Academic journal article Scottish Literary Review

The Poem as Labyrinth: An Exploration of Hugh MacDiarmid's 'The Glass of Pure Water'

Academic journal article Scottish Literary Review

The Poem as Labyrinth: An Exploration of Hugh MacDiarmid's 'The Glass of Pure Water'

Article excerpt

The Glass of Pure Water' was first published just before the Second World War, in The Canadian Forum, vol. XVII, no. 198, July 1937, a periodical co-founded by Margaret and Barker Fairley in 1920. It appeared in another periodical during that war, Poetry Scotland, no.1, edited by Maurice Lindsay, in 1943, and was first published in a book in Hugh MacDiarmid's Collected Poems (New York and London: Macmillan, 1962.). It is one of MacDiarmid's most memorable and often anthologised poems, appearing in at least eight relatively popular anthologies since 1966, yet it has received little critical attention or close exposition. (1)

In his essay, 'Hugh MacDiarmid: Sketch of a Materialist Poetics', E. San Juan, Jr, the Filipino Marxist scholar, suggestively described the structure of The Glass of Pure Water' as 'labyrinthine.' (2) A dictionary meaning of 'labyrinth' as 'a tangle of intricate ways and connections' is instructive. How many 'ways' (or themes) can be identified in the poem? What connections can be seen between them? How do these connections work to take us through the labyrinth? And what is the resolution, the way out of the maze? This essay is the first full exposition of the poem and exploration of its labyrinthine connections and structure.

MacDiarmid introduces three disparate themes in the first part of the poem. The first of these is the similarity 'Between one glass of pure water and another' and, by analogy, the similarity 'between one human life and another' expressed in lines 1-13. (3) The motif of the 'glass of water' had occurred in earlier MacDiarmid poems, though without the analogy. In 'Lament for the Great Music, he had written in terms very similar to the beginning of The Glass of Pure Water': 'Away here I hold a glass of water between me and the sun / And can only tell the one from the other by the lint-white quiver, / The trembling life of the water [...]. (4) The concept had been less developed in 'North of the Tweed' in the lines, 'The pale-wa'd world is fu' o' licht and life / Like a glass in which water faintly stirs.' (5)

The poet then makes the arbitrary assertion (11. 14-21) that the lives of the slum people he is writing about in his 'Glasgow' poems remind him less of a glass of pure water held between his eyes and the sun than of the feeling 'they' had who had seen the two anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, in the death cell on the night before their execution. But what is the connection here? Who were 'they'? What was the feeling? There may have been some publicity about this feeling in 1927 but the meaning is elliptical in the poem. The implication of some sense of liminal understanding of humility and human vulnerability is perhaps present but not explicit until the line which supplies the second identifiable theme: 'One is talking to God.' (1. 21)

Perhaps the correspondence is simply that the people living in the slums of Glasgow are as sensitive to their own imminent mortality as Sacco and Vanzetti were the night before they were executed. This sense of their mortal vulnerability is enforced not only by implacable legal authority, but also by the unjustness of that authority. The only recourse available to them, as to the two anarchists, might be a prayer--albeit a secular one, with no greater religious consolation than intrinsically human hope--to a higher and more lasting authority to witness the injustice at work and help bring about change in the future. The hope might be forlorn but may seem vital and essential in such conditions. However, this analogy is never made explicit in the poem. MacDiarmid knew about the international campaign to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti and was deeply affected by their executions. Four lines in a notebook show that at one time he thought of making another reference to Sacco and Vanzetti in the poem. (6) He used the title of the book which John Dos Passos wrote for the Sacco and Vanzetti Defence Committee in 1927, Facing the Chair, for a poem which was listed in the Index of Subordinate Poems in the 'Mature Art' MS in March 1938, (7) though it remained unpublished until 9 November 1968 in The Scotsman. …

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