Table of Content
2. Hugh MacDiarmid and the Scottish Renaissance
2.1 From Christopher Murray Grieve to Hugh MacDiarmid
2.2 The concept of national identity
2.3 The influence of Modernism
2.4 Imaginism and Symbolism
2.5 The Liberation of Language
3. The Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid
3.1 Annals of the Five Senses
3.2 Sangshaw and Penny Wheep
3.3 A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle
3.4 Stony Limits and the Period of Synthetic English
3.5 In Memoriam James Joyce
4. MacDiarmid’s Contemporaries
4.1 Robert Garioch – Closing the gaps
4.2 Norman MacCaig – Distrusting Language
5. The 1960s and 1970s
5.1 Scottishness after Worl War II
5.2 Edwin Morgan – Morganmania
5.3 Douglas Dunn – Barbarous Voices
6. The 1980s and 1990s
6.1 Establishing the Scottish Parliament
6.2 Liz Lochhead – The Personal Angle
6.3 W.N. Herbert – Outside and Inside
6.4 Kathleen Jamie – Recontextualising stereotypes
The Scottish Renaissance Movement has found its way into numberless anthologies of Modern literature and poetry across the world and has been used as initial point for various studies of the awakening Scottish national identity in the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, the Scottish Renaissance has seldom been subject to literary studies resulting in a sensible lack of monographs on the movement. The name of Hugh MacDiarmid, however, is inevitably to appear in any context of the Renaissance Movement. His articles in periodicals such as The Scottish Chapbook shaped the cultural conception of the movement, while his poetical output gave voice to the simmering national awareness and search for identity at the beginning of the century. Questions of the national character and the political role of Scotland pervaded Scottish writing of this time. The idea of Scotland as a small nation where political self-determination might develop in co-ordination with cultural self-expression characterizes MacDiarmid’s confidence with regard to the Renaissance movement. Furthermore, the poet aimed to reinstall the Scots language as a literary means in the arena of academic and scientific writing extending its vocabulary corpus through the work with language dictionaries and ancient terminology. Approaching Scots in this manner has rendered him a number of opponents criticizing the artificiality of his poetry. On the whole, MacDiarmid has been an ambiguous figure provoking reactions with all of his actions and attitudes. He was the personified extreme, combining nationalist views with socialist dreams, spiritual sensitivity with objective reason.
The paper at hand examines the literary effects of Hugh MacDiarmid’s writing on contemporary Scottish poetry on the positive as well as on the negative side. One of the major questions in this work focuses on the relation between literature and national identity in the Scottish Renaissance and afterwards. In how far are the demands of distinctive Scottishness realised in recent Scottish poetry? And is MacDiarmid’s conception of national identity still applicable to the modern Republic after the re-establishment of its Parliament in 1999? Furthermore, MacDiarmid claimed that Scottish identity could only be fully expressed through the Scots language. Thus, the second major subject within this examination will be the use of the Vernacular subsequent to the Scottish Renaissance and its function as a medium for national identity.
Composition of the paper
In chapter 2 of this paper, the author will examine the poetic and philosophic principles underlying Hugh MacDiarmid’s writing. A section about his mastering of Postmodern ideas could have been included, too, but seemed not to fit exactly into this part of the paper. The chapter in question is to serve as a preparation for the detailed analysis of MacDiarmid’s poetic development. As Postmodern influences can only be traced back to his 1950s publications, it seems more appropriate to explain the shift in his poetic program in the course of section 3. Thus, chapter 2 only stresses those literary and cultural concepts which determine his poetic work right from the beginning.
The analysis of his poetry in chapter 3 will be far from exhaustive, due to the vast number of MacDiarmid’s publications and his breadth in poetical style. The author concentrates on single works representing the main shifts in his poetical development as the base for comparison with lyrical concepts of those poets analysed subsequently. The Socialist poems of the 1930s will be omitted, because they were not of major influence on the later main stream in Scotland. Of course, it is impossible to overestimate the significance of the socialist and nationalist movements which formed MacDiarmid during his journalist career. But, often his socialist verse focuses merely on propaganda and lacks new development in style. Main stream poetry appears to be of more importance to this analysis than a marginal socialist stream, which was mostly part of a fashion in the middle of the century.
