Light from the Orkneys: Edwin Muir and George Mackay Brown

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The Orkneys produced two remarkable 20th century poets, for both of whom the Christian faith became central in the course of their adult lives. This lecture looks at the special features of their faith as it is reflected in their poetry.

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The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth


Off the North Coast of Scotland lie the Orkneys with their remarkable ruins, including the village of Scara Brae, some 5000 years old. In the capital, Kirkwall, is the magnificent 12th century red and white sandstone cathedral of St Magnus. And in a small corner of the Cathedral are the names of about a dozen distinguished Orkneymen. Two of those men are amongst the finest poets of the 20th century, George Mackay Brown and Edwin Muir. Both struggled against depression. Both knew at first hand the harshness of life. Both came to Christian faith as adults and reflected that faith in their writing. My theme is their struggle with the dark side of human existence, the suffering, the hardness, and the light emerges from their writings for all who are conscious of that darkness.

Edwin Muir lived from 1887 to 1959, George Mackay Brown from 1921 to 1996. So Edwin Muir was the older and, as I will mention, a great influence on George Mackay Brown. But as the writing of Edwin Muir is the more theologically developed of the two, I will begin with George Mackay Brown.

Apart from a short spellas a mature student at Edinburgh University and one at Newbattle Abbey College, during the time when Edwin Muir was Warden, George Mackay Brown spent the whole of his life on the Orkneys. It was these islands, their scenery, history, legends and people that provided the inspiration for his poetry, short stories and novels.

On his mother's side he came from Gaelic speaking highlanders. His mother, Mhairi Mackay, had come over from their croft in Sutherland when she was 16 to work in a hotel. His father, John Brown, came from a family that had lived in the Orkneys for centuries. They had six children, George being the youngest.

The family lived in Stromness, which George liked to call 'Hamnavoe', the old Norse name, meaning 'haven inside the bay'. The family was poor, and as well as being a postman, John Brown had two other jobs. Being a postman meant that he had a new uniform every year, and this had the great advantage that the old one could be cut and remade for the children. Even so they had to apply for grants from the poor fund for shoes for their children in the winter. They went barefoot in the summer. But basically they were happy and George had a stability and routine of life which he loved. Mhairi Mackay was a warm, generous, unfailingly buoyant soul, gently singing gaelic songs about the house, to whom George was absolutely devoted throughout the whole of his life. His father, fifteen years older than his mother, short and fat, had a sharp wit, was a good mimic and was clearly something of a frustrated actor. This combination of Mahris songs about the house and his father's wit and sense of drama, helped to create an environment in which George's imagination and poetry were nurtured. It was also helped by his elder sister Ruby, ten years older, who loved telling melodramatic stories with unhappy endings. As George said in response to this, 'I was beginning to learn that there was a thing in the world called evil; but I learned a thing even more important, that all the bad things in life, that happen to everybody sooner or later, could be faced, controlled, and even made beautiful by poetry.'[1]

This stable childhood was rudely broken when an unkind landlady took against Marhi and kicked the family out. They went first to an ugly house with a drain under it, a factor that further undermined the health of George's father, John, and then to a council house.  John became totally crippled with arthritis, and had to retire, with no pension. Brooding and depressed in his room, he became convinced that his teeth were the cause of the trouble and persuaded the dentist to take the whole lot out, which he did without anaesthetic, John and his dentist drinking half a bottle of whiskey during the operation to help matters.

In his mid teens George started to get into a bad way both physically and psychologically. He chain smoked Woodbines from the age of fifteen, and he was so frightened of being separated from his mother he used to follow her out shopping and hide in doorways to keep an eye on her. Then came the war.  George applied for the forces, but they diagnosed TB and he was sent to a sanatorium in Kirkwall. TB in those days inspired great terror-interestingly, it was believed that smoking was good for it, and that suited George very well, but he remained ill for a long time. The TB returned in later years, when he was at Newbattle Abbey College, when again he had to go into hospital.

