HUGH MACDIARMID: Toward a Materialist Poetics

by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.

Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form–in short, senses capable of human gratifications, senses confirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being.  For not only the five senses but also the so-called mental senses–the practical senses (will, love, etc.)–in a word, human sense–the humanness of the senses–comes to be by virtue of its object, by virtue of humanized nature.  The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present.
…The human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.

Anyone daring for the first time to enter the massive and immense structure composing the entire oeuvre of Hugh MacDiarmid would do no worse, I feel, than take the poet’s affirmation of his beliefs about his vocation at face value and see how they fare in our appreciation of his poems. One can at the outset suggest that the magisterial theme of MacDiarmid’s poetry is the achievement of the fullest human freedom or self-fulfillment for everyone, what Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto called the free development of each individual predicated on the free development of all. MacDiarmid envisioned poetry as “human existence come to life.” What complicates this outlook and makes it problematic for most commentators is MacDiarmid’s now legendary if controversial nationalism and his lifelong crusade against British imperialism and its Scottish allies. In his self-commentary of 1952 he describes his paradoxical commitment: “if he is an extreme Scottish nationalist he is also one of the greatest internationalists even Scotland has ever produced” (1970a, 21).
Indeed, MacDiarmid was proud of his being “organically welded” with the working masses because he was rooted in the place of his birth, Dumfriesshire burgh of Langholm, whose “tremendous proletarian virtue” saved him from the ordeal of searching for his identity amid the religiosity, parochialism, and general alienation of the milieu. In this habitat he would celebrate how man “will flash with the immortal fire” and “rise/To the full height of the imaginative act/That wins to the reality in the fact”–life flaming in the vision of “the light that breaks/From the whole earth seen as a star again/In the general life of man” (1970a, 36). It seems that MacDiarmid’s imagination grounds its truth, its enabling virtue, in the terrestrial, quasi-Manichean drama of a struggle between progressive and reactionary forces; in this theater “whaur extremes meet,” the spirit’s agon performs its daily ritual of incarnation. In effect, MacDiarmid strove to realize the harmony of affective and cognitive faculties in praxis, in practical sensuous activity, where thought and feeling coalesced (Thomson 1974). Poetic utterance is this praxis of communication.
At the age of forty-six, MacDiarmid reflected on his career by assaying the crisis that overtook poets like Keats, Wordsworth, and Rimbaud. In the process he expressed the radical historicist foundation of his “method of being”:

–I am forty-six; of tenacious, long-lived, country folk.
Fools regret my poetic change–from my ‘enchanting early lyrics’–But I have found in Marxism all that I need–
(I on my mother’s side of long-lived Scottish peasant stock
And on my father’s of hardy keen-brained Border mill-workers).
It only remains to perfect myself in this new mode.

(1978, 30)
What this “new mode” signifies is nothing else but the principle of dialectical materialism that holds paramount the historical specificity of any cultural/ideological practice. It also posits the reciprocal dynamics of human sensibility and the multilayered social totality in which it is inscribed. Hence MacDiarmid situates his own art concretely within the cultural heritage of Scotland. He disavows any tendency toward “purely hothouse proletarian literature” by addressing what Gramsci calls the “national-popular” needs of the masses in Scotland, needs that provide the energies for a socialist project of winning hegemony. While MacDiarmid’s comprehension of Marxism may be revisionist  from the perspective of orthodox Marxism-Leninism, I think his practice is more revolutionary insofar as the construction of a poetic idiom geared to shaping a materialist/scientific consciousness is concerned. Like Bertolt Brecht or Ernesto Cardenal, he wanted to communicate to the masses and in the process educate (both teach and learn from) them. One can argue that MacDiarmid’s moral authority originates from the spontaneous “creaturality” and ironic humor of plebeian Scotland, a lifeworld imbued with joy and dignity, at once material and transcendental.
In “Aesthetics in Scotland,” MacDiarmid outlines his militant stance: “I regard the cultural question of supreme importance, and believe the function of Literature and the Arts to be the expansion of human consciousness, or as my friend Sean O’Casey termed it, ‘the sensitive extension of the world….’ My real concern with Socialism is as an artist’s organised approach to the interdependencies of life” (1978, xxvii-xxviii). Perhaps the fundamental thesis crystallizing MacDiarmid’s various formulations of his social responsibility as a Scottish poet, the “central passion that animates” his poetry, is this passage from the magnificent “Third Hymn to Lenin” which he quotes at the beginning of Chapter VI of his autobiography Lucky Poet:

Our concern is human wholeness–the child-like spirit
Newborn every day–not, indeed, as careless of tradition
Nor of the lessons of the past: these it must needs inherit;
But as capable of such complete assimilation and surrender,
So all-inclusive, unfenced-off, uncategorized, sensitive, and
That growth is unconditional and unwarped–Ah, Lenin,
Life and that more abundantly, thou Fire of Freedom!
Firelike in your purity and heaven-seeking vehemence,
Yet the adjective must not suggest merely meteoric,
Spectacular–not the flying sparks, but the intense
Glowing core of your character, your large and splendid    stability,
Made you the man you were–the live heart of all humanity–
Spirit of Lenin, light on this city now!
Light up this city now!
(1972, 312)

