Seamus Heaney praises the Scottish poet Sorley MacLean

It is often late, by chance, and with sudden delight, that we find those poets who later become vital to us. I knew Sorley MacLean by reputation before I felt his authority. His renovation of a poetic tradition, his cross-fertilisation of love and politics, of metaphysical technique and traditional Gaelic modes, of dan direach and personal destiny – I knew about all this at second-hand; it was part of that store of useful literary information that accumulates at the back of the literary mind like respected, unread books on the bookshelf. But then, in the early Seventies, two things occurred which made the spark jump: I read Iain Crichton Smith’s translations, Poems to Eimhir, and I heard MacLean himself read his own poems in the original Gaelic.

To take the translations first, since they were my first exposure: opening the book was like opening the door on a morning of sea-filled brightness; there was a feeling of unspecifiable freedom and intensity. The voice in the poems was at once unleashed and stricken. There was a tremendous sense of capacity, of emotional lift-off, a boldness and ardour that had a high romantic voltage: yet there was also a deeply modern guilt, a self-castigating intelligence which stuck like a hook in the throat of rapture.

The love begotten by the heart
is a love that dances in its chains
when it embraces intellect –
love of the scrutinising brain.

And the stone that’s always broken
by the assiduous mind
becomes a bright entire stone
made harder by each new wound.

Lines like these came through so strongly that I almost forgot I was reading a translation: curiosity about a respected name was obliterated by the impact of the thing itself. Poem after poem went home to that first place of recognition where once a poem has visited it can never afterwards be denied or forgotten. Again, the perfect pitch of

I walked with my intelligence
beside the muted sea:
we were together, but it kept
a little distance from me,

gave way to the pressure of history and conscience:

I who avoided the sore cross
and agony of Spain,
what should I expect or hope,
what splendid prize to win?

Such lines were both sustenance and example to somebody hugging his own secret uneases about the way a poet should conduct himself at a moment of public crisis.

At any rate, the effect of reading these invaluable translations was to string a new chord in my poetic ear. I could recognise a Yeatsian ring in some of Crichton Smith’s handling; I could hear the tuning fork of Donne’s or maybe Marvell’s quatrains behind the melody of some versions. But this did not stop the sure vibration of the note that would sound from now on at the mention of Sorley MacLean’s name.

And then I heard the voice of the man himself speaking the poems in Gaelic. I was lucky to be on the stage of the Abbey Theatre when Sorley and Norman MacCaig came to Dublin to read at the launching of their excellent poetry records: my job was to read some of the translations (this time by Sorley MacLean), but my interest was in hearing the Gaelic. Again, this had the force of revelation: the mesmeric, heightened tone; the weathered voice coming in close from a far place; the swarm of the vowels; the surrender to the otherness of the poem; above all the sense of bardic dignity that was entirely without self-parade but was instead the effect of a proud self-abnegation, as much a submission as a claim to heritage. All this constituted a second discovery, this time of the true climate of his linguistic world.

Reading ‘Hallaig’ on that occasion, in the poet’s own English, and hearing it in the deep lamenting register of the Gaelic, extended and confirmed my sense of him as a major figure. This was the song of a man who had come through, a poem with all the lucidity and arbitrariness of a vision. On the one hand, it rose like a mist over the ancestral ground in which this poet’s tap-root is profoundly lodged, a poem of almost familial intimacy arising out of a naturally genealogical imagination, embodying all the fidelities implicit in the Irish word duchas. On the other hand, by its nonchalant beauty, its feeling of being absolutely ‘given’, it belonged to the world of Eliot’s ‘Marina’, Rilke’s Orphic sonnets, indeed to the metamorphic world of Orpheus himself. It held fast to a field of indigenous obsessions, but its effect was not merely to celebrate indigenous ground: it opened that ‘nailed and boarded’ window of the first line in such a way that a sense of loss became a sense of scope, and what might have been a pious elegy became a rich and strange ode to melancholy, insofar as the curve of its feeling rehearses something similar to what Keats is touching on in the lines:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine.

‘Hallaig’ is a key poem because it is about haunting and loss, and this mood is a persistent one all through the work, as is the theme of love and wounding: which arrests the fluent dreamscape at the end of the poem. The bullet from the gun of love

Will strike the deer that goes dizzily,
sniffing at the grass-grown ruined homes;
his eye will freeze in the wood,
his blood will not be traced while I live.

The dimensions of the poem are all the more fully revealed if it is seen in relation to another mysterious lyric by Thomas Hardy which also exposes us to a sort of hallucinatory experience:

One without looks in tonight
  Through the curtain-chink
From the sheet of glistening white;
One without looks in tonight
  As we sit and think
  By the fender-brink.

We do not discern those eyes
  Watching in the snow;
Lit by lamps of rosy dyes
We do not discern those eyes
  Wondering, aglow,
  Fourfooted, tiptoe.

