“Fragile Beauty” / Sarett

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Fragile Beauty

O molten dewdrop, trembling in the light

Of dawn, and clinging to the brookmint-blade–
A pendent opal on a breast of jade–

How came your splendor, so limpid and so bright?
How your clear symmetry? And what weird sleight

Of art suffused you with each rainbow-shade,
Captured your evanescent hour, and made

A quivering soul from fire and mist and night?

Fleeting your span! Yet I shall be content

To let the Cosmic Power that built in you

Such frail wet beauty, such luster opulent,

And such immortal life as lies in dew,

Fashion the fragile moment of my soul
In what frail shape It deems a perfect whole.

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From the 1925 collection, Slow Smoke, by Lew Sarett (1888 – 1954); his third (of five) volume of poems. He was born Lewis Zaratzsky, in Chicago, to parents recently immigrated from Eastern Europe. He led a simple yet brightly-hued life: university athlete and orator; forest ranger; professor of English and Public Speaking (his first non-poetry volume, Personal Power Through Speech, was published in 1932); advisor on Indian affairs to the Department of the Interior, horticulturalist. A lifelong lover of the natural world, he spent a decade of the new century living among the Chippewa of the Lake Superior region, the “North Country”—the forests of the land of K’cheegamee—where he worked as woodsman and guide: here he grew fully into his identity as an interpreter and poet of the wilderness. His first book of poetry, Many Many Moons, was published in 1920, with an introduction by his friend, Carl Sandburg. In 1922 a second volume, The Box of God, was published; its poems further reflect the life, legends and customs of the Chippewa.

In an article published in the Ironwood (Michigan) Daily Globe on July 7, 1926, he wrote: A civilization that makes a man unable to live with himself and his family, unable to find contentment in simple, wholesome home life close to the soil, that makes a man dependent on an artificial, hectic jazz life outside of his home – a civilization like that is tragically defective somewhere.

(Most of the above description is based on articles on two fascinating sites: UNCAP (Uncovering Chicago Archives Project), a project of University of Chicago Libraries, is “a model for discovering primary sources across collections and institutions”; Under Every Tombstone, a blog by Jim Craig, who writes, “There is a story under every tombstone . . . While photographing graves for Find A Grave or genealogy research, I have come across many interesting stories about the people buried under those tombstones. In this blog I will share some of the most interesting of these stories with you. Why? So these people will not be forgotten.”

Here are the link addresses:
undereverytombstone.blogspot.com/2016/10/the-poet-of-wilderness-lew-sarett.html
and
uncap.lib.uchicago.edu/view.php?eadid=inu-ead-nua-archon-1225&q=%22the+slavonic+offering+to+the+american%22 )
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But, speaking of . . . beauty.
There’s a passage in Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (2015 memoir/science/cri de coeur), in which he muses upon this “peculiar property of the earth, that it offers us beauty as well as the means to survive . . . a wondrous property, and it greatly moves us—as behaviourally modern humans, anyway”. (156)*
Isn’t this eminently worthy of our wonder! Are we the only species on this earth who, in our capacity to abstract, to conceptualize, to step outside of our experience, as it were, are we alone in perceiving/apprehending beauty?
And is this beauty extant outside us, “or” does it actually form within us as we look about . . . and this nexus, of course, is where my sometime obsession with objective and subjective realities springs afresh and rejoices:  an ever-renewed mystery, beautiful in itself.

But as for this moment, beauty beckons to us:  behold! Behold!…for the sake of your body and the sake of your soul.
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* McCarthy goes on to sadly observe that with the advent of modernism (late 19th century, into 20th) in philosophy and the arts, and the emerging, later, of cultural tides which reject concepts such as excellence in favour of an envisioned egalitarianism, “in more recent decades the process has gone even further, and beauty has become suspect . . . has in some quarters become bound up in ideology, it has become associated with privilege, it is seen as the plaything of those who have greater advantages, and I have found myself wondering (only in idle moments, of course) if the day might not come when to express open and unqualified admiration for an orchid, say—I mean for its beauty, its elegance and its glamour, all qualities many orchids undeniably possess—might be thought inappropriate . . .” (156-7).

