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"The Eemis Stane," from Sangschaw, is one of MacDiarmid's most famous lyrics. It is a fine example not only of the engaging effects of "synthetic Scots" but also of the characteristically unearthly mood of many of his early poems. The atmosphere of "The Eemis Stane" is initially dreamlike and disembodied, but it seems to coagulate and become vaguely pessimistic as the poem progresses. There is a tinge of loneliness and sorrow in the poem, but there is little or no sentimentality; rather, the poem seems to circumscribe an indistinct negativism and helpless inconclusiveness…. (p. 29)
The poem's synthetic dialect has an immediately disarming effect upon the reader unfamiliar with Scots. Even after the gloss becomes familiar, the strangeness of the vocabulary faintly suggests an ancient ceremonial conducted in a mystical code…. The expressive economy that MacDiarmid often claimed for the Scots dialect is evidenced not only in the idiomatic essence of "eemis" and "yowdendrift," but in the frequency of apostrophic abbreviation. The poet's language in "The Eemis Stane" is more than the medium of expression; it actually seems to constitute the content of the expression, almost imagistically: the poem is more emblematic than informative.
A substantial part of the poem's initial lunar strangeness, and therefore of one of its principal effects, derives from the implied characteristics of the narrative point of view. There is an explicit speaker…. With no evidence to the contrary, the reader assumes that the whole poem is spoken by this same persona. But the principal image … implies an unusual narrative situation, for the world moves against the sky, apparently as seen from some extraterrestrial vantage point. Is the speaker off the Earth? It would seem so except for one clue: "hairst." The notion of the extraterrestrial narrator is weakened by the fact that he seems to perceive the harvest, which (barring of course the possibility that he stands in a cornfield on Mars) ties him to Earth. But the speaker's mind need not be so bound—and in fact extraterrestrial perception is the source of his inspiration. The elimination of the possibility of physical space travel eliminates an outrageous demand on the reader's sensibilities, but the hint of it is an important device for attaining the metaphorical world view necessary to the poem.
So the narrator, "in reality" earthbound, imaginatively views the whole rocking Earth. But his consciousness abruptly returns to the ground: "my eerie memories fa'." The rapid shift through vast quasi-physical distances is a startling metaphorical device, portraying an equally vast and rapid internal shift in the speaker.
The beauty of this poem is that its syntax mimes and fortifies this shift and elevates it to thematic significance. The first stanza portrays an essentially static situation until the nounmodifier "eemis," the first hint of any motion. (p. 30)
The second stanza brings this violent action to a grinding halt as the speaker's memories complete their fall from space to the Earth, from a state of lunar strangeness to one of frustration and negation. The "stane" of Earth has become a huge gravestone: the cosmic and the commonplace are united in the metaphor. But the speaker cannot even read the epitaph—it is obscured by history and, oddly enough, by fame. The activity of stanza one is reduced dramatically as the cosmic view shifts: the verbs in stanza two are presented in negative form ("couldna read," "had … No' yirdit") miming the stifling effects of the "yowdendrift" and the mosses of history and fame. The frustration of the persona is evident from the syntax of stanza two: first of all, the stanza does not even embody a complete sentence, but only a frustrating fragment; secondly, and more importantly, the clause beginning with "I" is a very odd construction (here simplified and italicized for illustration): I could not read the words had moss and lichen not obscured them. The statement is a double negative. Yet it cannot possibly assert the positive, as a double negative normally would, without creating a damaging incongruity: I could read the words [because] moss and lichen had obscured them. The utterance fights against itself—it is initially difficult to read, perhaps as if miming the speaker's frustrated attempt to read the words on the stone…. Even in this form, the double use of the negative enforces the multiple obfuscation of the epitaph by the yowdendrift and the mosses. An interesting addition to the poem's feeling of frustration and negation is the character of the "words cut out": first, neither speaker nor reader ever sees them; second, even if they were visible, they would connote death, the ultimate negative stasis; third and most importantly, the words are cut out in stone—they are physically absent.