Hardy’s poem is tender and purely uttered, but its furtive domesticity is the opposite of the shimmer of community that pervades ‘Hallaig’. And Hardy’s shyly quivering deer, by its very living credibility, is less absolutely a poetic presence than the heraldic, yet vulnerable beat that is conjured by MacLean. ‘The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House’ has an exquisite suggestiveness of its own, but I wish to claim that by comparison MacLean’s poem stands out as a much greater epiphany, a kind of condensed symbolist epic. The naming of people and places gives it a foundation in history and a foothold in bardic tradition, but there is also a visionary objectivity about the point of view whereby the sorrowful recognitions are transposed into a paradisal key. Indeed, the perfect commentary on ‘Hallaig’ comes from another oracular poem about time and memory. In these lines from ‘Little Gidding’ Eliot, having declared that the use of memory is ‘for liberation – not less for love but expanding/Of love beyond desire’, continues:

History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish
The faces and places, with the self which, as it
                             could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

The emotional air of ‘Hallaig’ is as clear as the sky after a storm, but we encounter more dramatic and turbulent weather in Dain do Eimhir. I am thinking in particular of a poem like ‘An Tathaich’ (Poem LVII, translated as ‘The Haunting’ in the Canongate selection and also translated by Iain Crichton Smith), but the whole sequence is charged with pent-up force. The face behind the poems is no artistic makeshift but keeps closing in like a hound of heaven. There is a driven quality in the writing itself, as if the poetry is leaping from one invention to the next like a man leaping for his life from ice-floe to ice-floe. This work will survive comparison with the very highest examples of the haunting face in literature. If the Beatrice of Dante’s Commedia is more cosmologically centred, at once more densely allegorical and diaphanous, the Beatrice of the Vita Nuova, being closer to the moment of encounter in Dante’s life, is closer to the muse of the Eimhir poems. MacLean’s tone is more disconsolate and tragic, however: the trauma of the actual experience has set the needles trembling. Again, the Eimhir poems share what we understand to be a characteristic of early Italian love poetry, a feeling of language rejuvenated by the discovery of new ranges for itself, as if something fallow had been touched by something marvellously fertile and a whole new culture of the spirit flourished overnight. As in the fairy-tale where the beanstalk darkens the window in the morning, fear and miracle spring from the one root in Dain do Eimhir.

Like an increasing number of his readers, I cannot possess fully – and hence cannot be fully possessed by – the language in which these poems are written: yet I have just enough Irish to hear them from the inside and hence feel an unease in aligning them too patly with the tradition of English poetry – Hardy, Keats and Eliot notwithstanding. This is indeed one way to shoe-horn them into the contemporary literary consciousness, one way of giving readers familiar bannisters to hold as they climb to the bare place at the centre of the work. Yet it sets the controls just that bit off. English love poetry, even the poetry of Donne which by its pounce and reach is recognisably akin to MacLean’s, still leads the reader to a more composed and accommodating relationship with the social world of possible feelings and manageable destinies. Donne is less distressed if equally animated by the shock of feeling. The whole undertow of doom which can subsist even in MacLean’s most felicitous lyric gesture – say a poem like ‘Am Mur Gorm’ – is exactly what tends to be missing in English lyrics. Something sensed beyond the pane of translation, an extra dimension of fear and need, seems to course the veins of the Gaelic rhythms, and perhaps this is why poetry from other languages, moods rising out of other emotional geographies, are helpful in trying to say exactly what MacLean does for us. Reading a poem like ‘An Tathaich’, I find myself thinking of the spectral presence in Alexander Blok’s ‘The Twelve’, swirling along in a blizzard of apprehensions where the historical moment and the personal dilemma storm into the mind in a single blast.

Still, spiritual geology may be more important than emotional geography. If Beatrice is candidly a figure who mediates between the heavenly and earthly worlds, Eimhir does so covertly. The woman in the poem resolves at a symbolic level tensions which would otherwise be uncontainable or wasteful. She is neither an escape from the world of moral decision nor an obliteration of it; she is neither an emblem of heavenly certitude nor a substitute for it. Yet she fills a necessary space in a mind that is ravenous for conviction. It is as if Hopkins had fallen in love at the moment of ‘the terrible sonnets’, and his poems, instead of being ‘cries like dead letters sent/To dearest him who lives, alas, away’, became cries to the loved one which neither relieved nor resolved his fear of the abyss or his doubts about his commitment, but which made them current in the world of erotic feeling rather than in the world of prayer.

In a way, MacLean’s relation with his landscape is erotic too, because the language of his poems of place has an amorousness and abundance about it which springs from the contemplation of the beloved contours. Contrary to the notion of the poet as one who gives to airy nothings a local habitation and a name, MacLean begins with names and habitations. He has an epic poet’s possession of ground, founders, heroes, battles, lovers, legends, all of them at once part of his personal apparatus of feeling and part of the common but threatened ghost-life of his language and culture. But to feel intensely within this first world of tradition is also to feel an imperative to become its custodian, and it is impossible to separate the potency of Sorley MacLean’s art from this function of keeping and witnessing, being ‘true to the horizon that happens to encircle him’. Without needing to proclaim the significance of his role – as MacDiarmid did constantly, for instance in ‘Island Funeral’ – MacLean establishes a conscience not only for the Gaelic nation but for the world which would diminish the integrity of that nation and thereby diminish its own.

