Edwin Muir and Childhood, near and far

Gaw finds Edwin Muir’s memories of childhood particularly resonant…

I’m reading Edwin Muir’s autobiography, recommended here by masterly commenter Jonathan Law. As JL remarks, the account of his childhood is terrific. He seems remarkably able to inhabit a child’s perspective – I’ve only witnessed it being done as well in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

I didn’t anticipate that becoming a father, as I did for the first time six years ago, would so powerfully revive memories of one’s own childhood. It all becomes quite fascinating again; there’s a sort of dialogue going on between the childhood being lived out in front of you and the one you recall in memory. (By the way, there’s quite a lot of new fatherhood spreading amongst the people who manage this blog – congratulations Brit! and to Worm for his recent production! – so you might expect us to go on a bit about this subject, you know how it is).

In this passage, Muir denies being able to recall the particularities of the child’s vantage point, the way they lose themselves in intense observation, only to go ahead and do it:

I can still see the scarlet dress and the sailor suit; I can see the rough grey stones spotted with lichen on the top of the Castle, and a bedraggled gooseberry bush in a corner of the garden whose branches I lovingly fingered for hours; but I cannot bring back the feelings which I had for them, the sense of being magically close to them, as if they were magnets drawing me with a palpable power. Reasonable explanations can be found for these feelings: the fact that every object is new to a child, that he sees it without understanding it, or understands it with a different understanding from that of experience – different, for there may be fear in it, but there cannot be calculation or worry; or even the fact that he is closer to things, since his eyes are only two or three feet from the ground, not five or six. Grass, stones, and insects are twice as near to him as they will be after he has grown up, and when I try to re-create my early childhood it seems to me that it is focused on such things as these, and that I lived my life in a small, separate underworld, while the grown-ups walked on their long legs several feet above my head on a stage where every relation was different. I was dizzily lifted into that world, as into another dimension, when my father took me on his shoulders, so that I could see the roof of the byre from above or touch the lintel of the house door with my hand. But for most of the time I lived with whatever I found on the surface of the earth: the different kinds of grass, the daisies, buttercups, dandelions, bog cotton (we did not have many flowers), the stones and bits of glass and china, and the scurrying insects which made my stomach heave as I stared at them, unable to take my eyes away. These insects were all characters to me, interesting but squalid, with thoughts that could never be penetrated, inconceivable aims, perverse activities…

Naturally, I had to splash out on a second-hand copy of his collected poems. In this one he evokes childhood day-dreams, those uncounted minutes spent watching dust-motes, waves, clouds or swaying branches, and idly considering the mysteries.


Long time he lay upon the sunny hill,
To his father’s house below securely bound.
Far off the silent, changing sound was still,
With the black islands lying thick around.

He saw each separate height, each vaguer hue,
Where the massed islands rolled in mist away,
And though all ran together in his view
He knew that unseen straits between them lay.

Often he wondered what new shores were there.
In thought he saw the still light on the sand,
The shallow water clear in tranquil air,
And walked through it in joy from strand to strand.

Over the sound a ship so slow would pass
That in the black hill’s gloom it seemed to lie.
The evening sound was smooth like sunken glass,
And time seemed finished ere the ship passed by.

Grey tiny rocks slept round him where he lay,
Moveless as they, more still as evening came,
The grasses threw straight shadows far away,
And from the house his mother called his name.

Muir grew up in Orkney, but that was written from a very distant land.

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6 thoughts on “Edwin Muir and Childhood, near and far

  1. Brit
    December 7, 2011 at 12:44

    I recently took advantage of the power of Google Earth to retrace my daily childhood walk from my house to my primary school in Southsea. It was much, much shorter than I remembered, comically so – as a child every little inch of the route, every bit of wall you could walk along, was significant and had its own character.

    (Thanks G. Yes, I have this weekend doubled my number of daughters to two. Well, my wife did most of the work, to be honest.)

  2. Worm
    December 7, 2011 at 13:31

    Well done Mrs Brit, and good luck to all the Brits on the next stage of their adventure!

    Two lovely extracts Gaw, thankyou for sharing, I’m sure I will be returning to them again as my son grows older

  3. richardpthomas@mypostoffice.co.uk'
    Richard Thomas
    December 7, 2011 at 16:08

    I wonder whether you have come across George Brown’s poem to Edwin Muir. It seems of a piece with Childhood.

    The labyrinth:an old blind man in the centre of it with a crystal key.
    The labyrinth: towers, vennels, cellars.
    The labyrinth: a wilderness of dark doors, with one bright lintel here and there.
    Bright lock by bright lock he turns the crystal key.
    At every door, a rag of time falls from him.
    Through ghetto, shambles, graveyard he goes’
    The brightness spills out, spills out before him.
    He brings the poem to the hidden bestiary.
    The labyrinth. The labyrinth.
    He stands, a young man, at the threshold of unbearable brightness.

    The child plays, in his island, his eyes filled with the sun.
    Far back the beast lies in a pool of darkness.
    The childgoes among the sun-bright ruined stones of the labyrinth.
    (The epic is over. The lyrical echoes have not yet begun.)
    A little ship sails its horizon for ever, freighted with bales and barrels of the sun.
    Below, his father opens the door of a simple field to the golden guest, the sun.

    • Gaw
      December 7, 2011 at 16:27

      Thank you for that, Richard – I haven’t come across it before.

    • Worm
      December 7, 2011 at 16:30

      thank you for sharing Richard – another excellent poem about memory and childhood

  4. law@mhbref.com'
    jonathan law
    December 8, 2011 at 12:34

    I didn’t anticipate that becoming a father … would so powerfully revive memories of one’s own childhood. It all becomes quite fascinating again; there’s a sort of dialogue going on between the childhood being lived out in front of you and the one you recall in memory.

    That’s not only beautifully put but mirrors my own experience exactly. If it’s true that small children sometimes seem to push you into the margins of your own life, then it’s equally true that they can open up and restore parts of your experience that you assumed had been buried forever. You find yourself remembering things you’d forgotten you’d forgotten.

    At its simplest, watching your kids crawling through a row of chairs in the community centre or negotiating a field of tall grass can bring back an almost jolting sense of what it was like to be three feet closer to the ground – that feeling of living in a “small, separate underworld” that Muir describes so brilliantly. My kids are past all that now, but I can well remember the painfully mixed feelings involved in trying to shepherd a two year old to (say) the postbox and back, when every leaf, stone, and sweet wrapper along the way became an object of fascinated inquiry: utter frustration shot through with the odd glimpse of wonder. I wonder if the next stage is going to be a reliving of my teenage years, and whether I am at all prepared for that?

    Anyway, glad you like the Autobiography, Gaw. (The childhood chapters are, I suppose, the main attraction but there’s also some fascinating stuff further on …)

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