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Grieve, Christopher Murray [pseud. Hugh MacDiarmid]locked

  • Roderick Watson

Christopher Murray Grieve [Hugh MacDiarmid] (1892–1978)

by Robert Heriot Westwater, 1962

Grieve, Christopher Murray [pseud. Hugh MacDiarmid] (1892–1978), poet, writer, and cultural activist, was born on 11 August 1892 in Arkinholm Terrace at Langholm in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, the elder of two sons born to James Grieve (1863–1911), postman, the son of John Grieve, a weaver and latterly a power loom tuner, and Elizabeth Graham (1856–1934) the daughter of Andrew Graham, a farm labourer and mole catcher. James Grieve worked for most of his life as the rural postman for the Langholm area, becoming an elder of the South United Presbyterian Church (soon to become the United Free Church) at the age of only twenty-three, and serving as the sabbath school superintendent until his relatively early death.

Early years, 1892–1919

Grieve's family roots were deeply planted among the common folk of the Scottish borders. Like his younger brother, Andrew (1894–1972) he would have grown up speaking broad Scots, and although he was soon to discard it he was equally familiar with his father's faith and the religious and radically egalitarian tenets associated with the Free Kirk. As a man Grieve was proud to associate himself with border mill workers through his grandfather, and (on his mother's side) with agricultural labour. Looking back from the 1930s Grieve reviewed his early years in poems such as 'Water of Life', 'Excelsior', 'Charisma and my Relatives', and 'The Seamless Garment' (all in ‘First Hymn to Lenin’ and other Poems, 1931) in which he refers to his roots in Langholm, known locally as the Muckle Toon. He also liked to ascribe his own combative spirit to border traditions of feud and sporadic warfare with England.

By the time Grieve entered Langholm Academy in 1899 the family was living behind the post office on the ground floor of the Library Buildings, Parliament Square, and his mother was working as caretaker for the Langholm library and local museum on the floor above. The poet dates his lifelong and 'omnivorous' reading habits from the years when he used to collect books in a washing-basket to read at his leisure. A study of the titles to be found in the catalogue suggests that the seeds of many of his later interests in language, astronomy, geology, and Scottish and American literature were first sown here. The young Grieve's awareness of poetry and poets was further advanced by the friendship of his local minister, the Revd T. S. Cairncross, who wrote poetry himself and had a substantial library. (Grieve was later to include verses by Cairncross in his Northern Numbers anthology.) When he graduated to secondary schooling at Langholm Academy Grieve came into contact, in 1905, with a new young English teacher, Francis George Scott, later to be a composer of some note and a good friend, to whom the poet dedicated A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.

Grieve did well at Langholm Academy and in 1908, at the age of sixteen, he moved on to further education at Broughton Higher Grade School and Junior Student Centre in Edinburgh. Pupils at Broughton received an education while being themselves trained as teachers, and here Grieve met George Ogilvie, principal teacher of English, who was to be a major influence on him in the years to come. Ogilvie regarded Grieve as his most promising student, he introduced him to the radical intellectual journal The New Age, and the older man's good opinion (they had socialist sympathies in common) was very important to the young writer. They corresponded from 1911 until 1932, only two years before the teacher's death, and these letters are very revealing, as Grieve confided much to the man he came to regard as a mentor and second father.

During these years Grieve joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Edinburgh University branch of the Fabian Society, and the Territorial Army medical corps. He threw himself into school life and was soon taking part in debates and plays while editing and contributing to the Broughton Magazine. It ended in disgrace, however, with a prank involving the theft of books and postage stamps in January 1911. To avoid scandal, and with Ogilvie's support, Grieve was allowed to resign 'on grounds of health and mistaking his vocation' (Kerrigan, 16). Scarcely a week later James Grieve died in Langholm. That death seems to have haunted Grieve in later years in poems such as 'Kinsfolk' and 'At my Father's Grave':

a livin' man upon a deid man thinksAnd on sma'er thocht's impossible

Never really suited to teaching and badly in need of funds, Grieve turned to freelance journalism, working for the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch until irregularities over the sale of review copies caused his dismissal. The eighteen-year-old moved to south Wales and a job with the Monmouthshire Labour News, where he met Keir Hardie and witnessed strikes and demonstrations, anti-Jewish riots, and conflict between the miners, the police, and the army. Dismissed for a lack of moderation, Grieve returned to Scotland in 1912, living in Langholm and working freelance. Early in 1913 a job with the Clydebank and Renfrew Press brought him into contact with James Maxton and John Maclean on the home ground of what was to become known as ‘red Clydeside’. With occasional articles now published in local newspapers and periodicals, Grieve was learning his craft. He placed an essay in A. R. Orage's journal The New Age, and it was here in later years that he came across many influential ideas and authors, most notably Pound's experiments with versification, the iconoclasm of Nietzsche, the work of Dostoyevsky, and the social credit theories of Major C. H. Douglas.

