Selected Essays of Hugh MacDiarmid
A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle
Hugh MacDiarmid: Selected Poems
More Collected Poems
Scots, or Scotch, the speech of Scotland’s country people and proletariat, has often been declared dying, but is still alive. I spoke it when I was a boy in the Forties, believing it would soon be gone. Writing in his Journal a hundred years earlier, in 1844, Lord Cockburn thought the same thing:
Scotch is pretty deeply engrained into the people, but among the gentry it is receding shockingly. Among families spending £700 or even £500 a year, it seems to me that there is a majority of the modern children to whom, in his Scotch poems, Burns is already a sealed book. I could name dozens of families, born, living, and educated in Edinburgh, which could not produce a single son or daughter capable of understanding even “The Mouse” or “The Daisy.” English has made no encroachment upon me; yet, though I speak more Scotch than English throughout the day, and read Burns aloud, and recommend him, I cannot get even my own children to do more than pick up a queer word of him here and there. Scotch has ceased to be the vernacular language of the upper classes, and this change will go on increasing with the increasing intercourse which rolls the language of the greater people over our surface. Railways and steamers, carrying the southern into every recess, will leave no asylum for our native classical tongue. I see no other remedy except to treat it as a dead language.
If Scotch is lost, warned Cockburn, then “we lose ourselves. Instead of being what we are, we become a poor part of England.”
Hugh MacDiarmid has treated Scots as a living language, and was determined that Scotland should not be a poor part, or any part, of England. He dreamt of a time when the Lowlands and Gaelic-speaking areas would be the one place, detached from England: the truth is that they are two places, and that Gaelic Irredentism, where it exists among artists and writers, should steer them in a different direction—toward union with Ireland. Hugh MacDiarmid is a nom de guerre—his real name is Christopher Grieve. He is now seventy-nine. He has been a communist, one who rejoined the Party, after a fallingout, at the time of the Russian invasion of Hungary, and he has also been a Scottish Nationalist and England-baiter. Between the world wars he took an interest in ideas of a fascistic character (such as Hitler’s Blutsgefühl—the principle that “like mates with like,” the principle of apartheid). Like Pound, he was attracted to Major Douglas’s doctrine of Social Credit, with its phobia about usury. So it would appear that he has been the sort of communist who isn’t shy about expressing views that are incompatible with communism.
When MacDiarmid began to publish poems in the Twenties, the fear that Scots might not survive was attended by a second fear that, even if it did, it could no longer support a literature worth the name. He disproved this with his volumes Sangschaw and Penny Wheep, where he devised a literary Scots which came to be known as Lallans. Lallans owed something to certain lonely predecessors such as Charles Doughty and incorporated attitudes to language that place MacDiarmid with Joyce and with the other innovators and renovators of the modern movement. It was both an attempt to say in his own words and ways what a Scotsman might feel, and a poetic diction in which the rhythms of the modern vernacular were fed with a vocabulary of “queer words” drawn from the past: the dictionary of Cockburn’s contemporary Dr. Jamieson was its chief source.
Lallans was highly artificial: the spoken Scots of his own time was, as MacDiarmid put it, “aggrandized” by the presence of these queer words, just as Pope’s verse was made majestic by the poeticisms that denoted a classical decorum. MacDiarmid’s, of course, was a very different decorum, marked by surprise and surmise on the reader’s part. Lallans was an exercise of pride; it worked because it was impossible; it involved a self-inflicted attempt to bring forgotten words to life, to coax up Lazarus from the depths of the dictionary. I think MacDiarmid was aware that, here as elsewhere in Scotland, a miracle was needed: at the outset of his career he liked to write about resurrections.
The queer words made mischief and mystery. They also lent dignity and distance. They separated the Scottish reader from England by forcing an immersion in the archives of his own separate language. They were a means of pouring contempt on what was familiar: on the mass public with its Burns Suppers and its football, and on the coziness of the “pseudo-pastoral” Kailyaird school and their successors. These queer words can be said to have broken that window in Thrums. Lallans rescued the reader from the Kailyaird: Pope’s grand words had rescued the reader from a comparable meanness. It was both colloquial and arcane. It was both ancient and modern, with its recourse to the past and its simultaneous concern with what was new and progressive. It was both an instrument of nationalism and an engine of the international avant-garde.
Read in the Forties, these early poems of MacDiarmid seemed to show a Scotland that wasn’t just a poor part of England. They were also rather less “obscure” and “complex” than even their defenders were inclined to regard them: they didn’t appear to a school-boy to need any more glossing than Shakespeare did. In one respect they were in fact quite familiar. They were ancient in a way that the mere use of obsolete words couldn’t account for. These were pre-industrial themes, Christian themes.
