WE ended last week noting that the truths tragedy invites us to understand are present in many works beyond Shakespeare’s plays. There are other things. It can be seen in certain paintings.

John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, draws attention to the contrast between two self-portraits by Rembrandt. The first, from 1634, shows him aged 28, in the year of his first marriage, with Saskia his bride: he is smiling, his eyes dancing, his arms raised and his mood happy. But the depiction is formulaic and superficial: it’s an advertisement for youth, wealth and good fortune, and it is heartless. Thirty years later, Rembrandt reverses the tradition of self-portraiture in an image of the painter as an old man: the eyes are hard, they stare out at you quizzically. Existence itself has become a question.

The same quality is there in Stravinsky’s violin concerto of 1931, as it is in the astonishing series of drawings which Picasso produced in the mid-1950s. As Berger says, in most of these drawings, a young woman, usually naked and desirable, is shown beside various self-portraits of Picasso, old, ugly, small and absurd. Life, nature, sex, universalised in the various women, stand beside age, the collapsing distortions of the body, the lurid absurdity of masks that do not conceal but echo the identity behind them.

The old man becomes a clown, a monkey, a baboon, a monstrous little dwarf, while an acrobat like Harlequin reminds him of the lost agilities of unreclaimable youth. The drawings are Picasso’s confession of despair, of loneliness and grief. It is not a social vision Picasso presents, like that of his countryman Goya, but rather a personal vision, like Rembrandt’s, a depiction of the extremity to which his own life has taken him.

In Sorley MacLean’s poem Hallaig the personal and social tragedy of irreparable loss come together, but something else begins to happen which chimes with that quality I mentioned possessed by the great tragedies: a remembering that accompanies the disintegration, a kind of re-imagining, a strange joy.

In Hallaig, MacLean evokes the memories of a cleared township on his native island of Raasay, in the Hebrides just beside Skye. Here is how Seamus Heaney introduces it: “Hallaig is a key poem, insofar as it’s about haunting and loss and this theme is a constant one all through MacLean’s work, as indeed is the theme of love and wounding.

“It’s a magnificent epiphany, time, memory made palpable in these lucid, paradisal, melancholy, arbitrary images. The poem has a shimmer of the symbolist imagination about it. It’s the same kind of poem, I think, in one way, as Eliot’s Marina. But, as well as this shimmer of transcendence and the visionary, there is the firm foothold in history, there’s the naming of people, places, the allusion to the clearances, and this makes it part also of the Gaelic tradition. In Hallaig, in this poem, MacLean, as a Gael, stands firmly at the centre of his world, and, consciously, close to the end of his world. As a poet, he shows us that the particular horizon and times that happen to encircle him, encircle us all.”

The poem opens with this epigraph: “Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig” – this is the clue to the symbol at the poem’s heart. At the end, “a vehement bullet will come from the gun of love” and kill this deer. In other words, love will stop time, and the memory of lives, women, men, children and communities living in this particular place, can be reclaimed through memory.

The violence of the image connects the poem to a whole literature in Gaelic, not least Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s 18th-century Praise of Ben Dorain, which describes the mountain, the deer on its slopes and the huntsman’s skill and marksmanship, tracking and killing the deer for the wellbeing of his family, not sport. MacLean’s poem is an act of reclamation. It begins, in his own translation:

The window is nailed and boarded

through which I saw the West

and my love is at the Burn of Hallaig,

a birch tree, and she has always been

Between Inver and Milk Hollow,

here and there about Baile-chuirn:

she is a birch, a hazel,

a straight, slender young rowan.

The imagery of the trees reaches a crucial point later in the poem, where the more recently imported pine trees are rejected in favour of the native birch trees. MacLean is tender and careful about the names of the trees and of places. He knows full well his references are charged with meaning and are much more than merely local points of identification.

He names locations and individuals: “In Screapadal of my people / where Norman and Big Hector were” – but then he transforms memories into living presences, the beautiful trees themselves: “their daughters and their sons are a wood / going up beside the stream.”

So, standing in the moonlight in this desolate, cleared township, he confirms the necessary act of patience memory will require, if time is to be killed or banished, as he needs it to be: “I will wait for the birch wood / until it comes up by the cairn” – and if this doesn’t happen, he says, “I will go down to Hallaig, / to the Sabbath of the dead, / where the people are frequenting, / every single generation gone.” Then comes this central verse, an astonishing assertion of belief and confirmation of hope:

They are still in Hallaig,

MacLeans and MacLeods,

all who were there in the time of Mac Gille Chaluim

the dead have been seen alive.

He describes them, “men lying on the green / at the end of every house that was” and “the girls a wood of birches” while “the road is under mild moss” and each one of the young women “young and light-stepping, / without the heartbreak of the tale.”

Yet the poem is one of heartbreak and loss, and as the fond, light laughter of distant years filters through “the dumb living twilight,” it becomes “a mist in my ears, // and their beauty a film on my heart” then the darkness deepens and the dramatic sense of urgency sets in. The poem culminates in the poet’s love killing the deer of time, stopping its “sniffing at the grass-grown ruined homes”: “his eye will freeze in the wood, / his blood will not be traced while I live.”

And that last first-person singular, the “I” whose promise is that no trace of the deer of time will remain as long as life remains, is not only the poet who created the poem but the poem itself. For the time being, in the present moment while we read the poem, history is banished or killed and the living presences of people long gone come to inhabit Hallaig once again.

“The dead have been seen alive.” MacLean’s words are a kind of recovery, a reclamation of identity that otherwise might have been completely lost. That epigraph from the very beginning of the poem – “Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig” – is a beautiful, potently suggestive image. Time is erasure, erosion. The poem itself is the bullet that comes from the gun of love.

The memorability of the poem kills time, ends its erosion. It catches the beauty of the woods that remain, and it asks us to imagine the lives of men and women and children in the communities that once inhabited them. Hallaig is a commemoration of home.

But it’s the sort of commemoration that could only be arrived at through a deep consideration of the price of history.

Near the end of Ezra Pound’s version of Sophocles’s play Women of Trachis, the hero Hercules, not long before his death, achieves a stunning serenity and calm. The agony falls away and he says:

Time lives, and it’s going on now.

I am released from trouble.

I thought it meant life in comfort.

It doesn’t. It means that I die.

And then Pound prints the words in capital letters, and just in case you’ve still missed the point, he adds a footnote which tells you: “This is the key phrase, for which the play exists”:

Come at it that way, my boy, what



Well, we might not agree entirely with Pound’s judgment of Sophocles’s play, but you see what he means. It is not simply that “it all coheres” but that you have to “come at it” a certain way.

And that’s what we’ve been trying to do in these essays.