Hugh MacDiarmid

by Christopher Murray Grieve

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Hugh MacDiarmid Poetry: British Analysis

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When Hugh MacDiarmid began writing poetry seriously after serving in World War I, the Scots literary tradition had reached one of its lowest points. In the century following the deaths of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Lord Byron, Scottish poetry consisted largely of enervated and sentimental effusions that imitated the surface mannerisms of Burns’s lyrics. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that MacDiarmid wrote his earliest poems in standard English. Although his style was reminiscent of English Romanticism, it had from the start more vigor and individuality than the work of most of his contemporaries.

A Moment in Eternity

The best of these early poems, A Moment in Eternity, establishes MacDiarmid’s essentially Romantic disposition, “searching the unsearchable” in quest of God and immortality. Although his style and technique were to change radically, these ambitions remained with him, and “eternity” remained to the end of his career one of the most frequent words in his poetic vocabulary. His rhythms in this early poem are supple, varied, but basically iambic; his diction, pleasant but rather conventional.

Sangschaw and Penny Wheep

It was not long, however, before he began to write under his pseudonym in a vocabulary forged from various local Scottish dialects and words from literary Scots dating as far back as the late medieval period of Scottish literary glory, when Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas, and others overshadowed the best English poets. He charged this “synthetic Scots” with a surprising vitality in two early books of lyrics, Sangschaw and Penny Wheep. The poems were about God, eternity, the Scottish countryside, love, and other subjects. Because he broke with the stereotypes of recent Scottish poetry and because he challenged his traditionally literate countrymen with a diction reaching back to a time of Scottish literary ascendancy, MacDiarmid was basing his strategy on an appeal to the best in his readers.

A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle

Before the publication of the second of these works, he was already shaping another book. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, also issued in 1926, proved a much more ambitious work: a sequence of lyrics and meditative poems making up one long, symbolically unified poem. Although MacDiarmid was to write many long poems, he would never find a structural principle more effective than the one he used here. Although some critics have objected to the titles of the fifty-nine poems as interfering with the unity of the book, anyone reading through the sequence will have no trouble perceiving its integrity. The first title, “Sic Transit Gloria Scotia,” signals the poet’s concern with the cultural and literary decline of his native land and suggests his intention of arresting that decline personally. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle has come to be recognized as more than a regional achievement, though MacDiarmid took several risks that probably delayed recognition of the scope of his achievement.

In the first place, the title, while accurate, is an odd one for an ambitious literary work, as it seems to lack seriousness and in fact to cater to the common perception of the Scottish peasantry as whiskey-guzzling ne’er-do-wells. His employment of a Scots vocabulary also posed problems. The vocabulary threatened to repel English readers, who expected poets to clothe respectable verse in literary English. The numerous dialect words required heavy use of a specialized dictionary. Even if willing to wrestle with the words, however, such readers were likely to associate Scots with feeble imitations of Burns. MacDiarmid appeared unconventional and frivolous not only in choosing a drunkard as the poem’s speaker but also in choosing...

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the lowly thistle, rather than a more “worthy” flower such as a rose, as his central symbol. Who else had made anything of such a homely weed since the rhetorical question of Matthew 7:16: “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?”

Nevertheless, MacDiarmid had reasons to hope for a harvest. His format permitted him a series of lyrical, comical, and satirical reflections in a variety of meters and stanzas, both rhymed and unrhymed, with the concomitant advantage of showing off his technical versatility. He could also expect that his more extravagant poetic flights, being merely the dreams of a drunken man, would not reflect on him. Apparent digressions were no problem, either, for everyone expects a drunken man to meander. Therefore, while his character indulged in a leisurely display of reactions to all that ailed him and Scotland, the poet could carefully guide his inebriated speaker along a purposeful path.

