Poets need to dig in. This involves psychological concentration, a focus on the act of writing, but also on how to limber up for writing: they must be open to the often accidental stimuli that nourish poems. Travel can encourage this, but too much travel dilutes it. For many poets familiar ground is best. Tennyson had the gateposts of his house distinctively painted so that he didn’t carry on past them when he was out composing. Poets must also entrench themselves in sound and syntax, learn to be at home in rhythms, etymological echoes, idioms and vocabulary. This linguistic digging in can be quickened by listening to other tongues, yet it is almost unknown for a poet to settle in a language – as distinct from an accent – learned after childhood. Only a few remarkable people have written with distinction in a language that was not their first.
Native language matters more than native place. Robert Frost was a Californian who entrenched himself in New England. T.S. Eliot, for all his Russell Square papistry, came from St Louis. These poets grew to be associated with the territories they adopted and which adopted them. The idea that a place or community might actually speak through the poet, or co-produce the poetry, may be a primitive one going back to a time when poet and place might be inseparable – was the Delphic Oracle a poet or a place? Some diggers-in emblematise that act to such an extent that their lives as well as their poetry and their place acquire an undeflectable fascination. This is as true of Cavafy in Alexandria as it is of George Mackay Brown in Orkney.
Born in the Orcadian harbour town of Stromness in 1921, Brown was the youngest of six children. His father was a local postman, his mother an incomer from mainland Scotland. He came to be associated with the terrain of the Orkney archipelago, about which he wrote poetry and prose collected in many books from the 1950s until his death in 1996. Some of the small stone houses on the long, crooked main street of Stromness are built end-on so that their frontages face the stone piers that lead off the street. Cars are forced almost into shop doorways as they attempt to pass each other. The street, like Brown himself, who lived a good deal of his life just off it, negotiates between antiquity and modernity with a resilient, weathered aplomb. Today, tourists travel from Stromness to nearby Neolithic sites, such as the Ring of Brodgar, or the great mound of Maes Howe. Going for a short walk you can tramp across several millennia – from a car-ferry terminal to a Stone Age monument in an hour or less. Orkney is a very distinctive place, and anyone who digs in under its huge skies must come to terms with that; must, as Brown did, risk the accusation of willed eccentricity.
The digging-in of poets can be romanticised, but more usually their relationship to place and community is scratchy. The poet is drawn into the place and draws it into his or her work. He or she also wishes to take from it what a poet needs, and what the place and its people may resist giving. There is often a tussle between the necessary immediate selfishness of the writer and the essential communal life and obligations of a society. Afterwards, fans, commentators and alert local tourist officers make it seem as if the poet and the place had been made for each other all along.
One of the many strengths of Maggie Fergusson’s biography is that she does not sanitise her subject. He is presented neither as a northern St George, nor as a modern-day version of St Magnus, the patron saint of Brown’s archipelago. Fergusson feels and captures the importance of Orkney to Brown. She also communicates his strong, sometimes tortured spirituality and gives a good sense of his poetry. Fergusson is tempted at times by a version of Orkney as idyll: she could not have written this book were she oblivious to the beauty of the place through whose ‘eye of the needle’, as Seamus Heaney puts it, Brown ‘transforms everything’. At the same time, though, her book reveals the ruthlessness of poets as they hunt for and construct an environment from which they can draw (and sometimes leech) the resources they need for their work. Following the awkwardly constructed and uninvitingly written ‘literary biography’ of Brown by Rowena and Brian Murray, published in 2004, this new account is clear and stylish. Fergusson’s most arresting new material concerns his dealings with women, about which she is remarkably non-judgmental. At times, however, she seems reluctant to sift the inferior, autopiloted Brown (‘Truth turns to pain. Our coats grow sere’) from the master craftsman with language.
Brown made his first poem, a ballad in praise of Stromness, when he was eight. Seven decades of creative engagement with Stromness (aka ‘Hamnavoe’) followed. There are remarkable – and occasionally monotonous – continuities in Brown’s work: a TLS reviewer (not quoted by Fergusson) called him ‘Johnny One-Note with a vengeance’. The first poem in Brown’s first pamphlet, The Storm and Other Poems (1954), begins: ‘For the islands I sing.’ More than four decades later these same words become the title of Brown’s posthumously published autobiography. Wisely, Fergusson does not always take Brown’s autobiographical writings at face value, but she does use them to show continuities and connections. In his teens Brown grew seriously intoxicated by poetry: ‘It was the words and sound and rhythms that made me drunk. I never stopped to ask what the poets meant; the music and the dance of words were the whole meaning.’ Though the poetry of his fellow Orcadian Edwin Muir baffled him, he heard in it a beguiling ‘secret and exact music’.