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BACKWATERS
A continuing personal thought detour through the back country of my mind

Beauty, Truth, Goodness: do these refer to absolute or to relative realities?
Is there such a thing as an objective reality? If we answer, “Yes”, how do we know this?  Can we ‘prove’ it?  Doubtful that we might prove it; anything we perceive is through a subjective lens.
And, how are they related: ‘absolute’ and ‘objective’ realities; and ‘relative’ and ‘subjective’ realities? I imagine a coin, with two sides: on one side, the objective/subjective tension; on the other, the absolute/relative dichotomy. The ‘coin’ of Perception: the one side, the perceiver, the subject of the perception, the response to the object; the flipside, the perceived, the object of perception, the given.

ontology |änˈtäləjē|
(noun)
the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being

I easily lose my way in the terminology of philosophy, but a couple of days ago I stumbled through a piece by Justin Lee online which makes reference to “a participatory ontology that does not reduce Being to mere immanence, but appeals to the irreducible unity of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in the perfect simplicity of transcendent being” . . . This was at:
arcdigital.media/jordan-petersons-antidote-to-chaos-fdd39cb27527

And it occurs to me about these ‘things’, these peradventure objective realities, these “Truth, Goodness, Beauty”: perhaps they (or our idea of, our faith in, at least, their existence) are signposts granted us (by God, or the universe, or natural selection—however you conceive the source / generation of our life and consciousness) to vouchsafe with us handholds of meaning (“meaning”!) on our journey; perhaps to awaken in us (in our grateful—or desperate—response) another trio, that of “Hope, Faith, Love” . . . which, in turn, provide further strength and courage to face what is not true, not good, not beautiful in our lives. (Please don’t imagine that I would attempt to define any of these concepts; try to provide your own definition, it will be of greater value to you.)
(I’ve not yet posted T. S. Eliot on these pages, but I clearly recall him writing that hope would be hope for the wrong thing . . . Perhaps these three virtues might be subsumed by another concept . . . kindness? Another ‘coin’ of our lives, this one, the ‘coin’ of  human Being, would have volition, capacity, choice on the one side, and awareness and kindness on the other: the given, the response.)

Concepts, concepts, yes—but a concept wouldn’t exist unless it reflected our experience and our need to share it.
‘Time’ is a concept.  ‘Life’ itself is a concept.
Other creatures/beings create concepts, too; bees’ dances, whales’ songs, and all the other infinitely varied forms communication takes on in the natural world . . . but the concepts we humans might consider uniquely human are actually concepts about concepts, or concepts on top of concepts . . . which, evidently, we need to engage in our lives, to a greater or lesser extent. Hence, life, death; reality; action, repose; the true, the false; the good, the bad; the beautiful, the ugly; hope, faith, love, fear, suffering, despair, courage, gratitude, apathy; the secular, the sacred; awareness, ignorance; meaning, no-meaning; the absolute, the relative; the objective, the subjective; thinking, feeling, intuition; etc., etc., ad infinitum.
And then there is math, humor, art, music, all ‘conscious’ form-giving of the creative impulse.

In Women Food and God Geneen Roth quotes John Tarrant: “All wanting—for love, to be seen for who we are, for a new red car, is wanting to find and be taken into this mysterious depth in things.” When we are in nature, aware of the here and now of that in which we’re immersed, we forget that we ‘want’: there is enough here; now suffices. Gretel Ehrlich: “To trace the history of a river or a raindrop…is also to trace the history of the soul, the history of the mind descending and arising in the body. In both, we constantly seek and stumble upon divinity, which like feeding the lake, and the spring becoming a waterfall, feeds, spills, falls, and feeds itself all over again.” (Islands, the Universe, Home, 1991)

 

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“Letting Go” — Reblogged / Find Your Middle Ground

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Fall is the season for letting go. Shedding and releasing things that we no longer need. In doing so, its important to accept that there may be a sense of loss and sadness at this time of year. We are emotional beings after all. This also makes it a time for self compassion, nurturing and kindness. […]

via Letting Go — Find Your Middle Ground

(“The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met…”) / Dickinson

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The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met
Embarked opon a Twig Today
And till Dominion set
I famish to behold so eminent a sight
And sang for nothing scrutable
But intimate Delight.
Retired, and resumed his transitive Estate –
To what delicious Accident
Does finest Glory fit!

