journal in which with ‘impersonal, scientific objectivity’ she analysed her baby’s behaviour and followed a stern ‘childrearing discipline’ which ‘rejected cuddling’. During Gavin’s strictly allocated ‘play-minutes’, Edwin and the baby enjoyed ‘a giggling match’, but as the boy grew up, his mother and father struggled to look after him. They sent him to boarding school, which he hated; after physical and mental health problems, and many missteps, crises and attempts at reconciliation he became increasingly distant from his parents.
Willa’s novel Imagined Corners, published in 1931, concerns a young woman who escapes from East Coast Scottish Presbyterianism to the freedoms of continental Europe. Married to an attractive but unstable man, Elizabeth Shand is told by her cosmopolitan sister-in-law, Elise, that ‘You and I, Elizabeth, would make one damned fine woman between us.’ The two end up running off to the Continent together, though whether their relationship is that of ‘daughter, or sister, or wife’ to each other remains unclear. McCulloch is reluctant to accept a queer reading of this Bildungsroman, but given that it was written during and just after the very public obscenity trial linked to Radclyffe Hall’s explicitly lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, it’s likely Willa knew what she was doing.
The Muirs could feel boxed in by small-town Scotland, but when they lived elsewhere they missed their homeland. In the early 1930s James H. Whyte with his partner the art critic John Tonge set up a modernist art gallery and bookshop in St Andrews, and Whyte began editing the Modern Scot. In 1935, just as Edwin published his bleak account of a trip around the country, Scottish Journey, the Muirs too moved to St Andrews. There was a stand-off in the town between Whyte’s avant-garde circle and the much more conservative university community. A bisexual Jewish New Yorker who evolved a theory of pluralist Scottish nationalism, Whyte roared around the town in a Bugatti and outraged the locals. He published Auden, Kafka, MacDiarmid and a host of others in the Modern Scot, but the university principal mocked it as the ‘Modern Blot’. When it was suggested that Muir might be offered a position in the university’s English Department, the idea was rebuffed: he was ‘a crofter’s son who had never been to university’ and his wife was ‘a pain’. Willa’s 1936 essay ‘Mrs Grundy in Scotland’, with its notion of ‘escaping from Scotland’ to become ‘a citizen of the world’, and its wry take on ‘the sex-monopoly of matrimony’, ruffled more feathers.
Worse was to come that same year when Edwin’s Scott and Scotland denounced Walter Scott’s Edinburgh as ‘a blank’ and Scotland as a cultural ‘Nothing’, with ‘a tradition which was not a tradition’. Scotland, he wrote, was divided between ‘thought and feeling’, and suffered from ‘a confusion of tongues’. ‘The prerequisite of an autonomous literature,’ Muir believed, ‘is a homogeneous language.’ For MacDiarmid, wedded to the causes of Scottish independence and linguistic pluralism, this seemed an unforgivable betrayal. MacDiarmid (whom the exasperated Whyte called ‘a spoilt schoolgirl’) began to denounce the Muirs. His wife, Valda, spotted Willa on the beach at St Andrews in a bathing costume ‘four sizes too small … holding forth unnecessarily on her favourite topic – phallic symbolism’, an incident that probably led to their friend and fellow communist Barbara Niven’s malicious cartoon of a monstrous swimsuited Willa beside a Bambi-like Edwin – a ‘little doe licking her fingers’. Several decades later, this drawing still hung above the MacDiarmids’ hearth – an emblem of a personal and literary feud that bedevilled Scottish literature for more than half a century.
Muir’s view of a smashed Scottish culture was influenced by Eliot, who in 1919 wrote a piece called ‘Was There a Scottish Literature?’ and in 1935 a poem that located in Scotland ‘no concurrence of bone’. A few years later, shortly after MacDiarmid published an anthology of Scottish verse that spanned Scots, English, Gaelic and Latin, Muir wrote in ‘Scotland 1941’, a poem of self-lacerating denunciation, that Burns and Scott were ‘sham bards of a sham nation’ where extreme Protestantism had led to ‘No pride but pride of pelf’ (the archaic noun ‘pelf’ is an example of the antiquarian diction and cadences that dog even his most powerful poems).
