Unaccountables

Donald Davie

  • The Letters of Hugh MacDiarmid edited by Alan Bold
    Hamish Hamilton, 910 pp, £20.00, August 1984, ISBN 0 241 11220 6
  • Between Moon and Moon: Selected Letters of Robert Graves 1946-1972 edited by Paul O’Prey
    Hutchinson, 323 pp, £14.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 09 155750 X

For the rather few people nowadays who still believe that modernism was something that really happened to or in our poetry, something of which the energies are not yet spent, three names are commonly brought up to show that the modernist impetus survived in the generation after Pound: David Jones, Anglo-Welshman; Basil Bunting, Northumbrian Englishman; and Hugh MacDiarmid, Lowland Scot. The claim for Jones seems the weakest: it is advanced by Jones’s admirers, not by the poet himself, who took no interest in the question, having other fish to fry; and unlike most modernists, Jones had no patience with prosody. The claim for Bunting is not contested, and seems incontestable. As for MacDiarmid, he certainly made the claim for himself, loudly. But as in other matters on which he declared himself, the loudness is itself suspect: he goes through some modernist motions, and contrives modernist surfaces, but in ways that can seem mechanical and programmatic, asking us to take the will for the deed. And he bad not much more interest in prosody than David Jones.

Harvey Oxenhorn, in an admirably patient and respectful study,[*] points out MacDiarmid’s ‘need to provoke and convince’, and remarks: ‘As readers we are not much attuned these days to a verse of exhortation and overt opinion; where MacDiarmid’s writing offers this it is closer in feeling to Victorian than to modern poetry.’ One sees what he means; and certainly in its symboliste and Immediately post-symboliste phases, modernism was at pains to purge poetry of Arnoldian or Browningesque exhortations. But by the time modernism threw up Pound’s Cantos ‘exhortation and overt opinion’ were back with a vengeance; and most readers of the later Yeats will think that many of that poet’s opinions are overt enough, and pressed upon us with sometimes strident emphasis. So I wouldn’t agree that MacDiarmid’s hectoring of his readers puts him out of the modernist camp. Indeed it now seems clear that, much as the modernists disliked being exhorted to have noble sentiments, they disliked as much or even more that other Victorian bequest, epitomised by Palgrave’s Golden Treasury: the shrinking of all the poetic kinds into one exclusive or preeminent kind, the lyric. (Even now, or rather once again now, most readers seem to think that ‘poem’ and ‘lyric’ mean the same thing.) Down this perspective MacDiarmid’s career seems almost exemplary. I used to think, with many others, that two early collections of Lallans lyrics were the crown of MacDiarmid’s poetry, from which everything that followed was a falling-off. Certainly that earliest work had a purity and a succinctness that the poet would never recover. But reading these letters, one cannot fail to be impressed by the firmness and clearsightedness with which be changed direction, the consistency with which MacDiarmid refused to remain a purely lyrical poet, and for reasons that followed the logic of modernism. One sees the same development not only in Pound but in Pasternak and in a later modernist like Czeslaw Milosz (who incidentally shares MacDiarmid’s veneration for Lao Shestov). The development is inevitable for any poet who thinks that his calling imposes on him some social responsibility. The lyrist does not recognise that, and is glad not to have the burden of it; and his admirers are likely to think that poets less disarmingly winsome are taking too much on themselves.

We must all think so at times, of a polemicist so unflaggingly cocky and vehement as MacDiarmid. In public debate his manners and also his tactics were very rough indeed and not always candid, as this volume shows very clearly. As Harvey Oxenhorn says memorably, reminding us that MacDiarmid was both a Stalinist and a plagiarist, ‘consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but accountability is still the hallmark of complete ones.’ And too often MacDiarmid did not hold himself accountable. Accordingly the case for the prosecution – as it has been presented with some heat by earlier reviewers, especially the Anglicised Scots among them – is up to a point irrefutable. On the other hand, it’s surely true that a more civil writer could not have made equal impact on the public life of Scotland.

