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Environmental and ecological readings

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Philippe Laplace

Part II. Nature, the Environment and the Posthuman: Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

Hugh MacDiarmid and the Scottish Landscape: Landscape as Sign

Béatrice Duchateau

Texte intégral

  • 1 Letter to George Ogilvie, 24/10/11, in Hugh MacDiarmid, The Letters of Hugh MacDiarmid, ed. by A. B (...)
  • 2 Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS 27054.

1In a 1911 letter, the young Hugh MacDiarmid told his professor, George Ogilvie, of his love of mountaineering: ‘I am constantly crossing mountains, by unutterably rocky tracks’,1 foretelling his life-long fascination for the Scottish landscape. From his early Sonnets of the Highland Hills (1921) to his late triptych Direadh, the North of Scotland has always played a prominent part in MacDiarmid’s poetry, which kept much room as well for the South, especially for the colours and rivers of Langholm, his native Border town. An unpublished typescript entitled ‘Hugh MacDiarmid and the Scottish Landscape, by Valda Trevlyn’2 is another remarkable instance of the poet’s love of the land. Two copies of the typescript have survived; one in the National Library of Scotland, which I had access to, and another one in the special collections of the Fales Library in New York. The text was probably written in 1939, undoubtedly by MacDiarmid himself, not by his wife, Valda. The corrections are indeed in his hand and some included material appears in other works. It consists of two chapters, probably the introductory chapters to a longer planned study of MacDiarmid’s philosophy. Projected as ‘a study of the descriptive elements’ of his ‘vision of Scotland’ (MS 27054, fol. 2), this chaotic prose-work mostly considers MacDiarmid’s literary role and acts as a pre-emptive strike against unsympathetic reviewers. Still, buried beneath a catalogue of praises and underneath layers of quotations, the typescript offers interesting insights into MacDiarmid’s late poetry and what should be ‘an adequate description’ of Scotland (MS 27054, fol. 2).

2In the typescript, MacDiarmid’s Scottish landscape, seemingly a lonely place, looks more like a field, a paragon of human activity and extension of culture, against a sentimental use of the countryside. In his descriptions, the poet expresses his desire for the Scots to be historians of the land. Relying heavily on lists of topographical and historical details, MacDiarmid’s poetry attempts to save forgotten nouns and names, for the sake of historical integrity. Yet, the poet struggles to find an adequate language for this. Which language can rightly express the minute differences of the Scottish scenery? Raised in the typescript, this question seems to be answered by the innumerable lists of the poetry. They reveal one of the most interesting aspects of MacDiarmid’s landscapes: the poet’s valleys are the embodiment of linguistic signs, homely metaphors for an anti-Saussurean revolution, in which Signified and Signifier are one again.

  • 3 Hugh MacDiarmid, The Islands of Scotland: Hebrides, Orkney and Shetlands (London: Batsford, 1939), (...)

3Hugh MacDiarmid’s poems are very often dominated by the voice of an eagle-like narrator who surveys the state of his nation from a superior vantage point. Sometimes akin to the sublime landscape of his romantic predecessors, MacDiarmid’s landscape is also close to Rousseau’s ideas on Nature and to humanist ideals of primitive society. But his poetry and his theoretical thinking transcend Romanticism and Humanism altogether. His understanding of the land was indeed well beyond his own time in caring for earth as a living entity, not as a symbol of man’s nostalgia for a prelapsarian world. In his 1939 book The Islands of Scotland, MacDiarmid takes a proper ecological stand: ‘It is high time we realised […] that there is a discipline in Nature that none can escape, the discipline of natural resources and their conservation for posterity.’3 In the 30s, MacDiarmid had thus already taken the full measure of the environmental problem in modern society. In ‘My Songs are Kandym in the Waste Land’, the narrator draws attention to the essential connection between economic and ecological issues:

  • 4 Hugh MacDiarmid, The Complete Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid, vol. 2, ed. by M. Grieve and W.R. Aitken (H (...)