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Like the previous poems by Dickinson I’ve posted here, this one is copied out from The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Reading Edition), editor R. W. Franklin. He’s as true as he could be to the poet’s versions of her verses—and often this includes unusual / non-standard punctuation and spelling (as, for example, the word “opon”: not a typo, as other poems also spell it this way). Book published in 1999. A wonderful resource, always something fresh and thought-provoking to discover within its pages.
Over a century later, an echo—reaching me only now, a decade later still; here’s an excerpt from the poem, “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert:
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our
attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.

You can read this whole poem (and a few others by Gilbert, as well as an encapsulation of his life story) at thesunmagazine.org/issues/451/a-brief-for-the-defense (this poem is the last one on the page).
(Whatever you do, don’t listen to it being “read” aloud on poemhunter…I’ve only just visited the site, listened to a couple of poems, and realized that this must (it surely must!) be a computer/digital rendering of them: it is simply dreadful.)
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Where Glory and Gladness meet…there is Grace.

(“I never saw a Moor…”) / Dickinson

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I never saw a Moor.
I never saw the Sea –
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be –

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven –
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given –

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In The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, edited by R. W. Franklin, 1999.

So interesting. I wonder, is the poet speaking of a pre-conceptual knowing, a cognizance that exists deep within our very bones? . . . We know these “things”, these experiences of perception, because they have been attended to for millions of years by our ancestors: archetypes of the natural world, fractals comprising our physical reality (billowing clouds, grasses, waves of precipitation or insects or birds or fish or mosses; pink-purple florets, fields in florescence, sunlit water flecks, swards of stars, dewdrop or ice crystals at the first gleam of morning sun) . . . although God and Heaven would represent archetypal realities more social and ethical in their nature, more distinctly, uniquely human. We know them when we experience them, and when we hear their names we know them again.

(An aside re punctuation: R. W. Franklin worked many years researching, discerning, and “deferring to her custom in presentation and usage” for this publication of Dickinson’s oeuvre . . . I hope that this is the reason for the period (full stop) at the end of the first line, i.e., I hope that this is not a typo! While it seems to me a very strange place for a period (and Dickinson used relatively few periods), I suppose we must trust the proofreaders on this. So, full stop it is—and, actually, as I’ve never seen a moor either, it gives me the opportunity to pause and realize this, and reflect on it a bit, recall stories I’ve read and pictures I’ve seen, to imagine what a moor might look like, and whether I’ve encountered something / some place comparable to a moor in my own singular experience of life.)

(“He ate and drank the precious Words…”) / Dickinson

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He ate and drank the precious Words –
His Spirit grew robust –
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was Dust –
He danced along the dingy Days
And this Bequest of Wings
Was but a Book – What Liberty
A loosened Spirit brings –

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Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), American poet.
Along with her contemporary, Walt Whitman, she is now considered a founding parent of a distinctly American poetic expression—though her work was not published during her life.
Her concise and often quite cryptic verse is a perfect antidote to the inanities to which our societies and institutions tend to fall prey.

In this poem of Dickinson’s later life, the rhythm adopts the familiar metric of the hymn, 4-beat / 3 beat lines. Its content, though, is not religious or even ‘spiritual’ in the usual sense; in this contrast between form and content (of which this poem is just one, very accessible, example) is in part where her originality manifested itself.

