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The Contribution of Iain Crichton Smith

Edwin Morgan
ScotLit 23, Winter 2000

SEE ALSO:
The Poetry of
Iain Crichton Smith
Scotnote
I’d like to begin with a brief sketch of the man, just to place him in your minds. He was born in 1928 in Glasgow, but was brought up on the island of Lewis. It’s frequently stated, even in books from his own publisher, that he was born on Lewis, but his first two years were in fact spent in Glasgow. What influence this could have I don’t know, but it must have meant something to him, since he wrote poems about the fact, so those who keep saying he was born on Lewis have not been reading his poetry with due care and attention! Anyhow, he was brought up in a Gaelic-speaking community on Lewis, so that English was his second language, first learned at school. He went to Aberdeen University and took a degree in English there. From then on, he earned his living as a schoolteacher, to begin with in Dumbarton where I first met him in the early 1950s, and thereafter at Oban High School. I still have a photograph I took of him in Dumbarton, standing outside his house, leaning against a lamp-post with a match between his teeth, looking more worldly and gallus than he really was. The match-stick rolled between his teeth was a favourite gesture. I think he must have got it from American films. We got on extremely well right from the start, and talked about everything under the sun, including of course Scotland and its status. Although he later travelled about quite a lot, he remained very much a writer based in the Highlands of Scotland, and Highland culture and landscape and history are diffused through his work, interestingly punctuated by references to Freud and Lenin and Marx and Wittgenstein and Virgil and Dante. It’s not a learned poetry as such, and it’s not a difficult poetry; perhaps what it does is show how someone brought up in a narrow, constricted environment can be open to the whole intellectual world if he wants to be. The narrowness of the world he grew up in – and it’s a narrowness he exclaims against in poem after poem – was the teachings and influence of the Free Church, which was still powerful, dogmatic, authoritarian, and as he saw it, philistine, anti-cultural. It gave him a rooted dislike of all dogma, whether religious or political. In an early poem about his own island, ‘Poem of Lewis’, he says ‘They have no place for the fine graces / of poetry.’ So he had to strike out on his own, dip his toe in the wider world, yet always marked by an inheritance he could never shrug off. I should add that he has been criticized for his almost totally negative view of Lewis. The poet Derick Thomson, who had a very similar upbringing but did not share that negativity, suggests that personal factors were at work: Iain was a lonely child with a lot of illness, and with a good deal of unhappiness in the family background, and this, I would agree, is something that has to be taken into account. But whatever the causes were, the iron had certainly entered into his soul on some aspects of life.

     He was a prolific, in English and Gaelic, and produced novels, short stories, essays, radio plays and stage plays as well as many volumes of poetry. He wrote quickly, usually without revision, and with the risk (which he was aware of) of being careless and slapdash when he was not writing under good pressure. On the other hand, he gained in a sort of unstudied, often surprising lyrical quality which he couldn’t have got any other way. His best poems often seem to slide onto the page without strain or effort; they seem natural, seem right, seem inspired. He had an impatience with formal structures, especially if they were complex, and that can be either good or bad. Poetry by its nature has form. It is not prose, it is not speech. So there is always a danger if you pay all your dues to spontaneity. The element of luck looms large. Smith, especially after his early poetry, took that risk, and wanted to write as freely as possible. Also, we have to note that his dislike of formal showiness was very characteristic of the man, who was in himself totally modest and unpretentious. He had a certain Highland reticence, but added to that, in his earlier years, he was very tense and nervous, and it took him quite a while to become inured to public poetry-readings. I remember once, when we were both about to go on the platform at a reading in Edinburgh, he was prowling about, looking thoroughly miserable, and muttering, O God, I wish I was in Stornoway! He never read his poems really well; they tended to come out in a rapid low monotone which missed the expressive possibilities that were undoubtedly there, and when he had finished one poem he hurried on to the next, without allowing the audience time to react. He gradually evolved a method of performance, of pleasing the audience, by interspersing the poems with bizarre jokes (really awful jokes sometimes!), and eventually with some of his short stories, which were often hilariously funny (particularly stories about his wildly eccentric alter ego, the Holy Fool, Murdo). Latterly, I have been reading with him when he read no poetry at all, only prose, which I felt was cheating a bit, but of course it worked with the audience. His sense of humour was very engaging, at times rather surreal, and at times giving the impression of something on the edge, possibly more dark than joyful. He had in fact one period of complete paranoiac breakdown, and was for some time in a mental hospital, though he made a full recovery and found a new happiness and sociability in the latter part of his life. After the breakdown, as he said himself, he ‘rejoined the human race’.

