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Sorley Maclean (Sorley Somhairle MacGill-Eain Maclean) Biography

(1911–1996), (Sorley Somhairle MacGill-Eain Maclean), Seventeen Poems for Sixpence, Dàin do Eimhir

Gaelic poet, born in Osgaig on the island of Raasay, educated at the University of Edinburgh. He was a schoolteacher, and latterly a headmaster, subsequently becoming writer-in-residence at the University of Edinburgh and at the Gaelic College in Skye. In 1940 he was conscripted into the army and fought at the Battle of El Alamein where he was severely wounded. His experiences in wartime inform numerous poems, notably the compassionate study of a dead German soldier in ‘Glac a' Bhàis’. MacLean wrote poetry in English until the early 1930s, having been stimulated by exposure to the work of Eliot and Pound; he decided, however, to write primarily in Gaelic, his first language and the tongue in which the rich cultural traditions of his family were rooted. His first publication was Seventeen Poems for Sixpence (1942), a collaboration with Robert Garioch to which MacLean contributed eight Gaelic poems; a substantial collection entitled Dàin do Eimhir appeared in 1943, a work of the greatest significance in terms of its revitalization of literature in Gaelic. The title sequence of forty-eight elegiac love poems, translated as Poems to Eimhir (1971) by Iain Crichton Smith, is accompanied by thirty-one other pieces on a wide range of themes and subjects comprehending responses to literature and music as well as autobiographical and political elements. MacLean characterized his language as possessing ‘a sensuousness chiefly of the ear’ in a letter to Hugh MacDiarmid, whose close friend he remained after their first meeting in 1934. The elegiac realism of his use of landscape, the luminous precision of much of his imagery, and what Seamus Heaney has described as his ‘naturally genealogical imagination’ are most memorably evident in ‘Hallaig’; this long poem on the Highland clearances is included in Reothairt is Contraigh/Spring Tide and Neap Tide (1977), a collected edition with his own translations. O Choille gu Bearradh/Collected Poems (1989) displays the scope, political incisiveness, emotional sensitivity, and intellectual rigorousness of his work. His other books include Ris a' Bhruthaich (1985), a collection of critical essays centring on considerations of the Gaelic songs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. See also Scottish Renaissance.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Earl Lovelace Biography to Madmen and Specialists