was born 120 years ago today. Best known for his long, comic, dark, epic, complex poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle
, he was a central figure in the Scottish Renaissance
. He was the type of guy who would get kicked out of the Scottish National Party for being a communist and get kicked out of the Communist Party of Great Britain for being a Scottish nationalist.
Christopher Murray Grieve was born on August 11th, 1892 in Langhold, Scotland. He adopted a few pen names, but is known by the one he used for his most famous works: Hugh MacDiarmid. There's a lot to MacDiarmid and his work, so it can be hard to know where to start. A few possibilities below. They're incomplete: there are so many paths to go down from the poetry, to the politics, to the language, to the Scottish Renaissance, but we can celebrate his life a little here.
One way to meet the man himself is in the short film Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait
by Scottish filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait. In it, you can see MacDiarmid at 71 in his home, and hear him read a few of his poems (More info about the documentary
MacDiarmid wrote many of his poems in Scots, and you can hear one of these , The Watergaw
, and read an English translation of the Scots.* At the PennSound Archive
) you can hear MacDiarmid read more selections from his poetry. The Poetry Foundation has a few poems to read
, and a nice short biography. It includes one of my favorite poems, On a Raised Beach
, one of the poems where MacDiarmid, instead of Scots, tried to use the language of science as another dialect for poetry. (It reminds me of passages from Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars
But in some ways those are appetizers. Let's get to the main course. MacDiarmid's most famous work is the long poem A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle
, published in 1926. It's written in Scots (but includes selections in other languages, as well as translations of other poems), extremely long, and covers a crazy range of subjects (Scottish nationalism, Scottish history & culture, Robert Burns, science, Labor, modernism, love, marriage, drinking, falling in ditches) is yet is more accessible than many shorter poems. And is incredibly funny. Here's how it starts:
I amna fou' sae muckle as tired - deid dune.
It's gey and hard wark coupin' gless for gless
Wi' Cruivie and Gilsanquhar and the like,
And I'm no' juist as bauld as aince I wes.
Possibly the best way to enjoy it is to hear the author reading it, while following along yourself. There's a version on Youtube
, and the PennSound archive has MP3s
. (Be warned the recording skips the first few words.)
To read along, this site has the full text along with some translations
. (That may be a dubious version -- might be better to get a hard copy.)
If you'd like to visit some MacDiarmid sites in person, you can see the Memorial in Langholm
. You can also visit the Brownsbank House
where he lived from 1951 to 1978. If you're in Edinburgh, you can visit the Makars Court
or see his bust at the National Gallery
* The question of what language or dialect MacDiarmid used in his poetry is a vexed one. I've referred to it as Scots. Scots itself is a lively subject, as shown in this best-of-MeFi-worthy post and comments. Other people called what MacDiarmid wrote in Lallans, like the language of Burns or Stevenson. MacDiarmid referred to it as Synthetic Scots (and his critics mocked that as 'Plastic Scots') and seemed pretty comfortable with using a hodgepodge of old Scots, current dialect, English, and whatever else he cared to use, since that was good enough for Shakespeare & English. I'm just going to call it Scots and leave the nuances to the pros.