     What else can we say about him? His favourite writers were Auden, Kierkegaard, Robert Lowell, and Dostoevsky – a formidable quartet. He loved crosswords, especially of the Torquemada type. And as a teacher, he had the great quality of imagination: he would turn an English class into a vehement discussion of the rights and wrongs of the wonderful story of Dido and Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid: the pupils might never learn Latin, but they would learn something about human nature, about love, about ambition, about destiny, about high ideals and the often dark underside of high ideals: in other words, education for life.

     In looking now at his work, I shall be considering his poetry mainly, since that is central to his literary contribution. But he did write a dozen novels, and a few words about these are in order. He was not a natural born novelist, as he himself admitted. The language is plain and colourless; the characters are thinly sketched and often speak in clichés; and there is very little solidarity of background in description of places or things or even persons. The plots, such as they are, are suggested by his own autobiographical history. Sometimes he struggles through, and the book is readable enough, but a good novelist would have to be more in the world, to mix more with a variety of people, and above all to be more observant than Smith was. Why did he spend so much time writing these books? Maybe there are two answers. After he took his early retirement from teaching, he needed some extra income, and the novels helped. But also, on a deeper level, I think they relate to his fear of not writing, his habit of setting aside a regular number of hours a day for literary creation of some kind. He said in an interview in 1995 that his obsessive fear was ‘to stop writing altogether – I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. That would be the most devastating thing that could happen.’ It’s generally agreed that by far the best of his novels is Consider the Lilies (1968). The book about the Highland Clearances is very short, really only a novella, and was written in ten days. It is a very compressed account of the eviction of a stubborn old woman who shows us that even at the age of seventy it is possible to change, to grow, to begin to understand that your local minister may be a tool in the hands of the evictors and that the local atheist may be more Christian than the minister. When the book came out, it was much criticized for all sorts of historical inaccuracies, most of them quite blatant to anyone who really knew about the period. Does it matter? Smith himself, when he was interviewed about it, was fairly laid back. He said, with a laugh, ‘The history was a bit haphazard. I should perhaps have done a bit more research I don’t think I was too concerned with historical truth. There were a number of mistakes I don’t know if a novel has to be that accurate. I was more concerned with the old woman’s mind.’ Any how, the public seems to have decided that Smith was right. The book has become a minor classic and has been reprinted several times in the Canongate Classics series.

     The only other novel where Smith really did do research was much less successful. An Honourable Death (1992) retells the story of Major-General Sir Hector Macdonald, a peasant boy from the Black Isle who joined the army and rose through the ranks until he received the highest honours for bravery, a soldier who was successful, admired, loved, but who shot himself in a hotel in Paris rather than face a court-martial which had accumulated evidence of his extensive homosexual activities with native youths in Ceylon. His life was a powerful, moving, tragic story, almost Aristotelian in its evocation of pity and terror, and you would think no-one could make a boring novel about it – but Smith does. The style is humdrum, dutiful, plodding through all the incidents he has dug up from his reading (he actually includes a bibliography in the book), and the awful real-life denouement comes across like something in a cheap novelette. As one reviewer remarked, the book is ‘calamitously lacking in dynamic life’. If this is so, Smith’s instinct to avoid research for Consider the Lilies was probably quite sound.