Immediately obvious here is the fact that the city, not rural landscape, becomes the privileged site of metamorphosis and “soul-making.” Two themes are signalled in that passage–the theme of growth or process of renewal leading to a differentiated, innovative, and responsive wholeness; and the theme of enlightenment and the invention of a character, a heroic archetype or model forged in the fires of anti-imperialist class struggles. Both themes are dialectically integrated in MacDiarmid’s aesthetic practice which aims not just to reflect reality or express personal idiosyncracies but actually produce necessary forms of social consciousness. In terms of Christopher Caudwell’s (1946) theoretical framework, MacDiarmid’s poetics juxtaposes mimesis, the contrivance of a phantasy “Mock World,” and pragmatic socialization of affects where the “I” (the social ego) generates and experiments with new social possibilities. In this reckoning, poetry becomes an agent of historical and psychological change.
Such controlling themes distilled here in schematic form, however, have to be mediated in a verbal design both utile et dulce. Aside from that twin Horatian dimension of classic art, what is desired above all is that the form should avoid “the irresponsible lyricism” of banal feeling MacDiarmid identifies with the narcissistic sentimentality that plagues capitalist society. In “Utterly a Creator,” he conceives of the oscillation between idea and emotion, between passion and intellect, transpiring in the artistic process of inventing forms. He describes the process as one of “conflict/ Between discipline at its most strenuous/And feeling at its highest–wherein abrasive surfaces/Are turned upon one another like millstones,/And instead of generating chaos/Refine the grist of experience between them.” Art is thus conceived as a peculiar form of production, its product being “an intricately-cut gem-stone of a myriad facets/That is yet, miraculously, a whole.”
My favorite example of MacDiarmid’s ars poetica is the poem “Crystals like Blood.” Here the analogy of imaginative creation and the operation of a grinding machine is used to suggest the condition of possibility for experiencing grief coalesced with love for the memory of a departed loved one. The speaker begins with a recollection: he found “Crystals like blood in a broken stone” he picked up one day, one face of the broken chunk torn from the bedrock “caked with brown limestone.” Then follows telltale notations of the “greenish-grey quartz-like stone/Faintly dappled with darker shadows” streaked with “veins and beads/Of bright magenta.” From this tableau, the speaker shifts to another recollection, this time a scene in a factory where one precious mineral (mercury) is extracted from the red ore of cinnabar crumbled by iron piledrivers and lifted up into a kiln:

And I remember how later on I saw
How mercury is extracted from cinnabar
–The double ring of iron piledrivers
Like the multiple legs of a fantastically symmetrical spider
Rising and falling with monotonous precision,
Marching round in an endless circle
And pounding up and down with a tireless, thunderous force,
While, beyond, another conveyor drew the crumbled ore
From the bottom and raised it to an opening high
In the side of a gigantic grey-white kiln.

So I remember how mercury is got
When I contrast my living memory of you
And your dear body rotting here in the clay
–And feel once again released in me
The bright torrents of felicity, naturalness, and faith
My treadmill memory draws from you yet.
(1993, 231)
One cannot help perceiving in the brute force of the pile drivers performing one repeated motion over and over and its thunderous sound an intimation of feelings the speaker is struggling to control; such feelings are bound to the logic of an image taken from the realm of industrial technology. The elegy acquires an “objective correlative” for a melancholy that, if not displaced appropriately, would damage the ego. What enables the displacement is something Vladimir Mayakovsky (1972) once called the rigor of “the social demand.”  The spare, monosyllabic phrasing of the last stanza demonstrates a calculated mimesis of the process of extracting mercury itself, with the rapid flow of the line “The bright torrents of felicity, naturalness, and faith” capturing the moment of “release”–only to be reined in by the laconic tone of the last line. The modulation here contours poignantly the flow of mourning.
What is striking in this anti-elegy can be elucidated as a trope of analogy: the mercury of memory and the rotting body in the clay symmetrically evoke the two contrasting surfaces of the fragment of bed-rock painted earlier. What is surprising, however, is not any supposed parallelism between the mill and the imagination but the proposition that the tension between the poet’s “living memory” of the loved one and his full consciousness of her physical decay is what releases the radiant burst of vital life that sustains the speaker’s mind. The point then is not loss as such but loss as a mode of recovery.
The theme of a mind in control and triumphant over time and death is refracted in “The Terrible Crystal.” The poet addresses a white stone “formed in tragedy/And calcined in catastrophe.” In the “white intensity of that single central radiance” found in the stone he contemplates, he glimpses “Visions of a transcendental country/Stretching out athwart the temporal frontiers.” The crystal embodies “the cataclysm and central fires” of life kindled at those moments “When consciousness is crucified upon circumstance.” Here, the Marxist axiom of the dialectic between matter and consciousness, social being and the psyche is modulated to assign to thought (where concepts of relations are produced) an unexpected locus of agency:

Clear thought is the quintessence of human life.
In the end its acid power will disintegrate
All the force and flummery of current passions and pretences,
Eat the life out of every false loyalty and craven creed
And bite its way through to a world of light and truth.

(1967, 30)
Lest MacDiarmid be accused of philosophical idealism by sectarian partisans, I venture to remind them that thought, for Engels, is a modality of matter in motion. Here, the logical culmination of thought’s adventure is the mystical “diamond body” MacDiarmid celebrates in the poem “Diamond Body in a Cave of the Sea,” where “seeming deception prefigures truth” in his achieving knowledge that the earth ebbs and flows, the water remains steady–the revelation of the “Great Tao” of the world. The stones in “On A Raised Beach” deliver the same epiphanic epistemology.
In the Western tradition, one can valorize MacDiarmid’s quest for a poetry of knowledge as a refunctioning of the classic humanistic ideal of art combining knowledge and pleasure in a context where everything is commodified. His affinity, however, is with Brecht’s mode of teaching/learning via techniques of distanciation and restructuring. One example is MacDiarmid’s resort to an image of technical process at the end of what began as a salute to the archaic past, “Lamh Dearg Aboo.” He is concerned with how the meaning of Scotland’s history, its ancient heroic greatness, can be captured by evoking the unified action of fifteen hundred men in battle. To convey this discipline and singleness of purpose, the poet abruptly shifts to a scene of machinery in motion acutely delineated–the foil to the “fog of oppression and cant” scattered by “fluent Gaelic sunlight”:

To see this is as when in a great ship’s engine-room
Through all the vastness of furnaces and clanging machinery is
The quiet simple thing all that is about–a smooth column of
The propeller shaft, in cool and comfortable bearings, turning round and
round with no sound
–All the varying forces, the stresses and resistances,
Proceeding from that welter of machinery.
Unified into the simple rotation of this horizontal column,
And conducted calmly along its length into the sea.

