Edwin Muir and the Labyrinth

  A Review by Cooper Renner

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Poetic reputations are almost as vulnerable to expiration as poets themselves. Ask Robert Southey, the prolific English poet laureate whose most durable contribution to world literature-- "The Three Bears"-- is nowadays generally not even attributed to him.The relative ease of getting a book of poems into print and the relative permanence of the book as an object have made sure that more poems than ever from the past are still accessible to us: the problem is that very few of those books are worth accessing. Poetic reputations don't rest on as fickle a foundation as the reputations of pop music stars, but the culling is just as merciless, if slower to occur. Resuscitations are rare.
     Edwin Muir, the Scot poet who died in 1959, was never a very popular poet in any sense, though his list of champions included T. S. Eliot and though he was a Faber and Faber poet in the days when that was a position much to be desired. He was always better known in the U.K., where his collected poems are still available, than in the U.S. Here, in a way that might have chagrined but probably would not have surprised him, his work as a translator and prose writer has completely overwhelmed his poetry. Graywolf keeps "The Estate of Poetry" and "An Autobiography" in print, and the translations of Kafka on which he and his wife collaborated are still as easily to be had as newer and allegedly more accurate versions. In the U.K. his translations of Hermann Broch are more readily at hand than in the U.S., as are such non-fiction titles as "Scottish Journey," now more than 60 years old; his book on John Knox; and "The Truth of Imagination," an essay collection.

Muir leaves us utterly unsure how we are to interpret the hero's "message." Which is, oddly enough, often the effect of living one's own life.

     "The Labyrinth," the title poem of his penultimate collection, is one of his most famous works, at least among older readers such as myself, and also one of his most characteristic in theme, investigating as it does the vagaries of time and existential despair. What is perhaps less characteristic is the certainty the poem holds out that the existential is not definite-- or defining, if you prefer-- and the unquestioned beauty of its rhetoric, a product of careful imagery and almost perfectly maintained tone. Not that I mean to imply that imagery and tone are not generally a substantial part of Muir's concerns or that he is generally a careless writer, but rather that his poems rarely achieve the mastery of "The Labyrinth."
     Not least among the poem's notable accomplishments is-- as critics have noted-- the labyrinthine but lucid first sentence, which continues for a full 34 of the poem's 73 lines. That Muir thus mimics the maze as well as the once maze-trapped Theseus's progress without losing or confusing the reader is indicative of the "old-fashioned" nature of his attention to audience, an attention reminiscent of the not entirely dissimilar Frost. It is likewise not unexpected that such a ruminative writer would create an interior monologue for a violent mythological character by focusing entirely on the aftermath of an episode-- the battle with the Minotaur-- instead of the episode itself and by drawing out of Theseus all of the psychological repercussions of his battle with no attention at all paid to the hero's subsequent "adventures." Muir has succeeded, as it were, in making Theseus "deep."
     Muir's poem also embodies the twists and surprises of a maze by repeatedly shifting the direction the poem seems to be taking. In the first 10 lines or so Muir's melancholic, even depressive tone draws the reader vividly in and creates an expectation of a sharply [and typically] "Modernist" experience.

    Since I emerged that day from the labyrinth,
    Dazed with the tall and echoing passages,
    The swift recoils, so many I almost feared
    I'd meet myself returning at some smooth corner,
    Myself or my ghost, for all there was unreal
    After the straw ceased rustling and the bull
    Lay dead upon the straw and I remained,
    Blood-splashed, if dead or alive I could not tell
    In the twilight nothingness. . . .

     Muir's strengths and weaknesses are both on display here. His willingness to settle for such cliched thoughts as "I almost feared / I'd meet myself" and "[D]ead or alive I could not tell" needs to be laid against the sharp suggestiveness of "After the straw ceased rustling" with its rustling s's and the non-sensationalist and nearly mundane "I remained, / Blood-splashed." Notice how "recoils" manages to imply both sudden turns of direction and the echoing noise of battle, as well as the horror Theseus must have felt; how appropriately unexpected is Muir's description of the maze corners as "smooth"; and how the imprecise precision of the first five words tells the reader nothing definite about how long ago Theseus left the labyrinth but starkly indicates a great deal of time, whether actual or psychological.
     But after introducing this confused Theseus, Muir steps decisively around a corner as his Theseus rejoins the "real" world--

             the still fields swift with flowers, the trees
    All bright with blossom, the little green hills, the sea,
    The sky and all in movement under it. . . .

     and we have an emphatic uplift of mood and that same combination of careful and hackneyed. We begin with the very clever "still fields swift with flowers," five simple words by which Muir nails down the contrast of mortal and almost immortal-- the swift transitoriness of the flowers as opposed to the still immutability of the fields in which they grow. But those simple words also shimmer with s's to create the rushing forward of the flowers, life's brevity, and the idea of swiftness contained within stillness suggests Muir's near-obsession with time and eternity. Unfortunately this beautiful concision leads directly to sheer triteness-- "trees / All bright with blossom" -- and mere "factual" notation: hills, sea, sky.
     Then Muir tricks us again. As Theseus goes on to notice the contrast of young and old, he is suddenly back in the labyrinth, recalling how time seemed frozen there and how even he seemed not to move, but rather to be motionless in the center of a whirling maze. This passage too is both successful and not. On the one hand Theseus's language feels portentous rather than powerful-- "the maze itself / Revolved around me on its hidden axis / And swept me smoothly to its enemy, / The lovely world." On the other, this is a splendid recasting of Eliot's still point, by which Muir is not aping Eliot's imagery but transforming it from transcendence to horror. The lines immediately following heighten the tie to Eliot but harken backwards past the "Christian" Eliot to the young, desperate Eliot--