The tenses of the verbs reflect the movement from present activity to negative stasis in their shift from the present to a negative past subjunctive tense. (p. 31)
"The Man in the Moon," the third lyric in "Au Clair de Lune," uses an extraterrestrial metaphor similar to that in "The Eemis Stane."…
This poem, again much like "The Eemis Stane," seems to express an inconclusiveness, dissatisfaction, and negativism expressed in a strikingly metaphysical combination of the cosmic and the earthbound, the abstract and the concrete, the vast and the tiny. Once again the Earth is quite visible—it "glitters," and is "white"—to the eye of the narrator, whose identity as a perceiver is thereby faintly implied. The position of the narrator is apparently extraterrestrial throughout the poem, a fact that instantly endows the lyric with an other-worldly strangeness similar to that of "The Eemis Stane." (p. 32)
The speaker apparently has no firm answers. The poem is a remarkable statement of the dilemma of choice between an intellectual but superficial life and a concrete but comatose half-life. The poem does not firmly resolve, but hints at the superiority of the latter alternative, not only through the … implied comment by the speaker on Thought, but also through the syntax…. Hence, when the speaker criticizes Thought, he may imply a slight preference for the passive, slowly moving half-life of eternity and a rejection of the passive, static, superficial, ineffectual life of Thought. The preference, if there is one, is slight—the speaker's opinion remains essentially unresolved.
"Somersault," from Penny Wheep, is yet another poem that makes use of a cosmological setting. However, the heart of this poem is not inconclusiveness but rather an overtly enamoured representation of the motion of Earth in space…. (pp. 33-4)
The Earth's motion is expressed quite energetically here, but the poem concludes with a pair of similes that seem incongruous, earthy, and certainly inharmonious with the opening scene. Yet the demands made on the reader's senses as he is whirled from space to Earth are not so great as they may seem at first. There is certainly a metaphysical yoking in this poem of the cosmic and the ordinary, and of the "breengin'" of Earth with the stasis of a suckling sow; but the juxtaposition of these opposites is tempered by a device which makes the rapidity of the shifting more palatable.
There is a subtle implication of a gradual change in the position of the narrative persona. His initial position is, as in "The Eemis Stane," seemingly off the Earth as he observes it rushing through space. So, though he begins in space and ends thinking of the earthbound pigs, his shift of focus is not so much a leap as it is a journey inward that is sustained throughout the poem. In stanza one he observes the revolution of the earth as the whole sphere noisily "breengs" through the cosmos. In stanza two he seems much closer to the Earth, for he observes the rotation around the sphere of particular features on the Earth's surface: "A wecht o' hills," "a whummlin' sea." The narrator has apparently moved in from a vantage point far from the Earth to a point somewhat nearer the surface from which he can observe particular features. Later his sensibilities proceed down to the very surface, from which he observes the "West" and the "East." So the final similes, though still surprising, are rendered less outrageous by the continual downward "movement" of the narrator from deep space to the terrestrial surface. (pp. 34-5)
There is yet another mimesis of this gravitational acceleration, though this device at first seems to mime deceleration. The Earth in stanzas one and two seems to be moving unusually quickly, and the hills and seas seem to spin wildly on the surface. Only in stanza three is there any approximation of the normal speed of natural phenomena—pigs in fact can lie still and mornings can appear motionless. This state of affairs seems to contradict the verbal acceleration in stanzas 1-3. But the contradiction may be illusory. Perhaps it is not the natural phenomena that are decelerating, but the consciousness of the narrator that is accelerating as he nears the Earth. Therefore the apparent slowing of the Earth may actually be the result of an acceleration of an initially slow-moving cognition in relation to the steady speed of the cosmos. This speeding up of consciousness may signify the narrator's increasing excitement as he approaches Earth. The increased speed matches not only the gravitational acceleration of the narrator as he approaches Earth but also the syntactical acceleration implied by the poem's verbs. Perhaps the relative stasis of stanza three is, in fact, attributable to the extremely rapid acceleration of the narrator's mind. This interpretation might make sense, for the narrator loves the "stishie" of the Earth's high speed, as he states in stanza one; it is not unbelievable that he might aspire to attain very high intellectual "speeds" himself.
