The other great poet of Orkney is of course George MacKay Brown. Between the two of them they were prolific enough, and wrote poetry of consistent quality, to fill the islands they hailed from with singing verse. Edwin Muir (1887-1959) is too little mentioned these days and, one fears, little read. If true, that is a great pity. His onetime editor and fellow poet T.S. Eliot said of him: `Edwin Muir will remain among the poets who have added glory to the English language. He is also one of the poets of whom Scotland should always be proud`. Too true. (Incidentally, we owe a massive debt to Muir and his wife Willa for their trailblazing - still in print and widely read - translations of the work of Kafka.) His autobiography is well worth anyone`s time, too. Born in the remote Orkney Isles, Muir`s poetry has some of that wild, windbown quality, a tang of the sea, an island timidity perhaps. But a mystical leaning as well. One of his poems collected here, in this nicely presented 300-page Faber edition, is the oft-anthologised The Horses, which begins:
Barely a twelvemonth after The seven days war that put the world to sleep, Late in the evening the strange horses came.
The poem hardly becomes less strange and unsettling as it goes on. Muir`s poems are of protean variety, on many topics, with a seeming penchant for the ancient world, with titles such as Troy, A Trojan Slave, The Old Gods, Sappho, Tristram`s Journey, and the marvellous The Return of Odysseus. The latter ends with the alliterative, rhythmic, rather sad lines:
She wove and unwove and wove and did not know That even then Odysseus on the long And winding road of the world was on his way.
(One wonders if a certain Beatle had once read the poem!) I love Edwin Muir`s poetry. It is real, it is robust, and it is often breathtaking, if modestly so. Here are the appropriately elegiac, typically insinuating first few lines of the brief poem Merlin. Let it end my review of a poet I heartily and happily recommend to everyone.
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 meadow and the wave?