Encouraged by his brother in 1913 Grieve moved to Cupar in Fife, where he wrote for a number of papers and met Peggy Skinner (whom he was later to marry) before moving on again to Forfar where the outbreak of the First World War found him working for the weekly Forfar Review. Prompted, perhaps, by the death in action of his old schoolfriend, John Bogue Nisbet (and despite the ILP's opposition to what it saw as a capitalist adventure) Grieve enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) at Sheffield in July 1915. He spent the next year in England, first in Hillsborough barracks and then in Aldershot, before being promoted to sergeant and posted with the 42nd general hospital to Salonika in Greece.

Grieve served in the ‘forgotten’ eastern front, from August 1916 to May 1918. Here, in what the Germans liked to call their largest internment camp, disease was killing more soldiers than the enemy did. As a sergeant in charge of the officers' mess he had time to write, and his letters to Ogilvie reveal literary ambitions, a growing sense of his specifically Scottish identity, and latterly a strong disaffection with the war and what he saw as English imperialism. On fire with innumerable schemes for books, essays, and sonnet sequences, Grieve was passionately excited by Scottish nationalism and, for a short while, by the Catholic faith, seeing pre-Reformation Scotland (as Edwin Muir was later to do) as a model of social, spiritual, and national coherence. He also began to explore his own states of mind in a series of fictionalized 'psychological studies', later published as Annals of the Five Senses (1923). These prose pieces were self-consciously avant-garde, informed by a host of unacknowledged literary references and delivered in a stream-of-consciousness vein. Writing within what he called a 'strong solution' of other texts, Grieve's method in this, his first completed book, bears a striking resemblance to the way he was to construct the enormous 'world language' poems at the very end of his career.

Grieve caught malaria shortly after arriving in Greece, and with his third relapse had to be invalided home. It was during this leave, in Edinburgh on 13 June 1918, that he married Margaret (Peggy) Cunningham Thompson Skinner (1897–1962). After his leave Grieve ran the RAMC sergeants' mess in Blackpool, and when the armistice was declared in November he was working for army education in Dieppe. In December, Sergeant Grieve was posted to a château near Marseilles where he finished his service at the Sections Lahore Indian General Hospital for shell-shocked Indian troops from the western front. During this time, Grieve managed visits to Paris and a walking tour in the Pyrenees in late May 1919.

Grieve's experiences in Greece and France—and his intensive reading for the last three years—had given a new confidence and a new urgency to his ambitions:

He brought back to civilization an ardour of revolt, a sharp bitterness, made up partly of hatred and partly of pity. He saw with eyes different from those of other men's—clearer or more blurred, anyhow not the same. His state of mind was grievous.

Grieve, Annals, 89

'Not traditions—precedents', 1919–1929

Demobilized in July 1919, Grieve stayed with his wife in St Andrews and returned to journalism, but a first job in Montrose did not last long. In the late summer of 1920 he and Peggy were employed as caretakers at a highland shooting lodge at Kildermorie near Alness on the Cromarty Firth, and in November Grieve took on the extra task of teaching at a side school on the estate. At last his literary career began to pick up, with plans to edit anthologies of Scottish verse which were consciously modelled on Edward Marsh's earlier English Georgian Poetry series. Three volumes of these Northern Numbers appeared between 1920 and 1922, and they included poems by John Buchan, Violet Jacob (both in Scots), and Neil Munro and T. S. Cairncross among others, and some middling verses in English by the editor himself and his brother, Andrew.

Grieve's early English poems showed an interest in large abstractions such as Time and Death, and were characterized by a consciously poetic language of clashing surfaces. The metaphysical intensity and the cosmic scope of poems such as 'A Moment in Eternity' clearly presages the mature work, but as yet the poet lacked a diction which would make his vision concrete and truly new. That diction was to come with his discovery of the expressive power of Scots.

Offered a job with the Montrose Review, Grieve returned in April 1921 to Montrose, where he was to remain for the next eight years. He took an active part in the life of this small town, serving as a Labour councillor and becoming a justice of the peace in 1926. The couple eventually settled at 16 Links Avenue, where on 6 September 1924 a daughter, Christine, was born followed by a son, Walter, on 5 April 1928.