George's   recurrent illnesses made it impossible for him to lead a normal working life but this is what gave him the space to write. Interviewed in 1996 he said 'Sometimes I think... recurrent illness is a kind of refuge. When things are beginning to be too much, you suddenly become ill. Not desperately ill, but ill enough to avoid your responsibilities'[2] Or as he also wrote 'there must be a secret wisdom inside us all that directs our lives, often against our wills and desires' and he saw that wisdom at work in his illnesses. Of course some like his sister, simply thought he was a lazy idler and was often sharp with him, which she bitterly regretted later in life, not realizing at the time how ill her brother had in fact been.

George's  mother cooked three meals a day for him and generally mollycoddled him. He got £1.10s a week paid by the government to TB sufferers, of which he gave £1 to his mother for his keep. With the ten shillings he bought cigarettes and a small library of 78 records, including T.S. Eliot reading his own poetry. He played this so often and so loudly that those working in the house would loudly chant great chunks of The Waste Land and Murder in the Cathedral by heart.

 The years immediately after World War II were difficult ones for George, living the life of a semi-invalid, his only outlet occasional pieces for the Orkney Herald, in which he championed what we would call reactionary views, regarding every change of modern life as a change for the worse.

However, at about this time George became more disciplined, putting a mask over his depression, and spending hours working on his poetic technique. It is important to remember that he saw poetry as a craft, and himself a craftsman like a plumber or carpenter. His poetry did not just come, but he worked at it, in even more disciplined ways as he grew older. He also moved significantly closer to becoming a Roman Catholic. Brought up by his father to attend a Presbyterian Church every Sunday, it never had much appeal for him and in his teens he started attending an Anglican one. Then during the war some Italian prisoners of war, in their own time, started to turn an old Nissen hut into a remarkable chapel which can still be visited. As George wrote in 1945:

'Where the English captive would build a theatre or a canteen to remind him of home, the Italian, without embarrassment, with careful devout hands, erects a chapel... The Italians, who fought weakly and without hope on the battlefield, because they lacked faith in the ridiculous strutting little Duce, have wrought strongly here.' [3]

That chapel and reading Newman's Apologia shifted him decisively towards Catholicism.

Another rather different change in his life at that time was the discovery of alcohol. The islanders had continually voted against having pubs until 1947, but then, in 1948 the Stromness Hotel opened its bar for the first time in 27 years. George drank two glasses of beer and was hooked. They were, he wrote, 'a revelation; they flushed my veins with happiness; they washed away all cares and shyness and worries.  I remember thinking to myself 'If I could have two pints of beer ever afternoon, life would be a great happiness'.'[4] Unfortunately it did not stay at two and he needed more and more to get that feeling again, until he had become an alcoholic. He frequently had to be carried home at night, where his mother would be waiting up for him, with his dinner ready cooked hours before, never complaining. As a local remarked, if George had died then he would simply have been remembered as the local soak.

It was at this time, however, that he had the good fortune to meet people who encouraged him, in particular Edwin Muir who immediately recognized George's poetic gifts and got him to Newlands Abbey College where he was Warden, and persuaded him to publish his first book of poems. As Muir said abut the poems, he was impressed 'by something which I can only call grace. Grace is what breathes warmth into beauty and tenderness into comedy; it is in a sense the crowning gift, for without it beauty would be cold and comedy would be heartless.'[5] And as George wrote 'It was Edwin Muir who turned my face in the right direction: firmly but discretely- and gave me a pocketful of hope and promise for the journey.'[6]

Muir singled out particularly a poem based on a true story of a Stromness lad Thorfinn, a known poultry thief, who had rowed out beyond the harbour one evening, supposedly to collect his lobster creels and drowned. The poem reads in part:

           Heart sick of the land
           Where troubles grew with every grass blade
           And every rose gushed from a septic root
           And every casual car was the Black Maria,

           He rowed his little boat behind the holm
           To take the purple samurai of the flood.


           Whether it chanced, the Owner of these lobsters,
           Grown sour at Thorfinn as any bristling poultry man
           Turned a salt key in his last door of light;
           Or whether Love, abroad in a seeking wave
           Lifted him from the creaking rowlocks of time
           And flung a glad ghost on a wingless shore;

           No one can tell.

