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Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Great Scots: Andrew Marr on Scottish Writers and on Hugh MacDiarmid; MacDiarmid in Prague and Communist Czechoslovakiar; Edwin Muir on Scotland and Prague

Having missed two of the programmes in the series "Great Scots: The Writers Who Shaped a Nation" (I plan to catch up with the James Boswell and Walter Scott programmes on BBC iPlayer - 11 days left), I am looking forward to the Hugh MacDiarmid programme on Saturday night.

Update: 30 August. Some fascinating archival film of the poet (watch programme on BBC iPlayer), and overall an important reassessment of his cultural influence and the beginnings of the Scots Literary Renaissance, but I didn't warm at all to the "arty" and alienating presentation of Tam Dean Burn's aggressive declamation of the poetry ('a wheen o’ blethers'?)

An opportunity lost. But I will be reading the best poems again. I have many of MacDiarmid's books, poetry and prose. Like Marr, I admire much of MacDiarmid's early work. I thought Marr was unfair to Edwin Muir, who was more mystical than political. In my view, Muir was the greater poet- and not because he wrote in English. I love MacDiarmid's Scots poems:

The Bonnie Broukit Bairn 

Mars is braw in crammasy,
Venus in a green silk goun,
The auld mune shak’s her gowden feathers,
Their starry talk’s a wheen o’ blethers,
Nane for thee a thochtie sparin’,
Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn!
– But greet, an’ in your tears ye’ll droun

The hail clanjamfrie!

An Arts Desk review

Episode 3 of 3

"Andrew Marr looks into the life of Scotland's most bothersome poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. MacDiarmid reinvented Scots as a language for serious writing, at various times called for a Scottish fascism, tried to create an independent Scottish communist utopia, and was under surveillance by MI5 for many years. During his life he was involved in plots to capture Edinburgh Castle and steal the Stone of Destiny, but he also found time for a literary life in which he would write the most powerful poetry in Scots since the days of Robert Burns and to start a Scottish renaissance that goes on to this day".

The Sound and the Fury, Andrew Marr (The New Statesman):

"He is one of the great figures of our century, a poet I return to year after year. He haunts me. Any worthwhile Scottish future will be partly marked by his explosive work".

Andrew Marr on MacDiarmid.

"The Scott film takes us towards the Scotland of the British Empire, which suffered its greatest shock with the First World War, a war in which proportionally more Scots died and were injured than from any other part of the Empire. One of those fighting was a younger postman's son called Christopher Grieve, who went on to be the great and controversial prophet of modern nationalism.

Changing his name to Hugh MacDiarmid, Grieve launched a one-man intellectual war aimed at establishing a Scottish communist republic. Famously, he was thrown out of the communist party for his nationalism and thrown out of the National Party of Scotland (forerunner of the SNP) for his communism. He'd always be, as he said, "whaur extremes meet."

Some modern nationalists tend to regard him as an embarrassment, and No campaigners certainly don't like to hear his name. In a long life as a self-appointed gadfly and provocateur, MacDiarmid certainly adopted unpleasant and extreme positions – Stalinist, Anglophobe, sometime admirer of Fascists.

MacDiarmid is one of the greatest poets produced by Britain in the last century, a world-scale genius.

The problem is that he is also one of the greatest poets produced by Britain in the last century, a world-scale genius. And by showing Scots that it was possible to imagine and work on the biggest possible scale, inside Scotland and here and now, he provoked a renaissance in Scottish writing and the arts generally which continues to this day. Nobody would go to him now for a political manifesto but Scotland's self-confidence owes everything to this difficult, prickly, brilliant man".

A pity we can't have a live televised debate between Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Muir (and a separate programme on Muir). That might be a lot more enlightening and entertaining than the debate between the Yes and No Independence Referendum campaign leaders last night.

I'm not sure about that, when I recall MacDiarmid's behaviour when visiting Prague in 1959.

Skeletons of the Past, or A Drunken Man on Burns Night, 1959

(Variations on a Theme by Hugh MacDiarmid)

I wid ha' read ye gin I'd gane tae Scotland,

It was part o' my plan o' research

(Questions o' national identity and art).

I read ye in Prague frae time to time,

Since findin' signed volumes in a Brno library-

Ye had a Scottish friend who aince taught English there.

