publisher colophon
  • Rehearsing Better Worlds:Poetry as A Way of Happening in the Works of Tomlinson and MacDiarmid

Hugh MacDiarmid and Charles Tomlinson certainly make strange bedfellows for a comparative study, yet by placing MacDiarmid's "Third Hymn to Lenin" in dialogue with Tomlinson's poems "Prometheus" and "Assassin," written in opposition to the Russian Revolution, a common approach to the question of poetry's social efficacy emerges. The central issue in these works is not superficial expression of political allegiance. Instead, I demonstrate an affirmation of poetry as "a way of happening," whereby poetic form functions as a means of rehearsing the principles by which a better world can be built.

W. H. Auden's dictum "poetry makes nothing happen" has an enduring currency in poetic criticism, quoted ad nauseam to support the view that poetic discourse must never fall subservient to political ends.1 Conventional wisdom would hold that Hugh MacDiarmid, a poet more often noted for his obstinate commitment to communism, patently failed to heed this dictum. Indeed, as Scott Lyall notes, MacDiarmid's political poems are almost never anthologized (the 1970 Cambridge Book of English Verse represents an exception to this trend), suggesting that the poems in which MacDiarmid's political views are made explicit are of inferior poetic quality.2

Yet one must acknowledge that its subject matter cannot be taken as an indication of a poem's quality: to write political poetry does not imply an assertion that poetry alone "makes things happen." This essay defends the significance of MacDiarmid's political, nonverse poetry, [End Page 185] arguing that it is consistent with the full context of Auden's notion that "poetry makes nothing happen," but is rather "a way of happening."3 I will examine "Third Hymn to Lenin," as the poem provides a manageable encapsulation of both the sprawling, quintessentially modernist style of MacDiarmid's book-length poems and clearly articulates his political and poetic views.4

In pursuing this line of inquiry, I will proceed from the perhaps initially perplexing enterprise of reading "Third Hymn to Lenin" alongside the work of Charles Tomlinson's avowedly anti-Bolshevik poems "Prometheus" and "Assassin." Inspired by Tomlinson's friendship with Octavio Paz and his views on Marxism and its philosophy of history, these works take the Russian Revolution as their frame of reference in rejecting Hugh MacDiarmid's raison d'être—political and artistic radicalism. The aim of placing MacDiarmid's work in dialogue with the cosmopolitan, liberal worldview of Tomlinson and Paz, however, is not to stage a literary debate on the merits of the Russian Revolution. Reading the poems as simply their most obvious message is, as much as anything, what Auden warns of. Instead, the goal of placing MacDiarmid's work in this unconventional context is to examine poetry as a "way of happening" that extends beyond the ideological horizons of the poet.

The issue that underlies each of these works is a desire to understand humanity's relationship to history, and especially how the poet is to deal with the limitations historical forces cast on his efficacy, which Auden expresses as the inability of poetry to make things happen. Vis-à-vis this less frequently quoted portion of Auden, we find the basis of each poet's claim to the legitimacy of politically engaged verse is not in the truth value of the views they defend. Instead, via the poetic method itself and the manner of poetic speech, the poet is influenced by and influences society.

The two poems by Tomlinson discussed here were published in The Way of a World and form the heart of a significant intellectual exchange between Tomlinson and Paz. "Assassin" in particular later served as a critical tool in several of Paz's political essays of the 1980s.5 "Prometheus" provides a road map to Tomlinson's understanding of the cultural climate of the Russian Revolution, key to understanding the stylized portrayal of Leo Trotsky's assassin, Ramón Mercader, in the latter poem. Through this figure Tomlinson expresses his view of "revolution and mystic transcendence" as fundamentally misguided responses to humanity's historical condition, "an arc that resists completion, though men are always trying to fix it."6 While both of these poems reject revolution and the [End Page 186] notion that humans can stand above historical forces, Tomlinson does not despair entirely of humanity's ability to improve the world, instead arguing for an ethics grounded in temperance and striving toward beauty.

