War Poet

Robert Crawford

  • O Choille gu Bearradh/From Wood to Ridge: Collected Poems in Gaelic and English by Sorley MacLean
    Carcanet, 317 pp, £18.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 85635 844 4

The finest poetry written by British citizens during the years 1939-45 was produced by T.S. Eliot and by Sorley MacLean. Each was a British citizen in a very different way. Eliot, more interested in assuming Englishness than Britishness, had already taken the un-English step of giving himself a written constitution (Royalist, Anglo-Catholic, Classicist), and gave over one of his three great war poems to the investigation and celebration of his American background. MacLean, a Gael born on the Hebridean island of Raasay in 1911, almost gave his life in the service of the British Crown when he was blown up by a land-mine at El Alamein in 1942; holding strong Communist and Scottish Nationalist views, he had decided he would fight because he was convinced Hitler would attack Russia, and because (as he wrote to MacDiarmid in 1941) his fear and hatred of the Nazis was greater than his hatred of ‘the English Empire’.[*]

Eliot and MacLean may be seen as poles apart. What they shared was more important. Each was impelled by a duty to his language, by the necessity of modernising its capacities and fighting its insularities; each was to become a cultural figurehead, the quintessential representative of poetry in his language. A desire to bond the traditional to the avant-garde, an apocalyptic turn of the imagination, a difficult fidelity to ancestors – these also connect Eliot and MacLean.

This new parallel text of MacLean’s Collected Poems contains almost double the material included in the 1977 Canongate parallel text Selected, and significantly more than the Poems 1932-82 published (in English translation only) by the Iona Foundation in Philadelphia in 1987. It opens with a helpful, lucid preface in which, among other things, MacLean, whose first language is Gaelic, recalls his time as an undergraduate studying English at Edinburgh University around 1930 when the influence of Professor Herbert Grierson was so potent. Under that influence, and in response to the impact of Eliot, MacLean became for a time a Donne-worshipper. He also wrote English poems in the style of Eliot and Pound, particularly the Pound of ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’. One can see how ‘Mauberley’ with its bitterness at Europe’s ‘botched civilisation’ and the slaughter of her young men may have helped fuel the MacLean who was increasingly enraged at the oppression of his own Gaelic people, and prepare him to become a modern poet of war and of the strains between action and aesthetics. Some of his short early lyrics such as ‘Edinburgh’ and ‘Aros Burn’ surely draw on Pound’s Imagism, while linking of the frustrated love of the 18th-Century Gaelic poet William Ross to ‘the Audiart who plagued De Born’ glances to the Pound of ‘Na Audiart’ and The Spirit of Romance.

More illuminating is MacLean’s orientation towards Eliot. It was the spell of Grierson and Eliot which drew him to Donne, whom both critics saw as the great exemplar of the poet’s synthesis of conflicting elements, of reason and emotion. Eliot’s own imagination (into whose service Donne was easily recruited) was obsessed with division – whether the split between thought and action in the early verse, between human life and potential salvation in The Waste Land and Ash Wednesday, between the halves of a ‘dissociation of sensibility’, or ‘Between the emotion/And the response’ in ‘The Hollow Men’. Division, warring division, was to be MacLean’s terrible muse.

This is evident in early poems such as ‘Reason and Love’, ‘Prayer’, and ‘The Choice’ with its splendidly understated, strange opening,

I walked with my reason
out beside the sea.
We were together but it was
keeping a little distance from me.

MacLean throughout struggles ‘with the divisive passion of my spirit’ (‘Glen Eyre’), while holding to traditional forms. Division is bound up with his concept of poetic greatness, with ‘acute Shakespeare struggling in the strife of his nature’. The stunning (occasionally, in English, awkward) long poem of 1939, ‘An Cuilithionn’ (‘The Cuillin’), published here for the first time as a whole work, has its speaker standing with ‘a foot in the morass/and a foot on the Cuillin’. Thirty-three pages long, this is a clear-sighted, frequently beautiful work written in anguish over the fate of Gaelic and European culture on the raw edge of war. It looks fearfully and worshipfully towards the bare, saw-toothed mountains of Skye, seeing them in a focus both of appeal and suffering. Its range is world-wide as it surveys history, its subject-matter is hypnotically obsessive. It ends with the Cuillin seen ‘rising on the other side of sorrow’, but the pain of impending catastrophe is all-pervasive.

Half the poetry in this book was produced between 1939 and 1945. The poems written throughout the Second World War intensify and develop the early divided lyric voice. ‘The Knife’ opens:

The knife of my brain made incision,
my dear, on the stone of my love.

In the famous poem ‘An Tathaich’ (‘The Haunting’) ‘the triumphant face of a girl/that is always speaking’ obsesses the poet, urging him in terms like a reworking of lines from ‘The Hollow Men’:

It is saying to my heart
that a division may not be sought
between desire and the substance
of its unattainable object.

The poem concludes with an admission common to many of MacLean’s sharpest lyrics: that in the fight between his reason and his fruitless love it is the latter which wins a costly victory.

Continuous awareness of painful division in MacLean’s verse gives him a constant sense of luasgan (‘unrest’). That word recurs in his long 1940 meditation in time of war, ‘The Woods of Raasay’. Unrest and division also permeate the love lyrics, where, for all their tenderness, attachment to a beloved wars with the call to defend values threatened by imperialism and Fascism, whether in the early Thirties, in Spain, or in World War Two. The love affairs are internal wars, and the decision to go to ‘the proper war’ is only the exchanging of one conflict for another. Much of the verse which MacLean wrote during the war years, some of his finest work, was love poetry addressed to a figure who is a mixture of an individual woman and the poet’s home and culture. Linking older Gaelic themes of heroism, lament, love and land-love, these poems are themselves strife-torn and haunted by political anxieties, with the result that they shade with scarcely a break into the poems which are literally and principally about the military hostilities of the Second World War.