They say ye visited this lovely country too,

An Ambassador like Sidney, but o' sicna different hue...

Your books can be bocht in Budapest, och aye,

But no' in Prague, nae no' in bonnie Czecho.

Is it true, ye got drunk on Burns Night, Hugh,

Blin' fou' on his Bicentenary ?

An honoured guest like you !

A 'comrade' in this country.

But it's a God-damn'd lie, Christopher, Chris or Hughie MacHugh -

The system and maist of what's published and written.

How do ye account for that ? Wi' yet another hymn ?

Did they quote ye in factories, in fields and in streets ?

It's nae use preachin' tae the forcibly converted.

There are some elements o' truth, i' spite of the lies,

But the crude propaganda never dies, ne'er dies.

Jamey Macpherson had mair influence here than you; that's true -

D'ye ken that, bhoyo ?

I canna see eternal lightning, Hugh,

Just bones in graves, just bones, wee bones.

Note: Written in Prague, Summer, 1987, well before the Velvet Revolution. Hugh MacDiarmid visited Prague in 1955 as a guest of the Spartakiad, and again in 1959, to give the Bicentennial Lecture celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns. He was as much interested in the beer-houses as he was in the political and cultural life of Prague, according to a Czech History of English Literature.

Song: Such a parcel o' rogues Alastair McDonald (Dick Gaughan has also recorded a powerful version)

Hugh MacDiarmid, from The Parrot Cry
Tell me the auld, auld story
O’ hoo the Union brocht
Puir Scotland into being
As a country worth a thocht.
England, frae whom a' blessings flow
What could we dae withoot ye?
Then dinna threep it doon oor throats
As gin we e’er could doot ye!
    My feelings lang wi’ gratitude
    Ha’e been sae sairly harrowed
    That dod! I think it’s time
     The claith was owre the parrot!

Edwin Muir, Scotland 1941

We were a tribe, a family, a people.
Wallace and Bruce guard now a painted field,
And all may read the folio of our fable,
Peruse the sword, the sceptre and the shield.
A simple sky roofed in that rustic day,
The busy corn-fields and the haunted holms,
The green road winding up the ferny brae.
But Knox and Melville clapped their preaching palms
And bundled all the harvesters away,
Hoodicrow Peden in the blighted corn
Hacked with his rusty beak the starving haulms.
Out of that desolation we were born.

Courage beyond the point and obdurate pride
Made us a nation, robbed us of a nation.
Defiance absolute and myriad-eyed
That could not pluck the palm plucked our damnation.
We with such courage and the bitter wit
To fell the ancient oak of loyalty,
And strip the peopled hill and altar bare,
And crush the poet with an iron text,
How could we read our souls and learn to be?
Here a dull drove of faces harsh and vexed,
We watch our cities burning in their pit,
To salve our souls grinding dull lucre out,
We, fanatics of the frustrate and the half,
Who once set Purgatory Hill in doubt.

Now smoke and dearth and money everywhere,
Mean heirlooms of each fainter generation,
And mummied housegods in their musty niches,
Burns and Scott, sham bards of a sham nation,
And spiritual defeat wrapped warm in riches,
No pride but pride of pelf. Long since the young
Fought in great bloody battles to carve out
This towering pulpit of the Golden Calf,
Montrose, Mackail, Argyle, perverse and brave,
Twisted the stream, unhooped the ancestral hill.
Never had Dee or Don or Yarrow or Till
Huddled such thriftless honour in a grave.
Such wasted bravery idle as a song,
Such hard-won ill might prove Time's verdict wrong,
And melt to pity the annalist's iron tongue.

Douglas Gifford discusses the poem (pdf) "Sham Bards of a Sham Nation? Edwin Muir and the Failures of Scottish Literature".

On Muir and MacDiarmid Paul Robichaud (Pdf)

Was there ever a "British" Literature? Alan Riach (Pdf)

I hope this Edwin Muir poem, "The Interrogation", from the period of his time in Czechoslovakia, isn't a taste of what is to come if there are ever customs sheds or barriers at border crossings between England and Scotland!

