What happened to MacDiarmid

David Norbrook

  • Hugh MacDiarmid: The Man and his Work by Nancy Gish
    Macmillan, 235 pp, £25.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 333 29473 4
  • Complete Poems by Hugh MacDiarmid
    Penguin, £8.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 14 007913 0

In Exiles and Emigrés (1970) Terry Eagleton argued that modern British culture had proved incapable of producing a major writer who could analyse society as a whole. It had collapsed into a ‘withered empiricism’. And English poetry in this century has seemed to many to confirm this analysis, the dominant voice being one of cautious ‘common sense’ tinged with a wistful conservatism

                            an immense load
Of self-neutralising moral and social qualities,
Above all, Circumspection.

That assault on the ‘English ethos’ comes from one of its most vehement and defiant opponents, Hugh MacDiarmid. In the preface to his last published collection, Direadh (1974), he praised Eagleton’s book, but added that he had unfortunately overlooked the one shining exception to his general thesis: MacDiarmid himself. If even Eagleton has been reluctant to return this compliment, it is not surprising that more conservatively-minded English critics have refused to take MacDiarmid seriously. His defiant use of the immodesty topos has alienated readers used to English standards of social decorum and good breeding in literature. Those parts of his oeuvre which have been assimilated to the canon have been those most easily subsumable under a fairly conventional notion of the poetic; his early lyrics have been much commended for their effective use of assonance and alliteration, but it is still widely assumed that his later political and philosophical interests diluted the purity of his poetry.

But it is at last possible to survey his oeuvre as a whole: two volumes of Complete Poems were published by Martin Brian and O’Keeffe in 1978, and Penguin, in keeping with their best traditions, have risked issuing them in paperback. And it is coming to seem that the fault lay as much with the narrow criteria of the critics as with the ambitions of MacDiarmid’s poetry. Conventional assumptions about the relation between poetry and politics are being challenged; and no modern British poet has more systematically worked out the implications of a radical poetic. His ambittions, it is true, were always pitted against an awareness of their almost inevitable failure: he went on to describe the Direadh poems as no more than tentative steps towards ‘my goal of a kind of poetry impossible to achieve perhaps, but towards which in the state of the world and of poetry today it is urgently necessary to move’. Nobody could be more scathing than MacDiarmid himself about the quality of some of his poetry: ‘idiot incoherence’, ‘horrible rubbish’, ‘chopped-up prose’; he described the major long poem of his later years, ‘In Memoriam James Joyce’, as a ‘ragbag’, a poetic ‘Loch Ness Monster’. But critics are starting to recognise that neither the boasts nor the admissions of defeat are to be read too literally: his poetic task is both ‘impossible and imperative’. Nancy Gish’s book is the most critically acute of a number of recent studies, and she very effectively dispatches the notion that the later poetry reveals an inexorable decline.[*] She concludes with praise of the Direadh poems as marking the highest achievement of his later work: the critical tide is turning. It is no disparagement of her critical acumen to say that much of her book’s value comes from her willingness to attend to what MacDiarmid himself has to say about his work: he remains his own most honest and explicit interpreter, and criticism has not caught up with him.

She does adhere to received opinion enough to see MacDiarmid’s breakdown in 1935 as a turning-point, and her opening chapter draws on interviews with friends and relatives to analyse the immediate and long-term causes of that collapse. Like most Scottish writers, he found it hard to escape from the guilt-inducing absolutes of Calvinism and the pressures of social conformity: ‘the poetry’s fierce vitality derived from the pressure of radically divergent convictions against the ingrained guilt of a pious and restrained environment.’ The breakdown of his first marriage and his desperate poverty in the early years of the second produced a familiar spiral of guilt and drunkenness. It is easy to find in his oscillation between bluster and defensive self-deprecation, between rebellion and retreat into silence, a distinctively Scottish psychological type; and Gish’s analysis picks up what many critics have missed – the passion and intensity that underlie the superficially cold and impersonal later poetry. But the poetic problems he explored were not exclusively Scottish ones, and the discontinuity in his poetry was less dramatic than a concentration on the breakdown might suggest. Gish herself perceptively suggests that ‘the frequent tragic events of his life seem less a cause of his ideas than the consequences of a life lived by them.’

