In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hugh MacDiarmid

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Specific Studies
  • Contextual Studies
  • Biography and Autobiography
  • Published Correspondence
  • Bibliographies and Archives
  • Audio Materials

British and Irish Literature Hugh MacDiarmid
Margery Palmer McCulloch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0037


Hugh MacDiarmid is the pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve (b. 1892–d.1978), the poet who initiated a revival in Scotland’s literary culture in the 20th-century interwar period. He was born in Langholm in the Scottish Borders, where his father was a postman and his mother a caretaker at the local library. He later claimed that his voracious appetite for books was developed in this library, where he would fill a large washing basket full of books and carry it upstairs to the family flat. He became a journalist upon leaving school and during World War I served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Salonika. His breakthrough came when he transformed himself into the poet Hugh MacDiarmid in the early 1920s, using a revitalized Scots language for modern literary purposes in short lyrics and then in his long modernist poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926). He gathered a group of innovative writers around him, although not all were committed to writing in Scots. He himself was a forceful prose writer, and his polemical periodical writing, while furthering his new cultural ideas, also created discord, especially in relation to political matters. After the breakdown of his marriage, he spent most of the 1930s in the remote Shetlands, where he wrote a considerable amount of outstanding poetry. His long poem In Memoriam, James Joyce: From a Vision of World Language, incorporating poetry of the late 1930s that had not achieved publication, was published in Glasgow by William Maclellan in 1955. MacDiarmid has always been a controversial figure in Scotland partly because of his contradictory politics and partly because of the nature of his poetry—in both “synthetic Scots” and the later “synthetic English.” He has also attracted strong critical support, much of it from the United States, where his first volume of collected poems was published in 1962, followed by his voluminous collected letters (1984) and several perceptive critical studies. In Scotland the 1960s to late 1980s constituted a rich period for critical works, with earlier assessments balanced by new criticism as a result of the publication of his complete poems in 1978. While the period from the 1990s saw the reprinting of his prose work in Carcanet Press’s MacDiarmid 2000 project, his reputation as a poet retreated during the same period. This appears to be changing, with his poetry increasingly perceived as a valuable contribution to international modernist writing.

General Overviews

All sources in this section deal with the range of MacDiarmid’s poetry, from the early Scots-language lyrics to his final long English-language poem In Memoriam, James Joyce: From a Vision of World Language. The books cited cover a time range from 1964 (the first publication date of Buthlay 1982) to Lyall and Palmer McCulloch 2011, and their authors or editors are leading MacDiarmid scholars during that period. The more introductory sources are Morgan 1976, Oxenhorn 1984, and Watson 1985. Watson 1985, as with Open Guides to Literature generally, is particularly good at developing an interactive discussion between the reader and the author and in helping readers develop analytic skills for reading MacDiarmid’s poetry. Oxenhorn 1984 is helpful for new MacDiarmid readers, providing useful and clear contextual material about the poet and his work. Morgan 1976 brings a poet’s understanding to this excellent short study. Buthlay 1982 (revised from 1964) and Gish 1984 treat MacDiarmid as a major modern poet of international significance as well as of Scottish importance. Kenneth Buthlay was at the forefront of research into MacDiarmid’s sources and language use (see Sources and “Borrowings” Practice and Language and National Identity), but he is also excellent in placing MacDiarmid in his “beyond Scotland” context. Both Buthlay 1982 and Gish 1984 treat MacDiarmid’s poetry as having a unified vision, as opposed to some critical attempts to separate the early work from the late poetry of fact (see Smith 1967, cited under Specific Studies). Gish 1992 includes interviews with fellow poets and memoirs from friends and family together with a group of seven essays, each of which is devoted to a specific period of MacDiarmid’s poetry. Also included is the useful annotated bibliographic section (criticism from 1977 only) by W. R. Aitken. Herbert 1992, while covering the range of the poetry, is particularly interested in middle and late work that did not find final publication in the form originally intended and in MacDiarmid’s poetic motivation as opposed to his modernist affiliations. Lyall and Palmer McCulloch 2011 is the first collection of essays to appear since Gish 1992. The book is particularly useful for its updating of criticism by introducing new work in political, postcolonial, and science-based contexts and for fresh readings of familiar early poetry.

  • Buthlay, Kenneth. Hugh MacDiarmid. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1982.

    A revised edition of Buthlay’s groundbreaking monograph of 1964 and still one of the best guides. Discusses, with examples and acute analysis, the range of MacDiarmid’s work from the early Scots-language lyrics to the late In Memoriam, James Joyce. Buthlay never forgets that he is dealing with a modern(ist) poet.

  • Gish, Nancy K. Hugh MacDiarmid: The Man and His Work. London: Macmillan, 1984.

    Gish covers the range of MacDiarmid’s poetry, and with a larger publication format than Buthlay, she has space to more fully discuss contextual relationships and influences in relation to interpretation. Although less specific linguistically on Scots-language work, this is a perceptive book that makes clear the unified vision linking the early and late poetry.

  • Gish, Nancy K., ed. Hugh MacDiarmid: Man and Poet. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992.

    An overview involving biographical memoirs, interviews with poets about MacDiarmid, contextual and comparative articles, and a series of essays by Scottish and American scholars covering individual stages of the poetry from the early to the late work. Also includes a helpful annotated bibliography by W. R. Aitken.

  • Herbert, W. N. To Circumjack MacDiarmid: The Poetry and Prose of Hugh MacDiarmid. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.

    Covering the range of MacDiarmid’s poetry, this monograph discusses middle and later poetry largely in terms of the groupings initially intended by MacDiarmid as opposed to the publication forms often forced on him by circumstances. MacDiarmid’s “vision” is interpreted largely as “motive,” and modernism is not a priority.

  • Lyall, Scott, and Margery Palmer McCulloch, eds. The Edinburgh Companion to Hugh MacDiarmid. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011.

    The first collection of essays since 1992, this book updates MacDiarmid criticism through its use of his previously uncollected poetry and prose work and its fresh political, philosophical, and science-based readings of the poetry. The contributors assess MacDiarmid’s reputation in Scotland and beyond, placing him firmly within the context of international modernism.

  • Morgan, Edwin. Hugh MacDiarmid. Harlow, UK: Longman, 1976.

    An introductory book by one poet on the work of a recent predecessor that loses nothing of its critical value over time. A mere thirty-three pages plus a useful bibliography, this booklet captures the excitement of MacDiarmid’s poetry from early lyrics to more problematic later work and leaves the reader with an appetite for further exploration of poetry and prose.

  • Oxenhorn, Harvey. Elemental Things: The Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1984.

    This study by an American writer seeks to create a new audience for MacDiarmid’s poetry. It provides clear, helpful discussions of background and poetic detail overall, neither ignoring nor overemphasizing the national context and drawing on lesser-known work of the 1930s. Especially insightful comments on the early Scots lyrics.

  • Watson, Roderick. MacDiarmid. Open Guides to Literature. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University Press, 1985.

    Aiming to provide readers with the necessary reading skills for a full appreciation of MacDiarmid’s poetry while encouraging an interpretative exploration of texts through exchange of ideas between the reader and the writer discussed, this study covers the range of MacDiarmid’s work divided into clearly marked period and thematic sections.

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