depressing experience

Edwin Muir

Edwin Muir (15 May 18873 January, 1959) was an Orcadian poet, novelist and noted translator born on a farm in Deerness on the Orkney Islands. Remembered for his deeply felt and vivid poetry in plain, unostentatious language with few stylistic preoccupations, Muir is a significant modern poet.


In 1901, when he was 14, his father lost his farm, and the family moved to Glasgow. In quick succession his father, two brothers, and his mother died within the space of a few years. His life as a young man was a depressing experience, and involved a raft of unpleasant jobs. "He suffered psychologically in a most destructive way, although perhaps the poet of later years benefited from these experiences as much as from his Orkney 'Eden'." In 1919, Muir married Willa Anderson, and the two moved to London. They would later collaborate on highly acclaimed English translations of such writers as Franz Kafka, Gerhart Hauptmann, Sholem Asch, Heinrich Mann, and Hermann Broch.

Between 1921 and 1923, Muir lived in Prague, Dresden, Italy, Salzburg and Vienna; he returned to England in 1924. Between 1925 and 1956, Muir published seven volumes of poetry which were collected after his death and published in 1991 as The Complete Poems of Edwin Muir. From 1927 to 1932 he published three novels, and in 1935 he came to St Andrews, where he produced his controversial Scott and Scotland (1936). From 1946-1949 he was Director of the British Council in Prague and Rome. 1950 saw his appointment as Warden of Newbattle Abbey College (a college for working class men) in Midlothian, and in 1955 he was made Norton Professor of English at Harvard University. He returned to England in 1956 but died in 1959 at Swaffam Priory, Cambridge and was buried near Cambridge.


His childhood in remote and unspoiled Orkney represented an idyllic Eden to Muir, while his family's move to the city corresponded in his mind to a deeply disturbing encounter with the "fallen" world. The emotional tensions of that dichotomy shaped much of his work and deeply influenced his life. His psychological distress led him to undergo Jungian analysis in London. A vision in which he witnessed the creation strengthened the Edenic myth in his mind, leading him to see his life and career as the working-out of an archetypal fable. In his Autobiography he wrote, "the life of every man is an endlessly repeated performance of the life of man...". He also expressed his feeling that our deeds on earth constitute "a myth which we act almost without knowing it." Alienation, paradox, the existential dyads of good and evil, life and death, love and hate, and images of journeys, labyrinths, time and places fill his work.

His Scott and Scotland advanced the claim that Scotland can only create a national literature by writing in English, an opinion which placed him in direct opposition to the Lallans movement of Hugh MacDiarmid. He had little sympathy for Scottish nationalism.

In 1965 a volume of his selected poetry was edited and introduced by T. S. Eliot. An excellent essay discussing Muir's literary career (Edwin Muir's Journey, by Robert Richman) is available in the online archives of The New Criterion. Many of Edwin and Willa Muir's translations of German novels are still in print.

The following quotation expresses the basic existential dilemma of Edwin Muir's life:

"I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two day's journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. No wonder I am obsessed with Time." (Extract from Diary 1937-39.)


  • We moderns: enigmas and guesses, written with the pseudonym Edward Moore, London, G. Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1918
  • Latitudes, New York, B. W. Huebsch, inc., 1924
  • First poems, London, Hogarth Press, 1925
  • Chorus of the newly dead, London, L. & V. Woolf at the Hogarth Press, 1926
  • Transition: essays on contemporary literature, London, L. and V. Woolf at the Hogarth Press, 1926
  • The marionette, London, L. & V. Woolf at the Hogarth Press, 1927
  • The structure of the novel, London, L. & V. Woolf, 1928.
  • John Knox: portrait of a Calvinist, London, J. Cape, 1929.
  • The three brothers, London, W. Heinemann ltd., 1931
  • Poor Tom, London, J. M. Dent & sons, ltd., 1932
  • Variations on the time theme, London, J. M. Dent & sons ltd., 1934
  • Scottish journey London, W. Heinemann, ltd., in association with V. Gollancz, ltd., 1935
  • Journeys and places, London, J.M. Dent & sons, ltd., 1937
  • The present age from 1914, London, The Cresset press, 1939
  • The story & the fable, an autobiography, London, G. G. Harrap & co. ltd., 1940
  • The narrow place, London, Faber and Faber, 1943
  • The Scots and their country, London, published for the British council by Longmans, Green & Co., ltd., 1946
  • The voyage, and other poems, London, Faber and Faber, 1946
  • Essays on literature and society, London, Hogarth Press, 1949
  • The labyrinth, London, Faber and Faber, 1949
  • Collected poems, 1921-1951, London, Faber and Faber, 1952
  • An autobiography, London : Hogarth Press, 1954
  • Prometheus, Illustrated by John Piper, London, Faber and Faber, 1954
  • One foot in Eden, New York, Grove Press, 1956
  • New poets, 1959, Edited by Edwin Muir, London, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1959
  • The estate of poetry, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1962
  • Collected poems, New York, Oxford University Press, 1965
  • The politics of King Lear, New York, Haskell House, 1970


  • Power, by Lion Feuchtwanger, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, The Viking press, 1926
  • The Ugly Duchess: a Historical Romance, by Lion Feuchtwanger, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, M. Secker, 1927
  • Two Anglo-Saxon Plays: The Oil islands and Warren Hastings, by Lion Feuchtwanger, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, M. Secker, 1929
  • Success: a Novel, by Lion Feuchtwanger, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, The Viking Press, 1930
  • The Castle, by Franz Kafka, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, M. Secker, 1930
  • ''The Sleepwalkers: a trilogy, by Hermann Broch, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, Little, Brown and company, 1932
  • Josephus, by Lion Feuchtwanger, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, The Viking Press, 1932
  • Salvation, by Sholem Asch, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1934
  • The Hill of Lies, by Heinrich Mann, translated by Edwin and Willa Muir, Jarrolds LTD, 1934
  • Mottke, the Thief, by Sholem Asch, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1935
  • The Unknown Quantity, by Hermann Broch, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir,The Viking Press, 1935
  • The Jew of Rome: a Historical Romance, by Lion Feuchtwanger, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, Hutchinson & Co., Ltd., 1935
  • The Loom of Justice, by Ernst Lothar, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, Putnam, 1935
  • Night over the East, by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, translated and adapted by Edwin and Willa Muir, Sheed and Ward Inc., 1936


  • Paul Henderson Scott, Towards Independence, "Edwin Muir was an Orkney man who never quite felt that he was Scottish"

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