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.

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