First published in 1934, Hugh MacDiarmid's 'On A Raised Beach' was written during his years on Whalsay, and is often thought to have been inspired by the distinctive landscape of the Shetlands. It reflects the poet's characteristic preoccupations with what he calls 'elemental things': language, religion and science; the nature of the universe and mankind's place within it. Some critics consider it MacDiarmid's single greatest poetic achievement.
On a Raised Beach
Compared with some of the stories and poems being looked at as part of this project, MacDiarmid’s poem has attracted such a volume of critical response that it’s hard for me to approach ‘On A Raised Beach’ with fresh eyes. But I wondered whether it might be sensible to try and push aside for the moment MacDiarmid’s reputation and legacy, and the myths he cultivated around his time in Shetland and the writing of this poem. So here are some fairly broad questions trying to find a way back to the poem itself.
Metaphysics. This is a poem that seems to be asking big questions about the nature of reality, the place of man in the Universe, our knowledge of God, and the purpose of art and knowledge in society? How does the poem claim the authority to ask do so? And to what extent is it a poem that finds answers to these questions rather than just asking them?
Language. This is one of the first of MacDiarmid’s well-known poems to have been written largely in English. Although he is clearly still fascinated by linguistic questions in general, and there are a couple of particular thickets of unusual lexical items (geological terms, old Norn), is there something about the poem that makes it unsuitable for his on-going experiments with Scots?
Place. It has become very strongly associated with the particular landscape of the place in which it was written, but is this really in any sense a Shetland poem?
I’ve read very little criticism of ‘On a Raised Beach’ so your suggestion that we concentrate purely on the text is ideal, although I’m afraid it’s probably impossible to remove the man and his reputation entirely from any discussion of his work.
I saw MacDiarmid read in Edinburgh in 1976. He was brought on in a wheelchair, a tartan blanket over his lap, by Adam MacNaughton. What struck me was how tiny he was – like a sparrow. His voice was strong, though, and that sense of thrawn intent was clearly there, if you know what I mean. I was overawed, really – he was a significant literary figure, or that’s how it seemed: the last of his kind, pretty much.
As for the poem, the metaphysical aspect of it doesn’t really work for me, I’m afraid. He seems to be making pretty obvious statements about man’s place in the universe: we’re fairly blippish in the grand scheme of things. All human endeavour is vain and insubstantial. Meanwhile, the rocks remain! God seems to be a remote figure, a last resort – it’s almost as if he refers to God only because he can’t think of an alternative word for the concept. And the world is in a parlous state: ‘a frenzied and chaotic age’ – degenerate, corrupt. What is needed is more discipline, more rigour, more purity. A kind of superhuman (cruel, dispassionate, elitist) presence is needed, disdaining the ‘surrender to the crowd’, the ‘indifference of the masses of mankind’. This is Lawrentian, quasi-fascistic nonsense, surely?
I don’t think this is a Shetland poem in the sense that he is writing about a specific raised beach – it’s clearly an imaginative vehicle inspired broadly by an encounter with this phenomenon. Incidentally, there’s a raised beach a hundred yards from where I live. It has been rearranged twice since we’ve been here, after storms – and that’s important, I think: the raised beach is a product of turmoil: ‘…twixt this storm beach and me…’ as he reminds us. I think we can take ‘raised’ to suggest ‘elevated’ as well. And he’s on the top of it all, of course, searching for the ‘Christophanic’ particle!
If you live in rural Shetland you cannot help noticing the rock formations here, and thinking about their longevity, their unchangingness, and the fact that the earliest settlers peopled this same stony environment. It’s therefore not surprising the stones’ enduring presence makes MacDiarmid aware of his mortality and humanity’s inadequacy. MacDiarmid, perhaps typically, tries to argue his way out of this – first by imagining himself at the centre of his imagined creation, and then by attempting to ‘connect’ with the inescapable fact of these ‘stony limits’.