     One other novel is worth mentioning both because it is well written and because it has a painful relevance to the author’s life. In the Middle of the Wood (1987) traces the story of a married man, a writer, who suddenly has an attack of paranoia, thinks his wife is having an affair, becomes obsessed with the idea that he is being spied on and everything about him is being bugged, loses more and more contact with everyday reality, and is driven to the verge of both murder and suicide. After a spell in a mental hospital he recovers and is reunited with his wife, in a very touching conclusion to the book. Smith has said that the whole story is true, and if this is so, it is a most remarkable example of how an artist will use the material of his life, no matter how terrible it may be, and perhaps achieve the double function of exorcising some of his demons and presenting his readers with a highly dramatic story.

     As far as the prose is concerned, his most popular work has always been the series of short stories about Murdo. Murdo is mad, but harmless. He shatters the complacent surface of life wherever he goes. He casts some doubts on the supremacy of reason. Like MacGonagall, he is perfectly serious, and that is what makes him so funny:

One day Murdo visited the local library and he said to the thin bespectacled woman who was standing at the counter:
    “I want the novel War and Peace written by Hugh Macleod.”
    “Hugh Macleod?” she said.
    “Yes,” he said, “but if you don’t happen to have War and Peace I’ll take any other book by the same author, such as The Brothers Karamazov.”
    “I thought,” she said doubtfully, “I mean are you sure that...”
    “I’m quite sure that the book is by Hugh Macleod,” said Murdo, “and I often wonder why there aren’t more of his books in the libraries.”
    “Well,” she said, “I think we have War and Peace but surely it was written by Tolstoy.”
    “What’s it about?” said Murdo, “Is it about a family growing up in Harris at the time of Napoleon?”
    “I thought,” she said, “that the story is set in Russia,” looking at him keenly through her glasses.
    “Bloody hell,” said Murdo under his breath and then aloud,
    “Oh well I don’t think we can be talking about the same Hugh Macleod. This man was never in Russia as far as I know. Is it a long book, about a thousand pages?”
    “I think that’s right,” said the woman, who was beginning to look rather wary.
    “Uh huh,” said Murdo. "This is a long book as well. It’s about Napoleon in Harris in the eighteenth century. Hugh Macleod was an extraordinary man, you know. He had a long beard and he used to make his own shoes. A strange man. I don’t really know much about his life except that he became a bit religious in his old age.”

     Murdo is not the only character in Smith’s short stories to have been brushed by the wing of insanity. One of the best of these stories is Napoleon and I, about an old married couple where the husband has gone mad and thinks he is Napoleon, leaving messages for the milkman to deliver five divisions of troops tomorrow, calling his wife Josephine, and dressing in a Napoleonic coat and hat. The story is told by his wife, who is at her wits’ end knowing what to do with him; she thinks a hospital would be cruel; she simply has to look after him, though they are both in their eighties. Like the Murdo stories, it is extremely funny – even the wife finds her husband comical at times. But the comedy is very deceptive; it is really a tragedy where no-one is at fault. The wife remembers that she once loved him – where is that love now? They cannot even talk to each other. The contrast between what might have been and what is now is very moving.

     Turning now to the poetry, and I shall be speaking only about his English poetry, or Gaelic poetry in translation, I think it may be useful to have at least a word about the fact of his bilingualism. Gaelic was what was used at home and in the playground, but English began to dominate as soon as he went to school. He is unlike his contemporaries (Sorley MacLean, Derick Thomson, for example) in writing so much of his poetry in English and so little in Gaelic (Sorley MacLean said once that he could not write poetry in English – he used to apologize for his English versions of his own poems). Smith is quite different, in that he very early became fascinated with English and American poets and evidently felt impelled to challenge them, with a sort of determination not to let the fact of his using a second language, an imposed, non-native language stand in his way. Was this a betrayal of his birthright? He sometimes seems to have felt so. More often, he simply felt caught in a dilemma from which there was no satisfactory escape. In his essay ‘Real People in a Real Place’ (1986) he has a very bitter passage which is worth quoting:

I recall with a sense of injustice my own fragmented life, the choices I had to make when I didn’t realise that I was making them, the losses I endured before I well knew that I was enduring them, the contradictions I was involved in before I knew they existed. And I know that my own life has been a snake pit of contradictions, because of an accident of geography and a hostile history. I envy, for instance, those poets who have developed in a stable society, who can start from there and are not constantly analysing the very bases of their art.