Brown learned much from musical masters such as Tennyson, Hopkins, Eliot and Dylan Thomas, although at his best he could cut free from them and write with a plain clarity:
A silent conquering army,
The island dead,
Column on column, each with a stone banner
Raised over his head.
A green wave full of fish
In wavering westering ebb-drawn shoals beyond
Sinker or star.
A labyrinth of celled
And waxen pain.
Yet I come to the honeycomb often, to sip the finished
Fragrance of men.
‘Kirkyard’ is the first complete Brown poem Fergusson quotes. It’s an excellent choice, and she relates it to Warbeth kirkyard, west of Stromness, which occupies the site of a medieval monastery; Brown’s Presbyterian father would walk here with his young family. There are disturbing, celebratory and predatory aspects to the poem. Its speaker may be present like one of the twa corbies in the famous ballad – living off the carcass of the past – but there is also a note of connoisseurship. Whether or not the last lines have a homoerotic tinge, there is a sense of savouring in that verb ‘sip’ which goes less with honey or scent than with a wee dram. What is intoxicating is not just the way the poem blends meanings, but the way it blends sounds. Its last word, ‘men’, half-rhymes with ‘pain’, but it also picks up and resoundingly re-sounds the almost unheard last syllable of ‘often’ in the penultimate line. More striking is the way ‘come’ is picked up in the first vowel of ‘honey’ even as the whole word ‘come’ is metamorphosed into ‘comb’. The unstressed syllables ‘to the’ and later ‘to . . . the’ within this same line provide a pleasing structural continuity, while the ‘s’, ‘i’, ‘f’ sounds in ‘sip the fin-’ are then rearranged among the ‘i’, ‘sh’, ‘f’ sounds of ‘finished/Fragrance’. The circulations and recirculations of sound articulate the poem’s meaning: what dies away recurs and is reconfigured. A mixture of repulsion and attraction, present in the imagery, is there in the acoustics too: a vowel sound in the last line of each of the first two stanzas is echoed in the first line of the stanza that follows, yet the break between the two stanzas ensures these sounds are held apart.
T.S. Eliot (whom Brown in his twenties admired ‘this side of idolatry’) is a master of such sound effects. The young Brown played a recording of Eliot reading his poetry ‘so often and so loudly’ that his mother and sister ‘began to go about their housework chanting chunks of The Waste Land and Murder in the Cathedral’. The Waste Land’s ‘Magnus Martyr’ and Eliot’s most famous play must have had a particular resonance for Orcadians: the murdered St Magnus gave his name to the cathedral in Kirkwall. More usually, though, Brown’s Sutherland-born mother crooned in her first language of Gaelic. Brown himself was Anglophone, although he seems to have had a Lallans period. I wish Fergusson had said more about that. Her principal interest is, reasonably enough for a biographer, in life events. Still, sounds are crucial life events for poets, and it is as tempting to relate Brown’s ear for internal rhymes and sound-shifts to the predisposition for these in Gaelic song as it is to invoke Eliot, Tennyson, Hopkins, Thomas and other English-language poets.
Brown’s struggles to develop as a poet involved, as Edwin Muir’s had, a lonely Nietzschean swagger that led him to clash with his birthplace even as he invoked it:
. . . there are no poets in Orkney; Stirred by breeze and blood and ocean I set the trumpet to my lips. I only.
According to Brown’s sister, Ruby, ‘a statue of Burns ploughing for ever on the mantelpiece’ had stood in Brown’s boyhood kitchen. The child had devoured his sister’s tales and ballads, but early on he preferred football to poetry. He didn’t like school, and at the age of six impressed his peers by telling the headmaster to ‘bugger off’. If this won him friends, it also heralded the isolated, vulnerable arrogance of ‘I only’. There was a depressive streak in his father’s family, and Brown inherited it. He felt ‘intense loneliness and suffering’ in his mid-teens and became terrified of losing his mother. When she went shopping, he used to ‘shadow her along the street, and dodge into doorways if she chanced to look back’.
