George Mackay Brown

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Brown, George Mackay (Vol. 5)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3566

Brown, George Mackay 1921–

A British prize-winning poet, short story writer, novelist, and essayist, Brown still lives in and writes of his native Orkney Islands. His themes, which may be called religious, are derived from Norse sagas and Catholicism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

George Mackay Brown knows where he is. His middle name has the tang-smack of ancient clanship and his poems testify all the time to his fascinated, localised convictions about Orkney-landscape and Orkney-folk past and present. It's like witnessing an absolute at-oneness. Inevitably there's local colour, if not whisky, galore: but not the brand to be mistaken for railway-carriage water-colours or package-deal brochures depicting remote Isles ready-made for recluses craving some ultimate haven-ly cul-de-sac, for neural souls despairing of diseases like noise, for weekend beachcombers seeking bits of bleached history under the shrill mewing Brandenberg-music of Arctic terns. Depict he does, as poets have rightly done ever since vocabulary caught on; and his local colour, in fact his total effect, is of a mature distillation and blend by an excellent and unmistakeable poet patiently subdued by, and to, the demands of his terrain.

For the poem-comber place-names are scattered about like saer-skels: Braga, The Kist and The Sneuk, Skaill, Sulisker, Rockall, Bui, Hoy, and Hamnavoe where

    The kirk, in a gale of psalms, went heaving through     A tumult of roofs, freighted for heaven. And lovers       Unblessed by steeples, lay under       The buttered bannock of the moon.

—and except for the kirk we might, just, be under Milk Wood; though in the main Mackay Brown's diction seems as individually home-woofed as his themes and scenes are native. Then, for the wayfarer, curious poetic runes abound: Imagistic, the haikus of Orkney, laconic as mile-stones or time-stones, like 'Harpoonist':

               He once riveted boat to whale.                Frail-fingered now                He weaves crab prisons.

Spare, quiet, visually perceptive, they are idiosyncratic fussless tokens of a way of living and viewing. Aesthetic miniatures, seemingly evocative for their own sakes, appear throughout, like 'Snow' from "Weather Bestiary":

  Autumn, a moulted parrot, eyes with terror   This weird white cat. It drifts the rose-bush under.                                                       (p. 58)

The dead, like the past, are influential, even restorative. History, for both good and ill, is certainly exemplary; and to George Mackay Brown it is also red-haired and blond and cyclic. In … Fishermen with Ploughs, he has taken on a task indeed: a historical poem cycle in six parts. A 9th Century Norse tribe, refugees from the Dragon of outrageous fortune, sail west, fatalistic but hopeful of an agricultural survival. Settled on Hoy, the generations evolve through religious and political upheavals to compulsory education and the accumulating spurious material lumber of Progress, surely another Dragon, which depopulates the Island till all is desolation and 'Dead Fires'—

           Stars shine through the roofbeams of Scar.            No flame is needed            To warm ghosts and nettle and rat.

three lines very reminiscent of his poetic runes.—Ultimately the Dragon is a holocaust that obliterates a city whose few survivors return to the Island, possessed of little more than a primitive hope in agriculture and fishing, but enough to start the wheel turning. This mere summary must not detract anything from Mackay Brown's achievement, from the task itself which is vividly and quietly accomplished with an interesting range of verse-forms and a marvellous prose chorus at the end. All is characteristic: but there's no self-parody, or the sense of being jaded by one's own consistency.

George Mackay Brown knows where he is and writes with a local and natural authority. Most of his work has the Scandinavian quality of the letter K...

(This entire section contains 3566 words.)

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in Orkney, and all his work to date has been a persistent devotion, not because he is running in runic circles but digging, rooting deeper. (pp. 59-60)

Harold Massingham, "A Mature Distillation," in Phoenix (8 Cavendish Road, Heaton Mersey, Stockport, Cheshire, England), Winter, 1971, pp. 58-60.

George Mackay Brown is a poet. Greenvoe is his first novel. The beauty and precision of his style, where the right word stands in place of three or four near-right words, and the vividness of his imagery all point to the disciplines and perceptions of the poet. That he is also a novelist is demonstrated best in his characters. They are so firmly fleshed and he has endowed them with such vitality that they have that rare quality of seeming to live outside of and beyond the narrative. Novels like this don't come along very often. (pp. 8-9)

Ruth Farwell, "There's Life in the Old Novel House," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 26, 1972, pp. 8-9.

