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The Poem as Labyrinth: An Exploration of Hugh MacDiarmid's 'The Glass of Pure Water'.

The Glass of Pure Water' was first published just before the Second World War, in The Canadian Forum, vol. XVII, no. 198, July 1937, a periodical co-founded by Margaret and Barker Fairley in 1920. It appeared in another periodical during that war, Poetry Scotland, no.1, edited by Maurice Lindsay, in 1943, and was first published in a book in Hugh MacDiarmid's Collected Poems (New York and London: Macmillan, 1962.). It is one of MacDiarmid's most memorable and often anthologised poems, appearing in at least eight relatively popular anthologies since 1966, yet it has received little critical attention or close exposition. (1)

In his essay, 'Hugh MacDiarmid: Sketch of a Materialist Poetics', E. San Juan, Jr, the Filipino Marxist scholar, suggestively described the structure of The Glass of Pure Water' as 'labyrinthine.' (2) A dictionary meaning of 'labyrinth' as 'a tangle of intricate ways and connections' is instructive. How many 'ways' (or themes) can be identified in the poem? What connections can be seen between them? How do these connections work to take us through the labyrinth? And what is the resolution, the way out of the maze? This essay is the first full exposition of the poem and exploration of its labyrinthine connections and structure.

MacDiarmid introduces three disparate themes in the first part of the poem. The first of these is the similarity 'Between one glass of pure water and another' and, by analogy, the similarity 'between one human life and another' expressed in lines 1-13. (3) The motif of the 'glass of water' had occurred in earlier MacDiarmid poems, though without the analogy. In 'Lament for the Great Music, he had written in terms very similar to the beginning of The Glass of Pure Water': 'Away here I hold a glass of water between me and the sun / And can only tell the one from the other by the lint-white quiver, / The trembling life of the water [...]. (4) The concept had been less developed in 'North of the Tweed' in the lines, 'The pale-wa'd world is fu' o' licht and life / Like a glass in which water faintly stirs.' (5)

The poet then makes the arbitrary assertion (11. 14-21) that the lives of the slum people he is writing about in his 'Glasgow' poems remind him less of a glass of pure water held between his eyes and the sun than of the feeling 'they' had who had seen the two anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, in the death cell on the night before their execution. But what is the connection here? Who were 'they'? What was the feeling? There may have been some publicity about this feeling in 1927 but the meaning is elliptical in the poem. The implication of some sense of liminal understanding of humility and human vulnerability is perhaps present but not explicit until the line which supplies the second identifiable theme: 'One is talking to God.' (1. 21)

Perhaps the correspondence is simply that the people living in the slums of Glasgow are as sensitive to their own imminent mortality as Sacco and Vanzetti were the night before they were executed. This sense of their mortal vulnerability is enforced not only by implacable legal authority, but also by the unjustness of that authority. The only recourse available to them, as to the two anarchists, might be a prayer--albeit a secular one, with no greater religious consolation than intrinsically human hope--to a higher and more lasting authority to witness the injustice at work and help bring about change in the future. The hope might be forlorn but may seem vital and essential in such conditions. However, this analogy is never made explicit in the poem. MacDiarmid knew about the international campaign to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti and was deeply affected by their executions. Four lines in a notebook show that at one time he thought of making another reference to Sacco and Vanzetti in the poem. (6) He used the title of the book which John Dos Passos wrote for the Sacco and Vanzetti Defence Committee in 1927, Facing the Chair, for a poem which was listed in the Index of Subordinate Poems in the 'Mature Art' MS in March 1938, (7) though it remained unpublished until 9 November 1968 in The Scotsman.

MacDiarmid continues the theme of communication with God in ll. 22-24: 'I dreamt last night that I saw one of His angels / Making his centennial report to the Recording Angel / On the condition of human life: He had clearly read J.A. Hobson's 'A Foreword' to his The Recording Angel: A Report from Earth. (8) The first sentence of that book is: 'It is perhaps not generally known that the usual Centennial Report upon the Condition of our Earth has recently been made at the office of the Recording Angel: A MacDiarmid notebook shows that he was considering writing separate poems on the idea of the Centennial Report. He had noted 'The Angel's Report' in a list of vague titles (9) and also 'The Angel's Centennial Report on the earth' (10) as a possible theme, without developing them in any way. Maurice Lindsay wrote of MacDiarmid that he recurred '[...] from time to time, to the idea of God as a symbol of perfection [...] as in "The Glass of Pure Water"'. (11) And when George Bruce also referred to the poem (in an interview with MacDiarmid forty years after its first publication), the poet replied, 'It depends on the definition of God. It'll have to be in inverted commas.' (12) Earlier than the poem's composition, MacDiarmid had written in The Free Man, I July 1933: 'I do not hold a single idea compatible with even the most reduced form of the Christian faith [...].' (13)

