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The Debtor

I am debtor to all, to all am I bounden,
Fellowman and beast, season and solstice, darkness and light,
And life and death. On the backs of the dead,
See, I am borne, on lost errands led,
By spent harvests nourished. Forgotten prayers
To gods forgotten bring blessings upon me.
Rusted arrow and broken bow, look, they preserve me
Here in this place. The never-won stronghold
That sank in the ground as the years into time,
Slowly with all its men steadfast and watching,
Keeps me safe now. The ancient waters
Cleanse me, revive me. Victor and vanquished
Give me their passion, their peace and the field.
The meadows of Lethe shed twilight around me.
The dead in their silences keep me in memory,
Have me in hold. To all I am bounden.


Edwin Muir, 1887 – 1959, Scottish poet (writing mainly in English), literary critic, translator and novelist. “The Debtor” was published in his 1949 collection, The Labyrinth; I am reading it in Collected Poems 1921 – 1958, 1984 edition (original edition 1960) put together by J. C. Hall and Willa Muir. I’m grateful to the editors of The Heath Introduction to Poetry (3rd. ed., 1988) for including four of Muir’s poems in their selection: I had never heard of this poet before encountering him there, and reading him now I have the strangest feeling that my entire life heretofore has been preparing me for this discovery. Have you ever felt something of this sort? I am not a poet, and the outward circumstances of my life are entirely different from Muir’s, yet I feel myself taken up in a sort of inner entrainment alongside him, as though on a tide of understanding, of affinity, that is ever moving along, outside of time. This may change, of course, as I get to know his work better, but that’s my first impression.

Over the summer I’ll post a couple more of Muir’s poems, and will say a bit more about him, based on Peter Butter’s biography, Edwin Muir: Man and Poet. In the meantime you can access a great summary (very readable and not too long) of his life and work at:

In Greek mythology, Lethe was one of the five rivers of the underworld of Hades: drinking its water caused complete forgetfulness in the drinker. Lethe was also the name of the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion, with whom the river was often identified. (source: Wikipedia)

I found two definitions usually given:
1. in archaic usage, it is the past participle of to bind (now we use bound)
2. in somewhat more current usage (probably on its way to becoming archaic too), it’s an adjective, meaning indebted, beholden; and based on that same root,

to bind: tie, fasten; attach to / on; fasten or hold together;
(passive voice) to be obligatory; be required by duty / moral or legal obligation to do something
(active) to exercise authority, impose constraint or duty upon; put in bonds, restrain
So I’ve given this feeling of being bounden / beholden some thought, and mostly have come up with unanswerable questions. Will spare you the page-long cogitations, but here is the (so far) closest approach to my conclusion:

Ok. Muir felt himself to be bounden.
But whether or not we feel this way about our own lives makes little difference: we pay, regardless. We pay with our lives. All the livings and dyings of our lives are what they (our lives) cost us. But, though the debt may be felt by us to be to what / to whom is behind, to whom / what has come before, get this: the actual payment of the debt . . . is forward! Yes! Surely that’s how it is. We pay off our debt to what is behind by paying forward into what is arriving, what is yet to come.
Wow, crazy. Time having some fun with us: binding the past and the future together, by way of us.