Capitalist culture to the great masses of mankind
Is like the exploitative handling in America
Of forest, grazing, and tilled lands
Which exaggerates floods and reduces
The dry-season flow of the rivers to almost nothing.
[…]
Forests slashed to the quick
And the ground burned over,
Grazing lands turned into desert,
The tragic upsetting of the hydrologic cycle.4

4The capitalist system exploits both land and man, threatened alike and united in de-romanticised scenery. In the second part of the quotation, the absence of verb accelerates the process, cutting trees and poetic space always shorter. The narrator imagines a poetry that will be ‘kandym in the Waste Land’, ‘stopping the advance of the sand’, ‘turning the dune into a little hillock | Covered with vegetation’ (The Complete Poems, 2, p. 1144). The ‘kandym’ is a tall shrub that prevents the dune from crumbling down and creates vegetation on its soil. Poetry, too, can prevent humanity from murdering its natural surroundings. MacDiarmid’s definition suggests dreams of a new type of poetry that would be both communist and ecologist. Caring for humanity equals caring for the earth. Nature and man are one in a poetry that shows an incredible love for both. However, MacDiarmid’s love for the scenery is never sentimental. Far from that: in the typescript, the narrator/Valda quotes the novelist George Blake:

Mr Blake goes on to say, referring to the better work of recent writers on the Scottish scene, “Here are no exclamations over the first vision of Slioch in the sunset, no rejoicing in the beauty of antlered stag. The question for those writers is how and when the admitted beauty and romance can be happily squared with the economic tendencies of an imperial civilization. The foreign traveler looks at the scenery; the impatient Scot looks behind it […].” Or as a Scotsman reviewer recently put it, “Poets, and for that matter prose-writers, seem no longer to be content with beholding the Hebrides in dreams”. (MS 27054, fol. 14)

  • 5 Neil Gunn’s depiction of the Highland Clearances in Butcher’s Broon (1934) and The Silver Darlings (...)

5This repeats MacDiarmid’s decades of attacks against Kailyard and sentimental literature, especially against fallacious romantic depictions of the Scottish landscape, populated by humble and ferocious Highlanders and covered with heather and prosperous villages in the sunset. That was one of the main aims of the Scottish Renaissance and what other writers, such as Neil Gunn in his Highland novels, tried to apply.5 For a long time now, economic issues, particularly in the Highlands, have been very sensitive. MacDiarmid, among others, made the Highland Clearances and the tragic handling of the crofting communities re-appear fiercely in twentieth century Scotland, but he also tried to reverse the process in standing up for the cultivation of the land.

6The typescript repeats the words of the book already referred to, The Islands of Scotland:

What the Hebrides and the Shetlands – and Scotland as a whole – need above all is a revolution in morale, a return to our roots, a rediscovery of deep realities we have neglected. To take the first, most obvious example; no nation ever remained strong whilst it neglected its land and no nation ever renewed its culture without restoring its cultivation. […] We have come to regard the country as a site for development or of recreation for the towns, and against this poison I protest with all my might. My passion is for the reunion between Scotland and Scotsmen, and that can only be achieved by the restoration of the land not as a series of beauty spots but as a soil for growing things. (MS 27054, fol. 26)

7What a pragmatic idea for a poet! Cultivation of the land as the condition for the cultivation of the spirit of the nation, for cultural renewal. MacDiarmid has always felt the vital connection between the cultivated land of a nation and its culture. In Direadh II, he wonders at the differences between the transformed landscapes of England and Scotland:

Instead of those great fields geometrically traced
By the stone walls that here take the place of hedges,
[…] there are no half-measures here,
No little corners or odd patches of waste-land,
(The Complete Poems, 2, pp. 1174-78)

8Fashioned by stone walls, not hedges, this Scottish land of plenty seems to frown on the English fields, frail embodiments of an English culture on the decline. MacDiarmid’s scenery is very human: his survey deals with a land that has been humanised through cultivation and bears the traces of the human hand, countering the romantic ideal of virgin natural Scotland, but it also bears the marks of history.

  • 6 Hugh MacDiarmid, Lucky Poet, ed. by A. Riach (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1994), p. 257.
  • 7 Alasdair Gray, Why Scots Should Rule Scotland: A Carnaptious History of Britain from Roman Times Un (...)

