Poem: ‘Louis Kossuth’
Vol. 24 No. 13 · 11 July 2002
The ideas about nationalism in Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘Louis Kossuth’ (LRB, 6 June) have left me uneasy. I looked Kossuth up in Misha Glenny’s The Balkans. After the Revolutions of 1848, the Government of which he was a member tried to obtain some independence from Austrian domination. However, he was unhappy about extending to other ethnic groups the political and cultural freedoms he wanted for ethnic Hungarians. ‘In March of that year,’ Glenny writes, ‘the Serbs presented a petition to the Hungarian Government, demanding the restoration of autonomy for the Orthodox Church and the recognition of Serbian as a state language. In exchange, the Serbs said they would back the Hungarian struggle against Vienna. Kossuth dismissed their demands with a brusque warning that “only the sword would decide this matter.”’
Macfarlan, the man who, in Morgan’s poem, meets Kossuth in Glasgow and argues for the importance of social conditions above nationalism, doesn’t cut the most positive of figures. He is described as ‘a skelf of a man’: ‘skelf’ means a ‘splinter’. This is hardly flattering alongside Kossuth’s sons (‘good-looking’ representatives of Hungarian ethnic purity). Kossuth in the last stanza does not seem perturbed by his memory of Macfarlan. The final line, as Kossuth gets up to close the shutter, has the heroic feel to it of soldiers rushing to close the castle gates against an invader. If these impressions that I get from the poem are Morgan finding in Kossuth a kindred nationalist spirit, then that is very sad. Macfarlans are in short supply these days.
Vol. 24 No. 14 · 25 July 2002
Hugo Stolkin says that the ideas about nationalism in my poem ‘Louis Kossuth’ have left him uneasy (Letters, 11 July). I think that is a valid reaction. I did not bring in the figure of James Macfarlan (1832-62), a published poet well known in his day, in order to mock him, but to show that Kossuth had been forcibly made aware, in Glasgow, that there were alternatives to his brand of nationalism. That Macfarlan was an unprepossessing alcoholic makes him all the more of a foil to the melodramatics of Kossuth (‘Some say I am a showman’). The Scottish context is significant in the poem. Scotland has unfinished political business, with a devolved Parliament that pleases some and not others. Neither socialist nor nationalist aspirations can be ruled out. Stolkin says he is sad that ‘Macfarlans are in short supply these days.’ I agree. But they are not in quite such short supply in Glasgow, where they may be nationalists as well.