Wholly committed now to making his mark on literary Scotland, Grieve's first move was to found a series of periodicals, starting with a monthly, the Scottish Chapbook (fourteen issues), which appeared in August 1922 (shortly after the publication of Ulysses and before that of The Waste Land). The weekly Scottish Nation (thirty-four issues) began in 1923, and the following year the monthly Northern Review survived for only four issues. Although short-lived, these periodicals did set about the definition of a literary and cultural ‘renaissance’ in Scottish affairs. The Scottish Chapbook was the most influential of them all, for it was here that Grieve set out his agenda for at least the next ten years. The magazine's slogan was 'Not traditions—precedents' and it reflected Grieve's determination 'to bring Scottish Literature into closer touch with current European tendencies in technique and ideation'. He was equally determined to speak for cultural difference and 'to insist upon the truer evaluations of the work of Scottish writers than are usually given in the present over-Anglicised condition of British literary journalism, and, in criticism, elucidate, apply, and develop the distinctively Scottish range of values' (The Chapbook programme, Scottish Chapbook, 1/2, September 1922, iii). It can be argued that these sentiments signal an early shift away from the hegemony of ‘English literature’ towards a more contemporary understanding of ‘literatures in English’.

Despite the Chapbook's support for writing in English, Gaelic, or Braid Scots, Grieve himself had previously criticized the use of Scots as no more than an exercise in nostalgia. Now, however, he planned to 'encourage the experimental exploitation of the unexplored possibilities of vernacular expression' (A theory of Scots letters, Selected Prose, 20). It is clear that his own experiments in writing poetry in Scots—calling himself Hugh M'Diarmid—had much to do with this change of heart. The pen name marked the poet's commitment to a specifically northern culture, and as one of the most active and contentious propagandists for Scots language and literature Hugh MacDiarmid soon eclipsed C. M. Grieve, even although he continued to write under both names—and a variety of lesser pseudonyms such as A. K. Laidlaw, Isobel Guthrie, Mountboy, and Special Correspondent. The ‘Chapbook programme’ had begun, after all, with a pointed reminder from Dante that 'To make a book is less than nothing unless the book, when made, makes people anew' (Grieve, Chapbook, 1/1, August 1922, iii).

An important beginning was made with the Chapbook, and two collections of Scots lyrics—Sangschaw (1925) and Penny Wheep (1926). John Buchan wrote a preface to Sangschaw in which he identified the poet's task as both 'conservative and radical—a determination to keep Scotland in the main march of the world's interests, and at the same time to forgo no part of her ancient heritage'. He noted, too, that Grieve's Scots borrowed words and idioms from literary Scots 'as Burns did' and indeed Grieve himself admitted that he had used words from different dialects, as well as whole idioms and phrases which he had found in Jamieson's Scottish Dictionary. Yet these poems also had a radical component, an imagist concision, an expressionist intensity, and a cosmic perspective which cast a new and eerie light on their more traditionally rustic settings and subjects. On the whole the lyrics were well received by reviewers, and later critics such as the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean have come to regard them as among the finest short poems of the twentieth century. More than seventy were eventually set to music by Grieve's old schoolmaster F. G. Scott, and the French critic Denis Saurat translated some into French. Grieve's European and modernist ambitions were under way at last, and he threw himself into his next project which was to go beyond individual lyrics to produce a long poem sequence in Scots, a satirical and metaphysical meditation on personal being, Scottish identity, and cultural politics sub specie aeternitatis, to be called A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.

A Drunk Man (published in November 1926) seems to have been prompted by a suggestion of F. G. Scott's, and certainly he helped Grieve to assemble and order its many parts at a late stage in its composition. The poem (2685 lines) takes the form of an extended dramatic monologue—almost a stream of consciousness—dense with literary and cultural allusions and held together by recurring thematic and symbolic links. Its verse forms are relatively conventional if highly mixed, but its swift changes of mood and subject matter, from the tender to the obscene, from the personal to the universal, give it a modernist force and an expressive violence similar to the work of Eliot and Pound. Yet, crucially unlike these writers, Grieve is both a materialist and an optimist, for A Drunk Man celebrates change and contradiction with a Nietzschean energy and delight which sees unlimited possibility and freedom in chaos. This willingness to be 'whaur extremes meet', to confront the vastness of interstellar space and still to find a place for the human spirit, characterizes Grieve's vision throughout his work, distinguishing it from that of his early modern contemporaries.

Borrowing a phrase from Gregory Smith's study Scottish Literature: Character and Influence (1919), Grieve welcomed a 'Caledonian antisyzygy' in Scottish culture and affairs, by which he meant a national penchant for the combination of opposites, and he proposed that the volatile persona of his drunk man was indeed a true model of the Scottish psyche: 'dominated by the conception of infinity, of the unattainable … ever questioning, never satisfied' (Selected Prose, 27). Later critics have challenged the implicit essentialism of such a view, but it proved to be a particularly influential critical thesis for the revival of Scottish cultural confidence at the time. It was also the foundation stone for Grieve's interest in Dostoyevsky and his assertion that there existed a psychological affinity—'the Russo-Scottish parallel'—between Scotland and Russia.

