'Myriad-mindedness': that's a watchword of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and it well describes the outlook and career of the Reverend Dr Jock Stein, who is both a craftsmanly poet and a Church of Scotland clergyman of wide sympathies.
He is perhaps best known for his legendary tenure at Carberry Tower, the Church's intellectual and cultural centre which has hosted a cross-section of enlightened Scottish opinion as represented by, say, Will Storrar, Tom Nairn, Neal Ascherson, William McIlvanney, Billy Kay, James Robertson, John Bell, Owen Dudley Edwards, and many more. That list reflects Jock's international interests: he has worked, for example, in Kenya and Hungary, and the experiences may have played no little part in his concern for migrants and exiles, of which more later.
As if all this activity wasn't enough, he was well into his senior years when he undertook – and gained – a PhD from Glasgow University. During his period as a postgraduate student, he worked on the psalms and their various translations into Scots. Having met Jock at the Poetry and Coffee
sessions at Henderson's in Edinburgh, I felt privileged to advise him on such of these translations with which I had a measure of familiarity.
From his book Temple and Tartan: Psalms, Poetry and Scotland
(Handsel Press, 2022) I was taken, in particular, by his focus on Psalm 114, which deals with the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and how he links this with Dante's reference to the same psalm in the Purgatorio
; we can bear in mind that Dante himself had been an exile. Here, then, is that understanding of migrancy, of uprootedness, which is such a leading leitmotif in Jock's book. He cites many instances of the plight of refugees in our own time: 'Zabiullah sips tea in a tent; / stench of sewage hangs around / him and seven thousand others, / waiting for news of asylum. / watching a rat scuttle past'.
David the Psalmist is the spiritual ancestor of Dante and other poets, such as George Herbert, cited by Jock Stein in Temple and Tartan
, as well as of Jock himself, and of his Scots predecessor as a makar-minister, Alex S Borrowman. David was both poet and prophet, at the nexus of those two great forces of spirituality, poetry and religion. Jock's canonical catholicity allows him to include Hugh MacDiarmid, that professed atheist and communist, who has long been considered as both a (philosophical) materialist and a mystic.
Similarly, it cannot be denied that the poet of Faust
left us one of the most profound works of Western literature: Stephen Spender said of Goethe that 'in his beliefs, he was a humanist, often siding with the pagan as against the Christian world, but with an obsessed preoccupation with Christ and a pietas that extended beyond the churches to ancient pagan and modern Oriental religions'. Poets can often be found at the meeting of opposites; it's part of their job description. MacDiarmid was often moved to quote that magnificently wayward Christian, Søren Kierkegaard, as much as Karl Marx, if not more so.
Relationships between creativity and religion underwent subtle and often vexed developments during the 19th century, not least in the wake of challenges brought by science, as in the writings of Charles Darwin. In his book Literature and Dogma
(1873), the poet and critic Matthew Arnold argued for a sort-of-Christianity which would distance itself from what he (and Goethe before him) called Aberglaube, which he translated as 'extra-belief, belief beyond what is certain and verifiable […] that which […] is the poetry of life, and has the rights of poetry. But it is not science; and yet it tends always to imagine itself as science, to substitute itself for science'.
Out go miracles, supernatural occurrences, over-literal interpretations of the scriptures; for Arnold, religion is above all concerned with morality. It is ironic that Arnold, a poet, is downgrading the 'poetry' of religion. However, he goes on to maintain that it is literary criticism, with its sophisticated, forensic methodologies, which is best placed to scrutinise the Bible. It is not surprising that, during the 20th century, there appeared a publication which presented the sacred texts under the title The Bible as Literature
Towards the close of the 19th century, art had in certain quarters become a substitute for religion, or to put it another way, religion was becoming aestheticised. In Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray
(1891), the main character visits a Catholic church and experiences an essentially connoisseur's buzz at the elaborate trappings – the ritual, the vestments, and so on.
Jock Stein cites the case of Alexander ('Greek') Thomson, Glasgow's 'other' great architect of the later Victorian period, a devout Presbyterian who opted for the horizontal nature of Greek architecture against the vertical bias of Gothic, which, to quote the architectural historian Gavin Stamp, was 'tainted [for Thomson] by its associations with medieval Christianity, that is, Popery'.
Two major thematic entry-points to Temple and Tartan
come, of course, in its title. At a point in the book, Jock Stein traces the metaphor of 'temple' back to 'the first century Jewish world of thought' which 'speaks of the overlap of heaven and earth'. (We might recall 'Greek' Thomson's buildings as temple-like.) I find 'tartan' the more intriguing motif. Jock Stein considers tartan to symbolise the integration of diverse qualities, i.e. interwoven. This takes us into significant Scottish intellectual and artistic discourse of the last century.
That great all-rounder Patrick Geddes, both theorist and practitioner of the generalist tradition, argued in 1904 for 'throwing athwart the warp of specialism the flying shuttle of synthesis, so creating a solid fabric both of warp and woof'. What a challenge this is for the you-in-your-small-corner-and-I-in-mine mentality of so much in Scottish (and not just Scottish) life, and which we know only too well here in the extremes of religious sectarianism.
Hugh MacDiarmid deployed the same imagery in his poem The Seamless Garment
, whose symbolism derives from the very real workplace of his native Langholm: he declares that his poetry must follow the example of the manufacture of Border cloth: 'Woven ower close for the point o' a pin / Onywhere to win in'.
Jock Stein refers us to an article by the musician and poet, John Purser, on pibroch and other intricate musical structures, and how they may be compared with the interlacing nature of early works of visual art, in textiles, medieval manuscripts and stone-carving.
Such similarities of aural and visual patterns cause Dr Stein to meditate on synaesthesia, of how one sense can suggest another, not least in the arts. Again, the witness of the 19th century is instructive. In one of his best-known sonnets, Dante Gabriel Rossetti has the phrase 'visible silence'. Algernon Swinburne wrote of 'the melody of colour, the symphony of form' in a painting by Albert Moore, and James Whistler went so far as to give musical titles such as 'symphony' and 'nocturne' to his pictures. Walter Pater – like Matthew Arnold not slow to use a philosophically-intense term from German – spoke of Anders-streben
, 'otherwise-striving', of how 'each art may be observed to pass into the condition of some other art, by […] a partial alienation from its own limitations, by which the arts are able, not indeed to supply the place of each other, but reciprocally to lend each other new forces'.
There is indeed a wider European context in which to situate the Scottish and English thinking on these matters, and indeed that context is religious in nature, as witness the poetry and art criticism of Charles Baudelaire. There's a distinct theological basis for his view that it would be surprising if sound did not suggest colour and vice versa, 'since all things always have been expressed by reciprocal analogies, ever since the day when God created the world as a complex indivisible totality'. (Richard Wagner and Tannhäuser
in Paris, 1861). Baudelaire was as idiosyncratic a Catholic as MacDiarmid was a Marxist.
That's the beauty of Temple and Tartan
: you can take any point in the book and use it as a starting point for your own explorations. Thank God, indeed, for Jock Stein.
Dr Tom Hubbard's most recent book is
Invitation to the Voyage: Scotland, Europe and Literature (Rymour Books, 2022); further back, he is the author
The Integrative Vision: Poetry and the Visual Arts in Baudelaire, Rilke and MacDiarmid (Akros, 1997), based on his guest lectures at Glasgow School