During this period he cultivated ‘this secret vice of poetry’ in earnest. He published his first poem in the Orkney Herald in 1939, shortly before the Stromness area suffered what Fergusson describes as ‘the first civilian air-raid casualty of the Second World War’, and a little ahead of his father’s death. About to leave school, Brown felt what Fergusson calls ‘a craven shrinking from the present and future’. He ‘began to slink about Stromness, depressed and ashamed, “like a leper”’, and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. In old age Brown speculated that ‘recurrent illness is a kind of refuge. When things are beginning to be too much, you suddenly become ill. Not desperately ill, but ill enough to avoid your responsibilities.’ Illness, he recalled shrewdly in 1982, brought ‘an abundance of leisure for literature (reading), for the imagination to be free while the body lay with those light chains on it, and to prepare for creativity to come: but writing was still far off, under the horizon.’ Brown also used alcohol to stave off unwelcome demands and by his late twenties was already experiencing delirium tremens.
Though he lived most of his life with depressive illness and developed agoraphobia as he aged, Brown was not always a stay-at-home. He spent hugely inspiring periods on the Scottish mainland: in 1951 he went to study with Edwin Muir at the cosmopolitan Newbattle Abbey, an adult education college near Edinburgh, and found in that impressive writer and thinker Willa Muir something of a surrogate mother. A few years later he went to study English at Edinburgh University, where he was indulged by his septuagenarian tutor Dr George Kitchin, who secretly accepted Brown’s poems in lieu of academic essays. Kitchin conspired to have his favourite student admitted as a state-funded PhD student – his inability to write academic prose infuriated his young female supervisor. While pretending to write a thesis on Hopkins, Brown went on producing poems: today he could have called them a PhD in Creative Writing.
Before and after these periods on the mainland, he lived with his mother: ‘When Mhairi Brown left for a few days’ holiday in the spring of 1955,’ Fergusson writes, ‘he found himself unable to boil an egg or make a piece of toast, and was forced to sustain himself almost entirely on milk.’ Brown’s mother, who had worked as a hotel chambermaid, appears to have been treated as a chambermaid by her son, and not only when he was in residence. He also sent parcels of dirty clothes back home to her from the mainland. When she died in 1967 she left an estate valued at £5.
Bouts of braggadocio must have been a necessary part of Brown’s growth as a poet in an odd World War Two Orkney of old stone houses, newly erected Nissen huts and massive military construction projects, a confined place where local people danced and jostled with billeted military officers enthusiastic about Schubert and Dylan Thomas. Sometimes Brown sided with the local past, sometimes he was excited by incomers’ views of the present. His line ‘There are no trains in Orkney,’ for instance, echoes the perspective memorably caught in a poem attributed to more than one serviceman:
This bloody town’s a bloody cuss
No bloody trains, no bloody bus
And no one cares for bloody us
In bloody Orkney.
Brown’s occasional taunting or vaunting was intensified by his depression, laddish alcoholism and sometimes near total dependence on his mum. As Fergusson argues, ‘with Mhairi Brown such an all-providing presence in his life, it seems possible that it became at first unnecessary, and then difficult, for George to accept the sexual nature of women, particularly younger ones.’ All this combined to push Brown towards destructive behaviour and later, possibly, self-harm. Of the younger Brown, ‘pugilistic and cruel’ when drunk, one female acquaintance recalled: ‘had George died then . . . he would simply have been remembered as the local soak.’
In fact, Brown’s problems provided him with time and space to write purposefully. For all his apparent inability to make toast, write academic prose, or move from being a teacher-training student to doing actual teaching (a further bout of illness got him out of that), he managed to get a job as the Orkney Herald’s Stromness correspondent. Cooked for, lodged, and with lots of time on his hands, he pursued his work as a would-be poet with steely determination. Later in life, even when he was a much praised writer, he went on nurturing his problems. They became part of his make-up, the way he related to his place and subject-matter.
