Edwin Muir is remembered primarily for his work as poet and as translator with his wife Willa of the novels of Franz Kafka. Muir first came to prominence, however, as essayist and reviewer for the New Age under the editorship of A.R.Orage in the second decade of the century. The success of We Moderns (1918), his collected short essays, or aphorisms, as he called them, won him a contract with the American Freeman magazine, which enabled him to leave Britain in 1921 for his first taste of Europe and of freedom as a writer. Although he began to write poetry during that European experience and increasingly saw poetry as his chosen mêtier, he continued to contribute essays to periodicals both literary and general, and alongside his work as translator of European fiction, it was as an essayist and reviewer that he made a modest living throughout his life. For Muir, books were a “starting-point for an enquiry into the human spirit,” as he expressed it in the essay “A Plea for Psychology in Literary Criticism” (1921). His literary and review essays were therefore never divorced from life, but became meditations on life, social and spiritual. The best of these essays have been collected in book form over the years, although several collections are now out of print. They deserve to be better known for the perspectives they provide on the culture of their times and for the insight they provide into Muir the poet.
The early We Moderns was written under the pseudonym “Edward Moore” and was later rejected by Muir for its Nietzschean assertiveness. Although he called the series “aphorisms,” many of the pieces are more akin to essays in miniature or expanded pensées. Muir’s talents were more suited to an expanded reflection or meditation than to the short, witty statement typical of the true aphoristic form. Yet even in this largely uncharacteristic collection, one can recognize the Muir of the later poetry and essays: in the concern with the Fall of Man and Original Sin and the effect of such a doctrine on human lives; in the meditations on realism in contemporary art and the consequent loss of the classical concern with what he saw as the essence of art, the “eternal problem.” As critic, Muir stands apart from the mainstream of criticism this century, rejecting the scientific move toward formal analysis and allying himself with the tradition of Renaissance humanism with its emphasis on the imagination and the moral purpose of art—to teach by delighting. He saw literature as having an emancipating role, such as he himself had experienced through his contact with the New Age, and his exemplars were the English and German Romantic poets and the late 19th-century critic and poet Matthew Arnold.
Muir’s affinity with Europe and European writers was an early feature of his essay writing. His travels in the early 1920s took him to Prague and Dresden, and from there he sent to the Freeman “sketches” giving his responses to his new environment and short essays on European writers such as Dostoevskii, Ibsen, and Nietzsche. He was the first writer to introduce Hölderlin to an English-speaking public, his early essay “A Note on Friedrich Hölderlin” appearing in the Scottish Nation in September 1923. This was followed by further essays on the German poet in the 1930s, which were later collected in Essays on Literature and Society (1949, revised and enlarged 1965). His interest in Hölderlin was lifelong. Like Muir himself, Hölderlin “approached the mystery of time and eternity through the imagination…the mystery itself, not any particular manifestation of it, was his theme; and what he made out of it was a mythology,” as Muir described it in the late essays. The Freeman essay “North and South” (1922) demonstrates his interest in Goethe and Heine and the preoccupation with Sehnsucht, longing for a lost land, which was to feature so prominently in his own First Poems (1925). These European essays were collected in Latitudes (1924).
In contrast to the European Latitudes, Muir’s next essay collection, Transition (1926), focused on contemporary writers in England such as T.S.Eliot, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, and D.H.Lawrence. Although he was never happy with what he considered Lawrence’s “nihilism” and at that point in time considered Eliot more interesting as critic than poet, Muir was remarkably acute in his contemporaneous perception of the significant writers of the period. His Transition essay on James Joyce was reproduced with variations in several periodicals of the time, including the Calendar of Modern Letters and the Nation, and was included in James Joyce: The Critical Heritage, edited by Robert H.Deming in 1970.
In the mid-1930s, family circumstances brought Muir back to Scotland; this period saw him engaging more fully in the contemporary debates about Scottish cultural identity.
Although never as committed culturally to Scotland as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid (i.e. Christopher Murray Grieve), with whom he quarreled over the question of the viability of Scots as a literary language, Muir’s Scottish essays and reviews of this period furthered an understanding of Scotland’s social and cultural situation.
Muir’s final and most mature collections of essays are Essays on Literature and Society and The Estate of Poetry, a series of meditations on poetry in the modern world given at Harvard University between 1955 and 1956 and published posthumously in 1962. He had spent the immediate post-1945 years in Prague as Director of the British Council and had witnessed both the brief movement of the Czechs toward freedom and self-determination after the defeat of the Nazis and the extinguishing of that freedom when the Communists took charge in 1948. Essays on Literature and Society, like his poetry collection The Labyrinth (1949), took its impulse from what he called in An Autobiography (1954) “the single, disunited world” of mid–20th-century Europe, which he contrasted in the essay “Robert Henryson” with the lost philosophical coherence of a past age of faith. These essays give voice to his belief in the imagination and in the need for imagination in a world increasingly dominated by technology and adherence to machine-like progress. This “artificial world which we have made of the world” and the changing relationship between poet and public are the themes of The Estate of Poetry, which takes a more pessimistic view of the capacity of poetry as we have known it to survive in the modern world. Yet Muir’s understanding that it is through the imagination that we can comprehend both art and society is itself a pointer to survival. His situation in an inclusive humanist tradition of criticism and art give his essays a new relevance at the end of the century in their recall of the poet from the periphery to the center of the human stage.
