Page 1

Yeats, MacDiarmid and the Meeting of the Waters By Owen Dudley Edwards About 50 years ago there premiered – and derniered – in Dublin a play called The Ploughboy of the Western Stars, whose author I forget and may not have been told. Its production was in the Gas Co.Theatre of Dun Laoghaire or some comparably modest venue. It appeared in a kind of limbo in which Yeats, Synge and O’Casey were becoming mentionable (in the 1940s they had been watchable but not discussable playwrights: they were performed and reviewed, but not much talked about). They had not yet reached the level of canonisation which elevated them beyond lampoon: the Tourist Board would perform that service. Once there was money in them, they would be safe from sacrilege. The plot featured stock Irish (not simply stock Abbey) characters: the slightly bemused English baronet dragged into Hibernology by a younger, more enthusiastic wife; the cynical, harassed journalist; and sundry similarities. Bart. and Lady Bart. become interested in an ancient Irish chief and succeed in materialising him, whereupon he decides Lady Bart. – and any other woman subsequently beheld by him – is the love of his life Úna (pronounced Ooooooona). The journalist becomes public relations man for the risen chieftain, and is committed by various masters to having him make a speech in which he will applaud the government, denounce the government, and not mention the government (the last being at the instance of the Parish Priest, a fairly shrewd perception of Roman Catholicism’s suspicions of any state, no matter how clerical): they got round it ultimately with an appropriate quotation from Horace, capable of all three interpretations. The whole thing ultimately turns out to be a dream but as the dramatis personae of the 20th century depart there is heard from offstage the long, luxuriant, incurably frustrated oceanic moan ‘Ooooooooona!’ I recall it now for its high point, when an unspeakably efficient inspectress from the Board of Works arrived to prosecute the Bart. for the removal of Object A from Monument B on Location C without an official permit or any other form of authorisation. The Object was, of course, the chieftain, who on first sighting the heavily wool-skirted and costume-jacketed inspectress dropped all other candidates and pursued her as ‘Oooooooooona’, and a particularly fine dialogue turned on her report to the local Gárda Síochána (policeman) of the Object’s Desire and Pursuit of herself, a narrative of magnificently mixed bureaucratic jargon and passionate denunciation punctuated by increasingly ribald repetition of ‘Yes, Miss?’ from the guardian of the peace. Being a Dublin civil bureaucrat she was even fairer game for a play of ostensibly rural ethos than was the English aristocrat, and performance subtly pointed up the erosion of her Irish accent by Dublin genteelism (the Gárda being thus addressed as ‘Gawd O’Driscoll’). I wish I knew who wrote it: it could have been an ensemble


the drouth

effort, I suppose. It left unsolved the question of a monument in quest of the erotic, and indeed of the political. It may seem churlish to be reminded of it by the appearance of R.F. Foster’s second volume (The Arch Poet 1915-1939) of his W.B.Yeats – a Life (Oxford, £30.00). Foster’s work is a Monument – the finest of its kind since Richard Ellman’s James Joyce (in historical authority) and since Ellman’s Oscar Wilde (in constructive elegance). Yeats, like the Ploughboy’s chieftain, had his own obsessions, beginning with the vain pursuit of Maud Gonne via a cascade of lyrical glosses, and ending with the attempted rejuvenation leading him to discover outlets (or possibly sub-lets) in a succession of increasingly improbable ladies. Personally it ploughs a furrow so absurd as to leave the love lives of most of the rest of us teetering on the verge of sanity by contrast. Poetically it produced some of the most wondrous verse to have been to crafted by the hand of man. Yeats actually described that fact in verse, in his last years, in ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’: ‘Now that my ladder’s gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start, In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.’ It is Foster’s genius that he has made us see that rag-andbone shop without either prettification or petrification: monuments usually become one or the other, and too horribly frequently both. The economy of aesthetics dominates Foster’s prose as it did Yeats’s verse. In this volume the master-biographer is in full control. Its predecessor had a little of the childishness of the young Yeats, in Foster’s fear of trespassing outwith his academic field: it was a masterwork too, but one whose author still saw history as a clearly-fenced demesne. That first volume (The Apprentice-Mage 1865-1914 (1997)) announced that it ‘may contain less about poetry than might have been expected’; this second one exhibits no such symptoms of cultural hunger strike. Poetry like all else lies in the past, and the historian may take what s/he finds wherever s/he finds it. The judgements on poems and plays may not be yours; most of them are mine; but our agreement hardly matters. Foster has managed to make his judgements in their historical context a new dimension for the poems and play, within which we can fight our own wars the better. On history he is sound: on literature, it doesn’t matter whether he is or not – like Edmund Wilson, he formulates critical ideas becoming ladders (thanks,Yeats) for his readers to climb. To say this is to proclaim Foster’s Yeats a live monument, as alive as ungovernable, and as the Ploughboy’s chieftain. Its vitality is the more crucial when confronted with the norms of biography on this scale. The great Victorian biographies notoriously worked as monuments to deter resurrectionism, necrophilia, or any communication with the dead beyond the writing on the tombstone. Satirising the process,Wilkie

