MacDiarmid’s Sticks

C.H. Sisson

  • Whaur Extremes Meet: The Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid 1920-1934 by Catherine Kerrigan
    James Thin, 245 pp, £12.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 901824 69 0
  • Elemental Things: The Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid by Harvey Oxenhorn
    Edinburgh, 215 pp, £15.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 85224 475 4
  • Aesthetics in Scotland by Hugh MacDiarmid and Alan Bold
    Mainstream, 100 pp, £6.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 906391 60 1
  • Annals of the Five Senses by Hugh MacDiarmid and Alan Bold
    Polygon, 161 pp, £6.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 904919 74 9
  • Hugh MacDiarmid: The Terrible Crystal by Alan Bold
    Routledge, 251 pp, £9.95, August 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9493 0
  • Hugh MacDiarmid (C.M. Grieve) by Kenneth Buthlay
    Scottish Academic Press, 143 pp, £3.25, September 1982, ISBN 0 7073 0307 9
  • The Thistle Rises: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose by Hugh MacDiarmid edited by Alan Bold
    Hamish Hamilton, 463 pp, £12.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 241 11171 4
  • A Scottish Poetry Book by Alan Bold, Bob Dewar, Iain McIntosh and Rodger McPhail
    Oxford, 128 pp, £4.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 19 916029 5
  • Edinburgh and the Borders in Verse by Allan Massie
    Secker, 97 pp, £5.95, August 1983, ISBN 0 436 27348 9

Was Hugh MacDiarmid a great poet? Was he, as John MacQueen asserts in his Foreword to Catherine Kerrigan’s study, one of ‘the three greatest poets to use English in the 20th century’, the other two being Yeats and Eliot? One can understand MacQueen putting the matter that way, but perhaps it is not the most helpful way when the reputations of Eliot and Yeats are shaking down, in the ordinary process of time, following their immense acclaim. Perhaps there is too much talk of ‘great’ poets altogether, so far as the 20th century is concerned. If there is a useful critical question to be answered about MacDiarmid at this stage, it is perhaps not so much how great he was but what sort of poet he was.

To this question the studies under review contribute in different manners and in different degrees. The outstanding one seems to me to be that of Catherine Kerrigan, who writes with a very great knowledge of the intellectual background of MacDiarmid’s work and so casts light on some dark places. Her study goes up only to 1934, but that means that it covers the whole of the formative period. It is to be hoped that she will one day complete her work with a further volume – a possibility, one gathers, once she is ready with ‘the detailed explanation of references’ without which ‘it is spurious to discuss a long poem like In Memoriam James Joyce’. This sort of background work ought to be done and she seems well-equipped to do it. Harvey Oxenhorn’s book is of a different character. It is a critical assessment of the kind which used to be done summarily in an essay but which modern academic practice has extended to book length.

Oxenhorn is a graduate of Stanford now teaching at Harvard and his book is intended primarily as an introduction from well off the Scottish stage to other possible readers similarly placed. It has the merit of having ‘sought by and large to separate the poetry from the tortuous polemics of Scottish nationalism’ which so often get in the way of lucid exposition in MacDiarmid’s own prose – as is illustrated indeed in the hitherto unpublished Aesthetics in Scotland and from the trammels of which the editor Alan Bold cannot cut himself entirely free. Oxenhorn recognises the national character of MacDiarmid’s poetry, but he is seeking to judge it in international terms. This involves a certain deflation of the undeniable element of bombast and overwriting in MacDiarmid. Oxenhorn reports that Valda Grieve told him that her husband ‘wrote an enormous amount of verse when they lived on Whalsay but little thereafter’ so that ‘much of the later work’ – this is Oxenhorn’s own comment – ‘was not written by an old man (such as the “later” Yeats), but some time before, by a poet in early middle age’. However the question of the ranking of MacDiarmid ends up – and it will end up, as with all other poets whatsoever, by having its ups and downs – one may certainly say now that his work has not been digested, by those who reckon they have a digestion for such things, in the way that that of Eliot, Pound, Yeats and Hardy has been, to say nothing of many a lesser figure. In what might be called the peripheral stakes Dylan Thomas and even David Jones have had more attention in some quarters – in the case of Dylan Thomas, with a wild publicity which has had little enough to do with his work. MacDiarmid, it is true, has had a share of irrelevant – and sometimes damaging – publicity, mainly political, but his work has been known only piecemeal. A series of heroic publishers in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London have printed odd volumes, most of them not easy to lay hands on, and it is impossible to speak too highly of the enterprise of Martin Brian and O’Keeffe in issuing in 1978 the first real Complete Poems, which superseded the earlier collected editions as well as the thirty or so constituent volumes from Annals of the Five Senses (1923, reprinted 1930) onwards. Of this first book, which is largely in prose but contains a number of poems, we now have a third edition which will enable new readers to see the point from which MacDiarmid, still using his own name of CM. Grieve, set out.