Conventional opinion attributes to MacDiarmid an obsession with the heterogeneous, with incompatibilities and incongruities. But further inquiry will show that the poet’s drive for mastery of form and linguistic resources derives from a profound engagement with the political and social dynamic immanent in lived experience. In “The Terrible Crystal,” the poet seeks a poetry with “the power/Of fusing the discordant qualities of experience,/Of mixing moods, and holding together opposites….” The yoking of opposites and contradictions in his imagery and style is not just an exercise of multiplying metaphysical conceits, an exhibition of the proverbial “Caledonian Antisyzygy”  (Bold 1988) for its own sake; rather, it is an integral part of the hybrid, decentered poetics he is trying to evolve. He longs for “an imaginative integrity/That includes, but transcends, sensibility as such,” an integrity that struggles “through complexity to simplicity,” a necessary and equally difficult task. After the organized gallimaufry of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, MacDiarmid  replaced the emblematic thistle with Cencrastus, the Curly Snake, which “represents not only all the sinuosities of ancient Celtic wisdom but also the devious resourcefulness of MacDiarmid himself, who has said of the winding path near Langholm called the Curly Snake: “It has always haunted my imagination and has probably constituted itself the ground plan and pattern of my mind” (1978, xv).
I suggest that MacDiarmid’s protean and syncretic art be seen as one of those recurrent efforts in Western culture to reconcile classic and romantic polarities.  Indeed, the precise term for this strategy of interrogating and transforming those polarities constituting the bourgeois art of representation is critical “dialectics.” Underneath the poet’s will to achieve encyclopedic scope is a passion for inventing multiple perspectives needed to overturn fixed positions and revealing their anchorage in practice and cooperative production. MacDiarmid valorizes the experience of change and the analytic discernment of shifting relations; he strives to dramatize process and mutability amid the illusions of stasis and permanence. His imagination traces its genealogy to the dialogue between Heraclitus and Parmenides at the dawn of Western science and cosmological speculation. In “Poetry and Science,”  MacDiarmid invokes Walt Whitman’s call to conform to “the concrete realities and theories of the universe furnished by science.” More crucial is his quote from the philosopher Santayana: “The heart and mystery of matter lies in the seeds of things, semina rarum, and in the customary cycles of their transformation” (1970a, 244). In “The Terrible Crystal,” he pursues “the hidden and lambent core” :”A teleology essentially immanent,/God’s relation to the world being in some general way/Like the relation of our minds to our bodies.”
MacDiarmid’s conception of a scientific poetics inheres in a view of reality as process where facts are events, where phenomena enact the laws of motion. His predilection for description of perceptible surfaces (for instance, geological formations) or physical motions as vehicles for staging the evocation of felt thought may be illustrated in many of his longer poems, especially “On a Raised Beach.” In a short one entitled “The Skeleton of the Future (At Lenin’s Tomb),” the symbolic play of colors and the chiaroscuro of background/foreground elements function as tropological networks that compress a whole range of ideas and values about the permanence of a significant life, its precision and objectivity, vis-a-vis the transience of the body:

Red granite and black diorite, with the blue
Of the labradorite crystals gleaming like precious stones
In the light reflected from the snow; and behind them
The eternal lightning of Lenin’s bones.

Characteristically, MacDiarmid’s mind orbits around the sense of sight counterpointed by a fine instinct for the music of syntax and grammar: for instance, he refers to Lenin’s “lizard eyes.” He vows to revenge Lorca’s death inspired by the poet’s pupils “that had known how to see/Unique colours and foreshortenings of wonder.” Sight recoils from ecological blurring: Edinburgh, like most cities, suffers from the dark “monstrous pall” of industrialism for which Lenin’s clairvoyance would be a way out. Such clairvoyance is “the result of a profound and all-sided knowledge of life/With all its richness of colour, connexions and relations.”
Sensitive to manifold and subtle linkages of intuition, MacDiarmid can apprehend the paradox of “Light and Shadow,” of ignorance and knowledge fused in signifying practice. “Cross-lights of errors” share with “shadowy glimpses of unknown thoughts” a subliminal power to illuminate the limits of rationality so that the poet is led eventually to pray: “May I…never fail/To keep some shining sense of the way all thoughts at last/Before life’s dawning meaning like the stars at sunrise pale.” This humility, or more exactly materialist wisdom, serves to circumscribe a strong neoPlatonic or even quasi-Hegelian idealism in MacDiarmid ascribable perhaps to his faith in what Coleridge calls the “esemplastic” power of the imagination: “Know that thought is reality–and thought alone!–/And must absorb all the material–their goal/The mastery by the spirit of all the facts that can be known.” That affirmation, however, is repeatedly undercut and qualified by the poet’s intuitive mastery of what Engels designates as “the dialectics of nature.”
Corollary to the exaltation of the poet’s imagination is his conviction that such mastery is made possible only by the collective labor and sacrifice of working people. The creative impulse is now interpreted here as a refinement of the energy that circulates in the sociolibinal economy of matter. In the haunting four lines of “On the Ocean Floor,” MacDiarmid seems to counterpoint his belief in individual genius by discovering “what as a Communist he should be aware of–the masses themselves, dying and falling anonymously like the foraminifera, but from whom something is going to rise up, a new society like the chalk cliffs rising from the depths of the sea” (Morgan 1976, 21):

Now more and more on my concern with the lifted waves of genius gaining
I am aware of the lightless depths that beneath them lie;
And as one who hears their tiny shells incessantly raining
On the ocean floor as the foraminifera die.

The foraminifera here may be deemed the microcosmic counterpart of the stones in “On a Raised Beach.” Meanwhile, in the poem In Memoriam James Joyce, MacDiarmid expresses the cosmological aspiration of totalizing all the richness and diversity of phenomena in art. Again the drive is toward synthesis, the proof of interdependency, via distanciation or estrangement and transformative critique. The poet strives to make “a moving, thrilling, mystical, tropical,/Maniacal, magical creation of all these oppositions” under the pressure of circumstances. To absorb the “abysses and altitudes of the mind of man,” he seeks for a language with “A marvellous lucidity, a quality of fiery aery light,/Flowing like clear water, flying like a bird,/Burning like a sunlit landscape.” In effect, the production of poetic art involves the analytic of distinguishing materials and methods of articulation that engage “the central issues of life,” “reality in motion.” Or, as MacDiarmid puts it more precisely: the dialectics of the era expressed in “The class war, the struggles and ideals/Of the proletariat bent on changing the world,/And consequently on changing human nature” (1978, 67).
The most elaborate performance of MacDiarmid’s aesthetics is found in two chapters, “The Kind of Poetry I Want,” and “The Ideas Behind My Work,” in his epic self-study Lucky Poet. In essence, McDiarmid’s lifelong pursuit of comprehending the “interdependencies of life” compels him to orient his imagination toward “problems of value” embodied in quotidian experience and to do justice “to the disruptive as well as to the cohesive forces” in society. One of the finest illustrations of MacDiarmid’s dialectical mode of mapping reality in motion is the poem “The Glass of Pure Water.” Critics who fault MacDiarmid for his self-indulgence in polemical and propagandistic statements–never mind their failure to discriminate between mimetic, didactic, and allegorical genres–often ignore poems with a complex figural constellation that escapes the formulaic typology of academic pluralism. Such pedagogy, antithetical to MacDiarmid’s avant-garde hubris, is afraid to take the risk of grappling with contingencies, particularly the risk of anticipating liberation in a future where repression, scarcity, and the state no longer exist.
What is at stake here is the vexed issue of the politics of the imagination and the complicity of art and power. In “The Glass of Pure Water,” the problem of writing political poetry is posed most sharply: what is the relation between the poet-persona with his revolutionary vision and the oppressed masses sunk in mute suffering, the object contemplated, whom the poet wants to serve with his intellect? Is the emancipatory consciousness always inserted from the outside? Or is there a spontaneous impulse for change in the masses that poetry aims to channel and intensify to bring about their deliverance? In short, is the imagination a messiah for the nation-people, or is it an agitprop catalyst for radical transformation?
MacDiarmid begins with problematizing our capacity to discern “the essence of human life”:

Hold a glass of pure water to the eye of the sun!
It is difficult to tell the one from the other
Save by the tiny hardly visible trembling of the water.

By our own unaided perception, we cannot grasp difference. But “the lives of these particular slum people…like the lives of all/The world’s poorest” remind the poet less of the glass of water he delineated earlier than of the feeling they had “Who saw Sacco and Vanzetti in the death cell/On the eve of their execution.”  The reference to these exemplary anarchists victimized by a racist/capitalist state introduces the observation that the language of bare hands, universally understood by all, defies speech or utterance. “Hands” operate as simultaneously synecdoche and metonymy for human labor, praxis, all transformative action. The Angel who reports on the condition of human life to God exploits the infinite resources of signs produced by the intricate movement of the hand:

And look at the changing shapes–the countless
Little gestures, little miracles of line–
Of your forefinger and thumb as you move them….

The only communication between man and man
That says anything worth hearing
–The hidden well-water; the finger of destiny–
Moves as that water, that angel, moved.
Truth is the rarest thing and life
The gentlest, most unobtrusive movement in the world.
I cannot speak to you of the poor people of all the world
But among the people in these nearest slums I know
This infinitesimal twinkling, this delicate play
Of tiny signs that not only say more
Than all speech, but all there is to say,
All there is to say and to know and to be.
There alone I seldom find anything else,
Each in himself or herself a dramatic whole,
An ‘agon’ whose validity is timeless.

Our duty is to free that water, to make these gestures,
To help humanity to shed all else,
All that stands between any life and the sun,
The quintessence of any life and the sun;
To still all sound save that talking to God;
To end all movements save movements like these.

We confront here the nullity of speech, the futility of words; the imperative is to fight the “monstrous jungle/of useless movement; a babel/Of stupid voices.” So the speaker calls for the oppressed subalterns under the rubric of “Gaeldom” to “overcome the world of wrong” and terminate “the essential immorality of any man controlling/Any other,” in particular government with its “monopoly of violence.” What follows this challenge, however, is not an anarchist’s moral fable but a satiric denunciation of corruption inflicted on millions by a system of property relations (capitalism) that has confined the water’s flow and shrouded the sun. First things first. However, the poem’s logic is more labyrinthine and its overall design less transparent. The rhetoric of biblical indignation does not end in a fiery climax of retribution; rather, it urges solidarity with the poorest and lowest where truth ultimately resides because movement inhabits “the bottom of that deepest of wells” where presumably water (which cannot be owned or appropriated by a privileged few) abounds:

For the striking of this water out of the rock of Capitalism;
For the complete emergence from the pollution and fog
With which the hellish interests of private property
In land, machinery, and credit
Have corrupted and concealed from the sun,
From the gestures of truth, from the voice of God,
Hundreds upon hundreds of millions of men,
Denied the life and liberty to which they were born
And fobbed off with a horrible travesty instead
–Self-righteous, sunk in the belief that they are human,
When not a tenth of one per cent show a single gleam
Of the life that is in them under their accretions of filth.

And until that day comes every true man’s place
Is to reject all else and be with the lowest,
The poorest–in the bottom of that deepest of wells
In which alone is truth; in which
Is truth only–truth that should shine like the sun,
With a monopoly of movement, and a sound like talking to God….