Magnus is almost a novel, yet more a kind of compilation of narrative and reflective prose, verse, and even one section of drama, round a central theme…. Mr Brown is a uniquely observant and skilful chronicler of life in his native Orkneys, past and present; this is the subject he has made his own, which he rarely strays from, and which he treats in writing where everything from a savage terseness to a sustained grandeur of cadence lies at his command. But he has occasionally—here, for example, and in the long poem-sequence, Fishermen with Ploughs—sought to arrange it all round one event. The result is a collection of magnificent pieces which do not quite fit together to achieve the desired unity….

Mr Brown begins with the marriage of Magnus's parents and the conception of their son, setting against the dark-age magnificence of the moment the brutal life of the peasantry and the itinerant poor. He passes on through the education of Magnus and his cousin to the outbreak of enmity between them, the afflictions their war brings to the common people, and the final, near-ceremonial quality of Magnus's murder.

The narrative proceeds through these episodes in a series of impressive set-pieces: the weathers of the islands, the sheer colour and smell of land and sea, the earthy, obdurate nature of the people, are fused in these sections in language which is as flexible and precise as it is powerful. Towards the end, much less surely, the story slips into our own time … and is intended to suggest the timeless character of Mr Brown's theme: these passages sit uneasily among the rest.

And, despite the story, the Christian moral and the linking symbolism, the book remains an assemblage of brilliant fragments, nothing ever less than superbly observant, and arresting, yet oddly unsatisfactory when put together. In his individual short stories, in his sets of unconnected poems, Mr Brown evokes without strain—and as no one else can—a world of starkness and beauty to which he brings a deep, alert, compassionate understanding. In his more structured books there is a sense of strain about the attempt to draw it all together. The bursting life of the best individual pieces pulls things apart.

"Et in Orcadia," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), September 28, 1973, p. 1101.

Brown, a fisher of men who but labor in their vocation (Vikings, tinkers, shepherds, poachers, sots at a fair), and a fisher of syntax from every living source of our language appropriate to his poems—although the accents of saga and ballad predominate—is himself an island man, native to Orkney where, having escaped the world's nets, he still lives; his task: "a pure seeking past a swarm of symbols,/The mill-wheel, sun, and scythe, and ox, and harrow…." The sources of a poet's language are both private and endemic. Scotland and Ireland (possibly Wales) are the only places in the English-speaking world where "the people" (not all, but many) are worth overhearing, their daily talk, melodic and inventive, uncontaminated by the international-urban sludge that is fouling the stream of the richest language on earth….

Brown achieved [the] crystallized eloquence [of his "Runes"] with canny sophistication, formed on the way by graduate studies in Gerard Manley Hopkins and the authorship of three volumes of prose fiction…. (p. 732)

What he probably learned [from Hopkins] was how to vary his line lengths, and his metres within the line or stanza, how to excite the solemn pace of a devotional verse (cf. respectively, the second stanza of "The Year of the Whale"; "Carol" and "Elegy"). Yet where, between Skelton and Keats, would one place the wintry-lyrical next-to-last stanza of "The Funeral of Ally Flett"…? George Mackay Brown is giving back to poetry much of its ancient courtesy—Greek or Norse: to tell a tale, to commemorate human mischief and to cast spells about our ears. To support my belief that his is the most "wizard shape" to appear in British poetry since Dylan Thomas', I [would] offer "The Condemned Well," a cantata of his skills, a work I have promptly added to my select anthology of great poems about the finite world. (p. 733)

Vernon Young, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973–74.

There are parts of the British Isles so far from London they cannot be called 'provincial'. They … are British only by circumstances of history and geography and not identity. (p. 80)

While it would be foolish to claim that George Mackay Brown was an Orkney nationalist, it is still true that the Orkney Islands stand culturally and historically in a comparable relationship to Scotland as Scotland does to England. (pp. 80-1)

George Mackay Brown relies on the exclusiveness of Orkney culture and history in his poems. His poems attempt to make the special case of the Orkneys—and perhaps all remote communities—seem reasonable. He concentrates on a place; and the regret of his poems is that a community, seen to be at one time content with its appropriate ways of earning a living and the kind of society that its cultural inheritance had formed, is on the verge of total alteration, its once necessary unanimity corrupted by individual materialism and collective helplessness. (p. 81)

Loaves and Fishes (1959) was his first commercially published book, and the religious stress is evident enough from the title. 'Holy' was his favourite word: 'the holy earl', 'terrible holy joy', 'their lips/Welded holy and carnal in one flame', 'holy furrow'. Strenuously over-poetic efforts did produce the occasional success. A line like 'the sea grinds his salt behind a riot of masks', while it comes from the stable of over-dramatised visual imagery, that industrious measuring out of incantatory mysteriousness which suffered from the demise of Dylan Thomas's reputation, does however show the quality of Brown's pictorial sense at its most imaginative. It also shows that from the beginning Brown was prepared to associate his writing with outlier Celtic styles, the big bardic puff. (p. 83)

