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Born Christopher Murray Grieve on August 11, 1892, in Langholm, Scotland, near the English border, Hugh MacDiarmid adopted his pen name in the early 1920’s. His father’s side of the family worked mostly in tweed mills, while his mother’s people were farmers; throughout his life, MacDiarmid championed the working class. His father, who was a rural postman, died while MacDiarmid was still a teenager. Educated at Langholm Academy and Broughton Junior Student Center, Edinburgh, the young man worked thereafter as a journalist and became active in politics. In World War I, he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Salonika, Italy, and France.

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In 1918, MacDiarmid was married, and he settled after the war in Montrose, Angus, where he continued as a reporter, local politician, and contributor to the Scottish Renaissance and Nationalist movements. Although MacDiarmid adopted his pen name in the early 1920’s, he continued to write prose under his given name for years afterward. He lived in England most of the time between the years 1929 and 1932, working at temporary jobs, perfecting his antipathy to the English, and suffering the breakup of his marriage.

After being remarried in 1932, MacDiarmid returned to Scotland, worked briefly in Edinburgh, and from 1933 to 1941 lived in Whalsay in the Shetland Islands, where he developed the geological interest that permeates his poems of this period. He performed factory and merchant tasks during World War II, after which he traveled considerably, including trips to communist nations. As late as 1964, when he was seventy-two, he stood as Communist candidate for Parliament in the district of Kinross and West Perthshire, insisting as always that his Communist and Nationalist commitments in no way conflicted. The publication of Collected Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid in the United States in 1962, while omitting many good poems, brought him to the attention of a wider reading public, and in his final years, he was acknowledged as one of Scotland’s greatest poets. He died at the age of eighty-six on September 9, 1978.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1192

Hugh MacDiarmid (muhk-DUR-muhd) was born Christopher Murray Grieve in the border town of Langholm, Scotland, eight miles from England, on August 11, 1892. His father was a postal worker and a strong trade unionist, while his mother supplemented her wages as a domestic servant with work in the town library, where Grieve became so familiar with the stacks that he “could find any book . . . in the dark.” Adept at the subjects he liked, indifferent to those that did not hold his interest, Grieve agreed to pursue a course in teacher training in Edinburgh in 1908 to mollify his parents, who were horrified by his declaration that he was going to be a poet.

In Scotland’s capital, Grieve became involved in nationalist politics, joined the socialist Fabian Society as well as the Independent Labor Party, and became editor of the literary magazine at the Broughton Junior Student Center. Although he was a genial, often gregarious companion, Grieve also had a disputatious tendency that resulted in a lifelong pattern of quarrels with organizations that employed him. He left school after a misunderstanding involving a prank gone out of control in 1910 and found work with the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch as a reporter, a vocation he relied on during frequent periods of economic stress. He was dismissed after a clash with the editor, worked briefly for the Monmouthshire Labor News before being fired after challenging the editorial committee on grounds of hypocrisy, and returned to Langholm in 1912, launching a characteristically ambitious program of production typical of the periods in his life when his enormous energy enabled him to work simultaneously on a variety of literary and political endeavors.

Living near Aberdeen, he wrote for three local newspapers, began to write lyric poetry, started a series of essays on Scottish nationalism, and experimented with mildly erotic short fiction in the mode of D. H. Lawrence, whose stories he had read in the English Review. Initially declining to become involved in “England’s war” with Germany, he enlisted when a close friend was killed in battle. He was posted to Greece in 1916 and wrote war poetry there in the style of Rupert Brooke as well as barracks songs similar to Rudyard Kipling’s. On medical leave with a recurrence of a malarial infection, he married Margaret Skinner in 1918 and then returned to Scotland in 1919 to launch a review of Scots cultural activities called Northern Numbers. He accepted the editorship of the prestigious Montrose Review in 1921, and his involvement with nationally controversial questions of Scots home rule and Scottish cultural identity led him to create the pseudonym of Hugh MacDiarmid, a vehicle for the expression of his intense nationalist convictions in poetic language. Although he had been writing in English, his decision to reverse his previous position of avoiding the Scots vernacular enabled him to begin the composition of his landmark long poem, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926). He began to employ a language called synthetic Scots, which was a revivification of the tradition of greatness (exemplified in the writing of Robert Dunbar) and a modernist experiment in the mode of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

