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date: 06 March 2021

Morgan, Edwin Georgefree

(1920–2010)
  • Roderick Watson

Edwin George Morgan (1920–2010)

by Christopher Barker, pubd 1986

© Christopher Barker

Morgan, Edwin George (1920–2010), poet and translator, was born on 27 April 1920 at 60 York Drive, Glasgow, the only son of Stanley Lawrence Morgan (1886–1965), iron merchant, and his wife, Margaret McKillop (Madge) (1871–1970), daughter of William Arnott, director of a ship-breaking company. His parents and grandparents belonged to a typically Glaswegian mercantile middle class, moderately well off and staunchly Presbyterian.

Education and war service

Following the depression and the Wall Street crash of 1929 the Morgans moved from a villa in Pollokshields to more modest housing in Rutherglen, where Morgan attended Rutherglen Academy until he won a scholarship at fourteen and moved to the High School of Glasgow. During his time there he contributed poems, a short story, and notes from the art club to the school magazine, and it was in these teenage years that he began to become aware of his own homosexual feelings, a difficult insight for a boy in a culture in which such things were never to be mentioned.

Keen on art, and not cut out for the business career his parents would have preferred, Morgan considered going to Glasgow Art School. Unsure of his talent, however, and possibly because he was colour blind, as he later discovered, he enrolled at the University of Glasgow in 1937. He enjoyed student life. He declared an enthusiasm for Anglo-Saxon poetry, won several subject and essay prizes, and submitted poems to the university magazine. He had an intense platonic relationship with a fellow student, Jean Watson, and a strong if unrequited attraction to two close male friends, Frank Mason and George Hunter. It was during this time that he also met and formed a lifelong friendship with the poet Sydney (W. S.) Graham, who was attending evening classes at the university.

While at university Morgan began to think of a literary career, although the future was far from clear for his generation, who were called up from their studies on the outbreak of the Second World War. He registered as a conscientious objector, but at the tribunal he felt he could not stand aside in the face of fascism and asked to join the Royal Army Medical Corps. After training at the army camp at Glentress, near Peebles, he was duly sent to north Africa to serve as a quartermaster clerk and stretcher-bearer in the military hospital complex at El Ballah, near the Suez Canal, later moving to the Lebanon and then Haifa. Twenty-two years later, in the poem 'The Unspoken', he was to remember the thrill of that journey to the East in 1941, on a troopship round the Cape of Good Hope. His war years were recalled again in the closing section of the long poem 'The New Divan', from 1977. In these poems Morgan did not hide from the horrors of the battlefield, but it was also the camaraderie of the army he recalled, where he found himself free from the sexual and social repressions of his middle-class Glasgow background and thrilled by the dangerous whirl of wartime life in Cairo and Port Said, and where he finally came to recognize his own sexuality, even if ‘unspoken’ for many years to come.

Teaching and early poems

After Morgan was demobilized in January 1946 he returned to the University of Glasgow, graduating with first-class honours the following year and winning the Snell postgraduate scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. He decided, however, that Oxford was not for him, and did not take it up. Determined to develop his poetic ambitions and keen for the structure of regular employment, he joined the staff of his home university as a junior lecturer in the English department. This strong attachment to his home city set the pattern for the rest of his life. He became a full lecturer at the University of Glasgow in 1950, senior lecturer in 1965, reader in 1971 and professor in 1975.

As an academic Morgan produced critical essays, reviews, and translations, including his version of Beowulf, begun during the war, eventually published in 1952, and much admired. As a poet he corresponded with Edwin Muir and Norman MacCaig and worked on the long poems 'Dies Irae' and 'The Vision of Cathkin Braes'. The 'Dies Irae' collection (which failed to appear in 1952 when the publisher foundered) contained several other Anglo-Saxon translations. The title poem described the torment of what seems to be both a literary and a metaphysical shipwreck, and the other poems showed a similar linguistic density and an emotional intensity touched, perhaps, by Morgan's reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins. MacCaig, then in his soon to be abandoned apocalyptic phase, admired the vigour of these verses. The poems in The Vision of Cathkin Braes (1952) attempted a lighter touch, not always successfully. The title poem carried literary echoes from late medieval dream poems, or Alexander Montgomerie's Cherry and the Slae from the sixteenth century, during which, on an evening in June in a park above Rutherglen, the poet encounters a carnival of figures from Scottish history including Jenny Geddes, John Knox, and Mary, queen of Scots, along with McGonagall, Salome, the explorer Mungo Park, William Wordsworth, and Lauren Bacall. A marker had been set for a new tone in contemporary Scottish writing, light-hearted (if occasionally a little heavy-handed and haunted by literary history) but above all irreverent, verbally energetic, and exploratory. The invented language of 'Verses for a Christmas Card', 'O angellighthoused harbourmoon / Glazegulfgalaxeval governoon' (Collected Poems, 1990, 56), signalled what was to come, with a nod to his interest in the zaumny of Russian futurism or indeed the inspired gabble of Sir Thomas Urquhart.

