Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) only spent two months in Scotland, in 1881, and mainly in Glasgow, but his legacy to modern Scottish literature is important and likely to be overlooked by critics specialising exclusively either in Scottish literature or Hopkins. He was thirty-seven years old when he visited and was to die only eight years later, aged forty-five.
His residence produced one frequently anthologised and thoroughly memorable poem, 'Inversnaid', which was especially valued by Hugh MacDiarmid for its intensity and accuracy of response to the actuality of a specific place - it carried none of the golden-glow sentimentalism of much Scottish 'landscape poetry' of the time and was the work of a fine poetic technician and a serious moralist who cared about what was really valuable and worth preserving.
Hopkins arrived in Scotland on 10 August 1881, sent to the parish of St Joseph's, Glasgow, originally, he thought only for a fortnight or so. Glasgow came as a relief after his last posting to Liverpool, which he found deeply depressing: 'Liverpool is of all places the most museless. It is indeed a most unhappy and miserable spot.' He wrote to Robert Bridges that every 'impulse and spring of art seems to have died' in him, principally because of the overwhelming poverty and squalor, the ubiquitous condition of mass industrialisation, and the fact that he was so rarely able to see the sun or get out of the city to the countryside. A visit to Merseyside to see the ice and the seagulls offered some relief and a good description of that was written up in a prose account for Bridges, but no specifically relevant poetry seems to have emerged from it. Glasgow, like 'all great towns' was also, for Hopkins, 'a wrietched place' but 'I get on better here.' He described the streets and buildings as 'fine' and the people as 'lively'. He was working mainly among poor Irish working people, who, if often drunk, warm-hearted and with 'a far heartier welcome than those at Liverpool.'
These people mainly lived in crowded tenements and were employed in local factories and a whisky bond-house. Four Jesuit priests were occupied officiating at baptisms, marriages, funerals, confessions, schoolwork and instruction and Hopkins performed twenty-eight baptisms in his two months there. As in Liverpool, he felt frustrated about his own writing, and although he began an ode on the sixteenth-century Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion, nothing of this seems to have survived. What does survive, brilliantly, is the poem prompted by his brief encounter with the Highlands. He had been promised two days in the Highlands but he 'never had more than a glimpse of their skirts'.
On 28 September, he visited Inversnaid, on the eastern shore at the north of Loch Lomond, an isolated place at the end of a long road that ends at a hotel which had been catering for tourists since Walter Scott had made the Trossachs a major attraction with The Lady of the Lake in 1810. Hopkins was more likely to have been curious because of Wordsworth's poem, 'To a Highland Girl / (At Inversnayde, upon Loch Lomond)', which was written during his Highland tour of 1803 and describes the place closely: ... these grey rocks, that household lawn;
Those trees, a veil just half withdrawn;
This fall of water that doth make
A murmur near the silent lake;
This little bay; a quiet road. Yet the poem as a whole is more concerned to sing the praises of the young woman's natural beauty and Wordsworth's own feelings of rapture at having encountered her, than with the wilderness beyond the domestic setting that frames her in his vision. Its companion-pieces, 'Stepping Westward' and 'The Solitary Reaper', move Wordsworth into deeper waters, and the last-named, with its famous central question, 'Will no one tell me what she sings?' is one of the most moving poems about the gulf between the poet's vision and the life of the woman and the world to which he is a witness.
Wordsworth's perception in these poems is mainly of a domesticated or cultivated landscape, or farmed fields, a context that presents young womanhood to good advantage. 'Stepping Westward' registers Wordsworth's wandering 'In a strange land, far from home. the guests of Chance.' who would nevertheless willingly be led on over 'dewy ground.dark and cold; / Behind, all gloomy to behold.' because, even in that gloom, 'stepping westward seemed to be / A kind of heavenly destiny.' For Hopkins, too, his visit to Inversnaid was gloomy: 'The day was dark and partly hid the lake, yet it did not altogether disfigure it but gave a pensive or solemn beauty which left a deep impression on me.' He approached by boat, a small tourist steamer, saw the waterfall of Arklet burn from the deck and, landing at the pier, climbed up edge of the fall and walked along the path inland for a while returning by the same route, beside the stream flowing down to the loch.
The poem uses Scots words ('brae', 'burn') and evokes sounds that seem to require a Scots inflection (the alliterative 'r') as well as his own distinctive vocabulary ('coop' and 'comb'). Rhythmically, the onomatopoeic effect is joyful, a liberation into a wet, wild, undomesticated and non-urban nature, where living bodily in a physical world is both exhilarating and salutary. Two-and-a-half years before this, in Oxford, Hopkins had begun to write what he described as 'something, if I cd. Only seize it, on the decline of wild nature, beginning somehow like this
- O where is it, the wilderness,
The wildness of the wilderness?