He published a book of prose sketches, entitled Annals of the Five Senses, under the name C. M. Grieve in 1923. The first publication signed by MacDiarmid (actually M’Diarmid) was a collection of lyrics, Sangschaw (song festival) in 1925. The writer Edwin Muir described the book as a synthesis of the riches of all the Scottish dialects. At that time, MacDiarmid attacked what he considered spurious examples of a weakened, sentimental version of Scottish culture and was preparing the first drafts of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. Following its appearance, he began work on his next major project, To Circumjack Cencrastus: Or, The Curly Snake (1930). He continued his political activities by founding the Scottish Center of PEN, campaigning as a member of the Scottish Home Rule Association, and supporting candidates who shared his nationalist opinions.

With his wife and two children, MacDiarmid moved in 1929 to London to edit VOX, a journal devoted to the radio arts, and then to Liverpool to write publicity for the City Council when VOX folded. He agreed to a divorce after his wife had an affair with a wealthy mine owner and was stunned by the decree that prohibited him from seeing his children. Valda Trevlyn, whom he met in 1930, gave him encouragement, and he plunged ahead with his usual vigor. Following the publication of To Circumjack Cencrastus, he produced four other books of poetry in the early 1930’s, wrote constantly on Scots cultural issues, joined the British Communist Party in 1934, and married Valda that same year. MacDiarmid moved with his new wife and child to the Shetland Island of Whalsay, an isolated community of fishermen, in 1933 and worked on so many separate commissions during the next two years that he was hospitalized with an onset of nervous exhaustion. Upon recovering, he began his last really ambitious poem, the Cornish Heroic Song for Valda Trevlyn, which was never completed in its original form but which provided the stem of many of his later published poems.

In spite of his age and previous service, MacDiarmid was called up in 1942 for industrial service. His irritation with many aspects of the social and political world was channeled into the first volume of his autobiography, Lucky Poet (1943), which mingled childhood recollection with opinion, literary theory, and attacks on many adversaries. By this time, he was sufficiently famous for an edition of his selected poems, Speaking for Scotland (1946), to be published in the United States. He also continued to lead a vigorous existence, combining pub talk, public pronouncements, political and poetic debates, and frequent contributions to newspapers, journals, and anthologies. His connoisseur’s consumption of single malt Scotch whiskey—a lifelong practice—had no apparent adverse effects on his health but led to occasional incidents that contributed to his growing legend as a wild man. The honors he received (a pension of £150 per year from the government in 1950; an honorary doctor of laws degree from Edinburgh University in 1957) did not diminish his instinct for controversy. He rejoined the British Communist Party in 1957, twenty-two years after his expulsion, demonstrated for nuclear disarmament, argued with Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, and others at the Edinburgh Festival of 1962, and challenged the election of Sir Alec Douglas-Home (“a zombie, personifying the obsolescent traditions of an aristocrat”) as prime minister. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, his life was brightened by a reunion with his children and the publication of his poetry in continuously revised editions, as well as the opportunity to meet writers he admired. By the time of his death in 1978, at the age of eighty-six, he had become a national celebrity, whose “essential vitality” and “disarmingly courteous manner” made him a welcome companion, but one who never curtailed his knife-edge wit when confronting what he considered slights to his artistic or cultural integrity. In Scotland, his reputation at the end of the twentieth century remained as much a subject of debate as it did in the 1920’s when he first emerged into national consciousness. His poetry has continued to find an audience throughout the world.

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