A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle is now widely recognized as Hugh MacDiarmid's masterpiece, but the poem did not sell well in its early years and the reviews were mixed. In the meantime Grieve was working on another long poem in the same vein, To Circumjack Cencrastus, which spoke more personally about the strains of creative work while being condemned to earn his living as a small town journalist. There were compensations in the friendship of fellow writers, most notably the poet Edwin Muir (1887–1959) and the novelist Neil Gunn (1891–1973), and indeed Muir (and Oliver St John Gogarty) were among the few critics who had praised A Drunk Man on its first appearance.

Grieve also produced a series of essays on modern Scottish writers for the Scottish Educational Journal, later published as Contemporary Scottish Studies (1926). At the same time, under his own name and various pseudonyms, he contributed more than 100 unpaid short articles on Scottish affairs to be syndicated to newspapers throughout the country by the ‘Scottish secretariat’, a function of the Scottish Home Rule Association run by R. E. Muirhead (1868–1964), who also supported the publication of Grieve's weekly Scottish Nation. Grieve's commitment to home rule and Scottish nationalism brought him to write the cultural political study Albyn, or, Scotland and the Future (1927), and his outspoken attacks on English influence, Scottish complacency, and the Burns cult made him a provocative and controversial public speaker. Aiming to promote contemporary writers, Grieve was instrumental in setting up the Scottish branch of PEN in 1927, and in May the following year (along with R. B. Cunninghame Graham and Compton Mackenzie) he became a founder member of the National Party of Scotland, an amalgamation of the Scottish Home Rule Association and several other nationalist associations. Established as a literary and political figure, in August 1928 Grieve was invited to Ireland, where he met and made friends with Oliver St John Gogarty, AE, and Yeats.

Life in Montrose was coming to seem more and more cramped, Peggy was unhappy there, and money matters were pressing, so when Compton Mackenzie proposed that Grieve should write for Vox, his new critical magazine devoted to radio broadcasting, the poet seized the chance to move to London in September 1929.

'To get bread from stones', 1929–1936

The next six years were to be hard ones, for Grieve's physical health was under increasing strain and he was struggling to finish Cencrastus. He had become a heavy drinker, and in December he injured his head badly in a serious fall from the open top of a double-decker bus. In the face of disappointing sales Vox stopped publication within only four months. In May 1930 he went to Liverpool to take up a job as publicity officer for Merseyside development, promoted by the Liverpool Organisation, a company supported by businessmen in the area and grants from local corporations. But here, too, he was not to prosper, and he lost the job within a year. Peggy refused to come north with him, for she had met an older man in London, a wealthy coal merchant, and the marriage was foundering.

To Circumjack Cencrastus was finally published in 1930, and although it is less cohesive than A Drunk Man, the recurring image of the coils of the curly snake, and the poet's doomed pursuit of it (like Ahab and the white whale) can be seen to symbolize his later poetic quest. Grieve met T. S. Eliot in London during this time, writing a key article in July 1931 for Criterion ('English ascendancy in British literature' in Selected Prose, 61–80) which argued in favour of the healthy variety of cultural and linguistic experience to be found within the British Isles among hitherto unrepresented regions and social classes. He also began to define 'the Gaelic idea' by which the so-called 'margins' of Celtic Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and the Scottish highlands would speak for dynamism, contradiction, creative diversity, and cultural decentralization (The Caledonian antisyzygy and the Gaelic idea in Selected Essays, 56–74).

The depression years were very difficult for Grieve, and he felt himself faced with the need to find new expressive themes and means for his verse, including a more overt reflection of his commitment to socialism. Accordingly he embarked on the Hymns to Lenin, which were to be part of a much larger poetic project of five linked collections conceived as Clann Albann ('The children of Scotland'). The first book was to be a set of autobiographical verses called The Muckle Toon. The project was never realized, but many of the more personal poems from this period such as 'Kinsfolk', 'At my Father's Grave', 'Charisma and my Relatives', and 'Water of Life', clearly stem from an impulse to revisit and reassess his roots at a time of emotional and creative disturbance.

Back in London again Grieve became a director of the Unicorn Press in September 1931, but it turned out to be a short-lived and ill-rewarded appointment. More positively, this was the month he met Valda Trevlyn (1906–1989), a young Cornish nationalist working as a shop assistant in London who was to become his second wife, and a stout and unsentimental defender of his talent. ‘First Hymn to Lenin’ and other Poems was published in December 1931. The collection includes 'The Seamless Garment', arguably the poet's most successful overtly didactic socialist poem. Based on his memories of the mills of Langholm and incorporating his admiration for Lenin and Rilke, this poem speaks for education, spiritual evolution, and radical social change in an easy colloquial Scots.