The protagonist of "Prometheus" is the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. The poem's title is borrowed from his tone poem "Prometheus: The Poem of Fire." Alexander Blok's poem "The Scythians" is a nationalistic take on historical determinism that represents artists swept up in revolutionary ferment. Rather than Bolshevism it is Russia's culture, European identity fortified by an "Asiatic mien," that destines the nation for greatness.7 The fact that the artists referenced in "Prometheus" were never more than fellow travelers of the revolution, that Trotsky himself repudiated Blok as an exponent of "romantic, symbolic, mystic, formless and unreal" lyric who expressed not the sentiments of revolution but the "pre-October literature" of the aristocracy and intelligentsia, is not significant to Tomlinson's view.8

Instead, Tomlinson seeks to portray Blok and Scriabin as natural products of those who breathe the air of revolution. Where, without this influence, they would have merely remained merely bad artists (Scriabin in particular is critiqued as orchestrating a "mob of instruments" with "too many drowning voices"), the revolutionary worldview vindicates their claim to have broken with history, ushering in a lapse in proper aesthetic judgment and elevating them to the status of artistic greats.9 By using revolution to seek their own ends, they are thus considered morally culpable for its deeds, dramatizing Tomlinson's claim that "he who howls / With the whirlwind, with the whirlwind goes down" ("P," 38–39). In this way "Prometheus" provides a historical type with which Mercader can be associated in "Assassin." The commingling of both revolutionary and mystic ideology in his character can further be understood with reference to Paz's contention (in regard to "Assassin") that revolution in the twentieth century fulfilled the social role traditionally played by religious salvation ("FH," p. 155).

In contrast to the protagonists of "Prometheus," Tomlinson's Mercader embodies a strain of extremism that does not seek the "merely" political goals of bolshevism. His aim is not the struggle against the enemies of the Soviet Union but a mystic desire to transcend history altogether. Although my own reading generally accords with that of Ruth Grogan, she does not distinguish between the historical and fictional Mercader. Although Tomlinson clearly writes with reference to history, the poem's speaker differs from his historical counterpart in that he is not particularly concerned with the immediate political significance of his deed. [End Page 187] The nonstandard syntax of the first line, "Blood I foresaw," and the clairvoyance it portends to, associates the speaker not just with historical determinism but with a conscious effort to buck social mores in the name of a higher calling.10 His belief that the contemptible "distractions of the retina . . . / . . . like a child must be fed and comforted" points to a further rejection of society insofar as his contempt toward children signals a lack of concern with the future (that is, the future as an actuality rather than a philosophical abstraction). Moreover, this view is not consistent with the traditional brand of Marxist historical determinism, which underscores the speaker's desire to escape from history altogether ("A," 2–3). Rather than perceiving the future in accordance with the dictates of chronological time, Mercader fosters an identity for himself in which "I am the future and my blow / Will have it now" ("A," 25–26). Accordingly, he suppresses the political aspect of the murder in favor of his "salvation" from linear time.

In keeping with this mentality, the poem contains only a passing allusion to events outside of what the speaker immediately perceives or imagines during the course of the murder—the October Revolution. This serves more as an authorial deviation from the speaker's character to reinforce the continuity between the Russian Revolution and murder in spite of Mercader's preoccupation with his own quest for transcendence, which overshadows his supposed political allegiances and the identity of his victim. In this respect Mercader's sensual perceptions, ultimately blood and Trotsky's unnerving cry, drown out concrete ideological and historical concerns.

The dominance of sensual perception—of "blood and bone"—coupled with the poem's epigraph, Octavio Paz's invocation in "Piedra de Sol" of "The rattle in Trotsky's throat and his wild boar's moans," suggest a different mode of revolutionary, an antisocial actor removed from culture and history, instead obsessed with imbuing immanent sensation with mystical significance. The speaker perceives the understated violence of the poem as opening the path to transcendence, which Grogan characterizes as "mystical transcendence by cold will" ("FH," p. 145). The speaker seeks not "the distractions of the retina" of aesthetic experience, nor the sensual gratification of a hedonist; he aims instead for the elemental act that transcends perception and allows him to enter history in an unmediated fashion through action, opposed to the indirect gates of the "eye" and "ear" ("A," 2, 18). These particular organs suggest images and language respectively, pointing toward a rejection of even artistic expression, which mingles the mystical revolutionary aims [End Page 188] found in "Prometheus." This notion can be more properly characterized as a rejection of experience mediated through the symbolic realm. The "caricature of mysticism" Tomlinson has created is thus defined not just by his "attempt to have the future on his own terms" but by taking both the mystical quest of Scriabin and the excesses of revolutionary violence to their extreme ("FH," p. 152). "Assassin" thus provides an extension of the critique of artistic extremity, both political and mystical, embodied by Scriabin.

