About Edwin Muir
The Orcadian poet, novelist, critic, and translator Edwin Muir (1887-1959) is one of modern Scotland’s most important writers. His work evokes a timeless realm of dream and fable yet, at the same time, confronts the major catastrophes of the twentieth-century.
Muir was born in Deerness on the Orkney mainland but spent most of his early childhood on the island of Wyre. In 1901, when Muir was 14, his father lost his farm, and the family moved to Glasgow. The move proved deeply traumatic. Muir’s parents and two brothers died in rapid succession, and Muir was forced to take on a number of menial jobs, including working as a clerk in a bone factory. The sense of being expelled from a pre-industrial Eden and abandoned in a fallen world would shape much of Muir’s later poetry and is vividly evoked in his memoir The Story and the Fable (1940).
During the First World War, Muir worked in a shipbuilding office in Renfrew, having been turned down as physically unfit by the Army. At this time, Muir was becoming increasingly interested in left-wing politics (which he sought to reconcile with Nietzscheanism) and contributed poetry and aphorisms to A. W. Orage’s radical journal New Age under the pseudonym ‘Edward Moore’. The aphorisms, on social, political, and literary themes, were subsequently collected in Muir’s first volume, We Moderns, in 1918. In the same year, Muir met Willa Anderson (now acclaimed as a major Scottish novelist) whom he married in 1919. The newly-weds embarked on a peripatetic existence taking in London, Prague, Dresden, Vienna, Salzburg, and Rome. They would later collaborate on highly acclaimed English translations of German-language writers such as Gerhart Hauptmann, Heinrich Mann, and Hermann Broch, and are particularly celebrated for introducing Franz Kafka to the English-speaking world.
Muir the Poet
Muir came late to poetry, only beginning to write it seriously in his mid-thirties, and publishing his First Poems in 1925. Six further volumes followed: Chorus of the Newly Dead (1926), Variations on a Time Theme (1934), The Narrow Place (1943), The Voyage, and Other Poems (1946), The Labyrinth (1949), and One Foot in Eden (1956). Although largely written in traditional metres, Muir’s poetry displays a Modernist fascination with dream, myth, and fable. In his later poems, generally regarded as his finest, he confronts the Second World War, totalitarianism, and the threat of nuclear holocaust.
Muir largely made his living as a critic and reviewer and was regarded by many of his contemporaries, notably T. S. Eliot, as the most discerning critic of his day. His criticism is collected in Latitudes (1924), Transition: Essays on Contemporary Literature (1926), and Essays on Literature and Society (1949), and posthumously in Edwin Muir: Uncollected Scottish Criticism (1982) and The Truth of Imagination: Some Uncollected Reviews and Essays (1988). Larger-scale critical essays includes The Structure of the Novel (1928), The Present Age, from 1914 (1939), and The Estate of Poetry (1962). Muir also wrote three novels, The Marionette (1927), The Three Brothers (1931), and the autobiographical Poor Tom (1932).
Muir and the Scottish Renaissance
Despite writing in English and having little sympathy for Scottish nationalism, Edwin Muir was initially seen as a figurehead of the inter-war Scottish Renaissance alongside Hugh MacDiarmid, Neil M. Gunn, and Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Together with his verse and criticism, Muir’s John-Knox: Portrait of a Calvinist (1929) was a key text of the movement, in which Muir lamented what he saw as the deadening influence of the Reformation on Scottish creativity. In 1936, however, Muir published Scott and Scotland: The Predicament of the Scottish Writer, in which he cast doubt on the viability of Scots as a vehicle for intellectual thought and suggested that a Scottish writer could only win an international audience by writing in English. The result was a never-to-be-healed rift with Hugh MacDiarmid and an enduring perception that Muir’s work lies outside the main body of 20th-century Scottish writing.
The Muirs lived in St Andrews from 1935 until 1942 when Edwin began work for the British Council in Edinburgh. He was subsequently Director of its institutes in Prague (1945-48) and Rome (1949-50). He returned to Scotland to take up a post as warden of Newbattle Abbey (1950-55), an adult education college in Midlothian, where he encouraged the early writing of George Mackay Brown. From 1955-56, he was Norton Professor of English at Harvard University. He returned to Britain in 1956 and made his final home at Swaffham Prior, Cambridge.
Muir was appointed CBE in 1953 and received honorary degrees from Prague (1947), Edinburgh (1947), Rennes (1949), Leeds (1955), and Cambridge (1958). In 1958, he and Willa Muir were granted the Johann-Heinrich-Voss Translation Award. Muir’s Collected Poems, co-edited by Willa, were published in 1960 (followed by a further Collected Poems, edited by Peter Butter, in 1991). Selections have also appeared, edited and introduced by T. S. Eliot (1965) and Mick Imlah (2008). Muir is one of 20th-century Scotland's best-known writers abroad. To date, his work has been translated into 25 languages.
- James Aitchison, The Golden Harvester: The Vision of Edwin Muir (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1988)
- P. H. Butter, Edwin Muir: Man and Poet (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1966)
- Elizabeth Huberman, The Poetry of Edwin Muir: The Field of Good and Ill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971)
- Robert Knight, Edwin Muir: An Introduction to his Work (London: Longman, 1980)
- Margery McCulloch, Edwin Muir: Poet, Critic, and Novelist (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993)
- C. J. M. MacLachlan and D. S. Robb, Edwin Muir: Centenary Assessments (Aberdeen: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1990)
- George Marshall, In a Distant Isle: The Orkney Background of Edwin Muir (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1987)
- Edwin Muir, An Autobiography (London: Hogarth Press, 1954)
- Edwin Muir, The Story and the Fable: An Autobiography (London: Harrap,1940)
- Willa Muir, Belonging: A Memoir (London: Hogarth Press, 1968)
- Christopher Wiseman, Beyond the Labyrinth: A Study of Edwin Muir’s Poetry (Victoria, BC: Sono Nis Press, 1978)
Includes a biographical profile, a selection of poems, lists of biographical and critical resources, and links to publications by and about Edwin Muir in the Scottish Poetry Library's online catalogue. The Scottish Poetry Library is open to everyone to use and free to join.