Edwin Muir: a Scottish poet in Prague

Edwin Muir

Literature sometimes makes for some unusual connections. What, for example, could Franz Kafka possibly have in common with the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland? To find the answer we start at the busy British Council office, just a couple of streets down from Czech Radio’s headquarters. Just after World War II, the British Council here was headed by Edwin Muir, who was born in 1887 in Orkney and grew up on the tiny island of Wyre. He is one of Scotland’s best known 20th century poets, but it is also quite possible that you will have come across his name and that of his wife Willa on the inside cover of one of Franz Kafka’s novels or stories. They translated many of his works and did much to establish his reputation in the English-speaking world. What is less well-known about Edwin Muir is the time he spent in Prague, first in the 1920s and then again between 1946 and 1949. Clarice Cloutier, who teaches literature at two Prague universities, has written about Edwin Muir’s link to this city – a link which, she tells me, is a good deal more than skin deep:

Edwin Muir
“He had come to Prague originally during a stay in different parts of Europe. He had also lived in Dresden and Rome, and he eventually came here in 1921 and stayed till 1923.”

This was just after the foundation of Czechoslovakia, so it must have been a very exciting, dynamic time in Prague…

“Certainly for him it was and culturally very interesting. He remembered that. It made a large impression on him. So he was a natural candidate to be sent back to work here at the British Council between 1946 and 1949, until just after the communist take-over.”

And while he was here he wrote some poems, which were connected with Prague – or inspired by his stay here…

“Yes, there were two poems that he wrote with specific mention of Prague. Perhaps other poems also have references, but there was one that was called Autumn in Prague, which he wrote in 1925 and then a second one that he wrote after he had left the second time. That was written in 1956.

Autumn in Prague (1925) The ripe fruit rests here,
On the chill ground,
In the sterile air,
All meanings have fallen into your lap,
Uncomprehending earth.
The stubble shines in the dry field,
Gilded by the pale sun.
The trees, unburdened, with light limbs,
Shiver in the cold light.
In the meadow the goat-herd,
A young girl,
Sits with bent head,
Blind, covered head,
Bowed to the earth,
Like a tree
Dreaming a long-held dream.
The gossamers forge their cables
Between the grasses,
So still the blue air hangs its sea,
That great sea, so still!
The earth like a god,
Far withdrawn,
Lies asleep.

Clarice Cloutier,  photo: Dušan Malota
The first thing that strikes me about that poem is that, although it is called Autumn in Prague, it does not seem an urban poem at all…

“Yes, in fact Edwin Muir had had problems with urban environments given his original move from the Orkney Islands to Glasgow. He grew up in a place that he ended up terming Eden, some sort of paradise for him.”

It was a tiny island in Orkney with just a few farmhouses and nothing else…

“Yes, and that environment was an entirely stark contrast to where he then lived in Glasgow, and that kind of split followed him in his life. He never felt comfortable any more with an urban environment. And so for him, everything needed to be overturned to the countryside, out of the city, and we see that perfectly exemplified in this poem as well. This is a trip to the outskirts of Prague.”

The poem is rural, but Muir was part of a modern circle. He became friends with T. S. Eliot, he translated Franz Kafka – he isn’t a rustic poet by any means…

“No, he’s not, but I think that part of Czech culture for a long time has been a return to nature, and if we also look at the other people he might have met at that time, there were people writing urban poetry but there was a second set of people who were talking about this very return to nature. He might well have been influenced by them.”

To many people Edwin Muir is better known as a translator than as a poet. He was, for example, the first, and one of the best, translators of Franz Kafka, another Prague writer. How did that come about?

“That came about because he had married his wife Willa, and it turns out that they had very similar translation interests. Having spent a lot of time here, he had been fascinated by Kafka’s understanding of some of the irrationality of Prague. He himself had felt so displaced that he felt a kindred spirit within Kafka and so it was a natural choice. Together he and Willa worked on the first translations of The Castle and then The Trial.”

