Hugh MacDiarmid World Literature Analysis - Essay

Christopher Murray Grieve

Hugh MacDiarmid World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

One thing that inspired Christopher Grieve’s imaginative conception of himself as Hugh MacDiarmid was the publication of James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses in 1922. MacDiarmid had the same kind of epic ambition as Joyce. Fascinated by the scandal concerning the publication of Ulysses, excited by Joyce’s extraordinary linguistic invention, and encouraged by the efforts of a man he saw as a fellow Celt at war with the British literary establishment, as well as his countrymen’s narrowness, MacDiarmid was struck by the thought that he could use the Scots language in a similarly inventive fashion. Even when he was writing as Christopher Grieve, MacDiarmid was moved by a very strong nationalist sentiment, deeply frustrated that poetry in Scotland in the early days of the twentieth century was either expected to be a replica of standard English forms or a bad imitation of Robert Burns. Grieve saw the great Scots poets of earlier times—figures such as Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, and Gavin Douglas—as a foundation for a renaissance. The Middle Scots language they used could function as a base for a creative transformation that would combine the traditional strengths of the older culture with those of highly original modernism.

Grieve’s choice of the name Hugh MacDiarmid was a rejection of a dominant English culture, which he regarded as an adjunct to imperialism and an assertion of cultural value, since Hugh means divine wisdom. MacDiarmid also tried to include in his work an amalgam of sometimes contradictory philosophical positions and social strategies. Brought up as a Christian, MacDiarmid often used biblical allusions, frequently referred to God or Christ in his poetry, and saw the act of poetic composition as akin to a holy mission. On the other hand, he disdained any theological dogma, practically worshipped Fyodor Dostoevski, and asserted that he purposefully “got rid of that name” that means Christ-bearer. His intellectual idols were Friedrich Nietzsche, whose elitist doctrines supported MacDiarmid’s sense of his own superior mental capability and Vladimir Lenin, whom he addressed almost as a confidant in three poems called “Hymns to Lenin.” His version of Marxism, however, was so eccentric that he was expelled from the British Communist Party for incipient nationalism. He was expelled in turn from the National Party of Scotland for Communism. The Nietzschean arrogance of some of his social declarations was balanced by his egalitarian appreciation for the “rugged faces” of “auld border breeds.” His portrait of his home ground, “Kinsfolk,” was one of his most heartfelt works and a tribute to the legacy of the ordinary people he respected and wrote about often.

MacDiarmid put these elements into the linguistic mix he fashioned from the Scots words he studied in etymological dictionaries and from those he still heard spoken around him. The synthetic Scots language was of his own devising; even most native Scottish readers could only grasp it with the help of a glossary. MacDiarmid used this language in poems that for all their modernist influences were still built on familiar structures like the ballad quatrain. MacDiarmid, for all of his intellectual power, sought a place in the Gaelic oral tradition. He was frustrated that the academic approach to English literature stressed the page as a source of study; he maintained that it was “the association with music and words that I was concerned with, particularly in early lyrics.” His first poetry to exemplify his singular style was published in the book Sangschaw, which included the groundbreaking poem “The Watergaw” (an indistinct rainbow), which MacDiarmid initially presented as the work of a friend of Christopher Grieve in a column for the Dunfermline Press in 1922. MacDiarmid’s sophisticated, intricate rhythmic linkage gave the twelve-line lyric a density consistent with the modernist contention that innovative form can be a revelation of content.

At the time that his early lyrics were published, MacDiarmid was at work on what is considered his masterpiece, one of the exemplary works of the modernist movement. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle was conceived as a Scots equivalent of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Best understood as a poetic sequence, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle is a meditation in the form of a dramatic monologue. It represents the flow of consciousness of a man fallen drunk into a ditch on the way home from a tavern. It utilizes symbolist technique (thistle equals Scotland; intoxication equals artistic inspiration), but it rejects the limits of formal structure as dictated by current literary convention and seeks new patterns of coherence. The fact that the poem sold poorly did not prevent MacDiarmid from writing To Circumjack Cencrastus, an even longer, more uneven sequence in which he charters and celebrates Gaelic culture.

Along with his massive, inclusive efforts reproducing the map of his culture, MacDiarmid also often concentrated his attention in very tightly crafted lyric poems such as “On a Raised Beach,” “In the Slums of Glasgow,” “The Glass of Pure Water,” and “Diamond Body.” He demonstrates his linguistic proficiency in “Water Music,” a delightful echo of Joyce’s “Anna Livia Plurabelle” chapter in Finnegans Wake (1939). “Water Music” compares the rivers near his home in Langholm to Joyce’s Liffey. MacDiarmid succeeded in his ultimate goal of...

(The entire section is 2259 words.)