In the following chapters, the poetic output of selected poets of the twentieth century will be set into context with Hugh MacDiarmid’s work, in particular concentrating on the concepts of national identity and the usage of the Vernacular.
All Poems by Hugh MacDiarmid, mentioned in the following work, are to be found in The Complete Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid edited by Micheal Grieve and W.R. Aitken.
2. Hugh MacDiarmid and the Scottish Renaissance
2.1 From Christopher Murray Grieve to Hugh MacDiarmid
Christopher Murray Grieve, who is better known as his alter ego Hugh MacDiarmid, was born in 1892 in Langholm, Dumfriesshire. His father, a rural postman, is said to have aroused in him much of his future radicalism in political and religious belief. Grieve joined the Independent Labour Party already in 1908. Three years later, his father died and, as the history of literature portrays, Grieve would treat his death in many of his poems. After quitting his teacher training in Edinburgh under George Ogilivie he became a journalist in Scotlands and Wales. In 1915, he joined the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) and worked in hospitals in Greece and Spain.
Christopher Grieve’s fame throughout the world mainly derives from his central role in the Scottish Renaissance Movement. When Sergeant Grieve returned from the First World War to Scotland his former provincial life could not fulfil the growing sense of distinct Scottishness he began to experience both in cultural and in political terms. A nationalistic ambition to revive a truly Scottish identity through Scottish literature shaped his journalistic work from now on. First, he wrote his articles and poems in English using his own name, because he perceived Vernacular writing, as accomplished by Lewis Spence since 1910, as romantic and backward-looking. For the same reason he opposed the formation of a Vernacular Circle of the London Burns Club, because most of Burns’ followers had turned his satirical breadth into a tame popular humour at the beginning of the century.
Only after founding the Scottish Chapbook, a change of mind was noticeable when he declared in his editorial introduction that work in English, Gaelic or Scots was to be supported in his periodical. The first issue of the Scottish Chapbook included a poem called “Nisbet” which was the first one to be published under the name MacDiarmid – Grieve’s pseudonym rendering him an air of Scottishness from the first glance.
Doubtlessly, Christopher Murray Grieve was the main initiator of the Scottish Renaissance Movement – a term which he first introduced in a 1922 edition of the Scottish Chapbook. It was the first of altogether 14 issues of this journal he edited and contributed to. Back then, he chose the spelling Scottish Renascence, which later coexisted alongside several other terms like The Scots Renaissance, The Scottish Renaissance Movement, Scottish Literary Renaissance, Scots Movement and Scottish Literary Movement.
From then on, the Scottish Renaissance was pushed forward primarily by MacDiarmid’s own publications like The Scottish Chapbook (1922-1923), The Scottish Nation (1923) , The Northern Review (1924) and Contemporary Scottish Studies (1926), which still appeared under his birth name Christopher Murray Grieve. He composed hundreds of articles on Scottish issues, aimed at the revival of cultural and political autonomy and at the dissociation from the English primacy. Politics and culture had always been inseparable for MacDiarmid and his Renaissance movement was spurred on by the conviction that Scotland had much to contribute to European culture. He always emphasized the importance of European influences on native literature as well as on native culture. So, the concept behind his Scottish Renaissance was outward-looking by orienting at European influences. He only opened fire against the English cultural hegemony in Britain and did not hesitate to call himself an Anglophobe.
His Contemporary Scottish Studies were included in the form of single articles in the Scottish Educational Journal – a weekly paper of the Educational Institute of Scotland, which was mainly read by teachers and a small group of intellectuals. MacDiarmid’s polemical contributions raised the public interest in the journal, primarily because he adopted an arrogant, almost omniscient attitude towards Scottish literary traditions and especially the predominant Burns cult. Alan Bold illustrates the indignation of the intellectual scene towards this self-assured newcomer in his biography MacDiarmid. In consequence, The Scottish Educational Journal received numberless letters by enraged readers, who reacted to Grieve’s propaganda articles.
If there is going to be a Scottish literary renaissance, the Grieves and the Spences, and the others associated with them, would be more convincing and more effective if they had less to say in abuse of the writers of their native land, and produced instead something worthy of being called ‘artistic’. It is, I repeat, Art we want, not propaganda. Poetry is concerned with Art, not politics.