                                           A crofter at early light
           Found an empty boat stuttering on the rocks
           And dawn-cold cocks cheering along the links.[7]

I quote part of that poem, not just because it is a good one, but because it is typical in the way George deals with some of the hardness and sadness of life in the Orkneys, with its constant battle to survive, which he never sentimentalises but which he had gradually come to see in terms of divine grace. The boy who drowned is a poultry thief. Perhaps he was killed by someone fed up at his thieving. But it is interesting that the word 'Owner' in the poem is printed with a capital 'O', so behind the human owner is God in his sterner aspect. But perhaps it was love that lifted him from the creaking rowlocks of time and this is the reason the cocks are cheering. The matter is left open.  There is a total kindly acceptance of life in all its aspects that comes through in so many of the poems that George wrote about the islanders and their hard way of life.

It should be emphasized that George saw himself as writing for the crofters and fisherman of the Islands. Although at one stage he hero worshipped T.S. Eliot he turned against the whole world of what he called Kulture, for he believed that everyone could respond to poetry. Community was always important to him and he saw himself belonging to and writing for the local people.

At the age of 35 George began at Edinburgh University, at a time when mature students were very rare indeed. Although he came to benefit from his studies, the place where he really came to feel at home was in Milne's pub in Rose Street, the seediest bar in the seediest street in the city. For here well known Scottish poets used to assemble to talk and drink, often presided over by the great Scottish literary figure of the time Hugh MacDiarmid. It was here he met Stella Cartwright, a girl who had been drinking whiskey in pubs since she was fifteen. They fell in love. It was first time in his life he felt truly at home with someone and it helped release his poetic impulse. When they were together, and even after, through their letters, their isolated, suffering natures were helped. As George put it in one of four poems dedicated to her:

           Cargoes of alien pain
           Tenderly she transmutes
           To quiet things. [8]

After graduating George started teaching, for which he was totally unsuited, and he rapidly went back into hospital. When he came out of hospital he totally lost control of his class and the authorities recognized that this work was not for him. A friend obtained a research grant for him to do post graduate work on Gerard Manley Hopkins, as a shelter from the stormy blast of life, but of course it was not completed, and George returned home to his mother, supported by handouts from friends. A book of poems he submitted to a publisher was turned down.

Then things started to improve. George's poems started to appear in prestigious magazines. A book of poetry was published to critical acclaim. It contained a poem called 'The Poet', which reveals so much about the relationship between George's persona, his poetry and its source.

           Therefore he no more troubled the pool of silence.
           But put on mask and cloak,
           Strung a guitar
           And moved among the folk.
           Dancing they cried,
           'Ah, how  our sober islands
           are gay again, since this blind lyrical tramp
           invaded the Fair!'

           Under the last dead lamp
           When all the dangers and masks had gone inside
           His cold stare
           Returned to its true task, interrogation of silence. [9]

There is much of George Brown in that: outwardly so gay, enabling people to dance through the guitar of his poetry, but behind the mask interrogating the silence. How he found much silence in his mother's house with the wireless going all the time, is difficult to imagine. His stories started being read on the BBC and a collection of them was published, again to very good reviews. He received an Arts Council Grant, and for the first time in his life, he was financially independent. But he was also drinking, even more seriously than before, as was Stella. George continued to worry about her, write to her regularly and pray for her, but he felt guilty about her. Some think that a story he was writing at this time about a girl called Celia draws on her character. Celia is a beautiful, vulnerable creature, acutely sensitive to pain. She is also an alcoholic. When finally persuaded to talk to a minister she says she drinks because she is frightened. As she says

'I'm so desperately involved with all the weak things, lonely things, suffering things I see about me. I can't bear the pity I feel for them. Not being able to help them all. There's blood everywhere. The world's a torture chamber, just a sewer of pain. That frightens me.'

She then tells of a horrendous incident of a gull and a water rat she had seen at the harbour and remarks 'It seems most folk can live with that kind of thing. Not me... I get all caught up in it.' [10]

Celia prostitutes herself with visiting sailors for alcohol but at the end is touched by some subtle indefinable grace and we are left believing all will be well for her.

George's wonderful mother Mhari died leaving an estate of £5.

On the anniversary of her birthday some years later, George wrote a poem about her life which contained these verses:

           Gentleness, poverty, six children
           (one died) in stone houses
           along Hamnavoe, at close and pier.

