by Robert Crawford

Edwin Muir’s Ecosystem of Sounds

October 15, 2009 | by Robert Crawford

RHYME IS A retrospective pleasure. It’s true that in poetry we can come to anticipate rhyme-words, listening for them as they approach, but when they arrive they always confirm something that has gone before. However partial, innovative or glancing, they are essentially echoic. If the word ‘echo’ and the prefix ‘eco’ sound similar as a result of acoustic accident, rather than etymology, then the acoustic accident is emblematic. In its echoic nature, its sense of pleasurable pattern, rhyme builds an ecology, sounds a continuity, a wholeness. In Edwin Muir’s finest work the echoic and the ‘eco’ are at one, and the backward-soundingness of the verse is exactly what is to be admired and treasured in it.

It is nearly fifty years since Muir’s death, and his reputation has plummeted. In Scotland, 2009, the year which marks the fiftieth anniversary of Muir’s death, will be filled (rightly) with celebrations of the 250th birthday of Robert Burns. Muir, who famously called Burns one of the “sham bards of a sham nation” and who was rather proud of never having attended a Burns supper, will hardly get a look in.

All this lends a certain bravery to Mick Imlah’s pricey but excellent selection of Muir’s poetry. Calling attention to problems with Muir’s verse, Imlah refuses hagiography at the same time as showing how the darks and lights of Muir’s psychology, made manifest in his autobiographical writings, were transmuted in some of his finest poems. Early in his superb introduction Imlah quotes Muir’s arresting sentences from his autobiography where he speaks of his farming family’s move in 1901 (when Muir was aged fourteen) from the pastoral society of the Orkney islands to the industrial city of Glasgow, “an event”, as Imlah puts it, which Muir “would equate, in his rather determined scheme of things, with the Fall.” The way Muir puts it is this: “In 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found it was not 1751, but 1901”.

This striking wording lets Muir appear at once a countryman of the farmer-poet Burns (also born in the 1750s) and a contemporary of T. S. Eliot, that great poet of often unattractive urban life who, born in St Louis in 1888, was just a year younger than Muir, and who edited Muir’s last Selected Poems in 1965. Much of Muir’s work, including his best work, involves a contest or at least a tension between an apparently timeless condition (often associated with Edenic rural scenes) and a time-ridden sense of the pains of modernity. Muir rarely writes poetry about urban life; this may have tended to make him seem old-fashioned, and certainly non-Modernist; but his liking for ‘still’ and even sometimes frozen landscapes is accompanied by a deep appreciation of continuities within nature. To appreciate why Muir is such a wonderful poet one need only attend to a single poem, the one which begins Imlah’s new selection.

Though, characteristically, ‘Childhood’ uses no place names, it appears an Orcadian poem, a familial poem, a poem of whorled rhymes. All this is apparent in its opening stanza, Long time he lay upon the sunny hill, To his father’s house below securely bound. Far off the silent, changing sound was still, With the black islands lying thick around.

This poem begins by missing out two words. In idiomatic modern English we would expect the opening phrase to be “For a long time”; in speech we associate the opening “Long time” only with the phrase “Long time no see”. It is characteristic of Muir to abstract his language a little from contemporary idiom, making it sound slightly archaic, backward-sounding. His phrasing here also lets him begin with two stressed syllables, as he does in the third line – two strong beats in a poem that seems to slow time from the start.