Collins’s The Woman in White (1860) consists of a series of narratives which half-way through accelerate into brief statements culminating in the narrative continued by the tombstone: for all of the depravity of many of the narrators, the tombstone is the only liar and its testimony is solemnly expunged in the penultimate scene. Lytton Strachey’s Preface to his Eminent Victorians (1918) began: ‘Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead – who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cortège of the undertaker, and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism. One is tempted to suppose, of some of them, that they were composed by that functionary, as the final item of his job.’ If they were, then Strachey turned up as the graverobber, producing a volume to whose sea-depths of unreliability none of his predecessors would dare to have aspired. Ireland, of course, evicted its scores of Stracheys from every literary pub at – or rather well after – closing time, but it retained a certain Victorian aura around its printed biographies. Yeats had been very much aware of the biography-funerary axis, having had his complexities of linkage to Richard Barry O’Brien in the Irish Literary Society in the 1890s before and after O’Brien produced one of the greatest if least accurate biographies of the age in his Life of Charles Stewart Parnell (1898): unlike Strachey’s, its looseness of dates did little or nothing to diminish the fidelity of the portraiture. Yeats had in fact been dedicated to John O’Leary’s impossibilist revolutionary ideal (so austere that O’Leary would not take the oath to the Fenian secret society for which he went to prison) – so much so that as Foster has previously shown Yeats was no supporter of Parnell until the divorce split and the Catholic bishops’ condemnation of the O’Shea divorce suit correspondent. But Yeats abominated O’Connell, whose mighty evangelism had brought Catholic political power into being in early 19th century Ireland, and thus set on foot the destruction of the Irish Protestant ascendancy whence the Yeats and other ancestors of the Poet had come. Foster does not push this point, though he supplies much ammunition for interested readers. Yeats’s victimisation by the Catholic literary thugs such as D.P. Moran of the Nation and, later, the Dublin Catholic Bulletin (impressively quoted here), would have deepened his disgust from the Frankenstein monster O’Connell unleashed with his priest-stewarded mobilisation of the masses (outside their Masses). So Yeats would have recoiled from Barry O’Brien’s close of Parnell’s funeral: ‘In the afternoon, followed to his last resting-place by vast concourse of people gathered from almost every part of the country, all that was mortal of Charles Stewart Parnell was laid in the grave, under the shadow of the tower which marks the spot where the greatest Irishman of the century – O’Connell – sleeps.’ Foster has endorsed the judgement, in a Parnell centenary essay in the Jesuit periodical Studies (where, as they say in Monopoly, he was ‘Just Visiting’): but Yeats bitterly

