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Hugh MacDiarmid

Introduction by Alan Bold

This year sees the centenary of the birth of "Hugh MacDiarmid" (Christopher Murray Grieve, 1892 - 1978) who would have been delighted by the decision of the University of Delaware to celebrate his life for he always insisted, thinking wishfully rather than counting copies of books sold, that his most attentive readers lived in the USA.

It was with the intention of alerting the general reading public, in the USA and elsewhere, to the extraordinarily vital art and eventful career of this great Scot that I wrote MacDiarmid (London: John Murray, 1988; Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990; revd edtn London: Paladin, 1990). My hope of helping rescue MacDiarmid from a fate worse than literary death--that of being an obsure figure at the mercy of a squabble of scholars of Scot. Lit.-- was realised by the reception of the book. It was serialised in the Glasgow Herald, became a number one bestseller in Scotland and was well received in reviews in all the major papers.

Until the publication, in 1985, of the Penguin edition of The Complete Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid (edited by W. R. Aitken and the poet's son Michael Grieve) one of the greatest poets of the century was, in international terms, the invisible man of modern verse. Up to that time MacDiarmid's major works were usually issued either by Scottish firms (Blackwood's published A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, William Maclellan published In Memoriam James Joyce) or by somewhat obscure English imprints (First Hymn to Lenin with the Unicorn Press, Second Hymn to Lenin with Stanley Nott). In such circumstances, MacDiarmid's work was not generally accessible though the poet himself would have wished it otherwise and made efforts to extend his audience. He placed Stony Limits (1934) with Gollancz but the firm bowdlerised the volume, deleting some poems as politically and sexually offensive. In 1938 MacDiarmid approached T. S. Eliot, at Faber and Faber, with the suggestion that they publish his long poem Mature Art (part of an unfinished epic) but Eliot declined the work as commercially unviable, if artistically admirable. MacMillan of New York brought out a Collected Poems in 1962 but misplaced some texts as well as subdividing A Drunk Man into segments.

As a result of his relative inaccessibility, MacDiarmid was ignored in anthologies and critical studies his work would have enhanced: though his political verse of the 1930s was an example to others (as C. Day Lewis acknowledged) there is no MacDiarmid poem in Robin Skelton's Penguin Poetry of the Thirties (1964) and no mention of MacDiarmid in Samuel Hynes's The Auden Generation (1976). During his lifetime MacDiarmid never got the credit he deserved and the general reader, as well as the literary historian, was poorer for the neglect of the poet. As so often happens, it looks as if MacDiarmid will come into his own posthumously.

My own work on MacDiarmid has been done with the object of establishing him as a poet of genius with a vision for humankind. I wrote MacDiarmid: The Terrible Crystal (1983) to confirm him as the peer of Eliot and Pound and, in 1984, edited three books to let the poet speak eloquently for himself: The Letters of Hugh MacDiarmid, The Thistle Rises: A MacDiarmid Miscellany and Aesthetics in Scotland. My biography of MacDiarmid seeks to place him as a national figure who was also a poet of immense international significance.

Several years ago I wrote a little poem about MacDiarmid "Notice on MacParnassus", to indicate his unique position as a modern Scottish poet: "The hill was high, I really would nae hairm it/ Yet had to leave./It said: "Reserved for Hugh MacDiarmid / (Signed) C. M. Grieve". Many Scots who knew MacDiarmid by his real name, Chris Grieve, took him for granted during his life. He was so at ease in pubs, so courteous in conversation, that it was difficult to equate this convivial character with preconceptions of the man of genius who expressed such passion in his poetry and such argumentative anger in his prose. Burns, who encountered the same problem, said to those who took him lightly: "Ye're maybe wrang". Those who regarded MacDiarmid as just another one of the boys were equally wrong. MacDiarmid knew (as he told R. E. Muirhead in 1928) that his best work sprang "from the deeps of the destined".

