MacDiarmid, Hugh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

MacDiarmid, Hugh 1892–

Pseudonym of Christopher Grieve. A chauvinistic Scottish poet, MacDiarmid effected a Scottish literary revolution of sorts, and restored the Scots vernacular to his country's poetry. His best-known works are Sangschaw and A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

The pioneer of the modern Scottish Renaissance is Hugh MacDiarmid (pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve). He provided the programme, the focus, and the models. In the 1920s his lyric and other poetry in synthetic Scots and his flaming rebellious utterance about the plight of his country made him the most exciting and challenging force to have appeared in Scottish culture for a long time. With wit, energy, and a magnificent lack of any fear of contradicting himself, he played the part of modern Scotland's great rebel in art, politics, economics, education and philosophy, never compromising on any issue but standing forth grandiosely as an international, republican, communist Scottish nationalist….

But it is his poetry that matters. Of this the most popular and the most influential has been his shorter lyrics in synthetic Scots. In many of these MacDiarmid exploits any English vocabularly he needs and adds the subtleties and precisions which words peculiar to Scots can contribute…. [Sometimes] his coined and borrowed words are employed with an almost humorous brilliance to achieve effects which simply cannot be achieved in standard English…. [Every] word … has a precise meaning, and the poem is untranslatable only because meaning, sound and movement are so intimately linked that any attempt to separate them destroys what the poem says….

MacDiarmid's later poetry has more often been in English, an argumentative ratiocinative verse, with an enormous range of allusions, references and quotations, which frequently builds up cumulatively a complex and exciting pattern of meaning, and sometimes falls down into congested argument or mere cataloguing. This side of MacDiarmid's work has never aroused the enthusiasm which his lyrical poems in Scots have aroused, but it is of great interest, and often reveals the innermost structure of the man's thought and sensibility (if one is content to wait for the cumulative pattern of meaning to unfold) as nothing else of his has done.

David Daiches, in his The Present Age in British Literature, Indiana University Press, 1958, pp. 70-78.

MacDiarmid is probably the least known of poets in our language who might conceivably be called 'great.' When I say 'our language,' I must correct myself at once. His finest work is in Scots, and to this fact is due his relative obscurity. He at first seems a very special kind of acquired taste, writing as he does in a half-foreign tongue that requires a sympathetic ear and, often, a glossary to be understood….

MacDiarmid is sometimes called the modern Burns, but the line out of which he works goes back to the Scottish Chaucerians and even further back. His 'Love' sounds like Burns but is sharper and harder, as informed by the earthiness of folk-speech yet more rapid in its turns, passionate without sentimentality….

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (© 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 132-34.

Hugh MacDiarmid is Scotland's foremost living poet, and reading his Collected Poems persuades one he would approach major stature in any literary tradition. It is rarely one meets with so active a critical intelligence, with a moral sensibility so sharply focused on language, literature, politics and society—the whole finding expression in rhythms of unusual drive and vitality, and in humour so blessedly secure it can relax in the Music Hall….

Although MacDiarmid, particularly in his later work, has sometimes written in standard English, his best work requires an extensive glossary if English and American readers are to find it intelligible. This raises an important question. Is it possible to write work of primary importance in a language which (one assumes) is no longer drawing nourishment from its society at large?… [The] question proposed is one that could only be answered by a critic intimately familiar at firsthand with contemporary Scottish speech and society. On the answer, I suppose, rests Mr. MacDiarmid's ultimate reputation as a poet—but I trust the answer will be favourable. Of his creative ability, large intelligence, and forceful literary personality there can be no question at all.

Marius Bewley, in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1967, pp. 511-12.

Hugh MacDiarmid is Scotland's greatest poet since Burns, we are told, by almost everyone who has written about him. I've read this, the latest edition of his "Collected" poems (several of his longest pieces are represented here only by fragments), with delight. This was my first exposure to him, and I'm astounded by my ignorance. David Daiches, not given to overstatement, has called MacDiarmid "one of the very great poets of our time." I humbly agree. It is certain that his reputation will come to rival and surpass those of most of his contemporaries….