The drunkard begins by complaining of the difficulty of keeping up with his drinking partners, especially since the Scotch does not compare with the old-time variety, thereby establishing that everything Scottish now seems to be “destitute o’speerit,” including the appalling poetry now produced by supposed devotees of Burns. An immediate dilemma presents itself: How can one be a good Scot yet shake off the Scottish lethargy and mediocrity? Interestingly, MacDiarmid’s method involves the occasional incorporation of translations and adaptations from French, Belgian, German, and Russian poets, and two original lyrics addressed to Fyodor Dostoevski. MacDiarmid obviously considered the great Russian novelist a kindred spirit in the struggle to repossess imaginatively a stubbornly recalcitrant homeland. To be a good Scot meant, among other things, to accept competent assistance wherever available.

In a poem called “Poet’s Pub,” based on a poem by Aleksandr Blok, the drunkard resists the idea of going home to his wife, Jean, who is sure to nag him. Instead, he hopes to discover the truth said to be in wine, especially those truths ordinarily dark to him and to his cronies. He catches sight of a “silken leddy” in the pub, but she soon fades from sight, and eventually he stumbles outside to begin his homeward trek. The fourth poem of the sequence introduces the thistle and the image with which MacDiarmid customarily pairs it, the moonlight: “The munelicht’s like a lookin’-glass,/ The thistle’s like mysel,” he observes, one of the resemblances being that he needs a shave.

In the poems that follow, the symbolic values of thistle and moonlight proliferate. A poem addressed to“The Unknown Goddess”—again adapted from Blok—presumably refers to the mysterious lady of the pub, who may represent his muse but is certainly the opposite of Jean. The drunkard’s attention alternates between depressing reality (“Our Educational System,” “The Barren Fig,” “Tussle with the Philistines”) and inspired visions (“Man and the Infinite,” “Outward Bound,” “The Spur of Love”). The drunken man is not sure of much: “And yet I feel this muckle thistle’s staun’in’/ Atween me and the mune as pairt o’ a Plan.” He regards himself as his nation’s “soul” and thus free to appropriate the humble thistle: In one of his flights he compares his homeward course to the wanderings of Ulysses; in another he sees himself “ootward boond” toward eternity. The thistle may serve to unite humans and the infinite, or it may simply take off on its own and leave humans nothing but the hole in which it was once rooted. Periodically his thoughts return to Jean, who “ud no’ be long/ In finding whence this thistle sprang,” for it is in her absence that the plant has grown for him.

The man’s thoughts oscillate between Scotland—materialistic, Philistine, ill-educated, yet worth redemption—and himself as representative of the more general human condition—earthbound and mortal yet aspiring to eternity. The thistle has, despite its general ugliness, the capacity to flower, to put out at its tip a “rose” that permits MacDiarmid the traditional associations of that flower in a different context. In “The Form and Purpose of the Thistle,” the speaker reflects on the “craft” that produced the odd, prickly stalk capable of breaking into flowers “like sudden lauchter,” a craft of puzzling contrarieties. In “The Thistle’s Characteristics,” the poet ranges over humanity’s illusions and presumptions. “For wha o’s ha’e the thistle’s poo’er/ To see we’re worthless and believe ’t?” Later he employs the Norse myth of Yggdrasill, the ash tree that binds together Earth, Heaven, and Hell; in this case, however, humanity is a “twig” on a giant thistle that, far from uniting creation, “braks his warlds abreid and rives/ His heavens to tatters on its horns.” The Yggdrasill poem insists on humanity’s suffering and ends by seeing humans as so many Christs, carrying their crosses “frae the seed,” although as the drunkard slyly puts it, most feel it far less than he “thro’ bein’ mair wudden frae the stert!” Such satiric thrusts at his countrymen occur frequently in the work as a whole. However painful the life, the soul will soar in its “divine inebriety.” Intoxication, then, is also a metaphor in this poem, standing for the poetic imagination that can rise above, and gain solace by reflecting on, humankind’s common “Calvary.”

