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Scottish Renaissance

Scottish Literature: Character and Influence, The Scottish Chapbook, Sangshaw, Penny Wheep

scots macdiarmid literature scotland

a term coined by the French critic Denis Saurat in 1924 to describe the contemporary revival in consciousness and culture in Scotland, between the World Wars, which is now more loosely associated with the writing of Hugh MacDiarmid, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Edwin Muir, and Neil M. Gunn. This creative resurgence was prompted partly by the growth of national consciousness and political turbulence in Scotland after the First World War, and partly by a self-conscious literary reaction against the prevailing sentimental ‘Kailyard’ trend in late nineteenth-century Scottish writing. Exploiting the arguments about the distinct nature of Scottish sensibility found in Professor Gregory Smith's Scottish Literature: Character and Influence (1919), and recognizing the success of the recent Irish Literary Revival, MacDiarmid's periodical The Scottish Chapbook (1922) first took on the role of promoting a separate Scottish literature which would return to the irreverent spirit of Robert Burns and William Dunbar. Although the tireless MacDiarmid kept reiterating the slogan ‘Not Traditions—Precedents!’, the literature of the Renaissance is less concerned with Modernist experimentation than with capturing the combination of the spectral and the practical thought to individuate the Scots psyche—‘the Caledonian anti-syzygy’. MacDiarmid's early collections of lyric poetry Sangshaw (1925) and Penny Wheep (1926) drew on vernacular traditions expressed in ‘synthetic Scots’, a stylized and elaborated version of Scots dialect. The purpose of writing in Scots (sometimes called ‘Lallans’) was at once democratic (to revive and dignify the language of the home and the hearth) and European (to create an authentic indigenous, non-English literature). The first major work of this movement was MacDiarmid's long poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), a stream-of-consciousness monologue in Scots combining the influences of Burns, Whitman, and the Russian philosopher Shestov, to produce an invigorating combination of mundanity and sublimity. Mac-Diarmid's poetry of the 1930s also conveys his willingness to experiment, as does Lewis Grassic Gibbon's vigorous prose trilogy A Scots Quair (19324), conducted in Scots, which presents an anatomy of Scottish experience during the first three decades of the century through the life of its heroine. With the completion of the trilogy the Scottish Renaissance reached its peak, but by the middle 1930s the sense of communal purpose had dispersed, and although the most interesting work of Neil Gunn and the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean was still to come, the first wave of the resurgence was over. MacDiarmid continued to produce copious verse, less frequently in Scots, and some critics identify a second wave of creativity in the 1940s, and yet a third in the 1970s. Roderick Watson's The Literature of Scotland (1984) offers a useful survey of developments, and Christopher Harvie's No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: Scotland 1914–1980 (1981) provides a clear account of the social context.

C. K. Scott-Moncrieff (Charles Kenneth Scott-Moncrieff) Biography - (1889–1930), (Charles Kenneth Scott-Moncrieff), The Song of Roland, Chanson de Roland [next]

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