Muir’s early life was struck with tragedy when first his family lost their Orkney Island farm, and then two of his brothers and parents died. Adrift in Glasgow in his early teens Muir was forced to do menial jobs. By 1916, his interest in poetry and left-wing politics became evident. His first book, We Moderns, a volume of essays on contemporary issues, was published in 1918. In that same year he met his future wife, Willa Anderson, who as Willa Muir, became a well-known novelist. The two collaborated on translating more than forty novels from German, including those of Franz Kafka. First Poems, a collection of Muir’s poetry was released in 1925. In 1946 Muir became director of the British Council. In 1955 he was named the Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard. He died in 1959.
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 in, 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 tunnelled 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.