The drunken man contemplates the oppressive English rule over an exhausted and often foolish Scotland, but even more often, his thoughts wind between Heaven and Earth, between the aspirations of the rose and the limitations of the rooted stalk. He longs for the mysterious lady, then is gripped by the recollection of practical Jean at home. Near the end of the work, he sees himself, God, the Devil, and Scotland all on a great cosmic wheel that sums up Scotland’s and man’s slow journeys through history. Pondering Scottish resistance to change and new ideas, he wonders if he must “assume/ The burden o’ his people’s doom” by dying heroically for his recalcitrant fellows. He falters over the decision, not exactly rejecting heroism but choosing to return to Jean’s arms. The last lyric of the poem pays eloquent tribute to what he has left of his vision: silence. The conclusion is a joke, for he imagines what Jean will say to that: “And weel ye micht,/ . . . efter sic a nicht!”

The final lines of the poem are consistent with the whole work: Despite his insistence on the dignity of human imagination, the drunken man is always aware of the indignity of human circumstances and his inability to grasp the meaning of life. Only a drunk—that is, only a person intoxicated by life generally and the life of the mind particularly—would bother with such a spiritual quest.

To Circumjack Cencrastus

MacDiarmid’s next book of poetry, To Circumjack Cencrastus, is more of a miscellany, but one stanza of the poem aptly titled “MacDiarmid’s Curses” holds a particular irony:

Speakin o’ Scotland in English wordsAs it were Beethoven chirpt by birds;Or as if a Board school teacherTried to teach Rimbaud and Nietzsche.

Although these lines do not precisely deny the possibility of a shift to “English words,” they scarcely foretell the fact that within a few years MacDiarmid would virtually cease to write in his Scottish amalgam, even when “speakin’ o’ Scotland.” By the middle 1930’s, he would be creating a very different sort of poetry using standard English.

Hymns to Lenin

In the meantime, MacDiarmid continued to employ Scots for his first two “hymns to Lenin.” Many intellectuals of the time shared his hope, but few his enduring faith, in the efficacy of communism. It remains difficult to read objectively the “First Hymn to Lenin,” in which the Soviet leader, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, is hailed as a successor to Christ, or to appreciate it as poetry. MacDiarmid seems to have traded metaphysical doubts for political assurance, and the exchange does not enhance his poetry. He was always extreme in his enthusiasms, but from this point on, his polemical voice invaded his poetry more frequently. Within First Hymn to Lenin, and Other Poems, however, is found “At My Father’s Grave,” with its eight lines of flexible blank verse meditating hauntingly on his father, as if from “across a valley.”

Stony Limits, and Other Poems

With Stony Limits, and Other Poems, MacDiarmid moved into a new phase of his poetic career. He still included poems in Scots, notably a group called Shetland Lyrics, but he was now working in a literary English that differed markedly from that of his very early poetry. The English poems were at this point more discursive, somewhat less concrete, and considerably more formal. The title poem, in nine ten-line stanzas, pays tribute to Charles Doughty, a poet, geologist, and travel writer who delighted in the lonely occupation of studying the soil and rock formations of remote regions, his most famous book being about the Arabian desert. Gregarious himself, MacDiarmid could respond enthusiastically to Doughty’s serenity, his indifference to the crowd, and his capacity for appreciating realms of silence. When this book appeared, MacDiarmid had retreated to the Shetland Islands, where, without ceasing his political involvements, he had begun to study the geology of this northern outpost. He created a new difficulty for his reader, for “Stony Limits” is peppered with terms such as “xenoliths,” “orthopinacoid,” “striae,” and “microline.” The geological terminology signals his camaraderie with Doughty and also a growing love of precision quite distinct from the passion for suggestiveness that created the thistle and moonlight images in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. This elegy is quiet, almost reverent, but without the defiant tone of his hymns to Lenin.

“On a Raised Beach”

He carries his scientific enthusiasm further in a longer poem in the same collection, “On a Raised Beach.” The poem begins “All is lithogenesis—or lochia,” a line hardly calculated to appeal immediately to the laity, but since the first term signifies rock formation and the second the discharge from the womb after childbirth, the line immediately juxtaposes the contrasting elements of the poem, stones and human life. Actually, the first twenty-four of the poem’s more than four hundred lines teem with technical geological terms, most of which cannot be found in an ordinary desk dictionary. Anyone who braves this formidable initial barrier, however, discovers an arresting meditation on the human situation vis-à-vis that of the stones, which “are one with the stars.”