           A cupboard sparse but never empty,
           Oatcakes and bannocks on a smoking griddle,
              The Monday washing
           Flaunting, damp flags, in a walled garden,

           The paraffin lamp on the winter table,
           Jar of bluebells on a sun-touched sill,

           And a wordless song moving
           Through the house, upstairs, downstairs,

           At the creeled pier, in the bee-thronged garden.

           She thanked, out of an ancient courtesy,
             All visitors for calling. [11]

George felt lonely but wrote to Willa Muir now a widow that:

'there's a kind of happiness in the house too because I have the feeling that a notable victory has been won for goodness... I have faith that the goodness of people like her is not lost at all, and is not just gathered up in heaven (though it is that too) but when their small faults and frailties are urged away their sweetness will infuse itself into the lives of the living also.' [12]

He became more sober, and found doing the kitchen chores both soothing and a way of keeping depression at bay. He was also hard at work on An Orkney Tapestry which became one of his best appreciated books.

One copy of that book was to have a dramatic effect on another person's life, and, through him, on George also.

In 1970, aged 36, Peter Maxwell Davies took a holiday in Scotland. Writing music that was explosive, atonal and iconoclastic he had burst on the musical scene and produced a torrent of work. Exhausted by this, and the fact that his cottage in Dorset had burnt down with all his books and possessions he came to Kirkwall. One evening in the hotel he opened a copy of An Orkney Tapestry and read till 3 am totally transfixed. Next day he caught a ferry to Hoy where George Mackay Brown had discovered Rackwick, an enchanted valley at one end of the island, and by chance met a friend of George's who was also over there for the weekend. They met, and from then on a Peter Maxwell Davies recorded 'everything happened as if preordained.' In Rackwick they chose a deserted croft up on the cliffs, and there Peter Maxwell Davies lived for 24 years before moving to the Orkney island of Sanday in 1998. A great deal of his music since the time he came to the Orkneys has been shaped by the sounds and silence and landscape of the islands as well as the words of George.

George had written a novel about St Magnus and from this came Peter Maxwell Davies's opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus and the establishment of the first annual St Magnus Festival in 1977.

Over the years Peter Maxwell Davies was to set many of George's poems to music, continuing to do so after his death.

Outwardly things for George became better and better. But inwardly he was a man in deep despair. In addition to the physical ailments like bronchitis that afflicted him from time to time, he suffered from agrophobia and going out was a nightmare. Then of course there was his depression which led him to play with feelings of suicide and which required unceasing anti-depressants. People sought him out at all hours of the day and night, and though he had a note on his front door asking people not to disturb him until after 2 pm it was to no avail. At this time he fell in love with another girl Norah Kennedy, and it seems this was a relationship which was consummated, but it was not an easy relationship and the result was that his sense of guilt and torment was only increased. He also felt that his work was worthless or worse. Going about Stromness chatting to people they would not have guessed. He put up a good front, and worked in a disciplined way, which helped also to keep the depression at bay for periods. He was not willing to take part himself in the annual Festival but invited other poets to come and read their poetry. When Seamus Heaney came he said that Ted Hughes had once suggested to him that 'poetry is derived from a place of ultimate suffering and decision in us' and he went on:

'Despite George's social sweetness and his geniality and kindness and deference as a social creature, you did recognise that there was a solitude there... that there was a place of suffering and decision.' [13]

In 1966 he died, and some words from one of his poems was carved over his grave. The poem 'A work for poets' reads:

           To have carved on the days of our vanity
           A sun
           A ship
           A star
           A cornstalk

           Also a few marks
           From an ancient forgotten time
           A child may read

           That not far from the stone
           A well might open for wayfarers

           Here is a work for poets-
           Carve the runes
           Then be content with silence [14]

It was those last two lines that appear on his grave, wonderful lines:

           Carve the runes
           Then be content with silence.

One of George's best known poems written in 1952 appeared as the prologue of his first collection of verse:

           For the islands I sing
            And for a few friends,
           Not to foster means
            Or be midwife to ends.

           For Scotland I sing,
            The Knox-ruined nation,
            That poet and saint
            Must rebuild with their passion.

