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"Between the tiger's paws": Scotland, Czechoslovakia, and the poetry of Edwin Muir.

In the course of the past three decades, the poetry of Edwin Muir (1887-1959) has fallen into deep neglect, especially on this side of the Atlantic. Even during his lifetime Muir was better known as a critic and translator--he and his wife, Willa, were responsible for introducing the novels of Kafka and Hermann Broch to the English-language world--than he was as a poet. The achievements of a poet writing in the plain style, as Muir for the most part did, were easily overlooked amid the pyrotechnics of T.S. Eliot and the other high modernists. It is thus something of a surprise to discover, reading Lyndall Gordon's biography of Eliot, that by the mid-1950s Eliot himself had come to view Muir as the finest poet then working in Britain. (1)

Muir never regarded the modernists as his rivals. For him originality meant not novel techniques or subject matter but getting down to spiritual bedrock--meant, as Eliot has it in "East Coker," "the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again." (2) Muir's search for what he calls in his Autobiography the "fable," the pattern of eternity as it inflects our experience, has been a source of perplexity for readers of postmodern inclination, insofar as they arecognizant of Muir at all. These tend to be the same people who regard Yeats's concern with Indic philosophy or Eliot's Christianity as damaging to their poetry. It comes down to a suspicion of the striving for religious transcandence and a vehement rejection of any claim to have attained it. In the best of Muir's work the fable and what he refers to as the "story," the particulars of our lives in nature and society, are held in tension, as they are, for example, in his poem "In Love for Long" (1946), a paean to the mystery of a love
       like the happy doe
  That keeps his perfect laws
  Between the tiger's paws
  And vindicates his cause. (3)

Muir's own story is bound up with the complex fate of two small nations, his native Scotland and Czechoslovakia. The former had, in effect, ceased to exist as a separate realm in 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England. The union of the crowns--the transplanting of rhyme royal, named in James's honor, to London--contributed greatly to the withering of Scottish culture, for the absence of a monarch in Edinburgh meant the dissolution of the literary life that had grown up around the court. Although several considerable poets, Burnsand Scott most notably, emerged in the course of the following centuries, the work of such isolated figures hardly constituted a national literature. It was this lack that Muir, Hugh MacDiarmid, and their confederates in the early decades of the twentieth century wished to remedy. At the same time, it was evident, to Muir at least, that no Scotsman could sustain himself by writing primarily for his compatriots. He either had to make a place for himself in the wider world or starve.

In 1919 Muir left his clerk's job in Greenock, on the Clyde estuary, to take up journalism in London. Two years later he moved to Prague, where he earned his bread as a correspondent for British and American magazines. The leap to the continent was a bold one for a man with a patchy education--his formal schooling ended when he moved from Orkney to the Scottish main-land at the age of fourteen--and no foreign languages at his disposal. But it was a classic stratagem for a writer from the Celtic periphery, an end-run around the English literary scene analogous to Joyce's departure for Trieste fifteen years earlier. Bohemia and the other lands that made up Czechoslovakia had recently emerged from four centuries of subjection to Hapsburg rule. In those first years of the Masaryk republic Prague was a radiant place, with a literary culture that flourished in both the Czech and German tongues. Living there opened Muir's eyes to the transformation that could take place in a small country that had been sprung out of an imperial orbit. "You become aware of the vitality of the republican idea in Prague as soon as you enter it," he observed. "It seems as if the whole people, old and young, after being denied all their life any voice in their political fate, had resolved to enjoy an orgy of self-government." Looking back on the Prague experience across a span of almost two decades, he recalls that the energy and hopefulness he had encountered in the Czechcapital made him "wish that Edinburgh might become a similar place and that Scotland might become a nation again." (4)

Muir's years in Central Europe were crucial not only because they afforded him an opportunity to immerse himself in the culture of the region but also because they witnessed his discovery--he was by this time in his mid-thirties--of his vocation as a poet. Among the fruits of his sojourn in Czechoslovakia is a graceful free-verse lyric, "Autumn in Prague," technically superior to most of the other pieces in his First Poems. It concludes with these lines:
  The gossamers forge their cables
  Between the grasses,
  So still the blue air hangs its sea,
  That great sea, so still!
  The earth like a god,
  Far withdrawn,
  Lies asleep. (CP 23)

"Autumn in Prague" is a celebration of latency that anticipates the subsequent unfolding of Muir's own powers.

