Monday, 21 November 2011

'Our Only Enemy Was Gold'

The Castle

All through that summer at ease we lay,
And daily from the turret wall
We watched the mowers in the hay
And the enemy half a mile away
They seemed no threat to us at all.

For what, we thought, had we to fear
With our arms and provender, load on load,
Our towering battlements, tier on tier,
And friendly allies drawing near
On every leafy summer road.

Our gates were strong, our walls were thick,
So smooth and high, no man could win
A foothold there, no clever trick
Could take us, have us dead or quick.
Only a bird could have got in.

What could they offer us for bait?
Our captain was brave and we were true....
There was a little private gate,
A little wicked wicket gate.
The wizened warder let them through.

Oh then our maze of tunneled stone
Grew thin and treacherous as air.
The cause was lost without a groan,
The famous citadel overthrown,
And all its secret galleries bare.

How can this shameful tale be told?
I will maintain until my death
We could do nothing, being sold;
Our only enemy was gold,
And we had no arms to fight it with.

Edwin Muir (1887-1959)

I haven't posted any poetry for a while, and since I'm quite busy at the moment, this seems a good time. 'The Castle' by Edwin Muir is one of my favourites - I always think of it as summer comes on. Muir was a much under-rated Scottish poet of the 20th century (although not a Scottish nationalist). His simplicity is artful. As a young man (14 y.o. actually; boys became men much younger in previous generations - even my own father, born two generations after Muir, was working full time by 15) Muir emigrated from one of the most primitive rural societies in the Western world - the Orkney Islands - to one of its most industrialised cities - Glasgow, in search of employment, a move which profoundly shaped his life and poetry:

"I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two day's journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. No wonder I am obsessed with Time." (Extract from Diary 1937-39.)

Muir, an autodidact, did many of the first translations of Kafka into English with the assistance of his wife Willa; they were so good some of them are still in print. He also wrote fiction and non-fiction, managing to eke out an existence as a writer, which, however insecure it might have been, must have been infinitely preferable to the brutal existence of a factory worker in 20th C. Glasgow. Muir's contemporary, T.S. Eliot, thought highly enough of his work to edit a volume of his poems for Faber & Faber; if you can track down a copy it will repay your effort many times over.

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