Andrew McNeillie writes:
BACK in September 2013, I began a Times Literary Supplement commentary essay (“A Scottish Siberia: Spying on Hugh MacDiarmid”) as follows: “There were few more dramatic adventures in the history of 20th-century modernism than Hugh MacDiarmid’s retreat to the Shetland islands from 1933 to 1942.” I went on to identify “further, suggestive examples of dramatic isolation in the modernist period” – from the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam at Voronezh to the American Ezra Pound (below) in his cage at Pisa, with the Irishman WB Yeats in his Tower and Bohemian-Austrian Rainer Maria Rilke at Duino in between, not quite in extremis in physical terms.
These places were not islands but in Mandelstam’s and Pound’s case might as well have been. Islands also imprison. Prisons confine and isolate. Remember the Gulag Archipelago.
Rilke we know was particularly important for MacDiarmid in the 1930s. The poem from his book Stony Limits (1934), “Vestigia Nulla Retrorsum” is dedicated to Rilke. It’s well-nigh impossible to think of “On a Raised Beach”, the greatest single poem in that volume, coming into being without Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” for technical and existential inspiration (just so, more quietly, for Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone”). Charles Doughty the poet and traveller, author of Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888), was also a vital presence: the title poem “Stony Limits” is dedicated to his memory. (“Vestigia Nulla Retrorsum” – which means “footsteps do not go backwards” or, effectively, “we do not retreat”, certainly a MacDiarmidian sentiment, was the motto of “The Golden Dawn” – the first version of Yeats’s A Vision is dedicated “To Vestigia”.) All of which is to remind us that MacDiarmid is a modernist on Whalsay who had got his modernism in London, much in the pages of AR Orage’s periodical The New Age and from the intellectual world Orage haunted. MacDiarmid describes The Islands of Scotland (1939) as “a poet’s book, albeit a modernist poet’s” (p.27). Even allowing for his poverty and psychological distress at the time (he would suffer a nervous breakdown in 1935, following his recent divorce and separation from his children from his first marriage), it should surprise no-one that he chose to withdraw to Whalsay. Hadn’t he vowed in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926) that he would have no half-way house but ever be where extremes meet?