           For workers in the field
            And mill and mine
           Who break earth's bread
            And crush her wine.

           Go, good my songs,
            Be as gay as you can.
           Weep, if you have to,
            The old tears of man.

           Praise tinker and saint,
            And the rose that takes
           Its fill of sunlight
            Though a world breaks.[15]

It is a poem that expresses in lapidary form a philosophy of life that suffused all his writing. He sees his poetry as a form of singing-for friends, for Scotland, for those who toil for a living. He believes the poet and saint must rebuild a Scotland ruined by the Calvinism of John Knox. There is suffering in the world, for it is a world that breaks, and we must weep if we have to. But it is still a world in which we can praise the tinker and the saint, those able to sit light to the world's usual preoccupations. This despite everything was for him a world in which the rose takes its fill of sunlight.

Edwin Muir was born in 1887 and lived the first fourteen years of his life in the Orkneys.  Here is a little of the vivid picture of that pre-industrial time, which for Muir always had an enchantment:

'The Orkney I was born into was a place where there was no great distinction between the ordinary and the fabulous; the lives of living men turned into legend. A man I knew once sailed out in a boat to look for a mermaid, and claimed afterwards that he had talked with her. Fantastic feats of strength were commonly reported. Fairies, or 'fairicks', as they were called, were encountered dancing on the sands on moonlight nights. From people's talk they were small, graceful creatures, about the size of leprechauns, but pretty, not grotesque. There was no harm in them. All these things have vanished from Orkney in the last fifty years under the pressure of compulsory education.' [16]

It was a community that was uncompetitive, in which the farmers helped one another. It was a shock to him when he was later precipitated into a highly competitive world. Unfortunately, because of heavy exactions the family had to move from one farm to another and then to Glasgow. There in quick succession his father, mother and two brothers died. Edwin did a number of unpleasant jobs in factories and offices, including working in a factory that turned bones into glue. Glasgow was a devastating experience, one which shaped the whole of his life and set going in his mind the first great myth around which his life story was organized: expulsion from the Garden of Eden. 

In Glasgow, it wasn't just the loss of this earthly Eden, it wasn't just the anguish of losing the closest members of his family. It was the stripping away of all sense of what for the moment I shall call enchantment: the value and dignity and worth that we recognize in human beings. He remembered the moment exactly. He was travelling in a tram on his way to work when he looked at the people sitting opposite him. Suddenly, they seemed to him just animals: flesh and bone and no more. Jonathan Swift, the great Dean of St Patrick's Dublin, had a similar feeling about human beings, which he turned to good effect in his satirical writings. But it left Edwin Muir totally devastated. It set for ever in his mind the myth that he had been thrown out of Eden into a kind of hell. As he wrote:

'I was returning in a tramcar from my work; the tramcar was full and very hot; the sun burned through the glass on backs of necks, shoulders, faces, trousers, skirts, hands, all stacked there impartially. Opposite me was sitting a man with a face like a pig's, and as I looked at him in the oppressive heart the words came into my mind, 'That is an animal.' I looked around me at the other people in the tramcar. I was conscious that something had fallen from them and from me; and with a sense of desolation I saw that they were all animals, some of them good, some  evil, some charming, some sad, some happy, some sick, some well. The tramcar stopped and went on again, carrying its menagerie; my mind saw countless other tramcars where animals sat or got on or off with mechanical dexterity, as if they had been trained in a circus; and I realized that in all Glasgow, in all Scotland, in all the world, there was nothing but millions of such creatures living an animal life and moving towards an animal death as towards a great slaughterhouse. I stared at the faces, trying to make them human again and to dispel the hallucination, but I could not.' [17]

The outward course of Edwin Muir's life can be told quite quickly. In 1919 he married Willa Anderson about which he wrote simply 'My marriage was the most fortunate event in my life.' One of the reasons it was so fortunate is that Edwin Muir suffered from the most devastating fears and terrors. These came up in vivid amazing dreams and daylight trances and bouts of depression. He sought help from psychoanalysis, which did help in the long run, but which brought about dreams that took him even closer to the edge. Willa clearly helped him through all this.  There is a poem called 'The Annunciation', the first verse of which reads:

