The Castle by Edwin Muir details a past event of a castle’s overtaking through the account of a soldier who witnessed the castle’s fall, firsthand. Through the six stanzas with a constant ABAAB rhyme scheme, the narrator builds an atmosphere of confidence within the castle before the invasion, one that would lead the reader to assume the soldiers who were at the castle never suspected that such a fall was possible. With the height of the castle and its fortifications, along with the nearness of “allies” to assist, there was never a doubt in the soldiers’ minds that their status was sure, not even when logic would have outweighed their rationale.
The cruel irony is one that mirrors life, in general, should a person decide their status is too grand for anything to tear them down, and that irony involves having the ingredients for personal downfall within. If a person never looks within, the faults that can be their doom go overlooked, and their reality could crumble while they gaze outward and pride themselves on their sureness.
This is precisely what happened with the soldiers of this castle. They only focused on the strength of their physical surroundings and what was beyond the castle, but betrayal from within caused the castle’s fall. The poem can be read The Castle here.
The Castle Analysis
First and Second Stanza
All through that summer at ease we lay,
And daily from the turret wall
And friendly allies drawing near
On every leafy summer road.
These stanzas begin the process of cementing the confident stance of the soldiers as they waited without a heightened level of stress in their castle. The reason for this lacking level of stress was their confidence, meaning the soldiers were convinced that every danger that could befall them was too far away to spark concern and that they were too expertly protected by their surrounding fortress to worry.
This notion is constructed through deliberate word choices and phrasing, like Muir’s declaration that these soldiers were “at ease” as they “lay” in their castle. If they were “at ease,” they were unworried, and if they were “lay[ing],” their relaxed posture—even if it is not literal—hints a resting stance that was only acceptable if no chance of danger existed. Essentially, the soldiers felt sure that they would not be defending or fighting because the “the enemy” was “half a mile away” and “seemed no threat… at all.”
The second stanza cements these ideas by elaborating on what the soldiers were thinking. Muir expresses their nonchalance through the rhetorical question of “what… had [they] to fear” with their fortress so battle-ready and prepared, “tier on tier,” and the reader can feel their assurance that nothing dangerous could touch them. The “fear” of the “enemies” is further diminished through Muir’s word choice since “friendly allies” were “[o]n every leafy summer road” to assist. What this implies is that all threats the soldiers noticed were seen as so insignificant that to this narrator’s thoughts, the castle might as well have been surrounded by pleasantries of spring and nature.
Third and Fourth Stanza
Our gates were strong, our walls were thick,
So smooth and high, no man could win
A little wicked wicket gate.
The wizened warder let them through.
The third stanza continues in the description of why the soldiers did not need to worry about the threats around them by giving the reader further contributors to their steadfastness and possibility. The “gates,” for instance, “were strong,” and the “walls were thick,” so assuming that “no man could win” against the towering obstacles would feel reasonable. In fact, only something that could soar as high as the “tier” could bring damage, such as “a bird.” With that mind frame, the height of the castle is being used by Muir to show a level of presumed dominance over the “enemy” since that “enemy[‘s]” lack of elevation was the key reason why they could not harm or seriously threaten the soldiers in the castle.
The fourth stanza presses onward to reinforce the confidence that hovered about these soldiers by proclaiming that nothing could lure them out of the castle in which they were safe, as nothing sensible “could [the enemy] offer… for bait” due to the “brave” and “true” qualities that were represented among them. From this point of view, in total, these soldiers were confident nothing could get to them to endanger them, and nothing could draw them out of the castle into the danger.
If both of these statements had proven valid, the soldiers would have been right to feel so confident in their stance, but logic alone contradicts the concept. In order for this plan of not being drawn out to work, the soldiers would have had to never need anything that existed outside of the castle’s walls—not even food. Anything that they needed externally would have eventually brought them out of the castle, which would negate their stance of steadfastness from not exiting the fortress. Therefore, their confidence at its core is flawed.
