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.
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/ )
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 . . .)
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—and especially, pre-Reformation—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.