While reading recently British Library correspondence files relating to the poet Edwin Muir—the 130th anniversary of whose birth will be on 15 May this year—I was struck, as I have often been, by the important part played in his development as man and poet by his contact with the life of Europe—a continent that is currently high on the agenda of many of us with a possible British Brexit in view. Orkney-born Muir first came to public attention as a contributor to The New Age magazine edited by A. R. Orage, and his first book, We Moderns (1918), initially appeared as a series of articles in the magazine. Its success was followed by an American edition in 1920 introduced by H. L. Mencken and this in turn led to his engagement as a regular contributor to the newly established American Freeman magazine. The prospect of a regular income from the Freeman gave him the courage to go adventuring in Europe—a continent of the imagination previously known to him only through books. His European travels not only led to his own development as poet but also to him bringing Europe to the English-speaking world through his translations with his wife Willa of European writers, including in 1930 the first translation into English of the German-language fiction of Franz Kafka.
Muir’s contact with Europe is significant, however, not only in a personal and literary sense, but also in a wider political context which resonates with our own early twenty-first century times. His travels in the 1920s immediately after the end of World War One, and again at the end of World War Two, tell a story of Europe itself at critical points in its history. In the 1920s, his first stop was in Prague, the capital of the new Czechoslovakia which had achieved independence as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. There he was befriended by the Čapek brothers—playwright Karel and painter Josef—who were active in the cultural life of the city. At that time, Karel was probably the best-known Czech writer internationally while through his writings and his association with Czechoslovakia’s first President T. G. Masaryk he contributed significantly to the building up of the new republic. His play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) gave the world the word “robot” and was such a success at home and abroad that in England its popularity apparently resulted in a spate of new businesses making toy robots for sale, while in Prague children “played robots” for months after its first performances. With R.U.R. and other plays of the 1920s such as From the Life of the Insects and The Makropolous Case, Čapek anticipated Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World of 1932 and Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 published in 1945 and 1949. But while all these works to some extent grew out of fears and uncertainties in a century in which advances in science and technology as well as the consequences of warfare were changing human relationships and environments, Čapek’s human-centred as opposed to ideological perspectives enabled his work to tackle such issues in ways that were meaningful in a positive way for his contemporary audiences. Čapek’s situation changed for the worse in the 1930s, with writings such as his novel War with the Newts banned by the Nazis for their anti-fascist themes. He died of pneumonia in 1938 shortly after the Munich Agreement (some said of a broken heart) and so could not be arrested when the Nazis came looking for him when they later invaded Czechoslovakia. They found his artist brother Josef, who died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but Josef’s paintings, now well displayed in the National Gallery of Art in Prague, bear witness to the creativity and promise of that new 1920s Czech Republic.
It was a very different Prague—what one might call a Kafkaesque Prague—which awaited Muir when he went there as Director of the British Council Institute immediately after World War Two. Muir had heard nothing about Kafka when he first went to Prague in the late summer of 1921; and nothing about the German-speaking Jewish inhabitants of the city, the group to which Kafka belonged. Yet Kafka’s The Castle, the book which Muir and his wife first translated into English in 1930 was both begun and abandoned unfinished during their time in Prague. Now, after years of Nazi occupation, the Prague which they had enjoyed in the company of the Čapeks seemed the “ghost of a vanished age,” as Kafka himself had described the disappearance of the old Jewish ghetto of the city. Muir had driven with a colleague across Europe to his new appointment in Prague, and in his later autobiography he described the conditions they found during their journey in terms that speak freshly today in relation to Syria and Iraq and other war zones we witness nightly on our television screens:
When we reached Germany there seemed to be nothing unmarked by the war: the towns in ruins, the roads and fields scarred and deserted. It was like a country where the population had become homeless, and when we met occasional family groups on the roads they seemed to be on a pilgrimage from nowhere to nowhere.
He continues in words which suggest a possible continuous cycle of warfare throughout human history, an idea which had become a theme of his own war poetry in the 1940s:
Few trains were running; the great machine was broken; and the men, but for the women and children following them, might have been survivors of one of the medieval crusades wandering back across Europe to seek their homes. Now by all appearances there were no homes for them to seek. (An Autobiography, 251)
The poetry Muir wrote about 1940s Prague spoke not only of the effects of the recent war, but also of the subsequent political absorption of Czechoslovakia into the Soviet sphere of influence with the consequences that meant for its people. Seamus Heaney described him as a European poet in relation to this Prague poetry; but all Muir’s writings about Europe, in prose and poetry, tell a story about a period in our wider shared European history that is still relevant to us today. On his 130th birthday, Edwin Muir is also a poet for our own time.
Featured image credit: Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1920. Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection (Library of Congress). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.