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The poetry of Sorley MacLean
The poetry of Sorley MacLean

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2.2 Background and recordings

Sorley MacLean, 1911–98, is now regarded as one of the greatest Scottish poets of the twentieth century. Until the 1970s, his verse was known by very few people. In that decade, publication of English translations and the impact of his public readings established him in the eyes of poetry lovers in Scotland, Ireland and England, as well as further afield, as a major poet.

Yet, curiously, this impact depended on work that mostly derived from a very specific conjunction of personal and political factors in the 1930s and 40s. A contemporary of Auden, of the major French Communist poets Éluard and Aragon, and of the great Chilean Communist, Pablo Neruda, MacLean somehow vaulted the generations to speak compellingly (in particular) to young Scots, mostly non-Gaelic-speakers, preoccupied with questions of home rule and nationalism in the era of Heath, Wilson, Callaghan and Thatcher. A passionate anti-imperialist of the forties made sense to Scottish patriots in the seventies.

Attempts have been made to present MacLean as pre-eminently the author of the poems addressed to an idealised ‘Eimhir’, a mythical Celtic beauty – a great poet of love whose politics were merely accidental and sentimental. This will not do.

His feeling for his own people, their culture, and the landscape of his childhood; his unhappy, frustrated love affairs in the late thirties with two women, one Irish, one Scots; and his passionate hatred of Fascism, capitalism and imperialism, formed one nexus of intense feeling. MacLean's cardinal political heroes were the Edinburgh-born Marxist, James Connolly, commemorated so powerfully by Yeats as a hero of Dublin's Easter Rising of 1916, and his fellow-clansman John MacLean, the Glasgow schoolteacher whose Marxist evening classes influenced many workers in the years of the so-called ‘Red Clyde’ (1915–19), who was hailed by Lenin as a great ally, and who was preaching for the cause of an independent Scottish Workers Republic before he died, in his prime, in 1923.

The crux of his crisis in the late 1930s was this: because he felt compelled to earn money as a teacher for his family, he could not obey his impulse to fight for the Republican side in Spain against Fascism. Iain Crichton Smith has argued, regarding MacLean's work of this period, that ‘there is a sense in which the Spanish Civil War does not form the background to these poems, but is the protagonist. The test of whether or not to go to Spain was a deep test of who he was, and therefore a test of the quality of his love’ (Ross, R.J. and Hendry, J. eds, 1986, Sorley MacLean: critical essays, Scottish Academic Press, p. 49).