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.
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.
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...
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