9In his autobiography, Lucky Poet (1943), MacDiarmid stresses his late poetic method in which he is ‘always interpreting Nature in terms of human activities, being alert to the historical process’.6 Altered by agriculture, nature is also turned upside down by the unwinding of human drama. It is the living embodiment of the national history and spirit. This is a familiar concept that can be traced to Walter Scott’s novels and continues in the twentieth century and Alasdair Gray who declared, in his essay Why Scots Should Rule Scotland, that ‘Landscape is what defines the most lasting nations.’7 However, such vision is problematic in a nation that MacDiarmid deemed ignorant. In the typescript, the issue arises:

Most people may have a vague sensation when Scotland is mentioned […]. But it would puzzle them to define it as they could readily enough define the corresponding quality of many other countries. […] The genius of Scotland is an elusive quantity which has proved insusceptible of clear recognition or ready description. And this vague sense of an ethos curiously compounded of practical efficiency and the wildest romanticism. […] So we have Scott’s absurd Highlands and no less absurd Borderland; so we have the baseless glamour of the Hebrides – and the Scottish people have been so long content with these that it is now practically impossible for them, let alone anybody else, to see the real article. Intranational elements of every kind have been obliterated in these false concepts as in an all-obliterating fog; the very regional names – Lennox, Cunningham, Rough Bounds, Angus and the Mearns, the Lammermuirs and the Merse – are not known and mean nothing even to the majority of the Scottish people. Only here and there one of them looms up in the mist, a mere shadow of what it should connote. (MS 27054, fols. 47-48)

  • 8 From Robert Burns’s poem ‘On the Late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Thro’ Scotland’.

10According to the poet, the names of people and the nouns of places and regions of Scotland have vanished under a fog of ignorance, and under English linguistic and historical influence. To fulfill the complex bond between geography, culture, cultivation and history, what is needed, in MacDiarmid’s typescript, is ‘a thorough knowledge of Scotland and Scottish life and work, and above all, the actual landscape, the ground of our national being, from “Maidenkirk to John o’ Groats” and from Aberdeen to the Island of Harris and indeed to Rockall and St. Kilda’ (MS27054, fol.13). Quoting and extending Burns’s line ‘Hear, Land o’ Cakes, and brither Scots | Frae Maidenkirk to Johny Groats! ’,8 MacDiarmid asks for a real ‘knowledge of natural history’ (Lucky Poet, p. 267) through the remembrance of names and nouns, through a process of interrelated mapping of history and country. The names of natural places are key factors in the poet’s programme of cultural and historical regeneration.

11Against the ignorance of the masses, MacDiarmid sets the figure of an ideal omnipotent poet who can encompass the history of his land. In another poem, entitled ‘Scotland’, the poet concludes:

  • 9 Hugh MacDiarmid, The Complete Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid, vol. 1, ed. by M. Grieve and W.R. Aitken (H (...)

Instead of those great fields geometrically traced
So I have gathered unto myself
All the loose ends of Scotland,
And by naming them and accepting them,
Loving them and identifying myself with them,
Attempt to express the whole.9

12The term ‘naming’ underlines a very complex process where self, language and nature fuse to achieve the dream of expressing the real Scotland. The role of the poet is to save the ‘loose ends’, the forgotten names of his country. He is the modern version of Noah; his poems, often catalogues of places or animals, are an Ark that rescues what should be saved. His poem ‘Tam O’ the Wilds and the Many-Faced Mystery’ adapts Burns’s Tam O’ Shanter. While Burns’s Tam has to face the mystery of legend in the moors, MacDiarmid’s Tam confronts another daunting mystery: that of the scientific knowledge of the very same moors. His life is devoted to the discovery of his surroundings:

He heard the corn-buntin’’ cry ‘Guid-night’
And the lark ‘Guid-mornin’, and kent by sight
And call-note the Osprey and the Erne,
The blue-Hawk and the Merlin and the Kite,
The Honey-Buzzard and the Snowy Owl,
(The Complete Poems, 1, p. 375)

13This natural directory is only one of the numerous lists of the poem which not only catalogues types of birds but also the different names of hills, or different species of moths and fish. The form of the catalogue can be understood as the only suitable method to fight the ignorance of the people. For the sake of the nation, he claims forgotten names back and maps out overlooked parts of Scotland.

