CHAPTER TEN Into the Twenty-First Century: From Demon to Dream
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159 CHAPTER TEN Into the Twenty-First Century: From Demon to Dream Hamish Whyte Works of Edwin Morgan’s last decade – Demon, Cathures, Love and a Life, Tales from Baron Munchausen and Dreams and Other Nightmares (published or co-published by his Scottish publisher Mariscat Press, some collected in Carcanet Press editions) – can be considered among his most original, surprising and challenging accomplishments. Ranging as they do from prehistory to intimate autobiography to outer space, they explore his concerns at this time for ‘first and last things: origins, reward and punishment, willpower, strife and striving, and what remains of us’.1 In January 1998 Morgan began work on a sequence of twenty poems featuring a ‘demon’ and finished it a year later. In opposition to the traditional idea of a demon, Morgan’s is more life-force than demonic presence, although he does have some destructive, or at least mischievous, qualities. In effect he is yet another of Morgan’s ventriloquising time travellers, flitting in and out of light and darkness, good and evil, myth and history, literature and life. Morgan, of course, was known for seeing Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost, or at least having the best lines – and there is a passing reference to Milton’s poem in ‘The Demon Admires the Stars’.2 Given his long and deep love of Russian literature and art, James McGonigal very plausibly locates the sources for Morgan’s demon in the work of the Russian artist Mikhail Vrubel (1856–1910), who used the image of a demon more in the sense of the Greek daimon, a divine force for good or evil, one’s guiding spirit. Vrubel also illustrated Lermontov’s poem ‘The Demon’.3 Demon was published by Mariscat Press on 1 August 1999, with a striking black and red cover – ‘come to the flames’, Morgan commented at the time – incorporating the lettering he had used on the title page of his manuscript and depicting a strange rabbit-headed figure over the legend: ‘Lege, intellege, iudica’: read, understand, judge. ‘What is a demon? Study my life.’ 4 160 Morgan’s demon probes, interrogates, antagonises – ‘My job is to rattle the bars’.5 He encounters Frankenstein’s monster on the ice floes and a bunch of neds in Argyle Street, flies to Japan, Poland (Auschwitz) and outer space (specifically the star Algol, whose name comes from the Arabic Ras al Ghul – ‘Demon’s Head’ – and which is sometimes called the Demon Star). Blake’s ‘Energy is Eternal Delight’ could be the demon’s motto – he pushes on, exploring, constantly curious, eager to kill death, to climb the walls of time: ‘go / is all I know’.6 However, in the middle of the writing of this sequence another kind of demon struck. Morgan had been experiencing some pain and discomfort for a while and in June 1999 he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. The story is now well known of Morgan asking the consultant how long he had and eventually being told it could be six months – or six years. ‘Can I have six years, please?’ he replied. In fact he outlived the prognosis by five years, thanks to the slow progress of the disease in one of his age (seventy-nine on diagnosis), a strong heart, and an iron will – the demon drove him forward. Having thought about his situation, Morgan said, he knew what he had to do and he was going to do it. ‘It’, of course, as always, was work. His mind seemed to become even more concentrated, awareness of his surroundings heightened. ‘[The] diagnosis of cancer hit me with all the shock of the unexpected. I found myself prowling about the house and the surrounding streets, trying to come to terms with it, and finding a release in the writing of poems which were not directly about the cancer but about how my immediate environment and my state of mind interlocked’.7 This small group of poems he called his ‘intimations of mortality’ poems: about clouds, the Anniesland gasometer, rhododendrons, and, most powerful of all, a seagull which perched on his city balcony and fixed him with its ‘cold inspection’, as an omen, perhaps a visitation which only used that tight firm forward body to bring the waste and dread of open waters, foundered voyages, matchless predators, into a dry room.8 Another way of coping with illness is to read and find out everything there is on the disease, to approach it more...


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