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.”