I’ve been thinking a good bit about Edwin Muir lately. Muir was born in the part of Scotland called The Orkneys in 1887, and lived there, and in central Europe, until his death in 1959. He worked steadily as a translator, and is the first person to have translated Kafka to English, but he never got much acclaim for his poetry during his lifetime.
But just now, when we’re engaged in an agonizing national exercise of accusation and refutation, allegation and contrition, Muir’s poem The Transfiguration keeps humming in my ear.
The imagery, I think you’ll agree, is beautiful throughout the poem; but it’s the final stanza that kills me, and I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read all the way through.
A transfiguration, according to those fine folks who compile the Oxford Dictionary, is a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.
Reading Muir’s poem, I hope you’ll remain hopeful, as I do, that even though no betrayal can actually be undone, it is possible to transfigure, to move from darkness into light, to enter a more beautiful or spiritual state. And furthermore, that the possibility of transfiguration — the opportunity to move from darkness into light — exists not just for victims, who must unburden themselves of accrued anger, shame, self-reproach and grief, but also for perpetrators, who must unlearn predatory behaviors, confront internal demons, come to grips with past actions, and commit to honoring the sanctity of others in the one, brief life God has granted us all here together.
So from the ground we felt that virtue branch
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists
As fresh and pure as water from a well,
Our hands made new to handle holy things,
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed
Till earth and light and water entering there
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.
We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance,
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere? Was the change in us alone,
And the enormous earth still left forlorn,
An exile or a prisoner? Yet the world
We saw that day made this unreal, for all
Was in its place. The painted animals
Assembled there in gentle congregations,
Or sought apart their leafy oratories,
Or walked in peace, the wild and tame together,
As if, also for them, the day had come.
The shepherds’ hovels shone, for underneath
The soot we saw the stone clean at the heart
As on the starting-day. The refuse heaps
Were grained with that fine dust that made the world;
For he had said, ‘To the pure all things are pure.’
And when we went into the town, he with us,
The lurkers under doorways, murderers,
With rags tied round their feet for silence, came
Out of themselves to us and were with us,
And those who hide within the labyrinth
Of their own loneliness and greatness came,
And those entangled in their own devices,
The silent and the garrulous liars, all
Stepped out of their dungeons and were free.
Reality or vision, this we have seen.
If it had lasted but another moment
It might have held for ever! But the world
Rolled back into its place, and we are here,
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn,
As if it had never stirred; no human voice
Is heard among its meadows, but it speaks
To itself alone, alone it flowers and shines
And blossoms for itself while time runs on.
But he will come again, it’s said, though not
Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things,
Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas,
And all mankind from end to end of the earth
Will call him with one voice. In our own time,
Some say, or at a time when time is ripe.
Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified,
Christ the discrucified, his death undone,
His agony unmade, his cross dismantled—
Glad to be so—and the tormented wood
Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree
In a green springing corner of young Eden,
And Judas damned take his long journey backward
From darkness into light and be a child
Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal
Be quite undone and never more be done.