Week 498: The Combat, by Edwin Muir

This week’s poem by the Scottish poet Edwin Muir (1887-1959) is a rather strange one, even cryptic. What exactly are these combatants? Did Muir have some specific allegorical intent? Could he be thinking, for example, of some smaller country being invaded by its more powerful neighbour, and simply refusing to surrender or die? And so ‘The killing beast that cannot kill/Swells and swells in its fury till/You’d almost think it was despair’. Remind you of anything? But I think it more likely that Muir, with his Christian faith, intended the poem simply as a parable of the eternal struggle between evil, which can seem to have on its side, in Auden’s phrase, ‘the mass and majesty of this world, all/That carries weight and always weighs the same’, and good which can sometimes seem able to offer no more than a passive endurance.

The Combat

It was not meant for human eyes,
That combat on the shabby patch
Of clods and trampled turf that lies
Somewhere beneath the sodden skies
For eye of toad or adder to catch.

And having seen it I accuse
The crested animal in his pride,
Arrayed in all the royal hues
Which hide the claws he well can use
To tear the heart out of the side.

Body of leopard, eagle’s head
And whetted beak, and lion’s mane,
And frost-grey hedge of feathers spread
Behind — he seemed of all things bred.
I shall not see his like again.

As for his enemy there came in
A soft round beast as brown as clay;
All rent and patched his wretched skin;
A battered bag he might have been,
Some old used thing to throw away.

Yet he awaited face to face
The furious beast and the swift attack.
Soon over and done.  That was no place
Or time for chivalry or for grace.
The fury had him on his back.

And two small paws like hands flew out
To right and left as the trees stood by.
One would have said beyond a doubt
That was the very end of the bout,
But that the creature would not die.

For ere the death-stroke he was gone,
Writhed, whirled, into his den,
Safe somehow there.  The fight was done,
And he had lost who had all but won.
But oh his deadly fury then.

A while the place lay blank, forlorn,
Drowsing as in relief from pain.
The cricket chirped, the grating thorn
Stirred, and a little sound was born.
The champions took their posts again.

And all began.  The stealthy paw
Slashed out and in.  Could nothing save
These rags and tatters from the claw?
Nothing.  And yet I never saw
A beast so helpless and so brave.

And now, while the trees stand watching, still
The unequal battle rages there.
The killing beast that cannot kill
Swells and swells in his fury till
You’d almost think it was despair.

Edwin Muir

6 thoughts on “Week 498: The Combat, by Edwin Muir

  1. This is a strikingly apposite poem David, with Putin’s relentless and frustrated war on Ukraine – so well chosen, even though you are probably right about Muir’s intention.

  2. “I accuse / The crested animal in his pride” – I expose the crimes of the crested animal? “paws” don’t sound frightening – but they are stealthy and they can slash. The “crested animal” is supposed to be “royal” – but its combination of animal body parts (leopard, eagle, lion, ostrich?) might be considered ill-judged? The combat “was not meant for human eyes” – but the trees stand in for human spectators?

    • ‘Ill-judged’ – well, yes, classical literature had its chimaeras, and mediaeval bestiaries delighted in improbable and sinister hybrids, many of which found their way into heraldry. So we have, for example, the griffin, with the body of a lion and head and wings of an eagle, and the manticore, with the head of a human, the body of a lion and the tail of a scorpion. I don’t know if Muir was basing his composite on any particular such creature.

      I think that in this case the ‘paws’ are meant to be pathetic and ineffectual, standing in contrast to the crested beast’s ‘claws’, as emphasized by their human-like appearance and the way they fly out ‘to right and left’, as in some gesture of almost but not quite submission.

  3. Hi David, I got confused about the “paws” and the “claws”. The “claws” belong to the crested animal – but I was tempted to think that the paws have the claws and belong to the crested animal, and the feet of the battered bag (if it has any) aren’t mentioned in the poem? The “paw” is stealthy and slashes, so it belongs to the crested animal? But your point about the “small paws” in verse 6 sounds good. So the “paws” in verse 6 belong to the battered bag and the “paw” in the penultimate verse belongs to the crested animal?

    • I see your confusion, but I can only say that I have always taken the ‘small paws’ in stanza 6 to belong to the ‘soft round beast’, which I picture as rather like a hedgehog without even the defensive prickles, but the ‘stealthy paw’ in stanza 9 to belong to the ‘crested beast’. This reuse of ‘paw’ is perhaps slightly unfortunate, but we are after all told that the crested beast has the body of a leopard, and it would make no sense to describe a leopard’s paws as ‘small’, whereas stealthy and slashing certainly fits the bill. I rest my case!

  4. Yes I think that’s the best reading. As an aside, the sentence containing “small” seems (almost) ambiguous to me. Leave out “small” and the sentence could fit almost-submitting paws (belonging to the battered bag) or attacking paws (belonging to the crested animal)?

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