Syntactically, the poem's verbs increase in activity, miming the narrator's quasi-physical journey from the cosmos to the Earth and his physical rest on the terrestrial surface. His consciousness accelerates in activity (even as he focuses on the East and the pigs), as implied in the relative slowing of natural phenomena. So "Somersault" is a metaphysical poem which rapidly shifts its focus, yoking the cosmic with the earthly but justifying the yoking with the implication of a metaphorical descent by the narrative persona, complete with accompanying syntactic acceleration.
"The Watergaw," from Sangschaw, is one of MacDiarmid's most famous lyrics and one which is well worth attention…. (pp. 35-6)
No other poem better illustrates the advantages that "synthetic Scots" offered MacDiarmid. The sounds in this poem are beautiful…. The word "watergaw" is a precise word for a hazy phenomenon and therefore represents a perfect little piece of imagism. There is no satisfactory English equivalent for the word: "rainbow" connotes a sentimentality which "watergaw" does not, and which would be inappropriate to this poem. Indeed, this lyric is far from being mushy and sentimental, as the surprising presence of the word "foolish" indicates. "Yow-trummle" is an economical and ready-made metaphor in itself, and the idiomatic "nae reek i' the laverock's hoose" is impossible to duplicate readily in English.
The poem seems to express the underplayed consternation and irresolution that characterize a good many of Mac-Diarmid's early works. A dark, stormy setting contributes to the gothic flavor of "The Watergaw," as does the rhetorical form of the poem: an apostrophe to a dead person. The speaker, who self-consciously refers to himself six times, seems troubled by his memories; he seems to be struggling with the past. The first stanza recalls the moment at which the speaker perceived a watergaw and was instantly reminded of a dying look; the second stanza, embodying a mood not of complacency but rather of worry and irresolution, dwells on the significance of this brief epiphany. (pp. 36-7)
But even though the speaker's statements of his associating the "licht" and the "look" may refer to both the present and the past, the poem continues in the past tense: "An' I thocht o' the last wild look ye gied / Afore ye deed!" The poem continues in the past, perhaps because the speaker's real concern is the dead person's look, which is locked forever in the past, unlike the recurring phenomenon of the watergaw.
A diagram of the time sequence implied by the ordered occurrence of key words shows a series of forward movements strongly countered by thrusts back to the past, expressing the speaker's consistently uncomfortable concern with past events….
Stanza two begins the speaker's troubled contemplation of the watergaw's "licht" and the dying person's "look."… By the end of stanza two the speaker is unresolved and uncertain—he thinks he might know what the look meant. Readers of "The Watergaw" are even more uncertain: we are completely uninformed of the speaker's speculative interpretation. (p. 38)
So in both stanzas the verbs indicate the speaker's attempt to bring his attention from the past to the present: he momentarily succeeds, then falls back to his uncomfortable memories. The verbal structure of "The Watergaw" reinforces the poem's thematic uneasiness and consternation. (p. 39)
["The Skeleton of the Future," one of MacDiarmid's short poems from Stony Limits,] not only exemplifies MacDiarmid's transition from Scots to English but also demonstrates a few very important aspects of his politics and poetics. The poem praises the bones of Lenin, and implies that the Communist Party … was the hope of man's future. As the title of the poem indicates, the basis of this short poem is an oxymoron, a fact which belies not only MacDiarmid's fondness for disrupting logic and devaluing Thought (cf. "The Man in the Moon") but also his admiration for metaphysical verse. Geology was one of MacDiarmid's personal interests—he used "the stone" as an important symbol not only in this poem but also in many of his earlier lyrics, and especially in his later poem "On a Raised Beach." The use of specific types of stone in "Skeleton of the Future" also epitomizes MacDiarmid's penchant for the technical vocabularies of science generally…. (pp. 39-40)
Overtly a description of Lenin's tomb, the poem praises the simultaneous solidity and energy of Lenin's bones and implies praise for the permanence and the promise of the Communist system. The frequent mention of stones ("granite," "diorite," "labradorite crystals," "stones") conveys the strong traditional sense of the permanence associated with rocks, a sense often manifested in the construction of tombstones and altars. In fact, there is a quasi-religious tone in this poem accountable to the implications of stone-symbolism, and the association by rhyme of "stones" and "bones" strongly enhances, almost deifies, Lenin's corpse.