Although the fortunes of publication have had much to do with the fact that MacDiarmid’s work has not been assimilated to the extent that might have been expected in the case of a poet of his force and originality born in 1892, it must be admitted that the work itself – and indeed its author – have put obstacles enough in the way of this process. For the oeuvre is a vast, untidy, often cantankerous affair and the author not just a man who wrote poems but an off-beat politician of the most injudicious kind, occasionally violent in language and apparently unable to resist the pleasure of making small noisy impacts on a world he had neither the patience nor the practical sense – nor perhaps really the will – to act on more effectively. His claiming ‘Anglophobia’ as a recreation is no funnier than the silliness of other people who attribute odd amusements to themselves in the pages of Who’s Who. The Socialist town councillor of Montrose and Justice of the Peace for the county, who burst into tears with his audience of railwaymen when the General Strike broke down, had an itch for action. He had also a real care for public affairs, as he conceived them, but his role in them was further back than he sometimes liked to think; it was that of a man who could affect public attitudes in the long term. Certainly his role in the Scottish nationalist movement – in its widest, not in the party, sense – has been by way of an infusion, vitriolic certainly, romantic perhaps, rather than by way of any practical programme. Not for me to comment on these matters, though I think even an Englishman may be allowed to be a little sceptical of the politics of a man who has been known to be loud in his praise for murder at the discretion of the Russian Communist Party and who has described the reasons people had for getting out of Hungary in 1956 as ‘purely sentimental’. It is time to lay MacDiarmid’s confused politics to rest, and to go further back into the roots which produced the remarkable flowering of language. But the propensity to flighty utterance, and the continuing stream of genuine concern which flows under all such superficial manifestations, characterise much of the writings as they do the author’s public life.

It is in the light it throws on some of the literary influences which helped to form MacDiarmid’s mind that Catherine Kerrigan’s book excels. Much can be gathered from the autobiographical Lucky Poet. (1943), a characteristic outpouring which anyone interested in MacDiarmid should read, but MacDiarmid is too obsessively concerned to make a case for himself to be an altogether reassuring autobiographer. His nervousness in this respect is difficult to understand, for a man who, by 1943, had already achieved so much. Such manifestations are so much a recurrent feature of his life and work that they must spring from a deep-seated anxiety, perhaps of the kind which made him claim rather misleadingly to have been educated at Edinburgh University, or perhaps of the more radical kind which led him to ‘trying to smash in the head’ of his newly-born brother with a poker, insisting that ‘despite that horrible red-faced object’ he ‘was still Mummy’s boy too’. It is characteristic of the temperamental aggressiveness of MacDiarmid’s literary persona that he entitles the first chapter of Lucky Poet. ‘Portrait of a Guttersnipe’: a wilful expression for the son of the eminently respectable postmaster of a small Border town, pillar of the Free Church of Scotland and superintendent of the Sunday School, a son who was in his youth himself a teacher in the Bible class. The post office was in the same building as the excellent public library, which was based on the collection left by the engineer Thomas Telford, and to this the boy had free access and benefited in no common way. Moreover, there was a marvellous countryside which gave him a place to let off steam and was the source of a vivid acquaintance with the natural world.