MacDiarmid points out that specific terms can be given to scientific phenomena, but humankind finds more difficulty in expressing its convictions and preferences. The permanence of stone emphasizes the transience and impatience of humankind. Early in the poem, he compares humans unfavorably to the one other creature stirring on the beach, a bird whose “inward gates” are, unlike those of humans, “always open.” MacDiarmid argues that the gates of stones stand open even longer. The poet’s admiration for these enduring veterans of a world older than humanity can easily imagine resembles Henry David Thoreau’s for living nature, and a number of the lines have a Thoreauvian ring to them—for example, “Let men find the faith that builds mountains/ Before they seek the faith that moves them.” As in Thoreau, nature teaches the perceptive person humility. Life is redundant, says MacDiarmid, but not stones. Human culture pales before the bleak but beautiful sentinels of time on a scale beyond humankind’s ordinary comprehension.

As the stately free verse moves on, MacDiarmid alludes to various stones with human associations: the missile that David hurled at Goliath, pebbles with which Demosthenes filled his mouth, the rock that guarded Christ’s tomb. Human culture is like Goliath, doomed to fall, and no orator can hope to rival the lithic earth in eloquence. Stones not only draw humans back to their beginnings but also lead them on to their end. No stone can be rolled aside like the “Christophanic” one to release death, but death is not on that account to be feared, because dying is less difficult than living a worthwhile life.

Despite the weightiness of “On a Raised Beach,” despite its rather sepulchral tone, the poem does not oppress but conveys a breath of caution, a salutary deflation of human arrogance. The poem might have benefited from a beach more specifically evoked, like Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, but it nevertheless communicates effectively the “capacity for solitude” by which MacDiarmid strives to imitate the great stones.

Lucky Poet

The virtual disappearance of Scots lyrics after Stony Limits, and Other Poems seems to be not a repudiation of the poet’s earlier theory but an acknowledgment that after several hundred poems in that medium, he needed to test the linguistic possibilities of English. Like Burns before him, MacDiarmid could sing best in Scots and create more comedy and humor than he ever seemed to have tried in literary English. Advocates of his poetry (many of whom are Scottish) have tended to prefer the Scots poems, but the best of his English poems have their own excellence, and it is of a sort appropriate to an older man. They are sober, thought-provoking, and reflective of the intensity of a poet deeply committed to his art and alert to the world about him. Like Yeats and Eliot, he changed his style in middle age to produce a kind of verse in sharp contrast to that which gained for him his initial audience.

Not until the publication of his autobiography, Lucky Poet, in 1943 did MacDiarmid formulate in detail his prescription for the poetry he had been attempting to practice for a decade. This book contains several previously unpublished poems, one of which, “The Kind of Poetry I Want,” sets forth vigorously the theory that he had been developing. The diction and rhythms of this long poem are prosaic, and its topical allusions date it severely, but it rings with conviction. Probably no poem ever written realizes all its specifications. According to MacDiarmid, the poet must be a polymath who can base his or her work on “difficult knowledge” in many fields, including the sciences, and must be technically accomplished and equipped with “ecstasy.” Poetry must reflect closeness to and knowledge of nature. The poet must know the countryside and the technological order and must deploy linguistic and historical learning. Poetry must be factual and still illuminate values, argues MacDiarmid; it must integrate the knowledge of its various sources and—as a crowning touch—must reflect a poet uninterested in personal success. At one point, MacDiarmid concedes that such poetry must await social reorganization, presumably along communistic lines.

MacDiarmid was better equipped than most to pursue his poetic ideal. By mid-career, his poetry bristled with learned allusions to Russian, Hebrew, Turkish, Chinese, Greek, and Gaelic poetry, to name a few. Not all the poems in Lucky Poet are learned, but they are all provoking. Two of them excoriate the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow for their bourgeois sins, and the good humor of his earlier social criticism has vanished. Clearly, he is less willing than ever to cater to merely conventional taste and expectations.