           Now in this iron reign
           I sing the liberty
           Where each asks from each
           What each most wants to give
           And each awakes in each
           What else would never be,
           Summoning so the rare
           Spirit to breathe and live.[18]

It is a verse that I have often quoted when preparing couples for a wedding, and I like to think it came out of the relationship of Edwin and Willa. After their marriage they moved to London and then lived in cities on the continent, Prague, Dresden, in Italy, Salzburg and Vienna, returning to England in 1924. Edwin had no formal education to speak of, but had come to read voraciously and teach himself languages and an appreciation of music. He and his wife collaborated on highly acclaimed translations of various writers like as Kafka and Mann. Between 1925 and 1956 he published seven volumes of poetry, which were collected and published as a complete collection after his death. He also published three novels and after he came to St Andrew's in 1935 a controversial bookScott and Scotland which argued that Scotland could only create a national literature by writing in English.

From 1946-1949 Muir was the Director of the British Council in Prague and Rome, a time which was important for his spiritual journey, to which I will refer in a moment.

In 1950 he became Warden of Newbattle Abbey College, a college for working class men, half an hour south of Edinburgh. As already mentioned, due to his influence George Mackay Brown became a student there, much to the benefit of Brown. Muir loved the task of teaching and encouraging people from very similar backgrounds to himself. After Muir's death George Mackay Brown wrote a play about him which has him saying abut his students:

'Never be hard on them. Never let them feel they're wasting their time. My time as well. The whole treasury of literature is there for them to ransack. Open their minds to the old wisdom, goodness, beauty. Arm them against the gray impersonal powers. They press in on every side. More and more.' [19]

Everyone agrees it was difficult to capture Muirs personality or what there was about one whom Maggie Ferguson has described as 'This serene, withdrawn, deeply private man that inspired such love'. For everyone saw that it was love that the students had for him. T.S. Eliot thought Muir had complete integrity 'I cannot believe that (he) ever uttered one disingenuous word in speech, or committed on disingenuous word to print'. Then in 1955 he became Norton Professor of English at Harvard University. He returned to England in 1956 and died in 1959.

So it was a varied, somewhat peripatetic life. But for Muir, what happened outwardly was not as important as what happened inwardly. For his whole life was a spiritual journey, an attempt to recover again that which he had lost when he was precipitated out of Eden. It is significant that when his autobiography was first published in `1940 it bore the title The story and the Fable, an autobiography. This give a much better idea than the bare title of An Autobiography that was later used, because he saw his life in terms of a story and a fable. The story, the outward course of events, I have already told. But for Muir, it was the fable that mattered. The first part of the fable was the loss of paradise. The second part he described in various images. But in essence it was a rediscovery of what he had lost in that tram, the essential dignity of human beings, their spiritual nature, and for him this was connected with an awareness of the immortal. He had gone through various phases, an evangelical conversion as a teenager, which he quickly came to despise, an ardent Nietzschean materialism, a passionate socialism but finally a sense of the immortal self. As he put it:

'I realized that immortality is not an idea or a belief, but a state of being in which man keeps alive in himself his perception of that boundless union and freedom , which he can faintly apprehend in time, though its consummation lies beyond time.' [20]


'My belief in immortality, so far as I can divine is origin, and that is not far, seems to be connected with the same impulse to know myself. I can never know myself; but the closer I come to knowledge of myself,  the more certain I must feel that I am immortal, and conversely, the more certain I am of my immortality the more intimately I must come to know myself.' [21]

In fairness it should also be mentioned that his psychological distress led him to undergo Jungian analysis in London, and as you will know, this lends itself to an archetypal or mythical way of looking at life in a way that Freud does not. But whether or not one is in sympathy with Jung, Muir's poems of what we might call discovery and return are of interest. What had happened to him, he believed, was not just about him, but was in principle true of all human beings .As he put it 'the life of every man is an endlessly repeated performance of the life of man.' So, again, what we do on earth constitutes 'a myth which we act almost without knowing it.'

Some of Muir's poems suggest a Platonic view of life and time. But Platonism, though often regarded as an ally of Christianity, is not Christianity. Where does Muir stand in relation to this?

