BACK in September 2017, I wrote two essays on Hugh MacDiarmid for The National, the first entitled “The Revolutionary” and the second “The Legacy”. I didn’t say much about MacDiarmid’s later work but John Purser’s essay last week about John Duncan Fergusson and the Celtic arts represented in Fergusson’s “decorations” for the first editions of MacDiarmid’s In Memoriam James Joyce (1955 and 1956) confirmed my suspicion that this late, great work deserves an essay to itself.

You can find the whole thing – but without Fergusson’s images – in the Complete Poems, volume 2, but you really need to savour it in that early edition, and preferably read it at one sitting.

The National:

I remember finding a copy of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926) in the beautiful little pocket-sized 200 Burns Club blue dust-jacketed edition in John Smith’s bookshop in Glasgow’s St Vincent Street in the summer of 1976. I opened it, read a few pages in the shop, and was stunned. Here was a modern poem in immediate, accessible Scots, the language of my cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents, friends and family. I had never seen anything like this in print before, dealing with adult matters of sexuality and politics, psychology, Scotland, unanswerable, difficult questions, jealousies, hates, loves, making enquiries and restlessly moving in a lyrical, energised way across a range of poetic forms: ballad metre, free verse, translation, speculation, satire, scabrous denunciation and tender affection, and here and there a shaft of piercing humour, an irony, a wry, sly insertion of an unsuspected tone of voice, both utterly strange and deeply familiar.

Then later that year, I found the address of the publisher William MacLellan in Glasgow, on Garnethill, near the School of Art. I went to the tenement, climbed the stairs, rang the doorbell unannounced and was taken into a high-ceilinged flat where a few white Scottie dogs were bounding around, and Bill MacLellan in kilt and tie was sitting in his armchair and beside him on the floor was a high pile of copies of the second edition of In Memoriam James Joyce. I asked if I might buy a copy, and did, for £4.95. I took it home to my grandparents’ and the next day sat down and read it all, cover to cover, my mind reeling increasingly, literally dizzy by the end of the day, overwhelmed by the almost unending wealth of references, quotations, allusions to all sorts of things and so many writers I had never heard of. It would take a thousand libraries and more lifetimes than anyone could have to become familiar with them all.

READ MORE: Bringing legend to life: John Purser on JD Fergusson and the Celtic Revival

This strange work was firing new shots in every verse paragraph: “Even as we know how / Costa i Llobera’s Pi de Formentor / Is not Catalan but Majorcan …” (And I’m asking who? what?) and “Even as we know that in B.C. 500 / The Chinese symbol for ‘moon’ was pronounced ‘ngiwpt’ / But in Peiping today is read ‘yueh’, ‘ut’ in Canton, / ‘Ngwok’ in Foochow, and ‘yo’ in Shanghai …” (And I’m thinking, no, we didn’t know that – and who is “we” anyway?) and “Even as we delight in the letter of Aristeas / Which contains less than 2000 words / (All listed in Wendland’s ‘Index Verborum’) / Of which more than 500 are various forms / Of twenty-eight words only …” and then “And even as we know Shelta, Hispanic Latin, and Bearlagair na Saer, / (Knowing them as a farmer surveying his fields / Can distinguish between one kind of crop and another …)” and then we get to this:

And rejoicing in all those international differences which
Each like a flower’s scent by its peculiarity sharpens
Appreciation of others as well as bringing
Appreciation of itself, as experiences of gardenia or zinnia
Refine our experiences of rose or sweet pea.

And then on to all the words in the Shetland Islands for “the restless movements of the sea”… And we haven’t even got past page 41 yet. But wait a moment. What was that about the scents of flowers? Pause on that.

Isn’t there a truth worth dwelling on here, something about difference and variety and the fostering and savouring of identities in a world ever-changing through time, made of diversities across continents, across nations, a world of so many languages and so many cultural forms of creation, all inviting, all to be experienced. If this is the “Celtic Revival” I’d take the doors off their hinges to welcome it in.

In the little book, The Revolutionary Art of the Future, a collection of MacDiarmid’s poems gathered from the archives of the National Library of Scotland mainly by the independent scholar John Manson and edited by Manson, Dorian Grieve and myself, there is this little poem:

How glorious to live! Even in one thought
The wisdom of past times to fit together
And from the luminous minds of many men
Catch a reflected truth: as, in one eye,
Light, from unnumbered worlds and farthest planets
Of the star-crowded universe, is gathered
Into one ray.

Sometimes such a feeling comes to you, you have that sense of gratitude, simply for the gift of life itself, and an opening out to all that it has held and holds and gives, continues to offer. This is the great invitation of In Memoriam James Joyce. TS Eliot was right to praise it: “It is a very fine monument to Joyce ...”

The National:

John Purser, in his essay on JD Fergusson last week, said this: “We think of pattern as static, but that was never the case in Celtic art. We are subject to a dynamic environment and that dynamism is found throughout the formal structures incorporated into early Celtic design.” This understanding is at the heart of In Memoriam James Joyce and this kinetic quality is what underlies Eliot’s description of the work as “a very fine monument to Joyce”.

And I think that this is what is at the heart of MacDiarmid’s declared opposition to what he called “the English ethos”. What did he mean by that?

On page xii of the 1972 Author’s Note to his “autobiography”, Lucky Poet (1943), MacDiarmid wrote: “The principal theme of Lucky Poet, and of all my other books, has been my unqualified opposition to the English ethos.” He goes on: “I agreed fully with my friend the late Professor Denis Saurat, when he wrote that unless the Second World War was to have been fought in vain there must be a profound change in English mentality (and he did not mean that availability of Yankee trash-culture which has since developed apace) …”

For MacDiarmid “the English ethos” meant something which assumes superiority by virtue of imperial strength and domination, boasts of its “stability” and is essentially an imposition of power and an exploitation of the world’s wealth, as opposed to an engagement with all its living cultures and languages. That’s why Saurat’s reference to what the Second World War was fought against and for is so important.

It’s easy to caricature and reject MacDiarmid’s position. His notorious entry under “Recreations” in Who’s Who was “Anglophobia” and his writings about various forms of extreme politics have been eagerly quoted by lazy, superficial critics and faux historians. And yet there is an intractable truth in his argument.

The National:

The opposition he engages in is between, on the one hand, the exhilarations and delights, the forms of knowledge and kinds of wisdom that may be experienced and gained by the long, deep work of reading such works as A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle and In Memoriam James Joyce, savouring their humour, being humbled by their reach and challenge, and rising to that challenge in your own distinctive way – and, on the other hand, taking all that this world offers only as property, hedge funds, captured, stolen goods, and dismissing all else and all others.

The “English ethos” in MacDiarmid’s formulation is essentially superiorism, xenophobia and exploitation of resources writ large.

OF course these qualities are not reserved only to English people but as a short-phrase provocation it does its job. It is not to deny the virtues of millions of people nor such exceptional writers and artists and composers as Shakespeare, Blake, George Eliot, JMW Turner, Ralph Vaughan Williams, but it is to identify a capacity of human potential at its worst. Not Shakespeare but his Iago, his Tybalt, signify this. Not George Eliot but Grandcourt, in Daniel Deronda. And how are the virtues to be measured against the despicable foreclosures of what Ezra Pound called Empire, “an old bitch gone in the teeth”?

Mortality is what MacDiarmid returns us to. In “On a Raised Beach”, he tells us that “In death, unlike life, we lose nothing that is truly ours.”. In other words, life has its brutes, thieves and charlatans but mortality insists and ensures that we seek out and savour what’s really worthwhile.

So what do you have to look forward to, if you haven’t yet read this great long poem, one of the greatest artistic creations of the 20th century? And what might you find if you read it for a second or a third or fourth time?

A book of 150 large-format pages, a single poem defined perhaps only by its covers, in six sections: the first bears the book’s title, “In Memoriam James Joyce”; the second emphasises its subject material: “The World of Words”; the third evokes the nets the world throws at us in its attempts to entrap: “The Snares of Varuna” (in Hindu culture, Varuna is the god of oceans, his vehicle is part fish, part sea creature and his weapon is a Pasha, a noose); the fourth brings the world’s two ends together: “The Meeting of the East and the West”; the fifth declares its unfaltering loyalty: “England is Our Enemy”; and the sixth takes us into the realm of music: “Plaited like the Generations of Men”.

The National:

The last line of In Memoriam James Joyce is this: “Sab thik chha.”

For years I had no idea how to pronounce this until my father once heard me and asked me to let him see the words written down so I showed him the book, page 145, and he chuckled and said, yes, it’s pronounced “Sa’ab [as in Sahib], teek hai [or high]” – meaning, “Boss, everything is really all right” – or as my father said he had heard it in all the ports of India he sailed into as a master mariner in the Merchant Navy, when the derrick gets buggered up or the cargo falls in

the water or some disaster or another crashes down upon you, “T’ik hai, Saab, t’ik hai!” – a familiar phrase in sailors’ and dockers’ bazaar-bat.

Or as MacDiarmid himself glosses it: “The final (Gurkhali) sentence means ‘Everything’s OK.’ This indicates that the author shares Werner Bergengruen’s conviction of what the German writer calls ‘the rightness of the world,’ despite all that may seem to enforce the opposite conclusion.”

Affirmation is what the struggle is for.

Next week: As Burns season is upon us, Alan Riach asks, what is the greatest Scottish love poem? – and comes up with an unexpected answer