Thus, Grieve’s articles prepared the public for the arrival of Hugh MacDiarmid and his poetry, which would add to the political concept of Scotland’s Renaissance the demanded artistic realisation.
Although the Scottish Home Rule Association, founded in 1886, and the literary work of authors such as Charles Murray and Charles Douglas Brown had already led into a similar direction as Christopher Grieve’s efforts, he only reached a rather limited audience in his very first years.
Susanne Hagemann depicts in her extensive work Die Schottische Renaissance how Grieve tried to present his literary and political activities right from the start as part of a movement. Already in the first edition of the poetry anthology Northern Numbers in 1920, he speaks of a selection of Scottish authors, all of them close friends to him, who he calls representative poets of today and the future. It turned out that many of them barely knew him personally. In a letter to William Jeffrey in 1928, he apologised for having printed an extract from a private letter, in which Jeffrey’s amity to him becomes apparent, without asking his permission in advance. MacDiarmid, as he can be called by then, complains in the letter to Jeffrey about the lack of ambition of most of his friends, who share his views in private, but do not support his struggle in public.
Of course I shouldn’t have quoted your letter without your permission: but a private letter of Thomson’s stung me into a fury. I should be extremely sorry if the result had been harmful to you in any way – but, at the same time I must say that one of the things that has hurt me most all these years, and one of the things that plays into the hands of people like Thomson, is the fact that for one reason or another none of my friends will openly range themselves alongside me […] But if instead of having to fight singly I’d half-a-dozen others with me equally determined we’d win through. As it is, I’m being frozen out – Scotland is denying me even the barest livelihood.
Probably Alan Riach asserts correctly that Hugh MacDiarmid cultivated close friendships with the major Scottish authors of the 1920s and 1930s such as William Soutar, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Fionn MacColla, but their lack of open commitment to his ambitious work disappointed him.
Publications like Sangshaw, Penny Wheep and A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle prove that the 1920s could not have been more successful for the author. In 1928, he was one of the founding members of the National Party of Scotland, which did not seem to be exactly in line with his work as an Independent Socialist on the Town and Parish Councils. In 1931, The First Hymn to Lenin and Other Poems appeared, followed by the Second Hymn to Lenin and a collection with the title Scots Unbound and Other Poems. During this time a literary movement in Britain with a new social awareness reacted to the Spanish Civil war and the fascistic regime in Germany. But MacDiarmid’s Socialism derived from his working-class-roots and not from the left wing liberalism at the universities. After a short time in London, as editor of the radio journal Vox, he did not find back into his old life and divorced from his first wife. With his new wife Valda Trevlyn he moved to the Shetland island of Whalsay where they had to face poverty and isolation. Stony Limits and Other Poems was published in 1934 and already mirrored the influence of Shetland on MacDiarmid whose writing appeared more and more as a meditative act. In the same year, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, so that from now on he had to defend his nationalism to the Communists and his communism to the Nationalists. These tough living conditions found their climax in a physical and mental breakdown of Hugh MacDiarmid in 1935. His literary production was prodigious on the Shetlands including The Battle Continues and his autobiography Lucky Poet. After his work in a munitions factory in Glasgow during World War II, MacDiarmid and his wife moved to a cottage near Biggar in the Scottish borders, where they stayed until his death in 1978. In Memoriam James Joyce appeared in 1955, but had already been started in the Shetlands. The long poem The Kind of Poetry I Want and the first Collected Poems were published in the early 1960s, but his output did not abate up to the 1970s.
In spite of his rather lonely fight in the beginning MacDiarmid’s Renaissance Movement was joined by more and more contemporaries in the course of time. By the 1950s, several writers of high reputation showed a new sense of national identity in their writing and many of them accompanied him also in the use of Scots.