Regardless, this concept never had a chance to be undermined because the fourth stanza ends with the beginning of the castle’s overtaking since someone—a “wizened warder”—showed the “enemy” the way to invade the fortress “through” the “wicked wicket gate.” The word choice here is vastly important since there’s such alliteration based on the letter “w.” This is particularly true given the similarity of sound between “wicked” and “wicket.” The repetition accentuates this point of fortune-turning to draw the reader into the moment, and the choice of using both “wicket” and “gate,” both of which mean “gate,” again solidifies focus on this moment through repetition. Since Muir chose to express this repetition with words that involve a “w” sound that is connected to many mysterious elements in life—like the wind, weather, and wrath—he has accomplished this focus in a manner that adds an overbearing element, like doom, to represent the overcoming of the castle by this invading force.
One thing worth noting is that the reason why this castle was overtaken was an apparent betrayal by one of the castle’s own inhabitants. Only someone familiar with the castle—someone who had access to the castle’s insides—would be able to “let [the enemy] through” in order to permit this invasion. It seems, then, that the inhabitants of the castle spent so much time being comfortable and confident against the outside forces that they allowed that confidence to blind them to what was inside.
Fifth and Sixth Stanza
Oh then our maze of tunneled stone
Grew thin and treacherous as air.
Our only enemy was gold,
And we had no arms to fight it with.
Once the change of fortune is established in that the castle was betrayed and the “enemy” could invade, things that were previously noted as strong and sure are now treated by Muir as ineffectual or problematic. Examples of these qualities are in the first two lines of the fifth stanza since the castle that was once a strong fortress became a “maze of tunnelled stone,” as if the soldiers themselves had trouble navigating their way through the halls and corridors, and those “walls” that strengthened their confidence had turned “thin and treacherous.”
While the “thin” concept could be a commentary on the change in perspective—now that the “enemy” was inside, the “walls” did not seem “thick” enough—the “treacherous” aspect refers to how that which once provided safety had suddenly become the corral that kept the “enemy” inside with the soldiers for whatever violence came. It was now the obstacle preventing the soldiers from fleeing rather than the boundary that provided them protection.
After the “enemy” was inside, the soldiers put up so poor of a fight that “[t]he cause was lost without a groan,” and “[t]he famous citadel was overthrown.” Given the apparent simplicity of this overtaking, it would seem that the soldiers’ confidence sprang from their protective barriers rather than their actual strengths and capabilities. Otherwise, their defenses against the invasion would likely have had more success.
Still, the narrating soldier mourning this loss is not willing to note a flaw in his previous mentality, instead proclaiming their fall was essentially ridiculous and that “nothing” they “could do” would have mattered because they had been “sold.” Once more though, logic contradicts this explanation as more careful consideration of what was happening within the castle would have allowed a more thorough overview of possible inward threats. Should the soldiers have taken the time to explore their inward details, perhaps they would have noticed the treachery before it happened. Instead, they reveled in the barriers that their heightened position and fortress created like nothing could break them.
This could be taken as a metaphor for a person who feels solid and stable in life, so much that they cannot fathom a scenario where their luck and fortune would run dry. That person can concentrate so fully on what is around them that they never search internally for faults capable of causing their good fortune to crumble. The moral, then, seems to be to search inward as well as outward, something that the soldier telling this tale never fully grasps as he insists he will keep his opinion that “gold” is to blame “until [his] death.”
About Edwin Muir
Edwin Muir was a Scottish poet and translator in modern history, though his writing accomplishments include more than these kinds of works. Over the course of his life, he was involved in the field of journalism and non-fiction work. He penned a biographical work of renown in addition to a number of reviews. Through these works and his essays, he left a varied portfolio of work that showcases his skill in several fields. His life was fundamentally tied to the written word, and his success in the category of art has assured his stance as a staple of twentieth-century literature and writing.