The phrase “securely bound” also calls attention to itself: is it the hill or the son who is “securely bound” to the father’s house – or is it both? It sounds a little odd for either a person or a part of a landscape to be “securely bound” to a house, but it emphasizes a kind intense dwelling in locality, as well as perhaps hinting at anxiety about the possibility of that dwelling being disrupted. Or does “securely bound” mean that the boy was heading for – bound for – his father’s house in a carefree manner (“securely”), when he chose to lie on the hill. Muir’s language here wobbles a bit; its meaning is subordinated at times to its sound, but the sense of sound is strong, nowhere more so than in that initially arresting use of the word “sound” itself: “the silent, changing sound was still”. Particularly after the use of the word “silent”, the word “sound” there suggests noise; there is a moment of impossibility when we ask how a sound can be silent, before we realise that the word “sound” here refers not to a noise but to a body of water; yet the poem is all the stronger for that moment of impossibility, that playing off of “silent” against “sound” – just as it is the stronger for internal rhymes and half-rhymes: “bound” at the end of line two rhymes not only with “around” at the end of line four, but also with “sound” within the third line; the vowels and several of the consonants of “silent” in line three and “islands” in line four play off each other in a way that comes close to rhyming. The clicks of the ‘ck’ sounds in “black” and “thick”, those two monosyllabic words in line four, sound an audible relationship, just as later we hear a different but clearly audible relationship in the sixth line between the words “massed” and “mist”. The harder you listen to this verse and to this poem the more the sounds and elements in it appear echoically inter-related, “backward-sounding” in the best sense.

Sometimes this happens simply through repetition of words. The word “islands” is there in the fourth line; it comes back again in the sixth. The word “lay” is in line one, and also in lines eight and seventeen, just as “sound” is in line three, then again in line thirteen. Other words too are repeated in the poem – “house”, “away”, “still”, “evening”, “ship”, “black”, not to mention the words that are so inevitably repeated in any passage of English that we hardly notice them – words like “he”, “and”, “the”, “in” and suchlike. At some moments the recycling of sounds and words becomes particularly hypnotic and obsessive.

‘Childhood’ is a remarkably echoic poem, built out of its own ecosystem of sounds that loop and circle round each other in a way that is binding, bound and inturned so that the reader like the boy becomes bound up in it and with it. If this is a poem of powerfully arrested development, then the imaginative development comes through the very acoustic arrest:

The evening sound was smooth like sunken glass, And time seemed finished ere the ship passed by.

Rhyme in this poem holds up the ear more than the ear is used to: the phrase “passed by” there has its “by” rhyming with “lie” a couple of lines earlier, yet its “passed” is also rhyming with “glass” in the preceding line, even if that “glass” has already functioned in terms of end-rhyme to rhyme with “pass” at the end of the fourth stanza’s first line. It is the sound-scape of this poem, the trance-like acoustic of a trance-like poem, which makes it so remarkable. The boy of the poem seems to become a part of the natural world around him:

Grey tiny rocks slept round him where he lay,  Moveless as they

The rocks here seem animate and the boy almost inanimate: metaphorically they rhyme with each other, and the way the end-rhyme-word “lay” is picked up in the mid-line rhyme-word “they” only intensifies the bonding and the spell. The boy seems to be being taken into the landscape when, just as darkness falls, he is called back to the domestic, to the house which is human and so apart from the landscape, yet also “securely bound” to it. The poem’s last line, “And from the house his mother called his name”, may seem to break the spell, yet there is also a sense in which, completing the acoustic pattern with its strong end-rhyme, this last line completes the spell even as it seems to break it.

The poem ends with a final act of calling, of naming, but we never hear what the name is. We are left instead with an unnamed, Edenic world. It is a plain world, a rather Presbyterian world of plain words: “Moveless” is the only really unusual word in the poem, and it may be there simply because the expected word “Motionless” would have too many syllables, but the oddity of “Moveless” also calls attention to one of the things that gives the poem its acoustic and imagistic power: that sense of arrest, of acoustic return, echoing, “backward-sounding”, rather than moving on.