The opening lines, with their pile-up of geological terminology, act as a barrier to the ordinary reader. A real raised beach wouldn’t have anything like this geological or textural diversity, of course. It’s almost as if he is stacking up a fortification: you can’t get into the poem until you have scaled that daunting, glittering broch. There’s plenty of wordplay and delight in unusual words and sounds for their own sake, but what I increasingly find interesting about MacDiarmid is his willingness to include scientific references – I like the brief digression on lichens and symbiosis he includes towards the end, for example. He also gets the biblical/religious aspect started here, but ironically and very much in a subordinate way. I wonder what MacDiarmid would have made of recent developments in physics – the ‘so-called God particle’, for example?
In fact, the sterility of the stony setting – ‘nothing has stirred…but one bird’ – leads him into the discipline of scientific enquiry. The austerity of Shetland’s landscape has that sobering effect. Despite our reputation for abundant wildlife, you can walk the hills in winter and not encounter a living thing. You start thinking: actually, this place isn’t particularly conducive to life! You can understand why we have so little in the way of folk-tales and mythology – this environment favours the apocalyptic over the whimsical. I think an awareness of that influences his digressions and arguments in the poem, and probably for the better.
The ‘Norn’ insert – your reference to ‘thicket’ is apt, I think – doesn’t make sense as it stands to a Shetland speaker, any more than the geological references, presented as they are, would to a geologist. He has clearly liked these words’ apparent exoticism and put them in. Local colour. Auden did something similar in ‘The Orators’. And this kind of thing happens all the time as far as Shetland is concerned – these days we’re either filed under ‘Quaint’ or ‘Disasters’.
There are particular lines in ‘On a Raised Beach’ that intrigue me, which I would like to hear your response to. In the meantime, are you familiar with Heaney’s poem ‘Invocation’? How do you think it fits as a kind of companion piece to this poem?
I’ve been pondering your response to the metaphysics. I think this is one of those points where I’m intrigued, but not convinced, by what MacDiarmid’s trying to do. Since I’m being corralled into the critical camp for this exchange, I’ll stick to a suitably analytic detachment from the question of the poem’s actual success on that front. I do see a clear difference however from the way this works in the Drunk Man. There poetry seems to be given a role in MacDiarmid’s argument, as the synthetic medium in which the contrasting philosophical perspectives of materialism and idealism can be,if not quite reconciled, at least held together in a single vision. As you say, in On A Raised Beach MacDiarmid wants us to measure mere humanity against the stony silence of the unimaginable ages – a role for which poetry seems to be unfitted, as if it can only state, but not really show, that inhuman indifference.
Like you, I think the demand for a superhuman intellect is pretty hard to take, and that this is what seems to date MacDiarmid most: there seems to be little place for verse which is disposed towards “spiritual issues / Made inhumanly clear”. I can see the signs that point in the direction you pick out (“Intelligentsia, our impossible and imperative job”) but I read the poem as a whole more in terms of the demand to purify the self of earthly, bodily, material needs, than the urge to show a whip hand to the masses. I suspect that what the speaker sees as artistic renewal – “the first draught is overpowering; / Few survive it. It fills me with a sense of perfect form” – may turn out to be a dead end, but that this internal quest is more what the poem is trying to explore than some kind of will-to-power. As you point out, it’s closely connected to MacDiarmid’s idea of here that science offers a kind of discipline not available in what he portrays as rather mushy nineteenth-century romanticism.
I didn’t know the Heaney poem, and of course Heaney has died since you wrote to me. Michael Schmidt spoke in Shetland a few years back, and complained about MacDiarmid’s general neglect, but he seems to get his due from figures like Heaney and Hill. I wonder though if it’s his vision of poetry – his insistence on scope and ambition, rather than the poems themselves, that makes him an attractive figure. I certainly recognise both sides of the MacDiarmid he portrays, and I share his sense that these Shetland years are a key to MacDiarmid’s character; witness that attempt to overcome hostile fortune by turning it into a feat of endurance, “That pride of being tested”.
