Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Scottish Literature

By Ian Brown; Alan Riach | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THIRTEEN
The Seven Poets Generation

Robyn Marsack

Shortly after the 1979 referendum when Scotland seemed to have lost its chance for devolution, Alexander Moffat painted a generation of Scottish poets who, he thought, shared ‘a passionate concern about Scottish history and culture [and] played the leading role, both in their verse and prose, in shaping the artistic conscience of this country’. He produced a series of individual portraits, based on sketches of the poets whom he travelled widely to see in their own homes. The group portrait, Poets’ Pub, was an attempt to ‘evoke the romance of Edinburgh’s bohemian life of the late 1950s and early 1960s’, when Moffat himself had encountered it. The space was a compound familiar setting, and the central figure is the poet who is now the most obscured of the group Sydney Goodsir Smith who died before Moffat began his series. ‘I think all the others would have wanted Sydney to be the central figure: he was the great character of all the poets and wrote many fine verses about Edinburgh pub life.’1

This chapter explores the painting as an icon of Scottish literary culture, placing the poets in the context of their own male-dominated, literary milieu and, at the time the painting was made in 1980, not long after Margaret Thatcher had become prime minister of a Conservative UK government. This was a generation for whom Hugh MacDiarmid was exemplary, but his presence at once stony and combustible was succeeded by the shapechanger Edwin Morgan as the century tipped towards its conclusion. Morgan empowered the younger generation not least the women, who generally found MacDiarmid’s influence rebarbative and the pub door hard to open, unless as muse rather than makar. It glances at what lies outside the frame, too, at the poetic world that lay beyond the confines of the Abbotsford and Milne’s bar, where the ‘heroic laughter of Sydney Goodsir Smith could be heard […] every day’.2

A detail of Poets’ Pub forms the cover image for Murdo Macdonald’s historical survey, Scottish Art,3 in the series published by Thames and Hudson aimed at the general reader. It is perhaps a surprising choice: a McTaggart landscape, a Scottish Colourist’s flowers or seascape, something by Charles

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