Whatever the advantages of his birth and education – and he seems to have been fortunate in his schoolmasters both at the town school and at the Broughton Junior Students’ Centre in Edinburgh – one can understand that to so voracious and enterprising a reader the fact that he stopped short of formal university studies was a drawback. It is interesting to speculate what such studies, say in history or philosophy, would have done for one who was to plunge into these fields – and how many others? – without having gone over the ordinary academic hurdles. The early death of his father enabled him to abandon what had been the immediate plan to become a teacher, and the young man who was already a member of the ILP and the Fabian Society was pitched into no more proletarian a job than that of being on the staff of the Monmouthshire Labour News. He had become a journalist instead of amemberof that Scottish teaching profession for which, in Lucky Poet, he had no good word: ‘Hopeless Safety-Firsters, continually bending the knee to Baal in this connection or that, or grovelling altogether, obliged, in order to secure their jobs, to tout and belly-crawl, and pull all manner of dirty little strings in the most ignominious fashion, the conscienceless agents of the Powers-that-Be, destitute of any vocation for teaching’ – such and so on is his moderate assessment of the profession he abandoned without entering. The first war, which took him as a member of the RAMC to a hospital in Salonika, and later to Marseilles, must have put some barriers in the way of his development as a writer, though it certainly gave him experience of a kind he would not otherwise have had.

He says himself that, given his conviction ‘even as a boy’ that he ‘was going to be a famous poet’, it is surprising that he ‘wrote little or nothing until after he was demobilised’ in 1919. Many of the early poems are strangely old-fashioned, in a manner which suggests that the impact of what had been happening in English poetry since, say, 1910 was delayed or softened, perhaps by his distance from the major centres of communication and partly perhaps by his very voracity as a reader, which gave him a less certain touch than some poets have had in going directly or exclusively to the work that could have helped him most. However that may be, it is odd that, having contributed an article to Orage’s New Age in 1911 (on ‘The Young Astrology’!), he did not become a regular contributor until 1924, two years after Orage had left the paper for Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man and when, as Catherine Kerrigan says, ‘the periodical had become not much more than the voice of Social Credit.’ Grieve really found himself when he became MacDiarmid and began to write in Scots.

The subject of MacDiarmid’s writing in Scots is a difficult one for an Englishman. My acquaintance with his work began, nearly fifty years ago, with Second Hymn to Lenin (1935), a volume which, apart from the title poem, is in English. The English poems include some examples of plain speaking which are as remarkable now as they were then; they include a smaller number in which the rhythm drives the words home in a masterly fashion. It was these which first established MacDiarmid in my mind as one of the few contemporary poets who really mattered to me. Even so, it was evident that much the best poem in the volume was the ‘Second Hymn’ itself, and in that poem – in Scots – the intimacy of words and rhythms is more consistent and more intimate. It is indeed a magnificent piece, a discourse on poetry and politics, the latter at least seen as by a visionary. The real triumph of the poem, if it is not in the rhythms, is in the ease with which MacDiarmid brings into the body of the poem familiar language, bookish reference and abstractions, all as part of the structure of bone and muscle, with nothing seeming out of place. The Scots he uses is merciful to the English, and does not run into abstruse phrases that need a glossary. Would one be wrong, I wonder, in suspecting that some of MacDiarmid’s Scots, in some other works, involves a certain pedantry in its kind, words salvaged from literary sources and forced into position? The use of abstract language is something which became a characteristic of the endless poems of his later years.

Organic constructional work,
Practicality, and work by degrees;
First things first; and poetry in turn
’Ll be built by these.

The verse runs tautly and in these lines from the ‘Second Hymn’ there is no slippage from the course of the recognisably Scots stanzas.

By 1935 MacDiarmid had already made his great foray into Scots, synthetic and otherwise, with (among other volumes) Sangshaw (1925) and most notably with A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle (1926). It was an immensely practised hand which wrote the ‘Second Hymn’. He had started several years before where you might expect him to start, with the Ballads and old songs:

It was a wild black nicht,
But i’ the ert o’t we
Drave back the darkness wi’ a bleeze o’ licht,
Ferrer than een could see.

From an outsider’s point of view, what is remarkable here is that the use of Scots has enabled the poet to draw on the old magic in a manner which had frequently been attempted in English from the earliest Romantics and throughout the 19th century, though rarely with the success achieved in ‘In the Hedge-Back’. The last English poet to invoke it, in a direct way, was probably A.E. Housman, whom MacDiarmid quotes in an epigraph in Sangshaw. Had MacDiarmid stopped with such invocations, his achievement would have been of only minor importance. But it is as if by the use of Scots he established a connection with the wells of language, and this enabled him not only to cast off the slight air of Victoriana which pervades some of the earlier English poems but to go on to use the language with a new and individual freedom. When one gets to A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle the ease of movement is complete.

You canna gang to a Burns supper even
Wi’oot some wizened scrunt o’ a knock-knee
Chinee turns roon to say, ‘Him Haggis – velly goot!’
And ten to wan the piper is a Cockney.