2.2 The concept of national identity
Hugh MacDiarmid’s main concern has always been the cultural stagnation of his country, which had derived from an antiquarian and provincial understanding of Scottishness. Since the Union of crowns in 1603 and the annexation of the Scottish Parliament to Westminster in 1707 the English ascendancy has been more and more accepted by the Scottish population and a slow but lasting assimilation of Scottish cultural life to English norms has been the result of it. Especially after the failure of the Jacobite rising in 1745 Scottish Highland culture was systematically suppressed by the Unionists (on both sides). Of course, the will to assimilate to the English standard has been prevalent through the centuries, but writing in Scots has never completely vanished. In the 18th century Scotland saw its national poet Robert Burns who dared to verse in Scots and gained recognition across all social milieus. But due to his educational background he remained a wondrous exception to the bourgeois who asked themselves how an alcoholic ploughman-poet was able to write so sentimental lines. Still his Scots dialect was a soft one which could be easily understood by the English speaking world and most of his literary work was composed in English anyway. Afterwards in the 19th century the pastoral aspects of Burns’ poetry were imitated in the sentimental Victorian period, so that a rural, idyllic and mythical image of Scotland dominated the poetical scene. This static national image, which seemed to lose touch with the modern world on the cultural as well as on the political level, was to be revised by the Scottish Literary Renaissance. There had already been forerunners of modernising attempts in popular fiction of the 19th century, but MacDiarmid and his contemporary poets did not pay them much attention. Only the darker Victorian poetry of John Davidson impressed MacDiarmid in revealing alienation and individual despair in the industrial city. On the whole he ridiculed recent Scottish literature by caricaturing the “Burns Cult” which in his opinion prevented every young innovative writer to step out of Burns’ shadow.
His demands on a revived Scottish literature were first of all that it abandoned its provincial image and secondly that it formed an independent unit which separates itself from the English literary tradition. This Anglophobia of MacDiarmid diverted his literary concept from that of Edwin Muir who stated that only someone proficient in the English literary tradition could fully express contemporary Scottish culture. T.S. Eliot shared MacDiarmid’s concern about the decline of the current Scottish literary tradition into Provincialism on the one hand or assimilation to English standards on the other.
Eliot sketched Scottish literature in four phases, the last being its assimilation to English literature. For several productive years, marked with fiery self-awareness, Grieve/MacDiarmid set himself to create what, in Eliot’s terms, amounts to a fifth phase.
A considerable number of MacDiarmid’s poems deal with the educational situation in Scottish schools and universities where national literature and history have been treated as subcategories of the English mainstream developments. In “To Circumjack Cencrastus” he depicts the ignorance of Scottish lecturers and students towards their own culture. New truly Scottish traditions were to be established for that the adopted English ones could finally be given up. As Scotland has been neglected in literary and cultural terms since the subordination of the Scottish Parliament to England, the new poet is supposed to forget the anglicized period and write as if history had never happened. To recover the Scottish national identity in his poems MacDiarmid made use of the popular Wasteland mythology in order to seek Scottish roots. One of his favourite poetical motives is the identification of the lyrical I with one of his/her ancestors of a distant past. Often a dead person is invoked in dreams or spiritual moments and helps the lyrical I to find personal completion. That part of the Scottish history which had been dominated by English cultural standards could be overcome by tying in with the time before 1707.
Another major idea behind MacDiarmid’s vision of the Scottish psyche is the Caledonian antisyzygy which can be translated as “the union of opposites”. He found the term in Gregory Smith’s Scottish Literature where Smith argued that Scottish culture was a meeting of extremes from which a special energy was released. According to MacDiarmid, a Scottish mind shows contrasts all the time – the fantastic imagination of fairytales is invaded by clear rationalism or vice versa. In literature it means the unexpected combination of elements which are usually not seen together – the common and the fantastic, the gargoyle and the saint. Furthermore, the Scottish mind is perceived by MacDiarmid as a split self, because the influences of English culture and Scottish culture precipitate a constant struggle for predominance. In chapter 2.5 the linguistic realisations of this concept of Scottishness implying a dichotomy of mind are being analysed.