Poetry is rarely a victimless crime. Apart from his mother and himself, the most obvious victim of Brown’s behaviour was the woman to whom he became engaged, Stella Cartwright. Fergusson tells Cartwright’s story more fully than it has been told before. To her credit, she does not present Stella simply as a victim, but it is hard to avoid seeing this young woman as a sacrifice to the culture of male-bonding, heavy drinking and poebiz showing off which constituted the Rose Street milieu of 1950s Edinburgh. For a time, Brown mixed there with Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, Sydney Goodsir Smith and other poets and literati. With its prostitutes and smoky, male-dominated pubs sporting signs which stated ‘Women Not Supplied’, Rose Street was a shithole of gender politics, emblematic in some ways of the Edinburgh that Muriel Spark fled. The golden boys of Scottish literature loved it. In Milne’s bar the shy Brown drank, and grew witty and charismatic, though he still remained something of an outsider, homesick at times for Orkney. In the Abbotsford pub in 1957 he met Stella, who was 20 and beautiful.
Her story is bleakly amazing. Her heavy-drinking father, a frustrated artist who liked the company of the Rose Street poets and hangers-on, seems to have brought his stunningly attractive daughter along with him as a way of ingratiating himself with these sexually voracious men. She already had a drink problem, but it soon got markedly worse. She was depressive, like Brown, with whom she drank, read poetry, kissed, drank more; apart, they wrote each other passionate letters. They became engaged, and were to set up in married life on Orkney, but Brown was unable to consummate the relationship. They parted. They wrote to each other – many, many letters. Each appreciated a spirituality in the other, as well as feeling a physical attraction. Cartwright’s mother destroyed many of Brown’s letters to her daughter, but his later letters have survived. With breaks and new beginnings this relationship went on for years, hurting both parties, but Cartwright was more disastrously damaged. Her increasingly chronic alcoholism made her unable to hold down a job; she even sold some of Brown’s letters in order to buy drink. Brown too had severe bouts of alcoholism and drug use in the 1960s and 1970s, but Cartwright’s condition was much worse. By her late thirties she had to use a Zimmer; in 1985, soon after Brown had written to her that he thought of her every day with love, she was discovered dead by her home help, having suffered a brain haemorrhage; she was 47.
Brown did not kill Stella Cartwright, but he could not save her. Featuring as muse and victim in the lives and work of so many of the poets who haunted Rose Street, she emerges as a central and disturbing part of that literature of addiction so strong in Scottish culture, which includes not only Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting but also more recent work such as A.L. Kennedy’s Paradise. Brown wrote a number of poems to or about Cartwright, picturing her in one written not long before her death as seen ‘Through storm-clouds, the remembered star’. Fergusson writes that Brown ‘poured his feelings’ into this acrostic poem, but its affectionately distanced, daffing tone is not adequate to her suffering. Unable to deal with this experience in his poetry, Brown’s instinct was to suppress it in his life. ‘He does not seem even to have considered travelling south . . . for Stella’s funeral,’ Fergusson tells us, ‘and he did not refer to her death either in letters or in conversations with friends. His mask was adamantine.’
Though he began to write his autobiography soon after Cartwright’s death, it was not designed for publication and appeared posthumously. In it Brown writes of Stella at some length, as a muse lost ‘somewhere in the great music, but lost is the wrong word, of course. She wrote nothing herself, but what she truly was, her rare lovely unique essence, is a part of the literature of Scotland. May it be well with her, who loved and suffered so much.’ This too falls short, especially the words ‘She wrote nothing herself.’ Stella did write poetry, though the examples Fergusson quotes seem rather flat, and she wrote numerous letters, but Brown’s summing-up suppresses all this. Touchingly yet self-interestedly he makes her less a woman than a ‘rare lovely unique essence’, before uttering a valedictory blessing. His autobiography avoids any mention of his subsequent lover Nora Kennedy, who moved to Orkney but appears to have been cold-shouldered after their affair was consummated.