It will be increasingly appreciated that MacDiarmid was not only a major poet, but a compellingly colourful character. He was not only as delicate a lyricist as Dylan Thomas but a more entertaining drinker, expansive rather than introspectively morose in his cups. He was not only as outrageously idiosynctatic as Pound, but a more humane individual, genuinely generous with his time and energy (he never had much money at any period of his life). Though economically handicapped by birth and the burden of his vocation, he led a rich life. He co-founded what is now the Scottish National Party, he immersed himself in local as well as national politics, he fought several elections, he had friends as eccentric as Count Potocki of Montalk and as famous as Sean O'Casey. His two wives, Peggy Skinner and Valda Trevelyn, were remarkably resourceful women.

Of course, MacDiarmid is not above criticism. His treatment of two of his mentors, Thomas Scott Cairncross and Francis George Scott, was vindictive even if it can be explained in terms of rejection of surrogate-father-figures. His admiration for Stalin as a political superman was monstrously misguided, a distortion of his need to hail various heroes. His unacknowledged plundering of lines, and sometimes whole passages, from other men was often disingenuous as if his approach to the art of poetry was to offer something old, something new, something borrowed, something read. But, for all these faults, a great spirit shines through and it must be said that MacDiarmid was deliberately provocative in order to defeat the enemy, self satisfaction. He constantly questioned himself as well as others, indeed much of his poetry is a dialogue between Chris Grieve, the postman's son, and Hugh MacDiarmid, the self appointed saviour of Scotland.

Had MacDiarmid not been such a complicated character and complex poet I could certainly not have sustained an interest in him for so long after meeting him in 1962 when I was 19. And, on a personal level, it was not always sweetness and light. He could be contrary: a wonderfully diverting guest at my wedding in 1963 he also, some years later, wrote me a highly critical letter after I admitted, in an interview with the Sunday Times, that I had come to see Marxism as a secular religion (with all the usual dependence on dogma) and not as the science of socialism. However, we resolved that difference and I did not lose my faith in MacDiarmid as, quintessentially, a man of integrity. I retain a memory of his marvellous quality of resolution.

Given his gifts, it is certain there will be no last word on MacDiarmid and his work will provoke debate as long as people care about poetry. His best work has an almost unfathomable depth and a mark of his poetic genius is the enduring quality of his imagery. As a public figure he enjoyed the art of making enemies and readers might be frequently frustrated by his habit of unsettling received opinion by subjecting it to his dialectical poetic processes. Sometimes he adamantly states the opposite of what he believes. His attitude to Burns is an obvious example. MacDiarmid never ceased condemning the absurdity of Burns Suppers yet never turned down an invitation to speak at one. More seriously, he denied that Burns had influenced his own work, dismissing Burns as "That Langfellow in a but leid". Yet his work builds on that of Burns. Like Burns, he was a man of humble birth who transcended circumstances through a determined exposure to literature; Like Burns, he had an awareness of revolution as an international issue (Burns was inspired by the American and French Revolutions, MacDiarmid by the Irish Uprising and Russian Revolution); like Burns, he made a deliberate literary choice in preferring Scots dialect to English diction.

Another enormous influence on MacDiarmid was Walt Whitman and, like Whitman, MacDiarmid celebrates himself. In his intellectual autobiography Unended Quest (1976), Karl Popper declares that "the doctrine of art as self-expression is merely trivial, muddleheaded and empty--though not necessarily vicious, unless taken seriously, when it may easily lead to self-centred attitudes and megalomania." Popper is well known for his philosophical demolition of systems and his assault on artistic self expressionism is an effective refutation of a spurious theory. However, in artistic practice self expressionism need not be "trivial, muddleheaded and empty", as witness A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. MacDiarmid's quest, in that poem, for a spiritual self demonstrates that art can be logically inconsistent yet exhilarating. The apparent contradiction is resolved in the vision that focuses on what-might-be rather than what incontestably is. MacDiarmid said "I am a poet; our fools ask me for logic not life." It is the life in poetry and the poetry in life that ultimately matters for MacDiarmid.

Introduction | Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5

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