Hugh MacDiarmid

by Christopher Murray Grieve

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Hugh MacDiarmid (mak-DUR-mihd) wrote prolifically through most of his life. His more than seventy books include social criticism, political polemics, autobiography, and literary criticism. He edited earlier Scottish poets such as William Dunbar and Robert Burns and several poetry anthologies, and he founded and edited a number of Scottish periodicals.


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Only slowly has Hugh MacDiarmid come to be recognized as a major twentieth century poet. He spent most of his life laboring in one way or another for Scotland and won his earliest acclaim there. He was a founder, in 1927, of the Scottish Center of PEN, the international writers’ organization, and of the National Party of Scotland the following year, although his always radical political views led him into the Communist Party in the 1930’s.

Despite his extreme social and political views, his friends were legion. He once observed that few other people could boast of friendships with William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Dylan Thomas, and the circle of his admirers extended worldwide. After many years of promoting, usually undiplomatically, Scotland and Scottish culture, he was awarded a Civil List pension in 1950, and although his criticism of Scottish education continued unabated, Edinburgh University awarded him an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1957.

Not until the 1960’s, however, did MacDiarmid’s poetry begin to appear in British and modern poetry anthologies. Despite a general awakening to his greatness since that time, reliable commentary of his work remains largely in the hands of Scottish critics. As an innovator in modern literature, MacDiarmid deserves to be ranked with Eliot, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett.

Discussion Topics

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What personal qualities and intellectual proclivities have most likely undermined Hugh MacDiarmid’s attempt at fostering a Scottish literary Renaissance?

Given MacDiarmid’s conviction that bad imitations of Robert Burns ruined Scottish poetry, was he wise to write as many dialect poems as he did?

Analyze the comic elements in MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.

Examine the range of symbolic potentialities in MacDiarmid’s thistle.

Characterize the Scottish environment as MacDiarmid presents it in “Water Music.”

Which is the greater challenge to the reader: MacDiarmid’s reconstructed Scottish dialect in his earlier poems or the weight of knowledge he brought to his later English poems?


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Baglow, John. Hugh MacDiarmid: The Poetry of Self. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987. Somewhat academic in style but still effective as an effort to present MacDiarmid’s writing beyond the context of his nationalist ambitions and his connections with ultra-leftist politics. Includes an appendix discussing critical responses to MacDiarmid and an extensive list of references.

Bold, Alan. Hugh MacDiarmid, Christopher Murray Grieve: A Critical Biography. London: John Murray, 1988. A solid discussion of the writer’s life and work by a sympathetic but discerning biographer, with a thorough bibliography and a glossary of Scots words. Photographs and drawings nicely complement the text.

Glen, Duncan, ed. Hugh MacDiarmid: Or, Out of Langholm and into the World. Edinburgh: Akros, 1992. A short biographical study of MacDiarmid with bibliographic references.

Herbert, W. N. To Circumjack MacDiarmid: The Poetry and Prose of Hugh MacDiarmid. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1992. A thorough, lucid, and knowledgeable consideration of MacDiarmid’s poetry and its connections to other writers, social issues, and aesthetic strategies.

Lyall, Scott. Hugh Macdiarmid’s Poetry and Politics of Place: Imagining a Scottish Republic. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. This biography and literary criticism of MacDiarmid looks at his poetry and examines how the poet’s views of Scotland pervade it.

O’Connor, Laura. Haunted English: The Celtic Fringe, the British Empire, and De-Anglicization . Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. This...

(This entire section contains 402 words.)

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work on how Anglo-Celtic modernists William Butler Yeats, Marianne Moore, and Hugh MacDiarmid de-Anglicize their literary vernaculars contains an entire chapter on MacDiarmid’s poetry, as well as many references to his work.

Oxenhorn, Harvey. Elemental Things: The Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1984. An exploration of MacDiarmid’s poetry from the perspective of political and cultural matters in Scotland. Somewhat uneven in terms of poetic analysis and a little too respectful of MacDiarmid’s claims that there is a coherent philosophical position informing all the poetry.

Riach, Alan. Hugh MacDiarmid’s Epic Poetry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991. A well-known scholar of Scottish culture, and MacDiarmid in particular, offers interpretations of the poetry. Bibliographical references, index.

Scott, P. H., and A. C. Davis. The Age of MacDiarmid: Essays on Hugh MacDiarmid and His Influence on Contemporary Scotland. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1980. An important collection of essays from eminent scholars of MacDiarmid. The first group of essays is largely autobiographical in nature; the second group addresses themes such as MacDiarmid’s nationalism, politics, and the language problem in his work.


Critical Essays