The assertions in the last three lines provoke more questions than they answer: Are the poor buried under “accretions of filth” and denied any power of speech capable of redeeming themselves?  Will God descend to talk to them, to communicate the message of deliverance? Is the truth of being in the bottom, in the water associated with “the monopoly of movement,” enough to destroy the apparatus of oppression that conceals the sun?  Language indeed fails to discover the timeless regenerative “agon” in each person in the slums, the action of deconstructing the fetish of an ego-centered identity that equalizes everyone, yet still requires the Celtic peoples to unite and fulfill its world-historic mission. Is there a submerged, unintended irony here? It seems that at this juncture MacDiarmid’s Scottish nationalism fuses with his proletarian internationalist conscience to engender a pathos of what I may call the “socialist sublime,” that is, the vision of the oppressed in possession of truth, endowed with abundant energy for action, waiting for the moment of reckoning. On the other hand, this may be a realization of Rosa Luxemburg’s notion of the spontaneous revolutionary instinct of the masses.
What is perhaps more challenging is Carl Freedman’s argument that MacDiarmid’s style of uneven and discordant idioms, overlaid with “idiosyncratic rhetorical overkill” and “unabashed didacticism”  such as that exemplified by The Battle Continues, is a symptom of the poet’s predicament: “an artist who refuses to temper his uncompromisingly militant stance, and yet who understands that this stance has no effectivity within any larger social collective” (1984, 53). Given the non-revolutionary conjuncture of Scotland in MacDiarmid’s lifetime, his poetry assumes highly “individual” and “contingent” forms; and because he is not connected with any viable working-class insurgency, MacDiarmid supposedly fails to become an organic intellectual of the Scottish proletariat. On the other hand, precisely because of this failure, so it is alleged, MacDiarmid succeeds in composing a disjunctive, radically decentered postmodernist art, such as the first two hymns to Lenin. Freedman claims that MacDiarmid’s political aesthetic responds to the absence of a mass revolutionary audience; it is “an art which, in its radical formal structures, comes to terms with its own frustration of immediate political effectivity without surrendering an explicitly revolutionary posture” (1984, 54).
Obviously this opinion doesn’t take account of MacDiarmid’s wide range of civic involvement that demonstrates his versatile talents, astute calculations, and ethical realism. While the argument may be germane to The Battle Continues, I don’t think it engages with the twin aspects of MacDiarmid’s vocation explored here: first, the critique of the ideological milieu of Scottish subalternity, and second, the prophetic or utopian disclosure of transformative possibilities, this latter being the magisterial task he has elected to fulfill. As for his not becoming an organic intellectual of the Scottish proletariat, so much the better: MacDiarmid has avoided this workerist and sectarian ambition. I submit that it is the hegemonic potential of the Scottish nation-people, not the corporatist working class, that is the raw material for the theoretical-poetic imagination operating on the terrain of ideological contestation. MacDiarmid’s singular achievement in constructing a national-popular speech (both in Scots Lallans and English) with a radical democratic content cannot be facilely dismissed, especially in the context of what prevailed before and what has followed after his death. His influence, now incalculable, continues to grow around the world; the critical appraisal of his multifarious accomplishments has just begun. Surely, everything needs to be historicized once more! But more important, I contend that MacDiarmid’s Scottish nationalism cannot be erased or preempted by proletarian vanguardism without forfeiting everything to the enemy. In the crucible of this popular-democratic nationalism, all pronouncements about MacDiarmid’s inadequacy as a revolutionary writer must needs be assayed.
MacDiarmid’s inventory of what is possible for “a single and separate person” as he would like to be springs from a well-tried sense of social responsibility. In “Reflections in a Slum,” the poet returns to a more realistic calculation of empirical reality. He seems to register caution in responding to such scenes of misery: “Alas! how many owe their dignity,/Their claim on our sympathy,/Merely to their misfortune.” Suffering has no value in itself–unless it posits its antithesis or alternative. One explanation for this aporia between the socialist principle of mass action and a quasi-religious belief in the messianic destiny of the oppressed is MacDiarmid’s concept of the “unconscious goal of history,” the cunning of Reason which uses men’s purposes for its own ends. As the poet of To Circumjack Cencrastus puts it:”By thocht a man mak’s his idea a force/Or fact in History’s drama: He canna foresee/The transformations and uses o’ the course/The dialectics o’ human action and interaction’ll gie/The contribution he mak’s” (1978, 5).  While MacDiarmid concedes that humans (with their intelligence and integrity) make history under given circumstances, within determinate historic parameters, he concurs with the cardinal insight of historical materialism that the conditions determining our actions are not altogether willed by us but are in fact inherited from the past and reproduced by the inertia of received “common sense,” by the inveterate routine of hegemonic practices and institutions. In effect, politics cannot be reduced to economics, nor revolution to an explosion of unruly crowds no matter how righteous the cause.

A final evidence of MacDiarmid’s project of forging a materialist poetics can be found in “On A Raised Beach,” considered by Alan Bold (1983) and others to be “arguably his greatest poem in English.”  Edwin Morgan is impressed by “its obstinate questioning of the unanswering–the million-year-old stones of a beach, which (like the eemis stane) could tell us so much about our prehistory if we had any means of unlocking their secrets–it brings out the most original, the most bleak, the most deeply speculative aspect of the author” (1976, 23). Whatever signs of metaphysics may be discerned in the texture of the poem, however, cannot warrant inferring from it (as Bold does) a “solipsistic credo” pivoting around a quest for formal essences, or a principle of individuation derived from the single reference to Duns Scotus “hacceity,” that presumably structures this protracted meditation on life, death, and all creation. The paradigm is to be found elsewhere.
The poem begins by posing alternatives: “All is lithogenesis–or lochia”: either the emergence of solid matter and all its manifold and distinctive heterogeneity, or the soggy cluttered discharge of blood, tissue and mucus from the vagina after childbirth. Either a disciplined focus on the form-giving act, or the messy evacuation that attends all production. One observes how the first strophe presents the infinite variety of geologic formations observed in this beach (with a spatio-temporal referent), a diversity that defies one’s capacity to discriminate and make things intelligible. But the speaker is not an idle empiricist obsessed with cataloguing sense data. Rather, he is concerned with the search for a historic/mythical event involving matter: “But where is the Christophanic rock that moved?” To loosely translate that line: Where is the achieved form that renewed life? The question links matter and motion, conjoins time and space, in exploring on “this shingle shelf” the stones’ resolve to thwart injury by iconoclasts and quacks (of which more later). The perspective of the seer occasions a felicitous telescoping of stasis and flux, center and circumference. It exhibits a point of view that affords a syncopation of locus and optic, object and subject: “Nothing has stirred/Since I lay down this morning an eternity ago/But one bird.” A play on the permanent openness of the bird’s “inward gates” and the stones’ follows; but through the stones’ gates “wide open far longer” no human can see. Why? The poet then compares himself to the stones:

I too lying here have dismissed all else
Bread from stones is my sole and desperate dearth,….
I am no more indifferent or ill-disposed to life than death is;
I would fain accept it all completely as the soil does;….
I must begin with these stones as the world began.