2.3 The influence of Modernism
Hugh MacDiarmid was often labelled to represent a merely provincial branch of poetry effecting only Scottish matters. British poetry anthologies reflect this assumption in most instances for his work was only fully recognised and mentioned in mainstream anthologies by the 1950s. Still he had been a follower of the English Modernist movement right from the start. The works of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and above all James Joyce have influenced his style as well as his poetical conception in general. David Crawford argues in his widely-praised book Devolving English Literature that one distinctive feature in Modernist writing is provincialism. This new aspect of characterising the movement seems to contradict the cosmopolitan and international side of Modernism at first. But for Crawford there is no exclusion of one by the other, but a complement of both. He states that the American emigrant Ezra Pound sought to “appear both more primitive and more sophisticated than the dominant culture expected.” The characters presented in his Modernist writing were at one point primitive and savage while impersonating at the same time a cosmopolitan mind far surmounting the English cultural centres. Like Pound Eliot was an American exile who made use of his American-ness to construct a savage Wild West atmosphere in The Waste Land. But along with this inclination to barbarism and savageness Eliot pursues the wish to become more a European than any English person ever could. In the same way as The Waste Land is a voyage among cultures Joyce’s Ulysses is one of several Modern works allegorising an Odyssey. Following Crawford the Odyssey “offered the anthropologically minded Modernists not only an example of multicultural voyage, but also a provincial home-coming.” Moreover the home-coming passage reveals the most intense eclecticism throughout the whole novel. The endless questions and answers, quotations and fragments remind of MacDiarmid’s longer poems which resemble an enlisting of cultural and intertextual references. In terms of Scottish eclecticism “A drunk man looks at the Thistle” can be interpreted as an anthology not only of Scottish diction but also of Scottish literary tradition. Robert Crawford sees in this form of eclecticism the typical provincial side of Modernist writing. While Pound aimed at an American Renaissance by weaving late Romantic elements into his works MacDiarmid especially transferred ideas of Celticism into his early poems. But for both of them the Renaissance of their home country’s literature was not to be antiquarian or inward-looking in any sense; much more they tried to establish a juvenescence of their native literary culture which should be open to new international influences.
Both sought to find strength in native as well as foreign models, to transfuse the richness of international culture into the culture of their homeland, and to form a vast and eclectic vision which leaves them open to the charge of megalomania.
2.4 Imaginism and Symbolism
Hugh MacDiarmid was an admirer of Pounds definition of the image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” The presentation of dense patterns and complex topics via precise images can be found in particular in MacDiarmid’s short earlier poems like “The Eemis Stane” . Here an earthly topic, namely the oblivion of the past in the course of time, is pictured in an economic image of mythical and cosmic allusions.
But in the same poem we can observe another of MacDiarmid’s stylistic devices: the domination of the word over the idea. Especially in his poems in Scots he made use of the suggestiveness of sounds to convey meaning and emotions. Instead of clothing ideas in words and phrases MacDiarmid sought the ideas for his vocabularies. He believed in
[…] - the act of poetry being the reverse of what it is usually thought to be; not an idea gradually shaping itself in words, but deriving entirely from words – and it was in fact […] in this way that I wrote all the best of my Scots poems […]
This Symbolistic approach was of immense importance for his attempts to recontextualize Scots to a Modernist language in which cultural meaning can be deduced only from sounds and associations.
2.5 The Liberation of Language
The main achievement of MacDiarmid’s literary work in context with the Scottish Renaissance is probably the rejuvenation of the Scots Vernacular as a medium for high literature. As already mentioned above, he did not initiate the revival of Scots as a poetic language in the 20th century, but he lifted it to the leading level of experimental poetic forms. In which way exactly his Vernacular poems are composed will be analysed later in chapter 3. First of all his decision to write in Scots is to be brought into context with his overall poetical and cultural vision. Even one year before his first publication of poems in English Annals of the Five Senses in 1923 he declared his future support of Vernacular writing in The Scottish Chapbook.
To encourage and publish the work of contemporary Scottish poets and dramatists, whether in English, Gaelic or Braid Scots.
To insist upon truer evaluations of the work of Scottish writers than are usually given in the present over-Anglicised condition of British literary journalism, elucidate, apply, and develop the distinctly Scottish range of values.
To bring Scottish literature into closer touch with current European tendencies in technique and ideation.