  • 10 Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground, Poems 1966-1996 (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), p. 378.
  • 11 Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘Scottish Scenery’ in The Raucle Tongue – Hitherto Uncollected Prose, vol. 2, ed. (...)
  • 12 Roderick Watson, The Literature of Scotland: the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke (...)
  • 13 Roderick Watson, The Literature of Scotland, p. 204.

14Thanks to his belief in the mnemonic role of poetry and names, MacDiarmid inscribes his work in a long poetic tradition. Seamus Heaney, a practitioner of the poetical list himself, powerfully expressed that duty in ‘Setting 33’: ‘Be literal a moment. Recollect | Walking out on what had been emptied out’.10 To push Scotland back into history, MacDiarmid indeed believed that one needed to be ‘literal’. In a 1932 article, entitled ‘Scottish Scenery’, he announces that ‘in Scottish poetry above all, the future lies in exact notation. […] Let us insist upon an appropriate spirit, first-hand observation, a resolute grappling with hard facts, endless concentration on the seizure of significant details.’11 MacDiarmid is certainly well-known for his poetry of facts and his desire to unite poetry and science within his work. His catalogues combine the old form of bardic praise, the elegy and eulogy for the clan’s chief,12 and scientific knowledge of the landscape. In this, he was clearly influenced by his translations of 18th century Gaelic poetry: Duncan Bàn MacIntyre’s The Praise of Ben Dorain, an elegy for this mountain, consisting mostly in a botanical catalogue, and Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair Birlinn Chlann Raghnaill / Clanranald’s Galley, an oar-song ‘filled with exact technical detail’.13 Detailed and accurate natural poetry was then already part of MacDiarmid’s literary heritage. However, he sets that tradition on an altogether higher plane as his landscape poetry involves, as we have already started to see, a concern for politicized toponymy.

15In A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, the narrator asks: ‘What’s in a name?’? The poem ‘Scotland’ suggests an answer:

Just think how terrible it would be
If the people who name
The Housing Scheme streets and bungalows
Could play the same game
With the things in Scotland that really matter
– Its peerless glories of land and water!
[…]
With Barriesque whimsicality
Ben Nevis, one fears
Might become Sky-View Summit,
And the Tay Churchill’s Tears
And Glasgow be modernized still
As Maxtontown or Horneville.

Arthur’s Seat on account
Of the vulgar dubiety
Would be better transformed
To King’s Head most folk would agree,
And instead of the Forth that marine gorge
Should be dubbed the Fifth in honour of George

Enough? Thank God our place-names
Antedated our Anglicization,
But in other and far more vital
Respects, alas, our nation
Is ruined by equivalents of calling
Briareach the Pines, or Bellevue for Schiehallion.
(The Complete Poems, 1, pp. 365-68)

16This poem is a lesson in humour and toponymy. The names of places, even natural ones, eternally repeat political and historical struggles. Names are memory-bearers and the place where nature and culture, place and history, come across one another. Against the processes of Anglicization and standardization, MacDiarmid defends the Gaelic ‘Glasgow – Glesga’, the ‘dear green place’, and its deep and subtle historical connotations, as well as the irreverent name ‘Arthur’s Seat’ and its force of scatological fun. The nominal list, the privileged form of our memory, sends the poet’s language into the field of toponymy and historiography and makes a barrier of the Scottish land – or cityscape – against monological discourse. MacDiarmid seemed hence to have found the perfect formula to achieve his Scottish Renaissance agenda. Yet, the typescript reveals shades of uncertainty.

17Throughout his career, MacDiarmid endeavoured to stress the versatile character of Scotland and its incredible natural multitude. In Direadh I, he exclaims: ‘Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small? | […] | ‘Nothing but heather! ’ – How marvellously descriptive! And incomplete! ’ (The Complete Poems, 2, p. 1170-71). MacDiarmid’s passion for totality made him dread incomplete and inaccurate definition, hence his catalogue-poems which were a suitable syntactic answer to the issue. They are only one aspect of a life-long and larger interrogation: which language could rightfully express his ‘multiform Scotland’? What type of language could pay justice to the scenery?

