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The Real MacLean – Scottish Review of Books
by Christopher Whyte

The Real MacLean

November 12, 2011 | by Christopher Whyte

When I agreed to be joint editor, along with Emma Dymock, of a new edition of Sorley MacLean’s collected poems published to mark his centenary, I underestimated the magnitude of the task which I was taking on. Admirable as the volume published during the poet’s lifetime, O Choille gu Bearradh (From Wood to Ridge), undoubtedly was, there could be no argument about the need for a replacement.

The love sequence Dàin do Eimhir (Poems to Eimhir) is generally regarded as marking the high point of MacLean’s achievement, though some might argue, especially since the publication by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies of the original, 1939 manuscript version, that An Cuilithionn (The Cuillin), a thornier and, initially at least, far less attractive proposition, represents an equally important peak. Anyone looking for the Dàin do Eimhir in O Choille gu Bearradh, or on the official website devoted to MacLean’s work, www. sorleymaclean.org, would have come away with the impression that the love sequence simply did not exist. Any items from it featured in either location have been shorn of their original context and presented as individual poems in their own right, each with a specific title. An Cuilithionn appears in a shortened, abridged version made half a century after it was written, from which almost a quarter of the original material has been excised.

There was an urgent need, then, to bring the collected poems up to date with the current state of publication regarding MacLean’s work, even when this meant going back on decisions consciously made by the poet himself later on in life. To this extent, we found ourselves working against the poet, against the form into which he chose to cast his work when rediscovered in the late 1970s and after, a situation that made for some uncomfortable moments and difficult choices.

In the case of the two major achievements, Dàin do Eimhir and An Cuilithionn, the question confronting an editor is, which version of the text should be privileged. Where the love sequence is concerned, the definitive version will of necessity remain a somewhat elusive concept. At a stage when the last four poems still had to be written, MacLean had already decided not to publish several items from earlier on. So it can be claimed that the sequence never in fact existed as a complete and consummate arte-fact. If his 1943 book Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile, which made MacLean so celebrated amongst an admittedly restricted circle of readers, omitted twelve items, it nonetheless retained the original numeration, in a manner which provocatively highlights the omissions. A passage from one of his letters to Douglas Young shows that MacLean himself proposed this solution, even though service in North Africa, a serious injury at El Alamein and subsequent hospitalisation meant he could not be directly involved in the last stages preceding publication.

Three of the missing poems came out in a magazine in 1970, six were recovered from manuscript in the 2002 Association for Scottish Literary Studies edition of the sequence, and two more were shifted back from the ‘dàin eile’ where they had, so to speak, appeared under camouflage. In March 2011, Ian MacDonald discovered a completely unknown item, a veritable jewel eight lines long, carrying the number XLVI, which had escaped my attention when examining MacLean’s papers in Aberdeen. The poet himself may have forgotten about it, as a different poem carries this number in the sequence. We included it in the new collected as XLVIa. Here, as with all items for which no version by MacLean is known to exist, an English version by one of the editors is printed face to face. Given that so much has survived, it is tempting to wonder if the only item from the sequence still not traced, VII, is an oversight on MacLean’s part. Could he have skipped this number by mistake? The hypothesis could of course be wishful thinking on the part of a frustrated editor. It can only be hoped that, if the poem was indeed written, and has survived, it will come to light sooner rather than later.

What continues to make MacLean’s celebrated love sequence such gripping reading? It catches with convincing sincerity and intensity a unique moment in time, the outbreak of a war which would shape Euro-pean history for half a century afterwards. Being very much a product of specific circumstances, it is balanced and paradoxically reinforced by a predicament which has a paradigmatic quality, and evokes centuries of love lyrics in a range of languages as far back as the Provençal troubadours, the appropriate priority for a speaker characterised as young, male and heterosexual. Involvement with a woman who has to all intents and purposes bewitched him, deliberately or otherwise, but who holds out scant hope of a relationship which will integrate them both into a social structure? Or the demands society makes on him as an individual seeking his place in it, and realisation through that? This is far more than a straightforward counterposition of the claims of love and war.