On this basis we can hone our understanding of the poem not just as an attempt by Mercader to batter his way into history (as Alan Bold suggests in the Cambridge Book of English Verse), nor simply the action of an impatient and fairly perverse would-be mystic, but a rebellion against society and culture in the most fundamental sense by a man who cannot content himself with "mere" political or artistic rebellion. These methods prove ultimately unsatisfactory for our speaker, as they are mediated by the symbolic realms of politics and literature.

Paper litters the poem, first appearing as having "rasped pages" that "snap and crackle," mirroring the "summer thunder" and simmering static that accompanies the radio broadcast of Scriabin's tone poem in "Prometheus" ("A," 7, 12; "P," 1, 5). In "Prometheus" this noise is the effect of a summer thunderstorm on a radio broadcast, serving to underscore the artificial nature of the "mock last-day" in Scriabin's work ("P," 6). Such noises come to take on a particular significance in both poems, acting as a harbinger of transcendent aspirations gone awry; intention without the temperance of form that would render it meaningful. The rustle of Trotsky's papers in the latter poem is an effect of crisp "October air," a reminder that both men are doomed to go down with the whirlwind, Trotsky's own participation in the October Revolution being just as immoral and misguided as Mercader's act ("A," 12). The paper itself, an article Mercader had Trotsky read as a pretext for entering his office, is an abortive attempt at political engagement mediated by language, which Mercader abandons for his quest to transcend history through the more immediate method of violence. The most interesting suggestion of the image of Trotsky in the moment after the attack is the speaker's apparent perception of his quarry as a man made out of paper who disintegrates when struck by Mercader: "The blood wells. Prepared for this / This I can bear. But papers / Snow to the ground with a whispered roar" ("A," 31–33). This description can be explained in a fairly direct fashion since Trotsky was a prolific writer, but with regard to Mercader's critical view toward a mediated perception [End Page 189] of reality, he comes to see his victim as an embodiment of linguistic abstraction. At the same time, focusing on the papers serves to shield Mercader from the carnality of his act, which is inescapably material and therefore entirely at odds with his aspirations toward transcending the material realm of history.

It is not the sight of blood, curiously, that alerts the speaker to this contradiction. Instead it is Trotsky's singular cry, which serves as the climax of the poem. The "animal cry" impresses the vulgar materiality of the murder on Mercader, wreaking violence on the speaker, the "cleaving crescendo" of the papers' "whispered roar" grasping him "by the roots of his hair" ("A," 34–36). Trotsky's cry was indeed a focal point for the historical Mercader as well, who stated in his confession, "His scream was Aaaa . . . very long, infinitely long and it still seems to me as if that scream were piercing my brain."11 The cry serves not just a reminder of the material and historical dimension of the act to the fictional Mercader but an intrusion of historical fact into a discourse that, although based on a historical event, is composed principally of philosophical and mystical abstractions, and shrinks from referencing historical particularities as much as possible. The significance of Trotsky as a "dying body that refuses death" is thus, in addition to an assertion of the material world against Mercader's desire for transcendence, to deny him the mantel of an agent of the future who stands above history ("A," 43). In short, the endurance of Trotsky as a metonymy of the mediated forms of understanding Mercader seeks to overcome underscores the failure of Mercader's quest to achieve mystical transcendence through political violence.

This endurance of language and history dramatizes a general opposition between the political and aesthetic extremism of Mercader, Scriabin, and Blok on the one hand, and the beautiful, epitomized by poetry on the other. Mercader's desire to overcome language dramatizes Tomlinson's critique of extremism, not just as blind to the limitations history imposes on mankind but as antithetical to "human communication," whose perfected form is found in poetry (CB, p. 218). Where Mercader is doomed to failure, poetry is a means of coming to terms with history that does not challenge its supremacy. This can be better understood by considering Octavio Paz's distinction between history and poetry. According to Paz, humans are "slaves" to history, "its raw materials and its victims." Poetry, on the other hand, is understood in terms very similar to that which the speaker of "Assassin" seeks, producing items that "are bent on attaining to the end, on existing to the [End Page 190] utmost," thereby becoming severed from "cause and effect." The fallacy of the protagonist of "Assassin" is his attempt to seize history by the horns as Scriabin attempted to use his musical performance to create a historical rupture. Indeed, "there can be no poetry without history, but poetry has no other mission than to transmute history." Yet these historical elements must "wait for the poem which will rescue them and make them what they are" ("FH," pp. 152–53).