18In the typescript, the narrator recognizes that ‘germs of promising novelistic regionalism have appeared; […] and in poetry there remains an amazing lack of exact notation and that sheer statement of what a thing is which also, perhaps, tells why it is and justifies its existence.’ The narrator/Valda then acknowledges the contributions by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Neil Gunn, William Soutar and Fionn MacColla to that effort, but concludes though that ‘a far more extensive exploration and adequate description of Scotland’ is needed (MS 27054, fols. 50-51). What then? How? The narrator, quoting ‘In Talk with Donnchadh Ban Mac an’t Saoir’, asks: ‘– But beyond this how? The speech of one neither men nor animal – or both – | Yet not a monster’ (MS 27054, fol. 68). The poet is attracted to primitivism and to the dream of a language that would capture that elusive pre-historical quality. On a larger philosophical level, it obviously corresponds to the same urge that made the poet opt for Synthetic Scots in the 1920s; the desire to reverse the process of history or imperialism through the creation of a new language, alive with unblemished linguistic potential. But to generate such language is no easy matter and the poet refuses to be a poetic translation of Frankenstein and is afraid of creating a monster-language. In his late poetry, MacDiarmid stuck to English, even if aggrandized, dictionary-based and somehow monstrous. Was it still corresponding to the landscape of Scotland? Apparently not, if we are to believe Valda who admits: ‘we can find no words in English. In what then? Gaelic? Scots? Synthetic Scots? I am not prepared to say’ (MS 27054, fol. 51). In the typescript, MacDiarmid does not know what language can agree with the landscape of Scotland, as with modernity. His career has been a quest to find this language, a seemingly impossible task when MacDiarmid believed, in Valda’s words, in ‘the impossibility as he sees it of a veridical Scottish expression in the present set-up’ (MS 27054, fol. 66). Yet, somehow, the poet still had faith in one language, a language that could, in the future, muster in the different hues of the Scottish land: Gaelic.

19In the typescript, the narrator/Valda refers to an untitled poem by MacDiarmid:

Gaelic has ony amount o’ words for hills,
A different name for ilka different shape,
No’ like oor thowless speech that canna seize

The essential fact in as mony sentences
As Gaelic place-names in a soond or twa
(MS 27054, fol. 52)

20That’s what MacDiarmid was also hinting at in the poem ‘Scotland’ and the defense of Glasgow against ‘Maxtontown’: only the Gaelic language can adequately mirror the variety of Scotland as it is rooted in the reality of the land. He then quotes Fionn MacColla’s novel The Albannach and his idea that: ‘Now in our own Gaelic […] the name of every place will be a picture of what will be there’ (MS27054 fol.52). MacDiarmid’s Gaelic is a mythopoeic projection of his desire to contain all knowledge within one word and all history within one place. For MacDiarmid, Gaelic was a paradigm of a compact language only composed of multi-referential linguistic signs, the only possible access to a meaningful description of the scenery.

  • 14 In Pierre Fédida, L’Absence (Paris: Gallimard, 1978), p. 35.

21Combining the syntactical form of nominalisation and the use of multi-referential Gaelic in dictionary-based lists, MacDiarmid tried to reach for a multi-dimensional language that could correspond to the land: topography, toponymy, history, and politics. In that, he was close to the concerns of the French poet Francis Ponge, who declared in his ‘Introduction au galet’: ‘O ressources infinies de l’épaisseur des choses, rendues par les ressources infinies de l’épaisseur sémantique des mots, […] je propose à chacun l’ouverture de trappes intérieures, un voyage dans l’épaisseur des choses, une invasion de qualités’.14 No wonder the French poet considers the thickness of words in a poem on pebbles. Ponge, like MacDiarmid in On a Raised Beach, looked for thick, deep and full poetic signs, and both found stones an appropriate metaphor for that essential multi-dimensionality. In those stones, we can perhaps observe the beginning of a poetic conflation between the Scottish landscape and linguistic signs.

22In MacDiarmid’s poetry, love of words and love for the landscape always overlap. The Gaelic lists of Direadh find their Norn counterpart in In Memoriam James Joyce:

Or even as, in the Shetland Islands where I lived,
I know, in the old Norn language, the various names
Applied to all the restless movements of the sea
– Di, a wave; Da mother di, the undulations
That roll landward even in calm weather;

Soal, swell occasioned by a breeze,
Trove, a short, cross, heavy sea,
(The Complete Poems, 2, pp. 763-64)

  • 15 Michael Riffaterre, ‘L’illusion référentielle’, trans. By Pierre Zoberman, in Littérature et réalit (...)
  • 16 Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 1 (...)

