Selected Poems of Edwin Muir (1887-1959)

                                   The angel and the girl are met
                                 Earth was the only meeting place. 
                                   For the embodied never yet
                               Travelled beyond the shore of space. 
                                 The eternal spirits in freedom go. 

                                See, they have come together, see, 
                                While the destroying minutes flow, 
                                   Each reflects the other's face
                                 Till heaven in hers and earth in his
                                Shine steady there. He's come to her
                                 From far beyond the farthest star, 
                                Feathered through time. Immediacy
                                Of strangest strangeness is the bliss
                              That from their limbs all movement takes. 
                                 Yet the increasing rapture brings
                                 So great a wonder that it makess
                                 Each feather tremble on his wings

                                 Outside the window footsteps fall
                                      Into the ordinary day
                                  And with the sun along the wall
                                   Pursue their unreturning way
                                  Sound's perpetual roundabout
                                  Rolls its numbered octaves out
                                And hoarsely grinds its battered tune

                                 But through the endless afternoon
                              These neither speak nor movement make. 
                                But stare into their deepening trance
                                As if their grace would never break. 

The Days by Edwin Muir

Issuing from the Word 
The seven days came, 
Each in its own place, 
Its own name. 
And the first long days 
A hard and rocky spring, 
Inhuman burgeoning, 
And nothing there for claw or hand, 
Vast loneliness ere loneliness began, 
Where the blank seasons in their journeying 
Saw water at play with water and sand with sand. 
The waters stirred 
And from the doors were cast 
Wild lights and shadows on the formless face 
Of the flood of chaos, vast 
Lengthening and dwindling image of earth and heaven. 
The forest's green shadow 
Softly over the water driven, 
As if the earth's green wonder, endless meadow 
Floated and sank within its own green light. 
In water and night 
Sudden appeared the lion's violent head, 
Raging and burning in its watery cave. 
The stallion's tread 
Soundless fell on the flood, and the animals poured 
Onward, flowing across the flowing wave. 
Then on the waters fell 
The shadow of man, and earth and the heavens scrawled 
With names, as if each pebble and leaf would tell 
The tale untellable. And the Lord called 
The seventh day forth and the glory of the Lord. 

 And now we see in the sun 
The mountains standing clear in the third day 
(Where they shall always stay) 
And thence a river run, 
Threading, clear cord of water, all to all: 
The wooded hill and the cattle in the meadow, 
The tall wave breaking on the high sea-wall, 
The people at evening walking, 
The crescent shadow 
Of the light built bridge, the hunter stalking 
The flying quarry, each in a different morning, 
The fish in the billow's heart, the man with the net, 
The hungry swords crossed in the cross of warning, 
The lion set 
High on the banner, leaping into the sky, 
The seasons playing 
Their game of sun and moon and east and west, 
The animal watching man and bird go by, 
The women praying 
For the passing of this fragmentary day 
Into the day where all are gathered together, 
Things and their names, in the storm's and the lightning's nest, 
The seventh great day and the clear eternal weather. 

"They Could Not Tell Me..."  by Edwin Muir

They could not tell me who should be my lord, 
But I could read from every word they said 
The common thought: Perhaps that lord was dead, 
And only a story now and a wandering word. 
How could I follow a word or serve a fable, 
They asked me. `Here are lords a-plenty. Take 
Service with one, if only for your sake, 
Yet better be your own master if you're able.' 
I would rather scour the roads, a masterless dog, 
Than take such service, be a public fool, 
Obstreperous or tongue-tied, a good rogue, 
Than be with those, the clever and the dull, 
Who say that lord is dead; when I hear 
Daily his dying whisper in my ear. 

(A poem from One Foot in Eden ) 

Reading in Wartime by Edwin Muir

Boswell by my bed, 
Tolstoy on my table; 
Thought the world has bled 
For four and a half years, 
And wives' and mothers' tears 
Collected would be able 
To water a little field 
Untouched by anger and blood, 
A penitential yield 
Somewhere in the world; 
Though in each latitude 
Armies like forest fall, 
The iniquitous and the good 
Head over heels hurled, 
And confusion over all: 
Boswell's turbulent friend 
And his deafening verbal strife, 
Ivan Ilych's death 
Tell me more about life, 
The meaning and the end 
Of our familiar breath, 
Both being personal, 
Than all the carnage can, 
Retrieve the shape of man, 
Lost and anonymous, 
Tell me wherever I look 
That not one soul can die 
Of this or any clan 
Who is not one of us 
And has a personal tie 
Perhaps to someone now 
Searching an ancient book, 
Folk-tale or country song 
In many and many a tongue, 
To find the original face, 
The individual soul, 
The eye, the lip, the brow 
For ever gone from their place, 
And gather an image whole. 

The Child Dying by Edwin Muir

Unfriendly friendly universe, 
I pack your stars into my purse, 
And bid you, bid you so farewell. 
That I can leave you, quite go out, 
Go out, go out beyond all doubt, 
My father says, is the miracle. 

You are so great, and I so small: 
I am nothing, you are all: 
Being nothing, I can take this way. 
Oh I need neither rise nor fall, 
For when I do not move at all 
I shall be out of all your day. 

