Friday 15 December 2017

The Innumerable Christ - a poem by Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978)

The Innumerable Christ  

Other stars may have their Bethlehem and the Calvary too. Professor JY Simpson

Wha kens on whatna Bethlehems
Earth twinkles like a star the nicht,
An' whatna shepherds lift their heids
In its unearthly licht?

'Yont a' the stars oor een can see
An' farther than their lichts can fly,
I' mony an unco warl' the nicht
The fatefu' bairnies cry.

I' mony an unco warl' the nicht
The lift gaes black as pitch at noon,
An' sideways on their chests the heids
O' endless Christs roll doon.

An' when the earth's as cauld's the mune
An' a' its folk are lang syne deid,
On coontless stars the Babe maun cry
An' the Crucified maun bleed.

Written in a version of Scottish dialect: kens = knows; the nicht = tonight; whatna = whichever; heids = heads; licht = light; 'yont = beyond; een = eyes; unco = strange; bairnies = children; lift = sky; cauld's the mune = cold as the moon; lang syne = long since; maun = must

MacDiarmid is, for me, the best lyrical poet of the 20th century - mainly for his early work in a version of the Scots dialect he created using his own knowledge and experience supplemented by archaic words from Jamieson's etymological dictionary.

This method shouldn't work, as a way of making poetry... but it did.

MacD was a man of stark and unintegrated contradictions; and a hardline, activist Communist and Scottish Nationalist materialist for much of his adult life; and this ultimately overwhelmed and corrupted his work. But in these early years politics was overwhelmed by a profound and mystical, unorthodox Christianity of transcendent beauty.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

My first thought on reading this was that I couldn't judge how authentic the dialect was, because all I know of Scottish dialect is two much-quoted lines of Burns: "O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!"

Shortly after thinking of that couplet -- and trying to remember whether it was "oursels" or "airsels," "others" or "ithers" -- I finished the last dozen or so pages of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, in which Strange says to Norrell, "Pleasant, is it not, to see oneself as others see one?"

MacDiarmid's poem is undeniably powerful, and somehow the hokey dialect is part of its power. As you say, it shouldn't work, but it does. Spenser is another poet who wrote in a self-consciously archaic dialect that was not his own, and with similarly powerful results. I wonder if it's partly a disfluency effect -- similar to how hard-to-read fonts cause readers to process the text more deeply and remember it better.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Thanks for giving the poem a shot! I had the advantage of living in Scotland for many years (to one degree or another - full-time for three and a half years) so many of the pronunciations are spontaneously transparent to me, and I just need to speak the poem phonetically.

There is, of course, no single Scottish accent - it varies a great deal due to the historically poor communications caused by many mountains and a lot of water. When I lived there I could instantly recognise Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, the Borders and and the Western Isles - and there are more I was unsure of (eg Dundee - the other large city, the Highlands, the far north).

Nonetheless, there is a distinction from the English accents. Even on the border, there is an easily (to me) discernible change from Northumberland/ Cumberland to Scotland.

Yet at the same time, the Scottish English Border has many common dialect and cultural similarities, not least because the border is substantially artificial at its Western part (the Debateable Lands) and on the Eastern Coast (around Berwick upon Tween, which changed hands often through the middle ages, ending up English)- but the Middle March (from where The Charltons derive) is divided by a line of hills (some called The Cheviots), with the watershed making a classic 'border'.

On the other hand, many/ most people can't hear accents, and get confused between Irish and Scots; or Cockney and RP/ Oxford English...

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

The main thrust of the poem -- that even the seemingly most unique of events have happened and will happen countless trillions of times on countless trillions of worlds -- feels much more like a Buddhist thought than a Christian one. Alternative possibilities:

1. Only one planet in the universe is populated by children of God. (An absurd opinion in my view, but probably a fairly common one, reflecting an unthinking perpetuation of the geocentric viewpoint of the biblical authors.)

2. God's children elsewhere have a religion based on the idea that a long time ago, in a galaxy far away, the Son of God incarnated as a member of an alien species. (I suppose this differs only quantitatively from the Nephite religion as described in the Book of Mormon, or from Christianity as we know it, with its focus on a long-ago incarnation in a faraway country.)

3. All God's children on all planets have provision made for their redemption, but each species is different and has its own path to salvation and theosis, most of which paths do not involve anything much like a crucified savior. (This is contiguous with the view that even here on earth different religions are right or "true" for different peoples.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - As a general comment - I think it is a mistake to extract a literal meaning from *real* poetry - since that will always be a simplification and distortion. This is because the words/ language in real poetry are simultaneously-multi-referential in a way that *cannot* be translated into precise, literal prose.

(This is the main point of Owen Barfield's early work, esepcially Poetic Diction - and I think he demonstrates very convincingly.)

And not just poetry, some evangelicals get very exercised about CS Lewis's orthodoxy wrt the salvation of Emeth, the view of Hell in Great Divorce etc.

From this poem I get a 'cosmic' feel of vast spaces and places, with a fundamental unity as well.

The nearest theology is (perhaps) that (perhaps) expressed by Joseph Smith in the standard version of the King Follett discourse, which some Mormons (such as Orson Scott Card) interpret in terms of multiple parallel but independent worlds - each with One God (in an infinite regress, one God from another from another).

(That isn't how I understand it, myself - but it seems to work for some people.)