Hugh MacDiarmid MacDiarmid, Hugh (Pseudonym of Christopher Murray Grieve) (Vol. 19) - Essay

Christopher Murray Grieve

Phillip Bozek

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Stephen Tapscott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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David Wright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Derek Mahon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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