Recent editors have thoroughly researched Dickinson’s life and writings, and strive to present her poems to us as true to the form and chronological order in which she wrote them. I’m reading her work in The Poems of Emily Dickinson / Reading Edition, edited and introduced by R. W. Franklin (1999); in the First Harvard University Press paperback edition, 2005. He writes:

Although there can be various kinds of reading editions, with different technological bases or with greater intervention in the interests of editorial taste or recognized convention, the present one follows her own practice, selecting versions that focus on her latest full effort, adopting revisions and alternative readings for which she indicated a choice, and deferring to her custom in presentation and usage. The entry into her poetry is through her idiom. (11)

2 late poems / Muir

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Nothing There But Faith

Nothing, it seemed, between them and the grave.
No, as I looked, there was nothing anywhere.
You’d think no ground could be so flat and bare:
No little ridge or hump or bush to brave
The horizon. Yet they called that land their land,
Without a single thought drank in that air
As simple and equivocal as despair.
This, this was what I could not understand.
The reason was, there was nothing there but faith.
Faith made the whole, yes all they could see or hear
Or touch or think, and arched its break of day
Within them and around them every way.
They looked: all was transfigured far and near,
And the great world rolled between them and death.

 

The Late Wasp

You that through all the dying summer
Came every morning to our breakfast table,
A lonely bachelor mummer,
And fed on the marmalade
So deeply, all your strength was scarcely able
To prise you from the sweet pit you had made,—
You and the earth have now grown older,
And your blue thoroughfares have felt a change;
They have grown colder;
And it is strange
How the familiar avenues of the air
Crumble now, crumble; the good air will not hold,
All cracked and perished with the cold;
And down you dive through nothing and through despair.

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These two poems appear in Part II, the latter part of Edwin Muir’s 1956 collection, One Foot in Eden. Muir was well-acquainted with grief and depression, but also with appreciation and joy. His long marriage to Willa Muir provided an important source of what stability he knew throughout his life. (I’ve mentioned Willa Muir several times in these posts; she was a remarkable woman in her own right, with a great ear for and adeptness with languages. She worked on translations together with her husband, and also on her own. There’s a good recent article about her on a Scottish PEN site: dangerouswomenproject.org/2016/10/30/willa-muir/ )
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Our lives are ever-shifting composites of light and dark, of hope/trust/faith and of despair/anguish/crippling depression. I imagine faith and despair to be fraternal twins—like belief and doubt, perhaps? Where the one is, there the other will be also.
We need not speak of religious faith, necessarily. As pertains to living, each of us, whatever we believe or disbelieve, embody faith when we get out of bed in the morning. Faith is my conviction (whether more or less conscious) that at this moment my continuing is worth my while; that it is ‘for’ something, that somehow it matters that I do it. My reason, as specific or vague as it may be, is as unique to me as yours is to you, but a basic trust of some sort seems the irreducible common denominator.
And when that faith feels inaccessible to me, when it ‘fails me’, when “the centre cannot hold”, I experience despair.

Who but a wasp knows the wasp’s faith, or his despair? I want “through” to be the operative word in this poem, for both wasp and human; implying an entering followed by an exiting as we dive through our lives’ seasons. (May be that it is important that we do in fact strive to “dive”, that we do our best to propel ourselves with as much awareness and freedom as possible through these seasons . . .)
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There’s a whole aspect to Edwin Muir’s writing that I’ve touched on only marginally in these posts, namely, his identification with his Orcadian roots on the isle of Wyre, a tiny island in the Orkney archipelago. His 1940 autobiography (which, on request, he reluctantly and quite austerely updated years later), called Story and Fable: An Autobiography, is held by many to be the wellspring of an ‘Orkney poetics’, a modern gestalt of a pre-theologic recognition/consciousness of the mysteries and sacred secrets embodied by the particularities of the isles’ geography and human history. Alison Gray, in her deeply-penetrating 2016 book, George Mackay Brown: No Separation, explains that “the phenomena of a many-layered Orkney are (recognized by Orcadians to be) appearances of a higher reality”; the ‘swarming symbols’ in the midst of which the people live are even now known to point to “some other place” * . . . “Muir’s ‘fable’ resonates with Neoplatonism and gives Orkney its rightful place with its metaphysical interpretation, as did Plato’s myth of the cave and his theory of forms, that the appearances in this world of shadows conceal a higher reality.” (19) This is a sacramental, mystical, mythical understanding of nature. Gray explores disparate strands of ‘lore’ whose forms continue to resonate down the ages, echoing powerfully in those who have the ears to hear and eyes to see Orkney as ‘the glory of the Lord’. She tells:
Muir sets the scene for the Orcadian movement towards an Orcadian ‘orthodoxy’, crystallising at its centre the many-splendoured facets and features that lie at the heart of understanding Orkney. This understanding is a shared consciousness of a metaphysical Orkney, the ‘heart-bread’ given expression by a ‘swarm of symbols’. . . An Orkney poetics is to emerge which can hold the forces of nature to account in a metaphysical paradigm. To do justice to God also means being true to nature. Muir’s Wyre texts, saturated with childhood memories, open out insights that are biblical and prophetic, and confrontationally so. (18ff)
Muir and the poets emerging in his wake partake of a “passion for the beauty that has become an Orkney theophany, a ‘burning bush’ of biblical proportions. In each writer the commonality is also experienced in a growing readership who can through the writers’ ‘reverent minds’ find the joy of their intense consciousness of the reality of the spiritual world.” (23)