Whilst in Rome running the British Council Muir was struck by the little religious statues and plaques around the city. One of them, depicting the annunciation, inspired another lovely poem of that title:

           The angel and the girl are met.
           Earth was the only meeting place.
           For the embodied never yet
           Travelled beyond the shore of space.
           The eternal spirits in freedom go.

           See, they have come together, see,
           While the destroying minutes flow,
           Each reflects the other's face
           Till heaven in hers and earth in his
           Shine steady there. He's come to her
           From far beyond the farthest star,
           Feathered through time. Immediacy
           Of strangest strangeness is the bliss
           That from their limbs all movement takes.
           Yet the increasing rapture brings
           So great a wonder that it makes
           Each feather tremble on his wings.

           Outside the window footsteps fall
           Into the ordinary day
           And with the sun along the wall
           Pursue their unreturning way.
           Sound's perpetual roundabout
           Rolls its numbered octaves out
           And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.

           But through the endless afternoon
           These neither speak nor movement make,
           But stare into their deepening trace
           As if their gaze would never break. [22]

That was clearly a magical moment, the stillness of that gaze seeming to lift the viewer beyond this world. But in fact it was scenes like this that changed Muir's whole approach to religion, and made him look for the spiritual more in this world.  He had been bought up in the Orkneys with a rather severe form of Presbyterianism. As he wrote in his autobiography:

'I was aware of religion chiefly as the sacred word, and the church itself, severe and decent, with its touching bareness and austerity... but nothing told me that Christ was born in the flesh and had lived on the earth.'

But when it Rome he saw plaques like that of the annunciation, as he put it:

'A religion that dared to show forth the mystery for everyone to see would have shocked the congregations of the North, would have seemed a sort of blasphemy, perhaps even an indecency. But here it was publicly shown, as Christ showed himself on earth... This open declaration was to me the very mark of Christianity, distinguishing it from the older religions. For although the pagan gods had visited the earth, they did not assume the burden of our flesh, live our life and die our death.' [23]

Edwin Muir's outward life traversed some of the key events of the last 200 years. For, as he said, he was brought up in a pre-industrial Eden, and in his move to Glasgow travelled 150 years. He lived in a city that at that time had some of the worst slums in Europe, and experienced some of its most demeaning working experiences in office and factory. In the course of his life, although he lived for periods in St Andrew's and Edinburgh, he experienced what was happening on the continent, in a way only few others had the opportunity to do, both the rise of Nazism before the war and the takeover of communism in Prague afterwards. In short, he knew at first hand some of the terrible evil of one of the worst centuries in human history.  Without formal education, he became through his own reading, highly educated, and an educator of others. He went through the intellectual pilgrimage of so many intellectuals of his generation, first as a Nietzschean materialist, then as a socialist. He underwent psychoanalysis. Yet, for him, all this was secondary. What was primary, was the mythical life, the loss of Eden and the gradual recovery of it over a lifetime's living.

Earlier in his life Muir had had a kind of vision of creation, of creation as it ought to be. His whole life after that was a kind of working out of the second part of the fable. If the first part was his expulsion from Eden, the second part was his return from exile. It was a return that, he came to believe, was opened up for us by the movement of the Divine to the human. This had implications not just for humanity but for the whole of creation. One aspect of the traditional myth was that the expulsion of humanity from our primeval paradise ruptured the whole of creation, set everything against everything else; and one aspect of redemption would be this healing in nature itself. One poem, which describes the scene after a nuclear holocaust, suggests a new world, in which we are reconnected with the animal kingdom.

           Barely a twelvemonth after
           The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
           Late in the evening the strange horses came.
           By then we had made our covenant with silence,
           But in the first few days it was so still
           We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
           On the second day
           The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
           On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
           Dead bodies piled on the deck.
           On the sixth day
           A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
           Nothing. The radios dumb.

The poem goes on to say they would not like to hear the radios again which would only bring news of the bad old world. Now they live as they can, tractors rusting in the fields.

