Edwin Muir (1887-1959)

Scottish poet, born in Orkney, where he spent his childhood. His family moved to Glasgow when he was fourteen. Within five years both parents and two of his brothers died, and he moved to London, working under Alfred Richard Orage (1875-1934), whose New Age was a periodical of much political and literary prestige.

In 1955-56 Muir was invited to ‘The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures’ at Harvard University, where he emphasized the necessity for the reunion of modern poetry and audience by learning from balladry (published as The Estate of Poetry, London, 1962). He talked about how the ballad was part of his life in childhood:

I was brought up in a group of islands on the north of Scotland, remote enough for life there to have remained almost unchanged for two hundred years. In our farm-house in one of the smaller Orkney islands, there were not many books apart from the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the poems of Burns. Except for Burns we had no poetry books, but we knew a great number of ballads and songs which had been handed down from generation to generation. These, sometimes with the airs traditionally belonging to them, were known in all the farms; there must have been hundreds of them. They were part of our life, all the more because we knew them by heart, and had not acquired but inherited them. They were not contemporary in any sense, but entered our present from the past. [Edwin Muir, Estate of Poetry (London, 1962) 9-10]

And he talked about the disappearance of story and audience in poetry:

The tragic story affects us with unique power because it moves in time, and because we live in time. It reminds us of the pattern of our lives; and within that pattern it brings our loves, our passions, their effects, and unavoidable chance. Matthew Arnold urged that the representation of an action was essential for a great poem, and he may have meant something like this, since a story gives a more complete idea of our temporal lives than any other means that has been discovered. But with the disappearance of the greater audience the story has declined; some poets of our time have used it effectively: I think of Robert Frost and certain poems of T. S. Eliot. But the story, although it is our story, is disappearing from poetry.

It has been taken over by the novel, but expanded there into something quite unlike what it was when used in poetry. The old story was quite simple. It followed some figure—Odysseus, or Ruth, or King David—through time; and it remains the most pure image that we have of temporal life, tracing the journey which we shall take. The novel also tells a story in time, but it is almost as concerned with the relations which space imposes upon us; it deals, at its most typical, with society. It gives us a description or a report, not a clear image of life. (Estate of Poetry 29)

Muir’s ambition “to recreate imaginatively the whole world of the ballads” [letter to Kathleen Raine, 28 February 1956, Selected Letters of Edwin Muir, ed. P. H. Butter (London: The Hogarth P, 1974) 179] was passed on to his wife Willa Muir, whose Living with Ballads, a historic work in the field of ballad studies, was published in London in 1965. (M. Y.)

1.Ballad of Everyman  
2.Ballad of Hector in Hades  
3.Ballad of the Flood  
4.Ballad of the Soul  
5.The Enchanted Knight  
6.The Voyage