OccupationCritic, Poet, Translator, Writer
Birth Date1887CE May 15th
Birth PlaceDeerness, United Kingdom
Death PlaceCambridgeshire, United Kingdom
Edwin Muir, born 15 May 1887, spent his early childhood on a 100-acre farm in a remote farming community on a small island in the Orkneys. His parents, James and Elizabeth Muir (née Cormack), were gentle, kind, and religious people, as he describes them in his Autobiography, who brought two daughters and four sons into the world, of which Edwin was the youngest son. Growing up on a vast, pre-industrial farm, winter evenings felt expansive to Edwin, and were filled with his father’s storytelling, his mother’s singing, and his brothers’ playing of the fiddle and the melodeon (Butter 2). As a child, he felt a deep sense of oneness with the rich ecological world around him, later describing “the original vision of the world” he experienced as a child as:
a state in which the earth, the houses on the earth, and the life of every human being are related to the sky overarching them; as if the sky fitted the earth and the earth the sky. Certain dreams convince me that a child has this vision, in which there is a completer harmony of all things with each other than he will ever know again. (Autobiography 33)
His sense of wholeness was not to last. At age six, he believed himself responsible (erroneously) for a neighboring farmer’s painful death, which led to a period of alienating guilt, fear, and isolation (Butter 10).
The family moved multiple times during Muir’s childhood, eventually to Glasgow to try to make a better living, but the move resulted in great hardship for the whole family. Particularly for his father, it proved simply too difficult for many of them to switch from the rural, community-oriented way of life to the danger and disease of urban living. In the five years that followed the move, Edwin lost both of his parents, as well as two of his three brothers. He also witnessed the immense squalor of the Glasgow slums at the turn of the century, all of which left a deep impression. During his time in Glasgow, Edwin worked in a variety of unpleasant industrial jobs, including as an office boy in a law office, in a publishing office, in a beer-bottling firm, and as a clerk in a bone factory that received bones covered in maggots from all over Scotland and turned them into charcoal and grease (Butter 10).
In Glasgow, Muir became a fervent socialist, which he would remain throughout his life. He joined the Clarion Scouts and kept company with a group known as “the intellectuals” who discussed everything—“biology, history, sex, comparative religion, even theology” (Butter 9)—on walks in the countryside. It was through this group that Muir discovered Bergson, Conrad, Forster, Joyce, Lawrence and other early modernist thinkers and writers. He also discovered Nietzsche and would have great difficulty reconciling his Nietzscheanism and his socialism. During this period, Muir was exploring the world intellectually and began writing poetry and literary criticism, but was “lonely and unhappy,” and “not far indeed from nervous collapse” (Butter 10).
In 1918, he met Willa Anderson who quickly became a great support to him personally and professionally. They married a year after meeting. He later wrote that he might not have pursued his calling in writing were it not for Willa, adding: “My marriage was the most fortunate event in my life” (Autobiography 154). Just before he met Willa in 1918, George Allen and Unwin Limited of London had published his first book, We Moderns, under his pseudonym of “Edward Moore.” The book is a collection of aphorisms from his contributions to The New Age and was published in the United States the following year with an introduction by H. L. Mencken. During these early years of their marriage, Muir worked as an assistant to A.R. Orage on The New Age, wrote book reviews for The Athenaeum,and wrote drama reviews for The Scotsman. With Willa’s encouragement, Edwin also underwent a course of psychoanalysis, which was deeply challenging, but helped him confront and release past conflicts (Butter). He parted ways with his Nietzscheanism as a result of internal healing.
