University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department

Hugh MacDiarmid: An Exhibition
Celebrating the Centenary of His Birth

August 13-December 18, 1992

Curated by Timothy D. Murray

Hugh MacDiarmid, the most prominent Scottish literary figure of the twentieth century, was born Christopher Murray Grieve on August 11, 1892 in Langholm, a small Scottish town along the English border. He received his early education in Langholm where among his first teachers was the Scottish composer Francis George Scott who would later collaborate with him on a variety of projects. When Grieve moved in 1908 to Edinburgh, where he enrolled at the Broughton Junior Student Centre to study for a career as a teacher, his primary English teacher was George Ogilvie who became his most important literary mentor.

Like many others of his time, Grieve's plans were interrupted by the onset of World War I. He enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps with whom he served from 1915-1919. While he was in the service, Grieve wrote a substantial amount of poetry and prose; in fact he produced much of the writing for his first book, Annals of the Five Senses (1923), during the War. Grieve's surviving letters from this period, particularly those to his former teacher George Ogilvie, reveal that he spent a good deal of time reading and thinking about literature, particularly about the current state of Scottish literature and by the end of the war, he was ready to put his ideas into practice and take his place at the forefront of the Scottish literary scene. Grieve's goals were quite lofty; he wished to bring about a Scottish Renaissance that was not limited to literature, but one which would embrace Scottish art, politics, and culture as a whole.

Shortly after he was demobilized in 1919, Grieve settled in Montrose, Scotland, where he had a job as a journalist with the Montrose Review. During this period, Grieve's poetry and essays began appearing in a variety of journals and newspapers. In November 1920, Grieve launched the first of his many publishing and editorial efforts, the anthology series Northern Numbers in which he published new poetry by contemporary Scottish poets. He was soon involved in other such efforts including The Scottish Chapbook (1922-1923), the Scottish Nation (1923), and the Northern Review (1924). With all of these publications Grieve hammered home his ideas for a regenerated Scottish literature; in particular, he began to advocate a renewed effort at writing in the Scots vernacular. Grieve wanted to revitalize the literary use of Scots and also instill a modernist sensibility in Scottish poetry that drew upon the avant-garde movement which had already revitalized contemporary European art and literature.

In 1922, Grieve began writing under the pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid as a way of demonstrating the qualities he felt were necessary for a regenerated Scots literature. The work of MacDiarmid was well received and with the publication of MacDiarmid's masterpiece, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, in 1926, Christopher Murray Grieve, in the person of Hugh MacDiarmid, had earned his place as the leading Scottish author of his time.

Grieve, both under his birth name and in the persona of Hugh MacDiarmid, was also active in local, national, and international politics. He had been active in Fabian Society and Labour Party work as early as 1908 and was a regular contributor to A.R. Orage's The New Age where he began his lifelong fascination with the Social Credit economic theories of Major C.H. Douglas. MacDiarmid was elected as a Socialist Town Councilor and county Justice of the Peace when he lived in Montrose; he was also active in Scottish Nationalist politics and was a founding member of the National Party of Scotland which was formed in 1928. Active in literary politics as well, MacDiarmid founded the Scottish Centre of PEN in 1927. In 1934, MacDiarmid joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. MacDiarmid's communism led to his expulsion from the National Party of Scotland; ironically, he was expelled from the Communist Party in 1938 for nationalist deviation, though he later was allowed to rejoin the Party in 1956. Hugh MacDiarmid's politics were a complex activity and exemplified the contradictions that were inherent in his life and work. He remained active politically up until the time of his death in 1978.

Hugh MacDiarmid's lasting reputation as a writer was established by the 1930s. MacDiarmid's earliest successes were with his Scots lyrics published in such volumes as Sangschaw (1925), Penny Wheep (1926), A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), and To Circumjack Cencrastus (1930). MacDiarmid also was a tireless critic and promoter of Scottish literature and culture and wrote prolifically for newspapers and periodicals. His published criticism includes such volumes as Contemporary Scottish Studies (1926), Albyn, or Scotland and the Future (1927), At the Sign of the Thistle: A Collection of Essays (1934), Scottish Scene (1934), Scottish Eccentrics (1936), Cunninghame Graham: A Centenary Study (1952), Burns Today and Tomorrow (1959), and Selected Essays (1969).

Hugh MacDiarmid's other significant books include his anthology series Northern Numbers (1920-1922), Annals of the Five Senses (1923), First Hymn to Lenin and Other Poems (1931), Scots Unbound and Other Poems (1932), Stony Limits and Other Poems (1934), Selected Poems (1934), Second Hymn to Lenin and Other Poems (1935), his autobiographical works Lucky Poet (1943) and The Company I've Kept (1966), In Memoriam James Joyce (1955), The Battle Continues 1957), The Kind of Poetry I Want (1961), Collected Poems (1962), Aniara (1963), A Lap of Honor (1967), Early Lyrics (1968), Selected Poems (1970), and The Hugh MacDiarmid Anthology (1972). In all, more than seventy books were published under the authorship of C.M. Grieve, or Hugh MacDiarmid or one of his other pseudonyms, and this figure does not include all of the numerous pamphlets and small press editions of MacDiarmid's work which were produced.

Although Hugh MacDiarmid was arguably the most important Scottish author since Robert Burns, he spent much of his life in extremely difficult financial circumstances. It was not until 1950, when he was awarded a civil list pension honoring his lifelong achievement, that he was able to live with some degree of financial security. In 1951 MacDiarmid moved with his wife Valda Trevlyn to Lanarkshire, Scotland, where he spent most of his remaining years. MacDiarmid had achieved the status of elder statesman. The publication of his Collected Poems, published in 1962 to coincide with his seventieth birthday, brought him a good deal of international attention and in the coming years he received innumerable literary honors and had the opportunity to travel throughout the world. MacDiarmid's Complete Poems 1920-1976, edited by his son Michael Grieve and his bibliographer W.R. Aitken, were published in 1978 and MacDiarmid was able to contribute his own author's note to the collection before his death on September 13, 1978.

"Hugh MacDiarmid: An Exhibition Celebrating the Centenary of His Birth" examines the full range of MacDiarmid's life and work and is comprised of manuscripts, correspondence, books, and other printed materials drawn entirely from the Special Collections of the University of Delaware Library. Special Collections houses a strong collections of Hugh MacDiarmid's published work, as well as a manuscript collection which includes drafts of his poetry, short fiction, essays, book reviews, and other writing.

The University of Delaware Library's Hugh MacDiarmid collection offers a unique opportunity for scholarly research on the work of one of the twentieth century's most important literary figures. "Hugh MacDiarmid: An Exhibition Celebrating the Centenary of His Birth" serves as an introduction to these holdings and seeks to foster an awareness of the achievements of Hugh MacDiarmid during this year in which we mark the one hundredth anniversary of his birth.

Essay | Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5


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