remembered it in ‘Parnell’s Funeral’ over 30 years later and rewrote it out in the opening sneer: ‘Under the Great Comedian’s tomb the crowd.’ He had, in any case, a proprietary interest in towers by this time, as Foster so attractively documents. Parnell remained by now the symbol of the Protestant leadership of Ireland sacrificed when the Catholic mob took over, regardless of whether they were nominally led by the Cosgrave whom Yeats followed in politics or the de Valera whom he opposed: ‘Their school a crowd, his master solitude; Through Jonathan Swift’s dark grove he passes, and there Plucked bitter wisdom that enriched his blood.’ Yeats did not, therefore, neglect his own funeral. ‘Under Ben Bulben’ was written five months before his death, though the title, notes Foster, was decided on two days before it. It notoriously closed on the great, though not necessarily original: ‘Cast a cold eye On life, on death. Horseman, pass by!’ Foster’s description of its views as ‘stridently reactionary’ is masterly as usual. The lines have their Protestant code, in all senses. Horses, are very Protestant, witness everything from the Penal Laws that forbade 18th century Catholics to own one of more than £5 value to Behan’s ‘An Anglo-Irishman is a Protestant on a horse’. G.K. Chesterton on a visit to Ireland after Yeats had been made a senator of the Irish Free State remarked that he had never thought of Yeats as ‘horsey’ before. But ‘Under Ben Bulben’ gets it with Yeatsian brevity: ‘Sing the peasantry, and then Hard-riding country gentlemen … Under bare Ben Bulben’s head In Drumcliffe churchyard Yeats is laid. An ancestor was rector there Long years ago, a church stands near’ … Having written his instructions by poem he wrote to one of his Platonic harem of his ‘description of my own grave & monument’ (which the poem made clear was not to be ‘marble’ but ‘limestone quarried near the spot’): ‘It will bind my heirs thank God. I write poems for the Irish

the drouth


people but I am damned if I will have them at my funeral. A Dublin funeral is something between a public demonstration & a private picnic.’ He would have learned that from O’Leary in whose grave he declared Romantic Ireland had taken posthumous refuge. O’Leary’s Fenians had recruited with phenomenal success in 1861 by staging the Dublin funeral of Terence Bellew MacManus, late of the ’48 rebellion and later still a victim of starvation in San Francisco. In the event Yeats died in the south of France and was only reburied in Ireland after the Second World War. Intentionally or otherwise Foster’s account of the intervening confusion leaves the faintest doubt that the right bones arrived to dream for Ireland. (Has any poet drawn more music from the word ‘bone’ than Yeats?) If they don’t have Yeats in Drumcliffe the actual resident is at least probably uncontroversial, unlike Roger Casement whose repatriation in Glasnevin has from time to time been taken to cover confusion in Pentonville Gaol with another denizen of the cemetery’s ‘C’ section (partly derived from the balladry another if briefer inhabitant of Pentonville, Oscar Wilde) could apply quite well to the little doctor who so much wanted to save his mistress from the gallows: ‘… this most gallant gentleman That is in quicklime laid.’ ‘Under Ben Bulben’, writes Foster, has early drafts which include: ‘references to bombs falling upon “hateful cities”, and to apocalyptic visions of horsemen riding out of the mountainsides …’ The ‘idea of impending war hangs behind’ the poem. So it did in Yeats’s other Casement poem, ‘The Ghost of Roger Casement’ (December 1936). Foster sums it up: ‘The British Empire is contemptuously mocked, its record in India condemned, Britannia’s rule of the waves threatened – perhaps, as in Casement’s day, by the challenge of Germany.’ Not quite ‘perhaps’, and not quite ‘as’. The poem seems very clearly to exult in new perils for ‘John Bull’ from the Goering Luftwaffe: Casement’s ghost is at the door to witness a greater threat than any posed in 1914-18 by the German submarines, one of which had brought him to Ireland on his ill-fated journey on the eve of the Easter Rebellion of 1916. And with the utmost respect to Foster’s charity, ‘perhaps’ will hardly do: what else could the poem mean but a German ‘challenge’? ‘O what has made that sudden noise? What on the threshold stands?


the drouth

It never crossed the sea because John Bull and the sea are friends; But this is not the old sea Nor this the old seashore. What gave that roar of mockery That roar in the sea’ roar? The ghost of Roger Casement Is beating on the door. John Bull has stood for Parliament, A dog must have his day, The country thinks no end of him, For he knows how to say, At a beanfeast or a banquet, That all must hang their trust Upon the British Empire Upon the Church of Christ. The ghost of Roger Casement Is beating on the door. John Bull has gone to India And all must pay him heed, For histories are there to prove That none of another breed Has had a like inheritance, Or sucked such milk as he, And there’s no luck about a house If it lacks honesty. The ghost of Roger Casement Is beating on the door I poked about a village church And found his family tomb And copied out what I could read In that religious gloom; Found many a famous man there; But fame and virtue rot. Draw round, beloved and bitter men, Draw round and raise a shout; The ghost of Roger Casement Is beating on the door.’ ‘The Ghost of Roger Casement’ was in Yeats’s mind when creating ‘Under Ben Bulben’ 20 months later: the ancestral rector he would claim for himself echoes the family church, also Church of Ireland, where he searched for Casement’s ancestry oblivious to Casement’s having repudiated it for Catholicism in his last days. He feels that Casement, like himself, like Parnell, has become the symbol of a displaced and ignored elite who might nevertheless find a voice outside the media monopoly inhabited by the masses. It also lies outside the British Parliament, the democratic system inhabited by John Bull (traditionally a

name, not just for England, but for the English people). On the other hand, ‘The Ghost of Roger Casement’ seeks its own audience, the ‘beloved and bitter men’. It may not be clear which particular men he had in mind, but there were two obvious candidates who seem to have heard him all too well: Sean O’Casey and Hugh MacDiarmid. This was the Yeats monument inspiring them in 1939-40. (He was not yet under Ben Bulben.) Conor Cruise O’Brien courageously pioneered the question of Yeats’s Fascist elements in his essay on Yeats’s politics ‘Passion and Cunning’ (1965) and was violently and somewhat hysterically abused for it by eminent literary gentlefolk. Thanks to him, Foster is able to measure the ebb and flow of Yeats’s ideological Odysseys and Aeneids (long voyages home and searches for new kingdoms). Foster shows that while some of Yeats’s best friends were antiJewish – Maud Gonne, her daughter Iseult, her son-in-law Francis Stuart, Oliver St John Gogarty – there is no sign of it in him. But Cruise O’Brien’s words still stand regarding ‘The Ghost of Roger Casement’: ‘No Irishman, reading these lines on the eve of the Second World War, had forgotten that Casement had been hanged, as well as “morally assassinated” for trying, in 1916, to bring help to Ireland from Germany. And some Irishmen, at least, must have reflected that if the sea was no longer the old sea, which had been friends with John Bull, the reason for this might be that the nation from which Casement had tried to bring help now possessed a powerful air force.’ Potentially, ‘The Ghost of Roger Casement’ was as explosive as Cathleen Ni Houlihan. Agreed – but where? The poem found its book audience in Ireland in May 1938 via the Yeats’s Cuala Press, Macmillan bringing it out in London in January 1940. O’Casey and MacDiarmid, respectively in Totnes, Devon, and Whalsay, Shetland, had every reason to devour Last Poems whose title was its own monument to their great man a twelvemonth dead (they might have seen the Dublin publication in New Poems, but Cuala printed only 450: Macmillan’s first publication was 2,000). The Foster sensitive, skilful hands weave the tortured Yeats-O’Casey relationship, whose nadir was Yeats’s foolish rejection of The Silver Tassie for the Abbey Theatre in 1928 and whose rise to unprecedented heights stemmed from its Abbey production in 1935. Both men showed greatness in this,Yeats in admitting his mistake, O’Casey in forgiving if not forgetting it: both must have been bitterly aware that the production lacked one thing – the presence of the benefactor of both, Augusta Lady Gregory, dead three years earlier. (Foster follows the rule of all good biographers of Yeats: you may like Yeats or dislike him but you must be in love with Lady Gregory. His account of her death shows Yeats weeping uncontrollably on being told of it: not all readers will be dry-eyed at that point either. That is a real monument.) Within a few weeks of Macmillan’s publishing ‘The Ghost of Roger Casement’ O’Casey was writing of George Jean Nathan that Yeats ‘began to like me very much towards the last; and I have even played Croquet with him’ (27 February 1940). O’Casey in these weeks was working on his new play Purple Dust, variously described by

him as comic, but a passionate assertion of the bankruptcy of the British Empire and Ireland’s need to cut itself off from it. As a Communist, O’Casey was following party policy – in this case a desperate attempt to recruit the IRA by supporting IRA demands for withdrawal from Northern Ireland. ‘Let England clear out of it’, wrote O’Casey in Picture Post on 24 February 1940, and elsewhere, in Irish Freedom (April 1940) was telling the Irish to stay out of any fight which did not guarantee their owning what they worked at. This was a fairly tragic volte-face for the author of The Plough and the Stars, a ruthless denial that Socialism could profit by being seduced into violent Irish nationalism. It might seem to claim continuity in enmity to war, as O’Casey had evangelised, not only there but in so many other plays. Yet by telling the Irish not simply to be neutral in the Second World War, but to be against it (as he put it), O’Casey was speaking less to the Irish in Eire (as the 26 counties had been rebaptised) but in the United Kingdom, and it was there Yeats’s message was most dangerous. It was still just the ‘phoney’ war up to 9 April, when the Nazis invaded Denmark and Norway; it was also the war denounced by the Communists while their USSR masters were winning their successful winter war against Finland within their Nazi-Soviet pact, and the pact was to endure until June 1941. But there was another war on British soil: that mobilised by the IRA in January 1939, climaxed at the end of August (nice timing) with the IRA bombing of Coventry (five civilians killed and over 60 injured, followed by a trial in December and the execution of Barnes and Richards (alias McCormack) in February 1940). The IRA was by now in alliance with NaziGermany, not simply on the mutual non-aggression basis of the Nazis and the Soviets. There was still a Left-wing IRA element: much of it had followed Frank Ryan to fight for the Spanish Republic against Franco, and it was for the then Marxist IRA editor Michael MacInerney that O’Casey wrote in Irish Freedom. Nor was anger against Britain merely the usual grievance that persons (such as Richards) who had taken human life were being treated unfairly in having their lives taken. (It was Brendan Behan (Borstalled to his eternal good fortune, for having taken part in that IRA campaign) who ultimately put that point into perspective when he came out against all capital punishment, and IRA violence as well.) Anger against the Neville Chamberlain government for having covertly played for a Franco win in Spain disillusioned far more than Communists with Britain. Ernest Hemingway had attacked isolationism in For Whom the Bell Tolls, but as far as the war between Germany and Britain was concerned in September 1939, Hemingway preferred a return to isolation rather than take sides between the active and passive assassins of the Spanish Republic. This seems to have been largely the position of Hugh MacDiarmid, then also outside, and at some odds with, the Communist party, but as savagely convinced of the UK’s complicity in the destruction of the democratically elected Government of Spain. Foster, like most Irish historians, suffers a little from bipolarisation: his profound understanding of Ireland and England has difficulty in coming to terms with Wales or Scotland. He notes the Yeats inclusion of MacDiarmid in the controversial anthology The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (which Foster puts in much more successful perspective than

the drouth


most critics have done), but his only other (perhaps unconscious) entry on MacDiarmid territory is parenthetical identification of Major C.H. Douglas as ‘[Frederick] Douglas [the monetaristreform crank]’. It is the work’s only lapse into that Oxbridge condescension to resist education, and the self-serving dismissal brings its instant punishment. Frederick Douglas was the leading U.S. black anti-slavery orator and leader, contemptible by racist Irish such as John Mitchel or perhaps Maud Gonne, but certainly by none of the rest of us. C.H. Douglas believed in monetary reform, and influenced a large number of highly intelligent persons, including for many years the government of a Canadian province larger than Britain. The word ‘crank’ is fundamentally antiintellectual: it is designed to prevent further thought by an appeal to mindless conformity. Its only justification is that in which Francis Sheehy-Skeffington used it to reply to those who called himself one: ‘crank is a small engine that causes revolutions’. Possibly Foster was led to it by the best-known monetary reformist in Irish politics, the repulsive reactionary Oliver Flanagan, but if so he has to learn that Ireland is not the only yardstick by which ideas are to be judged. The error may yet be constructive: Flanagan, amongst his other diseases, was anti-Jewish. Douglas has been accused of antiSemitism, perhaps unfairly; critics of world financial organisation often have been some of Douglas’s own followers (such as Ezra Pound). In MacDiarmid’s case matters run in reverse from the norm. Before 1914 he as Christopher Grieve was briefly involved in anti-Jewish agitation in Tredegar, at a time when allegations of a Jewish small-shopkeeper ‘sweating’ and sexually exploiting female staff were widespread (and probably largely baseless: the issue was pumped by anti-Jewish journalists simultaneously with increased Jewish immigration and the Marconi scandal). He never seems to have returned to anti-Jewish themes or sentiments. In 1922 he was briefly impressed by Mussolini, then still sounding Socialist, and he called for Scottish Fascism while writing for the Scottish Nation in June 1923. He had quickly abandoned Mussolini by the time he found C.H. Douglas whom he busily expounded to W.B.Yeats by request when they met in 1928. (Foster notes Yeats’s indifference to the same Social Credit gospel by the time he was treated to it in 1934 by Ezra Pound.) Yeats and MacDiarmid greatly took to one another despite Yeats’s indifference to the banking laws and hence to Douglas. They walked the streets of Dublin together from 1.00am for over an hour, and urinated together in the middle of the road crossing ‘swords’


the drouth

as MacDiarmid phrased it (‘we became very friendly after that’). MacDiarmid was very proud of Yeats’s regard for his poetry and sought to give a Yeatsian evangel in his clarion call introducing The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry, published by Yeats’s and O’Casey’s publisher Macmillan in December 1939. (It would be a little while before they published Purple Dust, which O’Casey, wisely, deemed ‘not available for English production’ in October 1940.) MacDiarmid and O’Casey would thus have been very conscious of sharing Yeats’s sentiments in ‘The Ghost of Roger Casement’ while repudiating, when confronted with it, Yeats’s support for General Eoin O’Duffy’s blueshirts in 1933. Foster points out that Yeats was far from sympathetic with O’Duffy’s ‘crusade in Spain’ in 1936, gloomily forecasting its successful return might presage renewed Catholic attacks on the Abbey and Yeats’s other causes. He even lent ‘his name to a letter of support for the Second International Writers’ Congress … in Madrid, as a gesture of solidarity with the Republic’. But sympathy for the Spanish Republic in 1940 if anything deepened feelings of hostility to Britain, and the ghost of Yeats (on the ghost of Casement) must have deepened them farther still. It was not until August that the IRA’s Frank Ryan, imprisoned by Franco, would be sent by him to Hitler in whose cause Ryan would be dispatched to Ireland by submarine in the cause of the IRA, an invasion aborted by the death of the Chief of Staff, Sean Russell, as the Nazi craft rounded the Orkneys. MacDiarmid and O’Casey had no connection at this point, readily though their names were linked by critical commentators such as Orwell (who saw them more as ‘Celtic nationalists’ than Anglophobes). O’Casey’s best man was the same McElroy for whom MacDiarmid’s first wife had left him, and the relationships divided the two writers until the late 1940s (O’Casey would dedicate to MacDiarmid the last volume of his autobiography Sunset and Evening Star (1954)). In 1940 O’Casey was modelling his characters Poges and Souhan in Purple Dust on McElroy and Peggy, partly from his own souring on McElroy. There is something fairly horrible in Yeats’s and O’Casey’s obsessions with what for them were largely synthetic Irish issues leading them to valorise an IRA sentiment which exploded into anti-civilian warfare in the last month of Yeats’s life. If O’Casey’s best work had been bitterly critical of Irish Republicanism,Yeats, who had staged it, had firmly opposed the Republicans in the Civil War. In each case they were trawling for cheap chauvinist support against which in their time they had preached effectively in poem and play. MacDiarmid’s case is different, Ireland was his exemplar in Scottish cultural self-discovery,Yeats was his patron, O’Casey his ideal as a proletarian playwright. He adopted what he took to be the Irish cause with the same want of nuance with which he had taken up the Spanish and Russian causes: he saw the metropolitan recognition of local cultural identity in Stalin’s being a product of Georgia and the Spanish Republic’s sympathy toward Basque and Catalan autonomy. It might be argued that the IRA denied such local identity to eastern Ulster, but MacDiarmid was dreaming of an Ireland whose nationalism had won the country its place in the sun where Scotland was still eclipsed by London. All of this, then, must be taken into account in scrutinising MacDiarmid’s

hitherto unpublished forays in the same territory as ‘The Ghost of Roger Casement’ and Purple Dust. And it is not taken into account in the otherwise admirable edition of ‘Rediscovered poems by Hugh MacDiarmid’, The Revolutionary Art of the Future edited by John Manson, Dorian Grieve and Alan Riach (Carcanet, £6.95). The volume is a triumph of pocket poetry, handsome, durable, reader-friendly, well sourced by means of acknowledgements, with a meaty yet sensitive introduction. Dirty minds like my own ought not to be given fodder such as ‘Some of these poems extend MacDiarmid’s anatomical self-scrutiny to new areas of tenderness’ but then Conor Cruise O’Brien’s ‘Passion and Cunning’ was in a centenary volume on Yeats baptised by its editors In Excited Reverie (to which presumably we should counter O’Casey’s Cock-a-doodle-dandy). Such coarseness is hardly to be dampened by the union of Yeats’s and MacDiarmid’s flashing swords. But this volume is a most honourable memorial, since some of its poems are bad, others are disgraceful, one or two are both. A poet may be entitled to have her or his refusal to publish draft or bad work respected, but only if s/he is not a great poet. So Foster tells us of the visions of bombs on hateful cities in early drafts of ‘Under Ben Bulben’; so one of MacDiarmid’s devoted early editors, John Manson, his grand editor of the massive Carcanet edition Alan Riach, and his grandson Dorian Grieve, with the blessing of the MacDiarmid estate, have given us the chance to see what he wrote, buried, discarded, forgot, amongst it work as bad as anything any of us might do. Some of it is in fact well worthwhile whether as poetry or prose, all the more when it is doubtful which it is. ‘A Shetland Cottage’, scribbled on a postcard of the Empire Exhibition in September 1938, reminds us that the materialism of the age is all too like that on the eve of World War II: ‘How can I be any feebler than my shabby Little cottage here on the bare hillside Above the complicated tideways of Yell Sound? How can I stand less sturdily, less securely In the blizzard that encompasses all life today, Everything is reduced to the level of a smash-and-grab raid, Everyone trying to snatch what he can before the crash comes, Of course, the looting is accompanied by a sentimental chorus About brotherhood and peace between the nations, But that deceives no one – not even The most hysterical advocates of these ideals. So we all chatter about security and stability, Yet, look where you will, there is only chaos. Money. It is the Money Age. Money has become supreme. There’s only one problem recognised today – the economic problem. No one cares a damn about any of the others. Consequently, everything that cannot be defended On rational grounds is going to be swept away. That is going to make the world hell – for none of the realities Are capable of a rational justification.

Every other week the papers are full of the details Concerning the most appalling catastrophes – Earthquakes, massacres, and God knows what. But no one ever mentions them. They’re forgotten instantly. The only things that are taken seriously are sweepstakes. But they relate to money. Money is the only reality left. There’s no need even to pay lip service to anything else.’ If this is the result of the influence of Major Douglas, then the sooner we all become cranks the better. The ghost of MacDiarmid would probably give a schoolboy grin if one applauded it as a fine sermon, whatever else be its genre: there was an evangelical preacher in him, as there was with clearer ancestral provenance in Yeats and O’Casey. On the other hand, the sweepstake in MacDiarmid’s time was Irish; this Irish gospel has made missionary converts of the larger island, now blotto with Lotto. MacDiarmid’s discards may make less music out of bone than Yeats did, but MacDiarmid could give bone a cutting edge in response to the Munich Agreement: ‘Like a particle of bone, a trivial thing in itself, That falling on the brain can transform The best of men into a criminal lunatic So the nonentity Chamberlain on the British ethos today Casting off the last shreds of political morality And elevating an obscure blackmailer To the dominance of Europe – In the name of a peace which this monstrous surrender To violence makes ultimately impossible. Never were accessories to a crime more cold-blooded; The callous and irresponsible betrayal Of the Czech republic has not brought peace But a new and sharper sword.’ Did anyone do better? This at least deserved exhumation. Much else is memorable in historic value, force of impact, power of words. ‘The War Memorial’ apparently from early 1939 bitterly confronts the mourning for World War I dead with the probable reaction if the dead returned and turned their bayonets on their hypocrite mourners: ‘We’d get the truth about the War then all right. No politician or brasshat dare show his face With these repatriated angels about, I bet – But here the dead can’t get a word in edgeways!’ In Ireland those days it often seemed the dead would not allow anyone else a word in. The spirit of MacDiarmid’s verse should acknowledge that Ireland too was swindling its past and present by spurious invocation of the dead. But his generosity and gratitude were not prepared to see wrong in the Ireland which had honoured and inspired him, whether in its present politics or in its illicit idealists. Ironically MacDiarmid’s very cosmopolitanism could not have been more antithetical to the self-poisoned narrow obsessions of the IRA, and his support for them derived from a readiness to see human causes elsewhere which the IRA after Spain were unlikely to reciprocate. His cosmopolitanism was in part born of his own experience: his lament here for the fall of France, dated 25 June 1940, and written (by now

the drouth


exceptionally for him) in Lallans, must have been in part a cry from the old soldier who had survived. There is no NaziSoviet pact in its yearning to maintain the ideal of freedom despite: ‘… the terrible treachery and hellish poo’er That for the moment whummle the pride o’ France in the stour.’ Yet it sits here on the next page from ‘On the Imminent Destruction of London, June 1940’ which reaches the apogee of the Yeats-O’Casey Anglophobic argument, and as though its Muse avenged herself on MacDiarmid for inhumanity, does so in verse bad enough to make McGonagal feel a word or two needed improvement there, eg.: ‘Other places may be blasted to bits And it simply does not matter But London, London, what countless shackles Must with its shattering shatter.’ Yeats, O’Casey and MacDiarmid were giants of beauty and power. But a memorial monument needs material truer than marble. Yeats was right about that.


the drouth

Yeats, MacDiarmid and the meeting of the waters  

By Owen Dudley Edwards for The Drouth issue 11 "Monument" 2004.

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you