This return to Scottish principles of poetry and thought was - in MacDiarmid’s initial belief - only possible in the Vernacular. His idea of the Scottish national identity derived from Freud’s theory of the collective unconscious and Nietzsche’s assumption that there is no meaning beyond language at all. If men depended on language to define reality, he concluded, the Scottish language is needed to describe the Scots inherent mind and life. But due to the disuse of Scots during the last centuries Scots is regarded as “a language that had been interrupted by history”. Still the Scots language has unrealized qualities which correspond to the unconscious elements of the Scottish psyche. The Scottishness of the mind should be externalized by the language of his poetry. The Vernacular has been formed by and has formed Scottish thinking for ages and thus offers expressions and idioms which verbalise cultural and psychological peculiarities of Scottish people better than any other language. In A Theory of Scots Letters (1923) he describes the power of Vernacular expressions.
The Vernacular is a vast unutilized mass of lapsed observation made by minds whose attitudes to experience and whose speculative and imaginative tendencies were quite different from any possible to Englishmen and Anglicized Scots today.
In how far single Vernacular expressions evoke distinct Scottish experiences like perceptions of the weather and the countryside will be analysed in chapter 3. Now MacDiarmid had the possibility to choose one of the Scottish dialects still in use to compose his poetry. But he refused this kind of restorative approach, which was already realised by several other contemporary poets. Instead he aimed at a transformation of the Scots language into a medium sensible enough for Modern experimental poetry. He treated Scots as if history had never happened – the same as he did with Scottish literary forerunners in order to find role models for Scottish national identity before the Anglicisation. He would browse Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language and let the words form sound images strong enough to inspire an idea. Again we find the ultimate Modernist underlayer of the blending eclectic elements of native history into new contexts. MacDiarmid’s synthetic Scots, the so-called Lallans, is a mixture of several Lowland dialects which he composed with intend to render it “quite untranslatable”. These old terms were carried by the shock of the unfamiliar, because no active speaker of a still vivid dialect could fully understand them.
One of the aims of this synthetic language was to achieve a complete break from its resemblance and kinship with English. The other one, as MacDiarmid states, is less political and concentrates on the aesthetic concept behind language experiments.
The key to’modernist’ literature lies in the recognition of […] the extent to which modern psychological discovery has exposed the superficiality of normal usages of language and stimulated all manner of endeavours to overcome its limitations.
This concept of the freed language was still dominant when MacDiarmid started to compose more and more lyrics in English. During the thirties, especially since the Stony Limits and Other Poems, the use of the Scots Vernacular appeared to be unsuitable for conveying MacDiarmid’s growing sense of science. David Murison claims in his essay “The Language Problem” that MacDiarmid intended a return to Scots, but failed to apply the language to his new existentialist writing. ”Some years before his death MacDiarmid told me he was working out a solution to the problem of using Scots to expound science.”
My reason for writing my later poetry in English now is simply that the revived Scots I wrote my earlier work in is not sufficiently flexible yet – it will take a generation or two of people writing Scots, following the line that I struck out on, before we can make Scots available again for scientific purposes. After all, Scots ceased to be used before the advent of the Industrial Revolution and we have an enormous leeway to make up.
For some critics the turn from Scots to English seemed like a complete break in his poetical development and some nationalists who admired his early work reacted with deep disappointment to his renunciation of the Vernacular. But on the whole his poetical conception remained the same in the first long English lyrics. His English poetry is as impenetrable to the reader as his Scots lyrics has been before, because it resembles more a catalogue of scientific vocabulary than verse. Instead of translating Scots Vernacular, MacDiarmid’s reader is now inclined to translate English technical terminology into accessible language. But as much as the onomatopoeic effect of the earlier poems was sufficient to convey meaning, the scientific diction works in its own way. It seems highly unlikely that MacDiarmid expected the readers to understand all the petrological terms in his later writing. Rather did he use them in such a combination that the unfamiliar, perhaps startling philosophical reflections in the lyrics lift the reader to a new and strange region of thought. W.N. Herbert claims that MacDiarmid sought a language of truth to establish parity with the scientific author and made a “stubborn attempt to rewrite poetry into science”. He attempted to render a sensitive approach to material normally accessible only via rational analysis.
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 Herbert. To Circumjack MacDiarmid. The Poetry and Prose of Hugh MacDiarmid. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, 128.
- Quote paper
- Ines Ramm (Author), 2006, Hugh MacDiarmid and his influence on modern Scottish poetry - language and national identity , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/65637