Contexts

People use pseudonyms (literally, “false names”) for all kinds of reasons – to disguise their real identity, perhaps, or because they don’t like the sound of their given name. Sometimes, an unconventional name can attract attention and open doors, just like a good title can be the difference between a book being published or not, a film being a success or not.

The poet Christopher Murray Grieve may have chosen to write under a pen-name for any of these reasons but the name he settled on was deliberately and carefully selected to fit in with his particular philosophy. The story behind Grieve’s pseudonym gives us a good place to begin to explore the man and his work.

The name ‘Hugh’, a good Scots name, is Germanic in origin and means “heart, mind, spirit”. ‘Mac’ is a Gaelic prefix which means “son of”. And “Diarmid” comes from Diarmuid, a figure from Celtic myth who was one of the greatest warriors of the Fianna, the legendary group of warrior poets. The Fianna were like a living memory bank. One condition of joining the Fianna was that you had to be an accomplished poet and know all the stories and poems of the country’s literature. Since there were no books, nothing was written down so all of the events in the country’s history that were celebrated in stories and poems had to be committed to memory. These warrior poets were also very politically aware – another condition of joining the Fianna was that members had to memorise the laws of the land.

Which gives us “Hugh MacDiarmid” – mythical construct of Christopher Murray Grieve.

With this name he declared that with his body and intellect and the very essence of his being he was claiming his place among the warrior poets. He knew his poetry, he knew his politics. His fight would be a metaphorical one to put Scotland and its history and culture not just on the map, but at the very centre of the modern world, and his weapon was language.

MacDiarmid started publishing his poetry in the mid-1920s. At that time a lot of things were changing in literature, as they were in all other areas of life. The world was still recovering from a massive and terrible war. People were nervous about the future, and critical about the past. The recent past was a bad place, they thought, which had led us into conflict and misery. This was now the technological age, the age of the machine, of city living with all its muddled up complexity and increasingly rapid pace. The world was beginning to shrink.

In 1925 when MacDiarmid published his first collection of poems, Sangschaw, a number of great writers were at work capturing this spirit of the times in their literature. TS Eliot had written The Waste Land, a long poem sequence made up of seemingly unrelated fragments mixing images of present day city living with stories from classical myths. James Joyce had published Ulysses, a novel of enormous scope, based around the ancient Greek poet Homer’s Odyssey, which experimented wildly with language and which, for a while, turned the literary establishment on its head. Elsewhere, Igor Stravinsky was reinventing classical music by fusing it with primitive rhythms, and in painting, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali among many others were investigating new ways of making visual art, basing their work as much on tribal art and classical myths as on new sciences like psychology and anthropology.

Hugh MacDiarmid was doing the same with his poetry. Poems like The Eemis Stane, The Bonnie Broukit Bairn, and The Watergaw brought the great themes of literature – the natural world, birth, death and dying – together with historical knowledge, classical myths, cosmic awareness and social consciousness.

The language he used was something Scotland hadn’t seen for a while – it had become unfashionable to write in any form of Scots. But MacDiarmid and a number of his contemporaries, like Lewis Grassic Gibbon and William Soutar, began to reclaim it. Their work became known as the Scottish Renaissance. Later in his career MacDiarmid wrote more and more in standard English and moved away from the short poems of his early work towards much longer, linguistically and philosophically dense works, like On A Raised Beach.

Before attempting to grapple with the meanings of MacDiarmid’s poems, many of which are very difficult and elude precise understanding, it is a good idea simply to read them, or better still have them read aloud, for the pleasure of their musical qualities. It can be too easy to be caught up in “understanding” poetry and getting the meanings of particular words or phrases when, often as not, the purpose of the poem is to delight the ear.

For the first part of his career as a poet MacDiarmid used a language he called Lallans. The word itself is beautifully melodic and conjures up words like lulling, and lullaby or the sing-song nonsense words we use when we forget the words to a song (la-la-la). Literally, it is the Scots word for the Lowlands, or Borders area, where MacDiarmid grew up, and the dialect spoken there. But he used it specifically to mean a synthesis, or bringing together, of all the various dialects of Scots – from Shetland and Orkney in the far north, through the Highlands and the Western Isles, to the central lowlands to the borders. Each area has a slightly different way of speaking, different words have come into use and been forgotten, some words are common to all areas of Scotland, many are only found in one or two areas. With a great deal of research MacDiarmid brought them all under the one, broad umbrella of Lallans. He even invented a few of his own, because he liked the sound of them. It was a language that stood for the whole of Scotland and was intended to banish the cosy image of Scotland (heather and hillsides, bonnie lochs and rosy-cheeked lassies) that had flourished in sentimental poetry and mawkish prose in the nineteenth century, and bring Scotland’s literature into the modern world.

Burns had done something similar over 200 years before, when he brought his Ayrshire language together with the language of Southern England. MacDiarmid was nothing if not more political than Burns. MacDiarmid embraced the contradictions and paradoxes of modern life, particularly Scottish modern life. He was one of the founders of the Scottish National Party, and a member of the Communist Party – two political projects that many regarded as having nothing in common. In fact, at one stage he was expelled from the Nationalist Party for being a Communist, and expelled from the Communist Party for being a Nationalist.

His politics went hand in hand with his writing. You can’t have cultural and artistic change, he might say, without social, economic and political change. In his poetry he set out the way he wanted Scottish literature to go – to be European, international, in scope while remaining quintessentially Scottish, in the tradition of the Makars.