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This article is taken from PN Review 202, Volume 38 Number 2, November - December 2011.

Two Explorers: Charles Doughty and Hugh MacDiarmid Mark Ryan Smith
In Italy, towards the end of the 1940s, W.H. Auden met with his young typist James Schuyler. In his poem ‘Wystan Auden’, Schuyler describes what the older poet said to him:

        When he got off
the liner at Naples, in black and
a homburg, he said, ‘I’ve just
read all of Doughty’s The Dawn
in Britain.’

Further north and several decades earlier, two other poets were grappling with the same formidable work. Of an evening at Stone Cottage in Sussex, where Ezra Pound was working as secretary to W.B. Yeats, the American would read aloud to the Irishman, as recalled in Canto LXXXIII: ‘did we ever get to the end of Doughty: / The Dawn in Britain? / perhaps not / Summons withdrawn, sir.)’. Auden’s emphatic ‘all’ wasn’t possible for Pound and Yeats.

And, in 1933, in another cottage, this time in the tiny Shetland island of Whalsay, Hugh MacDiarmid wrote a little poem called ‘To Charles Doughty’, which includes this stanza:

And slow as the movements
O’ continents in the sea
Risin’ and fallin’ again
Is your influence in me.

The journey from Naples to Stone Cottage to Whalsay is a journey which takes us from the cultural glut of a southern European city, into an austere and sometimes harsh northern landscape; from a place where many people have gone, to somewhere hardly anybody goes. And, just as Shetland ...


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