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The poetry of Sorley MacLean
The poetry of Sorley MacLean

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2.3.4 War

MacLean's love poems present a situation where the speaker is baffled by stasis. He cannot act. Frustration in love is involved with political frustration.

Gaelic tradition values men of action – often heroes who died in defeat. The battle cry of the MacLeans, ‘Fear eile air son Eachainn’ (‘Another One for Hector’), recalls the battle of Inverkeithing in 1651, when the seventeenth chief of the clan, ‘Red Hector of the Battles’, fell in action. Clansman after clansman rushed in to protect him. Of 700 MacLeans engaged, only 40, it is said, survived.

The remarkable handful of poems which Sorley MacLean wrote about his own experience of battle show the resolution of fierce internal conflict in action. In a war when most British combatant poets produced no more than wry observations, small personal poems, MacLean's work is unique in its combination of stark detail with a convincing overview, and with astonishing moral certainty.

Of ‘Heroes’ some further discussion will be valuable. One of the inspiriting factors in MacLean's contribution to Gaelic morale has surely been his generosity towards other peoples. ‘Heroes’ pays tribute to an Englishman who displays valour worthy of Gaelic praise.

But as John Herdman has subtly argued (Ross and Hendry, 1986, pp. 173–4), the poem implies a criticism of the Gaelic ideal. The Nazi ideal of soldierly sacrifice is coldly mocked in ‘Death Valley’. The little Englishman in ‘Heroes’ is contrasted with the heroic but stupid Marshall Lannes. I remarked earlier on the trait of understatement in MacLean's rhetoric. We see it again here in the casual word ‘biff’ to translate the Gaelic expression for the blow that kills the Englishman. Whereas the hero of the 1715 Rising, Alastair MacDonald of Glengarry, was the subject of a famous Gaelic elegy which contains the line, ‘you brought tears to my eyes today’, the death of the little Englishman brings ‘a little’ weeping to MacLean's eyes. This does not derogate his courage. It opposes realism – a gruff businesslike sympathy for the common soldier – to the flowery praises of tradition.

Please now read ‘Going Westwards [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’ and ‘An Autumn Day’ presented below.

Click to view the poem ‘Going Westwards

Click to view the poem ‘An Autumn Day

'Shame’, in the first stanza of ‘Going Westwards’, seems to me to suggest both the misery of the Gael whose culture is demoted and derided, and the more general ‘shame’ of inhabitants of the British Isles who let their rulers appease Mussolini and Hitler. ‘The Clyde’ suggests that. MacLean is thinking of the heavy bombing of the burgh of Clydebank in March 1941 – but in his view the poverty of the Clyde region was a crime of imperialism, to be listed along with Nazi atrocities. Dmitrov was a Bulgarian Communist falsely accused in 1933 of setting fire to the German Reichstag.

Guernica, the undefended Basque town bombed by German planes serving Franco in 1937, is also distant from the innocent corpses of Nazis in the desert. One reads this as sardonic – dead men can do no harm. The last stanza might at first sight seem boastful. It isn't that. MacLean, for better or worse, whether he likes it or not, comes from a fighting tradition. But the old fighting pride of the MacLeans has been ‘ruinous’ on occasion. Heroism is invoked here, but not uncritically.

‘An Autumn Day’ deploys irony against another element in MacLean's heritage. The explosives that kill six comrades behave like the Calvinist God, deciding that these shall die – are ‘elect’ – irrespective of their human vices and virtues, while permitting the poet to survive.

Taking these war poems together, the overview is firm and clear. A necessary war is being fought by a clear-sighted poet. Yet the detail of the conflict suggests irony after irony. As in Greek tragedy, horror precedes calm: horror somehow generates clarity.