Even if a reader had suspected from Loaves and Fishes that what germs of lyrical realism there were in the book would become the most interesting aspect of subsequent poems, the first poem of his next book—The Year of the Whale—must have come as something of a surprise. 'The Funeral of Ally Flett' dispenses with naive patter. Imagination perceives what the eye might have seen rather than what the ear can revel in as a substitute for sense. His new idiom is a lucid counterpart of subject, but is at the same time under a formal control that does not neglect musicality. It uses the simplest method of telling a story; episodes and characters follow each other in a sequence of regular verses of eight lines of uneven length. The lyrical finish of the poem is beautifully accommodated to a concrete, visualised narrative. Brown also allows himself words too colloquial for his earlier poems—'tearaway', 'copper'—although to an urban ear, these would already have been replaced.

Brown, as a poet of remote island communities and unindustrial, non-urban landscapes, is at odds with the tradition of modern poetry. He is, in some ways, like Vernon Watkins, who adhered to a post-Modernist climate but maintained interests remote from it, and even antagonistic to the ways of life most contemporary poems arise from. Muir was like this, too, although his commitment to Modernism was critical and thoughtful; it is perhaps the Christianity of these poets that makes them seem apart from the way modern poetry has developed, and at once a criticism of the nature of that development. Local traditions also die hard. (p. 85)

What to an outsider might appear archaic in his poems is held by Brown to be both quintessential and timeless, to be the past alive in the present. His observations of reality are to be seen as corrupt, contemporary life in a time-scale of mundane history, and also in a timelessness of landscape. When excessive alliteration and heavy rhythm (usually to do with the sea) seem to intrude on the contemporary veracity of his observations, it is like an unconscious recall of the past making itself felt. (pp. 85-6)

Brown's best poems are … full of names and characters, their typical vulnerabilities, and the virtues of the way of life their personalities prove. He celebrates an ideal of community. At the centre is an imaginary town of Hamnavoe, the microcosm of the Orkneys, and a disguising cipher for the town of Stromness where Brown lives…. Scottish poetry is often particularly regional, of a special place—Burns in Ayrshire, Fergusson in Edinburgh. (pp. 86-7)

Unfortunately, Brown has now put forward a quaintly antithetical notion that there is a certain kind of real life for the good men of the Orkneys, and another kind of life in the cities of the mainland which is so vicious that it brings total punishment in the form of 'Black Pentecostal Fire'. In this he is a latter-day Rousseau, to whom the prospect of the brutalisation of pastoral contentment by 'civilisation' is made more real by the fact of civilisation's capacity of self-destruction. This line of feeling exists in Edwin Muir's work, too….

One is entitled to have second thoughts about an imagination whose figments forecast Apocalypse; above all, a mind, like Brown's, that is so defiantly involved in a way of life, that he is prepared to use an imaginative Doom and kill off millions for the sake of a fresh start. Satisfying as an extreme gesture the final blow may be; he imagines it, and in a poetry with such overtly social implications a quick downward thrust of the hand of an atomic God hardly suggests that there is a solution for the problems of remote communities in life. Pessimism too easily takes the form of a hideous mushroom. It is the imagination's answer to the necessity of political engagement—i.e., don't do it; and to some extent it shows a hysterical misunderstanding by Brown of his own passion….

Much of Brown's best writing is to be found in Fishermen With Ploughs, which makes his overall meaning doubly unfortunate. Certainly, taken as chronological narrative steps towards future catastrophe, the individual poems don't persuade that holocaust is either inevitable or even likely. (p. 88)

Brown seldom writes about himself. His objectivity is welcome, subordinated to passionate intention as it is. Instead of adopting a representative stance, he shows himself as a poet of community, of shared destiny, whose craft and insights are at the service of his neighbours. He writes from diffused experience, his passion deriving from concerns larger than himself. Even if one looks in his contemporary poems for personal testimony, evidence that what happens to the poet might prove the truth of his generalisations, one is likely to find the absence of subjective attitudes compensated by fidelity to a handful of themes consistently worked. His 'seriousness' is not in question. (p. 89)

[Brown's] is an essentially pastoral complaint; and it is neither an overestimation of Brown's importance nor a misreading of pastoral traditions, to say that he has to an extent successfully re-used methods and feelings of Wordsworth's, as seen in 'Michael'….