In her account of the early lyrics Gish recognises that MacDiarmid’s interest in linguistic theory informed his work from the beginning, and that Continental philosophy provides as important a context for the Scots poetry as the Border dialect. The best lyrics startle by sudden shifts from a local to a cosmic perspective. Not all the poems can escape the charge of parochialism, however, and I am not quite convinced by her mystical reading of ‘Country Life’, perhaps because I find it difficult to forget Ian Hamilton’s discovery of obscene possibilities in the phrase ‘mither fochin’ scones’. English criticism of MacDiarmid, however, has seldom progressed beyond such sallies; American critics like Gish have been more willing to recognise that dialect words are not necessarily funny. Nevertheless, her analysis shows that the lyrics did have their limitations, that eventually, as MacDiarmid himself conceded, ‘they became a trick’; their cosmic distancing sometimes dwindled into a whimsy that would today be called ‘Martian’.

If, then, we ask when MacDiarmid’s poetry starts to ‘decline’ from lyric purity, the answer must be as early as 1926 with A drunk man looks at the thistle. The poem’s starting-point is a critique of the cult of the ultimate Scots lyric poet, Robert Burns, who has become a justification in his native land for permanently excluding ideas, politics, and everything but sentiment and banal platitudes, from poetry. All his major poetry from A drunk man onward aims at an inclusiveness that resists conventional forms of poetic closure, and thus raises particular critical problems. MacDiarmid found ammunition for his scorn of conventional modes of artistic and philosophical order in an idiosyncratic array of Russian thinkers such as Leo Shestov, who emphatically rejected the logic of identity: A may be equal to A, but then again it may not. There is some overlap between Shestov and a thinker who is now better-known, Mikhail Bakhtin; both celebrate forms of discourse that dispense with a fixed subject position and set opposing viewpoints in vigorous dialogical collision. The aim is to challenge the reader’s preconceptions – or, in MacDiarmid’s expressive Scots word, to ‘whummle’ them. The effect on the reader is more important than the sincerity or absolute truth of the opinions expressed: hence he positively embraced contradictory opinions, and it is unproductive to try to produce a coherent summary of his ‘ideas’ in abstraction from the texts. His ideal was a society

where one is not required to believe anything
But even warned of the dangers of doing so
Except with infinite qualifications and care.

To force his poems into conventional formal or thematic moulds, then, may be to miss their point. On the other hand, there is more than a touch of defensiveness about the claim that any complaint about apparent randomness or incoherence merely reveals the critic’s inadequacy. And it can be difficult to suspend disbelief altogether from some of MacDiarmid’s more extravagant claims, such as that prehistoric chronicles from the sixth millennium BC had been transmitted directly to the modern Gaels, or that the Leninist state was about to wither away. Gish weighs these conflicting considerations carefully, though her conclusions are ultimately fairly orthodox. She much prefers A drunk man to the next long poem, To Circumjack Cencrastus, because in the former work the unifying symbols, the thistle and the moon, are made concretely present. But A drunk man does not aim at a neat or formulaic unity: centrifugal elements threaten to dissolve the poem into a conglomeration of self-contained lyrics, but the lyrics in turn twist away from closure. Her analysis of the conclusion shows how cunningly these opposing tendencies are played against each other, with an invocation of Silence opening the poem out in a recessive paralipsis just as the voice of the speaker’s wife brings it back to the world of the regional lyric. Given the ingenuity revealed by her analysis, it is odd that Gish should take so literally F.G. Scott’s account of the poem’s composition. The story goes that MacDiarmid had no more than a group of disconnected lyrics when Scott shut himself up in a hotel room with the poet and a bottle of whisky and showed him how to unify the poem. But its apparent randomness seems too artful to have been arrived at so externally. In any case, would one bottle have been enough?