Morgan's biographer, James McGonigal, sees the decade of the 1950s as a difficult time for him. He had not quite found his voice as a poet, or his place in the hierarchies and specializations of university life. Nor could his sexuality find any open expression in the Scotland of the time, much less in Glasgow. (Homosexuality was not decriminalized in Scotland until 1980.) A gay community existed, of course, but in the land of the ‘hard man’ it was secretive, if not furtive and occasionally dangerous. The language of the long poem Cape of Good Hope (1955) was packed with a strongly rhetorical anguish, half ecstatic, even religious in spirit, and it is tempting to speculate on the source of that poem's pressure.

Pushing the boundaries

The more cheerfully irreverent and unashamedly rhetorical energy of The Vision of Cathkin Braes reappeared in The Whittrick (1961), a long sequence of eight different dialogues between famous literary figures, including James Joyce and Hugh MacDiarmid, in a lively polysyllabic banter. Morgan took part in the notorious writers' conference at the Edinburgh Festival in 1962, during which, despite his admiration for MacDiarmid, he chose to side with the avant-garde, the supposedly scandalous Alex Trocchi and William Burroughs, as the way forward for Scotland. He admired Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg and shared a preference for the Black Mountain poets with Ian Hamilton Finlay, along with a practising interest in the international concrete poetry movement. Morgan's concrete poetry was very different from Finlay's but these two poets signalled a new injection of vitality in Scottish poetry of the 1960s and 1970s.

Morgan had long had the habit of keeping large scrapbooks into which he pasted photographs, ephemera, newspaper stories, headlines, advertisements: anything that caught his attention in the whirl of modern life. His determination to connect with the contemporary was not limited to avant-garde literature and art, but extended to all the manifestations of a culture dominated by technology, rapid change, simultaneity, and the global outreach of the modern media. In this respect he was one of the few truly modern poets, wholly at ease with and fascinated by the frenetic surfaces of urban life. At the same time he distrusted the new fashion for self-exposure in ‘confessional’ poetry, favouring instead the technical wit and surprise of experimental and concrete poetry in small collections such as Newspoems (1965–71), Starryveldt (1965), Emergent Poems (1967), and gnomes (1968).

Glasgow itself was undergoing rapid change at this time, with old slums being torn down and high-rise ‘streets in the sky’ towering over its new motorways. Morgan initially saw this as an exciting new birth for his home city, so often characterized as a place of deprivation and violence. He later acknowledged that his optimism might have been misplaced, but a true rebirth had indeed been taking place within himself. He had met John Scott (1918–1978), a working-class storeman, in 1963, and although they never lived together, their close and loving relationship lasted until Scott's death. The title poem of his next collection was to speak of exactly this sense of liberation and excitement, of casting off old clothes and moving into the light, of celebrating the unspoken.

The Second Life (1968), with its freshness, playfulness, and experimental flair, its seriousness and its confidence, was a milestone in the evolution of modern Scottish poetry, rather as Alasdair Gray's Lanark was to prove for the Scottish novel in 1981. The violence of human life was recognized in these poems, but also embraced as a sign of dynamism and too often frustrated potential (as in 'King Billy' or 'Glasgow Green'). The excitements of street life and everyday human encounters in cafés, bars, and buses (conveyed in 'Trio', 'In the Snack-bar', and 'Good Friday') offered vivid and various alternatives to how conventional religion affirms the good life. 'The Death of Marilyn Monroe' celebrated the direct incantatory address Morgan so much admired in Allen Ginsberg, while the guarded but intense epiphanies of 'Strawberries', 'One Cigarette', 'Absence', and 'The Welcome' were among the most powerful love poems of the time. Careful readers recognized the poet's homosexual focus, but for many others this realization had to wait until Morgan ‘came out’ publicly in 1990.

The sheer fun of Morgan's concrete poems and sound poems, and the novelty of his science fiction poetry (such as 'In Sobieski's Shield' and 'From the Domain of Arnheim') generated a wide popular audience for his work, which rapidly became a staple in Scottish schoolrooms. Yet, despite their many different tones and topics, these poems shared a common and continuously serious fascination with the themes of change, dynamism, and risk, the instability of language, the mutation of meaning, and the recurrence of traces from the past. Morgan had emerged as a fully mature poet, and The Second Life (granted the Cholmondeley award for poetry) was a major achievement and the definitive template for the poetry he was to write for the rest of his career.