In Tomlinson's understanding this is not simply substituting the principle of poetry for Mercader's mystical version of historical determinism, however. In Paz and Tomlinson's view, poetry is mystical in the sense that its internal logic remains obscure to the seeker. Rather than serving as a means of direct understanding that clarifies the apparently senseless chaos of historical being, poetry reconciles the subject with existence through "the chance of rhyme," which corresponds to surrender to the fact that "chance occurrences [and] chance meetings invade what we do every day" ("FH," pp. 153–54). In other words, Tomlinson understands poetry as embodying the principle of temperance wrought through formal limitations and consciousness of the subordination of the subject to history. Poetic creation provides a means for accepting one's historical role by giving order to these coincidences such that "they are drawn into a sort of pattern, as they criss-cross with our feeling of what we are, as they remind us of other happenings, or strengthen our sense of future possibility" (p. 154).

The aesthetic dimension of Tomlinson's poetic principle is the view that temperance is the essence of beauty (as opposed to the revolutionary art embodied by Scriabin and Blok, which substitutes a principle of transgression for beauty). Brian John describes Tomlinson as defending imbricated aesthetic and moral principles, whereby poetry serves to embody and defend "good taste, discrimination, moderation, rationality, elegance." Tomlinson advocates, in other words, for "moral sense which comes whether from striving for order against chaos or choosing beauty above ugliness."12 These values link the aesthetic and political worldviews that underlie these works. In both poems the revolutionary mentality creates a vicious cycle by suspending moral judgment in the name of historical necessity, which in turn harms the capacity for aesthetic judgment. This is the sense of future possibility that Tomlinson understands as offering the poet a back door into shaping the human condition. Revolution, on the other hand, represents a fated effort to assert human will over chance in order to dictate the future for the poet. His alternative vision of a poetic understanding of the world extends the [End Page 191] formal limitations of the genre to the contingent position of humanity with regard to history.

While a cursory reading may suggest the Hugh MacDiarmid's "Third Hymn to Lenin" also fits the mold of revolutionary attempts at historical intervention, closer examination of the work suggests a unique conception of poetry which, while ideologically distinct from that offered by Tomlinson, has a similar faith in poetry as a valuable entity in and of itself rather than reducing it to the status of revolutionary tool. Alan Bold concurs that MacDiarmid is a poet before an ideologue. In Bold's view, MacDiarmid understands "poetry as a means of education rather than edification" (CB, p. 176). T. S. Eliot described "Second Hymn to Lenin" as a poem of commitment, "but the theme of commitment suggested by its title is a commitment to poetry and to the autonomy of the poet's role as opposed to that of any political ideology."13 Moreover, Scott Lyall's view is that, as a poet, MacDiarmid was more interested in the evolution of humanity, particularly through the dissemination of high culture among the masses, than creating a Marxist Realpolitik ("MC," pp. 75–77).

This view accounts for the use of religious rhetoric by MacDiarmid, wherein the transcendental claims of religious doctrine are associated with the transcendent element that also underlies scientific advancement and the notion of progressive historical development. In this view MacDiarmid appropriates the "metaphorical content of Marxism . . . in much the same way Pound uses Greek mythology, or Yeats astrology, or Graves the White Moon Goddess" (CB, p. 177). Beyond such artistic appropriation of Marxism, "Third Hymn to Lenin" is of particular interest in that it demonstrates MacDiarmid's political style, which is based on the commingling of multiple linguistic and intellectual registers and contains a conscious reflection on poetic craft. Marxism forms only one aspect of "Third Hymn to Lenin," which is a synthesis of poetic imagery, literary allusions, journalistic prose, scientific writing, references to religious culture, and shocking images (dwelling in particular on the horrendous stench of the Glasgow slums), in addition to the expected reliance on Marxist philosophy and discourse. The manner in which these various registers are synthesized, rather than the content itself, is the most significant political act of MacDiarmid's work.