Grieve and his first wife were divorced on 16 January 1932. The poet had agreed to be cited for adultery himself if he could be allowed access to the children, but once they were separated Peggy denied him this privilege. This bitter separation was to last, and to haunt him, for years. Still struggling to make a living, in April Grieve and Valda Trevlyn rented a cottage at Thakeham in Sussex. From here they produced 500 copies of 'Second Hymn to Lenin', reprinted from its first appearance in Criterion and published by Valda Trevlyn as a pamphlet. On 28 July, after a difficult labour, Valda gave birth to a son, Michael. ‘Scots Unbound’ and other Poems (1932) continued the poet's meditation on his Langholm origins, but its tiny print run (350 signed copies) did little to solve his financial problems. In August the new family moved to Longniddry, east of Edinburgh, where Grieve wrote for the periodical the Free Man; but things did not improve, for he was under increasing mental and physical strain, and his debts were mounting.

In May 1933 Grieve's old friend Helen Cruickshank arranged for him to move to the island of Whalsay in the Shetlands, where David Orr, the doctor there, had offered Valda a job as housekeeper. As it turned out Dr Orr got married and the Grieves had to rent a little cottage on their own, but the proposal brought them to the Shetlands and as Whalsay was a ‘dry’ island at least some of Grieve's problems could be addressed. They were to live there for the next ten years. In his autobiography MacDiarmid was to recall how he came to Whalsay: 'with no money behind me at all, broken down in health, unable to secure remunerative employment of any kind, and wholly concentrated on projects in poetry and other literary fields which could bring me no monetary return whatsoever' (Lucky Poet, 41). His son recalls the four-roomed fisherman's cottage at Sodom, east of Symbister harbour, where their first furniture was made from orange boxes and where they collected and preserved seagulls' eggs for food (Grieve, MacDiarmid the man, xi). Nevertheless, the family gradually established itself with the help of Helen Cruickshank and other friends in Edinburgh.

Grieve was overwhelmed and inspired by the stark grandeur of the Shetlands, and his letters and essays of the time testify to a fascination with the striking effects of sea light on bare rock. The austere setting also made itself felt in many new poems characterized by their use of geological terms and an icy control in their English diction. This marked change in expression, and the shift away from Scots and the poems remembering Langholm can be seen in the two major collections from the period, ‘Stony Limits’ and other Poems (1934), and ‘Second Hymn to Lenin’ and other Poems (1935). The poem 'On a Raised Beach' manages to confront the stark and indifferent foundations of existence without losing faith in the need to seek bread in that desert, and it can stand beside Four Quartets and 'In Praise of Limestone' as one of the finest philosophical poems in modern literature in English.

Having parted from the National Party in 1933 on account of his communist sympathies, Grieve joined the Communist Party only to be expelled in 1937 for his nationalism (he was reinstated and expelled again within a year). As a follower of John Maclean he saw no contradiction between international socialism and nationalist hopes for a Scottish workers' republic, but his relationship with any organized political group was never less than stormy.

Grieve and Valda went south again in the spring of 1934, Valda to visit her mother in Cornwall and Grieve to London to deal with the publishers for Selected Poems (1934) and for prose works such as his collection of essays At the Sign of the Thistle (1934), and Scottish Scene (1934), a satirical look at Scotland which he co-authored with the young novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon (J. Leslie Mitchell; 1901–1935) then living in Welwyn Garden City. Agreements were made with various publishers for further titles, the poet received an editorial retainer from Routledge, and on 12 September 1934 he and Valda were married at a register office in Islington. The poet's health was not good, however, and when he returned to Shetland he faced harsh winter weather and a demanding list of contracts to be fulfilled. These pressures came to a climax in the summer of 1935. Peggy had entered Grieve's life again by asking for his help in a court case brought against her by her lover's wife. Grieve found himself increasingly weary and depressed while faced with contracted deadlines. He reached a point of physical and nervous collapse and was persuaded to seek help among friends in St Andrews (including F. G. Scott) and in August he was admitted to a nursing home attached to the Murray Royal Hospital in Perth for physical and psychiatric care. It was seven weeks before he could leave, and photographs of the time show him to be emaciated and exhausted.

Back on Whalsay in October, Grieve gradually recovered strength and even managed to stand as a candidate for the student rectorial election at Edinburgh University. He was unsuccessful, but stood again (and again unsuccessfully) the following year. The poet refused to concede that he was any further from the 'centre of things' in Shetland than he had been in Edinburgh or London, but it is clear that he did come to feel increasingly isolated and at odds with the literary establishment in both countries. When Edwin Muir published Scott and Scotland (1936) and doubted whether modern Scottish writers could ever achieve a separate cultural and linguistic identity, Grieve took it as a personal betrayal and never forgave him. The long months of writing began to bear fruit when the biographical sketches of Scottish Eccentrics appeared in 1936 followed by The Islands of Scotland (1939), and a lengthy and wildly idiosyncratic autobiography called Lucky Poet: a Self Study in Literature and Political Ideas, which was eventually published in shortened form in 1943. (A sequel to it, The Company I've Kept, appeared in 1966.)

