Unaccountables

Donald Davie

  • The Letters of Hugh MacDiarmid edited by Alan Bold
    Hamish Hamilton, 910 pp, £20.00, August 1984, ISBN 0 241 11220 6
  • Between Moon and Moon: Selected Letters of Robert Graves 1946-1972 edited by Paul O’Prey
    Hutchinson, 323 pp, £14.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 09 155750 X

For the rather few people nowadays who still believe that modernism was something that really happened to or in our poetry, something of which the energies are not yet spent, three names are commonly brought up to show that the modernist impetus survived in the generation after Pound: David Jones, Anglo-Welshman; Basil Bunting, Northumbrian Englishman; and Hugh MacDiarmid, Lowland Scot. The claim for Jones seems the weakest: it is advanced by Jones’s admirers, not by the poet himself, who took no interest in the question, having other fish to fry; and unlike most modernists, Jones had no patience with prosody. The claim for Bunting is not contested, and seems incontestable. As for MacDiarmid, he certainly made the claim for himself, loudly. But as in other matters on which he declared himself, the loudness is itself suspect: he goes through some modernist motions, and contrives modernist surfaces, but in ways that can seem mechanical and programmatic, asking us to take the will for the deed. And he bad not much more interest in prosody than David Jones.

Harvey Oxenhorn, in an admirably patient and respectful study,[*] points out MacDiarmid’s ‘need to provoke and convince’, and remarks: ‘As readers we are not much attuned these days to a verse of exhortation and overt opinion; where MacDiarmid’s writing offers this it is closer in feeling to Victorian than to modern poetry.’ One sees what he means; and certainly in its symboliste and Immediately post-symboliste phases, modernism was at pains to purge poetry of Arnoldian or Browningesque exhortations. But by the time modernism threw up Pound’s Cantos ‘exhortation and overt opinion’ were back with a vengeance; and most readers of the later Yeats will think that many of that poet’s opinions are overt enough, and pressed upon us with sometimes strident emphasis. So I wouldn’t agree that MacDiarmid’s hectoring of his readers puts him out of the modernist camp. Indeed it now seems clear that, much as the modernists disliked being exhorted to have noble sentiments, they disliked as much or even more that other Victorian bequest, epitomised by Palgrave’s Golden Treasury: the shrinking of all the poetic kinds into one exclusive or preeminent kind, the lyric. (Even now, or rather once again now, most readers seem to think that ‘poem’ and ‘lyric’ mean the same thing.) Down this perspective MacDiarmid’s career seems almost exemplary. I used to think, with many others, that two early collections of Lallans lyrics were the crown of MacDiarmid’s poetry, from which everything that followed was a falling-off. Certainly that earliest work had a purity and a succinctness that the poet would never recover. But reading these letters, one cannot fail to be impressed by the firmness and clearsightedness with which be changed direction, the consistency with which MacDiarmid refused to remain a purely lyrical poet, and for reasons that followed the logic of modernism. One sees the same development not only in Pound but in Pasternak and in a later modernist like Czeslaw Milosz (who incidentally shares MacDiarmid’s veneration for Lao Shestov). The development is inevitable for any poet who thinks that his calling imposes on him some social responsibility. The lyrist does not recognise that, and is glad not to have the burden of it; and his admirers are likely to think that poets less disarmingly winsome are taking too much on themselves.

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[*] Elemental Things: The Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid (Edinburgh University Press, 1983).