Another respect in which MacDiarmid was intransigently a modernist was his élitism. Nothing will more surprise readers who dip into this hefty volume of nine hundred pages, after little previous acquaintance with its author. And of course this is particularly piquant, and worth thinking about, coming from a position on the far Left, where genuflections to the masses, to the folk, to the common man are normally the order of the day. MacDiarmid as an impenitent Leninist will have none of that:

  Homer, Plato, Plotinus, Catullus, Horace, and scores of others of whom ‘the ordinary people’ know nothing are nevertheless immortal.

  ‘The ordinary people’ do learn a little about some of the great figures in literature during their school years, but they do not read them afterwards. What they do read is for the most part beneath contempt ...

  All the great things in the arts and in the sciences have been the creation, very often ‘against the current’ (i.e. in the teeth not only of unutterable ignorance and indifference, but even of active hostility on the part of the hoi polloi), of a very small minority of people – a minority that is practically constant throughout the whole of history. It is that minority with which I am concerned. The opinions of the others do not matter a rap to me.

There speaks a man who had no formal education beyond secondary school, who survived into the age of the computer when school-children are lucky to learn even a little about any of ‘the great figures in literature’. No modern British writer was less of an egalitarian; and often when MacDiarmid’s contemporaries and juniors take issue with him on more defensible grounds, one suspects that what incurably rankles with them, underneath the plausible pretext, is the insistence on inequalities that cannot be argued away. This carries over into his literary judgments, and means that if you scratched his back, he was under no obligation to scratch yours: Edwin Morgan, Robert Garioch and Ian Hamilton Finlay are three Scottish poets whose work he dismisses where he might have been expected, if only for tactical reasons, to approve it. It is the same with Scottish literature of the past. MacDiarmid is almost alone among its formal and informal historians in never forgetting that, however purely and nobly patriotic an author, however scrupulously ‘correct’ in his choice of linguistic medium, nevertheless, as MacDiarmid asked with unwonted plaintiveness as early as 1921, ‘Is not, in fact, the only criterion literary merit?’ That some writing is meritorious as literature, and some other writing isn’t, and that there are degrees of meritoriousness, is the one tenet of modernism which more than any other has made it imperative, in recent years, to declare that modernism is over and done with. Unfortunately, in this as in other areas, MacDiarmid’s right principles are not backed up by, in Poundian phrase, ‘a sufficient phalanx of particulars’. He had not read enough, never found enough time or patience, to check his intuitions against the evidence. Thus, whereas he rightly recognised in Norman MacCaig a Scottish poet who wrote better in English than others had done in braid Scots or Lallans, he could still in 1950 endorse Herbert Read’s foolish and sweeping judgment: ‘There is no great English poetry written by a Scotsman.’ Had neither be nor Read ever looked into James Thomson’s Seasons?.

For much of MacDiarmid’s life – certainly up to 1945, when he was already 53 – time and patience were just not available to him; in the starkest financial terms, they were what he could not afford. After that date one comes to think that they were not what he wanted anyway, that be would not have known what to do with them. In the hurly-burly of committees and political organisations and speaking engagements, it is clear that he left himself next to no time, not just for writing and revising, but for the mere preservation of what he had written already, even what he had published. He brags of how much he is in demand, not least in the Communist countries where he was trotted out as a Stalinist token-figure – in Cuba, China, Prague, East Berlin. We need look no further to understand, not only why his literary judgments were sound in principle but wrong in detail, but also why even the best of his later poems, though strongly and originally conceived, are deplorably and sometimes risibly rough-edged in the execution.

There is no doubt about Robert Graves: no modernist, he. And a lyrist almost exclusively, recognising in his capacity as poet no responsibility to society at all – at any rate, not in the years covered by this selection of his letters. (The earlier ones came out as In Broken Images in 1982.) Alan Bold’s index to the MacDiarmid volume has no entry for Graves, any more than Paul O’Prey’s has for MacDiarmid. The two poets, though contemporaries, might have been inhabiting different planets. And yet the impression one gets from the two books is not dissimilar: both men were indefatigably productive; both were male chauvinists; both were naively – perhaps the word is ‘touchingly’ – gleeful at receiving international acclaim in their later years without much fastidiousness about where the acclaim came from, or at what price; and – surely the most telling resemblance – each of them, while declaring himself poet and claiming many privileges on that score, writes in his letters about anything rather than poetry. This is not quite fair to Graves, from whom we get two untypical letters – one to Alan Sillitoe, the other to Ruth Fainlight – of the sort that we might expect from a master instructing neophytes. To Sillitoe for example, in 1954:

Your poem sounds good, holds together well, but the language has been taken a stage beyond common sense, and that I always regret. A poem should always be able to stand with a dictionary in its hand and swear: ‘This it not anything else but this; see pages so and so.’

