Week 148: The Good Man in Hell, by Edwin Muir

I think that this poem by the Scots poet Edwin Muir (1887-1959) is in its way a fine, eloquent piece; the problem I have with it is that in the world as we observe it, more’s the pity, things don’t really work like that. The evil of the concentration camps, for example, was ended not by the patient, passive virtue of those who found themselves in those manmade versions of Hell, but by the application of superior lethal force from outside. But maybe Muir would have said that he was concerned with more than the world as we observe it.

The Good Man in Hell

If a good man were ever housed in Hell
By needful error of the qualities,
Perhaps to prove the rule or shame the devil,
Or speak the truth only a stranger sees,

Would he, surrendering quick to obvious hate,
Fill half eternity with cries and tears,
Or watch beside Hell’s little wicket gate
In patience for the first ten thousand years,

Feeling the curse climb slowly to his throat
That, uttered, dooms him to rescindless ill,
Forcing his praying tongue to run by rote,
Eternity entire before him still?

Would he at last, grown faithful in his station,
Kindle a little hope in hopeless Hell,
And sow among the damned doubts of damnation,
Since here someone could live, and live well?

One doubt of evil would bring down such a grace,
Open such a gate, and Eden could enter in,
Hell be a place like any other place,
And love and hate and life and death begin.

Edwin Muir

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