In Memoriam James Joyce

By the time of In Memoriam James Joyce, MacDiarmid was brewing a poetry in some ways like Joyce’s prose, packed with recondite allusions, quotations in many languages, puns, technical vocabulary, and an often tortuous syntax. The tone was more likely to be oracular and insistent. How many of his poetic tenets he was then fulfilling is disputable, but he clearly was not integrating knowledge, and perhaps he was inadvertently demonstrating the impossibility of such integration in the second half of the twentieth century, with its myriad specialists. Reminiscent of his previous work is the poem “We Must Look at the Harebell.” MacDiarmid is at his best when “looking” rather than persuading, and this poem has fresh observations not only of the harebell but also of the pinguicula or butterwort (a small herb), the asphodel, the parsley fern, and other flora to be found by a person willing to climb rocks and descend into bogs. The plants he observes are interesting, but even more interesting is his determination to reveal the prospects of nature.

A Lap of Honour

MacDiarmid appears to have written relatively little new poetry after the publication of In Memoriam James Joyce, but because Collected Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid omitted a number of his earlier poems, the volume A Lap of Honour, which appeared five years later, when the poet turned seventy-five, was an important addition. It contained some poems that had appeared only in periodicals and others from books difficult to obtain in 1967. One of the most important inclusions was “On a Raised Beach,” only a short extract of which had appeared in the 1962 collection. There were several, by then welcome, Scots poems from an earlier day. Thus, this volume made accessible to many readers for the first time a sampling of MacDiarmid’s work over the decades of his greatest vitality, the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s.

Later poetry

The innovations of his later poetry have an importance beyond the success of individual poems. In an age when many poets knew little about science and even affected to despise it, MacDiarmid was trying to widen the range of the poet’s expertise. Although the scientific knowledge of even an amateur such as MacDiarmid is bound to seem inadequate to a well-trained scientist, he was often able to enhance his subjects with metaphors drawn from science. Thus, in “Stony Limits,” he compared his projected poem in praise of Doughty to the process of crystallization in rocks and to the growth of lunar formations, and in “Crystals Like Blood,” he could liken the memory to the extraction of mercury from cinnabar. Such metaphors doubtless have very little effect on a scientifically illiterate reader, but his fear was of a poetry that failed by appealing only to the badly educated. His aspiration to the precision of the exact sciences was probably unrealistic, but he was doing his part to integrate the “two cultures” at a time when many intellectuals were dividing into mutually antagonistic and uncomprehending camps. His efforts to apply the discoveries of modern linguistics to poetry were unsuccessful, but there is no telling what they may have suggested to younger poets. He carried allusion and quotation beyond what many readers would consider tolerable limits, but he did not shrink from challenging those who were able and willing to follow him. Like Eliot, MacDiarmid was trying to use tradition creatively, and like Ezra Pound, he often moved outside the Western tradition favored by Eliot. Few poets have worked so diligently for so long to widen the possibilities of poetry.

By a curious irony, MacDiarmid’s poems in English, because of their high density of technical words and obscure quotations and allusions, present greater difficulties than his earlier ones in Scots. Lacking the humor and lyricism of the early poems, his English poems often repay the reader’s careful attention with their insight into the natural world and their challenge to conventional ways of looking at the world and of expressing the results of such observations. Nevertheless, his early mission to rescue Scottish poetry by creating a composite dialect out of folk and literary sources and to speak to a materialistic generation of the possibilities of a richer culture and authentic spiritual life was doubtless his greatest accomplishment. Even without consulting the glossary of Collected Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid, the English-speaking reader can take pleasure in the energy and lyrical buoyancy of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, and with very little trouble, the full meaning is available to all. It has been suggested that this poem is the modern equivalent of the medieval dream vision. Undoubtedly, only a poet steeped in literary tradition could have written it. Taking advantage of a form that allows a comprehensive and uninhibited vision, MacDiarmid fashions a poem that is highly original because it reflects a modern, skeptical sensibility, and is readily understandable because it is made from the materials of everyday life. While aiming at universality in his later poetry, he achieved it most fully in his odyssey of a drunken cottager beneath the Scottish “mune.”


Hugh MacDiarmid World Literature Analysis