The Interrogation

We could have crossed the road but hesitated,
And then came the patrol;
The leader conscientious and intent,
The men surly, indifferent.
While we stood by and waited
The interrogation began. He says the whole
Must come out now, who, what we are,
Where we have come from, with what purpose, whose
Country or camp we plot for or betray.
Question on question.
We have stood and answered through the standing day
And watched across the road beyond the hedge
The careless lovers in pairs go by,
Hand linked in hand, wandering another star,
So near we could shout to them. We cannot choose
Answer or action here,
Though still the careless lovers saunter by
And the thoughtless field is near.
We are on the very edge,
Endurance almost done,
And still the interrogation is going on.


Let us hope that Glasgow never becomes like Muir's "The Good Town":

The Good Town

Look at it well. This was the good town once,
Known everywhere, with streets of friendly neighbours,
Street friend to street and house to house. In summer
All day the doors stood open; lock and key
Were quaint antiquities fit for museums
With gyves and rusty chains. The ivy grew
From post to post across the prison door.
The yard behind was sweet with grass and flowers,
A place where grave philosophers loved to walk.
Old Time that promises and keeps his promise
Was our sole lord indulgent and severe,
Who gave and took away with gradual hand
That never hurried, never tarried, still
Adding, subtracting. These our houses had
Long fallen into decay but that we knew
Kindness and courage can repair time’s faults,
And serving him breeds patience and courtesy
In us, light sojourners and passing subjects.
There is a virtue in tranquillity
That makes all fitting, childhood and youth and age,
Each in its place.

                                 Look well. These mounds of rubble,
And shattered piers, half-windows, broken arches
And groping arms were once inwoven in walls
Covered with saints and angels, bore the roof,
Shot up the towering spire. These gaping bridges
Once spanned the quiet river which you see
Beyond that patch of raw and angry earth
Where the new concrete houses sit and stare.
Walk with me by the river. See, the poplars
Still gather quiet gazing on the stream.
The white road winds across the small green hill
And then is lost. These few things still remain.
Some of our houses too, though not what once
Lived there and drew a strength from memory.
Our people have been scattered, or have come
As strangers back to mingle with the strangers
Who occupy our rooms where none can find
The place he knew but settles where he can. 
No family now sits at the evening table;
Father and son, mother and child are out,
A quaint and obsolete fashion. In our houses
Invaders speak their foreign tongues, informers
Appear and disappear, chance whores, officials
Humble or high, frightened, obsequious,
Sit carefully in corners. My old friends
(Friends ere these great disasters) are dispersed
In parties, armies, camps, conspiracies.
We avoid each other. If you see a man
Who smiles good-day or waves a lordly greeting
Be sure he’s a policeman or a spy.
We know them by their free and candid air.
It was not time that brought these things upon us,
But these two wars that trampled on us twice,
Advancing and withdrawing, like a herd
Of clumsy-footed beasts on a stupid errand
Unknown to them or us. Pure chance, pure malice,
Or so it seemed. And when, the first war over,
The armies left and our own men came back 
From every point by many a turning road,
Maimed, crippled, changed in body or in mind,
It was a sight to see the cripples come
Out on the fields. The land looked all awry,
The roads ran crooked and the light fell wrong.
Our fields were like a pack of cheating cards
Dealt out at random – all we had to play
In the bad game for the good stake, our life.
We played; a little shrewdness scraped us through.
Then came the second war, passed and repassed,
And now you see our town, the fine new prison,
The house-doors shut and barred, the frightened faces
Peeping round corners, secret police, informers,
And all afraid of all.

                                     How did it come?
From outside, so it seemed, an endless source,
Disorder inexhaustible, strange to us,
Incomprehensible. Yet sometimes now
We ask ourselves, we the old citizens:
“Could it have come from us? Was our peace peace?
Our goodness goodness? That old life was easy
And kind and comfortable; but evil is restless
And gives no rest to the cruel or the kind.
How could our town grow wicked in a moment?
What is the answer? Perhaps no more than this,
That once the good men swayed our lives, and those
Who copied them took a while the hue of goodness,
A passing loan; while now the bad are up,
And we, poor ordinary neutral stuff, 
Not good nor bad, must ape them as we can,
In sullen rage or vile obsequiousness.
Say there’s a balance between good and evil
In things, and it’s so mathematical,
So finely reckoned that a jot of either,
A bare preponderance will do all you need,
Make a town good, or make it what you see.
But then, you’ll say, only that jot is wanting,
That grain of virtue. No: when evil comes
All things turn adverse, and we must begin
At the beginning, heave the groaning world
Back in its place again, and clamp it there.
Then all is hard and hazardous. We have seen
Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,
Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.
Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace.
Look at it well. This was the good town once.”