23The narrator’s empathy with the wealth and precision of the language is intimately linked to his responsiveness to the movement of the waves. This does not only stand as a mere poetic parallelism, but betrays MacDiarmid’s continuing faith in the integrity of the sign and his desire to reunite the Signifier and the Signified in his poetry, what Michael Riffaterre described as the ‘referential illusion’, the ‘illusion that words signify in direct relation to reality’.15 Nouns are entry points to the real world, doors opened onto the movement of the sea in the Joyce poem. Throughout his career, MacDiarmid defended this principle and tried to draw attention to the tragic gap between nouns and their referents. Emanating both from moral, historical and scientific motives, this anti-saussurean drive was shared by many writers in the grip of the modern crisis of language. The reverse was also true with, for example, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake which tried to accelerate the process of division between Signifier and Signified, letting words roam at liberty in a de-corseted literary space,16 a type of experiment MacDiarmid agreed with. He retained indeed a love for sounds throughout his work but the meaning of words came back to the fore and started to uncoil freely in MacDiarmid’s Drunk Man in which the image of powerless semen embodied the wasted meaning of signs. To MacDiarmid, the main disfigured Sign was undoubtedly Scotland, whose reality was, as we’ve seen, unknown to many Scots and whose whisky-like spirit (in the opening of the Drunk Man) was diluted in false myths. In the Drunk Man and before, MacDiarmid clings to the same referential illusion. It is mostly noticeable in his overlapping representation of landscape as language. Yet, the affiliation between scenery and language only really surfaces in the late poetry. In and after the 30s, MacDiarmid will constantly come back to this obsessive theme.

24In To Circumjack Cencrastus (1930), the connection is dominated by anguish: the narrator, The Mavis, a common type of bird, sings on the top of a hill but feels unsteady:

I should ha’e stayed wi’ the rest
Doon in Coille Ghruamach still
And no’ ettled to be on the crest
O’ this bricht impossible hill,
For poetry’s no’ made in a lifetime
And I lack a livin’ past;
I stand on the tap o’ the hill
– But the miracle canna last!
(The Complete Poems, 1, p. 192)

25The word ‘crest’ defies normal logic in uniting the head of the bird, the peak of the mountain and ancestry in the shape of the coat of arms. But the crest, here, is also the standing point where the poet surveys his poem, ‘this bricht impossible hill’. The poem slowly begins to become mountain. But a prevailing doubt prevents the poet from engaging in his poem and from assessing his nation’s land and history. His voice will be a lot more secure in later poems though. In In Memoriam James Joyce, the narrator praises the Austrian writer Karl Kraus for his ‘exploration in a landscape of words’ (The Complete Poems, 2, p. 766), a feat which foreshadows MacDiarmid’s borrowing of John Buchan’s Prince of the Captivity (1933):

We come in ice-fields like mammoth ploughlands
And mountainous séracs which would puzzle an Alpine climber.
That is what adventuring in dictionaries means,
All the abysses and altitudes of the mind of man,
(The Complete Poems, 2, p. 823)

  • 17 V. Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties, p. 165.
  • 18 Edwin Morgan, ‘MacDiarmid and Scotland’ in The Age of MacDiarmid: Essays on Hugh MacDiarmid and his (...)

26The climbing process described here is reminiscent of ‘the prevalence of mountaineering images in the period’s writing’17 and of the nietzschean appeal to climb above one’s human condition but establishes as well the synthesis of language and natural scenery, made possible both by lexis, metaphor and syntax (in the lists). Mountain is made list, landscape language, and vice-versa. As Edwin Morgan remarked about Direadh: ‘” here” means “here on the page” as much as “here on a mountain-top”.’18

  • 19 Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2006), p. 119.
  • 20 Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Scottish Scene, in Smeddum. A Lewis Grassic Gibbon Anthology, ed. by Valentin (...)

