'Edwin Morgan, In Touch With Language, A New Prose Collection 1950-2005', edited by John Coyle and James McGonigal (published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies)
The Association for Scottish Literary Studies deserves high praise for this, its 48th volume in the field of Scottish Studies. Edwin Morgan – 'Eddie' as he was known familiarly – died in 2010 at the age of 90. Throughout his long career he was an amazingly prolific writer of both prose and poetry. So much so that I sometimes wonder whether he ever did anything else. He once admitted, 'I try to write every day', and everything he did write was filed over his lifetime and eventually donated to the special collections section of the Glasgow University library. The editors of the volume therefore faced a formidable task – what exactly to choose to print out of this vast body of prose material.
Their admirable solution was to represent in a series of stand alone sections the extraordinary range and variety of his work – from journalism for local newspapers to scholarly lectures and papers, book and drama reviews, and (of special interest, as I shall try to indicate) pieces of personal reminiscence. Morgan, of course, did publish books of his essays and related material: Essays
(1974) and Crossing the Border: Essays on Scottish Literature
(1990). But the rich mass of material made available here has remained uncollected – and so from a reader's point of view is entirely new.
Edwin Morgan's professional career was that of an academic, teaching English Literature at Glasgow University. When I joined the Glasgow English Department in 1979 he was a full professor, but he decided to take early retirement in 1980. This meant that I never really got to know him. As it happened, I had met him 10 years earlier in 1970. That year, my wife and I were running the Scottish Universities International Summer School in Edinburgh and we had invited him to give a reading from his poetry. This had included his wordless 'concrete' poem, Loch Ness Monster's Song,
and the event had gone off very well. In return, he sent me a beautifully autographed copy of Twelve Songs
, published that year, thanking us both for entertaining him so well. Still, that was 10 years ago and perhaps neither of us had kept that occasion clearly in mind.
Eddie had retired early to give himself more time for his creative writing. By 1980, his standing as a major Scottish poet was well-established. His poetry had followed no single pattern of development. He seemed able to turn his hand to almost any poetic form – from the most traditional to the most experimental. He admired the American Beat poets. He regarded performance poetry as significant as concrete poetry. And in the post-1980 years, his reputation continued to grow. Public recognition of a kind duly followed. In 1999, he became Glasgow's Poet Laureate, and in 2004 he became the first Scottish national poet: 'The Scots Makar'. In 2000, he had been awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.
Too young to have been involved in the so-called Scottish Renaissance in the 1920s, this book makes it clear that Morgan nonetheless retained a lifelong interest in the work of its leading figure Hugh MacDiarmid. Ready to defend MacDiarmid and protest against his neglect by the English literary establishment, he clearly found his work in the latter part of his career problematical. In a fascinating lecture called The Third Tiger: The Translator as Creative Communicator
, delivered in 1988, he cites a curious example of MacDiarmid's readiness in his late work to incorporate into his own poetry passages from the work of other writers in a manner that some would see as plagiaristic. The poem in question is In Memoriam James Joyce
, and the passage, which Morgan tells us has been much admired, had been lifted directly from a passage in one of John Buchan's less familiar novels called A Prince of the Captivity
Aside from the critical point, one is struck above all by Morrgan's ability to recollect in detail a passage from an obscure Buchan novel. It's evidence once again of his quite extraordinary literary know-how. In the end, however, his verdict on the complex figure that MacDiarmid had become is clear: he is 'one of the great modern poets'.
A second and equally impressive string to Edwin Morgan's literary bow is his work as a translator. It's impossible to think of another poet able to translate from such a range of languages: Russian, Hungarian, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese – and Anglo-Saxon. In another brilliant lecture, entitled Long Poems – But How Long?
, delivered in 1995, he comments on Yeats's successful linking of an incident in the Irish Civil War in 1922 to a notorious burning at the stake in 1314, suggesting that 'it reminds us more of the methods of much Arabic, Persian and Turkish poetry…'. Well it may have reminded Morgan, but how many of the rest of us could have recognised such a bridge between Middle Eastern and Western poetry?
However, to my mind there is one oddity in Eddie's extraordinary range as a poetry translator. He seems never to have translated from the Gaelic. In yet another wonderful lecture called Provenance and Problematics of 'Sublime and Alarming Images' in Poetry
, delivered at the British Academy in 1977, he does make a brief allusion to James Macpherson's Ossian
, but that is it. Why this is surprising is that his prose in a variety of ways makes clear Morgan's commitment to a distinctive Scottish culture and literature, to Scottish devolution, and ultimately to Scottish independence. Why else did his will include a donation of almost a million pounds to the SNP?
And he certainly knew Professor Alan Riach in Glasgow's Scottish Literature Department – a fellow-poet who, while not a Gaelic speaker, would successfully translate examples of Gaelic poetry. Professor Riach has told me he remembers once raising the Gaelic question with Eddie – getting little in the way of a reply. Is it possible that Morgan felt that emphasising Scotland's Gaelic past would hinder rather than help the nationalist cause?
In Touch with Language
opens with a 1958 Glasgow Herald
review of a new biography of Byron. Morgan makes a single point: Byron's fame as a heroic political activist in the final years of his life had come to overshadow his achievement as a major poet. His conclusion? 'It is high time we took his poetry as seriously as his life.' A couple of years later, in a talk called Whither Poetry?
on the BBC Scottish Home Service, he raises a similar question about the relationship between a poet's life and his art. In today's multi-media world, he asks: 'Can we ever have again someone like Byron or Burns who captures the ear of a wide general public and yet remains unmistakably a poet?'.
I draw attention to these comments because, in conclusion, they make me wonder about Edwin Morgan's own position as a major Scottish writer. Despite all the prizes and honours he eventually gained, my own sense is that he never became a public figure. He was a world away from becoming a Byron or Burns. On the contrary, he seemed a remote, even elusive figure. But that is hardly surprising.
Edwin Morgan was a gay man who grew up in a world very different from that of today. Younger readers will not remember just how different. In the 1960s my wife and I were visited in Edinburgh by one of my closest American friends who happened to be gay. He was touring Scotland with his partner, but when he arrived at our Dundas Street flat he was alone. His partner was holed away in a nearby hotel. We never even learned his name. An extreme example perhaps, but the point it makes is a fair one. Love then could be a crime.
Eddie writes movingly here about what it was like to be a gay writer growing up in Glasgow in the 1930s through to the 1950s. 'Gay contacts,' he tells us, 'gay friendships, were by no means unobtainable but took place in an atmosphere of secrecy, of deception and pretence and machination'. He had no wish to become a 'gay poet'. Gayness was only part of his experience, not the whole. But he did wish to communicate it in forms of art and publishable poetry – even if only indirectly. Looking back now on Edwin Morgan's artistic career, what is striking is just how multi-faceted is the experience it encompasses. But unlike that of Byron or Burns, his life remains a closed book.