These thoughts we have, walking among our ruins.


My own poem about the Muirs in Communist Czechoslovakia, written in 1987:

November Cloud
For Peter Butter, 
On the Occasion of the Edwin Muir Centenary Lecture, Prague

On the way to the Writers' House -

Bohemia in mid-November -

Professor Butter, Muir's biographer,

Sat beside me in the car.

We talked of the poem called The Cloud,

Of what Muir meant, of what he'd seen.

The Dobříš Mansion had hardly altered

Since its use had changed in '45

From residence of Reich's Protector

To haven for the harrassed writer,

Reserved these days for the Party-favoured -

Those writers blessed by the Union-Reich,

The loyal-elect, the Committee-chosen,

With three books to their names at least,

Sound authors of the State's persuasion,

Rewarded by a stay at Dobříš

With stipend and a stately room;

The privilege of elegance

For the price of a cribbed, diminished soul.

Today the seminar's behind closed doors;

Young eager writers have been assembled,

They're being shown the prizes and rewards

To be won for staying in line and silent.

For the Mansion of Comfort is not twenty miles

From the cancerous mines of uranium towns,

Where dissenting scribblers were sent for correction,

Příbram, seat of the Dissidents' Mines.

But we were given the royal treatment,

In Dobříš' fine reception halls.

We were glad to see the guest-book there,

The first they'd had, from forty-five.

Aragon and Eluard, their signatures were all too clear: -

Near theirs we found it, Edwin Muir's!

In '46 and '47, Edwin Muir and Willa too.

Who'd come later? Dylan Thomas, and then the usual crew,

Ritsos and Hikmet, Neruda et al

(Kundera's cursed archangels all,

Whose lyres psalmed death, praised freedom's end).

Who here remembers Edwin Muir?

Perhaps a man in a cloud of dust?

We presented two books to the lady custodian,

They were gladly accepted by the Keeper of Keys:-

Muir's poems, and prose of life in Prague.

I wonder what they'll make of them,

The comrades in their graceful suites,

Looking for honest inspiration,

Unguilded themes which suit the times,

But which won't offend the Party chiefs?

Let them read The Good Town and The Cloud.

As they stroll French Garden or English Park,

Casting backward looks and sideways glances,

As they search for the wire in the antique vase,

In rococo mirror, baroque writing-desk.

Let them remember, as they shred each draft:

The labyrinth begins right here.

Listopad, 1987.

Edwin Muir, The Cloud

One late spring in Bohemia,
Driving to the Writers' House, we lost our way
In a maze of little winding roads that led
To nothing but themselves,
Weaving a rustic web for thoughtless travellers.
Only a chequer-board of little fields,
Crumpled and dry, neat squares of powdered dust.
At a sudden turn we saw
A young man harrowing, hidden in dust; he seemed
A prisoner walking in a moving cloud
Made by himself for his own purposes;
And there he grew and was as if exalted
To more than man, yet not, not glorified:
A pillar of dust moving in dust; no more.
The bushes by the roadside were encrusted
With a hard sheath of dust.
We looked and wondered; the dry cloud moved on
With its interior image.
                                  Presently we found
A road that brought us to the Writers' House,
And there a preacher from Urania
(Sad land where hope each day is killed by hope)
Praised the good dust, man’s ultimate salvation,
And cried that God was dead. As we drove back
Late to the city, still our minds were teased
By the brown barren fields, the harrowing,
The figure walking in its cloud, the message
From Urania. This was before the change;
And in our memory cloud and message fused,
Image and thought condensed to a giant form
That walked the earth clothed in its earthly cloud,
Dust made sublime in dust. And yet it seemed unreal
And lonely as things not in their proper place.
And thinking of the man
Hid in his cloud we longed for light to break
And show that his face was the face once broken in Eden,
Beloved, worth-without-end lamented face;
And not a blindfold mask on a pillar of dust.

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