But Brown's exhaustive vision, relating as is does to certain patterns of feeling known from the pastoral tradition, has flaws. The first is his rapid dismissal of The City; there is nothing in his writing prepared to admit the possibility of an Ideal Cosmopolis; and he seems unprepared to acknowledge the many writers and thinkers who have imagined such an ideal.

Nostalgia for the better community is, in my view, a valid poetic activity; retrospection is at least one way of visualising an antidote to what in contemporary society has nothing to do with virtue and goodness. Brown may have gone over the score in Fishermen With Ploughs, but his complaint is real enough, and magnified by the present activities of those concerned with North Sea Oil. Brown's pastoral mode maintains an awareness of reality; he prefers the socially descriptive and real, and ignores the sophisticated, decorative and sexually delighting—also legitimate elements of 'pastoral'—which are, perhaps, not all that apt in a northern Arcadia. Brown's is a poetry of work and people in an inherited environment, of struggle and compensating pleasures; it is not a poetry of a Golden Age, the unworked abundance. He involves our sympathy for ordinary people, for the idea of a whole community, and not for those for whom they provide—the taxman, the landlord, or the tourist.

When one considers the contrast between the limpidity of much pastoral writing and its motives, and Brown's vision of Orcadia/Arcadia, some sense of his power of literary controlling and merging can be felt. In his best work, he solves all the problems of the poet who wants to be both bucolic, real, hard and northern. (p. 90)

But there are negative aspects to his vision which although admirable to the extent that they are present, are not developed to anything like the lengths Brown's commitment to his ideals might indicate they should be. There is a general rejection of Modernity, for example. It can be noticed in Loaves and Fishes, where in 'The Shining Ones' he speaks of 'the great beasts of time' ranging beyond the night, 'a funnel of darkness, roaring with stars'. In the same poem, eternity is described as 'a flower pressed dry/By poets, preachers, all the literate humbugs'. This anxious feeling in Brown's poems for the unknowable scale of time, and the existence of mysterious dimensions, while one basis for the bardic styles he sometimes uses, is also behind his social criticism. His deep hatred of the materialist phase of History arises from mystical conceptions of time, not political ones, and this in spite of a bitter awareness of the root causes of what has altered the Orcadian ways of life. It has more to do with exploitation, capitalist manners, and political neglect, than looking up funnels of darkness at the tantalising galaxies.

But Brown must have it both ways; even a mystical-religious poet cannot evade reality when it washes up the rubbish of the Age on to his beaches. He seems to be saying that the Cosmos as viewed from the Orkneys below is his true subject; the rest is temporal dross, side-issues, a tiresome necessity to face what is only too observable. There is a latent moral strategy in this, a creeping ambivalence. By espousing what is vast and unknowable, Brown is able to think of present time with at least a muted amount of contempt…. 'The microcosm', says Beckett, 'cannot forgive the relative immortality of the macrocosm'. Brown's resentment is of that kind. And it is possible to sympathise with a poet in such a dilemma; if only, that is, he would not use his ultimate belief to crucify a world which, whether we like it or not, or whether Brown likes it or not, is the only one we are ever likely to have. For all his fixity and local commitment, Brown is, in poetical terms, unsettled; he is looking at the stars, dreaming of the stars, but round his feet are rusting tin cans, old tyres, beached poisoned fish, while just over the horizon Americans in safety helmets and boilersuits are sinking their oil wells.

Although he dramatises the activities of lairds and landlords, visitations of the taxman, depopulation by the magnet of urban prosperity, there is a wholesale withdrawal in his writing from political decision, or even outright social criticism. Regret, fear, premonitions of a general worsening—moving, and poetic; but the passion that is obviously behind his writing, and the humanity that dictates censorship of self and private emergency in a gesture of communal humility, might also be seen to demand a stridency outwith that represented by the dire trick of Apocalypse. No radical interpretations are offered, only a wiping out. He accepts Time and its consequences, what other men do. He never attempts to answer the question 'What can be done about what is happening to where I live?' In fact, he never asks the question. We are left with an impression of far-off turbulence. He accepts corruption and exploitation with the inert grin of the man happy with what survives, but wanting more because he knows all that there used to be, preferring to outline an ideal by retrospection, creating an image of the past to act as a spell against the present and future.

Having been convinced by the best of what Brown has written, my feeling is that a bit more is called for, a harshness and indignation that Brown might be unsuited by temperament, or poetic beliefs, to provide. (pp. 91-2)

Douglas Dunn, "'Finished Fragrance': The Poems of George Mackay Brown," in Poetry Nation (© Poetry Nation, 1974), No. 2, 1974, pp. 80-92.


Brown, George Mackay (Vol. 100)