The remote Scottish Orkney Islands have a remarkably strong cultural presence for their few bleak acres of windswept turf.
As it happens, it is just that heritage that is being celebrated right now in the year-long series of events entitled Writing the North, “a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh, the Shetland Museum and Archives and the Orkney Library and Archive.” And one of the great Orcadian writers, the poet, novelist and cultural controversialist Edwin Muir (1887–1959), happens to be available in e-book form completely for free from Project Gutenberg Canada in an edition that showcases that institution’s strengths, his 1937 collection “Journeys and Places.”
Born on Wyre, one of the smallest of the inhabited Orkney Islands, Muir spent a pastoral childhood on his father’s farm before being forced off the land by rising rents, eventually ending in the urban Purgatory of industrial Glasgow.
From a diary extract on Wikipedia:
“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 day’s journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time.”
Muir endured some horrible years as a youth, losing both parents and working in a series of dead-end jobs before writing his way out of his hell.
Like many Scottish writers, he embraced learning and cultural sophistication without any concession to his poor origins, and became a distinguished translator of modern European literature, as well as a much-traveled cultural diplomat and academic.
In his poetry, he often drew on mythological and literary prototypes that apparently helped him work through the traumatic progressions of his youth.
Those elements are front and center in “Journeys and Places,” a collection that comes at the transition between his earlier writings and the mature collections of the 1940s and 1950s that are now regarded as among his most important.
“The Journeys and Places in this collection should be taken as having a rough-and-ready psychological connotation rather than a strict temporal or spatial one,” wrote Muir in his introduction.
Legends and archetypes naturally loom large, therefore: from Merlin (“O Merlin in your crystal cave/Deep in the diamond of the day”) to Tristan (He woke and saw King Mark at chess/And Iseult with her maids at play”); but so do historical and literary figures, from Mary Stuart (“My brother Jamie lost me all/Fell cleverly to make me fall”) to Ibsen (“The Pillars of Society/Fall thundering with his fall.”).
The verse is formal, weighty, but not ponderous or archaic, recalling some of W.H. Auden’s ballad poems without the affected jauntiness. And it definitely conveys a journey, arduous and with a definite end:
If a man
Should chance to find this place three times in Time
His eyes are changed and make a summer silence
Amid the tumult, seeing the roads wind in
To their still home, the house and the leaves and birds.
The Project Gutenberg Canada edition is presented in HTML, text and EPUB, from an original J.M. Dent 1937 edition, well structured and formatted, with all line and verse rendered properly, as far as I can tell.
And although Project Gutenberg Canada, only in existence since 2007, has nothing like the scale or the presentational finesse of its U. S. cousin, it does have some works that American Gutenberg can’t have, thanks to Canadian copyright law with its limit of 50 years after the author’s death, which put Muir and other writers like A.A. Milne, Walter de la Mare, and Wyndham Lewis, into the public domain. This is one of them. Lovers of modern poetry are warmly recommended to download it.