The bard of the windswept Orkneys

George Mackay Brown
By Maggie Fergusson  
352 pp | John Murray | ISBN 0719556597 | £25

Poets, said the romantic renegade Shelley, are “the unofficial legislators of the world”. George Mackay Brown, born in Stromness on the Orkney Islands in 1921, who died close to his birthplace in 1996, would not have described his calling with such lordly confidence. Shy, poor, fearful of leaving his home territory, visited by recurrent bouts of physical illness and depression, ill at ease with strangers, especially women, and slow to find his poetic voice, he does not sound promising material for a major biography. That Maggie Fergusson has succeeded, in her searching yet sensitive fashion, in bringing Brown to life in all his awkward self-concealment, is a fine achievement. When other poets’ more lauded reputations will shrink with time, her subject’s work, with its beauty, strength and grasp of the numinous in ordinary life, seems set to survive. This book will surely give impetus to the process.

Brown gave Fergusson a cautious imprimatur to write his life, but was adamant that he did not want it published in his lifetime. In old age, as his fame grew, he found the stream of visitors to his small council flat in Stromness burdensome. An ingrained courtesy made him welcome them but he did not relish the interruptions to his privacy and was not flattered by the attention. Today, when writers are readily cajoled into promotional tours and literary festivals, it is easy to sympathise with the tall, gaunt figure of Brown, with his massive head and powerful presence, turning his back on this busy publicity machine with its attendant “kultur” (his word), to remain on his remote, windswept islands with their treeless landscape and the inescapable presence of the sea, listening to the silence and fashioning his own melodies.

Brown believed that a poet is born, not made; yet how does he bring to birth the songs within? For him it was a painful, heroic struggle and Fergusson’s book records the sufferings and setbacks he endured and overcame. T.S. Eliot had laid down the axiom that “the man who suffers” is not the same as “the artist who creates”. Yet a poet’s biographer has to somehow work out the relationship between the two and bring them into sympathetic alignment. Brown’s early life in Stromness was ideal for nurturing a poetic awareness. When he was born, no private house on the island had a telephone and no one had a “wireless”. While Eliot was grappling with the theme of the decline of European civilisation in The Four Quartets, Brown was absorbing the myths and mystery of his remote homeland, reading the verses on the gravestones in the local kirkyard and, aged 15, listening to a recitation of Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven in class. This was an early landmark in the evolution of his poetic consciousness – and his first exposure to a Catholic sensibility. As he was to comment later: “I knew that the man reeling from delight to vain earthly delight was a Catholic – a very sad and weak and fallible one – and that the Hound in relentless pursuit of him was Christ, or the Church.”

St Magnus Cathedral, renowned as the only cathedral in Britain with a dungeon. Though clever at English composition, Brown disliked the regimentation of school. He had no wish to further his studies yet dreaded the thought of work, probably sensing that he was unfit for the humdrum daily round now open to him. In his teens he suffered his first depression, followed by an attack of TB. Hospitalised in Kirkwall, the island’s capital, he spent months reading, reflecting and slowly recuperating without the pressure of practical decisions. During this period he visited St Magnus Cathedral – another moment of epiphany. Fergusson describes how the thrill was “not just aesthetic but visceral. He felt at home in the place and at home with the Norse generations for whom it had been conceived and built in the days when Orkney was prosperous, independent of Scotland, and Catholic.” Following this was the discovery of the Orkneyinga Saga, the native epic. Brown was slowly beginning to construct his inner imaginative world from which to draw upon in poetry.

As his biographer demonstrates, the external events of Brown’s life were meagre, especially when compared to his literary contemporaries. In an age of travel he stayed within a narrow geographical compass; in an age of word processors he tended to write in longhand, on a Basildon Bond pad, on the formica table of his small flat; in an age of celebrity and serial relationships he led an austere simple life, surrounded by a small circle of loyal friends. His journey lay in the interior. As he had himself said, the biography of an artist is essentially a “pattern of those experiences and images that enter deeply into his consciousness and set the rhythm and tone of his work.”

But though solitary and often dreading the loneliness of the long Orcadian winters, Brown was not isolated. Edwin Muir, fellow Orcadian and an established poet, became his kindly mentor. He persuaded him to spend the year 1951-52 at Newbattle Abbey where he was then Warden, presiding over a group of mature students who had missed out on higher education. This forced him out of his shell and brought him the stimulus of a new group of friends. Later he even managed to study English literature at Edinburgh University; he survived there by submitting poems instead of essays to a tolerant tutor, sympathetic to his temperament and gifts. The authorities who were financing him insisted he then undertake a teacher’s training. This was not simply uncongenial; for one who was struggling to write poetry, the idea of analysing it for the benefit of others – let alone enforce classroom discipline -- was fearsome.

Sickness in the form of a recurrence of TB gave Brown, as it had before, a merciful release from the world of work. On recovery he left Edinburgh, returning to live with and be supported by his widowed mother in Stromness. This was a humiliation but also a relief; it brought him back for good to the sources of his inspiration. Thenceforth, despite depressive episodes, a weakness for drink, money worries and a periodic lack of confidence in the worth of what he was writing, his life shows a tenacious and moving perseverance in his vocation. Aged 40, after a vacillating 25-year pilgrimage, he entered the Catholic Church. It had long been his spiritual and cultural home.

Although Brown once stated that he had never been in love, this was not quite true. Fergusson shows that he had several intense emotional involvements with women, the most important of whom was Stella Cartright, a beautiful artist -- and life-force -- whom he met during his student days in Edinburgh. She, dying tragically from the effects of alcoholism, was the inspiration for many love poems. They had a brief engagement, but though Brown declared to her in a letter that “poetry and all art is a small thing, set beside love”, it seems clear that an epistolary passion was more suited to his temperament than the practical demands of a relationship. He once confessed to Willa Muir, wife of Edwin Muir, that it was a relief to him not to have a wife or children. To those who knew and loved him, he was at the deepest level a solitary man; poetry was his fickle yet imperious mistress, however witty and convivial he could be in company when occasion demanded.

In this absorbing book Fergusson interleaves the poetry and prose to show how this “bard in the old tradition” transcended the confines of his birthplace to celebrate themes of universal significance. One of his friends believed he had “done for the Orkneys what William Faulkner had done for the south of America. He has created a… mythical area.” Perhaps, in response to Shelley, Brown might have asserted that poets are “the unofficial myth-makers of the world”. I will end with one late poem, written for a newspaper commission. As his 70th birthday approached Brown mused on the storms of his past life, concluding on a note of tranquil hope:

To have got so far, alone
Almost to the seventieth stone
Is a wonder.
There was thunder

A few miles back, a storm-shaken
Hill and sea, the bridge broken
(The bright fluent
Burn a bruised torrent.)

But all cleared, larks were singing
Again, the April rain ringing
Across the sown hills,
Among the daffodils.

The road winds uphill, but
A wonder will be to sit
On the stone at last –
One star in the west.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.


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