There is nothing antiquarian or archival about this drive. We need only compare the way the names of mountains, waters and woods animate his poetry with the way the names of places and characters are put to work in the writings of David Jones in order to see how purely poetic, how non-programmatic, how free from the whiff of the scholar’s midnight oil, are the topographic and mythological elements in MacLean’s work. Jones often intended to instruct his audience in what they should know if they were to be true Britons, he had a design for his work and a design upon his reader, and his writing suffers from the submerged righteousness of his mission. The strain of his counter-cultural effort shows up at times as an excess of exotic data that remains illustrative rather than emotionally naturalised, and sometimes its tone strikes us as eccentric in the common pejorative sense of the word rather than in its definitive etymological sense.

Jones’s zeal was evangelical; MacLean’s responsibility is druidic. He stands at the centre, if near the end, of a world he embodies. Hence the effortless rhapsody of poems like ‘Ceann Loch Aoineart’ and ‘Coilltean Ratharsair’ thrives on the same nutrient love of place as the more personal love-poems like ‘A’ Bhuaile Ghreine’ and ‘Traighean’. In all of them an urgency to name springs from a sense of crisis, either personal or communal. They return to hallowed spots and exemplary names with the same intent as Yeats when he repeated the roll-call of his Olympians: in order to resist the erosion of certain values, to maintain the dignity and continuity of a style of life and a way of feeling and behaving characteristic of the poet’s caste. If this solidarity results in both poets finding political positions which are ideologically opposed – Yeats defending the Big House and privilege, MacLean sending his prayers to the Red Army fighting on the Dnieper – it also exposes important resemblances. Like Yeats, MacLean has a haughty, chivalrous mind, fortified by consciousness of ancestry, shadowed by a tragic sense of an ending. If he declines to draw his own profile in his poems as heroically and representatively as Yeats did, he nevertheless inherits a position within his own culture and within the world of poetry that resembles Yeats’s: ‘Man is in love and loves what vanishes’ is a motto to which the Gaelic poet could also assent.

When Sorley MacLean addresses Yeats directly, however, the accusation which Yeats thirsted for (at least once) is forthcoming:

You got the chance, William,
the chance of your words,
since courage and beauty
had their flagpoles through your side.
You acknowledged them in one way,
but there is an excuse on your lips,
the excuse that did not spoil your poetry,
for every man has his excuse.

In the previous stanza the socialist and fighter, James Connolly, is invoked, and Connolly is, of course, one of MacLean’s Olympians, in that his socialism, his patriotism and his execution as a result of committed action have exemplary force. Yeats indeed wrote the poem ‘Easter, 1916’ but Connolly died in the event, and hence in spite of the triumph of his art, Yeats is still found guilty of holding back. Yet there is a note of collusion as well as accusation at the end, and it seems to me that, thirty years after his poem about not going to Spain, MacLean is finding a double in the figure of the self-excusing Yeats: both of them are racked between the command to participate and their covenant with a non-participant muse.

In the meantime, however, MacLean had been a soldier and had gone through that initiation in danger without which every man feels incomplete, and in ‘Dol an Iar’ (first published in the 1977 selection) he writes a retrospective poem which takes him from his native island, through the remembered duel between love and honour, through desert warfare, into a sense of universal brotherhood and back into the deep, first resource of ancestry. At bottom it is reminiscence, in essence it is a conspectus of his poetic world:

And be what was as it was,
I am one of the big men of Braes,
of the heroic Raasay MacLeods,

of the sharp-sword Mathesons of Lochalsh;
and the men of my name – who were braver
when their ruinous pride was kindled?

But this genealogical line is not only a source of rhetorical defiance: it is an image which is as vital to the roots of his poetry and the validity of his language as that source which Yeats calls, in ‘The Circus Animals’ ‘Desertion’, ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’.

In one sense, all MacLean’s ladders start where his whole being is first vested, in the Gaelic language itself, and what is inestimable about his achievement – artistically and politically – is the extent to which it has sounded the Gaelic note through the world at a moment when it might have been presumed to be growing less than audible. In another sense, his ladders start in the particular life he has lived and the particular choices he has made. But whether we locate the origins of the art in the linguistic deposit or in personal experience, when we come to live with his poetry’s unique rigours and bonuses we can only assent to Ezra Pound’s salutary distinction that ‘there are works of art which are beautiful objects and works of art which are keys or passwords admitting one to a deeper knowledge, to a finer perception,’ in the grateful knowledge that Sorley MacLean’s are of the second sort. What was unlooked for has grown indispensable.