By Eleanor Dye, Second Year English Literature Undergraduate.
Edwin Muir’s poetry is in many ways biographical. He distinctly recollects his troubled youth after moving to Glasgow in 1901, drawing sharp contrasts to his idyllic childhood on the Orkney Islands. Muir also comments on the dangers of the threat of nuclear warfare after the Second World War. His contemporaries dubbed him repetitive and rather irrelevant, but from a twenty-first century perspective of an impending ecological crisis, it is interesting to revisit Muir’s poetry. The works contain powerful visions of ecological disaster created by mankind, in a surprisingly anachronistic manner.
Muir’s poem “Horses” is an early example of the anxiety he faced when remembering his lost childhood and his early life on the Orkney Islands:
Reflections on Muir’s childhood can be seen in the poem. The awe felt for the horses of his childhood throughout the poem culminates in the penultimate stanza with the half rhyme of “wind” and “blind”, showing the horses’ power both in doing the impossible task of uniting with the elements and in breaking the established rhyme scheme prevalent in the rest of the poem. By physically having the power to break the structure of the poem, Muir shows his wonder at these creatures, as described in his autobiography as “a stationary terror and delight”. These are the horses of Muir’s childhood; the horses he watched his father farm whilst on the isle of Wyre. But the wonder of Muir’s childhood cannot last as in the final stanza he contrasts his previous awe with “blank field” and “still-standing tree”, acknowledging that this wonder was only due to his childhood imagination which cannot be regained. This early poem shows the agony of what Muir considered to be his personal fall from the ideal landscape of Orkney and deals with his grief at this.
Therefore, in Muir’s later poem “The Horses” in 1956, we see a clear development from the personal anxiety of “Horses” to an apocalyptic vision of destruction in the Cold War:
Gone is the simple and regular form of ‘Horses’. Muir begins the poem by describing “the seven days war”, alluding to the biblical creation story in Genesis and subsequently showing man’s audacity in undoing the work of an all-powerful God, and reflecting contemporary fears of ‘mutually assured destruction’ in the Cold War. Poets such as Seamus Heaney have dismissed Muir’s poetry as “low wattage” but here Muir seems to suggest an imminent and real danger of global devastation.
From a twenty-first century perspective, what Muir once saw as an impending danger of atomic catastrophe can now be seen to reflect ecological concerns. Muir ends the poem on a point of hope – the arrival of the horses is described as “their coming our beginning”. Ironically, a new start is formed out of destruction and the unity of “their” and “our” shows that mankind has an opportunity to renew their bond with nature, the horses and an ecological idyll. But Muir makes sure his readers know that this is only a vision, and it is the destructive world that murdered its inhabitants in “one great gulp” and the technology of our tractors appearing as “dank sea-monsters” which the modern day reader has to contend with and face responsibility for. Muir now offers his readers a post-pastoral insight into a new estrangement and violence of nature with the foreign monstrous imagery. Muir therefore gives us an early example of eco-awareness in his poetry by describing the corrupting influence of technology on our planet. Before his time, Muir seemed to be an ecological mouthpiece for our post-nuclear society.