Edwin Muir’s big dream

The poet Edwin Muir had this big dream many years ago, but dreams are timeless and it seems to speak to our contemporary situation and the threatened extinction of our fellow creatures and ultimately ourselves.

Muir sees the dream as about our blood-guiltiness towards animals and our vision of a day when humans and other species will live in friendship – when the lion will lie down with the lamb. In the dream Muir is asleep but wakened by a man standing by his bed wearing a long robe falling about him in motionless folds. Muir writes that the light that filled the room came from the man’s hair, which rose, burning ‘like a motionless brazier’. Muir follows the man through a cloister out into the street, and then to a field where it becomes early morning.

‘As we passed the last houses I saw a dark, shabby man with a dagger in his hand; he was wearing rags bound round his feet, so that he walked quite soundlessly; there was a stain as of blood on one of his sleeves; I took him to be a robber or a murderer and was afraid. But as he came nearer I saw that his eyes, which were fixed immovably on the figure beside me, were filled with a profound violent adoration such as I had never seen in human eyes before. Then behind him, I caught sight of a confused crowd of other men and women in curious or ragged clothes, and all had their eyes fixed with the same look on the man walking beside me. I saw their faces only for a moment. Presently we came to the field, which as we drew near changed into a great plain dotted with little conical hills a little higher than a man’s head. All over the plain animals were standing or sitting on their haunches on these little hills; lions, tigers, bulls, deer, elephants, were there; serpents too wreathed their lengths on the knolls; and each was separate and alone, and each slowly lifted its head upward as if in prayer.

This upward-lifting motion had a strange solemnity and deliberation; I watched head after head upraised as if moved by an irresistible power beyond them. The elephant wreathed its trunk upward, and there was something pathetic and absurd in that indirect act of adoration. But the other animals raised their heads with the inevitability of the sun’s rising, as if they knew, like the sun, that a new day was about to begin, and were giving the signal for its coming. Then I saw a little dog busily running about with his nose tied to the ground, as if he did not know that the animals had been redeemed. He was a friendly little dog, officiously going about his business, and it seemed to me that he too had a place in this day, and that his oblivious concern with the earth was also a form of worship. How the dream ended I do not remember: I have now only a memory of the great animals with all their heads raised to heaven.’

Muir was at the time in psychoanalysis but sees this dream as an ancestral dream linking to our racial collective unconscious, and a millennial dream involving the relationship between us all as creatures, where the animals are glorified and reconciled with humankind, and pointing to the way that we should live together. The tall figure of light that came to stand by the bed is Christ.