Authors: Hugh MacDiarmid

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Scottish poet and scholar

Author Works

Poetry:

Sangschaw, 1925

Penny Wheep, 1926

A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, 1926

To Circumjack Cencrastus: Or, The Curly Snake, 1930

First Hymn to Lenin, and Other Poems, 1931

Scots Unbound, and Other Poems, 1932

Stony Limits, and Other Poems, 1934

Selected Poems, 1934

Second Hymn to Lenin, and Other Poems, 1935

Selected Poems, 1944

A Kist of Whistles, 1947

Stony Limits and Scots Unbound, and Other Poems, 1956

Three Hymns to Lenin, 1957

The Battle Continues, 1957

The Kind of Poetry I Want, 1961

Collected Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid, 1962

A Lap of Honour, 1967

A Clyack-Sheaf, 1969

More Collected Poems, 1970

The Hugh MacDiarmid Anthology: Poems in Scots and English, 1972

Complete Poems, 1920-1976, 1978 (2 volumes)

Nonfiction:

Contemporary Scottish Studies, 1926

Albyn: Or, Scotland and the Future, 1927

The Lucky Bag, 1927

Scottish Scene: Or, The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Albyn, 1934 (with Lewis Grassic Gibbon)

At the Sign of the Thistle: A Collection of Essays, 1934

Scottish Eccentrics, 1936

The Islands of Scotland, 1939

Lucky Poet, 1943

Cunningham Graham: A Centenary Study, 1952

In Memoriam James Joyce, 1955

Burns Today and Tomorrow, 1959

The Kind of Poetry IWant, 1961

The Company I’ve Kept, 1966

Selected Essays of Hugh MacDiarmid, 1969

The Letters of Hugh MacDiarmid, 1984 (Alan Bold, editor)

New Selected Letters, 2002 (Dorian Grieve et al., editors)

Edited Texts:

Northern Numbers, Being Representative Selections from Certain Living Scottish Poets, 1920-1922 (3 volumes)

Robert Burns, 1759-1796; 1926

The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry, 1940

Robert Burns: Poems, 1949

Selected Poems of William Dunbar, 1955

Robert Burns: Love Songs, 1962

Henryson, 1973

Miscellaneous:

Annals of the Five Senses, 1923

Biography

Christopher Murray Grieve, who wrote under the name Hugh MacDiarmid (mak-DUR-mihd), was born in the border town of Langhom, Scotland, eight miles north of the border with England. Characteristic of the contrarian streak which was to mark his life, he horrified his parents by declaring that he was going to be a poet even as he began a course of teacher training in Edinburgh in 1908. There, he became involved with Scottish nationalist politics, joined the socialist Fabian society as well as the Scots Independent Labor Party, and became the editor of the literary magazine at the Broughton Junior Student Center. He left school after a prank went out of control in 1910 and found work as a journalist, a vocation he returned to periodically during times of economic stress. He returned to Langholm after a class with the editor of the Edinburg Evening Dispatch, and with the energy and ambition that drove him throughout his life, he wrote for three newspapers in the Aberdeen area, started a series of essays on Scots nationalism, wrote lyric poetry, and experimented with short fiction akin to the early work D. H. Lawrence.{$I[A]MacDiarmid, Hugh}{$S[A]Grieve, Christopher Murray;MacDiarmid, Hugh}{$I[geo]SCOTLAND;MacDiarmid, Hugh}{$I[tim]1892;MacDiarmid, Hugh}

Initially opposed to “England’s war,” he enlisted in World War I when a close friend was killed. He was posted to Greece in 1916, where he wrote war poetry resembling that of Rupert Brooke, as well as “barracks songs” similar to those of Rudyard Kipling. On medical leave when he contracted malaria, he married Margaret Skinner in 1918 and returned to Scotland in 1919, where he launched a review of Scots cultural activities, Northern Numbers. After assuming the editorship of the prestigious Montrose Review in 1921, he adopted the nom de plume Hugh MacDiarmid as a means of emphasizing his intense nationalist convictions, and began to employ a poetic language he called “Synthetic Scots,” which was both a revival and re-creation of an older Scots/English amalgam.

This led to his emergence as a poet of real accomplishment, beginning with a collection of lyrics in 1925, Sangschaw (song festival) that was signed “M’Diarmid,” and then his epic updating of Robert Burns’s Tam O’Shanter, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926). In accordance with his desire to formulate a vibrant Scots cultural community, he founded the Scottish Center of PEN, campaigned for Scottish Home Rule, and started a long poetic sequence charting and examining Gaelic elements which he called To Circumjack Cencrastus. Neither long poem attracted much public attention at the time of their publication, and MacDiarmid moved with his wife and two children to London to edit VOX, a journal of the radio arts, and then to Liverpool to write for the city council when VOX folded.