His poems in English are less lyrical, more argumentative, but no less important than his early lyrics and the other poems in Lallans which are interspersed throughout the Collected Poems. There is some danger of the reader's being put off by MacDiarmid's politics—he is a polemical Communist and makes no bones about it—but, as Louis Simpson has written, "you cannot read MacDiarmid 'just for the poetry'….

William Heyen, in The Southern Review, Vol. VI, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 548-50.

One of the most distinctive voices to make itself heard in the poetry of this century is that of Hugh MacDiarmid, the leader of the Scottish Renaissance. At times his voice is raucous, then tender yet triumphant, or angry and independent, and at its best moments unforgettably moving. The toughness, or to use Ezra Pound's terminology, the "hard voice," of his poetry rings out unmistakably.

MacDiarmid floundered before he found this voice; his earliest lyrics, written in English, are both derivative and embarrassingly aureate…. [It] was not until Chris Grieve plunged into Jamieson's Dictionary and emerged at the other end as "Hugh MacDiarmid" that the power of his imagination found a medium worthy of it. He took to it "as a duck to glue." With determination and courage he plunged into Lallans, that literary language which makes use of any Scottish word regardless of dialect or century, provided that it suits the poet's purpose. Naturally MacDiarmid drew criticism from the strict constructionists of Scottish dialect, who accused him of promulgating a bastard language. In response the defenders of Lallans argue correctly that the language of Dunbar is just as "synthetic" as MacDiarmid's Doric. Moreover, in the 1920s MacDiarmid was in the forefront of experimentation with language. (Pound, Eliot, and Joyce were all waging similar battles.)…

The vision of New Jerusalem which … is the "central stream of Scottish poetry" finds in MacDiarmid its most forceful and devoted advocate. While the earthiness of Lallans, its closeness to the basic realities of life, stands in moving contrast to the shining vision and to the cosmic viewpoint, its flexibility lends itself to the convincing leap of imagination. Its traditional association with the ballad form, which MacDiarmid uses, leads one to expect the traditional ending, fated and tragic. MacDiarmid reverses expectation and presents in all its grandeur a vision of human triumph. The combination of these elements makes possible an even more dramatic and powerful vision….

MacDiarmid's later poems, written either in English with a Scottish accent or in polyglot, relinquish both the peculiar qualities of Lallans and the clarity of the original vision. In many of the later poems complexity degenerates into confusion. But when language and vision support each other, as they do in these early poems, they produce something unique, a valuable and much neglected contribution to the poetry of this century.

Ann E. Boutelle, "Language and Vision in the Early Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid," in Contemporary Literature (© 1971 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 12, No. 4, Autumn, 1971, pp. 495-508.

Read in the Forties, [the] early poems of MacDiarmid seemed to show a Scotland that wasn't just a poor part of England. They were also rather less "obscure" and "complex" than even their defenders were included to regard them: they didn't appear to a schoolboy to need any more glossing than Shakespeare did. In one respect they were in fact quite familiar. They were ancient in a way that the mere use of obsolete words couldn't account for. These were pre-industrial themes, Christian themes….

The [Scots] lyrics have much to say about God's mysterious ways. Some of them are devotional poems, like the astonishing ballad "I heard Christ sing," in which the rural persona reappears in a context of greater sophistication…. Gradually, MacDiarmid gives up praising. God and becomes him instead—an apotheosis which affected his bilingualism, which meant that he stopped writing mostly in Scots and suffered himself to write mostly in English. He knows, he ordains, he gloweringly condemns….

In the long poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle the poet's ego has grown enormously and he would not be inclined to dance round a Christ who sings like a lintie. The conventions of drinking and drunkenness have amounted to a social system in their own right in Scotland for the past 300 years: here they are the basis for a poem, ordaining and ordering a series of soliloquies and hallucinations. In Scotland as in this, Scotland's principal modern poem, her MadDiarmiad, drunkenness may enable you to take God's place. Drunkenness justifies the country's sinners….

The thistle figures in the poem as, among other things, Scotland and the poet's bristling penis. MacDiarmid is Scotland, and God. All this must have appealed at the time to those highbrows who read poetry and wanted the country to be changed, and who thought that this required a miracle, and that a miracle requires a messiah. But in fact MacDiarmid had already performed one in another capacity—in his capacity as a poet. These two early volumes contained poetry of a kind never seen before. Hereditary themes were expressed in the impossibilities of a dead language, which might seem to stand for the state of Scotland. If such a poetry could be written, perhaps Scotland could be saved.