Where is it, the wilderness?
And this seems to contribute to the closing resolution, a firm answer to the question with which the poem ends.
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowing,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. The poem seemed not to satisfy Hopkins and he never mentioned it to Bridges, who only saw it after his death. It's worth dwelling on the delayed history of Hopkins's reception - his poems were not published until 1918 and to many readers therefore he was considered in the context of Modernism, rather than that of late Victorian innovation. For F.R. Leavis, in his influential critical study of 1932, New Bearings in English Poetry , Hopkins could be discussed most fully in the company of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. In Scotland, four poets of the twentieth-century were peculiarly sensitive to Hopkins's greatness and responded to his work and vision in four very different ways, from the 1920s through to the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Hugh MacDiarmid (C.M. Grieve, 1892-1978) was aware of Hopkins's poetry as soon as it appeared and in his first book, Annals of the Five Senses (1923), he was quoting from 'God's Grandeur' and 'The Wreck of the Deutschland '. It's important to see how quickly MacDiarmid identified Hopkins's quality and made use of him, both as an influence in his own poetry and praising him as a poet others might learn from. His main significance for MacDiarmid in this respect was that his technical originality and commitment to aesthetic quality, his dedication to his art, might teach more than the conventional pieties of late nineteenth-century Scottish homilies, whether in sentimental verse and doggerel or in prose fiction of small-town Scotland, a world where the minister and the dominie, the local schoolteacher, were the ultimate arbiters of moral authority and taste.
In Hopkins, you might find religious intensity, encompassing human compassion, a sense of the inhuman wilderness offering a corrective value to society's worst self-diminishment in the industrial cities. But you would also find a radical challenge to nineteenth-century conventions of versification and poetic form, especially if you were used to Tennyson and the familiar beat of the late Victorian metronome. More than merely imagery in MacDiarmid's earliest poems chimes with Hopkins; there is also a notable affinity of the entwinement of spiritual and physical life, local and Christian reference. In an early sonnet, MacDiarmid writes:
Schiehallion and Calvary are one.
All men at last hang broken on the Cross,
Calling to One who gives a blacking sun.
There is one hill up which each soul is thrust
Ere all is levelled in eternal loss.
The peaks and plains are one. The end is dust. MacDiarmid's earliest poems are in English, and demonstrate similar affinities. When he began writing in the language we call Scots, the verbal tone, metrical regularity and general poetic idiom leapt a long way from Hopkins, yet certain affinities of vision remain clear. For example, 'The Innumerable Christ' starts with an epigraph that links scientific enquiry into the limitlessness of space with an unorthodox religious quest for spiritual destiny:
The Innumerable Christ
Other stars may have their Bethlehem
and their Calvary too.'
Professor J.Y. Simpson
Wha kens on whatna Bethlehems
Earth twinkies like a star the nicht,
An' whatna sheopherds lift their heids
In its unearthly licht?
Yont a' the stars oor een can see
An' farther than their lichts can fly,
I' mony an unco warl' the nicht
The fatefu' bairnies cry.
I' mony an unco warl' the nicht
The lift gaes black as pitch at noon,
An' sideways on their chests the heids
O' endless Christs roll doon.
An' when the earth's as cauld's the mune
An' a' its folk are lang syne deid,
On countless stars the babe maun cry
An' the crucified maun bleed.
In his critical prose, MacDiarmid was keen to herald Hopkins, both as a poet whose practice was so characteristically brilliant technically as to connect him to the Modernist movement, and also as a poet all the more impressive for having perceived the need for such innovation as early as he did, thirty or forty years before Pound, Eliot and the Modernists were in full flight. In this regard, MacDiarmid linked him with the monumental poet Charles Montagu Doughty (1843-1926), whose twenty-four book epic The Dawn in Britain (1906), poem-dramas like The Cliffs (1909) and book-length poems like Mansoul, or, The Riddle of the World (1920), as well as his magnum opus in prose, Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888), would seem to place him at the furthest remove from the sharp, highly-coloured dexterity of Hopkins's poems. Yet the two extremes are complementary counterpoints to the exhaustion that was beginning to be seen in late nineteenth-century English-language poetry.
Hugh Kenner describes this succinctly: One was recourse to the Saxon hoard of strong verbs; the other was this Celtic habit of vivid static images. Hopkins catches a Falcon .. .at his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing.
.the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind.