(1993, 147)
Process and product coalesce in the stones. Matter then is imperishable even as all organic life will perish and subsist in the soil and stones. “So these stones have dismissed/All but all of evolution, unmoved by it.” Their permanence seems to belie humanity’s “fleeting deceit of development” which has engendered “iconoclasts and quacks.” What follows this is a reflection on how conflict and “psychological warfare” bring about “animal life’s bolder and more brillant patterns”–the panorama of punctual, secular history–but “no general principle can be guessed” from this evolutionary phenomena. What we apprehend doesn’t give a clue to the ultimate telos of life: “What the seen shows is never anything to what it’s designed to hide.” And all these variegated forms and functions around us “all come back to the likeness of stone.” Is the stone then the paradigmatic form or monistic substance, or is it symbolic of the principle of matter-in-motion? The answer is an affirmation of the presence of an elemental energy (a modality or inflection of matter) investing the forms of stone and all worldly phenomena:

We must be humble. We are so easily baffled by appearances
And do not realize that these stones are one with the stars.
It makes no difference to them whether they are high or low,
Mountain peak or ocean floor, palace, or pigsty.
There are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined
No visitor comes from the stars
But is the same as they are.
(1993, 148)
More than the democratic or egalitarian aspect of the stones is in question here. What establishes the correspondences is this energy that makes possible “an adjustment to life” and allows spontaneity and “prelapsarian naturalness” to evolve into a “divine rhythm” harmonizing heaven and earth. Again it is the will to differentiate and homologize that enables the comprehension of appearances. The poet, however, rejects these illustrations and exhorts us to just accept the stones–the thisness or hacceitas of particular objects in the circumstantial world. But he doesn’t end here.
Because of this single-minded concentration on the reality of the stony world, one commentator faults MacDiarmid for contriving a poetry of statement in which a rhetoric of persuasion and argument predominate so that in sum poetic intensity is lost (Smith 1980). Granted there are moments of brilliance and pathos in the poem, yet the deployment of ideas is supposed to distract because such ideas can only win intellectual assent and are often liable to stimulate dissent. In short, the poem is wrongheaded because it provokes thought! Moreover, our commentator goes on, the tendency to demonstrate belief in animism or a kind of pathetic fallacy that imputes life to stones somehow weakens the intuitive stoicism pervading the poem. Are these objections based on formalist dogma valid? Is there no latitude in our aesthetic theory for entertaining the classic genre of didactic art, logopoeia (in Ezra Pound’s terminology), as a legitimate species?  Pablo Neruda (1981), the Chilean poet, once averred that “political poetry is more profoundly emotional than any other” species of writing. In both East and West aesthetics, “lyricism is the matrix of didacticism” (Miner 1990, 129) as exemplified in the Chinese Wen Fu by Lu Qi which proclaims that poetry “is the means by which all principles are known”–a doctrine that conflates expressive, affective, and mimetic functions.
I submit that “On a Raised Beach” is not mainly about facts and ideas, but rather about the dialectical action between them. In brief, it is about the process of making meaning of the world, of renewing our apprehension of life and its interpendency with death or nonbeing. It is also about the reaffirmation of art’s civic function in society and the integration of the artist with his public. Moreover, it seeks to define the complex responsibility of the imagination to the human community, an obligation that inevitably violates the canonical “touchstones” of traditional humanism espoused by Matthew Arnold, F.R. Leavis, and latter-day apologists for imperial “Western civilization.”
We now confront the thematic core of the poem, “the imaginative act/ That wins to the reality in the fact,” as MacDiarmid enunciated it earlier. The stage of recognition arrives when the speaker refuses metaphor and symbol, language as such or more precisely rhetoric, as surrogates for what is apprehensible by the naked senses: “It is a paltry business to try to drag down/The arduous furor of the stones to the futile imaginings of men,/ To all that fears to grow roots into the common earth.” Textuality is superseded by the terrestrial ur-difference, decentering humanism and possessive individualism.
I think the last line drives home MacDiarmid’s tellurian vision and needs to be underscored: the “common earth” as matrix and telos of an eternal process. The poet urges us: We need to learn infinite patience, the tact of controlling our emotions. We need to endeavor to “sustain a clear and searching gaze.” What is privileged here is the will to discipline our bodies and minds, our instincts and desires, in order to grasp the cosmic telos or “ordered adjustments” in the material universe. It is the regimen of becoming a separate and singular person within the community:

This is the road leading to certainty,
Reasoned planning for the time when reason can no longer avail.
It is essential to know the chill of all the objections
That come creeping into the mind, the battle between opposing
Which gives the victory to the strongest and most universal
Over all others, and to wage it to the end
With increasing freedom, precision, and detachment
A detachment that shocks our instincts and ridicules our desires.
All else in the world cancels out, equal, capable
Of being replaced by other things (even as all the ideas
That madden men now must lose their potency in a few years
And be replaced by others–even as all the religions,
All the material sacrifices and moral restraints,
That in twenty thousand years have brought us no nearer to God
Are irrelevant to the ordered adjustments
Out of reach of perceptive understanding
Forever taking place on the Earth and in the unthinkable regions
around it;
This cat’s cradle of life; this reality volatile yet determined;
This intense vibration in the stones
That makes them seem immobile to us)
But the world cannot dispense with the stones.
They alone are not redundant. Nothing can replace them
Except a new creation of God.
(1993, 149)
Lest this verse paragraph be construed as a mystical pantheist celebration of organic life, or a postmodern parody of Spinoza, I would like to underscore the phrase “this reality volatile yet determined” as key to the philosophical insights the poet registers in the next paragraph: he penetrates the stone world and perceives “a stupendous unity,/ Infinite movement visibly defending itself/ Against all the assaults of weather and water,…./The foundation and end of all life.”  Note here how the apparent immobility of the stone world is constituted by “infinite movement” contraposed against the flux of weather,  water, and the poetic persona’s consciousness.
In the next section, the poet pursues the theme of will and the imperative of self-discipline.  The faith that builds mountains cannot be discovered by humans “unless they are more concentrated and determined,/ Truer to themselves” and also inerrable and unshakable as the stones. So the poet urges: “It is necessary to make a stand and maintain it forever.”  The stones have gone through “Empires, civilizations, aeons”; and so “They came so far out of the water and halted forever,” God’s creation confronting the maker. Wisdom proceeds from understanding the process of determination and the moment of resolution; from this knowledge comes the acceptance of death and its interdependency with life:

The moon moves the waters backwards and forwards,
But the stones cannot be lured an inch farther
Either on this side of eternity or the other….
These stones will reach us long before we reach them.
Cold, undistracted, eternal and sublime.
They will stem all the torrents of vicissitude forever
With more than a Roman peace.
Death is a physical horror to me no more.
I am prepared with everything else to share
Sunshine and darkness and wind and rain
And life and death bare as these rocks though it be
In whatever order nature may decree….
(1993, 150-51)

The polyphony of ideas is finely orchestrated here, with an unfinalizable resonance. We are not provoked to utilitarian counter-argument or Nietzschean skepticism, as others have warned us. The quest for a coincidence of individual psyche and cosmic law is attained here when the poet learns the teaching of the stones as the emblem of energy-matter and its law-governed existence; the precept concerns a decision taken and carried out without hesitation because it concurs with nature’s decree. Rationality and feeling and will converge.  However, the acceptance of death as part of the circulation of energy does not mean a fatalistic submission to a nihilistic doctrine. On the contrary, the poet emphasizes: “It is reality that is at stake.” I think we have touched here the nerve center of MacDiarmid’s dialectical-materialist faith: death’s logic doesn’t introduce a reunification of what has been separated, of object and image, of the storm beach and the speaker’s self. It is a problem of subsuming our limited ego to the larger determinations that position us in the world: “What happens to us/ Is irrelevant to the world’s geology/ But what happens to the world’s geology/ Is not irrelevant to us.” So we must reconcile ourselves to the stones, not the stones to us.  Consciousness does not dictate the shape of the world; the world shapes the mutation of consciousness. We may ignore secular limits, but they will not ignore us.
In the next quote we hear again the theme of conforming our lives to the reality that, allegorized by the stones in this anonymous beach, assumes a rigor and austerity mirroring a discipined mind, a cohesive wholeness of will that enables “great work” opposed to the commercialized life of the “crowd.” Instead of dispersal, a gathering and centralization demand priority. The reality at stake involves the education of a creative sensibility, a practical imagination:

Here a man must shed the encumbrances that muffle
Contact with elemental things, the subtleties
That seem inseparable from a humane life, and go apart
Into a simple and sterner, more beautiful and more impressive
Austerely intoxicating; the first draught is overpowering;
Few survive it.  It fills me with a sense of perfect form,
The end seen from the beginning, as in a song….

But the kindred form I am conscious of here
Is the beginning and end of the world,
The unsearchable masterpiece, the music of the spheres,
Alpha and Omega, the Omnific Word.
These stones have the silence of supreme creative power,
The direct and undisturbed way of working
Which alone leads to greatness.
What experience has any man crystallized,
What weight of conviction accumulated,
What depth of life suddenly seen entire
In some nigh supernatural moment
And made a symbol and lived up to
With such resolution, such Spartan impassivity?
It is a frenzied and chaotic age,
Like a growth of weeds on the site of a demolished building.
How shall we set ourselves against it,
Imperturbable, inscrutable, in the world and yet not in it,
Silent under the torments it inflicts upon us,
With a constant centre,
With a single inspiration, foundations firm and invariable;
By what immense exercise of will,
Inconceivable discipline, courage and endurance,
Self-purification and anti-humanity,
Be ourselves without interruption,
Adamantine and inexorable?

It now becomes clear that what the poet seeks is a “manifestation of the human spirit” that approximates lithogenesis, that is, the summoning and exercise of “inconceivable discipline, courage, and endurance” that will lead to possession of the truth embodied in the stones. The open mind the poet claims to have, “A mind as open as the grave,” evokes the Christophanic rock of the beginning; the imagination functions as the sepulcher from which the messianic power has been resurrected. That Christophanic rock is the burden of the poem, the utterance of the truth of enduring matter that “crushes, gorgonizes all else into itself. Dispel the haze and the hesitation that paralyzes vision by accepting “The hard fact. The inoppugnable reality” of a world beyond our wishes or desires. We don’t need a world hereafter if we can replace our romantic “infinite longing” with “manly will” which is rare in contemporary society. Such a will also articulates the cunning of reason in history–to use Hegelian language.
The poem arrives at the concluding stage of accepting what is at stake: secular or worldly reality. The moment comes when the poet confesses that he is “enamoured of the desert at last” where he can concemplate “spiritual issues/ Made inhumanly clear.” This is reminiscent of the anti-humanism of Althusser’s science, the passion for concrete truth devoid of ideological mystification. For MacDiarmid, the imagination corresponds to “a self-determined rhythm of life” and is tested by the “capacity for solitude.” However, this does not mean that this desert inhabitant escapes from social engagement. On the contrary:

–a question of acquiring the power
To exercise the loneliness, the independence, of stones,
And that only (come)s from knowing that our function remains
However isolated we seem, fundamental to life as theirs.