The poem's syntax cooperates with and contributes to the theme of the union of stasis and permanence with energy and promise: the poem contains no finite verbs. There are probably two "sentences" implied in the poem, separated by the semicolon, but as they stand, both are only complex nominals. The effect of a verbless construction strikingly reinforces the theme of rock-like stasis…. This syntactic construction mimes not only the architectural construction of the tomb, but also the psychological fixation of the speaker—he does not move forward, but down into contemplative insight…. Immediately subsequent to this temporal reversal comes "; and"—a remarkable construction in this context. Up to this point in the poem, there has been a strong emphasis on the destruction of normal time sequence, with little hint of the "promising" half of the thematic oxymoron: it has been all "skeleton" and no "future." But the semicolon has the effect both of introducing qualifying remarks on previous discourse (thereby imitating simultaneity and, by extension, stasis), and of continuation and addition. Therefore the semicolon itself is a temporal oxymoron, appropriate to the theme of the poem. The semicolon is followed by "and," a distinctly sequential word: suddenly the stasis is broken, and the reader is thrust forward. The thrust, however, is right into the word "behind," which severely cripples this movement forward. The very next word is "them," whose referents are "granite" and "diorite," far back in the beginning of line one. So punctuation and conjunction combine with cataphoric reference in a syntactical temporal oxymoron, and the lexical oxymoron follows directly: "The eternal lightning of Lenin's bones."
As these brief analyses indicate, the early lyrics of Hugh MacDiarmid—and there are dozens of very good ones—generously repay critical attention. (pp. 40-1)
Phillip Bozek, "Hugh MacDiarmid's Early Lyrics: A Syntactic Examination," in Language and Style (copyright © 1976 by E. L. Epstein), Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1976, pp. 29-41.
The Times Literary Supplement
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Mr MacDiarmid in his introduction rightly calls the present republication [of his 1926 Contemporary Scottish Studies] "a sign of the times", but what is interesting is that this is true not merely in the obvious sense that devolution is in the air, but also because much of what the book contains is still surprisingly relevant. The essays are wide-ranging, very confident in tone, and clearly determined to be obstetric as well as obstreperous. A new culture was stirring in Scotland; a "Scottish Renaissance" had been announced in poetry, centring on Hugh MacDiarmid himself…. A parochial, conservative old guard was still very active, all the more so as it experienced the early shocks of modern or modernist change, and Hugh MacDiarmid assiduously provokes the auld dug to growl and shake its fleas over the pages of the journal. Relishing controversy, he delights in watching his opponents splutter, often at considerable and rhetorical length, and returns to pounce unperturbed on some evidence of out-of-touchness or inconsequentiality or even simple old-fashioned envy. By a combination of insight into the zeitgeist and luck, he comes out of the web of argument most usually on top, and the names of the majority of his opponents strike a faint response now. That the articles caused the amount of anger and dismay they did (as well as gradually converting some and being immediately defended by others) was a testimony to their relevance….
"Digs at the Auld Dug," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3899, December 3, 1976, p. 1514.
