I’ve always felt a close connection to the poetry of Edwin Muir. His themes include loss and betrayal, life and death, and journeys and labyrinths. In 1901 his father lost their farm on Orkney when Edwin was just 14 and the family were forced to move to Glasgow. Within a few years his mother, his father and two brothers were dead. When I walk in Orkney I imagine it as Edwin Muir’s Eden, an idyllic place before the dreadful events which shaped his life. From the ruins of his childhood Edwin Muir built his life to become a widely appreciated poet, the translator of Franz Kafka’s novels and Norton Professor of English at Harvard University. He had a remarkable mind to match his remarkable life.
Looking up at Noltland Castle on Westray I’m reminded of his poem The Castle.
All through that summer at ease we lay,
And daily from the turret wall
We watched the mowers in the hay
And the enemy half a mile away.
They seemed no threat to us at all.
For what, we thought, had we to fear
With our arms and provender, load on load,
Our towering battlements, tier on tier,
And friendly allies drawing near
On every leafy summer road.
Our gates were strong, our walls were thick,
So smooth and high, no man could win
A foothold there, no clever trick
Could take us in, have us dead or quick.
Only a bird could have got in.
What could they offer us for bait?
Our captain was brave and we were true…
There was a little private gate,
A little wicked wicket gate.
The wizened warder let them through.
Oh then our maze of tunnelled stone
Grew thin and treacherous as air.
The cause was lost without a groan,
The famous citadel overthrown,
And all its secret galleries bare.
How can this shameful tale be told?
I will maintain until my death
We could do nothing, being sold;
Our only enemy was gold,
And we had no arms to fight it with.
I still treasure my copy of Edwin Muir’s Selected Poems. Here’s a link: