MacDiarmid and his Maker

Robert Crawford

  • MacDiarmid by Alan Bold
    Murray, 482 pp, £17.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 7195 4585 4
  • A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle by Hugh MacDiarmid, edited by Kenneth Buthlay
    Scottish Academic Press, 203 pp, £12.50, February 1988, ISBN 0 7073 0425 3
  • The Hugh MacDiarmid-George Ogilvie Letters edited by Catherine Kerrigan
    Aberdeen University Press, 156 pp, £24.90, August 1988, ISBN 0 08 036409 8
  • Hugh MacDiarmid and the Russian by Peter McCarey
    Scottish Academic Press, 225 pp, £12.50, March 1988, ISBN 0 7073 0526 8

Before 1922 Hugh MacDiarmid did not exist. And only Christopher Murray Grieve would have dared to invent him. Alan Bold’s valuable biography points out that when the 30-year-old Grieve began to write in the Scottish Chapbook under the pseudonym ‘M’Diarmid’, he was already editing the magazine under his own name, reviewing for it as ‘Martin Gillespie’, and employing himself as its Advertising Manager (and occasional contributor), ‘A.K. Laidlaw’. We tend to think of the subject of this biography as the greatest voice of modern Scottish literature; more accurately, he is the greatest chorus.

Born in 1892 in the Scottish Border mill-town of Langholm, Grieve, even before adopting the name Hugh MacDiarmid, was eager to give the impression that he was not just a writer but an enormous literary mill. Writing from World War One Macedonia (where he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps), Grieve tells his old schoolteacher, George Ogilvie, about his detailed plans for a hundred essays on Scottish Art and the Scottish Church. He is planning a Scottish Vortex, and is already fizzing with that energy which would make him a power-surge at the end of the Celtic Twilight: ‘I can think out novels and plays in odd half-hours, visualise every detail, see them published and played, anticipate their criticism in the Times, the British Weekly and the New Age simultaneously, write prefaces to new editions, sum up carefully on the business side, grant interviews and talk at great length and with indescribable sense and spirit ... ’

The Hugh MacDiarmid-George Ogilvie Letters have been edited and annotated in their entirety by Catherine Kerrigan, and they show how many of MacDiarmid’s attitudes and determinations were present in Quartermaster-Sergeant Grieve of Salonika. The young Grieve describes himself as being in ‘mental spate’; his intellectual life is ‘a debating society’, and he tells Ogilvie: ‘I feel like a buried city.’ These letters sizzle with energy; they also show an anxious desire to impress and, at moments whose scarcity only emphasises their significance, they reveal an insecurity. The Grieve who initiates the correspondence with Ogilvie craves companionship and support. In 1920 he skids into the doubt that ‘sometimes I think that I only think that I can think,’ and worries about struggles in his most private self that no one else will understand. This may seem at odds with the man who writes of his hunger for any sort of publicity, but throughout MacDiarmid’s career private anxieties and public pugnacity appear to have fuelled one another. The talented but vulnerable private individual could comfortably inhabit the noisy and polemical chorus.

From his earliest years MacDiarmid craved, deserved, but did not always receive, attention. Alan Bold’s biography presents Grieve’s childhood as rather lonely and biblioholic. The boy’s talent for verse was encouraged by his local Free Church minister, T.S. Cairncross, before Grieve went on to Broughton School in Edinburgh, where he met the remarkable and supportive George Ogilvie. In this first (and authorised) critical biography Bold has done important work in assembling details of Grieve’s early life, so that we see, not only Grieve the friend of Red Clydesiders John MacLean and James Maxton, but also the Grieve whose Scottish nationalism was encouraged by his rejection by English girls. Heady on his home-brew of Nietzsche, John Davidson, and almost any other literary material he could devour, this proto-MacDiarmid emerges as something of a sexual predator. 1918, for instance, sees a passionate affair with a Spanish girl in Salonika followed by a marriage to Peggy, his Scottish sweetheart, that rapidly gives way to ‘erotic abandon’ with a French girlfriend. A dozen years later, MacDiarmid would be deeply wounded when Peggy left him for another man. For all his deploring of Harry Lauder, MacDiarmid himself in some ways conformed at various times to the easiest Scottish stereotypes: the boasting predatory male, the political motor-mouth, the pickled poet.

It is to Alan Bold’s credit that his biography reveals this without either rancour or undue hero-worship He indicates some of the most important sources of nurture for the developing poet. Particularly acute is his demonstration of the importance of Lewis Spence to MacDiarmid. Bold argues convincingly that it was Spence’s attitude to nationalism and to the Scots language that encouraged Grieve to reverse his earlier condemnation of the attempt to write in that medium, and so stimulated the first Scots lyrics to emerge from ‘Hugh MacDiarmid’.

At times, though, one misses a deeper sense of the Scottish intellectual milieu which nourished this remarkable writer. For instance, Bold mentions that MacDiarmid knew Patrick Geddes, the Edinburgh polymath and pioneer of modern town planning. But no attention is paid to MacDiarmid’s own suggestion that Geddes’s literary magazine the Evergreen inspired the Scottish Chapbook. In the 1890s Geddes had espoused a Scots Renaissance through the Evergreen, and had longed for a new synthesis of science and the arts. Other links between the work of Geddes and MacDiarmid make one wonder if the Grieve who was lecturing in 1918 on ‘Civics and Town Planning’ was already familiar with Geddes. It is a pity Bold often ignores such connections, because his biography is a necessary step towards the strengthening of our sense of a distinctive Scottish intellectual tradition. The development of such a sense is important for intellectual historians and for practising artists; it is also a debt we owe to MacDiarmid and others of his generation. Late 18th and 19th-century Scottish literature, from Boswell and Smollett through Scott to Carlyle and beyond, appears to have been geared towards the furthering of a British culture in which Scotland would have a place. But 20th-century Scottish writing (spearheaded by MacDiarmid) has been part of a general movement to create a cultural identity for Scotland that is post-British.

A Scottish culture emerging from its British phase required, as MacDiarmid saw, an international outlook which would prevent parochialism. After the First World War, Grieve established himself in Scotland as the editor of Northern Numbers, a sort of Scottish Georgian anthology which brought him publicity and the attention of the literary establishment. Northern Numbers included work by established names like John Buchan, as well as by newcomers like Grieve and his brother Andrew, whose verse (as Bold points out) Grieve later viciously attacked. Eventually, Andrew would break permanently with Christopher, describing him (with some justice) as ‘megalomaniac’. By 1920, Grieve was employed as a teacher in Caithness on the estate of Charles Perrins, the Worcester Sauce millionaire. The poet’s own verse still lacked the tang of excitement, but he had begun to look to a vast array of international writers for inspiration. Grieve was a late developer. Only in Montrose in 1922 did he begin, falteringly, to find himself, or rather to locate Hugh MacDiarmid.

Bold is right to place MacDiarmid in the much wider Modernist context as well as in a Scottish setting. He points out that 1922 is a date linking the appearance of MacDiarmid’s first Scots lyrics with the publication of Ulysses and The Waste Land. He draws attention to the importance of Ulysses to MacDiarmid, who connected that work with his own early Scots endeavours.

Yet if we wish to understand MacDiarmid as a major Modernist writer, it is better to move from Bold’s workmanlike expositions of the poetry to Kenneth Buthlay’s splendid new edition of A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle. Fully glossed, annotated, and with a forceful introduction, this edition will be of great value to both old and new readers of the poem. It supplies much linguistic, literary and cultural material that will benefit readers and scholars. For instance, Buthlay gives more detail than Bold about MacDiarmid’s debts to Russian writers, Modernist and otherwise, though for a full comparative treatment of Hugh MacDiarmid and the Russians, one has to turn to the authoritative and attractively-written book of that title by Peter McCarey.

Like Bold, Buthlay attends to links between the linguistic adventurousness of Joyce and that of MacDiarmid: but where Bold relates MacDiarmid’s advocacy of the Caledonian antisyzygy to a generally post-Hegelian consciousness, Buthlay indicates more specific analogies with Yeats’s use of self and anti-self. Previous critics have often taken too narrow a view of Gregory Smith’s emphasis on the tendency to combine opposites as a characteristic of distinctively Scottish writing. Buthlay is right to emphasise that this view of Scottish culture was important to MacDiarmid precisely because it suddenly made the Scottish cultural inheritance at one with contemporary international literary tastes and developments. Buthlay might have gone further and included the enthusiasm for strange metaphysical blendings, manifested by MacDiarmid’s early admirer Herbert Grierson. The Edinburgh professor’s work had recently prompted Eliot’s celebration of poetry censured by Dr Johnson for having ‘the most heterogeneous ideas ... yoked by violence together’. MacDiarmid’s determination to be ‘whaur extremes meet’ is very much a Modernist priority as well as a Scottish one.

This is evident not least in his language, which, like that of Ulysses and The Waste Land, unites local pub-demotic with dictionary-highbrow. Buthlay’s edition prints the text of A Drunk Man on the left-hand page and many of its source materials on right-hand pages. This arrangement allows us to see clearly how MacDiarmid in the poem achieves choral, typically Modernist effects. A good instance is seen when Buthlay places a verse of MacDiarmid’s host-text (an English version of Blok) beside the splendidly parasitical Scots revoicing of it in A Drunk Man. The English verse reads:

I try, held in this strange captivity,
To pierce the veil that darkling falls –
I see enchanted shores’ declivity,
And an enchanted distance calls.

MacDiarmid revoices this as

I seek, in this captivity
To pierce the veils that darklin ‘fa’
– See white clints slidin’ to the sea,
And hear the horns o’ Elfland blaw.

What we have now is a verse produced by Blok, his English translators, MacDiarmid and Tennyson. MacDiarmid’s Scots language is generally synthetic because it brings different dialects together with living words and long-obsolete ones; the way in which he likewise pools texts to achieve (like Eliot, Pound and Joyce) choral effects in a language that is and is not his own produces also a synthetic voice, a manufactured chorus. This technique is being developed in the early Scots lyrics, where he is not just using the dictionary but collaborating with it, and at times letting it use him as its wealth of definitions and citations affords him not just words but also whole lines and phrases. In a sense, MacDiarmid’s work parallels the question asked by his Scottish contemporary, W.S. Graham: ‘What is the language using us for?’

Buthlay stresses in his introduction the importance of Gregory Smith’s Caledonian antisyzygy as a paramount interpretative tool in A Drunk Man. We might also point to Gregory Smith’s discussion of the so-called Editorial Theory about Burns. This theory sees the poet’s merit less in terms of his individual originality than in terms of his editing of given material. MacDiarmid’s oeuvre is a constant exploration of the tension between poet as creator and poet as editor. In his work, with its grand larcenies and constant poetic re-voicings of prose material, we see Modernist techniques in extremis. All the Modernists were explicitly creative editors – though it is interesting that Eliot should have been reading Gregory Smith just before producing ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, the most celebrated Modernist defence of the poet as editor of his own cultural hoard.

I suspect that Alan Bold is unhappy about much of MacDiarmid’s later work, but it is important to see it as a development of the early editorial techniques in the Scots poetry. Bold omits mention of some of MacDiarmid’s most stunning performances, such as ‘To a Friend and Fellow Poet’, where part of the fascination comes from the strain of the informational text against its re-voicing in a poetry of subtle accelerations and decelerations. MacDiarmid’s verse revelled in despised materials: Scots language, ‘provincial’ subjects, scientific, informational and other ‘unpoetic’ matter. In constructing his work, he drew on Modernism and on the Scottish tradition as seen in John Davidson, neglected grandfather of modern Scottish poetry, who proclaimed that dictionaries and encyclopedias were the proper quarries for the poet. In MacDiarmid’s late work (mostly written in the Thirties) the cosmological imagination of the younger poet is redeployed; it is not the dictionary but the encyclopedia which becomes his collaborator; the chorus is generated by voices of linguistic and scientific exploration. Such chorusing sets MacDiarmid apart from the ‘two cultures’ debate which developed in England, and establishes him as a poet of technologies of information. This poet who spent most of the Thirties on one of the Shetland islands, unable to publish much of his most adventurous verse, emerges in his ‘poetry of fact’ as strangely appropriate for our own age. With MacDiarmid, as with Burns, there is a danger that an interest in the biography may override the poetry. A strength of Bold’s life of the poet is that it does not forget that MacDiarmid’s central importance is as a producer of verse.

MacDiarmid, though, was never a man to be confined to the page, and readers who buy this book because they want a picture of one of the oddest writers of the century – endlessly provocative, percipient and crazy – will not be disappointed. The public life of MacDiarmid, a professional journalist with an insatiable appetite for publicity, affords numerous occasions for delight, horror and amazement. In his career the heroic and mock-heroic frequently scald one another. MacDiarmid designates his garden shed the Scottish Poetry Bookshop, and tries to set up a Hugh MacDiarmid Book Club to dispose of unsold copies of his work. He asks for writing materials in a pub: only a piece of toilet paper can be found – he writes a great lyric on it. On one of the hottest days of the year he wears a fur coat to keep the sun out. In 1964, having polled 127 votes against Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s 16,659, MacDiarmid takes Douglas-Home (then Prime Minister) to court, denouncing him as ‘a zombie’. Thirty-six years earlier, flown to Dublin by the Irish Government, MacDiarmid finds himself in the early morning pissing in the street with W.B. Yeats: ‘I crossed swords with him and we became very friendly after that.’ Bold supplies many such enjoyable vignettes, but resists (as C.M. Grieve sometimes did not) turning his subject into The Hugh MacDiarmid Show.

MacDiarmid’s politics (including his wish in the late Twenties for ‘a species of Scottish Fascism’) are covered amply, clearly, and without unnecessary gloating. Still, one can’t help feeling at times that, understandably, the Clark Kent figure of Grieve is lost among the chorus of Stalinist MacDiarmidian Supermen. At those moments one is grateful for quotations from Valda Grieve, the poet’s widow. Her remarks can sketch a ‘Christopher’ whose human scale counterpoints the vast, sometimes forbidding architectural façades of ‘MacDiarmid’.

I didn’t really believe in the business of ‘Hugh MacDiarmid’ or any of that: this business of being a Scottish poet was all baloney. What really decided me was when I was standing in the Tottenham Court Road. Christopher had gone down to the lavatory and had gone into the women’s. I thought ‘Oh, my God. I can’t leave him.’

We will want later biographies to attempt a fuller psychological analysis of that individual ‘Christopher’ behind the choric masks, and a fuller setting of MacDiarmid in his Scottish cultural climate. Alan Bold’s book passes very quickly over MacDiarmid’s poetically barren last twenty years. There is no mention, for instance, of those quarrels with younger writers such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, and the Edwin Morgan who is in some ways MacDiarmid’s literary heir. It does seem untrue to say that ‘as for MacDiarmid’s legacy, it has to be confined to his own achievement.’ MacDiarmid’s legacy seems present even in the work of those who were still teenagers when he died in 1978 – such as the painter Ken Currie and the poet W.N. Herbert.

This biography shows signs of haste: the same facts and quotations recur in various chapters, some dates (like that of the first Blast) are incorrect, and there are unexplained discrepancies between versions of texts quoted by Bold and by other scholars. But it successfully communicates a sense of the man who characterised himself in a typically forceful letter sent to George Bruce in July 1964: ‘My job, as I see it, has never been to lay a tit’s egg, but to erupt like a volcano, emitting not only flame, but a lot of rubbish.’ That image of vast if uneven production is a late version of MacDiarmid the literary mill, the noisy and polyphonic chorus. It would be neat but inaccurate to conclude that MacDiarmid was the last active volcano in Scotland. Certainly he is at the forefront of those who have made the 20th century the greatest century in Scottish poetry. Alan Bold is right to assert that MacDiarmid is ‘the peer of Pound, Eliot and Neruda’. MacDiarmid is also the countryman of a number of more recent poets, including Sorley MacLean, W.S. Graham, Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan, Douglas Dunn, and the tactician of Little Sparta. Not far from the small cottage near Biggar where MacDiarmid spent his final years, Ian Hamilton Finlay, another courageous, controversial and embattled artist, has set in discrete concrete blocks beside a Border lochan the words from Saint-Just: ‘THE PRESENT ORDER IS THE DISORDER OF THE FUTURE.’ MacDiarmid’s very different work also delivers that message.