A third theme is given (ll. 25-40) by finely-observed details of physical gestures made by the hand, 'clenched fist, / Snapping fingers, thumb up, thumb down': the angel's gesture summing up a hundred years of life on earth seems to be a delicate wavering ('just like that--and no more'). This looks as though it comes from found material but no source has been discovered. These gestures, we are told, form 'A universal language understood by all: MacDiarmid then attempts to link 'a single slight movement' of a hand to 'the subtlest movement' (1.42), 'that little inconceivably intricate movement' (1.45) of the angel's centennial report. In 'A Foreword' referred to above, Hobson wrote that the report took the shape of a dialogue 'between the Messenger from Earth and the Recorder: MacDiarmid seems to have created the original image of the angel's report as a hand-gesture. Also, it echoes back unemphatically to the 'tiny hardly visible trembling of the water' in the glass at

the beginning of the poem, in 1.3.

After the statement of these three disparate themes in the first part of the poem, MacDiarmid attempts both to draw them together and to extend them in a series of invocations in the second part. The first six lines of this second part (ll. 46-51, reveal a rather insecure process. The lines, 'The only communication between man and man / That says anything worth hearing', lead the reader to expect something aural. Yet the line in apposition is 'The hidden well-water, the finger of destiny. 'The hidden well-water' is intended as an extension of the 'glass of pure water' and replaces 'the water of life' in manuscript (14) and 'the finger of destiny' recalls Fitzgerald's Omar Khayyam: The moving finger writes; and, having writ, / moves on.' (15) Instead of something 'worth hearing, 'the only communication' is given as movements of the water and of the angel. (The phrases, 'the hidden well-water' and 'The glad wells of being' occur again in 'In the Slums of Glasgow.) (16) MacDiarmid then introduces a fresh concept in the assertion that 'Truth is the rarest thing [...].'

MacDiarmid is on more confident ground in the next nine lines (ll. 52-60) in his description of 'This infinitesimal twinkling, this delicate play / Of tiny signs [...]' of some of the people of Glasgow, which is a return to the general slum theme which extends in different forms through other poems written between 1934 and 1938, such as 'In the Slums of Glasgow, 'Third Hymn to Lenin' and the 'Glasgow' poems. (17) The connection is made with the line, And a million other signs, too slight, too subtle' in the third theme of the poem.

The poet then makes exclusive demands arising from his themes (Il. 61-66). He calls on his fellow-men and women to free 'the hidden well-water, to make the 'gestures' from the third theme, to remove the obstacles 'between any life and the sun, and to talk only as if they were talking to God. In other words, the command is to attend most closely and actively only to the essential matter of human mortality, vulnerability and value, and to oppose social injustice and political oppression, as witnessed by Sacco and Vanzetti, as demonstrated by the class system, industrialisation and exploitation and racism. Yet this command is made by understatement and implication. It depends on the reader's inference of meaning from the themes and images the poem delivers so vividly.

The lines about India (II. 67-72) are the weakest in the poem. A letter by James Malcolm from 14 February 1934 (18) shows that MacDiarmid had 'asked about books' on 'Hindoo' thought; and MacDiarmid notes at a later date that he is working on 'an immense poem, "The Song of India".' (19) But questions arise. What was India's 'opportunity'? How did India lose it ? What were the morass, the jungle, the babel? The 'still small voice' (1.71) is a Biblical reference but what is its effect here? (20)

This last question is perhaps unanswerable other than in the evocation of a David and Goliath scenario, in which the 'still small voice' speaks truth against an overwhelming tide of disinformation, a chaotic babble of distraction, 'a babel / Of stupid voices'. The 'still small voice' echoes the purpose of responsibility demanded a few lines earlier: 'To still all sound save that talking to God.' MacDiarmid then tells us that responsibility has fallen to 'the Celt': 'It is our turn now This seems precise but the term 'Celt' in this context (as in many others) is in fact vague and undefined. It appears to be specific enough to relate to the 'small voice' and suggests perhaps an embattled or marginalised people, but it is open enough to be available to many unidentified people who might wish to claim at least some sort of affinity with whatever it signifies. 'Gaeldom' might suggest a moral quality in humankind deriving from experience and history rather than anything linguistically or geographically defined. In that openness, there is, arguably, an anarchic opposition to the imposed conditions of human control. This suggestion is taken up in ll. 73-90, where MacDiarmid expresses the anarchism which he had revealed in other places in his work:
Cornwall--Gaeldom--must stand for the ending
Of the essential immorality of any man controlling
Any other--for the ending of all Government
Since all Government is a monopoly of violence (11. 75-78)

