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Sister to Life

Dreamed 1920 (though about events in 1903) by Edwin Muir.

Source: The Story and the Fable by Edwin Muir (1940), telling his childhood on the island of Wyre in the remote, timeless Orkney Islands off Scotland, then suddenly being orphaned and struggling to survive in Glasgow as his siblings died too. By story Muir means the events of the material world; by fable, his inner or spiritual life.


...was a strange and beautiful one. Though it was ostensibly about one of my sisters, it really went back to my mother's death, the dream making some kind of substitution. I dreamt I was sitting in my lodgings in Glasgow, when my eldest brother appeared at the door dressed in black. Without entering he said in a careful voice, as if he were uttering a secret, "Come with me; she is dead." I rose more in wonder than in grief and followed him.

We came to a house which I did not know, and entered a great, high room. The smooth floor stretched away before me, and everything glittered in the light from two tall, curtainless windows which reached from floor to ceiling. Islanded in the centre of the room was a little bed, more like a child's cot than a bed, round which a few men in well-cut black clothes were standing. On the bed or cot, dressed in white, a young woman was lying dead. The mourners looked up respectfully when I appeared in the doorway, and stood back a little, so that I might take my place by the bedside.

But instead--all this seemed to happen of itself, without my will--I walked over to the mantelpiece, which was near the door, leaned my elbow on it, and bowed my head on my hand. Standing like this with my back half turned to the others, I began to cry; the tears streamed down my face; this went on for a long time; I did not try to stop it.

At last my tears ceased of themselves, and, as if the moment had come now, I walked over to the bed through the silent mourners. Sitting down on a chair, I looked at my dead sister. She was very pale; the lines of the nose and the chin seemed so fragile that a breath might dissolve them; the eyes were closed.

As I looked I thought I saw a faint glow tinging her cheeks; it deepened, and in a moment she was burning in a fire. The glow appeared to come from within her; but I knew that it flowed from a warm, limpid, and healing point in my own breast. Her eyes fluttered and opened, she held out her hand, and I turned to the others, crying, "Look! I have brought her to life!" But at these words a terrible fear came over me, and I hastily added, as if to blot them out and destroy them, "Look! God has brought her to life!"


I dreamt this in Germany seventeen years after my mother's death, when my memory of her, which had once been unendurable, could be borne again, and she actually came to life in my mind. In the dream I wept for her the tears which I could not weep at her death, when life seemed to be ruled by an iron law, the only response to which was a stupefied calm.

In Germany I was enjoying the first few months of leisure and freedom which I had known since I went to work at fourteen. I looked back on my life for the first time and tried to form an intelligible picture of it, reliving consciously what I had once lived blindly, hoping in this way to save something of myself and realize what I was. Some months before I had been psychoanalysed in London, and the analysis had violently thrown up a great deal of my past which I had tried to keep buried. By this time, too, I had come under the influence of a friend of mine, a remarkable man, who had rekindled my love of poetry and brought back my belief in the immortality of the soul. Probably all these things came into the dream.

But there is a great area of my life during my first five years in Glasgow with which I can do nothing: it lies there like a heap of dull, immovable rubbish... mere grimy desolation. If I were a self-made man perfectly satisfied with what I had made I could find a meaning in these years, and congratulate myself that I am better, or at least better off, now than I was then. But the complacency which can do this shocks me, and when I read the self-told tales of successful business-men and Labour leaders who wear their youth as if they were flaunting a dingy decoration, and think it is a prodigious moral feat to have risen a little in the world, to be a little further above the slums, I feel ashamed. The knowledge that such years existed for me, and that they exist still for millions of people, is more than enough; and that a few men have escaped from them to become Members of Parliament or business magnates or trade-union leaders is at best a romantic story with a happy ending, while to the overwhelming majority the story ends as it began, and their lives remain to their death a waste of rubbish, second-rate and second-hand, raked from the great dust-heap...

--Edwin Muir


In both this dream and its twin sister, The Goddess of Wyre, Muir finds (quite without conscious will) a sunlike heart-glow inside him that brings a woman to life. I can't help feeling she's less his mother or sister or pre-Christian goddess than his own soul, in a cocoon or coma through those terrible years, awakening at last.

--Chris Wayan

LISTS AND LINKS: sisters - mothers - death - revenants and resurrections - rescues - miracles - transcendent & shamanic dreams - souls - a glow from Muir's heart brings a very different girl to life, in The Goddess of Wyre - more Edwin Muir - wealth, poverty and social class - Glasgow, Scotland

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