It is fascinating that someone who grew up on an island off Scotland identified so closely with someone from the heart of a city in Central Europe. This inward isolation that they both felt creates a strange bridge...

“Yes, it’s interesting also because, despite the fact that Edwin Muir was incredibly well travelled, much better travelled even than somebody like Kafka, he kept that sense of displacement and that sense of travel, and he saw that within Kafka’s works Kafka was very much travelling within his own mind. And I think that was a second link that drew him to Kafka.”

During the Second World War, Edwin Muir started to work with the British Council in Edinburgh, and then at the end of the war he was more or less immediately sent out to Prague because of the fact that he knew the city – he’d lived here in the early 20s. He must have found a very different city from the Prague that he’d known at that time over 20 years before.

“Yes, I’m sure he found a city that was desperately trying to rebuild itself, and he experienced some of the so-to-speak golden days before things changed for decades.”

He describes very vividly in his autobiography the shock of the communist take-over in 1948.

“Yes, he does, and it’s interesting because then he was able to capture some of that feeling of a lack of stability, people not really knowing where they were supposed to go, given the regime’s new implemented rules. And he talks about that in a poem called The Cloud. He wrote it in 1956 and he put it in a book called One Foot in Eden. And it was as if he’d actually had time to digest what had gone on when he was here.”

The Cloud (1956) One late spring in Bohemia,
Driving to the Writer’s House, we lost our way
In a maze of little winding roads that led
To nothing but themselves,
Weaving a rustic web for thoughtless travellers.
Only a chequer-board of little fields,
Crumpled and dry, neat squares of powdered dust.
At a sudden turn we saw
A young man harrowing, hidden in dust; he seemed
A prisoner walking in a moving cloud
Made by himself for his own purposes;
And there he grew and was as if exalted
To more than man, yet not, not glorified:
A pillar of dust moving in dust; no more.
The bushes by the roadside were encrusted
With a hard sheath of dust.
We looked and wondered; the dry cloud moved on
With its interior image.
Presently we found
A road that brought us to the Writer’s House,
And there a preacher from Urania
(Sad land where hope each day is killed by hope)
Praised the good dust, man’s ultimate salvation,
And cried that God was dead. As we drove back
Late to the city, still our minds were teased
By the brown barren fields, the harrowing,
The figure walking in its cloud, the message
From Urania. This was before the change;
And in our memory cloud and message fused,
Image and thought condensed to a giant form
That walked the earth clothed in its earthly cloud,
Dust made sublime in dust. And yet it seemed unreal
And lonely as things not in their proper place.
And thinking of the man
Hid in his cloud we longed for light to break
And show that his face was the face once broken in Eden,
Beloved, worth-without-end lamented face;
And not a blindfold mask on a pillar of dust.

The image of the man in the field in the pillar of dust has many different associations, doesn’t it? On a very literal level you’d think of the wide open fields around Prague. There are also clear biblical references there. And there is the paradox of the man being “as if exalted to more than a man” in this pillar of dust, and yet being trapped in the dust. There are many different levels at which you can read this.

“Yes, very much so, and I think that Edwin Muir was attempting to capture the feeling of the Czechs after they had experienced World War II, then the communist takeover. They were people who were working the same fields that had been taken from them at that point, on collective farms or so, and they were trying to make the best of their situation, yet they were caught up within something that they had no control over any more. They couldn’t make it rain, so to speak, in this poem, and so these people are caught within their own dust. They longed for light to break. They longed for the situation to end, for the rain to come and for there to be clarity once again, politically and for the people themselves.”

February 1948 in Prague
That was Clarice Cloutier, whose essay on Edwin Muir and Prague won her the annual writing award of the British Czech and Slovak Association. After the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, it was not long before the British Council was forced to close down, and Edwin and Willa Muir returned to Britain after a short stay in Rome. They were to remain haunted by the memory of Prague as the poem, The Cloud, written nearly a decade later, reminds us. Edwin Muir died in England in 1959 and since then his link to this city has been all but forgotten.