* Gray quotes (21) a few lines from Muir’s Fable, in which he describes new-born lambs:
Everything looked soft and new—the sky, the sea, the grass, the two lambs, which seemed to have been cast up on the turf; their eyes still had a bruised look, and their hooves were freshly lacquered. They paid no attention to me when I went up to pat them, but kept turning their heads with sudden gentle movements which belonged to some other place.

“One Foot in Eden” / Muir

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One Foot in Eden

One foot in Eden still, I stand
And look across the other land.
The world’s great day is growing late,
Yet strange these fields that we have planted
So long with crops of love and hate.
Time’s handiworks by time are haunted,
And nothing now can separate
The corn and tares compactly grown.
The armorial weed in stillness bound
About the stalk; these are our own.
Evil and good stand thick around
In fields of charity and sin
Where we shall lead our harvest in.

Yet still from Eden springs the root
As clean as on the starting day.
Time takes the foliage and the fruit
And burns the archetypal leaf
To shapes of terror and of grief
Scattered along the winter way.
But famished field and blackened tree
Bear flowers in Eden never known.
Blossoms of grief and charity
Bloom in these darkened fields alone.
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love
Until was buried all its day
And memory found its treasure trove?
Strange blessings never in Paradise
Fall from these beclouded skies.

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Below, a word-sketch of Muir teaching. It is by Ernest Marwick, one of the writers whom Muir mentored at Newbattle College, Scotland, in the early 1950s.

Lecture in the Crypt, Newbattle

Up to the window’s edge the sand-hued stone
Sun-lanterned through the leaves, affirmative of the light.
. . . Shadows flickered his face, as the soft voice spoke on
To the room’s chiaroscuro, half-day and tenebrous night.

Some chafed at those hesitant lips, impatient of pause,
Untutored to join that eye, illimitably seeing,
While the poet groped meekly for words to give hint of the cause
Which shone like light on the leaf, more light in his being.

Ernest Marwick
Quoted in Peter Butter Edwin Muir: Man and Poet, 242.

 