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[Hugh MacDiarmid] has been consistently in the public eye since his early thirties, when the young Lowland Scot Christopher Grieve adopted a more "Highlands"-sounding pseudonym in the early 1920's and published his first poems in a Lallas Scots patois, challenging the hegemony of English letters and politics in the British Isles. The assertion of a Scots language (contemporaneous with Ireland's discovery of Gaelic tradition) registered MacDiarmid's emotional commitment to Scots nationalism as well as his aesthetic preferences: he almost single-handedly generated the Scottish Renaissance Movement of the twenties and thirties and was a founding member of the Scottish National Party; and he has consistently represented the literary work as an aesthetic weapon in his nationalist program. A national literature—or more specifically, the recognition that a native Scots tradition has always existed, despite attempts by the English to obscure its importance—has been MacDiarmid's battleground in the fight for Scottish political and intellectual independence from the United Kingdom…. From the early short lyrics in Scots, for which he is most famous, through the long Scots poems like A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (a genuinely neglected masterpiece, even in our twentieth-century tradition of long sequential poems), into his later work in an English-based "poetry of fact," MacDiarmid has consistently argued for a political and stylistic synthesis, with a prophetic intensity that makes him at times sound positively anti-humanist, as in his autobiography Lucky Poet…. (pp. 447-48)
[Hugh MacDiarmid's] career has seemed a quest for a vivid revolutionary discipline, a submission to truths higher than the individual personality, for all its complexities and intellectual achievements, can represent. (p. 448)
[For Hugh MacDiarmid], the battle often defines the terms, and the responsibility of the conscious adult is to recognize how those terms—economic, political, even scientific—are defined in advance, above the range of the single individual. In his early work the battle is linguistic, and MacDiarmid's response is to adapt the language of Burns into a precise and lyrical tool. (In the battle, even Burns himself is compromised, because too much sentiment and self-congratulation have attached to the historical figure of Robbie, the Scots Singer.) Such a political presumption clearly underlies, for instance, MacDiarmid's early poem "The Eemis Stane," a stunning combination of local language and cosmic vision…. To measure how effective the localizing gesture is, try to "translate" that poem into standard English. The exercise of paraphrasing ought to indicate how much the vitality of the poem is the power of the language itself: in English the poem is irreparably reduced.
"The Eemis Stane" illustrates some of the difficulty an American reader has in coming to terms with MacDiarmid's early work. The diction is difficult, thouoh I suspect the difficulty is overrated; the language of the poem here is no more inaccessible, say, than the allusiveness of Eliot, the associative shorthand of Pound, or the quirkiness of Berryman—and the MacDiarmid poem has the strength of an integral tradition behind it. Admittedly, we come at the work at a double remove, distanced both by the native Scots vocabulary and by MacDiarmid's own poetic use of his raw material. Even at a first reading, however, the music and the wit of the Scots voice are unmistakable, and MacDiarmid's control of the vehicle itself charges the poem with promise for rereading. MacDiarmid is using a dialect voice, but not for what we normally regard as "dialect" themes: he is rural but not rustic, pursuing speculation but not revery. Like Faulkner—and like Yeats, with his discovery of "national" themes for an international poetry—MacDiarmid makes us feel the inevitably local grounding of his cosmic sense. As one rereads the early lyrics, the investment of time and of concentration pays off handsomely, yielding a supple voice that plays with—but does not succumb to—primitivism and eccentricity. In MacDiarmid's line the Scots patois opens new possibilities for poetic music, for an elemental breadth of vision (the language seems to have so many nuanced words for natural phenomena—like rocks!), and for incongruous, tautly apt juxtapositions.
Never particularly modest, MacDiarmid has nevertheless explained many of the strengths of his early poems by pointing to the native possibilities of the Scots language itself, claiming that the poems earn much of their power by a kind of psychic mimesis, copying the idiosyncracies of the Scottish national character. (pp. 450-51)
After the success of the early Scots lyrics, MacDiarmid—to his credit—refused to stand still, politically or aesthetically, and the latter two-thirds of [The Hugh MacDiarmid Anthology] reflect his development in the direction of what he has come to call a "poetry of fact." Taking his cue from Rilke ("the poet must know everything"), MacDiarmid assumes the responsibility not only to know but to teach (or to make sure that we know he knows), by incorporating into his poems evidence of his vast, unsystematic, and bafflingly synthetic reading…. Increasingly, these later poems work on a base of standard English; MacDiarmid seems to acknowledge that English as a lingua franca can be as politically evocative internationally, as his dialect poetry was in national politics. With increasing frequency, as the path of his career here registers, MacDiarmid finds his most intense moments not in the direct epic act or lyric outburst, but in prophetic descriptions of the qualities of a new poetry of the future…. MacDiarmid's best work in the past twenty years has been in this direction of inspired prophecy, in which he concentrates both the political fervor of his international Communism and pan-Celticism, his nationalist commitment to the Scottish cause, his aesthetic syncretism, and his wide visionary sense, into long ambulatory poems that describe—as well as present—the kind of poetry which MacDiarmid prophesies. In this direction he is the most important political poet in Europe since Brecht: both the Nobodaddy of the political poets of the 1930's and 1960's, and (presumably) the forerunner of much to come in poetry. (pp. 452-53)
Stephen Tapscott, "Book Reviews: 'The Hugh MacDiarmid Anthology: Poems in Scots and English'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1978, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 447-48, 450-53.∗
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For twenty years I've believed Hugh MacDiarmid, along with Yeats, Pound, and Eliot, to be one of the four great pioneer poets of our century. Now I know it.