“Moveless” is also striking in terms of Muir’s biography: it was the ‘move’ from Orkney to Glasgow, preceded by a move from the small Orkney island of Wyre about which Muir writes so wonderfully in his autobiography to a less attractive situation on the Orkney mainland – it was such moves which so disrupted Muir’s psychology and caused him great pain. Yet, however autobiographical a poem ‘Childhood’ may be, it is almost ego-free, as if by putting the experience into the third person Muir had so distanced himself from the material and the poem that it could be sealed in, self-sufficient without him. Eventually the boy is called by his mother to what was earlier termed “his father’s house”. The gender weightings in the poem sound almost feudal as well as familial, though we may also hear Biblical echoes that include “in my father’s house are many mansions”. Yet the boy called by his mother does not move before the poem ends; instead he remains at one with the rocks and minutiae of the darkening landscape, at one with them, though not forgotten by the attentive world of the human.

Muir’s prose Autobiography is nowhere more remarkable than when it details so intimately the experience of a small boy growing up as a part of an island farm where “most of the time I lived with whatever I found on the surface of the earth: the different kinds of grass, the daisies, butter


Edwin Muir: Since his death in 1959 his reputation has plummeted

cups, dandelions, bog cotton (we did not have many flowers), the stones and bits of glass and china, and the scurrying insects which made my stomach heave as I stared at them, unable to take my eyes away”. In this prose passage there is the same sensibility which, oriented towards minuteness, produced in the poem ‘Childhood’ the penultimate line, “The grasses threw straight shadows straight away”. In her recent landmark study, Ecology And Modern Scottish Literature, Louisa Gairn astutely relates Edwin Muir’s literary presentation of “an idyllic image of Orkney” to Willa Muir’s enthusiasm for ballads in her fine 1965 book Living With Ballads where she writes that in ballads,

Men, animals, birds, trees and rivers appear to be all on the same footing, all intensely alive and aware of each other, all belonging to the same world in a common flow of feeling. There seems to be little or no turning back to reflective self-consciousness, as if the tides of human feeling ran out unchecked to fill the whole visible universe.

Edwin Muir’s work in its acoustic and ecological dimensions passed an enabling legacy to his Orcadian successor George Mackay Brown, but also to several more modern Scottish writers, particularly poets including Douglas Dunn (who has written in tribute to Muir), John Burnside, and Kathleen Jamie, an admirer not just of Edwin Muir’s work but also of Willa Muir’s Living With Ballads. Seeing Muir in terms of ecological thought is one way to bring out the lasting importance of some of the best of Muir’s work.

A sense of backwardness is part of the imagining of Muir’s greatest poem, his 1955 ‘The Horses’, which begins with what sounds an archaic locution: “a twelvemonth”, and invokes again the familiar Muir trance-like state. Rhyme comes and goes curiously in the poem; sometimes it is present in the form of repeated end-words: “day”, “speak”, “again”; occasionally it is hinted at in end-words: “evening”, “waiting”; most of the time it is absent, but words like “after”, “days”, “world” and “stand” give the poem an echoic infrastructure that takes in not just individual repeated words but whole phrases.

Yet, envisioning a sense of a renewed covenant between humanity, animals, and environment, that poem becomes not so much one of backwardness and ending, as a work of beginning. “In my end is my beginning”, T S Eliot had written in his Four Quartets, drawing on French words associated with Mary Queen of Scots. If Muir, the lover of German literature, must have known Rilke’s famous sonnet ending “You must change your life”, then his own greatest poem, ‘The Horses’ has something of the same impulse in its last line: “Our life is changed; their coming our beginning”.

Writing at the end of our own life, and drawing on a lifetime of dreamtime, of searching by means of often trance-like, backward-sounding words for a lost idyll, Muir manages to write one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century, a poem all the more striking in the twenty-first because it speaks of the desperate need to articulate and discover an attunement with the natural world. It is not least because rhyme and echo in poetry, by their very backward-soundings, their acoustic recall, can enact such attunement through sound, through the eco-system of the poem, that Muir’s poetry, so deftly selected for a new era by Mick Imlah, matters and will go on mattering.


Selected Poems
Edwin Muir
Edited by Mick Imlah
Faber, £12.99
pp112, ISBN 9780571235476

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