“Adam’s Dream” / Muir

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Adam’s Dream

They say the first dream Adam our father had
After his agelong daydream in the Garden
When heaven and sun woke in his wakening mind,
The earth with all its hills and woods and waters,
The friendly tribes of trees and animals,
And earth’s last wonder Eve (the first great dream
Which is the ground of every dream since then)—
They say he dreamt lying on the naked ground,
The gates shut fast behind him as he lay
Fallen in Eve’s fallen arms, his terror drowned
In her engulfing terror, in the abyss
Whence there’s no further fall, and comfort is—
That he was standing on a rocky ledge
High on the mountainside, bare crag behind,
In front a plain as far as eye could reach,
And on the plain a few small figures running
That were like men and women, yet were so far away
He could not see their faces. On they ran,
And fell, and rose again, and ran, and fell,
And rising were the same and not the same,
Identical or interchangeable,
Different in indifference. As he looked
Still there were more of them, the plain was filling
As by an alien arithmetical magic
Unknown in Eden, a mechanical
Addition without meaning, joining only
Number to number in no mode or order,
Weaving no pattern. For these creatures moved
Towards no fixed mark even when in growing bands
They clashed against each other and clashing fell
In mounds of bodies. For they rose again,
Identical or interchangeable,
And went their way that was not like a way;
Some back and forward, back and forward, some
In a closed circle, wide or narrow, others
In zigzags on the sand. Yet all were busy,
And tense with purpose as they cut the air
Which seemed to press them back. Sometimes they paused
While one stopped one—fortuitous assignations
In the disorder, whereafter two by two
They ran awhile,
Then parted and again were single. Some
Ran straight against the frontier of the plain
Till the horizon drove them back. A few
Stood still and never moved. Then Adam cried
Out of his dream, ‘What are you doing there?’
And the crag answered, ‘Are you doing there?’
‘What are you doing there?’—‘You doing there?’
The animals had withdrawn and from the caves
And woods stared out in fear or condemnation,
Like outlaws or like judges. All at once
Dreaming or half-remembering, ‘This is time’,
Thought Adam in his dream, and time was strange
To one lately in Eden. ‘I must see’,
He cried, ‘the faces. Where are the faces? Who
Are you all out there?’ Then in his changing dream
He was a little nearer, and he saw
They were about some business strange to him
That had a form and sequence past their knowledge;
And that was why they ran so frenziedly.
Yet all, it seemed, made up a story, illustrated
By these the living, the unknowing, cast
Each singly for his part. But Adam longed
For more, not this mere moving pattern, not
This illustrated storybook of mankind
Always a-making, improvised on nothing.
At that he was among them, and saw each face
Was like his face, so that he would have hailed them
As sons of God but that something restrained him.
And he remembered all, Eden, the Fall,
The Promise, and his place, and took their hands
That were his hands, his and his children’s hands,
Cried out and was at peace, and turned again
In love and grief in Eve’s encircling arms.

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The 20th century French philosopher Gabriel Marcel wrote: A presence is a reality; it is a kind of influx; it depends upon us to be permeable to this influx, but not, to tell the truth, to call it forth. Creative fidelity consists in maintaining ourselves actively in a permeable state; and there is a mysterious interchange between this free act and the gift granted in response to it. (Quoted in Edwin Muir: Man and Poet by Peter Butter, 248.) Such a “permeable state” seems to have been one which came naturally to Muir. Likely it’s one of the qualities that endeared people to him; many decades later I, too, feel strongly appreciative of his life and work and recognize a closeness to him on some level. It may be we are all born with a limpidity of this sort, but being in the world, somehow, very soon draws a deep opaqueness through this consciousness in many of us—as it does, suddenly, in Adam’s dreaming / “half-remembering” state, when he sees his descendants and suddenly realizes, but only fleetingly, who we all, as he is, are.

Something in us resonates with this pellucid quality in another. Perhaps it is our imagination which is prodded. One feels a strong intuition of an integrity, of a coming together of visions and of knowings into a coherent wholeness, this sense which so often evades us in the scattering forces of our daily life.

Throughout his life Muir had occasion to teach in several countries. One of his students, fellow-poet George Mackay Brown, wrote of him: He was very pleased that his students were trying to write plays and poems and stories, for he believed that only the exercise of the supreme gift of imagination could save the world from slow decay or quick disaster. He discussed our crude productions with delicacy, kindness and understanding . . . In his company all stir and fret died away . . . The students who went to Newbattle knew and loved them both—‘respect’ is too mild and neutral a word for it. (Butter 243) (The reference in the last sentence is to Muir’s wife, Willa.) Muir firmly believed that only imagination can hope to counter the escalation of impersonal power systems in societies; real communication is contingent on the receptivity-and-response which only imagination can allow. All communication between man and man, except when it is functional, a matter of business, or compulsion, or direction of work or duty, or mass action, or propaganda, is an act of imagination. (Muir, quoted in Butter 248) Having lived through both devastating World Wars and their disastrous social and political and economic preludes and postludes—all whose effects were amplified by burgeoning advances in the sciences—Muir championed the importance of the arts in encouraging the opening and strengthening of human imagination and creativity and thus the prospect of meaningful communication in society.

