“[My function] in Scotland during the past twenty to thirty years [is] that of the cat-fish that vitalizes the other torpid denizens of the aquarium.” –Hugh MacDiarmid

The function, as it seems to me,
O’ Poetry is to bring to be
At lang, lang last that unity …
— Hugh MacDiarmid, “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”

It’s his birthday today. He was born on August 11, 1892.

Born Christopher Murray Grieve, Hugh MacDiarmid is one of the best known Scottish poets of the 20th century, although I think he was seen mostly as a local poet, due to his focus on Scottish language and Scottish nationalism. He was highly political, and was determined to restore the Scottish literary tradition (its language and rhythms), after being battered down by British cultural domination. In the early years of the 20th century, similar to the Irish Revival going on at the same time, with Gaelic Leagues popping up, and a real effort made to restore the Irish language, Hugh MacDiarmid took it as his mission to revive the Scottish language. He was a man of conviction, a communist and nationalist, and abhorred any half-measures, seeing them as cowardly cop-outs. He writes from a place of titanic anger. He didn’t think Robert Burns was “all that.” He beat the drum for William Dunbar, proclaiming: “Not Burns – Dunbar!”

The Watergaw
Ae weet forenicht i’ the yow-trummle
I saw yon antrin thing,
A watergaw wi’ its chitterin’ licht
Ayont the on-ding;
An’ I thocht o’ the last wild look ye gied
Afore ye deed!

There was nae reek i’ the laverock’s hoose
That nicht—an’ nane i’ mine;
But I hae thocht o’ that foolish licht
Ever sin’ syne;
An’ I think that mebbe at last I ken
What your look meant then.

Like Joyce, another writer-in-exile-in-his-own-country, MacDiarmid looked to “the continent” for his inspiration, finding kindred spirits in the French Symbolists and the decadents, guys like Mallarme, et al.

English is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and Keats, but it was not the native language for those in Ireland, Wales and Scotland: this was an explosive issue, highly political (still is, I suppose). The languages of these nations had been systematically snuffed out. So much of 20th century literature is from former colonies of the British Empire, world-wide, finding their legs again, their voices, their own traditions. I find much modern poetry of this kind unmemorable. Nationalism and identity do not necessarily make great poetry. But MacDiarmid’s stuff is rich and funny and courageous, and INTIMIDATINGLY learned. His references are dazzling. This is political poetry, angry, raging. Speaking in your “native tongue”, even if it was just to say “How are you this morning”, was a political act. Remember the moment in James Joyce’s The Dead when Miss Ivors, the Irish nationalist, leaves the party, calling out to the crowd, “Beannacht libh!” It’s a moment both benign and hostile.

MacDiarmid writes from that place. He had a lot of enemies and naysayers, whom he slayed left and right in prose, like William Wallace of yore. He loved a fight. He found most Scottish poetry to be unacceptable, and he wasn’t one of those people who just “did his own thing”. Most of the nationalistic poets, ones who live in an oppressed or dominated country, can’t just “do their own thing”. It needs to be a movement. Other poets must be encouraged to do the same.

MacDiarmid found Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to be revolutionary, and thought it an exciting example of the future. Language was a big BIG deal to MacDiarmid, as it was to Joyce. Joyce was always aware that the language he spoke, the language he grew up speaking, had been IMPOSED on his people. MacDiarmid wrote a long poem for James Joyce called “In Memoriam James Joyce”, a celebration of Joyce’s supra-national, intra-national, extra-terrestrial, whatever you want to call it, relationship to language.

from “In Memoriam James Joyce”

He took the frivolous seriously, and discovered

The situation was desperate. His invention consisted

In assuming the existence of natural states of culture

And self-evidently correct norms of conduct;

For example – that modesty befits the mediocre –

And instantly mediocrity was seen

To have risen to demonic heights

From which it ruled the world.

He assumed that the prominent German writers and journalists

Of his time wrote in the German tongue

And the German tongue answered back

Saying they were illiterates.

He dealt with the practice of the law-courts

As though they were based on moral convictions,

With the theatre as though it were concerned

With the art of drama,

With journals as though they intended

To convey correct information,

With politicians as though they desired

The promotion of communal prosperity,

And with the philosophers as though

They were seekers after Truth.

The satirical effect of these inventions

Was annihilating.

MacDiarmid’s politics were often monstrous (he was soft on Stalin). Sadly, he was not alone in this. If you’re going to dig into early 20th century people, you’ve got to have a pretty tough stomach for some of their views. The whiplash of the 20s/30s – the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler, the rise of Mussolini, etc. – marked everyone, and very few kept their bearings. MacDiarmid never really separated from it. When the rest of the civilized world rose up in outrage over the Soviet crackdown in Hungary, MacDiarmid supported the invasion.