     That ‘snake-pit of contradictions’ is easily seen in the antithetical titles of so many of his books, from The Law and the Grace (1965) to The Leaf and the Marble (1998). He eventually erected a whole philosophy of life on the contrast between things dogmatic and authoritarian on the one hand and things fresh and vulnerable and spontaneous on the other. But even in small, apparently artless poems he can make a wonderfully unexpected attack on traditional wisdom, so-called, forcing us to turn things round, turn them inside out, re-examine our thoughts on consensus ideas. Here is one which specifically throws a punch at his own people, the Gaels. It’s called ‘The Gaelic Proverb’, and he wants you never to believe that proverb again, even if it seems cosy and friendly:

The Gaelic proverb says,
sad is the state of the house
without a child or cat.

But sad is the state of the child
who carries his house on his back
like a trapped snail.

And the cat who cannot go out
into the deep greenery
but sits on the spinster’s lap
narrow and infertile,
as the wild sun goes down.

     It’s really a nicely subversive little poem, delivering a body-blow to those who praise close-knit communities. Smith had had quite enough of close-knit communities! It’s time for the deep greenery and the wild sun!

     Things that restrict and stifle have always been Smith’s target. In his own upbringing, the long arm of the Free Church became the focus of deep feelings of enmity which permeate many of his poems. The claim to be right, the claim to have the truth, the despising of pleasure, the indifference to art, the willingness to condemn and if possible punish the slightest backsliding, the inability to compromise, and perhaps worst of all, the incomprehension of any conception of creative change or growth: these were damning factors in Smith’s eyes. He was not given to public controversy, but one letter he had published in The Scotsman in 1988 showed how strong his feelings were in this matter. The context was that the Rev. Alexander Murray of the Free Presbyterian Church had been suspended for three months for asking Monsignor Thomas Wynne to say a prayer at a meeting of the Highland Regional Council’s working party on religious affairs. Iain Crichton Smith wrote:

The impudence and the arrogance of the Church Synod is breathtaking. Do they really believe that only they have a hot line to God, and that Catholics are unfit to speak to him? At a time when the Free Church Moderator spoke of the hunger for reconciliation it seems another and very familiar backwoods step into the neolithic darkness which has spawned so much conflict. When will these people come out of their demonic jungle? . What can one think of these pitiful figures huddling together in outer darkness except to blow them away with the cleansing wind of humour? Let us hope that the tiny paranoiac God whom they have created in their own images will have more respect for them than those who believe in ordinary Christian compassion are likely to have.

     From a man of sixty, this is heady stuff, and obviously heartfelt. Perhaps the most interesting phrase is ‘the tiny paranoiac God’. God is paranoiac if he is afraid of a Catholic priest saying a prayer at a Council meeting; but Smith deflates him right away with the unexpected word ‘tiny’: in the end he’s nothing, and we shouldn’t be afraid of him.

     In poetry, as opposed to polemic, what does Smith make of these things? Poetry has to be a bit more subtle than the ‘neolithic darkness’ and ‘demonic jungle’ of the Scotsman letter. One of the best examples is ‘Old Woman’. He has half a dozen poems with that title – an absolute rookery of black-clothed figures – so we have to distinguish – and the one I’m referring to is not the famous one (‘And she, being old, fed from a mashed plate’) but the one beginning ‘Your thorned back’. I’ll quote it:

Your thorned back
heavily under the creel
you steadily stamped the rising daffodil.

Your set mouth
forgives no-one, not even God’s justice
perpetually drowning law with grace.

Your cold eyes
watched your drunken husband come
unsteadily from Sodom home.

Your grained hands
dandled full and sinful cradles.
You built for your children stone walls.

Your yellow hair
burned slowly in a scarf of grey
wildly falling like mountain spray.

Finally you’re alone
among the unforgiving brass,
the slow silences, the sinful glass.

Who never learned,
not even aging, to forgive
our poor journey and our common grave

while the free daffodils
wave in the valleys and on the hills
the deer look down with their instinctive skills,

and the huge sea
in which your brothers drowned sings slow
over the headland and the peevish crow.