Capitalism is seen as the rock which encloses the water necessary for the well-being of the people; the metaphor is borrowed from several references in the Bible to striking water from a rock. 'The hellish interests of private property / In land, machinery, and credit' have blocked the access of 'hundreds upon hundreds of millions of men' to the sun, to gestures (of truth), and to 'the voice of God' (an extension of 'talking to God').

'Certainly, I am an anarchist, wrote MacDiarmid to WR Aitken in the year the poem was first published. (21) In his two-line poem in 1933, he had expressed the view that 'People may learn in course of time / The law exists to make the crime', the second line a quotation from Leo Shestov. (22) Twenty years later, he used that line as an epigraph to 'Miracle in the Horribals' and described how the citizens of 'that jam-packed slum quarter o' Glesca' had broken 'nae law or even bye-law' and had spontaneously chosen to live a life free from the intervention of outside authorities for a month. (23) In a 1936 short story, 'A Scottish Saint, MacDiarmid imagines that when a fictional character named Peter MacIntyre comes out of jail on one occasion he establishes a kind of moral code for the inhabitants of a triangle of Glasgow streets, and within this defined space life flourishes as never before, a microcosm of social justice and good health, revolutionising social behaviour and overturning assumptions about the lives of the slum dwellers through collective action. (24) The story is a parable in fiction of what might be imagined coming out of the urban situation depicted in 'The Glass of Pure Water.

Until the ideal state of anarchism has been reached, MacDiarmid calls on 'every true man' to be 'with the lowest, / The poorest' (ll. 91-96) in terms reminiscent of Eugene Debs's socialist speech at his trial for sedition in Cleveland, Ohio in 1918 which he would certainly have known:
Your Honor, years ago I recognised my kinship with all living things,
and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on
earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I
am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while
there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

At the end, MacDiarmid evokes his themes in a compressed summary. The lowest, the poorest' are socially at 'the bottom of that deepest of wells' (with 'the hidden well-water'), the only place where truth is to be found, and the place where only truth is to be found. This recalls his earlier assertion that 'Truth is the rarest thing' in 1.50. 'The sun' and 'a sound like talking to God' are again invoked, and a 'monopoly of movement' takes the place of 'a monopoly of violence.

The 'labyrinthine' quality of the poem identified by E. San Juan noted above is resolved. We have been taken through the maze, bewildered, frustrated perhaps, appalled and wondering by turns, but at the end, MacDiarmid shows us a way out, how to move beyond the labyrinth itself. Referring to the poem, Peter McCarey, in his essay 'Lev Shestov and Hugh MacDiarmid' sums this up: 'Here we are faced not with a hopeless inconsistency, but with a daunting integration of the metaphysical abyss with the economic depths of poverty, and a programme that combines a Shestovian perception of omnitude with a Marxian urge to change it. This alignment of his metaphysics with his politics might persuade some readers that there is, after all, a seriousness and consistency to MacDiarmid's thought, and yet that alignment is only evinced in a few poems.' (25)

The Glass of Pure Water' is one of those poems.


(1) It is reprinted in Maurice Lindsay, ed., Modern Scottish Poetry: An Anthology of the Scottish Renaissance (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), Michael Grieve and Alexander Scott, eds., The Hugh MacDiarmid Anthology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), T.S. Law and Thurso Berwick, The Socialist Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,1978), Alan Bold, ed., The Thistle Rises: An Anthology of Poetry and Prise by Hugh MacDiarmid (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984), Alan Riach and Michael Grieve, eds., Hugh MacDiarmid: Selected Poetry (Manchester: Carcanet, 1992), Roderick Watson, ed., The Poetry of Scotland: Gaelic, Scots and English (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995) and an extract from it is in Maurice Lindsay, ed., A Book of Scottish Verse (London: Robert Hale, 2005) and Maurice Lindsay and Lesley Duncan, ed., The Edinburgh Book of Twentieth-Century Scottish Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005). It is not discussed in Duncan Glen, Hugh MacDiarmid and the Scottish Renaissance (Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers), Kenneth Buthlay, Hugh MacDiarmid (C.M. Grieve) (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1982), Nancy K. Gish, Hugh MacDiarmid: The Man and His Work (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1984), Harvey Oxenhorn, Elemental Things: The Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1984), Scott Lyall, Hugh MacDiarmid's Poetry and Politics of Place (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006) or Margery Palmer McCulloch, Scottish Modernism 1918-1959 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).

