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2. Artistic and Literary Commitments (1880-1950)
II/ Modernist Commitments

Hugh MacDiarmid’s Poetics of Commitment: the Modern Stigmata of Bereavement



Dans les années Trente, l’absence persistante de Dieu et de la réalité submerge la poésie de Hugh MacDiarmid, leader du Mouvement pour la Renaissance de la littérature écossaise. Pour combler cette vacance, MacDiarmid, comme d’autres à l’époque, se réfugie dans le communisme et le nationalisme et écrit une poésie politique et idéaliste. Dans son œuvre, son idéalisme politique s’incarne dans l‘association entre réel et idéal, symbolisée par Jean et Sophia, les personnages de A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), puis personnifiée plus tard sous les traits fantasmés de Lénine, union parfaite entre idée et action. Contre la pensée sartrienne qui refuse à la poésie toute portée politique, la violence de l’œuvre de MacDiarmid s’acharne à soumettre le réel à son aura. Ses impératifs et ses nominalisations acérées empruntent aux slogans publicitaires leur force de persuasion tandis que les espaces de la marge imitent le souffle oraculaire du performatif. La violence de la poésie et l’engagement politique extrême trahissent un refus de faire le deuil du concept de réalité dans un monde héritier de fragments d’obus.

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1Three key factors are often identified in the emergence and rise of political or committed literature in the 1920s and 1930s: first, following on Bourdieu’s analysis, the appearance of an autonomous literary field in the 19th century; secondly, the development of the figure of the intellectual and its social role at the end of the 19th century, and, thirdly, the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 (Denis 20). Other historical events should be added, such as the Easter Rising in Ireland, the Spanish Civil War and the First World War. History and sociology make the origins of literary commitment quite obvious. However, there might be other explanations for this phenomenon, ontological causes, and the poetry of the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid is very instructive in this respect.

1. Poetry and politics, poetry and reality

  • 1 Hugh MacDiarmid is the pen-name of Christopher Murray Grieve. We will only use here the pseudonym a (...)
  • 2 He began as a Scottish Labour Party member in the 1920s and was an Independent Socialist member of (...)
  • 3 “The poet is outside language. He sees the reverse side of words, as if he did not share the human (...)

2Born in 1892 in Langholm, a small town in the Borders of Scotland, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid1 became the leader of the Scottish Renaissance, a modernist literary movement that began in the 1920s and ended in the 1950s. His cultural agenda was manifold: 1) rediscover the forgotten potentialities of Scots, a Germanic language spoken in the lowlands of Scotland, corrupted for too long by decades of sentimental practice; 2) accommodate Scots to the expression of modernity and modern Scotland; 3) reclaim a distinct Scottish culture, revive it and send the nation onto the path of political and cultural independence; 4) have Scotland look up to intercontinental cultural influences and make the nation a big cultural and political player at an international level; 5) get rid of capitalism and establish a society guided by intellectual and collective motives. MacDiarmid was a nationalist and a communist. No wonder MI6 took an interest in the poet in the 1930s. A report on him said: “The man is a menace!” (Riach and Moffat 48) He was in fact the heir of a long history of Scottish radicalism, and, like Robert Burns before him, MacDiarmid’s political commitment found its main expression in poetry. He also edited many periodicals, such as The Scottish Chapbook or The Voice of Scotland, he wrote countless essays and articles in newspapers and reviews, and was an actual politician as well.2 The poet saw no boundary between poetry and politics. MacDiarmid’s ideals preserved the romantic union of action and speech, praxis and lexis. He believed in a dialectical process where poetry and politics would form a new higher synthesis. In Scotland, poets are called ‘Makars’, they are the makers, and MacDiarmid constantly repeated that idea that the poet “is the maker, not the follower, of fashions.” (“The course of Scottish Poetry” 311) In a 1977 interview, he declared: “Poetry can put ideas across more effectively than any prose medium can do.” (“An Interview with Hugh MacDiarmid” 578) Like Pasternak, who defined poetry as “the voice of prose, prose in action” (qtd. in Meschonnic 460), MacDiarmid understood the significant rhetorical and political power of poetry. Literary commitment, or the commitment of the text and the page, was understood as a stronger political means than mere civic commitment. In a 1928 letter he admitted: “I am unquestionably doing far more for Scotland when my activity issues in poetry rather than in any other form.” (The Letters 297) His conception of poetry was the complete reverse of Sartre’s, who did not recognise the potential utility of poetry and thought that it was blurred by unfelt emotion, and that its language was out of touch with reality.3 Yet, it is this very question of touch with reality that characterizes literary commitment in MacDiarmid’s poetry and that could be another possible source in the rise and fall of the tide of commitment in the literature of the 1920s and 1930s.

3The association of poetry and politics is indeed only one aspect of the relationship between text and reality. When speaking of reality, we will be referring, first, to our everyday understanding of it, the state of things as they actually exist, and the world outside books, and secondly to a more philosophical definition of the term. Philosophers have often defined reality either as what is not dependent on human perceptions and as what is not a human construct, or, on the contrary, in a more phenomenological view, as what is constructed and imagined by human beings to represent the outside world. Reality would thus be a pure construction of the mind, an idea. The two competing perspectives, realism and idealism, both still understand reality as what is other. Reality is what confronts human beings, be it an external confrontation or an internal one, in the mind. It is an object the subject has to deal with, it stands as pure otherness. And, indeed, commitment is about turning towards otherness. In poetry, it corresponds to a move towards the political or to the non-textual world. Poetry confronts what is other or tries to reach for it. In the following pages, the issue of social realism and the representation of reality will not be tackled, but the definition of reality as otherness and its relation to texts will. The essence of commitment, as defined by the relation to reality and otherness, may help us explore MacDiarmid’s poetry, and literary commitment in the 1930s. Along with these concepts, our study will make use of aesthetical, philosophical and psychoanalytical approaches. They will allow us to discover that the political poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid betrays the lingering absence of reality. The collapse of the acknowledged presence of reality surfaces in poems addressed to absentee figures where the ‘Death of God’ worsens the poet’s plight. Facing such an absence, can a work of art be really committed to anything? The poems do stage specific strategies developed by the poet to counter the void. MacDiarmid gradually ties reality and ideal together and builds a form of sur-reality. Commitment is then unleashed and even becomes violent in poems that try to substantiate or enter reality and to fuse with otherness itself.

2. An impossible encounter with reality

  • 4 Pitmirk = pitch dark, snell = bitter, sharp.

4First, the connection between Hugh MacDiarmid’s poetic commitment and reality is made difficult as, in his work, the relationship between poetic language and reality originates in a very uncomfortable and empty room, the 20th century, the century of world-wide wars, and a century full of ghosts. Indeed, MacDiarmid’s poems constantly enact dialogues between the narrator and the figures of dead writers. In A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, MacDiarmid’s 1926 first long poem, the narrator addresses Dostoevsky and Burns, and in In Memoriam James Joyce, his 1955 last epic poem, it is James Joyce who is convoked throughout, revealing his concern with sympathy and the needed contact to absent ones within strongly committed poems, nationalist and communist ones. The significant others are gone and the poetry hankers for an impossible connection to them. The over-developed phatic dimension of the poet’s work also appears in early poems of grief such as “At My Father’s Grave” where the narrator addresses his dead father. In “The Widower”, the narrator craves for a contact with his dead wife: “Auld wife, on a nicht like this | Pitmirk and snell | It’s hard for a man like me | To believe in himsel’. || […] For Guid’s sake, Jean, wauken up!”4 (Complete Poems 56) The adjectives “pitmirk and snell” almost amount to a hypallage as they describe both the night and the widower whose dark bitterness echoes the silent night. Still, the dark sharpness of the night seems to reveal more than the woman’s absence. It is not only the death of his wife that the widower questions, but his own belief in himself. Here, ‘believe’ can be first understood as ‘have faith’, confidence in his power to continue without her, but it corresponds as well to ‘have trust in’ or ‘accept as real’ his own existence. Otherness, the essence of what constitutes reality is absent and, as a result, the self cannot find solid bearings. With absence come unreality and the dissolution of the strongholds of the self. MacDiarmid’s poems, however committed as they might be, exemplify an impossible encounter with reality and otherness.

5In A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, a strongly nationalist poem, the narrator, an embodiment of the Scottish nation, is faced with the same difficulty. Drunk, on a hill, he calls for his wife:

Jean! Jean! Gin she’s no here it’s no’ oor bed,
Or else I’m dreamin’ deep and canna wauken,
But it’s a fell queer dream if this is no’
A real hillside – and thae things thistles and braken! (
Complete Poems 86)

6In the poem, drunkenness is allegorical; it “symbolizes the instability of modern condition” (Baglow 66) in Scotland and exposes the narrator’s baffled certainty. Confusing bed and hillside, dream and reality, the narrator desperately tries to gain stability in the last line: the run-on-line negates unreality in insulating the nominal group “a real hillside” and the aggressive alliteration in “th-” makes the wilderness of the moor intensely palatable. This feeling of unreality is very akin to that of Hans Castorp, on the battlefield, at the end of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain: “Where are we? What is that? Where has our dream brought us?” (704) Dazed bewilderment appears then to be a possible outcome of the absurdity of the First World War. Hugh MacDiarmid’s early short story, “A Four Years’ Harvest” reveals this connection. It is an imaginative account of his own experience of war in Salonika, Greece, where he served in a hospital. Amidst the masses of idle and invalid soldiers, the narrator notices “a highly-coloured nightmarish unreality.” (“A Four Years’ Harvest” 36) In this oxymoronic and impressionist description of ‘unreality’, the pictorial does not help him to find more solid bearings to face a world in waiting, where language does not communicate anymore. But this disintegration of experience began before the war, with the coming of the machine, the acceleration of time and the rise of capitalism, which MacDiarmid described once as an “artificial financial system that has no correspondence with reality” (qtd. in Purdie 45). Absence and reality form the inseparable couple of the modern psyche. They had been rightly detected by Jung in his analysis of Joyce’s Ulysses, who described the phenomenon as “an alienation of the real” and as a form of collective schizophrenia (8). For the poet, the ontological confusion was compounded by the Scottish question of invisibility in the 1930s. After the post-war collapse of the industry and the Wall-Street crash, the Scottish economy seemed to be locked in a spiral of decline, poverty and high unemployment. The economic consequences had “a profound effect on the nation’s sense of itself. […] Scotland was lagging behind the rest of the United Kingdom. It was thought that Scotland would soon cease to exist as an identifiable nation.” (Finlay 90) In the 1930s, Scotland was felt to be on the verge of extinction, on the brink of becoming invisible, a blank on the road of historical progress, a nothing in the circle of nations. Scotland was another missing corner-stone and another lost or absent other.

  • 5 “The divine radiance has become extinguished in the world’s history. […] Because of this default, t (...)

7The feeling that reality—this support for the self and for commitment—was lost is closely connected too to the dissolution of the divine in Western civilization. Murdering the heavenly ideal, man pushed the principle of reality into an unstable place, no longer counterbalanced by the weight of God, the metaphysical embodiment of otherness. With the disappearance of godly presence, only absence remains and equals reality. This modern alienation partly constitutes the original ground for the 1930s literary commitment and for MacDiarmid’s belief in the power of poetry. In his 1943 autobiography, Lucky Poet, MacDiarmid declares that “the poet above all is the one who feels the central lack in what men do, know, and believe”, driven by the “increasing inadequacy of Christianity” (401). His words offer a strong echo of Martin Heidegger’s in “What are Poets for?” in which poetry seems the adequate antidote to keep track of the departed Gods and hold on to evading reality.5 As such, MacDiarmid’s real involvement in politics was secondary. Writing modernist poetry came first. If he was able to experience the defeat of reality, or at least the dissolution of the concept of reality, his poems were made to resist the disintegrating course of the modern world. He developed poetic strategies to counter this absence of reality and otherness and to prepare the ground for commitment.

3. When ideals and reality become one

8MacDiarmid’s main weapon to give reality a presence again was its opposite: ideals and the ideal, the conception of absolute and perfect objects and the ultimate goals for humanity. In his art, the principle of reality was to be saved thanks to ideals. MacDiarmid never gave any precise definition of reality, yet, two very different concepts can be figured out in the poems. On the one hand, the word ‘reality’ is often connected to politics and the effect of his poems on his readers. The poet’s words are intended to invade the reality of the world. This conception of poetry tallies with the real world and the realm of immanence and sends us back to our first definition of reality: what lies outside the text and what is other. On the other hand, MacDiarmid’s use of the term “reality”, especially in expressions such as “supreme reality” (in Lament for the Great Music or In Memoriam James Joyce), embraces a platonic conception of the world, where reality and idea, or ideal are one. To him, poetry was aimed at searching for this “supreme reality”, a world of ideal forms and conceptions that would constitute a new reality. MacDiarmid’s second definition of reality transcends the phenomenological understanding of the term, reality as a human construction and as an idea: he interprets reality indeed as an idea but in the platonic sense, as a perfect Idea, an ideal. Such a metaphysical conception of reality stands for a transcendent world of superior ideas and a new Other. Despite the poet’s materialist and realist stance he was still a very committed idealist desperately seeking for an intimate fusion between his Reality, this perfect Other, and the objective canvas of the world. In the development of his career, fighting the disappearance of otherness and reality, MacDiarmid’s poetry brought immanent reality and ideal or transcendent Reality, these two ontological extremes, closer and closer, through different lines of attack: characterization, symbolization and prosody. If in Plato’s cave, the equation between ideal and immanent reality was innate and fixed, it turns into a fluid and gradual process in the poetry of MacDiarmid. Ideal Reality and reality will gradually merge into each other.

9This shadowy development begins with characterization in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle in which reality and Reality first get closer through two characters (Stirling 40). First, Jean, the narrator’s wife and traditional figure of the Scottish “wifie”, symbolizes the earthly face of womanhood. The narrator imagines himself coming back home where “Jean maun natter, natter, natter” (Complete Poems 88). She draws him back to earth after his metaphysical flights on the hillside in dizzying and repetitive petty chat. She is opposed to the other central female character of the poem, the silken lady, who makes her way through male gazes in a crowded Scottish pub:

  • 6 Winnock = window, frae’r = from her, atour = around, rooky dwamin’ = misty swooning.

A silken leddy darky moves.

Slow gangs she by the drunken anes,
And lonely by the winnock sits;
Frae’s robes, atour the sunken anes,
A rooky dwamin’ perfume flits.

Her gleamin’ silks, the taperin’
O’ her ringed fingers, and her feathers
Move dimly like a dream wi’in,
While endless faith aboot them gethers. (
Complete Poems 89)6

10There’s a definite sensual dimension to that Scots adaptation of Alexander Blok’s poem, “The Unknown Lady”, where the eerie and aerial description of her dress sharply contrasts with the pub drunkards. A woman has entered a male-dominated place. But her silk and feathers hint at deeper revelations: she is Sophia, the personification of wisdom, who allows the poet to get a platonic glimpse of higher ideals. If Jean and the silken lady both cross the poet’s way, they never meet and belong to two separate spheres: the real world and the ideal, reality and Reality, the other and the Other. Kept apart in the 1920s and A Drunk Man, these two realms and distinct representations of otherness however start to melt in one of the major characters of MacDiarmid’s poetry—Lenin.

11In the 1930s, the figure of Lenin was to appear in several poems by MacDiarmid. His philosophy was appealing for the poet as it united ideal and reality in skillfully combining materialism and idealism. The poet had been greatly impressed by Lenin’s What is to be done? (1902) in which he argued that “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement” and where he stressed the value of dreams and theory to build new political realities (12, 110). MacDiarmid made Lenin a prototype of the ideal weaver in the poem “The Seamless Garment”, an expert at weaving the seemingly contrary threads of idea and matter in a perfect dialectical process. In “Third Hymn to Lenin”, the poet describes the movements of Lenin’s mind: “A great constructive, synthesizing mind | Able to build up in thought the new reality | As it must actually come” (Complete Poems 894). The narrator stages his character’s ability in a dizzying lexical and syntactical labyrinth: the words “reality” and “thought”, and the prediction hammered by the modal “must” and the verb “come”, generate a confused disheveled mass where it is impossible to disentangle the threads of the dialectics. Lenin’s mind accommodates thought and reality, idealism and Marxist materialism, ideals and the real world, in a closer intimacy than that between Sophia and Jean in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. Yet, symbolic internalization of the relationship between ideal and reality within the character of Lenin is still only another step before the final merging as their proximity will increase in grim symbolic tales and necrophilic narratives.

12In “Hide-and-Seek”, child play slowly darkens: “She never hid vera faur awa’ | Afore she was my bride. || […] It’s no’ that she’s owre weel hid, | Yet I canna find her – for wha wad look | Under a coffin lid?" (Complete Poems 175) The recurring pair of widower and dead wife heads for a very murky road in this game of sexual desire that turns lethal in the monosyllabic rime “hid/lid”. Sex and death are intertwined in this early comical vein but black humour seems to fade away in a later angry poem, somehow addressed to MacDiarmid’s new ex-wife at the time, “Ode to All Rebels”:

  • 7 Kist = to place in a box, to lay in a coffin, keest = substance, vigour, sexual desire, hap = to co (...)

I mind when my first wife died.
I was a young fella then,
Strang, and ta’en up wi’ life, and she’d come
By a sudden and terrible en’,
Yet even in the middle o’ kistin’ her
In the hours o’ my grief I felt the stir
O’ auld feelin’s again.
Hoo could I trust love again if a’
The tender ties twixt us twa
Like this could be wantonly snapt,
While afore her corpse was decently hapt,
Nay, I felt the cratur just hoverin’ roon.
At ony meenut her face ‘ud kyth.
Or I kent gin you’d be virgin or widdy,
A thocht I mind ha’en
Even as frae lowerin’ the coffin I raze
Conscious o’ my nature in a wud amaze
And strauchtened up my muckle animal frame
That kent what it wanted and kent nae shame
And stood in a burst o’ sun
Glowerin’ at the bit broken grun’. (
Complete Poems 487-8)7

13Again, a widower remembers his wife but sexual desire for the corpse overwhelms any other kind of emotion. Necrophilic ambiguity is compounded by the use of Scots words: the verb ‘kist’ means ‘to place in a coffin’, but the homonymous noun ‘keest’ means ‘vigour’ or ‘sexual desire’. The line “lowerin’ the coffin I raze” plays upon two linguistic levels, English and Scots. If not acquainted with the meaning of Scots, an English speaker would undoubtedly notice the paradox in translating raze’ by ‘raise’. The coffin lid is lowered and raised at the same time. Yet, the verb ‘raze’ in Scots means ‘to cut’, so, as the narrator lowers the coffin lid, he seems to cut it open at the same time in Scots. Scots is more violent in the act. Again, in the mirror-like phrase “virgin or widdy”, ‘widdy’, as opposed to the English ‘woody’, brings sex and deathly wood closer in the assonance. The wood of the coffin reflects the narrator’s frustrated desire that finds an outlet in the bursting alliterative last lines: “burst o’ sun | Glowerin’ at the bit broken grun’”. The poet is gruesome but reveals the poet’s concern with reality. MacDiarmid’s narrators negate the reality of death. There is a clear refusal of reality for the sake of a personal construct where sex can still take place. This imagined world is to be connected to the ‘supreme reality’ the poet was looking for, as it is absolute, beyond common reality, an ideal reality without death, where absence is rejected. The absent other is being replaced by virtual and ideal otherness. Here, the ideal comes to enact a certain form of violence. It constitutes a potent instrument to assault reality, and to create a form of sur-reality.

4. Poetic violence and performativity

14Now shaped by the close intimacy between ideal and reality and the quest for an immanent sur-reality, a mixture of reality and Reality, MacDiarmid’s poetry generates violence, a feature that often characterised literature and art in the 1930s. In an early short story, he quoted Synge’s dictum: “before verse can be human again it must learn to be brutal” (“Following Rebecca” 117). He took full advantage of the symbolic violence that the language of poetry could contain and prosody could create. In 1932, the poet said about his work: “My violent passages will be designed to kill.” (The Letters 243) This ruthless statement unveils the hyperbolic nature of most of his poetry. In his poems, alliterations and sound plays are often vituperative; the poetry is inhabited by brutal exclamations and angry screams. MacDiarmid’s violent style, a product of what Stephen Spender called the 1930s artists’ “dream of violence” (qtd. in Cunningham 43), was a fully independent artistic process, a construct born out of patient re-working, and not impulsive writing. His manuscripts and typescripts demonstrate this considered construction of violence. Indeed, his last-moment corrections mostly amount to lexical hardening and rhetorical inflation. With lexical violence, MacDiarmid’s ideals come out on the page and break into the outer world. Ideal Reality tries to submit reality to its own expression. His poems are riddled with imperative forms, which call for collective or individual action. They can be biblical as in “Behind the Symbols”: “Let the hearts of my people be lifted up | Once more with the daily sight | Of an eagle wheeling on majestic vans | That is our Scottish birthright.” (Complete Poems 542) They can be addressed to a city like Edinburgh in the poem “Edinburgh”: “Learn again to consume your own smoke like this, | Edinburgh, to free your life from the monstrous pall” (Complete Poems 646); or to the forthcoming generation of Scottish writers in “Advice to Younger Writers”: “Your songs, my friends, are songs of dawn, of renaissance too. | […] Let your voices ring | And be unafraid.” (Complete Poems 658-9) MacDiarmid’s imperative forms are ambivalent: they suggest a generosity of thought concerned with freedom, but they remain tough commands as well. The poems give orders. In addition, their language often tries to go further in having these orders obeyed on the page.

15MacDiarmid’s poetry makes a performative use of lay-out. The last stanza of “The Belly-Grip” fulfills political ideals:

We’ll survive the loss! The kindly common men
Upstarts like these deem unfit for freedom
Will not have the slightest difficulty
Once such blind leaders cease to mislead ‘em
In establishing a right good fellowship
Forever free of the belly-grip. (
Complete Poems 396)

16The isolated adjectival group “forever free of the belly-grip” seems to enact communist revolution in a liberating movement of alliteration that ends the question of hunger and economic issues. Temporality disappears for the sake of an ideal that breaks into the materiality of the page, a page that is subjected to the symbolic violence of space and language. Ideal visions were communicated too by MacDiarmid’s favourite modal verb: will. In “Genethliacon for the New World Order”, humanity is coerced into hope: “All the awful agonies of mankind, | All the difficulty and darkness, in a moment | Will be transformed into joy you’ll find.” (Complete Poems 403) The consonantal echo between the anaphoric “all” and the modal “will” dissolves the anguish of the first two lines, while the positive notions of transformation and joy seem to be gently embraced by the repetition of “will” at the beginning and at the end of the line, as if contained in a syntactical basket of hope in the future. This messianic use of the future is quite common in communist poetry, but MacDiarmid takes advantage of the poetic resources of the echo, the alliteration and the run-on-line. Once again, the page is bullied and is forced to submit to the poet’s message and goal. His ideal vision moulds the materiality of the book, overcomes the symbolic space of the page and breaks into the reader’s reality. Other analogous devices used by the poet could be mentioned such as slogans, collage, nominal lists, or deictic terms. All of these tools combined to imitate the art of the pipers who played on the battlefields, rallying the clans and the men against imperial England, and to create an oar-song-like rhythm, to call the Scots into sailing against the fleet of capitalism. MacDiarmid’s poetic strategies are built to transform the lexical memory of his people and his ideals are supposed to replace crumbling realities. Its energy is meant to “change consciousness and effect change in the existing conditions” (Muriel Rukeyser qtd. in Rich 38) of the Scottish nation. Poetic violence, on the page, is the result of the confrontation between ideal and reality and is the outcome of the struggle against the feeling of unreality.

5. Mourning reality

  • 8 Reality is, of course, in the first place characterized by its givenness; it is there just to be d (...)

17MacDiarmid’s commitment was more than simply depending on pure historical facts, but found another source in a deeper philosophical crisis, the absence of God and reality, and the perennial philosophical battle between ideal and reality. The concepts of reality and otherness, their absence first, then the desire to reclaim them through a paradoxical proximity to the ideal, might have led us to the essence of MacDiarmid’s commitment in the 1930s: to create a new ideal reality and a new other thanks to poetry and violence. Verse allowed the poet movements of the mind that can find no room in prose or philosophy, subtle interplays of space and significance, sound and sense, breath and meaning. Characterization and lexical or symbolic patterns made reality equal the ideal, while prophetic poetic space made the ideal supersede reality in violent forms. An immanent sur-reality could then be reached. Committed poetry was thus the perfect vehicle to still hold reality close, even if an ideal one, and bend it to one’s will. If reality is always encountered and made up at the same time, and if we can never solve the chicken-and-egg problem of cause and consequence,8 modernist and inter-war period writers still put forward the idea of art as the main organiser of reality. Through language, their ideas and ideals were to penetrate the real world and become reality. The concept of reality was still there, an important organizing principle of human experience and MacDiarmid, among others, despite the threatening collapse of otherness, tried to give a shape to the “unspeakable”, the “living relation between the poem and the world” (Américo Ferrari qtd. in Rich 39). Commitment was strong because two realities, both the real world and the very concept of reality, were in danger.

18As such, the analysis of MacDiarmid’s poetry and its relation to reality and ideal resembles Freud’s description of the end of the mourning process. According to him, when mourning is about to finish, the subject resists separation in hanging on to his investments of the missing object and in over-investing his self in the absent’s image. When this renewed and artificial link is at its strongest, it can then be broken and the mourning process can end. (Freud 239, 260) MacDiarmid’s sur-reality, or idealized reality, corresponds to a form of over-investment in reality as such. His poetry seems to embody a literature that is about to go loose and to part from metaphysics and other worlds but from the guiding principle of reality too, as it is nearly absent as well: in MacDiarmid’s poetry, the ancient principle of reality becomes shaky and his use of the concept and definitions of reality are unstable. Overinfluenced by platonic metaphysics, his words drift in this unreal world where ideal and reality stick together all the same, and even where ideals and violence dominate. So, what does MacDiarmid’s poetic commitment tell us? Is it mourning reality? Could his poetry of commitment be the last step before letting go of its hold on reality? This is the aporia of MacDiarmid’s poetry, and probably of the time, an aporia made visible by the recourse to violence. Violence emanates from a desire to curb reality but, at the same time, it dissolves it. The desperate search for reality tends to damage the bond between the text and the external world. This might betray a crucial turning point in the evolution of Western literature and art: after the Second World War, most literary forms severed their connection to the real world and felt comfortable in autotelic spaces, the concept of reality being no longer a significant drive in art. MacDiarmid’s poetry, a peculiar example of the 1930s deeply committed literature, might be announcing this phenomenon, as Cubism and its multiangular grasp of reality was sending twentieth-century painting onto the path of abstraction. Abstract art might be seen as the outcome of an over-investment in the concept of reality and too sensitive a form of commitment.

  • 9 For example, Alex Salmond, former First Minister of Scotland, quoted the last line of MacDiarmid’s (...)

19Trying to reconnect language and reality through empowered ideals, MacDiarmid put the relationship between text and reality at risk. Was the risk worth taking? It would seem so. Even if exemplifying those issues, MacDiarmid’s poetry still reminds us of the necessity to commit to the full. Reality is not to be mourned, on the contrary. If it is always complicated to assess the impact of a writer in the long term, successive generations of Scottish poets and novelists have paid tribute to the influence of MacDiarmid’s voice in their own work. In the political field too, the words of MacDiarmid were often quoted and remembered during the 2014 referendum debate in Scotland and important political figures still make use of the rhetorical power of his poetry.9 Even if Scottish independence still has a long way to go, MacDiarmid succeeded in having some of his ideals made part of the debate of reality, not only in pure symbolic or poetic terms. Reality and ideal collided, for real.

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1 Hugh MacDiarmid is the pen-name of Christopher Murray Grieve. We will only use here the pseudonym as our work focuses on the public man, the poet and his work, and not on the private man.

2 He began as a Scottish Labour Party member in the 1920s and was an Independent Socialist member of the city council of Montrose between 1922 and 1928. He then became a Nationalist candidate for the city of Dundee in 1927 but was then expelled by the National Party of Scotland for communism, even if he had been instrumental in the creation of the party. In 1934, he joined the Communist Party but was expelled as well in 1937, for nationalism. After a long nationalist spell, he finally joined the Communist Party again in 1956 and stood as a communist candidate for Kinross against the conservative Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas Home in 1964.

3 “The poet is outside language. He sees the reverse side of words, as if he did not share the human condition and as if he were first meeting the world as a barrier as he comes towards men. […] If this is the case, one easily understands how foolish it would be to require a poetic commitment. Doubtless, emotion, even passion—and why not anger, social indignation, and political hatred?—are at the origin of the poem. But they are not expressed there, as in a pamphlet or in a confession. […] How can one hope to provoke the indignation or the political enthusiasm of the reader when the very thing one does is to withdraw him from the human condition and invite him to consider with the eyes of God a language that has been turned inside out?” (Sartre 30-34)

4 Pitmirk = pitch dark, snell = bitter, sharp.

5 “The divine radiance has become extinguished in the world’s history. […] Because of this default, there fails to appear for the world the ground that grounds it. […] [the poets], when we think of their nature, remain closer to that absence because they are touched by presence, the ancient name of Being. […] Poets are the mortals who, singing earnestly of the wine-god, sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay on the gods’ tracks.” (Heidegger 89-92)

6 Winnock = window, frae’r = from her, atour = around, rooky dwamin’ = misty swooning.

7 Kist = to place in a box, to lay in a coffin, keest = substance, vigour, sexual desire, hap = to cover, to wrap a garment around a person, kythe = to reveal, appear, widdy = woody, weedae = widow, rauz = to gash, cut, tear oneself, wid = wood, wuid = mad, insane, fierce, violent, strauchten = to straighten, to lay out a corpse for burial, muckle = big, great, glower = to stare with wonder.

8 Reality is, of course, in the first place characterized by its givenness; it is there just to be discovered, and described, to be made out by writers. But as Henry James and other modernists have taught us, this discovery business is inseparable from the process of invention, making, making up. […] the world is being discovered and invented, all at once, all the time.” (Cunningham 2)

9 For example, Alex Salmond, former First Minister of Scotland, quoted the last line of MacDiarmid’s poem ‘Gairmscoile’ in his New Year Message of 2012: ‘For we ha’e faith in Scotland’s hidden poo’ers, | The present’s theirs, but a’ the past and future’s oors.’ (Complete Poems 72)

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Béatrice DUCHATEAU, « Hugh MacDiarmid’s Poetics of Commitment: the Modern Stigmata of Bereavement », E-rea [En ligne], 13.2 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2016, consulté le 23 octobre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté
Béatrice Duchateau is a PhD student of British literature at the Université de Bourgogne, Dijon. She is currently writing her PhD thesis on the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid and is teaching English language, British literature and civilization at the University of Burgundy.

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