27In a poem entitled ‘The Kulturkampf’, MacDiarmid depicts the ideal Scottish Renaissance writer: ‘And his style was like the country he described | Flowing like the great moors and fertile straths, | And often strong and staccato | Like the Highland hills’ (The Complete Poems, 1, p. 696). The whole poem must take after the scenery, be ‘a poetry like a glacier caught between the peaks | A landmark among the high ranges of poetry’ (The Kind of Poetry I want, The Complete Poems, 1, p. 626). And, embedded within each poem, each word must resemble the aspect of the landscape it describes. Signified and Signifier must be one again. MacDiarmid actually believed that signs were doors to the essence of things. In the typescript poem ‘In Talk with Donnchadh Ban Mac an’t Saoir’, the narrator praises the ‘faculty of sheer description | Which not only tells what a thing is but at least | Incidentally goes far towards telling why’ (MS 27054, fol. 68). Again, as with Gaelic, multi-dimensional historicity is required of the word which must tell the essence of the landscape and its reason to exist. Every writer and every reader must aspire to be a topographer and an historian so that names can ‘lit fires’ and ‘your eyes lit up’ in recognition of their value (‘Krassivy, Krassivy’, The Complete Poems, 1, p. 604). Toponymic poetry and Gaelic can be understood as the means to achieve such linguistic integrity, to re-unite Signified and Signifier, Scotland and history. As opposed to the stories of Neil Gunn’s and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s characters, who go back to nature and reject urban discord, MacDiarmid’s philosophy is no real return to the land. Toponymy is a cultural projection of the land which tends to forget that human beings are just invited there, as Chris Guthrie reminds us throughout Sunset Song (1932), ‘Nothing endures but the land.’19 The names we give to the land are transient, but nature is not. With his flexible mixture of English and Scots, Gibbon tried to render the voice of the people and the voice of the Scottish land. In his essay, ‘The Land’, he wrote: ‘That is The Land out there, […]. And the voice of it – the true and unforgettable voice – you can hear even such a night as this as dark comes down, the immemorial plaint of the peewit, flying lost. That is The Land – though not quite all.’20 The voice of the land always escapes our grasp and calls for respectful distance. MacDiarmid’s land is too human and his conflation of sign and landscape shows that he is often more willing to save humanity’s connection to language than the people’s reverent relationship to the land.

  • 21 ‘The Kulturkampf’: ‘They were bred for | Into a world that had not been interpreted | And made read (...)
  • 22 Kenneth White, Écosse: le pays derrière les noms (Rennes: Terres de Brume, 2001).
  • 23 Bosko Tomasevic, ‘Le Monde ouvert de Kenneth White: Une approche de la géopoétique whitienne’, in L (...)

28MacDiarmid’s Scottish landscape refuses all partings. It is a communal vessel for connecting people, connecting Scotland to its history, and connecting sign and meaning. The poet forces toponymy onto the page as a linguistic substitute for the absence of connotation in modern Scotland. In the 1930s, trying to heal the injuries of a broken nation, MacDiarmid set on to tend to the wounds of modernity in nature and to the wounds of culture in cultivation. To care for and to cultivate one’s land is to cultivate and save one’s culture. The unpublished typescript ‘Hugh MacDiarmid and the Scottish Landscape, by Valda Trevlyn’ explores some aspects of that quest. Focussing on the problem of the description of Scotland and the importance of place-names, it exposes the double and tear-proof concern for nature and language in the late poetry. As language should reclaim its integrity in a reunified Sign, the landscape of Scotland should reclaim its historical and moral integrity and be a modern Sign in its own right. To a certain extent, Sign and Scotland are almost synonymous in MacDiarmid’s work. No doubt MacDiarmid’s living in the Shetland Islands assisted this metaphorical, stylistic and philosophical turn towards the land, but the moral urge for authenticity is what originally ties language and natural Scotland together. The poet’s theoretical connection between landscape and sign is profoundly ethical. No matter the cost of such ethics, moral integrity comes first. The ecological integrity of the Scottish land, the historical integrity of the nation’s toponyms, and the linguistic integrity of meaningful words challenge poetic style. Disregarding the rules of poetic decorum, ethical thinking propels the poet into generating monstrous poems. In a way then, MacDiarmid succeeded in uniting poem and landscape. He created mountain-poems, an epic poetry so massive that would be impossible not to notice in the Scottish literary landscape. However, his late poems are often discarded by critics and readers alike. Today, this ‘world unvisited’ (MS 27054, fol. 50) is still a world to be interpreted21. His unromantic, ecological and existential concern for earth and sign and his insistence on topography and toponymy announced later acclaimed geopoetical works, such as those of Kenneth White and his book Écosse: le pays derrière les noms (2001).22 MacDiarmid’s poems, too, allow the self to connect to nature through language.23 His epic poetry sings the unity of logos and cosmos, nature and culture.