Through the 1920s and early '30s, while he was living in London and in various cities on the continent, Muir did what he could to keep in touch with Scottish affairs. Only in 1934 did he move back to Scotland for good. The country was in the depths of the Great Depression, and the books he wrote in the years immediately following his return are correspondingly somber. Scottish Journey (1935), an inquiry into the economic and social crisis consuming the land, parallels Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier, which appeared a year later. In Scott and Scotland (1936) Muir, reversing field, dismisses the possibility of the very Scottish literature he had sought to promote a decade earlier on the grounds that his countrymen suffered from a riven sensibility; they had come to think in English even while they continued to feel and express emotion in Scots. "The major forms of poetry rise," declares Muir, "from a collision between emotion and intellect on a plane where both meet on equal terms; and it can never come into existence where the poet feels in one language and thinks in another, even though he should subsequently translate his thoughts into the language of his feelings." (5) It is this doubtful argument (how would one apply it to Yeats and his confreres in the Irish Renaissance?), spun off from Eliot's theory of the dissociation of sensibility in late seventeenth-century England, that occasioned the breach with Hugh MacDiarmid, who had been composing in Lallans for a decade--to remarkable effect, as Muir himself acknowledged. For Muir the point was that, rather than initiating a great upwelling of literature in Scots, MacDiamid's accomplishment was a special case, a brilliant exception.

Muir's poems from the 1930s and early '40s are as harsh in their treatment of Scottish themes as his prose works from the period. "Scotland's Winter" (1935) homes in on a woman, a miller's daughter, who
With frozen fingers soldered to her basket
Seems to be knocking
Upon a hundred leagues of floor
With her light heels, and mocking
Percy and Douglas dead,
And Bruce on his burial bed,

And all the kings before
This land was kingless
And all the singers before
This land was songless,
This land that with its dead and living waits the Judgment Day.
  (CP 229)

A poem composed a few years later, "Scotland 1941," is an out-and-out jeremiad. "We were a tribe, a family, a people,"it begins. "Courage beyond the point and obdurate pride / Made us a nation, robbed us of a nation." The poem ridicules any pretense to a vital Scottish literary tradition and deplores the country's descent into the vortex of getting and spending. Burns and Scott are seen as the
    sham bards of a sham nation,
And spiritual defeat wrapped warm in riches,
No pride but pride of pelf. (CP 97)

And while he is in the business of laying about himself, the poet goes on to castigate the Reformers John Knox and Andrew Melville. Muir considers their Calvinism to have warped the Scottish character--the sort of Scottishness one encounters in the ballads or in the poetry of Robert Henryson--as it had existed prior to the Reformation. The incursion of Calvinism into Scotland he sees as a disaster no less significant than the demise of national sovereignty. In "The Incarnate One" (1954), he declares:
The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.

Abstract calamity, save for those who can
Build their cold empire on the abstract man. (CP 228)

Ideology has here its original connotation of false consciousness. Muir detests not only the Calvinist notion of an all-too-transcendent deity but the degradation of the flesh, and of feeling, it entails.

The passages I have quoted might suggest that Muir had himself lapsed into a frigid attitude vis-a-vis his country. And there are in fact times, as he confesses in "The Difficult Land," "When name, identity, and our very hands, / Senselessly labouring, grow most hateful to us." But this is hardly his final view of the matter. "We have such hours," he continues,
  but are drawn back again
By faces of goodness, faithful masks of sorrow,
Honesty, kindness, courage, fidelity.
The love that lasts a life's time ....
............... For how can we reject
The long last look on the ever-dying face
Turned backward from the other side of time?
And how offend the dead and shame the living
By these despairs? And how refrain from love?
This is a difficult country, and our home. (CP 237-238)

The poems I have been discussing are representative instances of Muir's practice of thinking in verse--"a very different thing," as R. P. Blackmur observes, "from versifying thought, for the verse is the vital mode rather than the mere mode of thought in verse and is thus the substance of what we remember as well as the memorable form." (6)