    There have been times when I have heard my footsteps
    Still echoing in the maze, and all the roads
    That run through the noisy world, deceiving streets
    That meet and part and meet, and rooms that open
    Into each other-- and never a final room. . .

     lines so evocative of Eliot as to be almost pastiche. The long first stanza continues with its despair as Theseus points out other ways in which the outer world mimics the labyrinth. Once he catches himself, recalls that he is no longer trapped, but even then his "bad spirit" steps up to remind him that there is "no exit" from this world, no more than there seemed to be from the labyrinth.

"The Labyrinth" is so masterfully intellectualized that I cannot dismiss it as a nice moment in the past that deserves to be relegated to the past.

     But Muir is not done with deceiving his reader. Just past the middle of the poem, in the first line of the second stanza, Theseus says, "I could not live if this were not illusion," and then begins his statement of faith. "It is a world, perhaps," he admits, "but there's another"-- his introduction to his second life-changing experience. If fighting the Minotaur and the maze submerged Theseus into despair, a vision lifted him out of it.

    For once in a dream or a trance I saw the gods
    Each sitting on the top of his mountain isle,
    While down below the little ships sailed by,
    Toy multitudes swarmed in the harbours, shepherds drove
    Their tiny flocks to the pastures, marriage feasts
    Went on below, small birthdays and holidays,
    Ploughing and harvesting and life and death,
    And all permissible, all accessible,
    Clear and secure as in a limpid dream.

     Note the curious bookending in this set of lines, the repetition of the fact that this is not "fact," as the fight in the labyrinth was, but dream. The language is pitch perfect-- its languid simplicity, its casting of the human world as toylike-- because Theseus is narrating a child's view of life and insisting it is "real." He goes on to point out that, while all this activity flurries the surface of the earth, the gods, above it, discourse sedately--

    And their eternal dialogue was peace
    Where all these things were woven; and this our life
    Was as a chord deep in that dialogue,
    As easy utterance of harmonious words,
    Spontaneous syllables bodying forth a world.

     This is, more or less, the Greek idea of the Fates weaving and preparing all events on earth, but here-- in Muir's rendering-- is nothing "fatalistic" about the transaction: it is instead harmonious and peaceful.
     "That," Theseus tells us, "was the real world; I have touched it once, / And now shall know it always." The similarity to mystical experience in other traditions is obvious, and-- in most Western cultures-- will lead many readers to assume that Muir is referring metaphorically to a Christian conversion or visionary experience, especially as he goes on to have Theseus call the maze experience "the lie" and "the wild-wood waste of falsehood." And then he notes, in the most cliched and simplistic imagery of the poem, "I'd be prisoned there / But that my soul has birdwings to fly free." Weak rhetoric notwithstanding, the certainty he expresses must have sounded a deep chord in editor Eliot's heart. And so too, I think, would the poem's final turning in the maze, the concluding stanza--

    Oh these deceits are strong almost as life.
    Last night I dreamt I was in the labyrinth,
    And woke far on. I did not know the place.

     Thus Muir, in a poem avowedly about hope and metaphysical certitude, both begins and ends in confusion and despair, and the abrupt slap to the face of these simple lines calls the preceding certitudes into doubt. Furthermore, even the simplicity here is complicated by Muir's ambiguity. Did the waking of the last line occur within the dream, or was it the end of the dream? And does "far on" mean "far on" into or out of the labyrinth or "far on" from the place he had fallen asleep? No matter which we decide makes more sense, we must take into account that Theseus "did not know the place" and is therefore back in the maze, at least psychologically.
     And finally, whether one decides that the doubt is real, or the faith, or both, or what exact message [if any] the poem intends to convey, is not, I think, the point. The point is the journey the reader has been on with Theseus, a journey that has partaken of both faith and doubt, both the timeless and the timebound, and it seems to me utterly appropriate that Muir leaves us utterly unsure where we are supposed to imagine Theseus standing and how we are to interpret the hero's "message."
     Which is, oddly enough, often the effect of living one's own life.
     A poem like "The Labyrinth" is linguistically flawed, to be sure, but so masterfully intellectualized that I cannot dismiss it as a nice moment in the past that deserves to be relegated to the past. It may not quite be time for a re-evaluation of Edwin Muir's achievement, but that time ought not to be too far from us.
     Edwin Muir: "The Labyrinth," Faber & Faber, 1949.
Also worth seeking: Edwin Muir: "One Foot in Eden," Grove/Faber & Faber, 1956

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About Cooper

Cooper Renner also reviews books and engages in various critical activities for the online magazine 'elimae', under the name b. renner. He is a published poet and a very eclectic fellow.