           And then, that evening
           Late in the summer the strange horses came.
           We heard a distant tapping on the road,
           A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
           And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
           We saw the heads
           Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
           We had sold our horses in our fathers' time
           To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
           As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield
           Or illustrations in a book of knights.
           We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
           Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
           By an old command to find our whereabouts
           And that long-lost archaic companionship.
           In the first moment we had never a thought
           That they were creatures to be owned and used.
           Among them were some half-a-dozen colts
           Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
           Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
           Since then they have pulled our ploughs and borne our loads
           But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
           Our life is changed; their coming our beginning. [24]

It is a brilliant up-dating of the ancient myth of the restoration of nature, to what he terms 'that long-lost archaic companionship'-another aspect of the fable that he thought human life lived out.

So we come to perhaps the most important form of the fable of all. It is expressed in his poem 'One foot in Eden', which begins:

           One foot in Eden still, I stand
           And look across the other land,
           The world's great day is growing late,
           Yet strange these fields that we have planted
           So long with crops of love and hate.

In terms of Muir's own experience, he still has part of him in that Orkney childhood Eden 'One foot in Eden still, I stand'. But he looks at the world about him so full of love and hate. Then he continues that still from Eden springs the root of something else

           But famished field and blackened tree
           Bear flowers in Eden never known.
           Blossoms of grief and charity
           Bloom in these darkened fields alone.
           What had Eden ever to say
           Of hope and faith and pity and love
           Until was buried all its day
           And memory found its treasure trove?
           Strange blessings never in Paradise
           Fall from these beclouded skies.[25]

Here we have to be very careful, and I think Muir got it right when at the end of his autobiography he reflects on his own periods of depression. He wrote:

'Now and then during the years I fell into the dumps for short or prolonged periods, was subject to fears which I did not understand, and passed through stretches of blankness and deprivation. From these I learned things which I could not otherwise have learned, so that I cannot regard them as mere loss. Yet I believe that I would have been better without them.'[26]

I love that statement-its understated pain and honesty. He wrote that out of the blankness and deprivation came things that otherwise he would not have learned, but nevertheless it would have been better to have been without them. He did not have an easy life, and in one poem he writes about his depression in terms of devastations. He knew what it was like to live with famished field and blackened tree. He would rather not have gone through all that, yet he recognized that without them his insight into life would have been poorer. As he put it


           But famished field and blackened tree
           Bear flowers in Eden never know.
           Blossoms of grief and charity
           Bloom in these darkened fields alone
           What had Eden ever to say
           Of hope and faith and pity and love
           Until was buried all its day
           And memory found its treasure trove?
           Strange blessings never in Paradise
           Fall from these beclouded skies. 




©The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Gresham College, 5 February 2009




[1] Maggie Fergusson, George Mackay Brown: The Life, John Murray, 2006, p.11

[2] ibid. p.57. See also p.91

[3] ibid. p.84

[4] ibid. p.89

[5] ibid. p.130

[6]  ibid. p.137

[7]  'Thorfinn', The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown, ed. Archie Bevan and Brian Murray, John Murray, 2005, p.20

[8]  The Life, p.155

[9]  Collected Poems, p.45

[10] George Mackay Brown, 'Celia', A Time to Keep, Polygon, 2006, p.16

[11] 'Mhari', Collected Poems, p.443, verse 5

[12] The Life, p.193

[13] The Life, p.246

[14] 'A Work for Poets',  Collected Poems, p.378

[15] 'Prologue', ibid. p.1

[16] Edwin Muir, An autobiography, Hogarth, 1954, p. 14

[17] An autobiography, p.52

[18] Edwin Muir, 'The Annunciation',  Collected Poems, Faber, 1960, p.117

[19] Maggie Ferguson, George Mackay Brown: The Life, John Murray, 2006, p.109

[20] An autobiography, p. 170

[21] An autobiography p.54

[22] Collected Poems, p.223

[23] Edwin Muir, An Autobiography, Hogarth,1987, pp277-8

[24] 'The Horses', Collected Poems, p.246

[25] 'One Foot in Eden'  Collected Poems, p. 227

[26] An autobiography, p. 280

This event was on Thu, 05 Feb 2009

Lord Harries

The Rt Revd Lord Harries

Professor of Divinity

Professor the Rt Revd Lord Harries was the Bishop of Oxford from 1987 to 2006. He was previously the Dean of King's College London, where he is now a Fellow and an Honorary Professor of Theology.

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