Here, Kenner says, there are only two formal verbs: 'he hung upon' and 'the gliding rebuffed' but Hopkins isn't interested in 'syntactic expedient' but in 'the word of action: riding, rolling, wimpling, hurl-and-gliding'. The air underneath that falcon is as palpable as a tightrope-walker's rope. For Kenner, the Hopkins lines are full of 'phantom verbs'. Reading Charles Doughty, by contrast, is to find so many more verbs working to present an almost static, weighty presence in the images they refer to, as in these lines from The Dawn in Britain :
A freshing sea-wind boweth down the vessel;
That, like a dive-dopper, flushing from salt waves,
Runs sprinkling, o'er the deep; whilst, landward, sound
Sea's infinite surges, as of thousand oars;
Falling, in measure, on a shelving sand.
At Stone Cottage in Sussex, through the winter of 1913-1914, Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats read The Dawn in Britain and hammered out between them the development of these two different technical aspects of poetry for the Modern Movement.
MacDiarmid deserves credit for seeing how proleptic of Modernist requirements both Doughty and Hopkins were, in their different ways. In various essays, he notes Hopkins's worth. In 'The Future of Scottish Poetry' (1933), he writes:
There are scores of poets who have lived during the past fifty years whose work and qualities as important elements in the evolution of the human spirit should be known to all who profess a serious concern with poetry. Few of them are English; none Scottish or Colonial; none American except T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (both expatriates to Europe); only one, Yeats, Irish; and with the exception of these three, and of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Charles Doughty, the rest of the English ones are of relatively very 'small beer',
while all the major figures belong to other Euripoean literatures. And later in the same essay, he recommends to any aspiring young Scottish poets that they should 'give a wide berth to all modern English poetry save that of Doughty, Hopkins, Eliot, and Yeats' later work'. Elsewhere, he praises Hopkins's 'amazing technical inventiveness and verbal power' and 'vivid eloquence'.
In a 1932 essay he praises 'Inversnaid' for its 'exact notation' and close attunement to the particularity of the specific part of Scotland it describes, its 'appropriate spirit'. In 1931, MacDiarmid devoted an essay to Hopkins in The Scottish Educational Journal (a periodical addressed primarily to school teachers). Here, he describes him as 'a true poet of a very rare and valuable kind - a metrical and verbal experimenter of unquestionable genius.'
Noting that he 'anticipated the experiments of our contemporary "ultra-moderns"', MacDiarmid said that Hopkins's poetry at its best has 'an immediacy, a magical seizure pf the mot propre , and phrasings of an almost inconceivable felicity.' Yet he confirms that in the end, it is a poetry not of vocabulary but of passion. The passages he quotes highlight those qualities of Hopkins with which MacDiarmid felt most affinity, including 'Pied Beauty' in its entirety and extracts such as this, from 'Epithalamion':
We are leaf-whelmed somewhere with the hood
Of some branchy bunchy bushybowered wood,
Southern dean or Lancashire clough or Devon cleave,
That leans along the loins of hills, where a candycoloured,
where a gluegold-brown
Marbled river, boisterously beautiful, between
Roots and rocks is danced and dandled, all in froth and
That passage is surely suggestive of MacDiarmid's astonishing poem 'Tarras', which describes a stretch of boggy moorland in the Scottish borders as if it were the female body, and the poet determined to become intimately part of it:
Ah, woman-fondlin'! What is that to this?
Saft hair to birssy heather, warm kiss [bristly
To cauld black waters' suction.
Nae ardent breists' erection
But the stark hills'! In what dry-gair-flow [dry valley
Can I pillow my lowin' cheek here [blazing
Wi' nae paps' howe below? [breasts' cleavage
Equally, MacDiarmid's 'Water Music' begins by rejecting the music of James Joyce's Dublin Liffey and welcoming the sounds of his own native rivers, the Wauchope, Esk and Ewes that run together in the small town where he was born, Langholm, in the Borders:
Wheesht, wheesht, Joyce, and let me hear
Nae Anna Livvy's lilt,
But Wauchope, Esk and Ewes again,
Each wi' its ain rhythms till't.
Archin' here and arrachin there, [tumultuous
Allevolie or allemand, [randomly or formally
Whiles appliable, whiles areird, [compliant / stubborn
The polysemous poem's planned.