MacDiarmid’s poetry, like Chaucer, or Finnegans Wake, is meant to be heard, not read. When you read it out loud, you do not need a glossary. You will, however, need an encyclopedia nearby.

The poem below is a great example of how Hugh MacDiarmid ARGUED with people through his writing. It’s a response to A.E. Housman’s poem “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries“. MacDiarmid couldn’t let it pass without comment. As you can tell from the first line, he never ever held his punches.

Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride.
They were professional murderers and they took
Their blood money and impious risks and died.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth.

And here, he makes no bones about his feelings in re: the next generation’s politics, the fashionable Socialists of the mid-war years, like Auden, Stephen Spender, et al. He had no use for them.

British Leftist Poetry, 1930-40

Auden, MacNeice, Day Lewis, I have read them all,
Hoping against hope to hear the authentic call.
“A tragical disappointment. There was I
Hoping to hear old Aeschylus, when the Herald
Called out, “Theognis, bring your chorus forward.’
Imagine what my feelings must have been!
But then Dexitheus pleased me coming forward
And singing his Boeotian melody:
But next came Chaeris with his music truly,
That turned me sick and killed me very nearly.
And never in my lifetime, man nor boy,
Was I so vexed as at the present moment;
To see the Pnyx, at this time of the morning,
Quite empty, when the Assembly should be full:
And know the explanation I must pass is this:
–You cannot light a match on a crumbling wall.


Hugh MacDiarmid, on the Scottish language:

One of the most distinctive characteristics of the Vernacular, part of its very essence, is its insistent recognition of the body, the senses…This explains the unique blend of the lyrical and the ludicrous in primitive Scots sentiment…The essence of the genius of our race is, in our opinion, the reconciliation it effects between the base and the beautiful, recognising that they are complementary and indispensable to each other.

Oliver St. John Gogarty, on “A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle”:

The most virile and vivid poetry written in English or any dialect thereof for many a long day.

MacDiarmid was asked by Who’s Who to name his favorite recreation. He replied:


Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets writes:

[MacDiarmid’s] was an inclusive talent like Lawrence’s or Whitman’s, only more austere and particular, more Presbyterian, less subjective. It is intellectual, satirical, deliberately inelegant, yet at the same time prophetic… Like another great Scot, Thomas Carlyle, he knew his own arrogance and could make fun of it. Hard on others, he could be hard on himself.

Ian Hamilton:

He makes his own rules, contemns categories, cracks open water-tight compartments, bestraddles disciplines, scorns social, cultural, and academic cliques and claques, and affirms … that it is not failure but low aim that is criminal.

Iain Crichton Smith, Hugh MacDiarmid: A Critical Survey:

[MacDiarmid thinks] a poetry of ideas must necessarily be a more ‘serious’ poetry. These long poems may be intellectually exciting but they are not serious. They do not confront us with serious things. They do not, I think, react on us as whole human beings.

Hugh MacDiarmid on William Dunbar:

At first it may seem absurd to try to recover at this time of day the literary potentialities of a language which has long ago disintegrated into dialects. These dialects even at their richest afford only a very restricted literary medium, capable of little more than kailyard usages, but quite incapable of addressing the full range of literary purposes … Dunbar is in many ways the most modern, as he is the most varied, of Scottish poets.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

For MacDiarmid, James Joyce’s linguistic eclecticism in Finnegans Wake pointed the way to a synthetic language in which the modern European consciousness might express itself, and for this purpose Mac Diarmid envisioned a supranatural “Joycean amalgam of Scots, Gaelic, and English, plus Gothic, Sanscrit and Old Norse” (In Memoriam James Joyce is one of MacDiarmid’s long poems.) Such grand linguistic designs were as central to MacDiarmid’s poetic purposes as his communist politics, and this may suggest why his poetry in Lallans, the revived language of the Scottish Lowlands, was usually free of polemic: the mere fact that he was restoring Scots to literature was revolutionary enough.

Ian Hamilton:

[His admirers] claim that MacDiarmid has triumphantly fashioned a loose, discursive, open-ended kind of meditative vehicle which is hospitable to ideas, facts and arguments, that he has marvellously broken free of fiddling post-symbolist constraints. The unconvinced, [however,] complain that he has merely granted himself a licence to be boringly opinionated, that he has ditched rhythm, metaphor and formal discipline in order to make room for muddled, self-admiring chat.