By 1931 he was already proclaiming, in a letter to William Soutar, that he was not the man to write ‘bairn rhymes or re-popularise Scots’, though he still thought ‘re-vaccination of the children with it’ an excellent idea. Some difficult years – in personal matters – and a change of orientation in politics may have contributed to this diffidence. But MacDiarmid’s primary concern with language was as a poet. ‘I am not prepared,’ he said at this time, ‘to concede that the artist should be concerned with his audience or that art must subserve any social or other purpose than its own development.’ With characteristic overstatement – perhaps it is the cry of a man who momentarily feels the danger of drowning in Marxism – he even asserts that ‘if great poetry is written in any language it does not matter a hoot whether anybody can read it except the man who wrote it.’ There is a sense in which MacDiarmid repeatedly approaches a breaking-point, and it is as if he then had to reverse and go in the opposite direction. An epigram in the Second Hymn volume addressed to ‘Christian or pagan, extrovert or introvert’ asserts that they may get hold of the right end of the stick, but their sticks ‘have only one end’. All MacDiarmid’s sticks had two ends, and he was apt to cause confusion by seizing them in turn or even almost simultaneously. The feat might have been less disconcerting if he had not been so much a preacher – a residue perhaps from the Free Church of Scotland – and almost perpetually trying to prove something. In one of those instants of blinding clarity which recur among the pages of his often turgid prose, he says in Lucky Poet: ‘what I have principally relied upon to secure my effect is a fury of incontrovertible detail.’ It is the ‘incontrovertible’ which gives him away, and there must be either comedy or megalomania about the adjective with a man who, at that very moment, is proclaiming that his interests are ‘worldwide and cover the entire field of all the arts and the sciences’. That absurd claim does, however, indicate a wide curiosity and a tireless ingestion of miscellaneous material bound to break the limits of MacDiarmid’s elaborated Scots, which could contain all this scientific and technical information little better than Barnes’s more natural Dorset could have done. In his later work in common English MacDiarmid arrived at a point at which he could handle a modern vocabulary with conviction, giving life to Wordsworth’s assertion that ‘the remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Minerologist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time ever comes when these things shall be familiar to us.’

It has to be admitted that, in pushing out the frontiers of the matter of his discourse, MacDiarmid was far from maintaining the kind of poetic control of his material which is so marvellously exemplified in, say, ‘With the Herring Fishers’, which records what he had seen with his own eyes on and around Whalsay, or in such lines as those in A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle in which he recalls his native town of Langholm:

Drums in the Walligate, pipes in the air,
Come and hear the cryin’ o’ the Fair.
A’ as it used to be, when I was a loon
On Common-Ridin’ Day in the Muckle Toon.

What we have in In Memoriam James Joyce or in The Kind of Poetry I want, is a record of immensely diverse and often chaotic interests set down with a continuing passion which gives urgency to a discourse MacDiarmid could never bring to an end. In a curious way the discourse is too personal, in spite of the impersonality of the subject-matter, as if the poet was approaching the frontiers of the obsessional.

It must be suspected that MacDiarmid’s prodigious verbal memory, as well perhaps as an almost morbid habit of collecting miscellaneous bits of information, had become a burden he could no longer count on carrying with elegance. It would be an exceptional reader indeed who could not do without a few score pages of these endless effusions. Nonetheless the long poems are readable at considerable length. They represent an heroic effort – too heroic perhaps – to use verse with a discursive freedom which was new to the 20th century and recalls rather the 16th and early 17th centuries, before prose had become capable of handling a whole range of materials with its modern ease.