Lively, louch, atweesh, atween, [downcast / between
Auchimuty or aspate, [paltry
Threidin' through the averins [heather stems
Or bightsomn in the aftergait. [ample / outcome
Or barmybrained or barritchfu' [giddy / troublesome
Or rinnin' like an attercap, [spider
Or shinin' like an Atchison, [washed copper coin
Wi' a blare or wi' a blawp. [belch
They ken a' that opens and steeks, [shuts
Frae Fiddleton Bar to Callister Ha',
And roon aboot for twenty miles,
They bead and bell and swaw. [gather, bubble up, ripple It's worth putting that alongside another MacDiarmid poem in praise of the Esk, but written in English, just to show Hopkins's influence at work in a more visible way. This is the opening of 'The Point of Honour':
I would that once more I could blend her
With my own self as I did then
Vivid and impulsive in crystalline splendour
Cold and seething champagne.
(Cut water. Perfection of craft concealed.
In effects of pure improvisation.
Delights of dazzle and dare revealed
In instant inscapes of fresh variation.
Exhilarating, effortless, divinely light,
In apparent freedom yet reined by unseen
And ubiquitous disciplines: darting, lint-white,
Fertile in impulse, in control - keen.Pride of play in a flourish of eddies,
Bravura of blowballs, and silver digressions,
Ringing and glittering she swirls and steadies,
And moulds each ripple with secret suppressions.The poem ends with the river rushing forward beyond vision, and the poet, with the wagtail and robin, left behind: Once, with my boy's body little I knew
But her furious thresh on my flesh;
But now I can know her through and through
And, light like, her tide enmesh.
Stranded. I with them! Would I wish to bend her
To me as she veers on her way again
Vivid and impulsive in crystalline splendour
Cold and seething champagne?
No. So life leaves us. Already gleam
In the eyes of the young, the flicker, the change,
The free enthusiasm that carries the stream
Suddenly out of my range.However, Nowhere did MacDiarmid put what he learned from Hopkins to better use than in the great central poem of his career, 'On a Raised Beach'. If the poems just quoted refer to his childhood terrain, the raised beach is set in the Shetland archipelago, where he was living in the 1930s, in conditions of extreme poverty, spiritual and physical crisis and breakdown. The poem is a philosophical enquiry into the value of human life, measured against the geological scale of the material world, and in the context of revolutionary struggles to bring about a better world - but at what cost? It begins with the poet alone, lying down on the stones of the raised beach, contemplating an island world empty of trees, flowing rivers, fecundity of any kind, simply populated by the bare stones: Nothing has stirred
Since I lay down this morning an eternity ago
But one bird. The widest open door is the least liable to intrusion,
Ubiquitous as the sunlight, unfrequented as the sun.
The inward gates of a bird are always open.
It does not know how to shut them.
That is the secret of its song.
But whether any man's are ajar is doubtful.
I look at these stones and know little about them,
But I know their gates are open too,
Always open, far longer open, than any bird's can be,
That every one of them has had its gates wide open far longer
Than all birds put together, let alone humanity,
Though through them no man can see. Yet MacDiarmid sets himself the task in this poem of trying to reach into the stone world. The title of the volume in which this poem was first published, Stony Limits , comes from a line in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet , 'Stony limits cannot hold love out.' Just so, MacDiarmid's victory in the poem is to move from a solitary, first person singular, to a first person plural and a sense of the shared life of humanity, the attempt to make a life worthwhile. And in his later poetry, long, book-length poems in which Hopkins is referred to and praised directly, the triumph hard-won in 'On a Raised Beach' yields a marvellously farraginous outpouring and celebration of different languages, arts, sciences and information of all sorts.
In the generation of Scottish poets who rose to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) and Edwin Morgan (b.1920) deserve special mention here. George Mackay Brown lived almost all his life in Stromness, on the main island of Orkney. He spent some years in Edinburgh, graduating from the university in 1960, then enrolling at Newbattle College, where his mentor was another Orcadian, the poet Edwin Muir.
Muir encouraged him to study Hopkins for a post-graduate degree, though Muir later said he didn't think Brown would ever have become a professional academic. Nevertheless, Brown's interest in Hopkins was deep and lasting. He was immersed in the qualities of Hopkins's language, his sense of place, the workings of memory and time, and recognised an immediate quality of vision, that brilliance of percetion that comes in Hopkins's imagery of birds, seascapes, natural landscapes, and living things in swift motion. Brown's absorption and deployment of what he learned from Hopkins can be seen especially in some of his early poems, in a craftsman-like practice in his writing which is evident too in his prose - he wrote many books of short stories and novels - and in his ground-faith of religion: he converted to Catholicism in 1961. His conviction in the sacred, the delivery of value through daily, seasonal, yearly and longer cycles, sustained him through a life of personal conservatism. He was in many respects the opposite of MacDiarmid, who proclaimed his desire to always be where extremes meet and said of himself that he was a violent man who would fight when he was attacked.