     The puritanical old woman has ‘cold eyes’, a ‘set mouth’, she stamps down the rising daffodil, she does her duty by her husband but the cradles are all filled with original sin, and although she would no doubt call herself a Christian she has never learned, even in old age, the essential Christian virtue of forgiveness; she lives in a prison of her own making, while outside the free daffodils wave in the valleys and the deer look down from the hills. With characteristic sensitivity Smith finds things to say in her favour: she lost her brothers to the sea, her husband was a drunk, and is now dead; and – in a fine image at the very centre of the poem – her blond hair ‘burned slowly in a scarf of grey’ – she too was mortal. The overall picture, however, is highly critical of the oppressive environment which moulded a woman who never became a full human being. So what has life got to weigh in the balance against this oppressiveness and unhappiness? If the old woman is the law, where is the grace? It’s not to be found in any rival view of life, in some carefully worked out libertarianism designed to eclipse Presbyterianism. That is not Smith’s way. The answer is a sudden given, a happening, an event too ordinary to be aggrandized by some such term as a Zen satori, but a revelation all the same. Its very ordinariness guarantees its authenticity. Here is ‘Two Girls Singing’:

It neither was the words nor yet the tune.
Any tune would have done and any words.
Any listener or no listener at all.

As nightingales in rocks or a child crooning
in its own world of strange awakening
or larks for no reason but themselves.

So on the bus through late November running
by yellow lights tormented, darkness falling,
the two girls sang for miles and miles together.

and it wasn’t the words or tune. It was the singing.
It was the human sweetness in that yellow,
the unpredicted voices of our kind.

     Really the only thing I would say about that very fine poem (it was one of the author’s favourites, and he was right) is that his often-used method of contrast has a freshness, an unexpectedness about it that – once you catch it – underlines the meaning of the poem. Yellow is always a very negative colour in Smith, and it’s used twice here, referring to yellow sodium streetlights. The streetlights not only have this alarming colour, but they march in strict ordered lines along the dark road. The sinister authoritarian predictability of the streetlights is contrasted with the sudden unpredicted almost wordless voices of the two girls singing on the bus.

     I have quoted very good short poems, but Smith also had ambitions towards something longer and more complex. These ambitions showed themselves in poems like ‘Deer on the High Hills’ and ‘The White Air of March’. The former, an early poem, has been much discussed by critics, both positively and negatively, so I thought it might be more interesting to say something about ‘The White Air of March’, which is sometimes underrated. This is a long poem in 16 sections, and in different styles, some of them very free; indeed the whole thing was a new departure for Smith, and it wouldn’t be unfair to call it more ‘modern’ than his usual approach. It has learned something from Auden, Lowell, Eliot – indeed, it incorporates some lines and phrases from T.S.Eliot. Basically, it is a state-of-the-nation poem about the Highlands of Scotland, first published in 1969 (Scottish International 7, Sept.1969). It paints a scornful, sometimes angry picture, though it looks for change. Scotland swims in a sea of kitsch, of triviality, of a bad kind of populism. He attacks some obvious targets: Andy Stewart, tourism, golf, Scottish country dance music (‘used as torture’ to make prisoners confess), the Sunday Post, female Highland dancers, Gaelic pedantry over tiny details of genealogy or grammar coupled with lack of interest in the real issues affecting Gaelic society But behind this surface froth there is a deeper malaise about what he calls being an exile in one’s own land. Exile is a recurring theme throughout Smith’s poetry, especially his awareness of the physical exile of emigration, but also an inner alienation. As he says in Section 8 of the poem:

The exiles have departed,
           leaving old houses.
The Wind wanders like an old man who has lost his mind.
‘What do you want?’ asks the wind. ‘Why are you crying?
Are those your tears or the rain?’
I do not know. I touch my cheek. It is wet.
I think it must be the rain.

It is bitter
to be an exile in one’s own land.
It is bitter
to walk among strangers
when the strangers are in one’s own land.
It is bitter
to dip a pen in continuous water
to write poems of exile
in a verse without honour or style.

