Hugh MacDiarmid

by Christopher Murray Grieve

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Hugh MacDiarmid World Literature Analysis

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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

(This entire section contains 2259 words.)

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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 drawing serious attention to Scotland’s literary and cultural life. He has not, however, been given the close, appreciative scrutiny that his work warrants. The effort required to read or understand his poetry is not that great. It is not any harder than grappling with the myriad references in Pound’s Cantos (1928-1940), and it is similarly rewarding. As MacDiarmid’s contemporaries among the modernist masters continue to occupy a major position in twentieth century literature, MacDiarmid’s writing remains in a curious kind of limbo, its presence inescapable, its outlines not entirely clear.

A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle

First published: 1926

Type of work: Poem

Through a night of reflection, a man intoxicated by the awesome possibilities of life and art confronts his personal demons and undergoes a spiritual transformation.

In a letter to his publisher in 1926, MacDiarmid described A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle as a “long poem . . . divided into several sections having within the sections a great variety of manners and measures of verse.” The various forms MacDiarmid employed were designed to demonstrate the poet’s intellectual alliance with the most advanced currents of thought of his time. The basic stanza of the poem, the abcb of the classic Scots folk ballad, roots the poem in a cultural context that the poet wished to elevate to international significance. The drunk man who is the narrative consciousness of the poem is somewhat ironically labeled the “village drunk.” He is a representative of the poet’s ambitions and a Scots Everyman. His spiritual quest to become something like “A greater Christ, a greater Burns” is treated with considerable humor as the narrative action—patterned after Burns’s “Tam O’Shanter”—shifts abruptly to follow the fleeting moods, emotions, and ideas of the poet’s imagination. The poem is about visionary experience.

Joycean influence on the poem includes a final section in which a woman named Jean gives the poet—as Molly Bloom in Ulysses gives her husband Leopold—the promise of love. MacDiarmid also incorporates elements from Dante (a man in a dark wood), from the French surrealist poet Paul Valéry, from a number of Russian writers, and especially from T. S. Eliot, whose The Waste Land is quoted in the poem and who is directly addressed. The thistle that is the object of the poet’s attention is a traditional symbol for Scotland, and the poet sees it as both a “wretched weed” (a version of himself) and an emblem of Scottish strength—“The stars like thistle’s roses floo’er.” An important aspect of this flowering is the power MacDiarmid invests in the Scots language, the vernacular that he has taken from the past. MacDiarmid concluded that since English society was exhausted, its formal language was bereft of redemptive possibility. He could follow Pound’s dictum to “make it new” only by exploring the energy latent in fallow linguistic fields.

MacDiarmid needed every resource he could find to sustain a poem that took a year to write, has 2,685 lines, and ranged from the intensely personal to the epic and cosmic. Its collage of texts, mixture of modes, and erratic symbology is held together by the force of the poet’s convictions. It has a compelling mental presence that assumes a distinct personality through the masterful manipulation of a language foreign to almost all of its readers. In the poem, he declares a faith in his land, his culture, and ultimately his art, which he believes is strong enough to accomplish the most difficult and necessary of human tasks—a reconciliation with the trials of existence.

“Water Music”

First published: 1932 (collected in Scots Unbound, and Other Poems, 1932)

Type of work: Poem

The poet celebrates the “liquid features of the Langholm landscape,” the home ground of his youth.

This poem appears in Scots Unbound, and Other Poems (1932). MacDiarmid’s admiration for James Joyce is apparent in much of his work and is most explicitly expressed in the poem “Water Music,” which is written as a tribute to Joyce’s dazzling language in the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of Finnegans Wake. Just as Joyce evokes the river Liffey, MacDiarmid captures the spirit of the rivers near his boyhood home in Langholm by creating a rhythmic structure that duplicates the sound of the rushing waters and the surrounding landscape. Beginning with a direct address to Joyce, MacDiarmid then builds, in closely rhyming quatrains, an effect like that of water cascading over rugged ground. The rhythms are compelling, but MacDiarmid’s most engaging technique in the poem is his employment of many old Scots words. Some have no direct English cognates. The impression the poem gives—either on the page or spoken—is akin to the syllabic experimentation of E. E. Cummings, in which sheer sound enchants even as meaning is elusive or unobtainable.

MacDiarmid, however, does not sacrifice meaning for an engaging aural performance. The Scots words have been chosen for both sound and sense. With the assistance of a glossary, the reader may fully appreciate MacDiarmid’s evocative description of the landscape of the border country.

Appreciation of the poem and of much of MacDiarmid’s best work depends on knowledge of his synthetic Scots. When described in his language, the rivers, streams, and rills begin to assume a distinct personality. “They mimp and primp, or bick and birr,” MacDiarmid writes.

The poet becomes inspired or reflective in response to the scenery, until in conclusion he asserts, “And weel I ken the air’s wild rush,” proclaiming his knowledge of the forces of the natural world and stressing his recognition of its importance. This is a poem of origins, in which the Scots land itself is offered as a source of strength and vitality, and the language that MacDiarmid uses has also been closely examined for an insight into the primal energy of words themselves. MacDiarmid’s deep love for Scotland and his love of language are in close harmony in “Water Music.”

“On a Raised Beach”

First published: 1934 (collected in Stony Limits, and Other Poems, 1934)

Type of work: Poem

The poet meditates on the harsh but strangely appealing landscape of the outer Shetland island of Whalsay.

This poem appears in Stony Limits, and Other Poems (1934). To convey the treeless, windswept, almost uninhabited world of the Shetland Islands where he lived during the mid-1930’s, MacDiarmid attempted to craft another dialect, using technical vocabulary. Employing modern scientific terminology, MacDiarmid begins “On a Raised Beach” with a catalog of geologic terms:

All is lithogenesis—or lochia,Carpolite fruit of the forbidden tree,Stones blacker than any in the Caaba,Cream-coloured caen-stone, chatoyant pieces,Celadon and corbeau, bistre and beige,Glaucous, hoar, enfouldered, cyathiform,Making mere faculae of the sun and moon . . .

The geological allusions are mingled with references to religious phenomena (the Caaba is a shrine holding a sacred black stone). The poet joins his feelings of isolation with an exceptionally close scrutiny of the terrain in order to avoid spiritual desolation. MacDiarmid felt he was in a kind of exile, but he thought if he could enliven the bare and forbidding terrain with a creative appreciation of its beauty, then he could thereby demonstrate the redemptive power of art.

After establishing the setting, MacDiarmid turns toward an extended philosophical consideration of the stones on the beach. In long lines and measured cadences, MacDiarmid develops a mood of meditative reflection, raising some of the most fundamental questions of human existence. While insisting on the literal qualities of the stones, the poem aims toward transcendence. The stones stand for permanence (“There are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined stones”); MacDiarmid recognizes that a refocusing of attention is required to establish a connection with higher realms. Acknowledging his somewhat intemperate nature—“Hot blood is of no use in dealing with eternity”—MacDiarmid creates a serious context for inquiry, his long lines echoing biblical verse.

The poem is more than four hundred lines in length, and while MacDiarmid was accustomed to working in long forms, he knew that the intense mood he was developing could not be sustained until the conclusion. Consequently, he balances philosophical propositions with images of landscape. The language of science helps him reach an “abode of supreme serenity” in which the largest questions, if not answered, have at least been posed.


Hugh MacDiarmid Poetry: British Analysis


MacDiarmid, Hugh