He was constantly in the middle of the cultural and political fray of modern Scotland, pushing for Scottish independence and a socialist republic, while advocating the most avant-garde of literary ideas. Brown assiduously kept out of such debate, was amiable and gentle, almost always to be found through his working adult life at home in Orkney, writing through the mornings, taking an afternoon walk, visiting friends and being visited, enjoying a beer in the evenings. He wrote a regular column for the weekly local newspaper, The Orcadian , which suggests his commitment to his local community, who generally held him in high regard and with great affection.
So although his art in his novels, stories and poems, can be of the highest, he was not an elitist who disdained his neighbours or people in general. And the Orkney people reciprocated that respect. His writing reaches back into previous generations, from his parents' and earlier, nineteenth-century people, right back to figures from the medieval saga literature, especially St Magnus, who appears in a number of his poems and his finest novel.
In later years, it has been argued, piety began to get the better of him and he revised a number of early poems in which sexually vivid (though never really explicit) imagery had been used. The early work, however, shows, both in its sharpness of imagery and sacral attitudes to daily life, violence and sacrifice, and also in its formal accomplishment in stanza structure, narrative complexity and coherence, and poetic balance, that he had learned a great deal from Hopkins. His earliest poems show the influence most clearly. For example, in 'The Storm':
The sea - organ and harps - wailed miserere;
Swung me in fluent valleys, poised
On icy yielding peaks
Hissing spume, until
Rousay before me, the stout mast
Snapped, billowing down helpless sail.
What evil joy the storm
Seized us! Plunged and spun!
Or in 'Elegy', where the liturgical form matches the seasonal round:
The Magnustide long swords of rain
Quicken the dust. The ploughman turns
Furrow by holy furrow
The liturgy of April.
What rock of sorrow
Checks the seed's throb and flow
Now the lark's skein is thrown
About the burning sacrificial hill?
In the poem for his father, 'Hamnavoe', Brown describes the small fishing town in a brilliant constellation of pictures: the morning is 'barbarous with gulls'; in the pub, beards are 'spumy with porter'; boats drive 'furrows homeward, like ploughmen'; and houses go blind with curtains drawn 'for a / Grief by the shrouded nets'. This was the world his father knew:
And because, under equality's sun,
All things wear now to a common soiling,
In the fire of images
Gladly I put my hand
To save that day for him.
In 'The Poet', we are invited to contemplate the 'cold stare' that returns 'to its true task, the interrogation of silence.' Yet reading Brown's Collected Poems is to be invited into a well-populated universe, full of saints and sinners, drinkers, farmers, sailors, fishermen, wanderers, stay-at-homes, wives and husbands, grandparents and children, men in the pubs, ladies taking tea.
It is a profoundly conservative world, yet it is a world in which the absolutes of modernity - uranium mining that could destroy agriculture and fishing grounds, a nuclear industry threatening Armageddon - are as final in their implications as the biological facts of birth, reproduction and death are as inescapable in their eternal practice. 'The Hawk' describes a week in the life of a predator, from the Monday on which 'a chicken screamed / Lost in its own little snowstorm' to the Saturday when 'Jock lowered his gun / and nailed a small wing over the corn.'
George Mackay Brown's poems normally have little of the vertiginous speed and flashing velocities of Hopkins but they are curious about people in a way Hopkins's poems are not. The attractions, then, are much more to do with the craft of verse, the reassurances of ritual and observation, the qualities of neighbourliness and the idea of an ineffable magnificence. His most approachable book is An Orkney Tapestry (1969), a collection of poems, essays, short stories and short play-sketches that are equally balanced between a commitment to their own art and a loyalty to the people of the islands he describes.
In that sense, Brown is a writer of place in a way Hopkins was not. But the recognition of violence and the aspiration to neighbourliness, are qualities in both their visions of how the world is, and what it might be bettered by. There are a number of affectionate references to Hopkins in Brown's often whimsical column in The Orcadian . For example, on 3 December 1992, in a column headed 'Desert Island Poems', he writes: 'I wouldn't want to be without a Hopkins sonnet: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God", which sees to the clean roots of things under all the grime and the dirt.' And on 22 June 1989, he devoted an entire column to Hopkins. Here he said:
I feel that his life and writing was a seeking for the sources of things, from which new life springs perpetually to renew the earth that is forever being soiled and filthied by industrialism and the wounds that men inflict on the environment.
To do this work of cleansing he had to throw away the old worn moulds of language, and mint words and images as if they were being used for the first time.