MacDiarmid recognized that Scotland is a collection not of bonny banks and braes but of banks and factories: it is a fairly heavily industrialized country, and one of the first to become so—most of its factories look as hoary and antique as any Border abbey. His poems have had to bear in mind the existence of—though they do not address—a proletariat. Yet he himself is a countryman, and has spent most of his life in the country, sometimes in remote districts. The charismatic poetsage, this small leonine man with the orator’s head and the quiet fireside voice—Scotland’s Mao, all poems and no power—spends his cotter’s Saturday nights, and the rest of the week as well, in a wee hoose up a bank and brae in Lanarkshire. The hearth is hung with his trophies, oils and icons of him done by artists from all over Europe and, I’m sure, from Cuba; shelves of little magazines and manifestoes complete the scene.
He has rather the same worldly eye, a leader’s eye, as Lord Reith had—as if corrupted by rectitude and severity. Reith, that other Scottish chieftain who founded and bossed the BBC, resembled Grieve in more than name. Yet Grieve is likable as few leaders, and very few impotent or ruined potentates, ever are, and is far more genial than some of his opinions would suggest.
Among the polemics and reproofs which bulk large in MacDiarmid’s Selected Essays there is a singularly unreproving piece written in 1931 which describes his boyhood in the Border town of Langholm and which speaks nostalgically of the pleasures of wading “through knee-deep meadow-sweet.” This is not a note struck either in his early lyrics or in his later poems of musing and anathema. Yet these lyrics inhabit a kind of Langholm, a village or farm geography:
As I gaed doon the hedgeback
Five blue eggs I saw,
It was as gin you’d looked at me
Wi’ five een for twa.
The title of that poem is “Trompe l’Oeil,” which points to interests beyond the village. These poems have a kind of psychological inwardness which could only have come originally from the cities. (It may be that there is no country writing: only writing about the country which is done, in some sense, from the city.) But they are the poems of someone who knows and accepts village life, who does not pretend or play tricks—unless there is a reason—and who does not patronize. There is no nostalgia in them, no meadowsweet. MacDiarmid does not do as Robert Louis Stevenson did and use rural themes and words for ornamental reasons, twining round an imaginary cottage “a wheen auld gillyflowers an’ roses.” Some people behave as if there weren’t any villages or cottages any more, as if the country existed only to be driven through: yet you can drive on main roads from Dieppe to Lisbon and pass into a world of lively farms and market-places and never see more than a dozen factories.
MacDiarmid is writing here about a real world, and one that still survives. Now that poetry in Britain has largely retired from London to the provinces, it is worth acknowledging how rural he was at the outset, when resurrection rather than revolution was what mattered to him, and how rural he has remained even in his revolutionary verse, when Langholm, in effect, was composing its hymns to Lenin.
When Stevenson writes in Weir of Hermiston of a “skirling Jezebel” or a “clay-cauld corp,” what we are getting is something other than a pithiness of the vernacular. The queer words are there for color; and the element of archaism, of Ballad-robbing, is very different from MacDiarmid’s digging into dictionaries. MacDiarmid commends the poetry of Robert Fergusson, Lord Cockburn the prose of Noctes Ambrosianae, as sterling examples of written Scots produced after the point at which the writing of Scots fell into disfavor and became problematical. Compared with these, Stevenson’s Scots is not wholly authentic. And the point is that, for all the aggrandizements and avant-garde engineering, MacDiarmid’s is. His lyrics depend upon a true and purposeful spoken Scots which is seldom in the least picturesque: they have a colloquial force about them that he managed to keep when he turned later to writing in English.
His feeling for resurrections grew into a wish to redeem his country, and into a feeling for revolutions. His great poem of resurrection, the marvelous “Crowdieknowe,” dates from the time when he still made use of Christian and other traditional themes, yet it is also perhaps a glorification, literal and figurative, of the militant poor:
Oh to be at Crowdieknowe
When the last trumpet blaws
An’ see the deid come loupin’ owre The auld grey wa’s.
Muckle men wi’ tousled beards
I grat at as a bairn
‘ll scramble frae the croodit clay
Wi’ feck o’ swain’.
An’ glower at God an’a’ his gang
O’ angels i’ the lift Thae trashy bleezin’ French-like folk
Wha gar’d them shift!
Fain the weemun-folk’ll seek
To mak’ them haud their row
Fegs, God’s no’ blate gin he stirs
The men o’ Crowdieknowe!
The poem seems to harbor childhood memories of harsh and disheveled, ogrelike Victorian peasants, God-fearing or God-baiting men. You couldn’t claim that it was altogether free from tricks and pretenses. In fact, there is an impersonation: some use is made of a rustic persona, which thinks of the Doomsday angels as “thae trashy bleezin’ French-like folk.” This from the author of a poem called “Trompe l’Oeil”! It is a good trick, though, and a brilliant stroke.