With a poet so resourceful and inventive it is pointless to regret that his work did not develop otherwise than in the way it did. But I think it may be said that MacDiarmid might have been more fortunate in the choice of some of his early masters. Alan Bold describes the radical process of the poet’s mind in portentous words: ‘MacDiarmid had to nurture a cerebral conception in an emotional matrix fully aware that the resulting nativity would be metaphysical.’ One may doubt perhaps whether MacDiarmid’s gift was for metaphysics? Catherine Kerrigan is particularly good on the influence of Soloviev, with his mixture of ‘Theosophy, Gnosticism, Roman Catholicism and Eastern religions’, on the young Grieve; such heady mixtures were certainly around in the circles surrounding Orage. One wonders, too, about MacDiarmid’s notion of a ‘mystical relation’ between Scotland and Russia, in which Dostoevsky as well as Soloviev had a hand. I rather suspect national souls, Scottish and Russian as well as German. Another rather oversized and approximate theorist on whom Grieve seems to have drawn was Spengler and, as Catherine Kerrigan says, ‘like Spengler, Soloviev’s understanding of history rested on Hegel’s dialectic, a source these writers shared with Marx.’ Grieve might have been better employed with the unpretentious works of the very Scottish Scotsman, David Hume. But as a ‘thinker’ MacDiarmid is not important. His great rag-bag of sources hangs around him like an albatross. He is a sort of caricature of a self-taught Victorian wallowing in a confused mass of science and religion, and he is well-instructed in neither. He is at his happiest when the poet takes over, as in ‘The Innumerable Christ’ (in Sangshaw), a sort of Space project which sees Christs everywhere and takes as its epigraph the observation of a Professor J.Y. Simpson: ‘Other stars may have their Bethlehem, and their Calvary too.’ A thought worthy of the indomitable soul of W.E. Henley. It is as a poet that MacDiarmid stands or falls, and that means, when all the dust has cleared, above all by his services to language. That he stands I have no doubt – partly by his services to Scots, which include making the language of the older Makars more accessible to the modern reader, and partly by his extraordinary talent for the common language, to which he has given a new cutting edge which could not have been so sharp if he had not been impelled to use so much unpromising material.

Kenneth Buthlay’s little book is a useful short introduction to MacDiarmid’s work; Catherine Kerrigan’s book I have already commended. Alan Bold is too mesmerised by the deeps or by the big words that go with them to be the best of guides to this fundamentally down-to-earth poet, but we may look forward to the collection of MacDiarmid’s Letters which he is in the process of editing. It is to be hoped that it will include those early letters to Ogilvie, the English teacher at Broughton, which Catherine Kerrigan tells us ‘are a complete contrast to MacDiarmid’s published prose’ and ‘reveal the many sides of the man in a more direct and guileless manner, conveyed in language which is for the most part simple and straightforward, yet charged with an almost superhuman energy’. Perhaps what is most needed, if the audience is to be extended, is a sizable new selection of the poems for those for whom the 1400 pages of the Complete Poems are too much. An introduction more laconic than Oxenhorn’s and a few informative notes would help. Oxenhorn’s judgment of the verse is such that one might wish that he would himself undertake this task. He says that his study aims ‘to create an audience’, but if there are potential audiences for poetry which read critical books before they look at the texts, so much the worse for them.

The Thistle Rises is a new anthology of poetry and prose by MacDiarmid. The 120 pages of poetry are well chosen and, so far as they go, make an excellent introduction to the work. There follow 160 pages of discursive prose – what Alan Bold, who edits the volume, calls ‘Matters of Fact and Philosophy’ – and about the same number of fiction, comprising short stories mostly modelled on Scott and Stevenson. The proportions of the volume are certainly not what is wanted for a critical appraisal of the author. It is the poetry that matters, and for those who want to know more of MacDiarmid the essential prose book is Lucky Poet, not represented here and indeed best read as a whole. If there ever was a writer who needed cutting down to size, physically as well as by a cynical disregard of his pretensions, it is MacDiarmid. A solid and important figure would remain and indeed the poet can hardly take his place with his peers – whoever they may turn out to be – until some such operation has been performed.

Two new anthologies which contain poems by MacDiarmid are A Scottish Poetry Book, compiled by Alan Bold, and Edinburgh and the Borders in Verse, edited by Allan Massie. Bold’s book, presumably intended for children, is illustrated in several styles, sometimes almost to the extinction of the poem. McGonagall gets three poems, about 170 lines in all, MacDiarmid five poems with about half that number. Allan Massie’s anthology is one of Secker’s series of regional anthologies. It is elegantly produced with half a dozen black and white illustrations of which the charming (c.1850) print of Ballantyne’s Close, Grass-market, over against Norman MacCaig’s poem, ‘Edinburgh Courtyard in July’, may be taken as typical, both in respect of quality and of relevance to the text. Visiting Englishmen are admitted and the locals range from Drummond of Hawthornden to Garioch, MacCaig, Stewart Conn and Bold. MacDiarmid is represented by ‘Old Wife in High Spirits in an Edinburgh Pub’. Altogether a pleasing anthology of its kind.