(2) Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 6, no. 4 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1993), pp 411-36 [422].

(3) The Glass of Pure Water', Complete Poems, volume 2, pp. 1041-43 [1041].

(4) 'Lament for the Great Music; CP volume 1, pp. 462-82 [473].

(5) 'North of the Tweed; CP volume 1, pp. 169-71 [170].

(6) NLS MS27085 f 108 r. Four lines between ll. 65-66 as published. MSS are quoted by permission of the Trustees of the National Library of Scotland and of the MacDiarmid Estate. An incomplete MS of 'The Glass of Pure Water' (NLS MS 27029 ff 5-7) has a starred footnote, 'From a long unpublished poem, mainly about the slums of Glasgow (f 7 r). For some reason, MacDiarmid removed references to Glasgow from MSS in three places and made substitutions. In NLS MS 27029 f 6, the line And Glasgow's duty and Scotland's duty to the world' became 'Our duty' when published (I.61). In the same place, the line 'Scotland, Glasgow must stand for the ending' became 'Cornwall--Gaeldom--must stand for the ending' (1.75). In the complete NLS MS 27085 (III r, Ito v and r, 109 v and r, 108 v and r, 107 v, reading from the back of the notebook), the line 'I cannot speak to you of this great city of Glasgow' (f 109 v) became 'I cannot speak to you of the poor people of all the world' (1.52). In NLS MS27029 f 6, there is a line All our four and a half million in Scotland, for example' above '--Self-righteous, sunk in the belief that they are human' (1.88) which does not appear in the published text.

(7) NLS Acc 12074/1, pp. 8-9 in MacDiarmid's numbering. 'Facing the Chair' is number 33 and an early version is given on p. 148. The finished poem is in CP 11, p. 1151

(8) London, 1932.

(9) NLS MS 27090 f 5v.

(10) Ibid., f 5r.

(11) Maurice Lindsay's essay, 'Angry Influence: MacDiarmid in the 1940s' was published in Hugh MacDiarmid: A Festschrift, ed. by Kulgin D. Duval and Sydney Goodsir Smith (Edinburgh: K. D. Duval, 1962), pp. 197-211 [208].

(12) George Bruce's interview, 'MacDiarmid at Eighty-Five', was broadcast on 11 August 1997 and published in Hugh MacDiarmid, The Thistle Rises, ed. by Alan Bold (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984), pp 274-85 [2.83].

(13) 'At the Sign of the Thistle; p. 7.

(14) NLS MS 27085, f 109 v.

(15) Edward Fitzgerald, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1849), stanza 74.

(16) 'In the Slums of Glasgow; CP 1, pp. 562-65 [562, 564].

(17) 'Third Hymn to Lenin; CP volume 1, pp. 893-901; 'Glasgow; CP volume 1, pp. 647-49; 'Glasgow; CP 11, pp. 1048-51; 'Glasgow; CP volume 2, pp. 1333-39. These three 'Glasgow' poems are parts of 'Glasgow 1938; University of Delaware Library, Newark, Delaware.

(18) Dear Grieve: Letters to Hugh MacDiarmid, ed. by John Manson (Glasgow: Kennedy & Boyd, 2011), pp. 92-93.

(19) NLS MS 27116, f 14r.

(20) 1 Kings, 19, 12.

(21) The Letters of Hugh MacDiarmid, ed. by Alan Bold (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984), p. 573.

(22) 'The Legal System, CP volume 2, p. 1281.

(23) 'Miracle in the Horribals; CP volume 2, pp. 1377-79.

(24) Hugh MacDiarmid, Annals of the Five Senses: Stories, Sketches and Plays, ed. by Roderick Watson and Alan Riach (Manchester: Carcanet, 1999), pp. 195-200.

(25) Peter McCarey, 'Lev Shestov and Hugh MacDiarmid' in Nancy Gish, ed., Hugh MacDiarmid: Man and Poet (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation and Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992, pp. 109-11 (p. 121).]

Castle Douglas

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Title Annotation:JOHN MANSON
Author:Manson, John
Publication:Scottish Literary Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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