New Selected Letters 
by Hugh MacDiarmid, edited by Dorian Grieve.
Carcanet, 572 pp., £39.95, August 2001, 1 85754 273 8
Show More
Show More

One day, in the early years of the 20th century, a poetically-minded young man from the Scottish borders called Christopher Murray Grieve walked to Ecclefechan, the birthplace of Thomas Carlyle. It wasn’t a long way, but his trek was a gesture of hero-worship to one of the greatest Scotsmen and largest egos of the previous century. He toured Carlyle’s house and, as some visitors did, tried on the great man’s hat. To his enormous delight, it was too small for him.

More than half a century later Grieve, now in his eighties and long famous as Hugh MacDiarmid, was still crowing about this. As an established man of letters, he could afford to be wry about the story, but the fact that he tells it at all makes clear his own big-headedness – the great pleasure he took in the enormousness and occasional enormity of his ego – as well as his lifelong obsession with size and comparison. Norman MacCaig, who knew him well, thought MacDiarmid was an ‘egomaniac’; Seamus Heaney has described him as ‘very egocentric’. Neither of them, sensibly, thinks that an imperfect or monstrous life makes much difference to the poetry. But if poetry remains its own best defence, then what is to be gained by reminding us of the tangle out of which it was salvaged? If, as Karl Kraus suggested, ‘a poem is good until one knows who wrote it,’ is it not safer to avoid biographical distractions altogether?

These issues have particular force in the case of MacDiarmid. This is partly because of the unstable nature of his identity and partly because there is much in his life that has the potential to damage the reputation of his poetry. Hugh MacDiarmid was one of several personae adopted by Christopher Grieve to further his intertwined ambitions of achieving personal greatness and restoring to Scotland a living literary tradition. MacDiarmid entered the world in 1922, the annus mirabilis of Modernism, and at first offered Grieve merely a convenient alter ego through whom he might enjoy the pleasures of self-contradiction. Grieve had, earlier that year, written savagely about the ‘infantilism’ of Scottish vernacular poetry, pouring particular scorn on writers so distanced from their own cultural roots that they had to glean their vocabularies from dictionaries. Yet his first action as MacDiarmid was to do exactly that, plundering glossaries, works on the Scots language and the six volumes of Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language more ruthlessly than any of his predecessors. Wrenching words indiscriminately from their local sources and historical periods, sometimes even inventing plausible-sounding new ones, he developed a synthetic Scots that no one had ever spoken but which had a persuasive ring of authenticity. The result was the simple, sometimes breathtakingly beautiful lyricism that can be found in the short dialect poems in Sangschaw (1925) and Penny Wheep (1926). ‘The Eemis Stane’, for instance:

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.
Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw
No’ yirdit thaim.

Many of these poems, as Kenneth Buthlay pointed out in his essay ‘Adventuring in Dictionaries’, follow and transcribe their sources very closely (‘Water Music’, for example, a longer and slightly later dialect poem, draws sequentially for its vocabulary on the A-C and P-S sections of Jamieson’s Dictionary), but this does not damage them as poems. MacDiarmid’s freedom in using other people’s ideas and words sometimes crossed the line dividing allusiveness from plagiarism. In 1965 it was revealed in the letters pages of the TLS that his short poem ‘Perfect’ was, apart from its first line, a straight transcription in verse of the prose introduction to Glyn Jones’s The Blue Bed, and that his long poetic tribute to Karl Kraus in In Memoriam James Joyce was lifted wholesale from a TLS front-page article.

Grieve furnished MacDiarmid with a childhood that drew several elements from other people’s books and lives. MacDiarmid remembered the marbles he had played as a boy, the ‘clay-davies, doolies, hard-hacks, mavies, cracksie-pigs, cullies’, but all these resonant names were plundered from the Transactions of the Scottish Dialect Committee. When he recalled the way he had once made ‘a tow-gun frae the boon-tree/A whistle frae the elm,/A spout-gun frae the hemlock’ and had smoked ‘dry leafs o’ dishielogie’ (coltsfoot) in a ‘partan’s tae’ (crab’s claw) MacDiarmid was recycling James Colville’s descriptions of his own 19th-century childhood in Studies in Lowland Scots. And when MacDiarmid came to describe his credo as a socialist in his autobiography, Lucky Poet (‘I am, it should be obvious, interested only in a very subordinate way in the politics of socialism as a political theory; my real concern with socialism is as an artist’s organised approach to the interdependencies of life’), he was quoting an article by Lincoln Kirstein on Gaudier-Brzeska.