The poet affirms the desideratum of independence grounded on a conviction of individual strength, founded on the rock of self-discipline. This follows from the need to reject the commodified market society of late capitalism, the dispersal and reification of humanity in the circulation of exchange-values. The poet’s conception of culture is centered on the idea of lithogenesis as a process of hardening, of acquiring form as displayed by the stones, “the beginning and end of the world,” in which the poet sees himself. This experience generates a sentiment of solidarity: the intelligentsia of artists needs to bring culture to the “mob,” “our impossible and imperative job!”
Recalling the invocation of the Christophanic rock in the beginning (MacDiarmid thus unfolds his original name, Christopher, in a punlike way), we complete the circle of thought. This is indeed the resurrection envisioned in the beginning, the rolling of the stone away from the tomb of the masses of people, when the artist realizes that the sublimity inscribed in matter can be found in all men since “The masses too have begged bread from stones,/From human stones, including themselves….” So the poet urges detached intellectuals to share their possession of the truth with their fellow humans because it is this sharing, this communication of the gift of the imagination, that is the rolling of the rock from the tomb, the overcoming of death.
I suggest that this return of the solitary poet to the people–the lithogenesis of the spiritual power of the imagination–is what MacDiarmid is really aiming at. Not to do so is to betray the artist’s vocation, to welcome the stones’ revenge, to allow ignorance and indifference to seal us in death, or in the miasmic lochia:

It is not
The reality of life that is hard to know.
It is nearest of all and easiest to grasp,
But you must participate in it to proclaim it.
–I lift a stone; it is the meaning of life I clasp
Which is death, for that is the meaning of death;
How else does any man yet participate
In the life of a stone,
How else can any man yet become
Sufficiently at one with creation, sufficiently alone,
Till as the stone that covers him he lies dumb
And the stone at the mouth of his grave is not overthrown?

Each stone “covers infinite death,” but the poet counsels: “let us not be afraid to die” because that is part of discovering the truth of the stone world, the infinity and permanence of matter-energy, and phase of death (the separation of the poet from the mob) as a necessary ordeal. The statement that “in death–unlike life–we lose nothing that is truly ours,” affirms the continuity of matter as a moment of the circulation of energy determing the movement of all life in the universe. At any rate, “reality,” Becoming as integral to Being, is saved.
“On A Raised Beach” poses the problem of how we can tell “what is truly ours,” and attempts to answer the question of the artist’s connection with society and the natural world. It dramatizes the coming to a recognition that lithogenesis occurs when the poet, temporarily exiled in the desert and achieving self-recovery there, rejoins humanity and participates in the collective project of communal renewal and resurrection. MacDiarmid once declared that he aspired to conceive of nature “in terms of human activities, being alert to the historical processes and careful to avoid the heresy of separateness” (quoted in Maxwell 204). Rivalling Lucretius’ De Rerum Naturae, MacDiarmid’s poem celebrates not a mystical glorification of minute particulars but a materialist thinking process: the dialectics of consciousness and matter; totality grounded in the historical laws of motion of society, nature, and thought interacting with each other.
David Daiches calls MacDiarmid a transhumanist–someone, I take it, who transcends the boundary of nationality and communicates with all humankind. He writes: “MacDiarmid’s political vision was hardly political at all, but a vision of a society redeemed from all second-handness in living, united in an intense relishing of the reality of experience” (2329). But MacDiarmid is by no means a modernist romantic like Dylan Thomas, or a self-reflexive modernist like Wallace Stevens. Daiches’ praise, though well intended, reduces the necessary and ineluctable mediations whereby MacDiarmid’s rendering of his experience becomes a universal vision accessible to everyone. What distinguishes MacDiarmid’s poetic achievement is, I think, precisely its genuine political inspiration–political in the sense of a profound concern with justice, liberty, and virtue in the world polis, in the community of equal nations. But because such a community characterized by justice and virtue is absent in the contemporary world dominated by capital, by class exploitation and imperial oppression, MacDiarmid’s art becomes doubly political in its critique of the ideology of individualist aesthetics espoused by Daiches and others, and in its projection of an alternative, even utopian, society in his prose and poetry–an alternative that, in the spirit of the Communist Manifesto, only expresses what is already germinating in the womb of the present. MacDiarmid descants on the vicissitudes of this genesis:
“The struggle for material existence is over. It has been won./ The need for repressions and disciplines has passed. / The struggle for truth and that indescribable necessity, / Beauty, begins now, hampered by none of the lower needs…./ It is now the duty of the Scottish genius / Which has provided the economic freedom for it / To lead in the abandonment of creeds and moral compromises / Of every sort and to commence to express the unity of life” (1972, 328). In this horizon of yearning and hope, the poetry acquires its ultimate cultural value and significance. While the nationalist MacDiarmid acts as a prophet of a liberated and renewed Scotland forecast in the future, the socialist MacDiarmid enables Scotland to participate in the emancipation of all oppressed people and nations in our planet. Such incommensurable effects distinguish the enduring power of MacDiarmid’s art.


Bold, Alan.  MacDiarmid: A Critical Biography.  Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1988.

———.  The Terrible Crystal.  London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983.

Buthlay, Kenneth.  Hugh MacDiarmid.  Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1982.

Daiches, David.  The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. Ed. M.H. Abrams.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1979.

Freedman, Carl. “Possibilities of a Political Aesthetic.”  Minnesota Review 23 (Fall 1984): 41-69.

MacDiarmid, Hugh. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.  Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1971.

———–.  Lucky Poet.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1972.

———–.  Selected Essays of Hugh MacDiarmid.
Ed. Duncan Glen.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1970.

————.  Selected Poems.  Ed. David Craig and John Manson.  Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1970.

————.  The Socialist Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid.  Ed. T. S. Law and T. Berwick. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.

Maxwell, Stephen.  “The Nationalism of Hugh MacDiarmid.”  In P. Scott and A. Davis, eds.  The Age of MacDiarmid.  Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1980.

Morgan, Edwin.  Hugh MacDiarmid.  Essex: Longman, 1976.

Smith, Iain Crichton.  “MacDiarmid and Ideas.” In P. Scott and A. Davis, eds.  The Age of MacDiarmid.  Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1980.


About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.
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