MacDiarmid and his Maker
- MacDiarmid by Alan Bold
Murray, 482 pp, £17.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 7195 4585 4
- A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle by Hugh MacDiarmid, edited by Kenneth Buthlay
Scottish Academic Press, 203 pp, £12.50, February 1988, ISBN 0 7073 0425 3
- The Hugh MacDiarmid-George Ogilvie Letters edited by Catherine Kerrigan
Aberdeen University Press, 156 pp, £24.90, August 1988, ISBN 0 08 036409 8
- Hugh MacDiarmid and the Russian by Peter McCarey
Scottish Academic Press, 225 pp, £12.50, March 1988, ISBN 0 7073 0526 8
Before 1922 Hugh MacDiarmid did not exist. And only Christopher Murray Grieve would have dared to invent him. Alan Bold’s valuable biography points out that when the 30-year-old Grieve began to write in the Scottish Chapbook under the pseudonym ‘M’Diarmid’, he was already editing the magazine under his own name, reviewing for it as ‘Martin Gillespie’, and employing himself as its Advertising Manager (and occasional contributor), ‘A.K. Laidlaw’. We tend to think of the subject of this biography as the greatest voice of modern Scottish literature; more accurately, he is the greatest chorus.
Born in 1892 in the Scottish Border mill-town of Langholm, Grieve, even before adopting the name Hugh MacDiarmid, was eager to give the impression that he was not just a writer but an enormous literary mill. Writing from World War One Macedonia (where he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps), Grieve tells his old schoolteacher, George Ogilvie, about his detailed plans for a hundred essays on Scottish Art and the Scottish Church. He is planning a Scottish Vortex, and is already fizzing with that energy which would make him a power-surge at the end of the Celtic Twilight: ‘I can think out novels and plays in odd half-hours, visualise every detail, see them published and played, anticipate their criticism in the Times, the British Weekly and the New Age simultaneously, write prefaces to new editions, sum up carefully on the business side, grant interviews and talk at great length and with indescribable sense and spirit ... ’
The Hugh MacDiarmid-George Ogilvie Letters have been edited and annotated in their entirety by Catherine Kerrigan, and they show how many of MacDiarmid’s attitudes and determinations were present in Quartermaster-Sergeant Grieve of Salonika. The young Grieve describes himself as being in ‘mental spate’; his intellectual life is ‘a debating society’, and he tells Ogilvie: ‘I feel like a buried city.’ These letters sizzle with energy; they also show an anxious desire to impress and, at moments whose scarcity only emphasises their significance, they reveal an insecurity. The Grieve who initiates the correspondence with Ogilvie craves companionship and support. In 1920 he skids into the doubt that ‘sometimes I think that I only think that I can think,’ and worries about struggles in his most private self that no one else will understand. This may seem at odds with the man who writes of his hunger for any sort of publicity, but throughout MacDiarmid’s career private anxieties and public pugnacity appear to have fuelled one another. The talented but vulnerable private individual could comfortably inhabit the noisy and polemical chorus.
From his earliest years MacDiarmid craved, deserved, but did not always receive, attention. Alan Bold’s biography presents Grieve’s childhood as rather lonely and biblioholic. The boy’s talent for verse was encouraged by his local Free Church minister, T.S. Cairncross, before Grieve went on to Broughton School in Edinburgh, where he met the remarkable and supportive George Ogilvie. In this first (and authorised) critical biography Bold has done important work in assembling details of Grieve’s early life, so that we see, not only Grieve the friend of Red Clydesiders John MacLean and James Maxton, but also the Grieve whose Scottish nationalism was encouraged by his rejection by English girls. Heady on his home-brew of Nietzsche, John Davidson, and almost any other literary material he could devour, this proto-MacDiarmid emerges as something of a sexual predator. 1918, for instance, sees a passionate affair with a Spanish girl in Salonika followed by a marriage to Peggy, his Scottish sweetheart, that rapidly gives way to ‘erotic abandon’ with a French girlfriend. A dozen years later, MacDiarmid would be deeply wounded when Peggy left him for another man. For all his deploring of Harry Lauder, MacDiarmid himself in some ways conformed at various times to the easiest Scottish stereotypes: the boasting predatory male, the political motor-mouth, the pickled poet.
Vol. 10 No. 22 · 8 December 1988
May I put the record straight with regard to a central point made in Robert Crawford’s review of my annotated edition of Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle (LRB, 10 November)? Crawford endorses my interpretation of the key idea of ‘antisyzygy’, or the combination of contraries, in MacDiarmid’s work, but suggests that I have not taken it far enough: ‘Buthlay might have gone further and included the enthusiasm for strange metaphysical blendings, manifested by MacDiarmid’s early admirer Herbert Grierson. The Edinburgh professor’s work had recently prompted Eliot’s celebration of poetry censured by Dr Johnson for having “the most heterogeneous ideas … yoked by violence together”.’ The fact is, however, that in my study of MacDiarmid published in 1964 and again in an expanded edition in 1982, I dealt quite specifically with that aspect of the case as follows: ‘The idea of antisyzygy … accommodates the recent (in 1926) rediscovery of the wit of Donne (defined by Johnson as discordia concors, in which “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together”) … “Of wit, thus defined,” as Johnson said of the 17th-century Metaphysical poets, MacDiarmid had “more than enough”; and it was by this apparently roundabout route that certain characteristics of A Drunk Man fitted in with the contemporary revival of Donne and the other Metaphysicals.’