  Once you do violence to common sense there is a danger of ridicule: e.g. pillows raped beyond repair, sounds like the work of a big pimpled boy at a Reform School. And ‘green’ does not explain itself with music. ‘Green’ may mean frightening: as in Greek ‘green fear’; Or it may mean ‘fresh’: or it may mean verde, erotic.

This is neither modernist doctrine, nor antimodernist; it concerns itself simply with the nuts and bolts of writing, whether in verse or prose, whether modernist or not. Lamentably, Graves always belittled this command and grasp that he had, though it is what saves his poetry even when the overt theme of that poetry will not stand up to rational scrutiny. Thus in 1964 he writes that he is ‘talking at Oxford on verse craft as opposed to poetry’; and, more dismayingly: ‘my view is that one can achieve a command of one’s language by continually thinking about it at all historical levels and in all social gradations. But to write poetry one must love and keep one’s spiritual integrity; and the miracle is beyond comment or explanation.’

Whatever one’s reservations about deconstructionist or post-structuralist theorists, one must be grateful for their insistence that ‘command of one’s language’, the weave of the verbal fabric, is all that is overtly there in any writer’s work, as that on which to judge him. What the energies were which set him to writing in the first place – this cannot be determined, and for criticism it is an irrelevance. The energies may be fuelled by something as outlandish and rationally insupportable as Graves’s notion of ‘the Muse’ (who for Graves in the period of these letters was successively embodied in four unbalanced or bewildered young women called respectively Margot, Laura, Cindy and Juli), or else as MacDiarmid’s bizarre notion of ‘the Gaelic genius, from its origin in Georgia to its modern expression in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Galicia and the Pays Basque’. The self-evident rottenness of the timber that stokes the fire is beside the point: what matters is the fire, the heat of it and the light it throws. (Which is not to deny that in the case of poets better than either MacDiarmid or Graves we respect the soundness of the timber that is consumed to fire them.)

A name that crops up in both sets of letters is that of John Wain. Wain in 1962 wrote to the Guardian about MacDiarmid: ‘He is simultaneously truculent (to Whitehall) and fawning (to Moscow). He simultaneously praises some hog-wash written by a Government hack in Budapest and thumbs his nose at the Americans who print his work. Simultaneously the bold border-ever and the flunkey of international communism.’ And in 1960 Wain, while professing great admiration for Graves’s poetry, found his criticism ‘aggressive and unbalanced, often showing a repulsive ungenerosity about poets he happens not to enjoy’. In response, whereas MacDiarmid could only bluster. Graves both in public and private was suave, yet pointed and probing. But Wain was surely right in both cases. Graves’s criticism has been mischievous, in a way that is quite unappealing. Rather than cite his outrageous treatment of Yeats and Pound in his Cambridge lectures, or of Virgil in his lectures at Oxford, one thinks rather of a send-up of Wordsworth’s The Solitary Reaper’ in the volume called Steps. This was first an address to a women’s college in America, and as one reads it one sees all too clearly how rapturously the co-eds must have responded to one cheap shot after another; whatever else it was, the occasion was plainly not educational. Similarly with MacDiarmid ... the fact that he rejoined the Communist Party in 1956 when hundreds were leaving it because of the suppression of the Hungarians is not necessarily the first thing one thinks of when the poet is named, certainly not the first and last thing, but it’s something to be remembered all the same. And it’s not enough to object to Wain’s language that it is intemperate and vulgarly self-righteous; in both cases the charge is just, and it sticks or it ought to stick. What neither of the older poets seems to have recognised was that Wain’s was, if not the voice of posterity, the voice of the immediate future – a future that would hold poets accountable, would deny them that privileged irresponsibility which in their different ways both Graves and MacDiarmid took for granted and indulged, as if it were a right that could not be denied them once they had declared their vocation.

[*] Elemental Things: The Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid (Edinburgh University Press, 1983).