Not hard also to be restless in the face of what Heaney unrepentantly calls “McGonaglish propensities”; I have my own catalogue of annoying tics and tropes in MacDiarmid’s verse. One of the signature moves I find most irritating is the tendency to balance his appeal to the intellect out with rather dewy-eyed sentiment; I like the fact he restrains himself here, but the bracketed asides seem to play the same role, qualifying his ambition, recognising the human cost of this struggle for a reason beyond the earthly: “(the masses too have begged bread from stones…)”. That this needs to be done with punctuation suggests a lack of real integration into the poem’s dramatic structure; which is essentially a monologue, I suppose, striving to be a dialogue with a world that won’t answer back.
I’m actually glad the poem is not really so recognisably Shetlandic! That plays against the myth MacDiarmid seems to have encouraged that what was basically (for him, at least) a form of exile was precisely the kind of visionary journey to the desert spaces he writes about in the poem. He seems to have stripped out any precise spatial references, although there is an early fair-copy manuscript version of the poem amongst MacDiarmid’s papers which proclaims that “the hills of Morvern” will look scornfully on “The Himalayas or Alps or Andes” as “mighty upstarts”. On the whole I think what Heaney calls “far-out, blethering genius” is much improved without the bragging.
I’ve just realised that the way into this poem is to read it aloud, in its entirety, at a sitting, or a standing, in my case. If you do that you can tell why he presented his argument in poetic form rather than in prose, for instance, something that isn’t obvious, I would suggest, if you just study it cold from the page.
When you read it aloud, the first stanza sounds like a strange half-remembered language, something intoned, priestly, part of a strange birthing ceremony:
‘…from optic to haptik and like a blind man run
My fingers over you, arris by arris, burr by burr,
Slickensides, truité, rugas, foveoles
Bringing my aesthesis in vain to bear,
An angle-titch to all your corrugations and coigns.’
The way ‘and like a blind man run…’ liberates and humanises this section is very powerful, I find. ‘Angle-titch’ is brilliant, by the way, and just listen to the sonorousness of:
‘Hatched foraminous cavo-rilievo of the world’. Eat your heart out, Buck Mulligan!
But then in the next stanza we have a different voice entirely: ‘Deep conviction or preference can seldom/ Find direct terms in which to express itself.’ This is the language of the public service announcement crossed with quasi-aphoristic pretend-deepness. There’s a great series of motivational blather-statements here (incidentally, Heaney refers to his ‘blathering’ not ‘blethering genius’): ‘Impatience is a poor qualification for immortality’; ‘Hot blood is of no use in dealing with eternity’; etc, etc, and possibly my favourite: ‘There are no twirly bits in this ground bass’ which reminds me, for some reason, of something one of the Bay City Rollers once said: ‘We don’t do any o that avanty-gardy stuff.’
But there are other, more welcome, voices in the poem. As you say, in ‘A Drunk Man’ the poetic form is conducive to the polemical; here, I think he is attempting a Coleridgean conversation poem. And I’ve grown to like the recursive riffingness of it all; I like its bagginess, despite the, at times, unremitting didacticism; I like its rather high-minded rhetorical assault on just about everything.
You suggest he’s more interested in exploring the idea of spiritual purging rather than whipping the masses – the only problem is that kind of self-centredness usually leads to fairly barmy and dangerous ideas about the value of humanity in general. Fortunately, most people who indulge in this are too disorganised to wield any real power. But I actually don’t think now that he is advocating the idea of the austere, the emotionally ‘chilled’, the whole purification trip – that may be the best he can hope for but he knows it’s doomed, just another ‘credulity’, another of the ‘ideas that madden men’ and have no staying power, and even at his most visionary – ‘superhumanly, menacingly clear’ – he realises it’s temporary, delusional.
