War Poet

Robert Crawford

  • O Choille gu Bearradh/From Wood to Ridge: Collected Poems in Gaelic and English by Sorley MacLean
    Carcanet, 317 pp, £18.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 85635 844 4

The finest poetry written by British citizens during the years 1939-45 was produced by T.S. Eliot and by Sorley MacLean. Each was a British citizen in a very different way. Eliot, more interested in assuming Englishness than Britishness, had already taken the un-English step of giving himself a written constitution (Royalist, Anglo-Catholic, Classicist), and gave over one of his three great war poems to the investigation and celebration of his American background. MacLean, a Gael born on the Hebridean island of Raasay in 1911, almost gave his life in the service of the British Crown when he was blown up by a land-mine at El Alamein in 1942; holding strong Communist and Scottish Nationalist views, he had decided he would fight because he was convinced Hitler would attack Russia, and because (as he wrote to MacDiarmid in 1941) his fear and hatred of the Nazis was greater than his hatred of ‘the English Empire’.[*]

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[*] The most useful background to MacLean’s life and work is to be found in Sorley MacLean: Critical Essays, edited by Raymond Ross and Joy Hendry (Scottish Academic Press, 1986, 0 7073 0426 1), and in the poet’s own Ris a’ Bhruthaich: The Criticism and Prose Writings of Sorley MacLean, edited by William Gillies (Acair Ltd, Unit 8A, 7 James Street, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, 1985, 0 86152 041 6).