Describing a visit to a Hopkins exhibition in Oxford in the centenary of his death, Brown remarks on the fascination of his manuscript poems: 'unlike poems written in English before, or ever will be again, so daring and revolutionary they are in imagery and technique.' He attends a Requiem Mass in the Church of St Aloysius, where Hopkins had been a curate in his youth; he comments on the community of feeling among the congregation, whom he feels must know the poems as well as he. He commends the priest's sermon, 'jewelled with quotations from that small sheaf of poems which has added such great treasure to our literature'. And he applauds Hopkins's humility in refusing to seek fame in his lifetime, while in this church a hundred years after his death, 'his spirit is everywhere'.
In his life he was never in Orkney, but one can feel his spirit here too, in the rapture of a skylark singing, in the cold clean thrilling wash of the sea against Yesnaby and Birsay, in the midsummer rush and cluster of the wild flowers with the morning dew about them; and in the fish and animals and folk, every one distinct and unique, a never-to-be-repeated joy. George Mackay Brown's world was very different from that of Edwin Morgan, who grew up in Glasgow and spent his working life as a lecturer and professor at Glasgow University. At home in the city, he travelled widely throughout the world and was probably the most intellectually gregarious poet in Scottish letters since MacDiarmid. A massively accomplished linguist, he translated widely from numerous European (including East European) languages, most memorably in a book of versions of the Soviet poet Mayakovsky into Scots, Wi' the Haill Voice.
But he simultaneously was a voracious reader and contagiously enthusiastic teacher of modern American poetry, especially the poets of the Beat, Black Mountain and San Francisco movements. His own poetry began with a translation of Beowulf in the 1950s but his breakthrough volume was The Second Life in 1968, which included lyrical love poems, autobiographical poems, portraits of famous figures like Marilyn Monroe, and city poems based in Glasgow. None of them demonstrate the specific influence of Hopkins but in their astonishing variety they demonstrate the virtuosity of a writer who matches his own description of Hopkins: 'a man who was a poet to his finger-tips'. Committed as he was to city life, it is little wonder that when he did come to write explicitly about him, Morgan's Hopkins was the city man.
In contrast to George Mackay Brown, for Morgan, the memorable Hopkins was the human being tormented by need, suffering the life of the industrial city and its victims to rest on his shoulders as he tried to make their lives more liveable. The portrait is a true picture of a Hopkins it is easy to overlook in the rapture over his technical abilities and his distinctive vision of nature. It appears in a collection entitled Sonnets from Scotland (1984), written in the decade immediately following the rise to political power of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in Westminster and the disqualification of a Scottish majority vote for devolution by the Westminster government, both in 1979. Morgan's Sonnets were one of a number of important works in all the literary genres and an impressive quantity of archival research into Scotland's literature, music, painting and other forms of cultural production by numerous writers, critics and scholars, that appeared in the 1980s and 1990s.
These were all part of a major general statement about Scotland's independent cultural status and authority which helped bring about the self-confidence that led to the successful referendum of 1997, the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the return of a Scottish Nationalist government in 2007. These matters are a broad context for Morgan's Sonnets but they help to elucidate the unusual narrative form they take, as an unspecified group of interplanetary time travellers visit Scotland, encounter the country from earliest times (the first poem starts with the words, 'There is no beginning.') to possible futures. We see with them imaginary scenarios both bad and good (nuclear holocaust, a Solway canal running the length of the Border), and a number of visitors to Scotland we might not have expected, including Edgar Allan Poe, the Greek poet George Seferis, and Gerard Manley Hopkins in Glasgow.
G.M. Hopkins in Glasgow Earnestly
nervous yet forthright, melted
by bulk and warmth and unimposed rough grace,
he lit a ready fuse from face to face
of Irish Glasgow. Dark tough tight-belted
drunken Fenian poor ex-Ulstermen
crouched round a brazier like a burning bush
and lurched into his soul with such a push
that British angels blanched in mid-amen
to see their soldier stumble like a Red.
Industry's pauperism singed his creed.
