What happened to MacDiarmid

David Norbrook

  • Hugh MacDiarmid: The Man and his Work by Nancy Gish
    Macmillan, 235 pp, £25.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 333 29473 4
  • Complete Poems by Hugh MacDiarmid
    Penguin, £8.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 14 007913 0

In Exiles and Emigrés (1970) Terry Eagleton argued that modern British culture had proved incapable of producing a major writer who could analyse society as a whole. It had collapsed into a ‘withered empiricism’. And English poetry in this century has seemed to many to confirm this analysis, the dominant voice being one of cautious ‘common sense’ tinged with a wistful conservatism

                            an immense load
Of self-neutralising moral and social qualities,
Above all, Circumspection.

That assault on the ‘English ethos’ comes from one of its most vehement and defiant opponents, Hugh MacDiarmid. In the preface to his last published collection, Direadh (1974), he praised Eagleton’s book, but added that he had unfortunately overlooked the one shining exception to his general thesis: MacDiarmid himself. If even Eagleton has been reluctant to return this compliment, it is not surprising that more conservatively-minded English critics have refused to take MacDiarmid seriously. His defiant use of the immodesty topos has alienated readers used to English standards of social decorum and good breeding in literature. Those parts of his oeuvre which have been assimilated to the canon have been those most easily subsumable under a fairly conventional notion of the poetic; his early lyrics have been much commended for their effective use of assonance and alliteration, but it is still widely assumed that his later political and philosophical interests diluted the purity of his poetry.

But it is at last possible to survey his oeuvre as a whole: two volumes of Complete Poems were published by Martin Brian and O’Keeffe in 1978, and Penguin, in keeping with their best traditions, have risked issuing them in paperback. And it is coming to seem that the fault lay as much with the narrow criteria of the critics as with the ambitions of MacDiarmid’s poetry. Conventional assumptions about the relation between poetry and politics are being challenged; and no modern British poet has more systematically worked out the implications of a radical poetic. His ambittions, it is true, were always pitted against an awareness of their almost inevitable failure: he went on to describe the Direadh poems as no more than tentative steps towards ‘my goal of a kind of poetry impossible to achieve perhaps, but towards which in the state of the world and of poetry today it is urgently necessary to move’. Nobody could be more scathing than MacDiarmid himself about the quality of some of his poetry: ‘idiot incoherence’, ‘horrible rubbish’, ‘chopped-up prose’; he described the major long poem of his later years, ‘In Memoriam James Joyce’, as a ‘ragbag’, a poetic ‘Loch Ness Monster’. But critics are starting to recognise that neither the boasts nor the admissions of defeat are to be read too literally: his poetic task is both ‘impossible and imperative’. Nancy Gish’s book is the most critically acute of a number of recent studies, and she very effectively dispatches the notion that the later poetry reveals an inexorable decline.[*] She concludes with praise of the Direadh poems as marking the highest achievement of his later work: the critical tide is turning. It is no disparagement of her critical acumen to say that much of her book’s value comes from her willingness to attend to what MacDiarmid himself has to say about his work: he remains his own most honest and explicit interpreter, and criticism has not caught up with him.

She does adhere to received opinion enough to see MacDiarmid’s breakdown in 1935 as a turning-point, and her opening chapter draws on interviews with friends and relatives to analyse the immediate and long-term causes of that collapse. Like most Scottish writers, he found it hard to escape from the guilt-inducing absolutes of Calvinism and the pressures of social conformity: ‘the poetry’s fierce vitality derived from the pressure of radically divergent convictions against the ingrained guilt of a pious and restrained environment.’ The breakdown of his first marriage and his desperate poverty in the early years of the second produced a familiar spiral of guilt and drunkenness. It is easy to find in his oscillation between bluster and defensive self-deprecation, between rebellion and retreat into silence, a distinctively Scottish psychological type; and Gish’s analysis picks up what many critics have missed – the passion and intensity that underlie the superficially cold and impersonal later poetry. But the poetic problems he explored were not exclusively Scottish ones, and the discontinuity in his poetry was less dramatic than a concentration on the breakdown might suggest. Gish herself perceptively suggests that ‘the frequent tragic events of his life seem less a cause of his ideas than the consequences of a life lived by them.’

In her account of the early lyrics Gish recognises that MacDiarmid’s interest in linguistic theory informed his work from the beginning, and that Continental philosophy provides as important a context for the Scots poetry as the Border dialect. The best lyrics startle by sudden shifts from a local to a cosmic perspective. Not all the poems can escape the charge of parochialism, however, and I am not quite convinced by her mystical reading of ‘Country Life’, perhaps because I find it difficult to forget Ian Hamilton’s discovery of obscene possibilities in the phrase ‘mither fochin’ scones’. English criticism of MacDiarmid, however, has seldom progressed beyond such sallies; American critics like Gish have been more willing to recognise that dialect words are not necessarily funny. Nevertheless, her analysis shows that the lyrics did have their limitations, that eventually, as MacDiarmid himself conceded, ‘they became a trick’; their cosmic distancing sometimes dwindled into a whimsy that would today be called ‘Martian’.

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[*] The other recent studies are: Alan Bold’s comprehensive overview, MacDiarmid: The Terrible Crystal (Routledge, 1983); the revised edition of Kenneth Buthlay’s crisp and witty introduction in the Scottish Authors Series, Hugh MacDiarmid (Scottish Academic Press, 1982); Catherine Kerrigan’s survey of the intellectual background to the earlier poetry, Whaur extremes meet (James Thin, 1983); Harvey Oxenhorn’s critical study of the poems up to ‘On a Raised Beach’, Elemental Things: The Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid (Edinburgh University Press, 1984); and Roderick Watson’s study, based on an Open University course, MacDiarmid (Open University Press, 1985).