The Fug o’Fame

David Goldie

One day, in the early years of the 20th century, a poetically-minded young man from the Scottish borders called Christopher Murray Grieve walked to Ecclefechan, the birthplace of Thomas Carlyle. It wasn’t a long way, but his trek was a gesture of hero-worship to one of the greatest Scotsmen and largest egos of the previous century. He toured Carlyle’s house and, as some visitors did, tried on the great man’s hat. To his enormous delight, it was too small for him.

More than half a century later Grieve, now in his eighties and long famous as Hugh MacDiarmid, was still crowing about this. As an established man of letters, he could afford to be wry about the story, but the fact that he tells it at all makes clear his own big-headedness – the great pleasure he took in the enormousness and occasional enormity of his ego – as well as his lifelong obsession with size and comparison. Norman MacCaig, who knew him well, thought MacDiarmid was an ‘egomaniac’; Seamus Heaney has described him as ‘very egocentric’. Neither of them, sensibly, thinks that an imperfect or monstrous life makes much difference to the poetry. But if poetry remains its own best defence, then what is to be gained by reminding us of the tangle out of which it was salvaged? If, as Karl Kraus suggested, ‘a poem is good until one knows who wrote it,’ is it not safer to avoid biographical distractions altogether?

These issues have particular force in the case of MacDiarmid. This is partly because of the unstable nature of his identity and partly because there is much in his life that has the potential to damage the reputation of his poetry. Hugh MacDiarmid was one of several personae adopted by Christopher Grieve to further his intertwined ambitions of achieving personal greatness and restoring to Scotland a living literary tradition. MacDiarmid entered the world in 1922, the annus mirabilis of Modernism, and at first offered Grieve merely a convenient alter ego through whom he might enjoy the pleasures of self-contradiction. Grieve had, earlier that year, written savagely about the ‘infantilism’ of Scottish vernacular poetry, pouring particular scorn on writers so distanced from their own cultural roots that they had to glean their vocabularies from dictionaries. Yet his first action as MacDiarmid was to do exactly that, plundering glossaries, works on the Scots language and the six volumes of Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language more ruthlessly than any of his predecessors. Wrenching words indiscriminately from their local sources and historical periods, sometimes even inventing plausible-sounding new ones, he developed a synthetic Scots that no one had ever spoken but which had a persuasive ring of authenticity. The result was the simple, sometimes breathtakingly beautiful lyricism that can be found in the short dialect poems in Sangschaw (1925) and Penny Wheep (1926). ‘The Eemis Stane’, for instance:

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.
Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw
No’ yirdit thaim.

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