Be that as it may, Gish feels that MacDiarmid totally lost control of the next long poem, To Circumjack Cencrastus. The range of this poem is far wider, from an English translation of Rilke through satirical Scots lyrics to an unsuccessful attempt to invoke the spirit of Gaelic poetry. Gish does find sources of unity neglected by previous critics, noticing, for example, the relevance of the long translation of a Rilke poem about the ‘grief of dying without fulfilling one’s life or imaginative possibilities’ to the poem’s overall concerns. But she points out that the poet constantly speaks of his own failure and flies from the concrete into a vague idealism: an index, she argues, of the crises in his personal life. Here again, however, it might be unwise to take his claims of failure too literally. MacDiarmid had much in common with Shelley, and it is now generally recognised that ‘self-collapse’ in Shelley’s poetry does not necessarily mean artistic failure, rather an acknowledgment of intractable difficulties. Both poets’ apparent evasion of the concrete arises from a political worry, an attempt to liberate perception from the deceitful conservative solidity of ‘common sense’. Gish singles out for praise the ‘precise nature images’ of the ‘North of the Tweed’ section: but the images need to be seen in context, they point beyond immediate perception to the more subtle movements of cosmic processes. But this rejection of the merely concrete, in MacDiarmid as in Shelley, need not be read as simple Neoplatonism: both use idealist language strategically, as a means of averting both mechanical materialism and conventional religious discourse. Gish complains that the poem’s unifying symbol, the curly snake alluded to in the title, is not concretely present: but rather than playing a futile game of hunt-the-serpent it would be more fruitful to approach the poem anticipating absence and paradox. Like A drunk man, like most of his poetry, To Circumjack Cencrastus acknowledges its task as impossible: the snake, proverbially, cannot be surrounded. Here again the poet, in the midst of the giddying collisions of clashing poetic and cultural forms which amount to no more than an ‘anti-poetry’, turns to invoke Silence; yet that silence, in the words of In Memoriam James Joyce, is ‘full of potential song’.

All the same, the poem does at times betray a destructive disgust with the physical world which leads to an unduly cloudy idealism; and Gish’s analysis has the merit of providing a reason intrinsic to MacDiarmid’s poetic and intellectual development for his turn to Marxism. Though hardly ever included in standard accounts of Thirties Communist poetry, perhaps because he had not been to the right school, MacDiarmid was a pioneer in developing an explicitly Communist poetic. Hostile critics have argued that as his poetry became more political he lost his sense of rhythm; and this loss of rhythmic control has been further linked with his fall from the top of a double-decker bus in 1929. (He subsequently recorded with relish the pukka comment of John Buchan: ‘Most unfortunate fellow. Always fracturing his skull.’) But the brain-damage explanation for his becoming a Marxist, while perhaps acceptable at the height of the Cold War, may by now seem somewhat physiologically reductive, and alternative explanations are possible for his shift – or rather return – to the left. He had after all worked for the ILP before the war, and as Gish notes, the General Strike is given a sympathetic presentation in A drunk man. But in the Twenties his quest for a radically activist nationalism had made him veer erratically and sometimes in a fascistic direction: this oscillation coincided both with the breakdown of his first marriage and with the linguistic difficulties of Cencrastus. He benefited from the formal and intellectual discipline of Marxism: it was not so much that he embraced Marxism, or anything else, as an absolute truth as that a hard materialism, and hard-line Stalinism, provided an extreme, if perilous dialectical opponent to countervailing tendencies towards a mystical, idealist anarchism.

Gish provides far the best account to date of MacDiarmid’s development in the early Thirties, clearly showing that this phase marked not a decline but a renewed and powerful productivity. She acknowledges that some of his political poetry goes wrong: but it does so, she argues, not because it is political but because the poet has not thought through his position thoroughly enough to integrate it with his relationship to language. In an extensive analysis of the neglected ‘Tarras’, she shows it to be a profoundly though indirectly political poem, a celebration not only of a bog near his home town but also of the vernacular language in all its sexual explicitness, and of female sexuality at its most energetic and ‘unladylike’. In the praise of this ‘Bolshevik bog’ MacDiarmid was able to rediscover his ‘delight in common life’. This concern with the factors he had in common with his working-class relatives, and the imagery of water and sexuality, unite the Scots poetry of the early Thirties. In a reading of ‘The Point of Honour’ she shows MacDiarmid poised between nostalgia for an old and familiar kind of poetry and the impulse to push forward into ever more complex poetic experiments, taking the risk of a ‘generative questionableness’. This impatience could lead to egregious carelessness: Gish discreetly passes over the stanza where the poet rhymes ‘robin’ with ‘food its gob in’. It is just conceivable that this is a deliberate experiment with anti-climax rather than one of the worst rhymes in world literature, but in the later MacDiarmid there can be stylistic unevenesses quite exceptional in a poet of such stature.