It is precisely MacLean’s rasping awareness that even love may be a destructive engagement which makes him such a tight-lipped, generous poet of war. His love poems are almost war poems; his war poems, written far from ‘every loved image of Scotland’ in a place where ‘a foreign sand in History’ is ‘spoiling the machines of the mind’, achieve a remarkable sympathy, very close to love, for those enemies whom he elsewhere derides. The corpses of Nazis in the desert are seen as neoichiontach (‘innocent’) in the poem ‘Going Westwards’ with its loaded, Donne-like title. Now there is

no rancour in my heart
against the hardy soldiers of the Enemy,
but the kinship that there is among
men in prison on a tidal rock.

One thinks of Owen’s ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend,’ but also of the Eliot who could see a German warplane as the Dove of Pentecost. MacLean writes neither as an Anglican nor as an Englishman, but develops as a war poet his ability to utilise the potent peculiarities of his Calvinist Gaelic tradition and his intense awareness of division to write strikingly-angled poems that both take cognisance of the fissures of history and gesture across them. The poem ‘Heroes’ moves from Culloden to celebrating the heroism of a nameless small Englishman, ‘knees grinding each other’, killed in a tank attack in the desert. ‘Death Valley’, started by the sight of the ‘slate-grey’ face of a dead German boy-soldier, passes beyond reflection on the evils of the Nazis and those who were led often unwittingly by them; that poem concludes forcefully, quietly that

Whatever his desire or mishap,
his innocence or malignity,
he showed no pleasure in his death
below the Ruweisat Ridge.

These are some of the unforgettable poems of the Second World War, and stand at the head of the distinguished treatment of the desert war in the work of such Scottish poets as George Campbell Hay, Hamish Henderson and Edwin Morgan.

There is a pained, grim quality to some of MacLean’s verse – seen in the impulse which leads him to translate the first 26 lines of Paradise Lost into Gaelic, appending after the last line (‘And justify the ways of God to men’) the date ‘1945’. But there is also that generosity of spirit, seen particularly in the poems about the desert war. I am emphasising these poems for two reasons. First, whether because of a naive cultural imperialism or for other reasons, they are normally left out of anthologies and considerations of the poetry of the period. My second, greater reason is that these works seem to reveal how the rest of MacLean’s poetry is born out of war, out of the clash of warring elements of the self, and out of divided loyalties, as well as out of the heroic fight for the survival of his people’s language and culture. It is no accident that the last poem in this book, the recent ‘Screapadal’, is a meditation both on the clearance of Raasay in 1846 and on the possibility of a newer, greater clearance. The last line of the poem reads Bom idrigin is neodroin, which is the Gaelic for ‘hydrogen and neutron bomb’.

Post-1945 poems, including the beautiful ‘Hallaig’ with its ‘vehement bullet ... from the gun of Love’ and ‘A Church Militant’ with its fighting talk, continue to exhibit MacLean’s acute sense of war and division, linking him not only with Eliot but also with other great modern poets whose work is relevant to his own: MacDiarmid with his Caledonian Anti-syzygy, and the Yeats of self and anti-self, intersecting gyres, and a poetic imagination so preoccupied with the inner war of his frustrated love for Maud Gonne, the choice between poetry and action, and the civil war of his own country. It is in such an international company that MacLean’s oeuvre demands to be judged, as well as against the background of his native Scottish Gaelic tradition.

This contention brings us inescapably to the question of language. It may seem absurd or scandalous to some readers that I am reviewing this book as a person without Gaelic, who is unable to read the original poems, and who has to rely on the translations which Sorley MacLean has provided. Much of MacLean’s work is about the nature of this scandal – what has been done to his people and their language. My point has to be that the publication of this Collected Poems offers to readers of Gaelic and to those who have no Gaelic a chance to read the work of a great poet. This chance should be seized. There can be few who will resist the wish to steal something from the honed grace of MacLean’s lyrics and who will not feel about them as one may feel about Zbigniew Herbert’s poems: that even in English their sense of struggle, irony and determination convinces the reader that ‘if the City falls but a single man escapes ... he will be the City.’ MacLean, like Eliot, is such a figure: his language and much of his technique seem to us remote from the polylingual pyrotechnics of much of Modernism, but in a unique manner this great bard of division, this war poet, manages to articulate his culture so as to speak for embattled small cultures around the globe. His work also matters to those of us who come from strong languages outside the Gaelic zone and who are ready to appreciate how the passionate clarity of a major poet writing in a minor language can be seen as belonging to and enriching the world of ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ and The Waste Land, as well as the worlds of present-day cultures as different as those of Portree, Glasgow, London and New York.

[*] The most useful background to MacLean’s life and work is to be found in Sorley MacLean: Critical Essays, edited by Raymond Ross and Joy Hendry (Scottish Academic Press, 1986, 0 7073 0426 1), and in the poet’s own Ris a’ Bhruthaich: The Criticism and Prose Writings of Sorley MacLean, edited by William Gillies (Acair Ltd, Unit 8A, 7 James Street, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, 1985, 0 86152 041 6).