An Autobiography

The plainest of titles, though the original version was called 'The Story and the Fable', graces Edwin Muir's account of his life up until his departure from the British Council in Rome in the early 1950s.

I am re-reading it ahead of a talk on Muir that I am giving in Totnes in May at the wonderfully entitled 'Consciousness Cafe' (where I am back apparently by popular request (sic)...well, at least, the audience will get to hear some fabulous poems)!

It is a most wonderful book and were I to be cast on Desert Island Discs, it would be one of the two books that I would have to wrestle between as my choice to join the Bible and Shakespeare. (The other would be Patrick White's 'The Riders in the Chariot').

It is so for many feelings. The first would be its account of the intensity of being a child in a place where time was yet not, where every moment was sufficient unto itself, and imagined in innocence beautifully.

The second would be for its account of what it means to fall from that space. First into the pattern of self-consciousness, of recognising internal division. Second by an external expulsion from the 'paradisial' Orkney (though not without its historic failings) into an industrial Glasgow that stripped Muir of his family as they sucuumbed to illness and death in starkly short order.

Third would be for his rescue - by the communal help of cultural improvement fuelled by a resilient (now sadly faded) socialism, by the ministrations of a brilliant editor and nurturer of talent, A.R. Orage; and, most triumphantly, through the love of a great woman, his wife, Willa.

Fourth would be the searchingly honest account of a man in search of meaning, outside the scope of a recognisable tradition, yet being discovered by meaning through the faithfulness of his search and his willingness and ability to follow attentively the promptings of his experience, not least in his listening to his dreams. There is a wonderful moment when the failed convert (of his parents' hoped for Christian revivalism as an adolescent) suddenly finds himself praying, the Lord's Prayer, or, more accurately, being prayed by it and realising that he was a Christian, though of a radically inclusive kind and one never tempted to cross the threshold of a denomination.

Fifth would be his account of the making of a poet who with Yeats (and possible David Jones, in a different key) was the most imaginatively gifted English language poet of the twentieth century. If by imagination we mean what Blake meant - that faculty of the soul that reveals and embodies objective truth.

Sixth would be his commitment to the 'soul'. Human beings can only be understood as immortal beings. We only come close to comprehending the heights and depths of ourselves when we recognise this immortality.

Seventh would be the simply fact that he writes so well - with a modest, searching clarity that gently sings.


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