Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Hugh MacDiarmid

Hugh MacDiarmid was the pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve (1892-1978). He was probably the most important Scottish poet of the 20th century. He was also one of a very small number of first generation British modernist poets. Unusually for a first generation modernist, he was a communist. Unusually for a communist, he was a committed Scottish nationalist. He wrote both in English and in anglicized Scots.

Early Life and Writings

After leaving school in 1910, MacDiarmid worked as a journalist for five years. He then served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War. After the war, he married and returned to journalism. His first book, Annals of the Five Senses (1923) was a mixture of prose and poetry in English, but he then turned to Scots for a series of books, culminating in what is probably his best known work, the book-length A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle. This poem is widely regarded as one of the most important long poems in 20th century English-language literature. After that, he published several books containing poems in both languages.


In 1928, MacDiarmid helped found the National Party of Scotland. He was also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. During the 1930s, he was expelled from the former for being a communist and from the latter for being a nationalist. In 1956, when many people were leaving in the aftermath of events in Hungary, MacDiarmid rejoined the Communist Party. In 1950, George Orwell compiled a list of suspected communist sympathisers for British intelligence. He included MacDiarmid in this list.

Later Writings

As his interest in science and linguistics increased, MacDiarmid found himself turning more and more to English as a means of expression so that most of his later poetry is written in that language. His ambition was to live up to Rilkes dictum that 'the poet must know everything' and to write a poetry that contained all knowledge. As a result, some of the later work is a kind of found poetry reusing text from a range of sources. This led to accusations of plagiarism, to which the poet's response was 'The greater the plagiarism the greater the work of art.' The great achievement of this late poetry is to attempt on an epic scale to capture the idea of a world without God in which all the facts the poetry deals with are scientifically verifiable.

External link