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This review is taken from PN Review 47, Volume 12 Number 3, January - February 1986.

VOLCANO The Letters of Hugh MacDiarmid, edited with an introduction by Alan Bold (Hamish Hamilton) £20.00

'My job, as I see it, has never been to lay a tit's egg, but to erupt like a volcano, emitting not only flame, but a lot of rubbish.' Hugh MacDiarmid never lost his appetite for mixed metaphor. He set about living it. Like Whitman, he chose to think contradiction was his essence, expansive enough to contain multitudes without strain; he disguised himself as a force of nature but was apt, for all that, to confuse Prometheus and Empedocles, a self-consuming ambition for true hybris. There are in his work great tracts of the real magma, formations as imposing as the geological forms which obsessed him. But like all volcanoes MacDiarmid issued more smoke and gas than fire; between poetic eruptions he was as like to let out no more than ideological havers, a fine ash of pique and thwarted purpose.

It is this, precisely, which has got in the eyes of readers and critics since. Ironically the Letters, which contain more than enough emotional debris and little enough poetic thought, offer the best chance yet to clear the air round him by setting his ambitions in context, and by underlining the distinction between the public Hugh MacDiarmid and the private Chris Grieve. A chance, but no more than a chance, for all the old problems quickly re-assert themselves.

The output - in keeping with his taste for 'GIANTISM' - was stupendous; 'ink-sick', he claims in a letter to Neil Gunn to have written another ...


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