On these and Brown’s other unusual relationships Fergusson is tactful and restrained. It has often been pointed out that the best-known image of Edinburgh’s Rose Street poetry scene, Sandy Moffat’s 1980 painting Poets’ Pub, shows a room full of fully clothed male poets (Brown among them) and two peripheral female ‘muse’ figures, both in a state of undress. Brown’s Christianity, strengthened by his reception into the Catholic Church in 1961, reinforced both his art and, eventually, his repressiveness. The concentrated spirituality of his work is one of its glories, but eventually even the poetry fell victim to a spiritual exercise regime that became oppressive. Fergusson points out that there was in his last years ‘a striving for personal purity of thought and word and deed that sometimes bordered on neurosis’. In his 1991 Selected Poems, she adds, ‘poems with even the smallest sexual connotation have either been jettisoned or reworked, invariably for the worse.’ At times, Archie Bevan and Brian Murray, editors of his Collected Poems, seem to agree with this, and choose earlier versions rather than Brown’s later revisions. Though not without typos, the Collected Poems makes available a resolute and remarkable body of more than four hundred poems, which establish an authoritative familiarity, yet can still seem as arrestingly strange as the ‘rinsed eye’ of a whale. Brown’s digging-in led him to write about an Orkney that could never exist, one that only the dewy-eyed (or those over-eager for tourist dollars) could construe as a real place. There is a tendency of this kind even in some of his best work. Though Fergusson defends the novel Greenvoe against charges of Under Milk Wood-ery, it is present in the book:
I have met Rev. Simon McKee, the minister, returning from the farms, a half mile outside the village. He is not astride his bike. I would say he is supporting his bike except that it would be truer to say his bike is supporting him. From time to time the front wheel wobbles. I give him good afternoon. There is no reply. His face is a slack bemused mask. Many ghosts will crepitate in the manse tonight.
Like Brown’s other writings, Greenvoe is part of that spiritual and ecological current in Scottish literature which runs from at least the later 19th century. Coming from one of the most technologically dependent parts of Europe (most goods have to be brought in by air or sea), yet sometimes reproached for his lack of interest in scientific modernity, Brown did not shirk in Greenvoe from examining the impact of industrial development on older patterns of community. The novel’s global resonance has kept increasing since it was written. A very readable and ritualistic work written as oil exploration was gathering momentum in Orkney, Greenvoe has a remarkable coherence – but the prose of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s ecologically resonant Sunset Song sounds surer and is more daring.
The coherence and harmony of Brown’s finest work don’t prove that Shangri-la is to be found in Stromness, or even in the depopulated valley of Rackwick on Hoy, which Brown loved deeply and wrote about with great eloquence. That coherence and harmony are the products of art, not life. It was the life of his community and the people closest to him that Brown chafed against and even exploited or damaged in order that he could make art. His best works, especially his finest poems, sound in their syllables the isolate confidence of his digging-in, but Fergusson’s assured, admiring, revealing biography shows the high cost of that process.
The winter jar of honey and grain
Is a Lenten urn.
Lord, it is time. Take our yoke
And sunwards turn.
To drudge in furrows till you drop
Is to be born.
Mother of God
Out of the mild mothering hill
And the chaste burn.
God-begun, the barley rack
By man is borne.
These are the first five sections of ‘From Stone to Thorn’, republished in full in Brown’s sonorously essential Collected Poems, and the first of his works to be set to music by Peter Maxwell Davies, with whom Brown worked closely in developing the St Magnus arts festival on Orkney. The 14 individually titled couplets of this poem set out, as Fergusson notices, ‘the 14 stations of Christ’s Passion and death reflected in the cycle of the agricultural year’. To the ear, though, what is most striking about the poem is the way it takes one sound on a rhyme-journey through the linked sections. The last words of each section are ‘urn’, ‘turn’, ‘born’, ‘burn’, ‘borne’, ‘yarn’, ‘thorn’, ‘mourn’, ‘Barleycorn’, ‘torn’, ‘quern’, ‘horn’, ‘bairn’ and ‘barn’. Though there are other half-rhymes and sound patterns that make the poem an acoustic tapestry, it is this pattern of end-rhyme which most clearly signals Brown’s imaginative ear for ritualised continuity. Moving from ‘urn’ to ‘barn’, the sound moves from connotations of death to intimations of a gathered harvest. Many of Scotland’s most northerly large churches – St Machar’s Cathedral in Aberdeen or St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall – are barns of God. Their elaboration is far more sparing than York Minster or St Paul’s, their bones more gaunt. Brown’s poem, which moves impressively to its ‘Shepherd, angel, king are kneeling, look,/In the door of the barn’, is attuned to the rhythms and incarnations of its place and belief-systems. Its acoustic is thrawnly dug in.