The stones are a constant, a standard, a yardstick, against which there is always a falling-off. He tries everything, only to report that: ‘All human culture is a Goliath to fall/ To the least of these pebbles withal’ and the jibe: ‘…they will have the whole earth/for a Demosthenean pebble to roll in their mouths.’ is brutal as well as brilliant.
There isn’t any dewy-eyed sentiment in this poem – in fact, he seems to go out of his way to knock down any hint of it. Perhaps the last stanza, with its mixture of the apocalyptic and the elegiac, is the closest he gets – but I quite like it for that. I think his use of parentheses reflects the wrestle he’s having with the subject, almost obsessively not wanting to be misinterpreted, desperately wanting the last word, and scrupulously qualifying everything – the way he quickly admonishes himself for the mere mention of ‘love’ with: ‘Though I do not depend on that/My case to prove.’ is typical.
As for McGonagallish propensities – I think this is very observant of Heaney. MacDiarmid and McGonagall share an earnestness and an endearing doggedness, and if that sounds patronising it’s not meant to. The story of McGonagall playing Macbeth at the Theatre Royal, Dundee, and then refusing to be slain by Macduff, springs to mind. As the reviewer in the Dundee People’s Journal at the time said, Macduff resolved the matter ‘in a rather undignified way by taking the feet from under the principal character.’ The bit containing the line: ‘As I sometimes, still wrongly, feel ‘twixt this storm beach and me.’ Is classic McGonagall!
Incidentally, Heaney mentions MacDiarmid in another poem, ‘The Bookcase’, in his collection ‘Electric Light’, and places him in good poetic company. He knew the works of Sorley MacLean as well. His estimation of MacDiarmid seems to me to be pretty insightful and he obviously knew ‘On a Raised Beach’, since he refers to the ‘open gates behind the brows of birds’. I imagine MacDiarmid’s Scots poems would have appealed greatly to Heaney although I would also like to think he valued MacDiarmid partly as a reaction to Larkin and co’s ignorant dismissal of him.
One final Shetland reference – one of my favourite lines in the poem is the Yeatsian-sounding: ‘These foam-bells on the hidden currents of being.’ I take the root of this image to be the scummy, spumey deposit you find on the sea here after a storm – it can be quite a spectacle and I can see how it might have appealed to MacDiarmid’s imagination.
But to finish up, I think what we have here is actually an old-fashioned poem about mortality, albeit one that’s possibly in denial of that fact.
Thank you so much for your closing thoughts. I’m very much persuaded by the way you highlight the different voices – so not so much an internal monologue as an internal babel. It’s not just MacDiarmid arguing things out with himself, but an attempt to give voice to the collision of different cultural forces – science, religion, art – and their respective specialised languages, alongside the deflationary voices of common sense or everyday life. That human touch balancing out the grand hurly-burly is a distinctive MacDiamird touch.
I have enjoyed our exchange greatly and I’ve learnt a lot.
The babel and collision you mention has informed what I’ve written in
response to studying this poem, as it happens. I was very much looking
forward to the dialogue and have really enjoyed taking part in the
exchanges, and the fact that I’ve produced something fairly lengthy – six
linked pieces – is, I think, an indication of how fruitful I have found both
the discussion and the original text itself. I’ll leave others to comment
on the quality and suitability of what I’ve written, of course, but I’m
pleased enough with it. I leave with an even greater admiration for
MacDiarmid – many thanks for being my guide.
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Alex Thomson is a senior lecturer in Scottish Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He is also Postgraduate Director of the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, and co-director of the Scottish Writing in the Nineteenth Century research project. He has interests in a wide range of nineteenth and twentieth century literature and philosophy, and has published books on Jacques Derrida and Theodor Adorno. He is currently editing Stevenson’s Memories and Portraits for the New Edinburgh Edition of the Complete Works of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Jim Mainland is from Shetland, where he teaches English at Brae High School. His collection ‘A Package of Measures’ was published in 2002 and his poetry and prose can be found in various anthologies, magazines and online.