There is something magnificent in MacDiarmid’s arrogance and perversity, his awful wilfulness. He was intended to be, in Grieve’s words, ‘an impossible person’. Grieve told Neil Gunn that he would ‘pursue a course calculated to the last degree to give me opportunities for “making things difficult” to say the least of it’, and wrote – as MacDiarmid – of his need ‘to keep up perpetually a sort of Berserker rage’. This rage was obviously ego-driven, but it also had a larger purpose. MacDiarmid’s destiny was to become the saviour of Scottish literature, the figure who would harness his own terrifying energies to a small clutch of practising modern Scottish writers and create the first truly national literary culture since the time of Henryson and Dunbar. He succeeded in achieving the beginnings of such a renaissance – a testament as much to single-minded tenacity and vitality as to poetic ability. Before MacDiarmid, Scots dialect had functioned largely as a resource for literary humorists, sentimentalists and seekers after simple truths, but after his work in the 1920s and early 1930s in establishing Northern Numbers and the Scottish Chapbook, and in writing such poems as A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, ‘Gairmscoile’, ‘Water of Life’ and ‘Ode to All Rebels’, dialect was re-established as an appropriate vehicle for philosophical speculation, sophisticated reminiscence and complex sexual feeling. The man who achieved all this was a fire-breathing monster: a kilted Nietzsche who had more twists than Harry Lauder’s walking stick; a Scotsman on the make who described hatred of the English as his ‘life work’. He claimed to have done away with his sense of humour in order ‘to pursue his art with the almost inhuman tenacity and resolution which is necessary’, and had the hauteur to reassure his readers that ‘my interests are worldwide and cover the entire field of all the arts and sciences’ and to inform the letters page of his local paper that ‘I am an impenitent highbrow, utterly contemptuous of public opinion, concerned almost exclusively with matters which are “caviare to the general”, intolerant, quarrelsome and, no doubt, inordinately conceited.’

Grieve was probably right to think that the ambition of his project demanded such a caricatured, larger-than-life persona – Ezra Pound was a model – and if we accept MacDiarmid at this level we can admire his achievement and enjoy the spectacle of his no-holds-barred style. But this is to enforce a separation between MacDiarmid and Grieve that Grieve himself found difficult, or was perhaps reluctant, to maintain. Having invented a fearsome literary alter ego, Grieve found ample opportunity in his personal life to unleash the beast until, it seems, he found himself unable to disassociate his better self from his worse.

The critic who worked hardest to argue for a division between the role of MacDiarmid and the person of Grieve was Alan Bold, MacDiarmid’s biographer. He knew Grieve in the later stages of his life and respected the sometimes tender, gentlemanly man he knew. These views inform his 1984 edition of the Letters of Hugh MacDiarmid, a fact he emphasised in the introduction to that work. But what Bold’s collection crucially lacked, and this New Selected Letters is now able to supply, is the material that offers the most sustained challenge to this interpretation: the letters written by Grieve to his mother, his brother, his two wives and his children.

These letters display some of the humour and geniality that Bold found in the elderly Grieve – the concern for children, the ability to have a wry smile at himself – but they also show a lot of the spite, pompousness, self-pity and unfocused rage that are the characteristic qualities of MacDiarmid. The kinds of thing that might be just about acceptable for MacDiarmid to say in character, so to speak, such as the aestheticisation of political murder in his ‘First Hymn to Lenin’ (‘What maitters ‘t wha we kill/To lessen that foulest murder that deprives/Maist men o’ real lives?’) or the abstract reference to critical TLS reviewers as ‘infernal spinster-bitches’, are much less palatable when they are directed at people close to him. He writes to his ex-wife threatening to expose her personal life in his autobiography, taunting her with ‘what is coming to you, you rotten lying fornicating bitch’, and writes to her new partner that he wishes he would die ‘through my hacking off your genitals and stuffing them down your throat’.