A selection in Penguin Modern Poets 15 in 1969 brought Morgan to a wider audience, and From Glasgow to Saturn (1973) cemented his success with another brilliant collection every bit as various and original as its predecessor. There was an intriguing opacity to poems such as 'Floating off to Timor' and 'Lord Jim's Ghost's Tiger Poem', which was nevertheless offset by their exotic and gleefully surreal images. Other verses spoke more simply and directly as the poet put words into the mouth of an apple, a hyena, or (phonetically) the Loch Ness monster. The 'London' sequence explored the poet's love for the excitement, the chaotic multiplicity, and the paradoxical beauty of the modern cityscape, while the 'Glasgow Sonnets' explored darker themes of deprivation nearer home, just as 'Saturday Night', 'Death in Duke Street' and 'Christmas Eve' recognized the loneliness of city life despite the bright lights.

In this and following collections Morgan continued to write fine love poems, poignant in their sense of what was unsaid and haunting in their evocation of an unnamed and absent other. Collections such as Instamatic Poems (1972) and From the Video Box (1986) used tropes drawn from snapshot photography, video tape, and scratch DJ sound systems to explore the grim and tender interface between our common humanity and the media-saturated world in which we live. His fascination with the culture and exoticism of the Middle East became a controlling metaphor for a long and opaquely personal poem sequence, The New Divan (1977). This poem ends by revisiting his war experiences but, as with his best science fiction poetry, its true focus was a sense of the poignancy of human experience, sensual, violent, and precious, on a small green planet in the infinity of space and time: 'The dead climb with us like the living to the edge. / The clouds sail and the air's washed blue … Oh I can't speak / of that eternal break of white, only of memories crowding in from human kind' (Collected Poems, 1990, 330).

Launched by the success of his Beowulf (a standard text in the USA), Morgan earned a reputation as a gifted translator, most notably with Poems from Eugenio Montale (1959) and Mayakovsky, Wi the Haill Voice (1972), which matched the revolutionary Soviet poet's jagged structures and raw political address with a vigorous diction in broad Scots. Rites of Passage (1976) collected many more translations from a wide range of European poets guided, as he explained in the introduction, by a 'conscientious faithfulness' to the originals.

National poet of Scotland

During the 1970s and 1980s Morgan began to give public lectures and to publish numerous short essays and articles on poetry and poets. A speaker and a reader of his own poetry with a light and rapid delivery, he was a popular, if not a natural performer, but original insights, a lucid intelligence, and his approachable style made him a valuable literary critic. He published Essays in 1974, a short study, Hugh MacDiarmid, in 1976, and a selection of pieces on Scottish literature, Crossing the Border, in 1990. His standing as a major creative figure in Scottish literature was confirmed with the publication of Poems of Thirty Years (1982) and then the expanded Collected Poems (1990), while his lectures, broadcasts, articles, and interviews from the 1970s and 1980s were collected as Nothing not Giving Messages (1990). With more personal reflections on his life and art this volume gave invaluable insights into Morgan's creative processes and opinions and, in an interview with Christopher Whyte, he made his first public statement about his sexuality.

Morgan retired from teaching in 1980, although he retained his ties with Glasgow University as an emeritus professor and was visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde from 1987 to 1990. Increasingly active at literary festivals and international cultural events, he accepted appointment as OBE, despite socialist reservations, in 1982. In 1985 the American Soros Translation prize funded a supersonic flight to Lapland on Concorde, to visit Santa Claus, he said. He had signed up for a trip on the space shuttle, too. This was not quite the usual gentleman of letters.

In 1984 Morgan published Sonnets from Scotland, a well-received visionary sequence of fifty-one reflections on Scotland, from its geological origins, through past history, famous visitors, nuclear destruction, changing cultures, and evolving landscapes to a far distant future—all imagined as if by some group of compassionate observers operating outside space and time, touched by the poignancy of human achievement and human suffering. This volume, along with From the Video Box, was later collected together with new poems in Themes on a Variation (1988). In 1990 Morgan's predilection for extended poem sequences (occasionally overdone) generated seventy poems in Hold Hands Among the Atoms, published to coincide with his seventieth birthday. Fifty-eight of these were included in Sweeping Out the Dark (1994), along with new poems and many more translations, most notably from the Hungarian poet Attila József and the Russian-Chuvash ‘poet of silence’ Gennady Aigi, who had been marginalized by Soviet authorities for his avant-garde minimalist style and his ethnic difference. A further volume, Attila József, Sixty Poems, was published in 2001. Morgan's Collected Translations appeared in 1996, and he went on to produce modern verse translations of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (1992), Doctor Faustus (1999), and Phaedra (2000). He used colloquial Scots to produce a highly energized, hybrid theatrical language, and Phaedra received the Oxford–Weidenfeld prize for translation in 2001. (Liz Lochhead was doing the same for Scottish theatre with her versions of Medea and Miseryguts—Le Misanthrope.) His interest in all forms of media led to the commissioned work Beasts of Scotland (1996), set to music and recorded by the Scots jazz saxophonist Tommy Smith, followed by a further collaboration, Planet Wave (1997), performed and recorded at the Cheltenham Festival.

