A look back at Edwin Morgan
Teachers declared his childhood language unsuitable for adults while townsfolk argued for returning literature and nationhood to that tongue. When time came for university, World War II broke out. A conscientious objector, he joined the English Red Cross. Posted across northern Africa, Lebanon and Turkey, he witnessed cultures markedly different from what the English called standard. Exposed to violence on an operatic scale, but with a trove of new experience, what to do after the war?
Edwin Morgan, loyalties conflicted, legally plagued by a sexuality illegal in the United Kingdom – what path? The Scottish Renaissance still raged, with powerful figures pressing for use of a Scots dialect called lallans. Morgan was close to one, Hugh MacDiarmid. Author of A Drunk Man Looks At A Thistle, considered a masterpiece akin to Joyce’s Ulysses, MacDiarmid was a noisy advocate for restoring Scots to Scottish literature.
Early on, already known as brilliant, Morgan was hailed for completing Shelley’s unfinished “Triumph of Life”, a terza rima poem left incomplete at Shelley’s death. Nearly doubled by Morgan’s keen work, which emulated style and substance while connecting an early 19th century poem with modern Scotland, the finished “Triumph...” suggested high ambition by one yet to resolve what language he would employ: English or lallans? Morgan declared in a letter to MacDiarmid that vernacular verse does not ring true because it “does not have the sense of a period of language standing solidly behind it...and is too self-conscious an attempt at recreation... ”. MacDiarmid and others quickly became competitors and enemies. Morgan didn’t change. His published work is primarily in English, lightly peppered with Scots. We’re lucky. In Scots he would likely have been marvelous but vastly harder for an audience outside of Scotland.
The book is an ideal place to look more closely at Edwin Morgan, revealing not only his work at its most mature, but more about his own life that he'd exposed before. It brought his method and interests into center focus in one place.
New Divan an odd title, referring to the Persian poet Shams ‘ud-din Mohammed (known since as Hafiz, as familiar in the Middle East as Dante in Europe). For Hafiz, The New Divan titled his collected works. The word originally meant leaf (green or paper), evolving by Hafiz’s time to indicate a) a collection of officials, as a divan of plumbing inspectors, or b) a collection of poems. Hafiz's included eight hundred plus ghazals. As poetry they are as unlike modern verse as Greek drama is to modern movies.
Morgan’s “New Divan...” is also the title poem of a collection. The piece has 100 part, each of a dozen to twenty unrhymed lines. (Hafiz’s Ghazals were rhyme forms). Morgan, a skilled metricist, does not use meter in most of the poem “Divan...” It’s a free verse sequence of recollections from his Red Cross service in World War II. The writing is direct, focused – glass laid over experience. As a sequence, the poem presents a series of impressions that recall five years in the war. He starts by addressing Hafiz in Part 1:
Hafiz, old nightingale, what fires there have been
Morgan avoided writing war memoirs, though peers had published theirs twenty-five or more years beforehand. Maybe his not experiencing combat excused that, though carrying stretchers laden with the bleeding and dying off the battlefield seems memorable enough. Thirty-five years later, his recollections seem fresh as new experience. Ninety some parts picture lost moments, landscapes, incidents, settings, people. And there’s a surprise, his first acknowledgment of a love affair with another man. Those seven parts could not have been published in the UK much earlier. (Recall what happened to Alan Turing.) The poems describe what, however fleeting, was a love affair, not a serviceman’s one-night stand in Tripoli. Thirty-some years later, the author remembers details a brief fling would not expose. That love forms another tenuous connection to Hafiz, most of whose ghazals were varieties of love poems – but what a different kind of love – from ghazal 97…
In all paths, the image of Your face is the Way’s Mate:
Hafiz isn’t addressing his love in the cited poem. As in hundreds of others, aspects of his Beloved represent God. The physical barely appears in any poem. This might sound tedious but Hafiz explored his time in the light of love, whether royal courts, friends and family, and his liberation from servitude to become a master. His poetry was more akin to worship. And reading Paul Smith’s complete translation is intoxicating; for the first time I understood poetic religiosity. The Western equivalent would be the treatment of Scripture as lyrics by Handel and Bach. And Hafiz’s poems were songs, never read aloud but sung in music familiar to students of ancient Greek music – written in scalar modes intended to reflect moods.
