John Maurice Lindsay was born in Glasgow on 21 July 1918 into a comparatively wealthy family, his father an insurance company manager and local secretary of the city’s League of Nations Union. Lindsay was eulogised in his later years as a ‘man of letters’, and the roots of this accolade are to be found in his strong and varied contributions to the canon of Scottish literary criticism in both writing and broadcasting. Such was the breadth of Lindsay’s interests, however, that even these words might seem like faint praise; beyond literature, his writings took him from the pleasures of gardening to the grandest architecture, through broadsheet musical criticism to the composition of children’s songs. Indeed, had it not been for an injury to the wrist in early adulthood, he might have taken up the violin – an ambition since childhood – before the pen.
That pen was well-used even at this stage, of course. While attending Glasgow Academy, Lindsay wrote his first poem and had it published in the school magazine. This prodigious streak continued into adult life, and by the age of 25 he could account for four published collections of work. Three years later, he oversaw the publication of Modern Scottish Poetry: an anthology of the Scottish Renaissance 1920-1945. Frustrated by the erratic schedule and narrow reach of the Poetry Scotland journal for which he was a writer and co-editor, Lindsay proposed a collection dedicated to the ‘Second wind’ of the Scottish Renaissance to T.S. Eliot, then director of the London-based publishers Faber & Faber. The first edition brought together works from many of the major Scottish poets of the time, and enjoyed a warm reception nationally and internationally. Beyond introducing its contributors – among them Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, and Sorley MacLean – to a wider readership, the volume helped to set a high benchmark for poetic engagement in Scotland that reverberated through several editions and numerous reprints.
It was in this milieu that Lindsay began to establish his own poetic voice. Having briefly flirted with the war-time New Apocalypse movement, which he later came to regard as ‘dreadful’, he enjoyed the encouragement and patronage of MacDiarmid as he began to engage with the production of poetry in Lallans, the ‘synthetic’ Scots that was both vaunted and derided in equal measure at the time. The fruits of this labour were to be found first in Hurlygush (1948). Introducing the collection, MacDiarmid instructed the reader that herein they might find ‘the authentic voice of young Scotland’. Though Lindsay would later abandoned Scots, finding a more natural voice in an occasionally-inflected English, the leitmotifs present in these poems – coast and island as microcosms of the nation, the communion of everyday interaction – appear throughout his work. Indicative is the celebratory ‘At the Cowal Games, Dunoon’, sweeping from a couple holding hands to a bustling crowd, which becomes one – ‘whit Scotland yince could be’ – as festivities begin:
The whussle an jostle an rankringan din,
the stour an the heat o the day
are suddentlie naethin, for aa are kin
whan the thoosand pipers play.
While the figures of the Scottish Renaissance had, along with W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, made their mark on Lindsay, it was the pastoral simplicity of A.E. Housman’s poetry that was to remain with him; in his words, ‘the music of the verse, the country imagery, the technique – superb!’. In his early poetry too, Scots and English, Lindsay found a muse in youthful amour that owed something to Housman’s own sense of the preciousness of youth in the face of a cold world. From the two lovers for whom not even ‘wersh puirtith’s wecht, / can haud doun your herts’, to the sight of his own wife which ‘mocked war’s unnatural, accidental virtue / and meant far more than Stalingrad to me’, Lindsay established in his verse a sense of love prevailing that he was to return to many times through the years.
Where he was to diverge from Housman, however, was in the genuinely biographical nature of his poetry. Lindsay’s depictions of bucolic, background characters afforded them much humanity, but an equal if not greater strength lay in writing of a people and place with whom he was most familiar. This found expression in portraiture, as well as in more reflective poetry. Indeed, the figure of his proud father, rendered so boldly in ‘An Elegy’, returns as spectre in the last of his ‘Variations on a Glasgow Theme’ as he recalls the ‘callow indignation’ of his earlier years:
Fifty years later, hearing shouts and screams
protest their incoherence – cold and gone
my idealism – violence the themes
despair provides to variate upon,
for you, my father’s ghost beyond extremes,
and for myself, I murmur: Pardon, pardon.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that Maurice Lindsay was a marginalised figure in Scottish literature, yet his prolific work-rate – to say nothing of the quality of much of his poetry – has not been matched by critical appraisal in the same manner as many of his contemporaries. Of this Lindsay was himself aware, wryly noting in his long biographical poem ‘A Net to Catch the Winds’, ‘Do more than one thing, and they underrate you’. A more precise explanation might, perhaps, be found in what Lesley Duncan termed ‘the courage of his lack of convictions’. Lindsay, so frequently at the heart of literary activity, could often be out of step not so much through fault as through honesty. A faith in reason, coupled with a sense of disappointment in the failure of the Lallans project, inculcated a suspicion of movements in a half-century where Scottish literature was in arguably its most ‘activist’ phase, from MacDiarmid’s culture-building through to the groundswell of production from and about Scotland in the wake of the failed devolution referendum of 1979, which arguably contributed to the success of a second such venture in 1997.
The Scotland which emerged from these artists, writers and poets was in many respects different from Lindsay’s. At a time when others were imagining a future nation – sometimes fanciful, often radical – Lindsay was developing a measured, occasionally pessimistic treatment that drew from ‘a finely controlled nostalgia’. Even these nation-builders, however, might have found some kinship with the writer of the lines:
Scotland’s a sense of change, an endless
becoming for which there was never a kind
of wholeness or ultimate category.
Scotland’s an attitude of mind.
Rights are held by Maurice Lindsay’s Estate – please contact the SPL
University of Edinburgh: Maurice Linday’s Papers (includes information about the poet and details of holdings)
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