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This item is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.

‘We know that we will die,’ said Bossuet. ‘But we don’t believe it.’ Edwin Morgan, whose fortitude sustained him through more than a decade of illness, died in August at the age of ninety. For two thirds of my life he had been – as friend, author, critic and conscience – a phone call away.

His relations with PN Review were the acid test of our friendship. He did not like the early associations of the magazine, fearing the onset of a conservatism inimical to everything he believed and hoped for. At the time I was not aware of how much was entailed in that everything, from his experimental work to his politics, his sense of being at home in the present tense, his fascination with the modern world (which never translated into his acquiring email or accessing the internet). He refused to contribute to PNR until the magazine had outgrown, or survived, or proved itself independent of, those early-assumed influences.

He kept a wry weather eye on us. As Geraldine Moped in 1977, he wrote, ‘I have a job in Lewis’s and my co-workers and I all read your new magazine PN Review. We all think it is ever such good fun and we are so tired of all the usual sorts of magazines like Jackie and Darling. We all read it during the lunch breaks as I have said, and I have written some poems myself.’ She was keen also to get hold of ‘a very romantic novel I once read called The Dehumanisation of Art by Ortega y Gusset, about a Spanish bullfighter’. Clearly she had spent rather too long in the lingerie department.

It was Edwin who introduced PN Review to Laura Riding’s work and who encouraged us to publish her here and at Carcanet. By PNR 100 the magazine was clearly tossing on a sufficiently uncharted sea for him to contribute, in his own person, five poems to the Calendar of Modern Poetry.

After that he submitted work sporadically but substantially. To PNR 119 he sent two large suites of poems, as if to make up for lost time. In 2000 he agreed to our running an interview he had done with Marshall Walker to mark his eightieth birthday, and he sent two poems, the first of which, ‘At Eighty’, was marked by his questing energy. Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ summons his comrades for another journey:

Push the boat out, compañeros,
push the boat out, whatever the sea.
Who says we cannot guide ourselves
through the boiling reefs, black as they are,
the enemy of us all makes sure of it!
Mariners, keep good watch always
for that last passage of blue water
we have heard of and long to reach
(no matter if we cannot, no matter!)
in our eighty-year-old timbers
leaky and patched as they are but sweet,
well seasoned with the scent of woods
long perished, serviceable still
in unarrested pungency
of salt and blistering sunlight. Out,
push it all out into the unknown!
Unknown is best, it beckons best,
like distant ships in mist, or bells
clanging ruthless from stormy buoys.

‘Unknown is best’ – an ‘unknown’ still propelled by the fuel of his first translation, of Beowulf, from half a century before.

With Patricia Beer, Robert Wells, and Charles Osborne of the Arts Council, we travelled to Israel in 1981. The land’s divisions troubled all of us. But the holy places, which I was inclined to regard with a Melvillian hunger and respect, seemed to fill Edwin with a vigorous anger. It took me two more decades to understand it, this desire to move on decisively from the known that had gone wrong, whose wrongness persisted and made the present poor. His generous internationalism was sustained by a belief – like MacDiarmid’s – that Scotland was a nation whose reality could be found in an emancipated language and poetry. In the 1980s he had a strong sense of a negative immanence to be resisted and survived if possible. Shortly after our trip, he wrote, ‘There’s something ominous about the Eighties, so much hatred boiling and swilling about near the surface of society…’ It was a time of intersecting aftermaths.

When he was eighty, he wanted to keep going with his eyes wide open, not to blink even when crossing over. ‘If there is anything beyond the curtain I want to see the whole thing. I don’t want anything like those Europeans who are always going into the public square holding candles for some terrible thing that’s happened to their country – I hate that kind of thing. I would never go into George Square with a candle. I would go into it with floodlights…’

Must we now, with Bossuet, believe what we know to be true? There is already a proposal to pin him down for ever under a public monument, perhaps at the foot of University Avenue, as if he was a general, a politician, a king or Sir Walter Scott. But he already raised a Chinese army of monuments: exegit monumenta. A sculptor is unlikely to add to what remains so vital and more durable than bronze in his work.

This item is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.

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