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The poetry of Sorley MacLean
The poetry of Sorley MacLean

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2.3.2 Love

Please now read ‘Dogs and Wolves [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’.

This poem is amazing in its forceful, simple-seeming expression of an extraordinarily complex combination of thought and emotion. The ‘dogs and wolves’ are the speaker's ‘unwritten poems’. Why ‘unwritten’? One infers that other matters take priority over love poems. But – ‘unwritten’ – their latent presence assumes nightmarish form, as if the frustration of being unwritten makes them murderous. They race ‘bloody tongued’ across ‘the hard bareness of the terrible times’ – dominating, this implies, the poet's consciousness of embattled Europe and of poverty in Scotland. Yet these are the ‘mild mad dogs of poetry’. Paradoxically, their quest is for gentleness and loveliness. The ‘terrible times’ deny their release into actual poems: in their hunger they hunt ‘without respite’. At the risk of seeming banal – because this is a poem of truly tragic power which can only be the product of abnormally intense feeling – one could say that MacLean voices a frustration such as many people of conscience have felt in many contexts: a craving denied becomes rapacious, silently hysterical, yet the denial must continue.

Now please re-read ‘A Spring’ and ‘She To Whom I Gave’, and read ‘Spring Tide’.

Intensely lyrical as these poems are, the emotion – ‘love’ – which they express is involved with conflict, ‘shame’, regret. MacLean as ‘love poet’ has been compared with great English poets – with the Shakespeare of the Sonnets, John Donne. But Seamus Heaney's comparison of MacLean with Dante, who created in his poetry a figure, Beatrice, ‘who mediates between the heavenly and earthy worlds’, seems very shrewd. In MacLean's love poems, Heaney argues, the woman:

... resolves at a symbolic level tensions which would otherwise be uncontainable or wasteful. She is neither an escape from the world of moral decision nor an obliteration of it; she is neither an emblem of heavenly certitude nor a substitute for it. Yet she fills a necessary space in a mind that is ravenous for conviction.