The poem begins with two biblical epigraphs. The first, "These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also," is taken from Acts.14 Originally describing Paul as he spreads Christianity beyond the Holy Lands, the passage is redeployed such that the reader understands [End Page 192] it as referring to the winds of the October Revolution having reached the shores of Scotland. The second epigraph, from Romans, expresses the hope that this event would express for MacDiarmid: "The night is far spent, the day is at hand, let us therefore cast off the work of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light."15 Despite the source texts being apparently incongruous to Marxism—as well as the fact that they are stylistically at odds with the otherwise modernist poem—their use is effective, recontextualizing an apparently Christian metaphor such that its tenor becomes the doctrine of Lenin rather than Christ. This particular type of intertext disrupts the authority of the source, serving almost to rewrite the Bible, suggesting an explicitly revolutionary message where few readers would have found one, left to their own devices (and serving as the basis of MacDiarmid's rebukes of capitalist Christian society for acting "in flat defiance of all Christ taught" 16).

This apparent inversion of ideas speaks to MacDiarmid's conception of poetic genesis, whereby we do not find "an idea gradually shaping itself in words, but deriving entirely from words" (CB, p. 175). In this instance, although the source text is governed by a controlling worldview, MacDiarmid demonstrates that their meaning is not inherent to the linguistic units that comprise the text as a whole. Since the key to reading the Bible as a Leninist relies on "liberating" the words from their context, this liberation may to a certain extent be rightly seen as a disingenuous sleight of hand. Nonetheless, at least in the course of the poem, MacDiarmid seems to have achieved relative success in forcing the reader to question the fixed meaning of the biblical passages. The passage from Romans is especially suited to the competing interpretation suggested in the context of the Marxist poem, and even if the reader ultimately reverts to favoring the traditional interpretation of the passages supported by their original context, the ability to view the passage in entirely the same way as before will be difficult, having been exposed to the future possibility of a synergy between Christianity and Marxism.

This is of great practical significance to MacDiarmid, who sees the church as a key institution in oppressing the Scottish people; Scotland is "a country whose chief glory is the Kirk," and its citizens "wallow in exploded fallacies / And cherish for immortal souls their gross stupidity" ("TH," 76, 238–39). By making explicit the obscure relation between Christianity and Marxism, it is no longer isolated impotently in the poet's intellect, instead taking on a social significance by sowing the seeds of a revolutionary consciousness. More generally, Christian mythology is a key frame of reference in MacDiarmid's own intellectual development, and [End Page 193] belongs to the "treasures of human knowledge" with which communists should be familiar, an edict of Lenin frequently cited by MacDiarmid.17

The beginning of the poem itself, seemingly far from political or literary concerns, in fact focuses on the key gesture of MacDiarmid's poetics, seeing "concealed but powerful meanings" not just in the textual realm (as demonstrated above) but in the Sargasso-like chaos of history. This ability unites the revolutionary and poet with the opening passage extolling the talents of sailors ("TH," 12). This point is reiterated later in the poem, showing it to be an intellectual exercise of teasing out "meaning behind meaning, dense forests of cross-reference" (57). In this passage, removed from the relatively focused invocation of Glasgow, the poem itself takes on the features of "dense forests" of meaning, more strikingly perceived through the variety of sources MacDiarmid draws on in order to create a synthesis that expresses the "profound and all-sided knowledge of life" (41).

The juxtaposition of various modes of discourse and worldviews in the poem allows each of these elements to transcend its limited meaning in isolation and take on a greater significance by acting in concert, not acting out or as, but pointing toward the unsayable moment of the revolutionary rupture. In a more practical sense, the reader is given to feel a great preponderance of evidence justifying revolution—not just Marxist philosophy in its historical or economic forms but also elements of a spiritual, intuitive nature. MacDiarmid views the role of the poet not as aestheticizing the insights of scientific Marxism but as a complementary discipline, which explains the poet's claim to be "as all poets and dynamic spirits must be—purely irrational."18

Indeed, MacDiarmid devotes a stanza of the poem to expounding upon the necessarily polyphonic aspect of his style:Intellectual importance and emotional chances combinedIn any instant in his particular situation,So here there is a like accumulation of effects,On countless planes of significance at once,And all we see is set in riddling terms,Making aught but myriad-mindedness a dunce.

