White Leaping Flame by Sorley MacLean - review

A collection that explodes the cliché of Gaelic poetry

Sorley MacLean once said that his poetry constituted "a quarrel with myself for my lack of single-mindedness". But to lack single-mindedness is no bad thing for a poet, and the lyric ideal to which MacLean aspired depends upon a double-minded dedication to impassioned declaration and the restraint of poetic craft.

Born in 1911 on the island of Raasay, MacLean was well-schooled in traditions of doubleness. First, there were the two languages of Gaelic and English. Then there were the competing claims of folksong (a strong tradition in MacLean's family) and the Free Presbyterian Church, who disapproved of such frivolity. At the age of 12, MacLean rejected Presbyterianism and embraced socialism – until Soviet atrocities after the second world war convinced him to abandon that too. MacLean's powerful, personal sense of history introduced further paradoxes: his ancestors had fought alongside Montrose and Claverhouse, and as a child, he delighted in WE Aytoun's "Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers" as well as Scott, Macaulay and Carlyle; but this early attachment to royalist, Tory history clashed with both his socialism and his nationalism.

MacLean had more than enough circles to square before, in his 20s, he fell in love with three women who were each completely unsuitable for him. MacLean was a Yeatsian lover, passionate and unworldly: he never declared his love to two of the women, and when he told the third of his feelings, she spun him a yarn about a mysterious medical condition (she was in fact having an affair with a married man). This web of tensions gave rise to MacLean's great sequence "Dàin do Eimhir".

Ceathrar ann dan d' thug mi luaidh,

do cheathrar seirbheis caochladh buaidh, –

an t-adhbhar mòr agus a' bhàrdachd,

an t-Eilean àlainn 's an nighean ruadh.

("There were four to whom I gave love, / four allegiances triumphing in turn: / the great cause and poetry, / the beautiful island and the red-haired girl.")

On the surface, the poems concern a beloved, unattainable woman; but in this profoundly symbolic work MacLean addresses each of the "four allegiances" that shaped his life: "the great cause and poetry, / the beautiful island and the red-haired girl."

In "Dàin do Eimhir" MacLean turns his double-minded artistic heritage to his advantage. To take just one example, having abandoned Presbyterianism for socialism enables MacLean to rejuvenate a traditional trope that the loved-one's beauty will turn the poet away from God: in MacLean's reworking, she turns him away from the fantasy of a socialist Scottish state. The speaker begins by describing himself as "Bhoilseabhach" (a Bolshevik: this was MacLean's own kenning), but the poem ends "dh'èighinn nad bhànrainn Albann thu / neo-ar-thaing na Poblachd ùir" ("I would proclaim you queen of Scotland / in spite of the new republic"). In his earlier scholarly edition of this sequence, Christopher Whyte commented: "Such a potent brew of nationalist fervour and Bolshevik enthusiasm is rare in 20th century European poetry", but even rarer is its appearance in a love poem, and a light-hearted one at that.

MacLean's ability to adapt his native traditions to contemporary realities means that the poems he wrote while serving in the north African desert form a unique contribution to the poetry of the second world war. Steeped in the Gaelic martial tradition, MacLean felt none of the anxiety over the role of poetry in war that characterises the work of poets such as Keith Douglas. Peter Mackay, in his brilliant study of MacLean's work, shows how the poet simultaneously exploits and undermines panegyric conventions. When MacLean expresses a feeling of kinship with his enemy, it is not the kinship of heroic warriors but of prisoners chained to a rock, who will be drowned when the tide comes in (a particularly un-heroic example of Gaelic war behaviour):

Chan eil gamhlas 'na mo chridhe

ri saighdearan clama 'n Namhaid

ach an cairdeas a tha eadar

fir am priosan air sgeir-thraghad,

a' fuireach ris a' mhuir a' lionadh

's a' fuarachadh na creige blaithe...

("There is no rancour in my heart / against the hardy soldiers of the Enemy, / but the kinship that there is among / men in prison on a tidal rock // waiting for the sea flowing / and making cold the warm stone …"

It is a mistake to treat MacLean's English versions as poems in their own right: they are glosses to the Gaelic originals. Nevertheless, while they cannot convey the music of the Gaelic, they do provide pleasures of their own. While the language sometimes seems deliberately stilted, the moments of clarity remain lyrically powerful: "Again and again when I am broken / my thought comes on you when you were young, / and the incomprehensible ocean fills / with floodtide and a thousand sails."

The reader without Gaelic is undeniably at a disadvantage, and will have to turn to the online recordings of MacLean if they want to hear him properly; but MacLean poses challenges to Gaelic speakers too. As Christopher Whyte notes in his concise, illuminating introduction, "MacLean's poetry could not have been generated exclusively from within the Gaelic tradition. He is an exquisitely bicultural figure …" In both art and politics, MacLean was an internationalist, attacking more insular forms of Scottish nationalism and peopling his work with poets from Blok to Lorca, and political leaders from Connolly to Lenin.

There is a sentimental stereotype of Gaelic as a melancholy, exhausted language, able to convey little beyond sadness at its own imminent demise, a musical instrument that plays only in a minor key. MacLean exploded this cliché by tackling the most pressing concerns of his time: politics, nationhood, the Spanish civil war, the rise of European fascism and the experience of war. In the centenary of MacLean's birth, this definitive edition, edited by Emma Dymock and Christopher Whyte (who has worked tirelessly to keep MacLean's legacy alive), makes his magnificent poetry available to a new generation of readers.

• Paul Batchelor's The Sinking Road is published by Bloodaxe.


Paul Batchelor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Hallaig by Sorley MacLean, translated by Seamus Heaney

Time, the deer, is in Hallaig Wood...

30, Nov, 2002 @12:05 AM

Flame by Elaine Feinstein

There must be something I still hope to find.

Honour, perhaps. I do not look for love.

07, Apr, 2007 @10:58 PM

Article image
Profile: Alfred Brendel

Born in East Germany, Alfred Brendel was a painter and composer before becoming a musician. Largely self-taught, he is acknowledged as one of the world's great pianists, an exponent of the classical tradition. He is also a published poet

Nicholas Wroe

04, Oct, 2002 @11:03 PM

Whisky Soft as a Candle's Flame by Hugh MacDiarmid

Do you remember the orchard at Avrânches,

And the wine we drank in the sunshine..?

Hugh MacDiarmid

03, Jan, 2004 @11:53 PM

Falling for Icarus by Rory MacLean – review

by John Dugdale

John Dugdale

06, Dec, 2011 @9:00 AM

Article image
Review: The Complete Poems of Robert Graves edited by Beryl Graves and Dunstan Ward

Anthony Thwaite applauds Beryl Graves and Dunstan Ward's hefty addition to the collections of Robert Graves

Anthony Thwaite

05, Jul, 2003 @12:13 AM

Family Alchemy by Kenneth White

When I think of them all...

20, Dec, 2003 @1:35 AM

White Egrets by Derek Walcott | Book review

Derek Walcott's poems may be unpeopled, but they are far from empty, says Sarah Crown

Sarah Crown

27, Mar, 2010 @12:07 AM

Article image
Berlin: Imagine a City by Rory MacLean – review'
A compelling series of portraits captures the intangible something that turns visitors into Berlinophiles, writes John Harris

John Harris

20, Feb, 2014 @7:30 AM

Article image
Waiting and leaping

Adam Thorpe works best under pressure

Adam Thorpe

15, May, 2004 @5:41 PM