The transformation of faith to certainty comes from the publication of MacDiarmid's Complete Poems 1920–1976….
Not Burns but the great medieval Scottish poets …—Dunbar, Gavin Douglas, Sir David Lindsay of the Mount—were progenitors of [MacDiarmid's first "Lallans" poems]. His earlier English verses seem to owe most to James Joyce and T. E. Brown, though the later MacDiarmid was to acknowledge a debt to John Davidson and the still under-rated C. M. Doughty (all Celts be it noted).
The early Joycean influence comes as a surprise…. The publication of "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle" in 1926 launched what is now known as the Scottish Renaissance. The "Lailans" in which it is written is not current speech but a synthetic language dredged from the early Scots poets and old vernacular dictionaries, rather like the homemade medieval English of Chatterton's "Rowley" poems. One reason MacDiarmid turned to "Lallans" was because "all the important words (in English) had been killed in the war"….
Though wildly different in technique, "A Drunk Man" compares with Eliot's Waste Land. It is an amazing Goliardic sequence combining gaiety and bitter wit with lyricism and satire—Villon comes to mind—to probe the condition of Scotland, and has been justly described as "a work absolutely sui generis whether one considers Scottish literature only, or the whole literature of the English-speaking world".
But apart from the difficult but exhilarating "To Circumiack Cenicrastus", and many short masterpieces like "Harry Semen", "Water Music", "Old Wife in High Spirits", MacDiarmid's other major poems were all written in standard English, in which, unlike Burns and Chatterton, his muse was equally at home. The splendidly ambitious "In Memoriam James Joyce", whose scope is indicated by its over-title "A Vision of World Language", fails—but it is a failure on the scale of Pound's Cantos, which it rivals rather than resembles in the attempt to assimilate an amazing diversity of material, in aliveness and in a muscular, persuasive rhythm which seduces one into reading what one would otherwise not even attempt.
Like an alchemist turning base metal into gold, MacDiarmid can take up anything from a Gaelic dictionary to a newspaper article and, with a slight but deft rearrangement, transmute it to poetry…. All MacDiarmid's immense reading, as polymath as Pound's contributes to these unending yet miraculously unboring poems, in which the original starting-point is lost sight of, like Coleridge's conversation which Wordsworth compared with a river whose course one cannot follow as it winds through forests or loses itself in sands, yet, when it reappears, is known to be the same river.
One reason why MacDiarmid does not bore, why his descriptive verse (e.g. "Bracken Hills in Autumn") is incomparable, is that like Hardy he had an eye for what Sir Walter Scott called "those facts so trivial as to escape general observation which are yet precisely those which give life, spirit, and above all, truth". Another may be his individualism and willingness to stick his neck out….
The two poles of MacDiarmid's poetry are Scotland and Socialism. They are also the bees in his bonnet, though he seldom allows them to buzz loud enough to drown all else, save in one instance: "The Battle Continues" (1957), a virulent attack on Roy Campbell for his pro-Franco Spanish Civil War poem "Flowering Rifle". Here MacDiarmid abandons wit for abuse and his poem achieves the difficult feat of being in its own way as unreadably paranoic as Campbell's. But in general MacDiarmid accepts neither Scotland nor Socialism incritically: his only consistency is his Anglophobia.