("TH," 50–55)

The key feature of the synthetic style found in "Third Hymn to Lenin" is that, like the sailor or Lenin himself, the reader must actively engage in seeing hidden connections between the various registers that constitute the poem and play an active role in appreciating the significance of [End Page 194] such a style. The reader's knowledge of culture, science, and literature serves to give the clarity of vision Lenin himself possessed with regard to the "economic, political, ideological and so forth" ("TH," 44). As Lyall demonstrates, MacDiarmid had little faith in the "cultural interpreting class." Instead he saw the role of the poet as unleashing "the power of knowledge to effect social change" (PP, p. 179). Yet where Lyall suggests that MacDiarmid ultimately represents modernist elitism and the Leninist belief in the necessity of bourgeoisie intellectuals to form the revolutionary vanguard, the style of "Third Hymn to Lenin" suggests a more democratic approach whereby the reader is asked to join the poet in assembling this knowledge, which is key to unlocking a better future.

In this particular poem MacDiarmid's elitist streak manifests in his allusion to Lenin's famous fear of listening to Beethoven, which contains an Adorno-esque rejection of popular culture: "Lenin, lover of music, who dare not listen to it, / Teach us to eschew all the siren voices too / And get due Diesseitigkeit" ("TH," 154–56). This rejection of the "siren voices" of mainstream culture derives from its idealistic fallacy, in which "thought is reality—and thought alone!" ("TH," 190). Yet his rejection of aesthetics is not absolute. Although "Third Hymn to Lenin" may "strain our sense of what poetry should be," MacDiarmid "never entirely abandoned a concern with traditional aesthetic values," for all his conviction never sacrificing the aesthetic value of poetry to ideology, opposing even Lukácsian realism and the Proletkult literature of the Soviet Union ("MC," p. 75).

In this view, the writer who simply expounds upon his convictions, producing a discourse that violently subjugates language to ideology, is aesthetically and ideologically weak. MacDiarmid's political poems are obviously composed with his eye on a clear ideological goal, but as Bold's views indicate, Marxism is as much a poetic as political principle for MacDiarmid. This is a key distinction in locating a nexus between Tomlinson's and MacDiarmid's creations. Ultimately, MacDiarmid does not intend his poetry as revolution itself, as a direct intervention into history, but as part of an effort to build revolutionary consciousness "capable of shocking the reader out of his ignorance and inspiring him with an ambition to extend his own consciousness" (CB, p. 176). In keeping with Paz and Tomlinson's axiom of poetry as waiting to find the proper rhyme, MacDiarmid leaves the effect of his poem to history, which he implicitly acknowledges to be an extraliterary force beyond the control of poets, though not beyond their concern. [End Page 195]

"Third Hymn to Lenin" can also be productively examined alongside the parallel between poetic form and Tomlinson's view of humanity's historical condition. As mentioned above, MacDiarmid's aesthetic does not call for a total rejection of classical aesthetic norms, but his poetics is not linked to the categories of traditional poetry privileged by Tomlinson. It is rather MacDiarmid's unique synthetic style, asserted not as an aesthetic principle in isolation but a path to achieving a more lucid understanding of the forces that shape human society and history. This aim is in turned linked with expanding the critical consciousness of the reader: MacDiarmid's poetry serves to undo false consciousness, "determined blindness . . . / To all that might upset our little apple-carts, / Too cautious to do anything about it" ("TH," 113–15). In correspondence with Tomlinson's precept that proper understanding of the world and action within it proceeds from acknowledging history's limitations, which demand submission rather than struggle, MacDiarmid's poetic style is motivated by illuminating the restrictions imposed by society on the oppressed, the "daemons one by one / Emerging in the modern world" (105–6).

