Neil Murray was born in Broadstone, England in 1943. His father, Myles, was a Newfoundland serviceman, and following the war he moved the family to Newfoundland, where he eventually served in Joey Smallwood’s cabinet.
Neil Murray studied at both Memorial University and Oxford, graduating with a Bachelor of Literature in 1967. He returned to Newfoundland, where he became an important figure in the local arts scene. An aficionado of Newfoundland traditional music, Murray provided moral and financial support to many traditional bands, served as a member of the St. John’s Folk Art Council, and hosted a radio show titled Jigg’s Dinner, which played traditional music from Newfoundland and Europe.
Murray was a founding editor of TickleAce, as well as an editor of The Newfoundland Heraldand The Union Forum. Though he never managed to publish a full collection, his poetry appeared in The Fiddlehead, CV2, as well as the anthologies 31 Newfoundland Poets andBanked Fires.
Murray passed away in 1988.
Poem: "Biblical Incident"
On a boundless plain of burnt sienna
Christ encountered the carrion angel.
from forty days and forty nights
of staring into those stupid eyes,
he was whisked away to a windy pinnacle,
offered the earth and everything in it.
The fiend waited.
in the bustling streets, it was business as usual.
Published in 31 Newfoundland Poets (Breakwater Books, 1979).
Used with Permission of the Author's Literary Executor.
Critical Analysis: Ambiguity in Neil Murray's "Biblical Incident"
Patrick O'Reilly (for ENGL 3403: Canadian Poetry)
In “Biblical Incident,” English-Newfoundland poet Neil Murray retells a familiar Bible story, that of Christ's temptation in the wilderness. Murray's rendition is not a faithful one: the final line refers to “bustling streets” (10), where everything is “business as usual” (10), modern clichés which thrust the action of the poem into the present day, transcending traditional notions of setting as bound and limited.
“Biblical Incident” is a brief ten lines, each of which features a single alliterative pair. The first two lines read “On a boundless plain of burnt sienna / Christ encountered the carrion angel” (emphasis added). These alliterative pairs heighten the sense of conflict and opposition between the two figures, while heavily suggesting the Anglo-Saxon prosody of which Murray was an expert (Best n.p.), extending the struggle to yet another era and locale. This apparently atemporal setting contributes to an overall ambiguity which presses down on the poem.
To those familiar with the Bible story, the narrative is simple: Christ, fasting in the desert, is met by Satan, who takes Him atop a mountain. Christ is offered the entire world if He would only renounce God and worship Satan. Christ, of course, refuses. This same action occurs in Murray's poem, but a new difficulty is presented by the narrative. Rather than the stark, unquestioned contrast between good Christ and evil Satan, Murray allows ambiguity to creep into the situation. Satan is introduced as an angel—albeit a “carrion angel” (2)—and is never referred to by name. The name “Christ,” then, becomes bold and monolithic against Satan's lower-case anonymity. The name's prominence and singularity makes Christ visibly different, a stranger, and so He must be met with some degree of trepidation.
The poem continues:
from forty days and forty nights
of staring into those stupid eyes (3-4).
For Christians, this implies that Christ had been staring into the Satan's eyes for the entire duration of his fast. The Bible itself is not always clear on when during Christ's fast Satan first appears, but the most thorough telling of the story appears in the Gospel of Matthew, which states that Satan came to Christ on the fortieth day (Holy Bible Matthew 4.1-11). Had Christ spent his fast alone, the implication would be that Satan had been secretly watching Christ, sharing in his ordeal. Here, Murray's understanding of the nuances between the Gospels allows him to exploit precise meanings to shift perspectives from Christ to Satan; his choice of general over specific language creates a lack of definition between the two characters, contradicting the opposition emphasized by the form of the poem.
It is uncertain now who has been doing the staring, who is “gut-foundered [and] giddy-headed” (3). But it is that same figure who is “whisked away to a windy pinnacle / offered the world and everything in it” (7-8). The pronoun “he” is notably lower-case, atypical for reverent references to Jesus Christ. Murray’s exclusion of the modal verb “was” in the second clause of the sentence makes the verb “offered” completely ambiguous, wavering between active and passive: Was it Christ who was whisked away, and who was offered the earth? Was Christ whisked away and in turn offered up the earth Himself? Did Satan offer the earth out of terrified desperation? The Bible story is clear. Murray’s rendition forces the reader into skepticism.
The poem ends in limbo, with “the fiend” waiting for a response (8). Precisely who the speaker means by “the fiend” has ceased to be apparent. A sudden break in that line drops the reader into the “bustling streets” (8-9). The poem ends with this abrupt, cynical punch – narrative unresolved, the reader abandoned in a world that hangs in the balance between two unidentifiable, incomprehensible sides.
Works Cited (for analysis):
The Holy Bible (King James Version). Toronto: Canadian Bible Society, 1989. Print.
Murray, Neil. “Biblical Incident.” 31 Newfoundland Poets. Ed. Adrian Fowler and Al Pittman. St. John's: Breakwater Books, 1979. 88. Print.
Murray, Neil. “Home” Banked Fires. Ed. Tom Dawe and Elizabeth Miller. St. John’s: Harry Cuff Publications, 1989. 80. Print.
---. “Five Poems” 31 Newfoundland Poets. Ed. Adrian Fowler and Al Pittman. St. John’s: Breakwater Books, 1979. 86-90. Print.
Best, Anita. “Neil Murray, 1943-1988.” The Broadside. July 2003. Print.
Paddock, Harold J. “Neil Murray: Two Poems and a Tribute.” Newfoundland Lifestyle. 6.6 (1988):11. Print.