'The kind of poetry I want', 1936–1978

Grieve was now to pursue a course which made his poetry less and less accessible to the common reader. Determined to leave personal and lyric feeling behind him, he welcomed the extended ‘epic’ as the next necessary development for modern verse as he saw it, and as the best way of bringing poetry to bear on the world of political and scientific materialism. To this end he planned an immense undertaking to be called Cornish Heroic Song for Valda Trevlyn, of which In Memoriam James Joyce and The Kind of Poetry I Want were only parts, although they were later published as separate volumes in 1955 and 1961 respectively. A long opening section was to be called Mature Art, and a third large volume in this magnum opus was to be called Impavidi progrediamur, or in Scots, 'Haud forrit' ('Fare foward'), but it was never quite brought together. The poet's son Michael has confirmed that this project can be traced back to the Whalsay experience (Riach, 65) for its 'disinterested' and epic scope was conceived there, with lengthy verse extracts from The Kind of Poetry I Want included in Lucky Poet (which had been completed in 1939), and an early version of the title poem in In Memoriam James Joyce sent to T. S. Eliot at Faber in 1941.

Grieve was to edit this mammoth text at different times for the next thirty years, publishing extracts or separate volumes from it as declared parts of a whole which was never to be completed. Indeed this new kind of poetry ('the kind of poetry I want') was conceived from the start as an open-ended and indefinitely extensible process. The operating principle of Grieve's epic catalogues, dense with long prosaic lines, abstruse knowledge, and highly specialized vocabulary, could not be more different from the lyric concision and intensity of his early work in Scots, and many contemporary readers felt that he had abandoned poetry altogether.

The late work poses other problems, as Grieve's text also contains lines and passages taken unacknowledged from other sources of poetry and prose. Riach (chap. 3) places this epic poetry in a postmodern perspective, claiming it as an endlessly intertextual discourse which has gone beyond the conception of the poet as a single speaking voice. Bold (p. 368) is more inclined to see it as cheerfully unrepentant theft. Critics are still tracing the extent of Grieve's hidden debts and debating how to assess such work. It is worth recalling, however, that as early as 1923 he had described the prose studies in Annals of the Five Senses (similarly full of echoes and extracts) as 'mosaics … which I have (perhaps the best word in the meantime is) “designed”' (Annals, dedication).

At the beginning of 1938 a young graduate, Henry Grant Taylor, arrived on Whalsay to help Grieve produce his lengthy typescripts. In June of that year the poet launched another periodical, the quarterly Voice of Scotland which was to run for five issues before being interrupted by the war. The magazine allowed Grieve to publish work by a new generation of younger Scottish poets, including Norman MacCaig, George Bruce, George Campbell Hay, and Sorley MacLean, whom he had first met in Edinburgh in 1934. Maclean had visited Whalsay in 1935 and helped Grieve to translate Gaelic poems for his edition of The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry (1940). The publication of Roy Campbell's autobiographical poem Flowering Rifle (1939) spurred Grieve to write a long poem of his own, The Battle Continues (1957), which criticized Campbell's part in the Spanish Civil War and reaffirmed a hatred of fascism. The outbreak of war in 1939 meant that the publication plans for Mature Art had to be abandoned, and the lengthy autobiography Lucky Poet had to be cut by at least two thirds before eventual publication in 1943.

Too old for the army, Grieve was called up for industrial war work, leaving Shetland for Glasgow in January 1942. A spell staying with Andrew Grieve, then widowed and living in Cambuslang, led to a quarrel which was never to be resolved between the brothers. By July and after initial training Grieve was turning shell-bands at a lathe in Mechan's Engineering Company at Scotstoun. Valda and Michael joined him in Glasgow, but the work was hard, with a nine-and-a-half hour day and compulsory overtime most Sundays, and at the end of August he was injured by a falling pile of copper plate, which left him with a limp for some months after he returned to the factory. Within two years the physical strain proved too great, and in 1944 Grieve asked for a transfer to the merchant navy where he served for a year as a deckhand aboard the Gurli, a Norwegian vessel delivering mail and supplies out of Greenock to allied ships in the Clyde estuary. He noted that the work was easier and he could send improved rations to Valda.

While in Glasgow and Greenock, Grieve had renewed contact with the Scottish National Party (SNP), making friends with its flamboyant chairman, Douglas Young, who had resisted conscription and gone to gaol on a matter of political principle. Grieve stood as an SNP candidate for Kelvingrove in 1945 and lost his deposit (he left the party in 1948 and stood for the same seat as an independent nationalist in 1950 with the same result). The Glasgow publisher William Maclellan produced a Selected Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid in 1944, as part of a Poetry Scotland series which included volumes from younger writers such as Maurice Lindsay, George Bruce, W. S. Graham, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Alexander Scott, Douglas Young, George Campbell Hay, and Sorley Maclean—the so-called ‘second wave’ of the modern Scottish renaissance.