Nevertheless, his risk-taking paid off superbly in the first few extraordinarily productive months of his stay in the Shetlands. In ‘Ode to All Rebels’ and ‘Harry Semen’ MacDiarmid experimented with an uncompromisingly if disturbingly honest mode which anticipated the ‘confessional’ verse of the Sixties and was so explicit that these poems were excised from the 1934 edition. ‘Harry Semen’ is certainly unorthodox in its explicit description of facts about sex that love poetry normally discreetly veils: the speaker, in a mood of post-coital depression, contemplates some smears of semen on the sheet. I do not think this mood is necessarily ‘insane’, as Gish, taking the speaker too literally, maintains: after all, it has Aristotle’s authority. What is, however, exceptional is the poem’s direct rooting of erotic idealism in the physical. The poet’s scientific sense tells him of the inexplicable wastefulness of nature’s means of reproduction: yet he can also tenderly celebrate the woman’s still-aroused body and move on to find in the semen’s whiteness another aspect of that inexpressible silence that haunts his poetry, trying out simile after simile to evoke the precise shade, and finally settling on an analogy that concentrates the poem’s contrary attitudes of coldness and warmth – the snow falling at the time of Christ’s conception.

Critics have tended to focus on the coldness of the later poetry. The chill comes from the poet’s need to press onward with his questioning, to detach himself more and more firmly from received ideas; and to this end MacDiarmid was prepared to adopt the reactionary armour-plating of some of the most rigorously élitist Modernist writers. Yet, as Gish insists, there is also an underlying warmth, a democratic impulse to liberate his perceptions for a richer collective experience:

what untouched spiritual powers
Are hidden in the dark and cold ...

In Stony Limits MacDiarmid begins the experiments with ‘synthetic English’, parallel to his synthetic Scots, which have been regarded as making the late poetry cold and remote. But these later poems have been more condemned than read. Gish helps us by providing a full glossary for the framing passages of ‘On a Raised Beach’, and for the first time properly makes sense of these passages in their relation to the rest of the poem. The detached, scientific vocabulary forms an aggressive materialist challenge to traditional religious explanations of the world. Here MacDiarmid is directly taking on Eliot: rather than being a source of despair, matter without a Christian God is a source of creativity and hope – though only in an immensely long-term evolutionary perspective. When this poem is set in the biographical context of the poet’s guilt and despair over the collapse of his first marriage, the emotional intensity that motivates the linguistic coldness becomes clearer: the poem speaks from, and offers its consolations to, the most intense mental suffering. But its concerns are not merely personal. Though the author of a book on T.S. Eliot, Gish does not much venture on comparative judgments: but if Eliot’s Anglican piety starts to lose its hold on criticism, ‘On a Raised Beach’ and some of the other meditative poems in Stony Limits, whatever their weaknesses, may prove to bear comparison with Four Quartets. ‘On a Raised Beach’ itself, however, contains MacDiarmid’s own rueful recognition of the isolation to which he was condemned: one passage which Gish cites as an unusual moment of warmth is a quotation from F.R. Leavis’s New Bearings in English Poetry where the way forward from Eliot is held to lie with Ronald Bottrall.