By 1941 a depressed Edwin, still living with Willa in St Andrews, was working as a clerk in the Dundee Food Office, stamping ration books. In the middle of the war, Willa had a breakdown. Edwin’s mental health faltered too: ‘I find with some dismay, after going over my life, that I have no philosophy.’ Some respite came when H. Harvey Wood, the Scottish representative of the British Council, persuaded it to employ Edwin to organise lecture programmes for overseas troops – principally Polish, Czech and French – in Edinburgh. The Muirs moved to the city in 1942 and played host to many distinguished visitors, including Eliot (who was now publishing Edwin’s poems and spoke to unimpressed Czechs about ‘The Music of Poetry’), the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean, European writers including Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, and Franz Kafka’s former partner Dora Dymant.
When the war ended, Edwin was appointed director of the British Institute in Prague. He was much admired there, but Willa (whose Czech was much better than his) felt insecure. ‘I am ugly,’ she worried, and wrote in her unpublished Prague journal that ‘All emigrants are Displaced Persons. My parents were D.P.s in Angus.’ Her background, she claimed, had made her ‘critical, resentful, unsure’. As the communists tightened their grip on Czechoslovakia, a combination of the oppressive political atmosphere and the difficult office politics of the British Council led Edwin to apply for a transfer. Taking her title from one of Edwin’s poems, Willa tried to make a novel out of the situation, setting The Usurpers in the Utopian Cultural Mission to Slavomania, but couldn’t get it published. It appeared in print for the first time this year. The novel shows humane values being crushed between totalitarian communism and managerial capitalist bureaucracy, but its ‘Robot world’ of sly and merciless ‘interrogators’ palls when set beside Imagined Corners or Edwin’s quintessential articulation of Cold War anxiety in his poem ‘The Interrogation’. That poem seems to have been prompted by the Muirs being stopped on the Czech border by a Russian soldier with ‘quite expressionless’ eyes. More than all Edwin’s other poems about refugees and displaced persons, ‘The Interrogation’ with its tense plain language captures the helplessness of vulnerable people who can see freedom just inches away, but fear they cannot reach it. It has balladic terseness, not least in its concluding lines with their final half-rhyme:
We are on the very edge,
Endurance almost done,
And still the interrogation is going on.
Struggling with poor health, Willa repeatedly felt her own ‘endurance’ was ‘almost done’. Her husband, awarded honorary doctorates by Edinburgh University and Charles University in Prague, was now very much the distinguished European man of letters. After a stint at the British Council in Rome, he was appointed warden of Newbattle Abbey, a residential adult education college near Edinburgh. Willa sometimes felt resentful. ‘I am a better translator than he is,’ she complained in a 1953 journal.
The whole current of patriarchal society is set against this fact, however, and sweeps it into oblivion, simply because I did not insist on shouting aloud: ‘Most of this translation, especially Kafka, has been done by ME. Edwin only helped.’ And every time Edwin was referred to as THE translator, I was too proud to say anything; and Edwin himself felt it would be undignified to speak up, I suppose. So that now, especially since my break-down in the middle of the war, I am left without a shred of literary reputation.
For several generations the couple’s Kafka translations were the most widely read English-language versions. Early editions of The Castle were described as being ‘translated by Edwin and Willa Muir’, but by the 1970s the title page of the Penguin Classics edition had reversed the order of the translators’ names.