His life took a disastrous turn when he agreed to a divorce following his wife’s affair with a wealthy mine owner and then found that the divorce decree prohibited him from seeing his children. Encouraged by Valda Trevlyn, whom he married in 1934, MacDiarmid wrote four books of poetry in the early 1930’s, joined the British Communist Party, and continued to comment on Scots cultural issues. Economic pressures resulted in a kind of exile in the Shetland Islands for seven years, where he was stranded without any contact with his children, his books, or the papers he had accumulated. Partially due to stress, compounded by a syphilitic infection, MacDiarmid felt disconnected from the things of his life that mattered, but Trevlyn stood by him, and his gratitude was expressed in a plan for another long poem, “Cornish Heroic Song for Valda Trevlyn,” which was never completed but which furnished material for many of his later works.

The bitterness which he felt during that time–apparent from the publication of his letters to his children–was compounded by his cantankerous refusal to go along with any of the institutions that might have assisted him. He was expelled from the British Communist Party for “nationalist deviation” in 1938, and then, in 1942, in spite of his precarious health, conscripted for national service at the age of fifty. He worked as a naval engineer during World War II, registered as unemployed in Glasgow in 1945, and was effectively removed from the Scottish National Party in 1948 due to his affiliation with the Communist Party, which he rejoined in 1956. By 1950, when he received a pension of 150 pounds a year from the British government, he had begun to receive the kind of public acclaim that his supporters had felt he deserved, with an edition of his collected poems published in the United States and the award of a doctor of laws degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1957.

Although he continued his vigorous participation in controversial political and social causes such as nuclear disarmament (he was a Communist candidate in national elections) throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, he was regarded more as an admirable maverick than a misfit by this time. His reputation as a singular, if highly idiosyncratic, writer was revised to include him among the more influential artists of the modernist movement, although he was still seen as a fringe member prone to outrageous observations and somewhat questionable literary adaptations which he presented as original work.

BibliographyBaglow, John. Hugh MacDiarmid: The Poetry of Self. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987. Somewhat academic in style but still effective as an effort to present MacDiarmid’s writing beyond the context of his nationalist ambitions and his connections with ultra-leftist politics. Includes an appendix discussing critical responses to MacDiarmid and an extensive list of references.Bold, Alan. Hugh MacDiarmid, Christopher Murray Grieve: A Critical Biography. London: John Murray, 1988. A solid discussion of the writer’s life and work by a sympathetic but discerning biographer, with a thorough bibliography and a glossary of Scots words. Photographs and drawings nicely complement the text.Boutelle, Ann Edwards. Thistle and Rose: A Study of Hugh MacDiarmid’s Poetry. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1981. A competent, if somewhat narrowed, consideration of the poetry.Glen, Duncan, ed. Hugh Macdiarmid: Or, Out of Langholm and into the World. Edinburgh, Scotland: Akros Publications, 1992. A short biographical study of MacDiarmid with bibliographic references.Herbert, W. N. To Circumjack MacDiarmid: The Poetry and Prose of Hugh MacDiarmid. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1992. A thorough, lucid, and knowledgeable consideration of MacDiarmid’s poetry and its connections to other writers, social issues, and aesthetic strategies.Kerrigan, Catherine. Whaur Extremes Meet: The Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid, 1920-1934. Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1983. A close reading of MacDiarmid’s early poetry, revealing the sources of many of his poems. Its many useful insights are occasionally diminished by some confusion about the poet’s philosophy.McQuillan, Ruth. Hugh MacDiarmid: The Patrimony, a Tale of the Generations of Men, and a Golden Lyric. Edinburgh, Scotland: Akros Publications, 1992. A brief analysis (thirty-two pages) with bibliographical references.Oxenhorn, Harvey. Elemental Things: The Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1984. An exploration of MacDiarmid’s poetry from the perspective of political and cultural matters in Scotland. Somewhat uneven in terms of poetic analysis and a little too respectful of MacDiarmid’s claims that there is a coherent philosophical position informing all the poetry.Riach, Alan. Hugh MacDiarmid’s Epic Poetry. Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1991. A well-known scholar of Scottish culture, and MacDiarmid in particular, offers interpretations of the poetry. Bibliographical references, index.Scott, P. H., and A. C. Davis. The Age of MacDiarmid: Essays on Hugh MacDiarmid and His Influence on Contemporary Scotland. Edinburgh, Scotland: Mainstream Publishing, 1980. An important collection of essays from eminent scholars of MacDiarmid. The first group of essays is largely autobiographical in nature; the second group addresses themes such as MacDiarmid’s nationalism, politics, and the language problem in his work.
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