There are people, including the poet himself, who favor the later verse, his "semi-philosophical" vein, at the expense of the early lyrics….

The success of his first volumes projected him into the grueling role of the national poet of a nation from which he was in some respects seriously estranged, and which refused to do his bidding: the Scots have been unwilling to vote Communist, and Scottish Nationalism hasn't prospered. There have been periodic "upsurges," caused by a justified sense of neglect, but no signs of a Caledonian Bangla Desh….

In spite of his success, MacDiarmid has lived an isolated life, and the audience for his verse has been an uncertain one. The country poet drew on the learning of the cities, of the European avant-garde, which put him at cross-purposes with any conceivable country readership. There was a public that wanted him to be a messiah, but not many of them, and not many of the masses with whom he was preoccupied politically had much time for advanced poetry, and he didn't like the masses anyway. Those who applauded him, who were his most devoted readers, and who wanted him to be a major poet, tended to belong to "the Edinburgh bourgeoisie" and similar circles, which he despised. He suffered, too, from a lack of useful criticism: some of his critics have been very sycophantic and have given an unconditional approval to whatever might be thought abstruse and profound and cultural….

The confusions in his later poetry may also reflect the confusions brought by the arrival in Scotland of an industrial society: these have never ceased, and the literature of the country has never succeeded in responding to them with confidence.

The life he has led has required courage, self-will, and a number of fantasies. There have been plenty of enemies. "I have had to get rid of all my friends," he once wrote. Edwin Muir once described his generation of Scottish writers as "men of sorrow and acquainted with Grieve." MacDiarmid's own sorrow—so far as its public expressions go, with due allowance made for the surmise that these may include a bit of role-playing, a bit of impersonated anger on behalf of a "free Scotland"—has been a matter of lost causes, of suspicion, and of a consciousness of being sequestered in a philistine environment.

Karl Miller, "Scotch on the Rocks," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), December 2, 1971, pp. 13-16.

In the range of beliefs, ideas, and values here espoused (in [Selected Essays of Hugh MacDiarmid] essays ranging from 1923 to 1967) we have a poignant index to the turmoil of aspiration and uncertainty in which MacDiarmid, as Scots and English poet, as purveyor of Scottish nationalism, as apostle (to his own fold) of eclectic internationalism, has lived his life. It is, finally, that life, as well as the breadth of mind, the liveliness of style, the capacity to question the relationship of literature to life, that gives this book its value and excuses it—almost—from the charges of provincial paranoia, humorless self-promotion, bumptiousness, ambivalence, and perversity….

MacDiarmid attempts, in short, nothing less than a synthesis of Scottish culture, modernist poetics, communist analysis, and nationalist vision.

J. M. Morrison, in Books Abroad, Winter, 1972, p. 120.

MacDiarmid was one of the prime literary eccentrics of between-the-wars Britain, a time and place given to colorful personalities and emphatic literary stances. His First Hymn to Lenin, published in 1931, was acknowledged by Cecil Day Lewis to be the real pioneer work of the leftist thirties, and MacDiarmid, though he detested the Audens and the Spenders and was pointedly ignored by them, was their true precursor. He contrived at one period to be simultaneously a member of the Scottish Nationalist Party (which he helped to found) and of the Communist Party of Great Britain, while at the same time—together with Ezra Pound—fervently advocating the Social Credit theories of Major Douglas. But all these varied claims to attention seem less important in MacDiarmid's own mind than his role as a reviver of Scots poetry….

Basically, the aspects of his career that have made MacDiarmid one of the most interesting British writers of his time, as well as (partly through his own enthusiastic promotion of unpopularity) one of the most neglected, are … his left-wing politics and his efforts to turn them into literature, his fervent Scots nationalism and his efforts to re-create a Scots (as distinct from a Gaelic) literature, and—in the long run most important—his actual poetry. What came of it all?

George Woodcock, "Poet as Cock of the North," in Nation, October 9, 1972, pp. 309-10.