Grieve was writing some of these letters (especially those in the 1930s) under trying circumstances. His wife, for whom he still held strong feelings, had deserted him for another man and had aborted the child of a third; his mother had died; he was forced to undergo a bleak exile in Shetland separated from his children and his books and papers; and he had suffered a nervous collapse brought on by syphilis. But there is still something awful in letters such as the one written in 1938 to his estranged daughter, Christine, which is full of complaint at the wrongs done to ‘my high character and great kindliness of nature’, and advances the pitiful threat that ‘when I die, the whole situation will be open to public view and you will be involved in immense publicity. It will be too late then for any reconciliation between us.’ There was a gap between the magnificent pitch at which he wished his life as MacDiarmid to be led, and the often tawdry and awkward realities of that life as it was actually played out by Grieve. The unfortunate result, manifested in the letters of his middle age, was that the more he tried to seem like Baudelaire or Nietzsche in his splenetic grandeur the more he came to resemble Victor Meldrew. When he was sacked for drunkenness by the editor of the Carlisle Journal in 1947, he responded that ‘a man of my national and international reputation cannot be dismissed as you dismissed me yesterday without repercussions,’ claiming that he would blow ‘sky-high’ the reputations of the paper’s directors through his ‘contacts with the BBC and other bodies’ (he fell out with the BBC, too, and threatened to invoke the copyright laws to stop them transmitting his poetry). When he was evicted from a flat in Glasgow in 1949, he told the landlord that

legally this house is yours but actually it will always be principally associated with me. I have done sufficient work of sufficient quality in it to ensure that. It is inevitable that the circumstances under which I have lived and worked here will be published in full detail – and the circumstances in which that work is now being interrupted. I am certain you will not be able to justify yourself on the score of relative value.

Once his achievement became more secure and he began to be fêted in an appropriate manner, some of this rage dissipated and the geniality noticed by Bold began to shine through. He was, for example, reconciled with his daughter and in the 1970s wrote her a number of solicitous letters.

The dialect poems of the 1920s and early 1930s are able to speak for themselves. But, as Grieve was well aware, something happened in the 1930s that affected his poetry. Somewhere along the line he had begun to identify greatness in poetry with quantity rather than quality, with vast expanses of knowledge rather than depths of feeling. The reason, he told Norman MacCaig in the 1970s, that he had written ‘all that rubbish these last forty years’ was that he had lost his sense of rhythm. There is another possibility, however: the decline in his work might have resulted from the strains of having to cope with his impossible poetic persona.

Grieve knew very well that the poetry had to stand up for itself. In Lucky Poet he made the case, derived from Mallarmé, that ‘the act of poetry is not an idea gradually shaping itself into words, but deriving entirely from words – and it was in fact this way that I wrote all the best of my Scots poems.’ This fits the facts. But he could not let go of the contrary view, that poetry has something to do with the poet. ‘The true poet never merely articulates a preconception of his tribe,’ he wrote, ‘but starts rather from an inner fact of his individual consciousness.’ These two views may not be contradictory for most poets, but they are problematic in the case of MacDiarmid because he had been built from the outside in. In 1939, MacDiarmid wrote to an aspiring writer who had sent him some poems:

so far from producing poetry you seem to me to be engaged in producing a kind of anti-poetry which almost any literate person could turn out indefinitely. But you communicate no vital experience at all, and express no authentic reaction to your subjects, while your verbalisms are throughout quite appallingly trite and unilluminated by any flash of personal vision or first-hand feeling at all.

He was, by this time, well qualified to make such a judgment.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 24 No. 12 · 27 June 2002

It is of course not true that Hugh MacDiarmid ‘lost his sense of rhythm’, as David Goldie claims (LRB, 6 June), even though the poet himself thought he had. ‘Bracken Hills in Autumn’ belies the self-criticism, as do ‘late’ poems such as ‘The Wreck of the Swan’, ‘Off the Coast of Fiedeland’ and the translations of Ungaretti into Scots. Such poems, and others, attest to an undiluted rhythmical strength.

W.S. Milne
Esher, Surrey

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences