When Hugh MacDiarmid died in 1978, his fellow poet Norman MacCaig suggested Scotland commemorate the great man’s passing by holding 3 minute’s pandemonium. It was typical of MacCaig’s caustic wit, but his suggestion did capture something of the unquantifiable enormity of MacDiarmid’s importance on Scottish culture, politics, literature and life during the twentieth century.
Hugh MacDiarmid is perhaps best described by a line from his greatest poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), in which he wrote:
‘I’ll ha’e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur
Extremes meet - it’s the only way I ken
To dodge the curst conceit o’ bein’ richt
That damns the vast majority o’ men.
It explains the contradictory elements that merged to make him a poet.
Born Christopher Murray Grieve, on August 11, 1892, he changed his name to the more Scottish sounding Hugh MacDiarmid to publish his poetry. He was a Modernist poet who wrote in Scots vernacular. One might expect this choice of language to make his poetry parochial, but MacDiarmid was a poet of international ambition and standing, who was recognized as an equal with T. S. Eliot, Boris Pasternak and W. H. Auden.
In politics, MacDiarmid had been one of the co-founder’s of the National Party for Scotland in 1928, but was ejected when he moved towards Communism. He was then ejected from the Communist Party for his “nationalist deviation.” He maintained a Nationalist - in favor of an independent Scotland - and a Communist throughout his life.
As literature scholar and writer Kenneth Butlay notes, MacDiarmid was:
..as incensed by his countrymen’s neglect of their native traditions as by their abrogation of responsibility for their own affairs, and he took it upon himself to “keep up perpetually a sort of Berseker rage” of protest, and to act as “the catfish that vitalizes the other torpid of the aquarium.”
He was a founder member of the Scottish Center of PEN, in 1927, and was famous for criticism of other writers an dpoets - MacCaig he described as ‘trite’, and he famously dismissed Beat writers William S. Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi as ‘metropolitan scum’ at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 1962, though remained friends with Allen Ginsberg throughout the sixties and seventies.
Allen Ginsberg and Hugh MacDiarmid, at Langholme in the 1970s.
MacDiarmid’s greatest poems were A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle, a genius work that analyzed the Scottish psyche, politics and culture, To Circumjack Cencrastus and his 3 Hymns to Lenin. But MacDiarmid could be as equally effective and powerful in his shorter poems.
‘Does it matter? Losing your legs?’ Siegfried Sassoon
Now let the legless boy show the great lady
How well he can manage his crutches.
It doesn’t matter though the Sister objects,
‘He’s not used to them yet’, when such is
The will of the Princess. Come, Tommy,
Try a few desperate steps through the ward.
Then the hand of Royalty will pat your head
And life suddenly cease to be hard.
For a couple of legs are surely no miss
When the loss leads to such an honour as this!
One knows, when one sees how jealous the rest
Of the children are, it’s been all for the best! —
But would the sound of your sticks on the floor
Thundered in her skull for evermore!
Hugh MacDiarmid reads ‘In the Children’s Hospital’
In 1964, the experimental film-maker Margaret Tait made short documentary portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid, which captured the poet at home in Langholme, his sense of childish fun, his socializing his the bars and public houses of Edinburgh (the Abbotsford on Rose Street).