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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.


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).