David Wright, "Caledonian Antisyzgy," in The Times Educational Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Educational Supplement by permission), No. 3308, November 24, 1978, p. 26.
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In a negative way, I am well qualified to write about MacDiarmid, being neither a Scotsman nor an Englishman, ignorant both of Scottish linguistics and the natural sciences, and innocent of party politics. My approach, that is to say, is an empirical one. I read the poems, whether in English or in Scots (a perfectly straightforward task, despite their supposedly comic impenetrability) without preconception or polemical interference, and conclude that their author was a poet of the very first rank, comparable with Pasternak and Neruda, Eliot and Seferis. Like Neruda, he was capable of the most strident logorrhea; like Eliot, of the most astonishing doggerel….
There was a great deal of Whitman about MacDiarmid, both in his generous humanism and in his unabashed egotism; but he possessed a lyrical subtlety, even delicacy, that Whitman lacked, and he had the good fortune to be devoted to a tradition, or rather two traditions: the Gaelic tradition of Ultima Scotia, and the more urbane tradition of the later medieval Scots makars. Out of these, and the initially regenerative spirit of international Communism,… he wove a critical and political fabric for his own poetry, which he called 'the seamless garment'….
What distinguishes MacDiarmid as a poet, leaving aside all questions of nationality, is the immense range of his vision. I don't just mean that he produced many long poems enriched by all the cultures of Europe and the East, but that he had in a remarkable degree what one might call the theoptic view. From the beginning, as in 'The Bonnie Broukit Bairn', he had a lively sense of the planet Earth as one stone among many, albeit the most interesting because peopled by the peculiar creatures we call people….
Few would deny that MacDiarmid was capable of great folly. There is the pretentiousness of the autodidact, which leads him to blind us with newly-acquired science and polysyllabic eyewash…. Consider, also, the curious intimations of snobbery, strangely at variance with the demands for a better world. The 'First Hymn to Lenin' is dedicated to Prince D. S. Mirsky; elsewhere an attack on 'vicious nobles' appears on the same page as a dedication to the Duke of Montrose. Can it be that this proud radical dearly loved a lord? No doubt these noble dedicatees are, or were, the least vicious of men; but the use of their names strikes an oddly Augustan note. (p. 744)
Still, the weaknesses are as nothing to the strengths; and when a great poet is recently dead it is the strengths we must honour. Not the least of these was MacDiarmid's determination to write on the grand scale. At a time when poets of the mainstream—now little more than a trickle—refused, and continue to refuse, the challenge of larger forms …, MacDiarmid returned constantly to its exciting possibilities, which included the possibility of 'magnificent failure'. 'A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle' was the first of these attempts, and contains many fine things, not least the lyric so much admired by Yeats, 'O wha's been here afore me, lass?'; but the technical doggedness becomes discouraging; and the same is true of the ill-conceived 'To Circumjack Cencrastus'. 'In Memoriam James Joyce' I find a good read, though hardly a great poem—too hectoring, too overpoweringly encyclopedic. MacDiarmid's failure with the long poem is, of course, the failure of every modern poet who attempts it, at any rate in English. The orchestra has been dispersed in our diffractive century, and the choral cry of 'Freude!' deflated, if not positively discredited. The only music we recognise is that of the euphuistic and ironical quartet or the wandering individual instrument, be it violin or bagpipe.
So we return to the short poem, at which MacDiarmid excelled. Scattered through these volumes are many 'gowden lyrics', and a judicious selection of these would be enough to establish their author as one of the finest and most original poets of our time. Most are in Scots, and some in English; all are passionate, tender, compact, a few aphoristic. I'm thinking not only of the poems in Sangshaw and Penny Wheep, but more particularly of the 'Shetland Lyrics' in Stony Limits…. (pp. 744, 746)
If he was a prey to extremism and paranoia, if he was sometimes doctrinaire or asinine, these were the prerogatives of a courageous spirit who set himself an impossible task. And in the long view, the theoptic view if you like, who is to say that he wasn't more often right than wrong? (p. 746)
Derek Mahon, "Lament for the Maker," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 96, No. 2489, December 1, 1978, pp. 744, 746.