Notes

1 Letter to George Ogilvie, 24/10/11, in Hugh MacDiarmid, The Letters of Hugh MacDiarmid, ed. by A. Bold (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1984), p. 6.

2 Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS 27054.

3 Hugh MacDiarmid, The Islands of Scotland: Hebrides, Orkney and Shetlands (London: Batsford, 1939), p. xvii.

4 Hugh MacDiarmid, The Complete Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid, vol. 2, ed. by M. Grieve and W.R. Aitken (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 1142.

5 Neil Gunn’s depiction of the Highland Clearances in Butcher’s Broon (1934) and The Silver Darlings (1941) has no doubt been instrumental in this process of de-romanticisation of the Highlands.

6 Hugh MacDiarmid, Lucky Poet, ed. by A. Riach (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1994), p. 257.

7 Alasdair Gray, Why Scots Should Rule Scotland: A Carnaptious History of Britain from Roman Times Until Now (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1997), p. 1.

8 From Robert Burns’s poem ‘On the Late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Thro’ Scotland’.

9 Hugh MacDiarmid, The Complete Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid, vol. 1, ed. by M. Grieve and W.R. Aitken (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 562.

10 Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground, Poems 1966-1996 (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), p. 378.

11 Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘Scottish Scenery’ in The Raucle Tongue – Hitherto Uncollected Prose, vol. 2, ed. by A. Calder, G. Murray & A. Riach (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1997), pp. 425- 27, (p. 426).

12 Roderick Watson, The Literature of Scotland: the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), p. 23.

13 Roderick Watson, The Literature of Scotland, p. 204.

14 In Pierre Fédida, L’Absence (Paris: Gallimard, 1978), p. 35.

15 Michael Riffaterre, ‘L’illusion référentielle’, trans. By Pierre Zoberman, in Littérature et réalité, ed. by Roland Barthes (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1982), pp. 91-118 (p. 93).

16 Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 105.

17 V. Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties, p. 165.

18 Edwin Morgan, ‘MacDiarmid and Scotland’ in The Age of MacDiarmid: Essays on Hugh MacDiarmid and his influence on contemporary Scotland, ed. by P.H. Scott and A.C. Davis (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1980), pp. 193-201, (p. 200).

19 Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2006), p. 119.

20 Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Scottish Scene, in Smeddum. A Lewis Grassic Gibbon Anthology, ed. by Valentina Bold, (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2001), pp. 82-83.

21 ‘The Kulturkampf’: ‘They were bred for | Into a world that had not been interpreted | And made ready for them’ (The Complete Poems, 1, p. 698).

22 Kenneth White, Écosse: le pays derrière les noms (Rennes: Terres de Brume, 2001).

23 Bosko Tomasevic, ‘Le Monde ouvert de Kenneth White: Une approche de la géopoétique whitienne’, in Le Monde ouvert de Kenneth White: essais et témoignage, ed. by M. Duclos (Bordeaux: Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 1995), pp. 84-92, (p. 89).

Auteur

Is a research assistant at the University of Burgundy, Dijon, where she teaches anglophone literature and translation. She is completing a PhD on MacDiarmid, entitled ‘Problematics of Bonds in MacDiarmid’s poetry’. Her research interests include poetry, Scottish literature and modernism. She has already published ‘MacDiarmid: l’idéal du poète tisserand’, F. Bort & V. Dupont (eds), Texte, texture, textile: variations sur le tissage dans la musique, les arts plastiques et la littérature, Dijon, 2013; ‘Urban Scotland in MacDiarmid’s Glasgow Poems’, Études Écossaises, n° 15.

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