In This Article Edwin Muir

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Specific Studies
  • Autobiography, Biography, and Letters
  • Bibliographies and Archives

British and Irish Literature Edwin Muir
by
Margery Palmer McCulloch
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0043

Introduction

Edwin Muir (b. 15 May 1887–d. 3 January 1959) was born in the Orkney Isles in, living between the age of two and seven on the small island of Wyre, the memory of which provided the inspiration behind many of the themes and images in his adult poetry. The late 19th century was a time of agricultural change in the Orkneys, and the high rents demanded by “improving” landlords eventually drove the family into immigrating to the city of Glasgow when Edwin was thirteen. Within four years of the family’s arrival, both parents and two elder brothers were dead, and Muir found himself alone in the city physically unwell and psychologically disturbed, undereducated and poorly employed, and with little prospect of improving his situation. The impact of that traumatic transplantation and his attempt to recover imaginative contact with his childhood home became the inspiration behind his poetry of the interwar period and the first version of his autobiography, The Story and the Fable, which became a classic on its publication in 1940. Muir eventually educated himself through Orage’s The New Age, and eventually became a contributor to the journal. The success of his first book We Moderns (1918) resulted in a contract with the American Freeman magazine, which allowed him and his wife, Willa, to travel in Europe, learning the German language that equipped them to become the translators of fiction by Franz Kafka and Hermann Broch. Although Muir’s First Poems were published in 1925, he was at that time best known for his criticism, critiquing the writers we now recognize as the leaders of Anglophone modernism and contributing to the major journals of the time. He was, however, never entirely at home in Scottish literary circles. It was also not until the 1940s, and especially in his collections The Labyrinth of 1949 and One Foot in Eden of 1956, that we find a truly mature poetry, written in part out of his postwar experiences in Prague and Rome. At the present time Muir appears marginalized in British criticism, out of place in the nationalist context of Scottish writing and not quite accepted into canonical English literature. Yet as some of the bibliographical items cited here suggest, there is a growing recognition of his contribution as poet, translator (with his wife, Willa), and prose writer to European literature of the modernist period.

General Overviews

Books cited in this section to a larger or smaller extent discuss the range of Muir’s work as poet, critic, novelist, and autobiographer. All were published after Muir’s death. (J. C. Hall’s introductory Edwin Muir in Longman’s Writers and Their Work series was published in 1956 in Muir’s lifetime but is now difficult to obtain and so has not been listed here.) Butter 1966 supersedes the short introductory study by Butter published in 1962 and is probably indispensable for biographical information about the man, his personal contacts, and his work, but should be supplemented by additional interpretive and cultural contexts such as those offered by MacLachlan and Robb 1990, Palmer McCulloch 1993, and the criticism listed in Specific Studies. Mellown 1979 organizes chapters as specific aspects of Muir’s literary activity: literary critic, novelist, and autobiographer, early poems, late poems, etc. Knight 1980 is introductory, as its title suggests, and its attractive enthusiasm for Muir and his work needs to be accompanied by more detailed and discriminating analysis. Hixson 1977 aims to introduce Muir to an American audience as a modern writer to be read alongside T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats and includes a useful chapter on his translation work. Glen 1981 provides a good range of topics in a small number of essays.

  • Butter, P. H. Edwin Muir: Man and Poet. Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1966.

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    Gives full details of Muir’s life and work, including quotations from poems, articles, letters, and reviews of Muir’s work. Interpretations are highly biographical in nature with no wider discussion of Muir in a modernist or Scottish literary revival context. Excellent selected bibliography.

  • Glen, Duncan, ed. Special Issue: Akros 16.47 (August 1981).

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    Contains six essays covering Muir’s period at Newbattle College, his fiction and criticism, including work as “Edward Moore,” relationship with Scotland, autobiographical writings, and poetic journey from preoccupation with myth to his later theme of the “single, disunited world.” Also includes reprint of Eliot’s preface to Selected Poems of 1965.

  • Hixson, Allie Corbin. Edwin Muir: A Critical Study. New York: Vantage, 1977.

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    Hixson’s hope is that her study will introduce Muir to American students as a poet “who belongs [. . .] alongside Yeats, Eliot, Auden” (preface) and her preface emphasizes the earlier American critics who furthered his reputation. Ranging from Orkney beginnings to his late poetry and criticism, this study also has a useful chapter on translation.

  • Knight, Roger. Edwin Muir: An Introduction to His Work. London: Longman, 1980.

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    Knight’s enthusiasm for Muir and his poetry provides encouragement for the new reader, but there is a need to examine Muir’s achievement more closely and with more keen examination of texts. There needs also to be more discrimination between the early and mature late poetry. Very much an introductory book.

  • MacLachlan, C. J. M., and D. S. Robb, eds. Edwin Muir: Centenary Assessments. Aberdeen, Scotland: Association for Scottish Literature Studies, 1990.

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    A wide-ranging selection of essays from personal recollections to distinctive themes in his poetry, his translation work, European affinities, the importance of his Orkney context, and his attitude to Scottish nationalism.

  • Mellown, Elgin W. Edwin Muir. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

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    Written by Muir’s bibliographer, this book covers the range of his work in discrete chapters dealing with Muir’s professional journalism, criticism, as well as essays, novels, and autobiography. Discussion of his poems is divided into three chronological sections. Good selective bibliography of primary sources, translations, and secondary texts. Still predominantly a life and work study.

  • Palmer McCulloch, Margery. Edwin Muir: Poet, Critic and Novelist. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993.

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    McCulloch brings together Muir’s poetry, criticism, and fiction, with consideration of his European interests and influences, especially German. His poetry is discussed chronologically but with a principal focus on the stylistically mature late work and its social and political themes. Includes a chapter on Muir’s relationship with Scotland.

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