Vol. 11 No. 1 · 5 January 1989
MacDiarmid may be ‘the countryman of a number of more recent poets’ (LRB, 10 November 1988), but I’m sure that if he were alive today he would not waste his time or energy leaving Biggar to visit ‘the tactician of Little Sparta’ nearby; nor, for that matter, would the ‘tactician’ visit the Lucky Poet himself. Has Robert Crawford forgotten that in 1962 MacDiarmid tarred and feathered Hamilton Finlay as one of ‘the ugly birds without wings’, pecking back at Finlay’s cheeps about MacDiarmid’s ‘anachronistic propaganda’, and ‘everyone under the age of forty being bored stiff by Mr MacDiarmid’, with squawks of ‘old hat, barbarism, villainy and ignorance’? Perhaps these statements could also be set in discrete concrete blocks – one in Little Sparta, the other in Biggar? – the issue of which set where to be decided on by the Scottish Arts Council?
Vol. 11 No. 2 · 19 January 1989
I admire Kenneth Buthlay’s pioneering work on MacDiarmid, and have profited from it. He is right to point out (Letters, 8 December 1988) that he drew attention in an earlier book to a link between the revival of interest in the Metaphysical poets and the idea of antisyzygy. I persist, though, in thinking that this might have been mentioned with advantage in his introduction to the book which I was reviewing. If Buthlay’s scholarly edition of A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle wins the wide audience which it deserves, then much of that audience will have scant knowledge of Scottish literature. Mention of Herbert Grierson as an Edinburgh figure whose work occasioned Eliot’s essays on ‘The Metaphysical Poets’, and who became an early admirer of MacDiarmid’s verse, might have helped flesh-out and clarify links suggested between the notion of the ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’ (which students often find strange) and other much more familiar Modernist concepts. I think this would have made Kenneth Buthlay’s fine introduction a little more useful.
William Milne (LRB, 10 November 1988) asks if in aligning MacDiarmid with Ian Hamilton Finlay I had ‘forgotten’ that the two men quarrelled noisily. I hadn’t forgotten. In fact, I regretted in the penultimate paragraph of the same review that Alan Bold’s biography of MacDiarmid gives ‘no mention, for instance, of those quarrels with younger writers such as Ian Hamilton Finlay’. In concluding my piece by aligning the geographical near-neighbours MacDiarmid and Hamilton Finlay, suggesting that each was a ‘courageous, controversial and embattled artist’ whose work suggests that ‘THE PRESENT ORDER IS THE DISORDER OF THE FUTURE,’ I was aiming to provoke a little more than William Milne’s letter.
While there is enjoyment to be gained from the sparky flytings whose Rotoruan intensity has warmed Scotland’s creative parts during our century, there is little point in merely replaying them. It is as useful today to praise MacDiarmid at the expense of Hamilton Finlay as it would have been in 1926 to pay pious homage to Stevenson while dismissing MacDiarmid as an obscure charlatan. Surely it’s more difficult and more valuable to try and see such very different Scottish artists as part of the same complexly-braided, potently impure cultural tradition. My aligning of MacDiarmid and Hamilton Finlay was neither forgetful nor, I hope, daft. Both are Scottish artists who delight in reprocessing pre-existing texts; both are spikily individual major Scottish artists often more highly regarded outside Scotland than inside it; both are artists fascinated by, and embattled with, structures of authority, and each makes that an important subject of his own art. These seem to me reasons for provocatively juxtaposing MacDiarmid and Hamilton Finlay, rather than simply accepting their own splendidly vituperative denunciations of each other. If we care about the burgeoning of modern Scottish culture then the Little Spartan adult’s garden of verses and MacDiarmid’s thrawnly cultivated thistles might well be worth relating.
University of Glasgow
The unpleasantness of William Milne’s letter on myself and Hugh MacDiarmid would not have been too much modified if he had mentioned the issues which produced the thirty-year-old invective which he quotes for your readers. These were – in brief – the question as to whether it was worth publishing such then little-known poets as Paul Celan, Augusto de Campos, Robert Creeley, Louis Zukofsky, and whether it was a crime against culture to write in the Glasgow dialect. Both issues have (I believe) been resolved, and I will not say which side I was on, and which Hugh MacDiarmid. One point should be made clear: it was not for Mr Milne, sneering on the sidelines, to say what I feel about Hugh MacDiarmid, or what the late Hugh MacDiarmid came to feel about me.
Ian Hamilton Finlay
Little Sparta, Dunsyre, Lanark