Edwin Muir:

Except Mr. Joyce, nobody at present is writing more resourceful English prose.

Hugh MacDiarmid:

My story is the story of an absolutist whose absolutes came to grief in his private life.

Seamus Heaney, on “The Watergaw”:

The recorded words and expressions … stretch[ed] a trip wire in the path of Grieve’s auditory imagination so that he was pitched headlong into his linguistic unconscious, into a network of emotional and linguistic systems that had been in place since childhood.

Kenneth Buthlay:

One cannot derive his style from particular sources because the sources are so many and so fantastically varied. This has obvious dangers, and [MacDiarmid] speaks of his fear of having ‘paralysed his creative faculties by over-reading.’ What saved him from this in the end was the intense activity of a ‘tiny specialist cell in his brain’ which constantly experimented with an ‘obscure ray … emanating from his subtle realisation that beyond the individual mind of each man was a collective mind’–that is, the ‘collective unconscious’ of Jung.

Ian Hamilton:

He stands wherever extremes meet and clash, to absorb the turmoil. ‘And damn consistency!’ He has dedicated himself to the enlargement of human consciousness, and that is no neat and tidy business.

Hugh MacDiarmid, Lucky Poet:

… the whole gang of high mucky-mucks, famous fatheads, old wives of both sexes, stuffed shirts, hollow men with headpieces stuffed with straw, bird wits, lookers under beds, trained seals, creeping Jesuses, Scots Wha Ha’ers … commercial Calvinists, makers of ‘noises like a turnip,’ and all the touts and toadies and lickspittles of the English Ascendancy.

Edwin Muir:

[MacDiarmid] has written some remarkable poetry; but he has left Scottish verse very much where it was before.

T.S. Eliot:

It will eventually be admitted that he has done … more for English poetry by committing some of his finest verse to Scots, than if he had elected to write exclusively in the Southern dialect.

Hugh MacDiarmid, At the Sign of the Thistle:

[Scottish poetry should exhibit] courage, patience, self-assertion, unyieldingness, energy, and (above all) a steel-like and combative virility.

Iain Crichton Smith, Hugh MacDiarmid: A Critical Survey:

[His early poetry was like Blake’s,] a fusion of the intellect and feeling which is highly unusual and at times hallucinatory. [Then both went on] to write long poems based rather insecurely on systems which are fairly private (even MacDiarmid’s communism doesn’t seem to be all that orthodox).

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

The central figure of the Scottish Renaissance, MacDiarmid proved the vigor and robust physicality, the wit and sonic power of Scots as a medium for modern poetry. The language in which he wrote many of his best poems is a literary Scots of his own invention, an amalgam of several dialects enriched by a number of archaic Scottish words that he found in dictionaries.

Alan Denson:

Like all true artists his concern and his language have been directed to the betterment of economic and educational conditions.

“All true artists.” Calm down, Alan.

Kenneth Buthlay:

[MacDiarmid was] especially preoccupied with the source of ‘inspiration’ and the mysterious factors that go to produce ‘genius,’ because he believed the hope of mankind to lie in the possibility of evolving a race of men to whom what is now called ‘genius’ would be the norm. The tremendous significance of Lenin’s revolution (and Douglas’s economics) was that it promised to clear ‘bread-and-butter problems’ out of the way and establish much more favourable conditions for this all-important evolutionary process.

And we all know how THAT went.

Michael Schmidt on “Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”:

… one of the great modernist poems. The speaker is resolutely Scots, highly literate, very drunk. As he tumbles into a half-dream stupor beside the thistle in the moonlight, a flood of thoughts, jostling one another for precedence, tumbles out of him. The suppleness of the language is astonishing, its abrupt changes of tone and mood, sometimes within a single stanza or a single line, its natural fusion of reality and fantasy … The kinds of irony that restrain the southern English writer have never troubled an emancipated Scot.

Louis Simpson:

[MacDiarmid was] driven out of the market place; for years he lived in actual poverty on an island off the coast of Scotland…In the thirties when the university Marxists—-W. H. Auden, Spender and their friends—-became fashionable, MacDiarmid remained obscure. He came from the working class; he meant what he said; he was embarrassing.

Seamus Heaney:

He prepared the ground for a Scottish literature that would be self-critical and experimental in relation to its own inherited forms and idioms, but one that would also be stimulated by developments elsewhere in world literature.

Hugh MacDiarmid, Sign:

My synthetic Scots [consisted in] the revival of Scots words without equivalents, or precise equivalents, in English, on the one hand, and a use of Gaelic and foreign phrases and allusions on the other.

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