MARGERY PALMER MCCULLOCH
Born 15 May 1887 in Deerness, Mainland Island, Orkney. Studied at a school on Wyre, Orkney, and at Kirkwall Burgh Grammar School, Orkney. Family moved to Glasgow, 1901. Clerk for a shipbuilding firm, Glasgow, 1902–18. Lectured at the National Guild League, Glasgow, from 1916, and helped publish the Guildsman; wrote series of “We Moderns,” 1918, and staff member, New Age, London, 1919–21. Married Wilhelmina Anderson (i.e. the writer Willa Muir), 1919: one child. Moved to London, 1919; lived in Prague, 1921–22, then Dresden and Hellerau; traveled in Italy, returning to Britain, 1924; lived in the south of France, 1926–27, in southern England, 1927–35, and St. Andrews, Fife, 1935–40. Book reviewer, the Listener, 1933–45; coeditor, European Quarterly, 1934. Worked for the British Council in Edinburgh, 1941–45, Prague, 1945–48, and Rome, 1949–50. Warden, Newbattle Abbey College, Dalkeith, 1950–55; Charles Eliot
Norton Professor of Poetry, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1955–56; retired to Swaffham Prior, near Cambridge, U.K., 1956.
Awards: Foyle Prize, 1950; Heinemann Award, 1953; Frederick Niven Literary Award, 1953; Russell Loines Award, 1957; Saltire Society Prize, 1957; German Academy Voss Prize, 1958; honorary degrees from five universities. Commander, Order of the British Empire (CBE), 1953; Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1953. Died in Swaffam Prior, 3 January 1959.
Essays and Related Prose
We Moderns: Enigmas and Guesses (as Edward Moore), 1918; as Edwin Muir for the first U.S. edition, 1920
Transition: Essays on Contemporary Literature, 1926
The Structure of the Novel, 1928
Essays on Literature and Society, 1949; revised, enlarged edition, 1965
The Estate of Poetry (Norton lectures), 1962
Uncollected Scottish Criticism, edited by Andrew Noble, 1982
Selected Prose, edited by George Mackay Brown, 1987
The Truth of the Imagination: Some Uncollected Reviews and Essays, edited by P.H.Butter, 1988
Other writings: poetry, three novels, and an autobiography (1940, revised 1954). Also translated, with Willa Muir, many Germanlanguage writers, including works by Kafka.
Mellown, Elgin W., Bibliography of the Writings of Edwin Muir, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1964; revised edition, London: Vane, 1966; supplement, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, and London: Kaye and Ward, 1970
Mellown, Elgin W., and Peter C.Hoy, A Checklist of Writings About Edwin Muir, Troy,
New York: Whitston, 1971
Akros issue on Muir, 6, no. 47 (August 1981)
Blackmur, R.P., “Edwin Muir: Between the Tiger’s Paws,” Kenyon Review 21, no. 2 (1959): 419–36
Butter, P.H., Edwin Muir: Man and Poet, Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, and New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966
Chapman issue on Muir, 9, no. 6 (Summer 1987)
Gardner, Helen, Edwin Muir, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1961
Gaskill, P.H., “Edwin Muir and Goethe,” Proceedings of the English Goethe Society 48 (1978): 22–51
Gaskill, P.H., “Edwin Muir as Critic of Hölderlin,” Forum for Modern Language Studies 14 (1978): 345–64
Gaskill, P.H., “Edwin Muir: The German Aspect,” Lines Review 69 (June 1979): 14–20
Gaskill, P.H., “Edwin Muir in Hellerau,” Scottish Literary Journal 11 (May 1984): 45–56
Hoffman, Daniel, Barbarous Knowledge: Myth in the Poetry of Yeats, Graves and Muir, New York: Oxford University Press, 1967
McCulloch, Margery, “Edwin Muir’s Scottish Journey 1935–80,” Scottish Review 17 (February 1980): 47–52
McCulloch, Margery, “Inter-War Criticism,” in The History of Scottish Literature Volume 4: Twentieth Century, edited by Craig Cairns, Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1987: 119–32
McCulloch, Margery, Edwin Muir: Poet, Critic and Novelist, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993
MacLachlan, C.J.M., and D.S.Robb, editors, Edwin Muir: Centenary Assessments, Aberdeen: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1990
Marshall, George, In a Distant Isle: The Orkney Background of Edwin Muir, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1987
Mellown, Elgin W., Edwin Muir, Boston: Twayne, 1979
Muir, Willa, Belonging: A Memoir, London: Hogarth Press, 1968
Raine, Kathleen, “Edwin Muir: An Appreciation,” Texas Quarterly 4, no. 3 (Autumn 1961): 233–45
Robertson, Ritchie, “‘Our Generation’: Edwin Muir as Social Critic, 1920–22,” Scottish Literary Journal 9, no. 2 (December 1982): 45–65
Robertson, Ritchie, “Edwin Muir as Critic of Kafka,” Modern Language Review 79, no. 4 (July 1984): 638–52
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