Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Edwin Muir - Orkney poet

Edwin Muir described himself thus: "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.)

He, again, was a poet I was not familiar with until a friend on Orkney included one of his poems on a forum we both go to. I discovered him again in the "Ten Twentieth-Century Poets" book I blew the dust off last week.

He was born at Deerness on Orkney in 1887 and educated at Kirkwall Burgh School. Sadly, his family lost their farm and in 1901 took the decision to move to Glasgow to seek work, where sadly, in quick succession, first his father, then his two brothers and finally his mother, died. Forced by circumstance to take any job, he struggled with a number of depressingly unpleasant jobs which affected him psychologically. He looked upon his former life in Orkney as "Eden". When he married in 1919, he and his wife moved to London, where the pair worked together on the English translations of such writers as Franz Kafka, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Heinrich Mann. He and his wife also travelled abroad to Italy, Prague, Saltzberg, Vienna and Dresden. During his lifetime he was a prolific poet, was director of the British Council in Prague and Rome, was warden of Newbattle Abbey College, which was specificially a college for working class men and in 1955 he was made Norton Professor of English at Harvard University. His most controversial work, Scott and Scotland, was published in 1936, and proclaimed that Scotland could only create a national literature by writing in English, which placed him in direct opposition to the Lallans movement of Hugh MacDiarmid. He died in 1959 and is buried at Swaffham Priory, near Cambridge.

Here is one of his poems which moves me greatly:


Those lumbering horses in the steady plough,
On the bare field - I wonder why, just now,
They seemed terrible, so wild and strange,
Like magic power on the stony grange.

Perhaps some childish hour has come again,
When I watched fearful, through the blackening rain,
Their hooves like pistons in an ancient mill
Move up and down, yet seem as standing still.

Their conquering hooves which trod the stubble down
Were ritual that turned the fields to brown,
And their great hulks were seraphim of gold
Or mute ecstatic monsters on the mould.

And oh the rapture, when, one furrow done,
They marched broad-breasted to the sinking sun!
The light flowed off their bossy sides in flakes;
The furrows rolled behind like struggling snakes.

But when at dusk with steaming nostrils home
They came, they seemed gigantic in the gloam,
And warm and glowing with mysterious fire
That lit their smouldering bodies in the mire.

Their eyes as brilliant and as wide as night
Gleamed with a cruel apocalyptic light.
Their manes the leaping ire of the wind
Lifted with rage invisible and blind.

Ah, now it fades! it fades! and I must pine
Again for that dread country crystalline,
Where the blank field and the still-standing tree
Were bright and fearful presences to me.

Edwin Muir.

And here is a link to another poem about horses, but with quite a different message: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-horses/
I am afraid I cannot find a user-friendly link where I can copy and paste this poem from.

1 comment:

MammyT said...

What powerful words he uses. Awesome.