For Morgan, as for most, love poetry is rooted in Western antiquity, then branches through Petrarch and others, and, in our time, to Lawrence, Wylie, Millay, Joyce, Durell, Gide (not to mention jazz and folk lyricists) for whom love is emotional bonding between physical beings. That’s how we see love, though until legal changes in the UK, not between people of the same sex. From part 75...
Sometimes you grin very wide
And from part 86…
in King’s Regulations, to be in love.
But ending in regrets in part 98…
came under my mosquito net
Not a central theme, these pieces enrich the rest, impressions of what he did and saw in service, as in the digging of a ruin, from part 33…
Under the sun, dig up a king.
Morgan takes you where you haven’t been, shows the familiar in unexpected ways. “The New Divan” is both moving and engaging. But, although the longest, it’s not the only work. It’s followed by a longpoem in blank verse about astronauts returning from visiting the earth – previously known only by high frequency radio broadcasts.
“Memories of Earth” opens with a citation from Blake’s Daughters of Albion to indicate the poem’s aim. Six astronauts are instructed to observe and record their mission. The Council, in directing the mission, will determine what the answers and questions are (inverting the classical mission of science). The unnamed narrator has reservations :
must avoid questions, exclamations.
The tapes begin in media res at their launching pad. Their travel is less spaceships than Incredible Shrinking Man. Each step they get smaller, their launch pad becoming a vast landscape on a small rock, then to the molecules that comprise the rock, then to the atoms that comprise the molecules, down and down until…
too large world with rings goes thundering past,
Tape 1 breaks off. “Tape 2: The Earth” continues with attempts by the crew to deny all questions, such as what exactly they’ve landed on. Time, space, location fall apart, re-coalescing in mismatched clusters. Sliding across time and space, scene to scene, they come to a horror where a peasant is coronated with a red-hot iron crown and made to sit on a red hot throne to scream and die. Scenes shift; they’re on a mountain top, witnesses to a scene oddly reminiscent of Wordsworth’s great Ode…
Are their uncertain records captures from a drive-in – spectacles created for amusement? We dissolve to another scene.
camp in time of war – barbed wire,
A documentary about Auschwitz? They can’t tell but can’t escape the incoming images until…
do we know what earthmen do?” “I know”,
Like the late Stanislaw Lem, or like Voltaire in Micromegas centuries earlier, Morgan uses fiction to explore us, not some imagined them. I find “Memories of Earth” a more engaging part of the book than “The New Divan” (which is more confessional than narrative). One can fault occasionally its antiquated diction. It’s a hazard of writing science fiction; the author is always out of date. That matters no more than it does in Lem’s stories. One wishes Morgan had written more work like “Memories of Earth”.
The book continues on. Standouts include “Three Trees”, wherein each ("Lightning Tree", "Water Skiers Tree", and "Impacted Windscreen Tree") is the narrator; “Ten Theater Poems,” again with various parts speaking on their own behalf, is another of notice. For me, the best of the rest is the last: "Adventures of the Anti-Sage”, a 10-part sequence about someone who claims to know nothing but immediate experience, which ends in “Resurrections”, the tenth poem and the last in the book:
this late January spring,
His career included plays, most on Biblical subjects, a raft of critical essays, and rather constant conflicts with his fellow Scots. After a very long and productive life, he’s been gone since 2010. This book from 1977, and his many others from before or after, suggest it’s time for a critical reappraisal of Edwin Morgan. You can (as I do) hate the typographical concrete poetry that captured a decade of his life. You can get lost in the early, Biblical stuff. But keep going. Edwin Morgan remains one of the best the 20th century had to offer.
(This article is simultaneously being printed in an issue of Trinacria)
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