     This sense of exile is at least partly self-imposed, and comes from his divided cultural inheritance. Here he is, a native Gael, writing modernist free verse in English, to the dismay of his more conservative Gaelic contemporaries. He himself calls it ‘a verse without honour or style’, though that might appear a harsh judgement. If he looks for role models, he fails to find them in Scotland. He looks for seriousness, truth, high endeavour, where are they? In Section 7 he writes (and he puts it in brackets, almost as if it belonged to another world):

(I speak now of those who told the truth.
Let them be praised.
           Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard,
Kafka – let them be honoured.
For them there shall be a cross pointing both ways,
Vertical horizontal.
The idiot waits for the Cossacks in crystal and iron.
The hunchback squeezes the last ounce out of the wine...)

     Without these men, he implies, a Russian, a German, a Dane, a Czech, what use is it to consider either the romance or the tragedy of the Highlands? We need vision. We need new thoughts. We need to look out and up. In its search for renewal, the poem is not unlike ‘The Waste Land’. Eliot says ‘April is the cruellest month’, when the new life is struggling; Smith’s title of ‘The White Air of March’ suggests an even greater struggle, a more reluctant spring, but nevertheless a possibility, a potential, even in the land of what he calls ‘the intrepid hunters of golf balls’. He uses the image of the Cuillin mountain-range as something high, sharp, difficult, but beckoning and beautiful, which must be striven for at all costs. In Section 15:

The Cuillins tower high in the air –
Excellence.
We climb from pain to perfume:
the body opens out; gullies,
crevices, reveal the orchis.
The soul flies skyward,
impregnated with scent.
On the right hand
           the sun will tenant
Skye.
           The mist dissipates.
Gold grows at our feet.

‘The White Air of March’ ends with two lines that sum up what the search is for – not a new political system, not a language revival, not a recalled diaspora, but simply

In the white air of March
A new mind.

That poem had some hard things to say about the Gaels and their decline. But almost as if to make amends, he has a witty Gaelic poem which has no lack of modernity. He calls it ‘The TV’, and this is his own translation of it:

The sun rises every day
from moving shadows –
on the TV

We did not believe in the existence of Ireland
till we saw it many nights –
on the TV.

He knows more about Humphrey Bogart
than he knows about Big Norman –
since he got the TV.

Said Plato –
‘we are tied in a cave’ –
that is, the TV.

A girl came into the room
without perfume without expression –
on the TV.

At last he lost the world
as Berkely said –
there was nothing but the TV.

He bought War and Peace,
I mean Tolstoy,
after seeing it on the TV.

When he switched off the TV
the world went out –
he himself went out.

His hands did not come back to him
or his eyes
till he put on the TV.

A rose in a bowl on the TV set,
the things that are in the world,
the things that are not.

He found himself in the story.
He was in the room.
He didn’t know where he was.

You, my love, are dearer to me
than Softly Softly
than Sportsnight with Coleman.

‘In locked rooms with iron gates’ –
but, my love,
do they have TV?

     It is of course typical of Smith that he uses the everyday object of the TV to plunge at once into questions of what is really real. It all goes back to the shadows on the wall in Plato’s cave, which are uncannily like television. And Bishop Berkely, who asserted that nothing could exist unless it was perceived to exist, also comes into the picture very neatly. Did he bring Plato and Berkely and Tolstoy into a Gaelic poem just to tease the Gaels? Possibly!

     In his last years Iain Crichton Smith brought out two book-length poems of sixty pages each: The Human Face (1996) and The Leaf and the Marble ((1998). Not much has been written about The Human Face, and I get the impression that people are a little embarrassed with it and don’t know quite what to make of it. I have to say that it doesn’t work for me, but I must add that at least one poet-critic, Christopher Whyte, whom I respect, has praised it, so I hope you will read it for yourselves and make up your own minds. The book has an epigraph from Robert Burns, ‘Man’s inhumanity to man / makes countless thousands mourn’, and it’s written in the Burns stanza, continuously, with no sections or divisions. It’s partly a lament, about human cruelty and violence, and partly a diatribe, against religious and political dogma. It has a wide historical sweep, and many pairs of enemies are listed and condemned: Saxon and Norman, Crusader and Turk, Irish Protestant and Irish Catholic; ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and elsewhere is attacked; the attractions of uniforms and weapons and a chain of command which removes individual responsibility are condemned; and there is a recurring theme of the sinister role of ideas, of abstractions, of incitements to violence, whether personal murder or national war. He is particularly bitter about theory and it doesn’t matter whether its Marxist or capitalist or Islamic; it always leads, he argues, to dehumanization, intolerance, and death. Even a supposedly good theory, like the theory that we have ‘souls’, is attacked, firstly because we do not have souls, and secondly because in the name of that theory we can burn thousands of innocent people at the stake. As he says in one stanza:

A theory can saw a leg,
a theory can send a plague,
a theory can make a thug
           into a saint,
a theory can make a rogue
           into a gent.

     So how does all this come about? The villain of the piece is not Hitler or Jenghiz Kahn. The villain is God. Smith has often been described, and indeed has described himself as an atheist. I am not sure that that is the correct term. I see him as an antitheist. He still uses capital letters for ‘He’ and ‘Him’ when talking about God, and no self-respecting atheist would do that. God looms large in the poem, and is the ultimate source of evil; the buck stops with him; everything can be traced back, to the Flood, to Cain and Abel, to the temptation of Eve. God is not non-existent, as the atheist would claim. He is like a sore the poet cannot help picking at. God is there all right, and he’s a rank bajin!

     What is wrong with the poem, it seems to me, is that it is too generalized and too repetitive to move the reader as it obviously wants to do. There is no argument, there is no narrative, the poem simply states, states, states. He criticizes what he calls ‘windy abstractions’, but the poem is full of windy abstractions. Not once does he pause to make something real by describing an actual incident in detail, as someone like Wordsworth would do. His sincerity is obvious, but sincerity is not enough. The shrill, almost hysterical tone becomes wearisome, and the reader, even if he agrees with what is being said, is presented with a counter-productive overkill. Added to that, it has to be said that Burns must be moving uneasily in his grave if he hears what Smith has done with his famous stanza. Metre is extremely rough, and rhyme is often so approximate as to be virtually non-existent. Burns was a man of the eighteenth century, brought up in the neoclassical tradition, a virtuoso of the formal structures of poetry. Smith has always downgraded the form and technical aspects of verse, relying heavily on the accidents of inspiration and spontaneity and speed to carry him through. So his cavalier treatment of the Burns stanza is in character. I should add that Christopher Whyte makes a virtue of what I would regard as a sort of impatient incompetence: he takes a postmodernist view, and praises Smith for, as it were, ‘exploding’ the tight Burnsian form and liberating it from its unnecessary constraints. Well, there’s a good argument there, though I think I’m right!

     The Human Face, then, has not yet settled down into any consensus of appreciation, and, largely because it is more recent, neither has The Leaf and the Marble, so that one should perhaps be more tentative in talking about it. It may not, in the end, be more persuasive to the unbiased but thinking reader, but it is more interestingly written as poetry, and its free verse (with some rhyme here and there) comes as a relief after the laced-up stumble of the earlier poem. It is also a more personal poem, coming out of a holiday in Rome, and being at the same time an extended love poem to his wife and a meditation on the city of Rome. You will notice from the title that it goes back to his earlier favourite method of contrasting two opposing views or states, and in doing this it gains over The Human Face, which had no dialectic – there was no one to speak for God, or for the idea of conflict as a factor of some value in human evolution. In The Leaf and the Marble, the two elements of the title are in total and perpetual opposition: the leaf stands for organic, free, irregular spontaneous life, the marble stands for everything that is solid, fixed, unyielding, dictatorial. As the speaker in the poem wanders through modern Rome, he sees everywhere the massive – massive even when ruinous – relics of ancient Roman civilization, quite often in the midst of trees and foliage and flowers, and the contrast between the hard cold dead stone and the flickering shimmering vulnerable leaves and petals makes him build up in his mind an eventually totally alienated view of the Roman empire. Roman statues were too self-satisfied and arrogant; Roman roads were too straight; Roman armies were too ruthless; Roman spectacles in the arena were too inhuman; and Roman power allowed no questioning. One of the examples he brings in is the story of Dido and Aeneas from Virgil’s Aeneid. Virgil, although he had every sympathy for Dido, and clearly saw the tragedy of her life, wanted nevertheless to argue that Aeneas was right to abandon her, even though it led to her suicide, because he was under the divine command of a greater mission, to found the Roman empire. Well, we know what Smith thinks of divine commands; Dido’s suffering is another nail in the coffin of fascistic authoritarianism.