The following four years were some of the most pleasurable of his adult life. He and Willa lived in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, and Austria. He continued to write articles for The New Age and for the American periodical, The Freeman. Willa and Edwin began to work together during this time, translating German texts into English, for which they remain well-known, including Franz Kafka’s Parables, The Trial, The Castle, and In the Penal Settlement: Tales and Short Pieces, which includes “The Transformation,” or “The Metamorphosis” as it is called in the American edition (Phillips). This period allowed Edwin to heal substantially from the traumatic years of his young adulthood in Glasgow. At age 35, with restored confidence, inner peace, and inspiration, Edwin began to come into his métier as a poet, though it took some time for him to master his craft. He and Willa returned to England in 1925, where they would live for the better part of ten years. Also in 1925, Edwin Muir published First Poems with the Hogarth Press, with whom he would publish exclusively for the next three years, including Chorus of the Newly Dead (1926), Transition: Essays on Contemporary Literature (1926), The Marionette (1927), and The Structure of the Novel (1928). As Helen Southworth discusses in “The Woolfs, Hogarth and Working-Class Voices,” Leonard Woolf saw in Muir a “real” (working-class, non-elite) person of great talent who did “the kind of writing for which the Hogarth Press existed” (Southworth 207). “He did not just ‘write poetry,’” Woolf writes in Downhill All the Way, “the sap of poetry was in his bones and veins, in his heart and brain” (as qtd. in Southworth 208).
In 1927 the Muirs moved to Dormansland, Surrey, UK and had their only child, Gavin. In the same year, Edwin’s The Marionette was published. They struggled to make a living as freelance writers and took on more work translating from German, including The Sleepwalkers: A Trilogy by Hermann Broch, published in 1932. (In 1959, they would win the inaugural Johann-Heinrich-Vost prize for outstanding achievement in German translation, though Willa’s journal would later reveal that she alone was behind most of their translating efforts—see the MAPP entry on Willa Muir.) During this period of their lives, Edwin published three volumes of poetry, three novels, three books of criticism, a biography of John Knox, and Scottish Journey. When not being published by Hogarth Press, Edwin worked mostly with London-based publishers including Jonathan Cape, Heinemann, J.M. Dent & Sons, S. Nott Limited, Cresset Press, Harrap, and Faber. Though he is often posthumously celebrated for his poetry, his literary output in the form of miscellaneous reviews and commissioned books is voluminous, and while living, he was probably best known as a critic of contemporary fiction to the British reading public (Mellown 23). Virginia Woolf quoted Muir’s review of The Years in her diary, writing “E.M. says The Years is dead and disappointing….All the lights sank; my reed bent to the ground. Dead and disappointing—so I’m found out and that odious rice pudding of a book is what I thought it—a dank failure” (Woolf as qtd. in Mellown 28).
In 1946, Edwin was appointed Director of the British Council and the Muirs returned to Prague, moving to Rome not long after, a city which moved Edwin deeply. In 1950, the couple once again returned to Scotland where Edwin served as warden of Newbattle Abbey College, an adult education center in Dalkieth. In 1955, they spent a year at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, where Edwin was appointed Norton Professor of Poetry. Following this appointment, the couple returned to England and bought a home in Cambridgeshire, UK. Edwin died there in 1959.
Edwin Muir’s poetry improved over the course of his lifetime, with his lasting reputation as a poet today resulting largely from poems published in The Labyrinth (1949), One Foot in Eden (1956), and the posthumous Collected Poems (1960, 1963). In these later works, his lifetime spent feeling, observing, and thinking deeply, and writing what he found, coalesced most effectively into lasting works of art. He is appreciated for his ability to “see into the life of things” and to translate his visions into “simple, direct language” (Mellown 128).
As one biographer-reviewer of Muir’s writes,
The broken world of central Europe presented in many respects some of the worst tragedies of modern European life, tragedies whose horror Kafka was to reflect in his novels; and from the fragments of this broken civilization, Muir went on to create a body of language that serves some of the needs of myth and by its very nature pays tribute to the sacred. If one can speak of Kafka as presenting the most extreme types of psychological nightmares, then one can speak of Muir as providing, often, just the opposite. (Phillips 25)
Deeply concerned with goodness and how to live properly and meaningfully in the ruptured world of early 20th century Europe, Muir offers through his oeuvre a vision for a spiritually rich modern life.
Butter, Peter. Edwin Muir. New York, Grove, 1962.
Butter, Peter H. Edwin Muir: Man and Poet. New York, Barnes & Noble, 1967.