Behind the conflict lies a more subtle, and possibly deeper, question. To what extent can realising one’s talent as a poet lead to outcomes that are socially desirable, both for the individual and those around him? Will this always bring as consequence a degree of alienation? If love, however ill-starred, can nevertheless function as excellent fuel for the making of poetry, is the latter invariably destined to make a misfit of the poet himself?

One of the more convincing definitions of Weltliteratur (‘world literature’, the term originates with Goethe) is texts which are read and enjoyed in a quite different setting from that for which they were originally written. With respect to Sorley MacLean, this would mean that his poetry was read by a public for whom the fact of its being written in Gaelic, and the related issue of the survival or otherwise of Gaelic as a spoken language, were of secondary importance. To a significant degree the public MacLean’s work has won for itself among monoglot English speakers indicates that it has already been promoted to the status of ‘world literature’, however much one may regret that it has so far failed to make the additional leap into other European languages and cultures.

With An Cuilithionn, the editors made an opposite, perhaps contradictory, choice. My own feeling is that, with the passage of time, the original version of 1939, messier, more outspoken, daring and challenging, will take the place of MacLean’s 1989 adaptation, which is chastened and more consistent, with the satire on specific people toned down or excised and the political militancy somewhat muted. But the original version entered the public domain a matter of months before the new collected volume was due to appear. We decided it would be premature and unjustifiable to anticipate a consensus which needs to be gradually attained and widely agreed on. So the adaptation is reprinted as it stands from O Choille gu Bearradh, and a section of extracts from the earlier version inserted towards the beginning of the book.

Some marvellous lyrics from the 1943 volume whose omission from O Choille gu Bearradh is hard to justify were inserted in the appropriate place. Emma Dymock took on the task of rounding up all those items which were published but uncollected, so that little-known, but considerable, achievements, such as two poems for the Gaelic Society of Inverness, and a splendid item written in honour of Professor Angus Matheson, can now take their place alongside more familiar pieces they in many respects surpass. The difficulties of coming up with adequate English versions highlighted the complexities, the richness of reference, resonant lexis and intricate poetic thought which mark these pieces out. Emma also unearthed, in the National Library of Scotland, the Gaelic text of sections from Parts 4 and 5 of ‘Uamha ‘n ‘Oir’ which had previously appeared in English only, in the magazine Chapman edited by Joy Hendry, and are now included in our volume.

Features of the book which may strike readers as negligible nonetheless cost the editors considerable thought and not insignificant effort. It was agreed that, differently from in O Choille gu Bearradh, the Gaelic text should be placed on the privileged right-hand page, quietly underpinning our view that these are Gaelic poems with facing English versions, there being no question of any bogus equivalence in terms of literary value or significance between the texts in the two languages. So as to make the book as reader-friendly as possible, given our not unreasonable aspiration for this new collected to initiate a further stage in the enjoyment and study of MacLean’s achievement, lists of titles and first lines, in Gaelic and in English, are appended. Notes on the poems are far more detailed and generous than those MacLean himself supplied. Here we were careful to indicate the source of all the texts printed. Where our selection from the poems remaining in manuscript after MacLean’s death was concerned, we simply referred, however, to the Association for Scottish Literary Studies publication where these first appeared. Last but not least, we worked hard to supply as complete as possible a glossary of the place names which play a crucial in colouring and, as it were, grounding MacLean’s poems, in giving its texture to his verse.

Emma’s proposed title, Caoir Gheal Leumraich (White Leaping Flame) from Dàn do Eimhir XLVI was enthusiastically adopted by all concerned. Like the photographs chosen by his daughter Ishbel for the cover, this shifted the emphasis from the older MacLean so many knew and loved to the troubled, younger genius who penned some of the finest poems. Throughout their work on the edition, the editors were able to call on the expertise, not just linguistic, of Ian MacDonald, who made his time and talents available with a generosity it would be only a slight exaggeration to call heroic.


Sorley MacLean
Edited by Christopher Whyte  and Emma Dymock
POLYGON, £25.00, 524PP ISBN 978-1846971907

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