He blessed them, frowned, beat on his hands. The load
of coal-black darkness clattering on his head
half-crushed, half-fed the bluely burning need
That trudged him back along North Woodside Road.This is Hopkins biography but with the added nuance of the poet's perception and suggestive interpretation of what moved him, what he saw, what he hoped to achieve, trying to help people to live through his own 'nervous yet forthright' belief-driven behaviour. Morgan's Hopkins is a vivid portrait of the poet in the city, among people, carrying the weight of his conviction, driven by a deeply human need. It is not merely fanciful projection, but it certainly represents aspects of Morgan's life as well as Hopkins's. The fourth person I'd like to talk about here is a poet of a very different kind again. Margaret Tait (1918-1999) was an experimental film-maker. She served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in the 1940s (as did Edwin Morgan, and as had Hugh MacDiarmid during the First World War). In the 1950s, she studied at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, then, returning to Scotland, she founded her own company, Ancona Films. Over forty-six years she produced thirty films, three books of poetry and two collections of short stories, living in Edinburgh and her native Orkney. So here we have a woman whose upbringing and schooling encompassed both the isolated islands of the Orkney archipelago and the busy city life of Edinburgh. Her commitment to film was never compromised by the desire to subscribe to commercial priorities and she made only one feature-length film, Blue Black Permanent (1992). She described her work as the making of 'film poems' and rejected descriptions of it as documentary or diary-film, quoting with approval the Spanish poet Lorca's phrase, 'stalking the image' in the belief that the close observation of an object will allow it to speak for itself of its nature. Tait said of her films that they were created out of 'sheer wonder and astonishment at how much can be seen in any place that you choose.if you really look.' Her films include character-portraits, including one of Hugh MacDiarmid (1964, 9 minutes); a study of a small stream, Orquil Burn (1955, 35 minutes), following a walk beside a burn travelling upstream to its source: 'it turned out that the sources were many, the origins widespread'; Where I Am is Here (1964, 35 minutes), a record of the everyday things that surrounded her life in Edinburgh: with 'none of the obvious shots' but rather 'a cold, sad, essentially Scottish strangeness: the dream of a city as it flows in the bloodstream of the people who live in it.' There are also The Big Sheep (1966, 41 minutes), a journey through the Highlands of Scotland, where memories of the clearances still haunt landscapes and people; Place of Work (1976, 31 minutes), a 'close study of one garden and house and what could be seen and heard there within the space of time from June 1975 to November 1975'; the sequence of films called Aspects of Kirkwall (five films, 1977-1981); and Land Makar (1981, 32 minutes), 'a landscape study of an Orkney croft with the crofter, Mary Graham Sinclair, very much in the picture.' Although her poems are Modernist in form, using free verse, oblique angles of approach and ironic humour, there is little in them to suggest the direct influence of Hopkins. They were published in three books, origins & elements (1959), The Hen and the Bees (1960) and Subjects and Sequences (1960). Through the 1950s Hugh MacDiarmid had published a number of Tait's poems in his magazine, The Voice of Scotland . Edwin Morgan favourably reviewed origins & elements in the Autumn 1961 issue of New Saltire (no. 2), in an essay entitled 'Who will Publish Scottish Poetry?' He noted that some poems 'have a Lawrence-like concern with moment and movement, with a poetry of immediacy to be taken "Quickly / Without water".' Tait wrote an article, 'George Mackay Brown remembered' for the magazine Chapman (no.84, 1996, pp.33-34) and George Mackay Brown wrote in praise of her films, in The Orcadian , especially of the film we are concerned with here, The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo (1955, 7 minutes), a setting of the Hopkins poem with the same title (written in October 1882, a year after 'Inversnaid'). So there are a number of traces that connect all four of these Scottish poets to each other as well as to Hopkins: a complex affinity of interest. Brown's comment on the film is this: 'The theme is a common one in this most difficult and yet most transparently simple of all poets: all things lovely and young are doomed inevitably to decay and death - nothing can keep them away. Yet (comes back the golden echo from the grayness of the lamentation) having once existed they can never pass away; beauty is gathered and stored in granaries beyond corruption.' Although Tait's poems are of significant value and have suffered undue neglect, her writing on the relation of poetry and film suggest the intensity and commitment she felt towards her favoured medium. Her rejection of the term 'documentary' is instructive: The contradictory or paradoxical thing is that in a documentary the real things depicted are liable to lose their reality by being photographed and presented in that 'documentary' way, and there's no poetry in that. In poetry, something else happens. Hard to say what it is. Presence, let's say, soul or spirit, an empathy with whatever it is that's dwelt upon, feeling for it - to the point of identification. On the other hand, I have at times been imbued with the idea of making a film to illustrate, or to set (in the sense of setting a poem to music) an existing poem, a known poem, and an early effort of mine was to set to pictures Hopkins's 'The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo'. Tait wrote: 'This is an early film of mine - started in 1948, set aside and returned to now and again, and completed in 1955 - in which I tried matching images of my own to the poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins. When it came to editing, I read the poem, for recording first, and the pictures fitted, because I had the relevant lines in mind at the time of shooting; and I think I had to insert only one pause in the pre-recorded track.' What we see in the film, I think, both heightens and distracts from the poem, then returns you to it with the eerie sense that it belongs not to you, but to other people as much as to you. Reading Hopkins silently, or even aloud in company, it's easy to feel the intimacy and power of his language and form working viscerally and stimulating the imagination as you read, personally, intensely. Tait's film, for me, wrenches you away from the complacency of accepting or assuming that, and pushes you to a realisation that what this poem is about is other people as well as all things, as well as yourself. As you watch the people in this film, living, moving, making their mouths move to give shape to what utterance the poem demands, you are aware of how their presence on film signifies their absence in fact, their distance in time from you, witnessing now. And this recognition is also what the poem itself is asking you to acknowledge with humility. 