It's said some memory will remain 
In the other place, grass in the rain, 
Light on the land, sun on the sea, 
A flitting grace, a phantom face, 
But the world is out.  There is no place 
Where it and its ghost can ever be. 

Father, father, I dread this air 
Blown from the far side of despair, 
The cold cold corner.  What house, what hold, 
What hand is there?  I look and see 
Nothing-filled eternity 
And the great round world grows weak and old. 

Hold my hand, oh hold it fast -- 
I am changing! -- until at last 
My hand in yours no more will change, 
Though yours change on.  You here, I there, 
So hand in hand, twin-leafed despair -- 
I did not know death was so strange. 


                                    THE CONFIRMATION 

                            Yes, yours, my love, is the right human face. 
                               I in my mind had waited for this long, 
                            Seeing the false and searching for the true, 
                            Then found you as a traveller finds a place 
                               Of welcome suddenly amid the wrong 
                           Valleys and rocks and twisting roads. But you, 
                            What shall I call you? A fountain in a waste, 
                                 A well of water in a country dry, 
                            Or anything that's honest and good, an eye 
                      That makes the whole world seem bright. Your open heart, 
                             Simple with giving, gives the primal deed, 
                         The first good world, the blossom, the blowing seed, 
                         The hearth, the steadfast land, the wandering sea. 
                                Not beautiful or rare in every part. 
                            But like yourself, as they were meant to be. 


from his collection, The Voyage(1946)

                                   I've been in love for long
                                    With what I cannot tell
                                   And will contrive a song
                                      For the intangible
                                 That has no mould or shape,
                                 From which there's no escape,

                                     It's not even a name,
                                     Yet is all constancy;
                                   Tried or untried the same,
                                    It cannot part from me;
                                      A breath yet as still
                                    As the established hill.

                                      It is not any thing,
                                     And yet all being is;
                                     Being, being, being,
                                    Its burden and its bliss.
                                    How can I ever prove
                                       What it is I love?

                                    This happy happy love
                                 Is seiged with crying sorrows,
                                  Crushed beneath and above
                                 Between todays and morrows;
                                       A little paradise
                                   Held in the world's vice.

                                    And there it is content
                                    As careless as a child,
                                     And in imprisonment
                                  Flourishes sweet and wild:
                                   In wrong, beyond wrong
                                   All the world's day long.

                                  This love a moment known
                                    for what I do not know
                                    And in a moment gone
                                     Is like the happy doe
                                  That keeps its perfect laws
                                   Between the tiger's paws
                                   And vindicates its cause.

The Killing

                  That was the day they killed the Son of God 
                  On a squat hill-top by Jerusalem. 
                  Zion was bare, her children from their maze 
                  Sucked by the dream of curiosity 
                  Clean through the gates. The very halt and blind 
                  Had somehow got themselves up to the hill. 
                  After the ceremonial preparation, 
                  The scourging, nailing, nailing against the wood, 
                  Erection of the main-trees with their burden, 
                  While from the hill rose an orchestral wailing, 
                  They were there at last, high up in the soft spring day. 
                  We watched the writhings, heard the moanings, saw 
                  The three heads turning on their separate axles 
                  Like broken wheels left spinning. Round his head 
                  Was loosely bound a crown of plaited thorn 
                  That hurt at random, stinging temple and brow 
                  As the pain swung into its envious circle. 
                  In front the wreath was gathered in a knot 
                  That as he gazed looked like the last stump left 
                  Of a death-wounded deer's great antlers. Some 
                  Who came to stare grew silent as they looked, 
                  Indignant or sorry. But the hardened old 
                  And the hard-hearted young, although at odds 
                  From the first morning, cursed him with one curse, 
                  Having prayed for a Rabbi or an armed Messiah 
                  And found the Son of God. What use to them 
                  Was a God or a Son of God? Of what avail 
                  For purposes such as theirs? Beside the cross-foot, 
                  Alone, four women stood and did not move 
                  All day. The sun revolved, the shadows wheeled, 
                  The evening fell. His head lay on his breast, 
                  But in his breast they watched his heart move on 
                  By itself alone, accomplishing its journey. 
                  Their taunts grew louder, sharpened by the knowledge 
                  That he was walking in the park of death, 
                  Far from their rage. Yet all grew stale at last, 
                  Spite, curiosity, envy, hate itself. 
                  They waited only for death and death was slow 
                  And came so quietly they scarce could mark it. 
                  They were angry then with death and death's deceit. 

                  I was a stranger, could not read these people 
                  Or this outlandish deity. Did a God 
                  Indeed in dying cross my life that day 
                  By chance, he on his road and I on mine? 

'The Combat' (from 'The Labyrinth', 1949)

        It was not meant for human eyes,
        That combat on the shabby patch
        Of clods and trampled turf that lies
        Somewhere beneath the sodden skies
        For eye of toad or adder to catch.

        And having seen it I accuse
        The crested animal in his pride,
        Arrayed in all the royal hues
        Which hide the claws he well can use
        To tear the heart out of the side.