Despite this seeming contradiction between Tomlinson and MacDiarmid, it would be wrong to conflate MacDiarmid's conception of political struggle with the extremist brand of revolution that Tomlinson is at pains to repudiate. Like Tomlinson, MacDiarmid's call for engagement is predicated on a thoroughgoing intellectual basis. The key to overcoming this complacency is intellectual engagement beyond "the simple data our normal senses give." As a materialist, MacDiarmid's transcendence is not based on insight beyond material reality but the ability to assemble a fragmented perception of reality according to the logic of metonymic and metaphorical "multiplicity of correspondences" that govern his poetic art. This form of perception is therefore not a merely descriptive knowledge of the ills of the world but paves the way toward the "vast liberating powers these dark powers disengage" ("TH," 109–11).

The transcendent act in MacDiarmid's poetry is just as much on the side of the reader as the poet; in synthesizing the varied modes of discourse in the poem the (ideal) reader does not simply come to understand the meaning of the words but expands their consciousness and capacity for political action by dealing with the web of ideas set forth in the poem. The reincarnation of Lenin can thus be read not as a literal return of the Bolshevik leader but as the desire to achieve the critical consciousness or "myriad-mindedness" of Lenin, reflected [End Page 196] in the polyphonic form of the poem, a wish MacDiarmid has for his reader as much as for himself. At the same time, we can conceive of the content of the poem as being reincarnated through its reappropriation in the poem, the most obvious example being the biblical epigraphs discussed earlier.

By taking on the revised, revolutionary meaning suggested by the poem, this new interpretation of the passage from Romans becomes imbued with the spirit of Lenin's philosophy. The inferior posture assumed toward Lenin acknowledges the limitations of literature as a means of revolution, in keeping with the assertion that "Mere Study's fingers cannot grasp the roots of power" ("TH," 68). The poet cannot usurp, only assist, the revolutionary leader. MacDiarmid thus offers a poetics similar to Brecht's theater, whereby the reception of the artwork is intended as an exercise in consciousness building: the aim is not merely to seek the hegemony of his own ideology in the cultural field but to create the social conditions necessary for a revolutionary intervention in history. This style, at first apparently abstruse and contradictory, is intended to activate the reader's own intellect such that engagement with his artwork results in an increased sense of the possibilities of political action in the real world. Lyall describes MacDiarmid's philosophy of education as one guided by the poetic principle of "free play of the imagination." Yet this is not a Derridean game for MacDiarmid but an issue of practical political importance, insofar as liberating the powers of the imagination can create subjects capable of transcending their "passive role" as "economic functionaries" (PP, p. 47).

Examined from this perspective, these poems chart the markedly different responses of Tomlinson and MacDiarmid to the question of whether meaningful action is possible in the historical confines of human existence. Tomlinson's philosophy of temperance calls for the poet to become fully aware of the historical limitations that constrain him. According to Tomlinson, only after acknowledging this state of affairs can one undertake action to improve the world. Tomlinson sees the poet's role in particular as rehearsing the possibilities for a better world in verse, conceiving of poetry as based on submission of the individual will to the chance of rhyme, a stand-in for the oppressive flow of history. This act of submission is what enables the poet to bring beauty to the world and transmit the associated values of moderation, rationality, and good taste, which in Tomlinson's view are the seeds of a more just and benevolent society. [End Page 197]

MacDiarmid feels a compulsion to seek economic justice in the Marxist sense, but is nonetheless cognizant that poetry is not capable of intervening directly in society to bring about revolution. Clearly, by focusing on the formal aspects of "Third Hymn to Lenin," MacDiarmid's approach to poetry stems from a radically different worldview; he shares Tomlinson's belief in the transcendent power of poetry, understanding transcendence in the context of building consciousness of the contradictions inherent in capitalist society. As a social intervention, "Third Hymn to Lenin" is riven by a tension between the Leninist urge to dictate historical development and the knowledge that the poet is not in a position to directly intervene in the world.