'I think film is essentially a poetic medium,' Tait wrote, 'and although it can be out to all sorts of other - creditable and discreditable - uses, these are secondary.' In this film, the images may be secondary to the words, but they are a real interpretation of them, as the best musical settings of fine poems can surprise you by an enhancement of the meaning in the words themselves. [The lecture ended with a screening of Margaret Tait's film of Hopkins's poem, The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo , shown with the permission of the Margaret Tait estate, copyright Alex Pirie. Film made available on DVD by Scottish Screen Archive, National Library of Scotland, 39-41 Montrose Avenue, Hillington Park, Glasgow G52 4LA. Web: http://www.nls.uk/ssa/ Telephone: 0845 366 4600 Fax: 0845 366 4601 E-mail: email@example.com] The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo
(Maiden's song from St Winefred's Well) The Leaden Echo
How to keep - is there any any, is there none such, nowhere
known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or
catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty,.from vanishing
away? O is there no frowning of these wrinkles, ranked wrinkles deep,
Down? No waving off of these most mournful messengers, still
messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?
No there's none, there's none, O no there's none,
Nor can you long be, what you are now, called fair,
Do what you may do, what, do what you may,
And wisdom is early to despair:
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age's evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death's worst, winding sheets,
tombs and worms and tumbling to decay;
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there's none; no no no there's none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair. The Golden Echo Spare!
There is one, yes I have one (Hush there!);
Only not within seeing of the sun,
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,
Tall sun's tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth's air,
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,
One. Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,
Where whatever's prized and passes of us, everything that's fresh
and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and swiftly
away with, done away with, undone,
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matched face,
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets more, fastened with the tenderest truth
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an
everlastingness of, O it is an all youth!
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear,
gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose
locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace -
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with Breath,
And with sighs soaring, soaring sighs deliver
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty's
self and beauty's giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould
Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind
what while we slept,
This side, that side hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold
What while we, while we slumbered.
O then, weary then why should we tread? O why are we so
haggard at the heart, so care-coiled, care-killed, so fagged,
so fashed, so cogged, so cumbered,
When the thing we freely forfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer,
A care kept. - Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where. -
Yonder. - What high as that! We follow, now we follow. -
Brown, George Mackay, The Collected Poems , ed. Archie Bevan and Brian Murray (London: John Murray, 2005)
Brown, George Mackay, Rockpools and Daffodils: An Orcadian Diary 1979-1991 (Edinburgh: Gordon Wright, 1992)
Brown, George Mackay, The First Wash of Spring (London and Edinburgh, 2006)
Hopkins, Gerard Manley, Poems and Prose , ed. W.H. Gardner (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1953; repr.1985)
Kenner, Hugh, A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984)
MacDiarmid, Hugh (C.M. Grieve), Selected Prose , ed. Alan Riach (Manchester: Carcanet, 1992)
MacDiarmid, Hugh (C.M. Grieve), The Complete Poems , ed. Michael Grieve and W.R. Aitken, 2 volumes (Manchester: Carcanet, 1993 and 1994)
MacDiarmid, Hugh (C.M. Grieve), The Raucle Tongue: Hitherto Uncollected Prose , ed. Angus Calder, Glen Murray and Alan Riach, 3 volumes (Manchester: Carcanet, 1996, 1997 and 1998)
Morgan, Edwin, 'Who will Publish Scottish Poetry?' [review article], New Saltire , no. 2 (Autumn 1961)
Morgan, Edwin, 'The Poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson', in Essays (Cheaedle Hulme: Carcanet, 1974)
Morgan, Edwin, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1996)
[Tait, Margaret], Subjects and Sequences: A Margaret Tait Reader , ed. Peter Todd and Benjamin Cook (London: LUX, 2004)
White, Norman, Hopkins: A Literary Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, repr.1995)
Links to 2008 Hopkins Festival Lectures
|| || Editing Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins || Fancy in Hopkins Poetics || Hopeful Hopkins || Dolben and Hopkins || Dancer Isadora Duncan and Hopkins Poetry || Hopkins and Water Imagery || The Dark Sonnets || Hopkins Interpretation || A Scottish Reading of Hopkins Poetry || John Henry Newman and Translation ||