     I’d like to quote one or two passages from this poem, which some of you may not have seen. Here is a part of Section 13 (Part One), which is about Avernus or Hades; Avernus, a volcanic lake near Naples, was regarded by the Romans as the entrance to the underworld. The poem at this point describes the speaker as emerging from Avernus, climbing into the upper world after a period of torment. We do not, perhaps, need to take a biographical reading, since the passage has a self-contained moving quality, but we can hardly escape knowing that it does celebrate the ending of the author’s mental breakdown:

Out of Avernus
I steadily climb
bearing a leaf

so tremulous
in a flood of light
and here I greet

you in your fresh
leaf-coloured shirt
or about the house

your flowery blouse.
The tenderness
of this wavering breeze

how ever express,
or behind our reason
that Rome of dark,

vast and compressed,
as towards you now
I bear this leaf,

my joy and my grief.
Out of the grave
of flickering Hades

I joyfully rise
after these scenes
that hurt my eyes,

and terrified me,
the running wolves,
the emptying graves.

And now I bear

my quivering leaf
as an angel might
on the new found earth

or the gift of a rose.
So out of the gross
dark of Avernus

I freely bear
my gift of a leaf

from my renaissance
this light bright leaf.

     One of the passages directly about Rome is worth quoting, partly because it has the curious paradox of equating ‘Roman’ and ‘Presbyterian’, and we have to remind ourselves that he is not speaking about Catholic Rome but about ancient pagan Rome. He cannot resist, even at this late stage of his life, thinking back to the Presbyterian oppressions of his youth: this is from Section 14 (Part One):

And so I have traced,
yes, I have traced
the secret at last

it is Rome that is
the Presbyterian
uncreative place,

it is Rome that has
the massive ponderous
unlifelike gaze

with its deaths and spies,
its historical bones,
its skeletons

of cobwebbed skulls.
It is Rome that dulls
bright nature’s smile

with its heavy marble
and stony designs.

     The pessimism of finding Presbyterianism alive and well, many miles from its birthplace and many years before it was born, does not permeate the whole poem. There is a charming passage, set back in Scotland, at the speaker’s own house, where he imagines Virgil and Dante, in their classical robes, stopping and asking for directions as they pass along the road: this is from Section 9 (Part Two):

Let Virgil
and Dante enter
like beggars or like
tourists from the street, asking
directions among the radiance. We are
here, waiting, in this day
that passes. The rabbits
race below the leaves. You touch
your togas ornamented
with green. Sit here
on this bench, I will bring you
a cup of pure water, after the
light has touched your gowns.
Look at the leaves. It is right
To gaze on this foliage, the light
and luminous green. You wear
the shifting marble of Rome and the
ashes of Hades. Here there is none
such, the leaves
are random, arbitrary, and the weeds
thrust among them, demanding their own lives.

     When I said, at the beginning of discussing the poem, that readers who liked it might still not find it fully persuasive, this is simply because there is as much to be said for Rome as against Rome, and the poem is totally one-sided. The reader has to determine whether that famous old suspension of disbelief can take care of the lurking objections. Perhaps the clear freshness and immediacy of the poem as reflecting an actual experience, the leaf suggesting life and love, the marble suggesting memorials and death, carries it through.

     I shall not attempt to sum up any grand verdict on an author who would have disliked such a thing. The range and variety of his work, and the naturalness of his best pieces, will always attract and please. If he has anger, he also has compassion, and he opens our ears to ‘the unpredicted voices of our kind’.

Copyright © Edwin Morgan 2000

 

Last updated 18 August 2010.