At Newbattle Abbey Edwin encouraged a number of fledgling literary figures, including the young Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown. Willa divided opinion: Mackay Brown recalled that she ‘loved life’, but James D. Young, who became a historian, remembered her constant criticism of MacDiarmid and found her ‘somewhat dictatorial’. Bernard Bergonzi, who became an English professor, thought her ‘the most malicious woman’ he had ever met. Muir was awarded a CBE and appointed Charles Eliot Norton visiting professor at Harvard in 1955, before retiring with Willa to Swaffham Prior in Cambridgeshire. His reputation among younger poets was starting to decline. Thom Gunn, whose collection The Sense of Movement Muir had reviewed favourably, wrote in November 1958 to a friend: ‘I increasingly feel that perhaps my good time is over, and I am destined to be an Edwin Muir for the rest of my life.’
Reading Muir’s Complete Poems often leads to frustration and disappointment. There are great lines – ‘Deep in the diamond of the day’ – but far too much coasting and rambling. His verse is best encountered in the Selected Poems edited by Eliot and first published in 1965, six years after Muir’s death, or, better still, in the 2008 Selected edited by Mick Imlah, who concentrates on Muir’s finest late poems. First published in the Listener in 1955, ‘The Horses’ was described by Eliot as ‘that great, that terrifying poem of the “atomic age”’. From a 21st-century viewpoint, it seems more like a pioneering eco-poem. Human ‘dominion’ over what Robert Burns in ‘To a Mouse’ termed ‘nature’s social union’ had often disturbed the Romantic poets, but Muir intensified this by bringing together fears that technology might lead to human extinction with concerns about how to restore a lost balance with the natural world. ‘The Horses’ calls on a lifetime’s experience. ‘My father also knew the horseman’s word – that is, the word which will make a horse do anything you desire if you whisper it into its ear,’ he wrote of his Orkney childhood. Fusing hints of archaic diction (‘a twelvemonth’, ‘covenant’) with notes of modernity (‘A plane’, ‘radios’), ‘The Horses’ opens in a post-apocalyptic time:
Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
A confident, precisely nuanced plainness guides the poem. Looping round on itself after presenting scenes of devastation where ‘tractors … rust’, it tells how ‘Late in the summer the strange horses came’ back to people who ‘had sold our horses in our fathers’ time/To buy new tractors’. The speaker gives voice to a sense of estrangement from these creatures, which are repeatedly described as ‘strange’, even scary. Muir’s poem invokes a ‘long-lost archaic companionship’ between humans and horses, which arrive ‘Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent/By an old command to find our whereabouts’.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half-a-dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our ploughs and borne our loads,
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.
Composed just as Muir was being written off by Gunn, this poem made a considerable impression on poets as different as Seamus Heaney, Edwin Morgan, Douglas Dunn and Les Murray, all of whom had grown up with working horses. Its impact today may be different, but its eloquence persists and the need for an environmental reset has grown more acute. Where Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ ends with the memorable words ‘Du musst dein Leben ändern’ – ‘You must change your life’ – the last line of Muir’s poem announces that the change which affects us and our screwed-up world has been made by nature itself. The poem has retained a stately urgency.
‘My lamb, how nice thu looks’, Edwin Muir said to his wife as he lay dying in hospital. After his death early in 1959, she wrote to a friend: ‘My dear, dear love: he should have died hereafter, not now.’ The echo of Macbeth is odd, though perhaps it hints at the strains in the Muirs’ marriage or at Willa’s anxieties about being seen as a monstrous figure, part of a power couple not always loved in Scottish literary life. Her last years saw a fresh flowering of her own writing. Living with Ballads ranges from children’s singing games to the epic of Gilgamesh, denounces Calvinism with vehemence and is spiritedly eccentric. Better known today is her autobiography, Belonging, published by the Hogarth Press in 1968, two years before she died and almost forty years after it had published her first book. Attentive and witty, it is full of choice vignettes – describing, for example, how as a student Willa dumped her philandering rugby-player fiancé, Cecil, and flung her diamond and sapphire engagement ring into the sea off St Andrews pier. Willa died, back in Scotland, in 1970. Margery Palmer McCulloch, who wrote this perceptive and sympathetic account in her own old age, did not live to see it published.
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