Readers who prefer a less discursive poetry will be glad to know that Muir is capable of effective dramatic verse as well. Consider, for example, the blank verse poem "Troy" (1937), in which the story, entirely of Muir's invention, and the hereditary fable, centering on a colossal fall, approach one anotherintimately. Amid the sewers of the ruined city dwells
    a man so venerable
He might have been Priam's self, but Priam was dead,
Troy taken. His arms grew meagre as a boy's,
And all that flourished in that hollow famine
Was his long, white, round beard. Oh, sturdily
He swung his staff and sent the bold rats skipping
Across the scurfy hills and worm-wet valleys,
Crying: 'Achilles, Ajax, turn and fight!
Stop cowards!' Till his cries, dazed and confounded,
Flew back at him with: 'Coward, turn and fight!'
And the wild Greeks yelled round him.
Yet he withstood them, a brave, mad old man,
And fought the rats for Troy.

In the end a "chance robber"--"chance" in that his actions lie athwart the fable rather than running along its grain--drags the old man to the surface where he sees "Troy like a burial ground,"
The sky, the sea, Mount Ida and the islands,
No sail from edge to edge, the Greeks clean gone.
They stretched him on a rock and wrenched his limbs,
Asking: 'Where is the treasure?' till he died. (CP 71)

The poem's triumph lies in its compounding pathos, fortitude, and a touch of sanctity (that round white beard suggests an aureole, albeit an inverted one) in a fashion that invites us to view the old man's predicament as being--despite, or even because of, its absurdity--akin to Lear's, whose madness is likewise an affair of nobility at odds with circumstance. The knowledge the protagonist takes with him to the grave is of a treasure that would be of no interest to the brigands, for the real splendor of Troy resides not in her opulence but in the greatheartedness of her champions, among whom the old man is at last himself numbered. Muir returned to the matter of Troy in half a dozen poems appearing across a span of more than twenty years, very possibly because this ancient narrative of the defeat and repression of a people had special resonance for him as a Scotsman. It is but a short step from Hector to Robert the Bruce and the other heroes of the Scottish nation--Bruce who "outfaced three English kings / And kept a people's faith" ("Robert the Bruce," CP 116).

In his Autobiography Muir offers a moving account of a journey in the fall of 1945 through burnt-out Germany to Prague, where he was to take up duties as the British Council representative. Prague, which had not been bombed or fought over as had other Central European capitals, remained physically intact, but the ebullience of twenty years earlier was missing. With the ravaging of Lidice and other atrocities still fresh in their minds, the Czechs were understandably apprehensive about what might befall their country next. It took them less than three years to find out. Muir had argued in a 1934 essay, "Bolshevism and Calvinism," that, radically different as were the objectives of the two creeds, communism resembled Calvinism structurally in its determinism, ruthless rationality, and hostility to tradition and romance--all "qualities that cut clean through the complexity of life and custom and deliberately exclude everything which is useless or distracting or inimical tothemselves. . . . If Communism triumphs," he went on to say, "there will be no returning to the old European tradition." (7) Although he had been a socialist from his early days in Glasgow, Muir's socialism was closer to that of William Morris than to Marx. Now he found himself living through the events that were to cut the Czech lands off from Europe--Europe as both he and the Czechs understood it--for the next forty years.

Muir's last two collections, The Labyrinth (1949) and One Foot in Eden (1956), contain a number of poems dealing with the communist putsch and its fallout, among them "The Good Town," "The Border," "The Interrogation," and "The Cloud"--poems in which, as Seamus Heaney observes, he developed a rhetoric "elegiac and yet politically purposeful." (8) In the most overtly anticommunist of these poems, "The Cloud" (1955), the speaker, en route to a literary conference in the Bohemian countryside, loses his way
In a maze of little winding roads that led
To nothing but themselves[.]

At a sudden turn we saw
A young man harrowing, hidden in dust; he seemed
A prisoner walking in a moving cloud
Made by himself for his own purposes;
And there he grew and was as if exalted
To more than man, yet not, not glorified:
A pillar of dust moving in dust, no more. (CP 245)

At the Writers' House the poet encounters a "preacher," a latter-day, secular counterpart of Knox and Melville, who has come from the melancholy land of Urania--the name, deriving from the wounded Tian Uranus, suggests a violent rift between generations--to proclaim the dialectical materialist evangel. The preacher praises "the good dust, man's ultimate salvation." Muir will have none of it. As he sees it, the Marxist attempt to exalt man into "more than man" has had the reverse effect. The cloud that envelops the young harrower may look like an aura, but what the speaker witnesses is a mock-transfiguration; the dust is but dust--and man, deprived of his proper soul, no more than a quintessence of dust. The poet is not, however, willing to let so baleful an estimate of the human lot go unchallenged:
              thinking of the man
Hid in his cloud we longed for light to break
And show that his face was the face once broken in Eden
Beloved, world-without-end lamented face;
And not a blindfold mask on a pillar of dust. (CP 246)

Not many writers would have dared these last lines, straight from the fable.