Morgan was appointed Glasgow's first poet laureate in 1999, and received the queen's gold medal for poetry in 2000. However, his first original play, AD: a Trilogy of Plays on the Life of Jesus Christ, caused controversy when it was commissioned as part of Glasgow's millennium celebrations. With its vision of a sexually tolerant and humanist Christ in Roman-occupied Palestine, the play was misrepresented in the press and boycotted. Morgan went on to take part in the Scottish parliament's campaign to repeal section 28, the clause in the Local Government Act of 1988 forbidding the 'promotion' of homosexuality. The poems of 'The Trondheim Requiem' came from a project in memory of those persecuted by the Nazis, commissioned by the Swedish composer Ståle Kleinberg in 2002. Morgan's interest in dramatic monologues featured in many of the other poems in Cathures (2002), in which he recalled a number of well-known and not so well-known figures from Glasgow's past (Cathures being an ancient name for the city). This collection, like much of his later work, showed a growing taste for alliteration, boldly rhyming couplets, and rollicking rhythms in poems that commented on Scottish history, life, and culture at large.

Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1999, Morgan confounded the early prognosis but became increasingly weakened by the slowly spreading disease and its treatment. Supported by friends and colleagues, he lived at home in his flat at 19 Whittinghame Court, Glasgow, until 2003, but then had to move to a care home in Bearsden and then to Clarence Court nursing home. He continued to write with flair and energy. Declared ‘National Poet of Scotland’ by the Scottish parliament in 2004, he wrote a 'Poem for the Opening of the Scottish Parliament', which was duly recited by Liz Lochhead at the event marking the parliament's move to its new building in October that year. The poem contained the memorable lines, 'Open the doors! Light of the day shine in; light of the mind shine out!' (A Book of Lives, 2007, 9). He also produced further small volumes, and the collection A Book of Lives (2007), which included 'Gorgo and Beau', a lively dialogue between a cancer cell and a normal cell, and the sequence 'Love and a Life', which reflected on friends, family, lovers, and past adventures in his freely rolling eight-line ‘Cathurian’ stanza (a a a a a b b a).

Along with Norman MacCaig, Morgan was the best-loved and most widely read Scottish poet of his time, and his optimism, energy, eclectic imagination, and outward-looking enthusiasm influenced an entire generation of younger Scottish writers and artists. One of these, the poet and academic Robert Crawford, a former student of Morgan's, argued that he 'was to later 20th-century Scottish poetry what MacDiarmid had been half a century earlier: the central energising force, utterly international in vision' (The Guardian, 21 Aug 2010). A private individual to the end, he died at Clarence Court nursing home on 19 August 2010. His creative life—at first so solitary and of late so public—was celebrated by hundreds in Bute Hall at Glasgow University on 26 August 2010. He had received literary awards, honorary degrees, and medals from around the world. An international poetry prize was established in his name in 2008. He left £975,000 to the Scottish National Party to help fund the case for independence. His papers and books were donated to Glasgow University Library and the Scottish Poetry Library. His ashes were scattered on Cathkin Braes.

Sources

  • E. Morgan, Nothing not giving messages: reflections on work and life (1990)
  • The Scotsman (20 Aug 2010)

Archives

  • NL Scot., Alastair Fowler MSS; Duncan Glen MSS; Richard Price MSS
  • UCL, Cavan McCarthy MSS

Film

  • BFI NFTVA, light entertainment footage
  • Scottish Poetry Library, Don't look down, STV, 1996
  • interview with D. O'Rourke, Off the page, STV, 1989

Sound

Likenesses

  • A. Moffat, pencil drawing, 1979, priv. coll.; repro. in theahmblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/hugh-macdiarmid-exhibition.html, 6 Aug 2013
  • A. Moffat, oils, 1980, National Galleries of Scotland
  • C. Barker, photograph, 1986, priv. coll.; repro. in C. Barker and S. Barker, Portraits of poets (Carcanet, 1986) [see illus.]
  • G. Newson, bromide fibre print, 1994, NPG
  • B. Adams, photograph, 1999, Rex Features, London
  • F. Hanson, group portrait, photograph, 2000 (with poet Andrew Motion and Queen Elizabeth II), Camera Press, London
  • M. Macleod, photograph, 2003, repro. in
  • D. Annand, bronze bust, 2004, National Galleries of Scotland
  • J. A. Matthews, photograph, 2004, Camera Press, London
  • T. Norris, photograph, 2005, Camera Press, London
  • D. Cheskin, photographs, 2006, PA Images, London

Wealth at Death

approximately £2,000,000

Mitchell Library, Glasgow
private collection
National Portrait Gallery, London
University College, London
(1849–)
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
British Library, National Sound Archive
University of Glasgow Library