        Body of leopard, eagle's head
        And whetted beak, and lion's mane,
        And frost-grey hedge of feathers spread
        Behind -- he seemed of all things bred.
        I shall not see his like again.

        As for his enemy there came in
        A soft round beast as brown as clay;
        All rent and patched his wretched skin;
        A battered bag he might have been,
        Some old used thing to throw away.

        Yet he awaited face to face
        The furious beast and the swift attack.
        Soon over and done.  That was no place
        Or time for chivalry or for grace.
        The fury had him on his back.

        And two small paws like hands flew out
        To right and left as the trees stood by.
        One would have said beyond a doubt
        That was the very end of the bout,
        But that the creature would not die.

        For ere the death-stroke he was gone,
        Writhed, whirled, into his den,
        Safe somehow there.  The fight was done,
        And he had lost who had all but won.
        But oh his deadly fury then.

        A while the place lay blank, forlorn,
        Drowsing as in relief from pain.
        The cricket chirped, the grating thorn
        Stirred, and a little sound was born.
        The champions took their posts again.

        And all began.  The stealthy paw
        Slashed out and in.  Could nothing save
        These rags and tatters from the claw?
        Nothing.  And yet I never saw
        A beast so helpless and so brave.

        And now, while the trees stand watching, still
        The unequal battle rages there.
        The killing beast that cannot kill
        Swells and swells in his fury till
        You'd almost think it was despair.

The Horses

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listn, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
"They'll molder away and be like other loam."
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers' land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers' time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads,
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

The Incarnate One 

                       The windless northern surge, the sea-gull's scream,
                           And Calvin's kirk crowning the barren brae.
                         I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd's dream,
                           Christ, man and creature in their inner day.
                                  How could our race betray
                           The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
                         Who chose this form and fashion for our sake? 

                         The Word made flesh here is made word again
                        A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
                            See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
                             And God three angry letters in a book,
                                  And there the logical hook
                           On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
                                 Into an ideological argument. 

                          There's better gospel in man's natural tongue,
                           And truer sight was theirs outside the Law
                            Who saw the far side of the Cross among
                            The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,
                                    In ignorant wonder saw
                           The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,
                        Not knowing that there a God suffered and died. 

                        The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down,
                             Pagan and Christian man alike will fall,
                        The auguries say, the white and black and brown,
                            The merry and the sad, theorist, lover, all
                                       Invisibly will fall:
                           Abstract calamity, save for those who can
                          Build their cold empire on the abstract man. 

                        A soft breeze stirs and all my thoughts are blown
                            Far out to sea and lost. Yet I know well
                            The bloodless word will battle for its own
                              Invisibly in brain and nerve and cell.
                                     The generations tell
                            Their personal tale: the One has far to go
                           Past the mirages and the murdering snow. 


        O Merlin in your crystal cave
        Deep in the diamond of the day,
        Will there ever be a singer
        Whose music will smooth away
        The furrow drawn by Adam's finger
        Across the memory and the wave?
        Or a runner who'll outrun
        Man's long shadow driving on,
        Break through the gate of memory
        And hang the apple on the tree?
        Will your magic ever show
        The sleeping bride shut in her bower,
        The day wreathed in its mound of snow
        and Time locked in his tower? 

        The Castle 

        All through that summer at ease we lay,
        And daily from the turret wall
        We watched the mowers in the hay
        And the enemy half a mile away
        They seemed no threat to us at all. 

        For what, we thought, had we to fear
        With our arms and provender, load on load,
        Our towering battlements, tier on tier,
        And friendly allies drawing near
        On every leafy summer road. 

        Our gates were strong, our walls were thick,
        So smooth and high, no man could win
        A foothold there, no clever trick
        Could take us, have us dead or quick.
        Only a bird could have got in. 

        What could they offer us for bait?
        Our captain was brave and we were true....
        There was a little private gate,
        A little wicked wicket gate.
        The wizened warder let them through. 

        Oh then our maze of tunneled stone
        Grew thin and treacherous as air.
        The cause was lost without a groan,
        The famous citadel overthrown,
        And all its secret galleries bare. 

        How can this shameful tale be told?
        I will maintain until my death
        We could do nothing, being sold;
        Our only enemy was gold,
        And we had no arms to fight it with. 

The Good Man in Hell

     If a good man were ever housed in Hell
     By needful error of the qualities,
     Perhaps to prove the rule or shame the devil,
     Or speak the truth only a stranger sees,

     Would he, surrendering quick to obvious hate,
     Fill half eternity with cries and tears,
     Or watch beside Hell's little wicket gate
     In patience for the first ten thousand years,

     Feeling the curse climb slowly to his throat
     That, uttered, dooms him to rescindless ill,
     Forcing his praying tongue to run by rote,
     Eternity entire before him still?

     Would he at last, grown faithful in his station,
     Kindle a little hope in hopeless Hell,
     And sow among the damned doubts of damnation,
     Since here someone could live, and live well?

     One doubt of evil would bring down such a grace,
     Open such a gate, and Eden could enter in,
     Hell be a place like any other place,
     And love and hate and life and death begin.