restricted access 7. Gibbon, Shelley and Romantic Revolutionary Renewal
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89 CHAPTER SEVEN Gibbon, Shelley and Romantic Revolutionary Renewal Ryan D. Shirey In February 1935, a group of British writers and Kincardineshire farmers gathered in the snow beneath the Grampian hills at Arbuthnott Churchyard to inter the ashes of James Leslie Mitchell, who had at the time of his death only just begun to receive the critical accolades he aspired to for his work under the pen name of Lewis Grassic Gibbon.1 Gibbon was a contemporary of W. H. Auden’s, but was not of the ‘Auden generation’. In his introduction to Reading the Thirties Bernard Bergonzi reads Gibbon as ‘a Scottish Marxist who had some political affinities with [the “Auden generation”], but little else in common’.2 Gibbon’s early death, his unorthodox socialism, and, not least, his nationality, have meant that he has never fitted easily within categories of literary movements or generations. He remains a challenge to our desire to frame tidy literary-historical narratives around nationality, political beliefs or dates of birth. Gibbon was, however, exceptional in another way. In an elegy occasioned by his funeral, Gibbon’s friend, the poet Helen Cruickshank, speaks of the deceased in terms that anticipate the kind of revolutionary fervour that Gibbon hoped his work would inspire. In the final stanza of ‘Spring in the Mearns: In Memoriam, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’, Cruickshank writes, This man set the flame of his native genius under the cumbering whin of the untilled field; Lit a fire in the Mearns to illumine Scotland, clearing the sullen soil for a richer yield.3 90 ryan d. shirey The poet here captures the very feeling that Gibbon himself returned to time and again in his work – that it was the task of the writer to illumine the darkness of this benighted world and to dream of a vision of humanity fulfilled and whole. This perhaps is his most exceptional quality of all, and it is the basis for what Ian Bell has called Gibbon’s ‘Revolutionary Romanticism’.4 Cruickshank’s tribute to Gibbon also speaks eloquently to the way that his life and works reflected a deep engagement with the literary practices of second generation Romantic writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. Gibbon’s persistent belief in a spiritual ideal uneasily attached to an imperfect material existence led him to a vision of his world that embraced a qualified Shelleyan ‘sceptical idealism’ and belief in the prophetic role of the artist, among other Romantic inheritances.5 What Cruickshank observed was Gibbon’s belief in the artist as fiery guiding beacon for a more humane future, a belief that was most self-consciously derived from Shelley. The epigraph to Book II of Gibbon’s 1932 novel Three Go Back, written as Mitchell, for instance, illustrates his use of Shelley’s language of inspiration: ‘If I have been extinguished, yet there rise / A thousand beacons from the spark I bore’.6 These are lines from Shelley’s incomplete final poem ‘The Triumph of Life’, and while they are spoken in that poem by JeanJacques Rousseau, it is clear in Three Go Back that Gibbon took these lines to heart as a powerful image of the possibility of spreading the spark of aesthetic and political inspiration. While his internationalist tendencies suggest that Gibbon himself might have wished to illumine more of the map than just Scotland, Cruickshank’s tribute is a powerful summary of the core of Gibbon’s belief in the visionary power of the writer and his own hopes for his writing as harbinger of social and political change. Gibbon was born in 1901 and saw the destruction of rural village life in Scotland first-hand as an adolescent before and during the First World War. His own life experiences led Gibbon to the belief that faith in the machinery of society was grossly misplaced, that civilisation was merely another word for barbarism, and that the ultimate goal of humankind should be to escape – to borrow a phrase from Hugh Roberts’s study of Shelley – the ‘chaos of history’.7 Turning his author’s gaze on a world that seemed to him plagued with civilisation, Gibbon embraced the role of revolutionary writer and set about the task of exposing his readers to what he considered to be the most fundamental truths. 91 gibbon, shelley and romantic revolutionary renewal This enormous task was not, however, embarked upon without literary models. As William K. Malcolm notes, Gibbon’s ‘surviving library bears witness to a pervasive...