Christianson, Aileen. "Muir, Edwin (1887–1959), poet and literary critic." Oxford Dictionary of
National Biography. 2004-09-23. Oxford University Press. Date of access 21 Dec. 2017,
“Hogarth Press Publications, 1917-1946: Duke University Library Holdings.” Hogarth Press
Publications, Duke University Library Holdings,
“Johann-Heinrich-Voß-Preis.” Deutsche Akademie Für Sprache Und Dichtung - Awards –
Johann-Heinrich-Voß-Preis - Willa Muir - Acceptance Speech,
Mellown, Elgin W. Edwin Muir. Boston, Twayne, 1979.
Muir, Edwin. An Autobiography. New York, Seabury Press, 1968.
Phillips, Michael J. Edwin Muir: a Master of Modern Poetry. Hackett, 1978.
Southworth, Helen. Leonard and Virginia Woolf, the Hogarth Press and the Networks of
Modernism. Edinburgh University Press, 2010.
Woolf, Leonard. Downhill All the Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919-1939. Readers
Union Hogarth, 1968.
Bibliography of Edwin Muir’s Written Works
We Moderns: Enigmas and Guesses, under the pseudonym Edward Moore, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1918
Latitudes, New York, B. W. Huebsch, 1924
First Poems, London, Hogarth Press, 1925
Chorus of the Newly Dead, London, Hogarth Press, 1926
Transition: Essays on Contemporary Literature, London, Hogarth Press, 1926
The Marionette, London, Hogarth Press, 1927
The Structure of the Novel, London, Hogarth Press, 1928
John Knox: Portrait of a Calvinist, London, Jonathan Cape, 1929
The Three Brothers, London, Heinemann, 1931
Poor Tom, London, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1932
Six Poems, Surrey, Samson Press, 1932
Variations on a Time Theme, London, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1934
Scottish Journey London, Heinemann in association with Victor Gollancz, 1935
Social Credit and the Labour Party, London, S. Nott Limited, 1935
Scott and Scotland, Edinburgh, Polygon, 1936
Journeys and Places, London, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1937
The Present Age from 1914, London, Cresset Press, 1939
The Story and the Fable: An Autobiography, London, Harrap, 1940
The Narrow Place, London, Faber, 1943
The Scots and Their Country, London, published for the British Council by Longman, 1946
The Voyage, and Other Poems, London, Faber, 1946
Essays on Literature and Society, London, Hogarth Press, 1949
The Labyrinth, London, Faber, 1949
Collected Poems, 1921–1951, London, Faber, 1952
An Autobiography, London : Hogarth Press, 1954
Prometheus, illustrated byJohn Piper, London, Faber, 1954
One Foot in Eden, New York, Grove Press, 1956
New Poets, 1959 (edited), London, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1959
The Estate of Poetry, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1962
Collected Poems, London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1965
The Politics of King Lear, New York, Haskell House, 1970
Selected Letters of Edwin Muir, London, Hogarth Press, 1974
Selected Translations by Willa and Edwin Muir
Power by Lion Feuchtwanger, New York, Viking Press, 1926.
The Ugly Duchess: A Historical Romance by Lion Feuchtwanger, London, Martin Secker, 1927.
Two Anglo-Saxon Plays: The Oil Islands and Warren Hastings, by Lion Feuchtwanger, London, Martin Secker, 1929.
Success: A Novel by Lion Feuchtwanger, New York, Viking Press, 1930.
The Castle by Franz Kafka, London, Martin Secker, 1930.
The Sleepwalkers: A Trilogy by Hermann Broch, Boston, MA, Little, Brown & Company, 1932.
Josephus by Lion Feuchtwanger, New York, Viking Press, 1932.
The Great Wall of China and Other Pieces, 1933.
The Trial, 1935
Salvation by Sholem Asch, New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1934.
The Hill of Lies by Heinrich Mann, London, Jarrolds, 1934.
Mottke, the Thief by Sholem Asch, New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1935.
The Unknown Quantity by Hermann Broch, New York, Viking Press, 1935.
The Jew of Rome: A Historical Romance by Lion Feuchtwanger, London, Hutchinson, 1935.
The Loom of Justice by Ernst Lothar, New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1935.
Night over the East by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, London, Sheed & Ward, 1936.
America by Franz Kafka, 1938
The Penal Colony (including The Judgment and The Metamorphosis) by Franz Kafka, 1948.
The Trial by Franz Kafka, London, Martin Secker, 1937, reissued New York, The Modern Library, 1957.