The role of the poet is thus to mediate between the revolutionary vanguard and masses. The ability to see hidden meanings and make counterintuitive connections (such as the biblical passages discussed above) through the metonymical relations and metaphorical correspondences inherent to poetic style are central to his revolutionary poetics, based on a myriad of scientific, cultural, historical, and translinguistic references. This style is conceived with a mind toward engaging the reader in critical intellectual processes, conceived as the seed of a future revolutionary consciousness. MacDiarmid's poetry seeks to draw the reader's attention to the systematic forces that underlie the superficially chaotic nature of history and injustice. However, rather than presenting this as a fait accompli, MacDiarmid requires a significant intellectual investment on the part of the reader, thus serving as an exercise in consciousness building to create the social conditions necessary for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

The poems discussed in this essay are therefore not political merely in the sense that they contain superficially political content but that they seek to define the social role of poetry as such, positing the author's own conception of how poetic creation should be undertaken as a means of engaging with social being. Both poets see poetic creation as containing the potential to convey a superior means of understanding and engaging with the world. For Tomlinson this potential is based on a principle of temperance and acceptance of the contingency of existence. For MacDiarmid, on the other hand, poetry is a means of perceiving the fundamental unity of the apparently disparate aspects of social reality. At the same time, it can activate the latent intellectual potential of all people to perceive the inherently oppressive nature of capitalist society and thus trigger revolutionary social change. [End Page 198]

While a significant ideological discord remains between MacDiarmid and Auden, MacDiarmid's poetry points to poetry, conceived as a "way of happening," as a more productive stance for considering the social role of the poet and poetry. Above all, this reading of Tomlinson alongside MacDiarmid should point to the fact that, much more than the explicit ideological stance of an artwork, a work's formal characteristics embody its political values. From this standpoint both Tomlinson and MacDiarmid can be viewed as progressive poets in the sense that they perceive poetry as a social tool. A poem has a significant role to play in the improvement of society, not in terms of its content but in how it is arranged, and how the poetic event unfolds.

Duncan Gullick Lien
Pennsylvania State University


1. Robert Huddleston's eponymous discussion of Auden in the Boston Review (Feb. 25, 2015) is one such example.

2. Scott Lyall, "MacDiarmid, Communism and the Poetry of Commitment," in The Edinburgh Companion to Hugh MacDiarmid, ed. Scott Lyall and Margery Palmer McCulloch (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), p. 69; hereafter abbreviated "MC."

3. W. H. Auden, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," in Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. M. W. Ferguson, M. J. Salter, and J. Stallworthy (New York: Norton, 2005), pp. 1472–74, lines 36, 41.

4. See, for example, Hugh MacDiarmid, In Memoriam James Joyce: From a Vision of World Language (Glasgow: William MacLellan, 1955).

5. R. A. Grogan, "The Fall into History: Charles Tomlinson and Octavio Paz," Comparative Literature (1992): 144–60. The essays by Paz are found in English in One Earth, Three or Four Worlds, trans. Helen R. Lane (Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986); hereafter abbreviated "FH."

6. Brian John, The World as Event: The Poetry of Charles Tomlinson (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1989), p. 84.

7. Alexander Blok, "The Scythians," trans. Robin Kemball, Russian Review 14, no. 2 (1955): 117–18, line 3.

8. Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, trans. Rose Strunsky (London: RedWords, 1991), chap. 4.

9. Charles Tomlinson, "Prometheus," in The Cambridge Book of English Verse 1939–1975, ed. Alan Bold (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 102–3, lines 12–13; hereafter abbreviated "P" and cited by line numbers. [End Page 199]

10. Charles Tomlinson, "Assassin," in Bold, Cambridge Book of English Verse, pp. 103–5, lines 38–39; hereafter abbreviated "A" and cited by line numbers.

11. Bold, Cambridge Book of English Verse, p. 218; hereafter abbreviated CB.

12. John, The World as Event, p. 83.

13. Margery McCulloch, Scottish Modernism and Its Contexts 1918–1959: Literature, National Identity and Cultural Exchange (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), p. 157.

14. MacDiarmid quotes the King James Bible, Acts 17:6.

15. Romans 13:12.

16. Hugh MacDiarmid, "Third Hymn to Lenin," in Bold, Cambridge Book of English Verse, p. 24, line 139; hereafter abbreviated "TH" and cited by line numbers.

17. Scott Lyall, Hugh MacDiarmid's Poetry and Politics of Place: Imagining a Scottish Republic (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), p. 169; hereafter abbreviated PP.

18. Hugh MacDiarmid, The Raucle Tongue: Hitherto Uncollected Prose, Volume 2: 1927–1936, ed. Angus Calder, Glen Murray, and Alan Riach (Manchester: Carcanet, 1996), p. 549. [End Page 200]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.