MacDiarmid, Hugh (Christopher Murray Grieve) (1892–1978)
Some of the defining aspects of Hugh MacDiarmid’s career and achievement seem recognizably, even typically modernist. His struggle towards maturity in a cultural backwater, his drive to find forms and idioms adequate to a Freudian sense of the material basis of consciousness, his insistence alike on the primacy and opacity of language, his contempt for the comfortable certainties of the bourgeois, his commitment to “difficulty,” his High Cultural distaste for the middle ground of human experience and his attraction to totalitarian ideologies (albeit of the Left rather than the Right) partake of a familiar pattern. Yet in other respects MacDiarmid’s case is unusual, even idiosyncratic. He conducted his career not from London or Paris but from the little seaside town of Montrose, Angus, where he worked as a journalist, and subsequently from the remote Shetland island of Whalsay. He committed his most energetic work to the old Teutonic language of the Scottish Lowlands rather than the emerging imperial lingua franca of Conrad,Joyce, and Pound. He had almost no access to an international reader-ship—much of his poetry was published by small Scottish publishers, frequently with print runs of hundreds rather than thousands—and he was denied the kind of informed critical reception which sustained the careers of his English, Irish, and American contemporaries.
The central ambiguities of MacDiarmid’s art are bound up with questions of language. The mere fact of his employment of Scots in the poetry of the earlier part of his maturity foregrounds linguistic issues, while the more memorable and sustained stretches of the Anglophone verse of the increasingly problematic later career pursue what he called “A Vision of World Language.” MacDiarmid’s Scots usage is undeniably conservative in its harking back to the work of the late medieval makars, its subservience to romantic ideas of national reawakening and racial urmotives, and in the resolutely rural and even peasant origins of many of its most vivid idioms. It is emphatically modern, however, in its valorization of the local and the particular, its distrust of abstraction (a distrust which links it to the widely disparate literary practices of Hopkins, Yeats and Joyce, for example) and above all in its repeated demonstration of the a priori nature of language and, where the act of poetic creation is concerned, the secondariness of thought, imagination and inspiration to verbal impulse. The question which provides the title of a poem by W. S. Graham, a leading Scottish poet of a later generation, underlies many of the characteristic procedures of MacDiarmid’s verse: What is the Language Using Us For?
The rebarbative character of MacDiarmid’s Scots has been exaggerated; indeed,