With the coming of peace Grieve was freed from war work only to find himself unemployed at the age of fifty-three. The poet threw himself back into his literary and political interests, becoming a noted figure among the younger writers around him and supporting what had now become a general debate about the use of Scots and Gaelic in modern writing. In December 1945 he revived the Voice of Scotland, and many sections of Cornish Heroic Song appeared in its pages over the years, until its last issue in June 1949. Poems of the East-West Synthesis (1946) pursued his vision of a Russo-Gaelic connection and provided an outlet for yet more sections of the magnum opus.

Grieve returned to newspaper journalism in the latter half of 1947 with a brief spell on the staff of the Carlisle Journal. Back in Glasgow again, a new collection of poems (once again mostly from Cornish Heroic Song) was published as A Kist of Whistles, number 10 in the Poetry Scotland series. In 1949 steps were taken to have him considered for a civil-list pension which was eventually awarded in March 1950. Eager to leave Glasgow, in the autumn of 1949 the Grieves accepted an offer from the duke of Hamilton to live in a cottage attached to his house near Strathaven in Lanarkshire. They stayed at Dungavel House for almost a year, before the offer of a farm cottage at Candymill near Biggar brought Grieve back to the borders again. The couple were to stay there—in little more than two rooms and a kitchen—rent-free for the rest of their lives. The cottage at Brownsbank is now preserved by the Biggar Museum Trust, and a writing fellowship is associated with it.

Grieve continued to write poetry when prompted by the occasion, but the greater part of his life's work was behind him, and future publications were a matter of catching up with the immense output of the 1940s. He settled down to a life of public appearances and invited travel. He went to Moscow with the Scottish-USSR Friendship Society in 1950, to Germany and Poland the following year, and the summer of 1955 was spent in Prague just before the publication (at last) of In Memoriam James Joyce. The poet's communist sympathies were as outspoken and controversial as ever, not least when he rejoined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1956, when most Western intellectuals, outraged by the invasion of Hungary, were leaving it. Grieve accepted that mistakes had been made, but argued in an article for the Daily Worker for 28 March 1957 that now more than ever it was necessary to support the basic principles of Marxist-Leninism (Bold, 410). A third edition of A Drunk Man appeared in 1956, and in April 1957 the poet visited China as part of a British-Chinese friendship delegation. On his return to Scotland he was awarded the honorary degree of LLD on 5 July by the University of Edinburgh. The same year saw the publication of the Three Hymns to Lenin in a single volume and The Battle Continues, although the original quarrel with Roy Campbell was now long past. The Edinburgh University Nationalist Club presented the poet with the Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun medal 'for outstanding services to Scotland' in May 1958. The bicentenary of Burns's birth in 1959 saw Grieve produce a prose study, Burns Today and Tomorrow (1959) and he was consequently invited to visit Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. As a member of the Committee of 100 he joined Bertrand Russell and others to speak for nuclear disarmament at a huge rally in Trafalgar Square, London, on 18 February 1961.

In 1962 Grieve's own seventieth birthday was marked by a special new edition of A Drunk Man brought out by the 200 Burns Club, a commissioned portrait by R. H. Westwater, and by the appearance of both an American and a British edition of his Collected Poems. It was nothing like a complete collection, but it was the first time that most of his major poems had been in print for many years and it was awarded the William Foyle poetry prize in March 1963. Two seminal critical studies appeared in 1964, and both books—by Kenneth Buthlay and Dunean Glen—did much to consolidate the poet's standing in academic and popular circles. A number of supplementary collections appeared in later years, but A Lap of Honour (1967), A Clyack-Sheaf (1969), and More Collected Poems (1970), although useful at the time, are unsatisfactory from a bibliographical point of view. The two-volume Hugh MacDiarmid: Complete Poems, 1920–1976 (1978), revised for the ‘MacDiarmid 2000’ edition of 1993, remains the best edition to date.

Grieve had become a familiar and honoured public figure but was no less controversial in his pronouncements. He cited Anglophobia as his recreation for Who's Who. He waged a war of words with Ian Hamilton Finlay and other young writers, and quarrelled with Alexander Trocchi and Norman Mailer in a public debate at the Edinburgh Festival in 1962. In 1964 he stood for the general election as a Communist candidate against the prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, whose constituency was Kinross and West Perthshire. Denied equal airtime during the election Grieve went to the courts (without success) to have Home's election declared null and void.