"The Horses" (1955), which follows "The Cloud" in One Foot in Eden, is shadowed by the ultimate thunderhead. A "seven days' war," presumably a clash between rival power blocs, devastates all the urban centers. But for a farming community on a remote seacoast--one easily imagines it pertaining to Muir's native Orkney--the week of decreation represents a new beginning. The peasants find themselves released from an order whose oppressiveness they recognize only when its hold over them has been shattered:
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.

And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen. (CP 246)

The civilization that overhung their lives and, in the manner of Kronos, "swallowed its children quick / At one great gulp," has spewed them out again. The villagers' disposition to mythologize--they see the tractors rusting in their fields as "dank sea-monsters couched and waiting," figures in a cautionary tale--is crucial to the identity they now assume, or rather take up once more, since for them the way back is the way forward. Gradually they renew their bond with the nature--most critically, their own elemental nature--from which they have become estranged. A decisive step in this process is the mysterious return of the horses, among them
    some half-a-dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden. (CP 247)

These are "fabulous steeds"--like us creatures of the sixth day, but creatures that have never known the Fall--come to resume their "long-lost archaic companionship" with man and restore the perennial scale of being. It seems perverse to look for the silver lining in a mushroom cloud; nevertheless, in Muir's world good is more fundamental than evil, capable of redeeming it. As apocalyptic pastoral, "The Horses," composed in the zero winter of the cold war, represents a striking expression of the poet's faith in human prospects.

Muir's experience of totalitarianism in Prague seems to have left him more or less resigned to the soft imperialism practiced inthe extremities of the United Kingdom; the yearning for an independent Scotland expressed in the 1940 version of his autobiography is omitted from the revised edition that appeared in 1954. He would most likely have approved of devolution, the mild form of home rule that has emerged in Scotland in recent years, even if there are few signs of its giving rise to a major cultural resurgence. But it is the end of communism--the tempest blowing itself out--that offers a far more potent justification of Muir's essential hope-fulness. He would have been especially gratified by the manner in which the Czechs, for so long caught "between the tiger's paws," were able to vindicate their cause and be restored to Europe.

(1.) Lyndall Gordon, T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (New York: Norton, 1998), 468. Eliot's opinion is noted by his friend Mary Trevelyan in a diary entry of 1 November 1956. In his preface to Muir's Selected Poems (London: Faber, 1965), 9-10, Eliot speaks of the Scotsman as "this shy man of genius" whose poems "have added glory to the English language." It is worth noting that Eliot had by this time come to regard Auden as an American poet, thereby bracketing Muir's chief competitor. (2.) T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962 (New York: Harcourt, 1963), 189. (3.) Edwin Muir, Collected Poems 1921-1958 (London: Faber, 1960), 159. I cite the Faber edition rather than The Complete Poems of Edwin Muir, ed. Peter Butter (Aberdeen: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1991), since it is the volume more readily available in libraries. Subsequent page references will appear in parentheses preceded by CP. (4.) Edwin Muir. The Story and the Fable (London: Harrap, 1940), 224, 228. (5.) Edwin Muir, Scott and Scotland: The Predicament of the Scottish Writer (London: Roudedge, 1936), 19. (6.) R. P. Blackmur, "Edwin Muir," in Four Poets on Poetry, ed. Don Cameron Allen (1959; Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1980), 33. (7.) Edwin Muir, "Bolshevism and Calvinism," European Quarterly 1.1 (1934), 7- 9. (8.) Seamus Heaney, "The Place of Edwin Muir, Verse 6.1 (1989), 32.

RICHARD K. CROSS is Professor of English at the University of Maryland.
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Author:Cross, Richard K.
Publication:Modern Age
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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