The viable social contract among humans requires that we seek not only causes but reasons; not only exposition and explanation but interpretation and meaning. While excellent science relies on the movement of imagination and inspiration no less than does art, it’s nevertheless the case that only an objective truth is its aim. Scientists describe our brain in terms of its physical details…a loom of electrical cells and synaptic spaces. What science forgets is that this isn’t how we experience the world. (We feel like the ghost, not like the machine.) It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness. (Jonah Lehrer in the Prelude to his Proust Was a Neuroscientist, 2007) Human beings, to be fully human, must strive to discern both objective truth and subjective truth; we need both the science and the art.
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Like “The Animals”, “Adam’s Dream” was originally published in Edwin Muir’s 1956 collection, One Foot in Eden. I’m reading it in Edwin Muir: Collected Poems 1921 – 1958, 1984 edition (1960).

“The Animals” / Muir

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The Animals

They do not live in the world,
Are not in time and space.
From birth to death hurled
No word do they have, not one
To plant a foot upon,
Were never in any place.

For with names the world was called
Out of the empty air,
With names was built and walled,
Line and circle and square,
Dust and emerald;
Snatched from deceiving death
By the articulate breath.

But these have never trod
Twice the familiar track,
Never never turned back
Into the memoried day.
All is new and near
In the unchanging Here
Of the fifth great day of God,
That shall remain the same,
Never shall pass away.

On the sixth day we came.

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Poem published originally in Part I of Edwin Muir’s 1956 collection, One Foot in Eden. I’m reading it in Edwin Muir: Collected Poems 1921 – 1958, 1984 edition (1960).

As mentioned in the previous post, Muir was a Scottish poet; he was born and spent his childhood on Orkney, the island archipelago north of Scotland’s mainland. Thus he is called a Scottish Orcadian poet. Most of his life however, was spent on the (European) continent, in England, and in the vicinities of Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland.

The problem (if it may be called that) of time engaged Muir’s observations as a persistent backdrop throughout his life, his perspective on it and on our relationship to it evolving through the years. Especially occupying his poetic imagination was our lives’ inherent paradoxes, and the conflicts and contradictions operating within and without us; the poet felt their impact acutely in his life’s diverse experiences.
Muir’s poetry truly blossomed in his later life: all the preceding exacting work in prose, criticism, translation, and earlier poetic efforts, the relationships he forged over years of varied employment, his lifelong sensitivity to life’s personal and social exigencies, all this experience came to slowly coalesce in his poetry during the last quarter of his life, when he was finally able to give this work more concentrated attention. (For some reason it’s considered unusual for a poet to really ‘come into his own’, to write his best poetry, later in life. I’m not sure why this should be; it seems to me that it takes a good part of a lifetime to gain the experience, technical skills, and understanding that would go into great poems. The Muirs spent much of their lives in various locations on the continent, never distant from the colossal political and social upheavals of the 30s and 40s. Working in Prague as Director of the British Institute there, he was in the midst of the February 1948 Communist putsch wherein “…a people whom Muir had seen forgetting the fears bred by the German Occupation were once again engulfed in an atmosphere of terror and mutual suspicion…The atmosphere of hostility and fear was shattering to him. Many of his friends fled the country; others were imprisoned; for those that remained and were at large he could do nothing since contact with him would be dangerous to them.” (from Peter Butter’s biography of Muir, Edwin Muir: Man and Poet, 1966) After finally leaving Prague both he and, particularly, his wife succumbed to a many-weeks-long period of illness. In a 1948 letter to a friend Muir writes, “…I feel at present that I would like leagues and leagues of leisure, for as one gets older the questions that life asks seem to become vaster and vaster and stretch into endlessness. I have got some comfort in the last few weeks in the thought that there is forgiveness in the universe, that everything is not a mere play of forces and wills: I am beginning to understand faintly the Christian idea of forgiveness, very faintly, for it is surely one of the greatest of all ideas…” (quoted in Butter, 213).