Grieve continued to travel, visiting Sweden, New York, London, and Budapest in 1967, the year of his seventy-fifth birthday, when an exhibition of his work was shown at the National Library of Scotland. He was elected an honorary fellow of the Modern Language Association of America (1968), president of the Lallans Society (1972), and an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy (1974). His eightieth birthday was marked by a critical symposium on his work at Edinburgh University, and in 1976 he was elected president of the Poetry Society of Great Britain. Increasingly frail at the end, Grieve never broke contact with the wide circle of his correspondents, nor lost his iconoclastic delight in the clash of opinions and the excitement of ideas. Diagnosed as having a cancer of the bowel, he suffered several lesser operations with dignity and managed to attend the ceremony for an honorary degree at Trinity College, Dublin, in July 1978. He saw the proofs of the two-volume Complete Poems before being admitted to Chalmers Hospital, Edinburgh, where he died on 9 September 1978. He was buried in Langholm cemetery on 13 September. A bronze sculpture by Jake Harvey was erected in his memory on a hillside near Whita Yett, Langholm. Grieve was the last of the generation of Joyce, Eliot, Yeats, and Pound—those early modernists, iconoclasts, and system builders who wanted nothing less than a major place for poetic vision in the modern world.


  • A. Bold, MacDiarmid, Christopher Murray Grieve: a critical biography (1988)
  • The letters of Hugh MacDiarmid, ed. A. Bold (1984)
  • H. MacDiarmid, Lucky poet (1972)
  • H. MacDiarmid, The company I've kept (1966)
  • The Hugh MacDiarmid–George Ogilvie letters, ed. C. Kerrigan (1988)
  • D. Glen, Hugh MacDiarmid and the Scottish renaissance (1964)
  • C. Kerrigan, Whaur extremes meet: the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid, 1920–1934 (1983)
  • A. Riach, Hugh MacDiarmid's epic poetry (1991)
  • R. McQuillan, Hugh MacDiarmid: the patrimony (1992)
  • M. Grieve, ‘Hugh MacDiarmid the man’, The Hugh MacDiarmid anthology, ed. M. Grieve and A. Scott (1972), xi–xvi
  • W. R. Aitken, ‘A bibliography of Hugh MacDiarmid’, Hugh MacDiarmid: man and poet, ed. N. Gish (1992), 297–323
  • G. Wright, MacDiarmid: an illustrated biography (1977)
  • C. M. Grieve, Annals of the five senses (1923)


  • Ewart Public Library, Dumfries, MSS
  • NL Scot., corresp. and papers; corresp. mainly on political topics; material relating to election campaign in Kinross and West Perthshire; MSS
  • U. Edin. L., corresp. and literary MSS; letters and poems
  • U. Texas, MSS
  • Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, letters to Tom Pickard and Connie Pickard
  • NL Scot., letters to J. K. Annand; letters to J. G. Beaumont; letters to George Bruce; letters to Morven Cameron; letters to Helen Cruikshank; letters to Mr Dunlop and Mrs Dunlop; letters to Neil Gunn; letters to William Johnstone; corresp. with J. P. McGillivray; corresp. with Eneas Mackay; letters to Ruth McQuillan; letters to Ian F. G. Milner; letters to Mrs Ray Mitchell; letters to William Montgomery; letters to George Ogilvie; corresp. with William Soutar
  • Shetland Archives, Lerwick, letters to Peter Jamieson
  • U. Aberdeen, corresp. with Walter Keir
  • U. Edin. L., letters to Helen Cruickshank; letters to David Daiches; letters to D. Glenis; letters to John Laidlaw and Jean White; letters to Roland Eugene Muirhead; letters to Arno Reinfrank; letters to Francis George Scott; letters to Meic Stephens; letters to Jozsef Szili
  • U. Nott. L., letters to Nottingham Poetry Festival organizers


  • Scottish Screen Archive, 74 Victoria Cres. Road, Glasgow, ‘No fellow travellers’, 1972


  • University of Keele, English Department, ‘Poets and dialogue on tape’


  • W. Johnstone, pencil drawing, 1936, Scot. NPG
  • W. Crosbie, oils, 1943, Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow
  • F. T. Rainey, oils, 1946, State University of New York, Buffalo, Lockwood Memorial Library
  • L. Moser, vintage print, 1949, NPG
  • G. Konig, photograph, 1950, Hult. Arch.
  • L. H. Bradshaw, bronzed plaster head, 1956, Scot. NPG
  • B. Schotz, bronze bust, 1958, Scot. NPG
  • B. Schotz, bronze bust, 1958, BBC Scotland
  • R. H. Westwater, oils, 1962, Scot. NPG [see illus.]
  • A. Thornhill, bronze head, 1974, NPG
  • A. Moffat, group portrait, oils, 1980 (Poct pub), Scot. NPG
  • photographs, repro. in Wright, MacDiarmid