The Castle by Edwin Muir is a poem which deals with themes of arrogance and betrayal. It also touches on how greed can be ruinous, and how idleness and complacency is the death of man. This 30-line poem is made up of six quintets and has a rhyme scheme of ABAAB. The poem begins with a feeling of unfailing confidence in the safety of the castle and progresses through an invasion by enemies, and the loss of security due to greed.
The Castle | Summary and Analysis
The Castle | Analysis (Lines 1-5)
All through that summer at ease we lay,
And daily from the turret wall
We watched the mowers in the hay
And the enemy half a mile away
They seemed no threat to us at all.
The soldiers in the castle lazed around all summer and watched the groundsmen cleaning up the castle’s courtyard. In the distance, they could see the enemy approaching, but did not feel threatened in any way. These soldiers were at ease and relaxed even though they were on the job. They are expected to protect the castle but instead, they spend their time staring at other people doing work. Though they see the enemy in the distance, they do not move, and instead, lull themselves into a false sense of security.
The Castle | Analysis (Lines 6-10)
For what, we thought, had we to fear
With our arms and provender, load on load,
Our towering battlements, tier on tier,
And friendly allies drawing near
On every leafy summer road.
This laziness was a deliberate action after they had put some thought into their situation. They calculated what could possibly overthrow them and decided that they had nothing to fear. They felt that nothing could beat them because of their many armaments and shields from the outside world. The soldiers felt safe in the castle because of all the tools that were available for them that provide a defence against attackers. “Provender” means food, so they had a good amount of food stocked away as well, which reinforced their lack of motivation to do any work.
The Castle | Analysis (Lines 11-15)
Our gates were strong, our walls were thick,
So smooth and high, no man could win
A foothold there, no clever trick
Could take us dead or quick,
Only a bird could have got in.
The castle was a huge, strong building. The soldiers narrated it as having thick walls and strong gates. This meant that no man could come in from the outside as much as they tried. They believed that nothing could enter the castle, except for maybe a bird. Nobody could scale the walls nor trick any solder into opening the castle for their entry. They believed in their safety and derived confidence from the strength of the building. The assertion that only a bird could get in shows their arrogance and how impossible they think it is for someone to get in. They had no fears of losing because they were confident in the castle’s gate and walls.
Here, enjambment is used as the poet finishes a thought or phrase in more than one line. For example, the second and third lines of this quintet actually create one sentence, that is, “No man could win – a foothold there”. It shows the narrative style of this poem and removes the need for abrupt stops at the end of each line. The thought spills over to the next sentence and the story continues. It also helps to maintain the cadence and rhyme of the poem.
The Castle | Analysis (Lines 16-20)
What could they offer us for bait?
Our captain was brave and we were true…
There was a little private gate,
A little wicked wicket gate.
The wizened warder let them through.
They saw themselves as incorruptible. There was nothing that the enemy could dangle in front of them as bait that would make them open up the castle. The captain was a courageous man, and the soldiers were honest. They had no reason to fear an attack.
And yet, a small gate was opened by a wicked guard, and the enemies entered. This is the most important part of the poem. The guard betrayed the rest of the soldiers and let the enemies pass into the castle. The confidence and complacency of the soldier were destroyed because of the corruption and betrayal of the wizened ward. This shows that even if one is in a state of great comfort and relaxation, a single misstep could bring it all crashing down. The soldiers were betrayed from within, and the external attackers did not have to try to break in at all. They were given a free route into the castle because of the actions of one single man who was within the safety of the castle anyway.
Here, there is a strong use of alliteration. “A little wicked wicket gate. The wizened warder let them through. ” This sudden alliteration brings attention to the fact that it was this wicked guard who let the enemies into the safe space.
The Castle | Analysis (Lines 21-25)
Oh then our maze of tunneled stone
Grew thin and treacherous as air.
The cause was lost without a groan,
The famous citadel overthrown,
And all its secret galleries bare.
The long, strong stone walls seemed thin and perilous to them now. It was as though the walls didn’t exist anymore as the enemies found their way in. They lost the battle without a sound, which implies that they barely even fought back. They were clearly not prepared for such an attack and were happy to live in the delusion that nothing could ever change the comfort they enjoyed all summer. They did not react appropriately and so found themselves to be losers. The fortress that was so well known was quickly overthrown and all its secrets were brought to the fore. The riches and beauties hidden away in the castle were no longer safe.
The Castle | Analysis (Lines 26-30)
How can this shameful tale be told?
I will maintain until my death
We could do nothing, being sold:
Our only enemy was gold,
And we had no arms to fight it with.
And now the soldiers show their regret, as they are ashamed of the situation they found themselves in. However, they are unwilling to accept any fault and do not realize that they could have had a chance of winning had they not lazed around, and had they actually been alert as is expected of them. The soldiers insist that the battle was already lost when they were betrayed by the greed of the guard at the gate. That guard’s greed put all the soldiers into a world of trouble, and that was not an enemy they could fight. They had weapons to fight and vanquish physical enemies, but the enemies of the mind and soul caused their defeat. The true antagonist was greed, not the army marching to attack the castle.
There is a direct contrast between the soldiers’ perspective of the castle at the beginning of the poem versus the end of the poem. In the beginning, they are calm, relaxed, and see the castle as a safe haven. As the poem progresses, this safety and security breaks down due to the vice of one man, and the castle becomes a site of betrayal and loss. However, while the greed of one man may have brought the enemies in, it was the arrogance and laziness of the rest that led to the enemies reigning victorious. There is also irony in the assertion of the soldiers that “no man could win” as the castle was so strong, which was swiftly followed by the victory of the enemy army over the soldiers and their castle.
The Castle | About the Author
Edwin Muir was born on 15 May 1887 in the United Kingdom.
He was well known as a poet, writer, and also translator. He and his spouse, Willa, spent years translating the works of Franz Kafka, and other writers, into English. He pursued a career as a critic but soon began writing poetry too.
Some of his notable works are ‘Betrayal’, ‘The Labyrinth’, and ‘One Foot in Eden’. He wrote on several themes like folklore, myths, life, and death. He is critically acclaimed for his poetry, as well as his translations. Muir received honorary degrees from 5 different places and was appointed as Commander of the Order of the British empire in 1953.
He died on 3 January 1959, in the United Kingdom.