Sunday, August 30, 2015

Writers on Reading

from Poetry of the Second World War

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.

Edwin Muir (15 May 1887 – 3 January 1959) was an Orcadian poet, novelist and translator, born on a farm in Deerness, a parish and peninsula in Mainland, Orkney. He is remembered for his deeply felt and vivid poetry in plain language with few stylistic preoccupations.  He moved to Glasgow but was not satisfied as this extract from his diary suggests:
"I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two-days' journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. No wonder I am obsessed with Time." (Extract from Diary 1937–39.)

Poetry of the Second World War: An International Anthology, Desmond Graham, ed. Chatto & Windus, Lond, 1995.


Brian Joseph said...

I really like the verse that you posted. I also really like that quotation.

As someone who often decries industrialization in favor of nature and simplicity I can at least empathize. One can imagine the cultural shock that Muir experienced when he moved from Orkney.

James said...

I was really taken by Muir's reference to Boswell and Tolstoy, especially since I have recently reread The Death of Ivan Ilych. Culturally he seems to be a voice from the nineteenth century.