To their credit, Eliot and Leavis did give some attention to MacDiarmid despite their political differences: but it was Edwin Muirrather than MacDiarmid who became canonised as a Faber Poet, and to understand his later poetry it is necessary to remember his increasing sense of being a prophet crying in the wilderness. Denied many outlets for his writing by his political views, he was forced either to live off advances for bland potboilers (he could find a publisher for a book on Scottish eccentrics but not for a study of Scottish socialism) or to accept desperate poverty. He acknowledged that his writing suffered from a lack of ‘the friction of mind upon mind’. Called up for wartime service, he was set to work in a Glasgow factory and seriously injured when a pile of copper cuttings fell on him. Many critics have attacked him for lacking a sense of humour: but in the circumstances it is perhaps more surprising that he should have felt unembittered enough to entitle his 1943 autobiography Lucky Poet – with the gloss that, after all, ‘lucky’ could cover bad as well as good luck. On the question of humour, MacDiarmid’s comment in Lucky Poet is worth quoting: ‘Laughter has been called a “vote of confidence in the essential sanity of man’s way of life”. That is certainly a vote of confidence in which for the past twenty years I have never been in the slightest danger of acquiescing.’

Under difficult conditions he continued to push forward with his poetic experiments. The meta-poetry written between 1936 and 1942 departs even more radically from conventional notions of the poetic. A palimpsest technique juxtaposes voices in different languages and in registers leaping from slang to scientific discourse. Linguistic experimentation becomes concentrated in dense patches, while at other points the verse falls back on cliché and journalese. The poet’s suspicion of ‘the curse of short-circuited thought’ is pushed to the point where conventional unifying symbols and formal devices are abandoned. Gish shows more understanding of these later poems than any previous critic, and perceives that there is a difference of degree rather than kind from the earlier work. She points out that there are unifying features in the most superficially rambling texts. But her highest praise goes to the Direadh sequence because these poems do have a higher degree of symbolic and thematic coherence.

This desire for organic unity perhaps still leads her to read against the grain of the later poems. It is true that unity is still MacDiarmid’s goal: he insists that he is ‘no dilettante of chaos’, finding ‘no bitter gratification in the contemplation of ultimate Incoherence’. But the unity aspired to belongs to the future rather than the present. In Memoriam James Joyce is merely ‘from a vision of world language’, and another long poem is entitled ‘The kind of poetry I want’. The achievement of such higher artistic forms must depend on the realisation of political goals that as yet inevitably impede them. The long, meditative lines of ‘Lament for the Great Music’ had conveyed the poet’s reluctance to pretend that he could sympathise easily with the art of the Gaelic past, produced as it was for reactionary patrons; at the climax of the poem his ‘birdlike leap’, itself distanced as an inadequate translation of a Gaelic term, comes as the massively suspended main verb of a sentence full of nuances and qualifications. In Memoriam James Joyce is written in English, which seems on its way to becoming a unifying international language, yet rejects this solution to the quest for a world language because its predominance in present conditions could be gained only at the cost of ‘linguistic imperialism’. And yet against this philosophical asceticism, this preference for silence over discourse, the later poems offer a rich ‘divertissement philologique’, the open, informal pleasures of conversation – though with the paradoxical feature that they deal with philosophical and technical matters normally excluded from the conversational register. MacDiarmid describes In Memoriam James Joyce as an aonach, a Gaelic word combining the senses of ‘a solitary place’ and ‘a place of union’. As ever in MacDiarmid, extremes meet: the poet as isolated, élitist, nationalist pioneer aims also to become the voice of an emergent democratic world literature. Impossible, maybe: but still imperative.

[*] The other recent studies are: Alan Bold’s comprehensive overview, MacDiarmid: The Terrible Crystal (Routledge, 1983); the revised edition of Kenneth Buthlay’s crisp and witty introduction in the Scottish Authors Series, Hugh MacDiarmid (Scottish Academic Press, 1982); Catherine Kerrigan’s survey of the intellectual background to the earlier poetry, Whaur extremes meet (James Thin, 1983); Harvey Oxenhorn’s critical study of the poems up to ‘On a Raised Beach’, Elemental Things: The Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid (Edinburgh University Press, 1984); and Roderick Watson’s study, based on an Open University course, MacDiarmid (Open University Press, 1985).