Tag Archives: Hugh MacDiarmid

‘ANIARA: en revy om människan i tid och rum’ – 60 years since its publication by Bonniers, Stockholm – 1956-2016



13 October 2016 sees the 60th anniversary of the publication of Aniara by the Swedish Nobel Laureate Harry Martinson (1904-1978)… Sweden’s pioneer of the poetry of the atomic age. Published by Bonniers, Stockholm, in October 1956, the full title of Martinson’s work was Aniara: en revy om människan i tid och rum. An English translation, or adaptation rather, by Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) and Elspeth Harley Schubert (1907-1999) was published in 1963 as Aniara, A Review of Man in Time and Space.

Front board of 'Aniara' by MacDiarmid and Schubert, 1963 (Shelfmark PT 9875.M35 Mar, but also available through Special Collections, CRC).

Front board of ‘Aniara’ translated from Swedish by MacDiarmid and Schubert, 1963 (Shelfmark PT 9875.M35 Mar, but also available through Special Collections, CRC).

With a libretto by Erik Lindegren (1910-1968) based on a shortened version of Martinson’s poem, an opera by Karl-Birger Blomdahl (1916-1968) – also called Aniara – was premiered in May 1959 at the Royal Opera (Kungliga Operan), Stockholm, and was also presented at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1959. In 2013, the work was again expressed in the Edinburgh Festival through a re-imagination by Opera de Lyon of Beethoven’s Fidelio melded with Aniara.

Title-page of 'Aniara' by MacDiarmid and Schubert, 1963.

Title-page of ‘Aniara’ translated from Swedish by MacDiarmid and Schubert, 1963.

The subject of the poem is a spaceship (or goldonda) called Aniara. This future spaceship is carrying 8,000 refugees or emigrants – ‘forced emigrants’ – from a radiation poisoned Earth (called Douris in the poem) which is to become quarantined.

‘…Earth must have a rest

for all her poisons, launch her refugees

out into space, and keep her quarantine…’

Originally bound for Mars and on one of its routine flights – ‘all in the day’s work as it seemed’ – the spaceship ‘was singled out to be unique and doomed’. Aniara is thrown off course by the asteroid Hondo, which ‘jerked us off route’, missing Mars and bypassing its orbit.

Graphic used to accompany the short 'Radio Times' resume of 'Aniara' broadcast on the BBC Third Programme in November 1962 (Ms. 2973).

Graphic used to accompany the short ‘Radio Times’ resume of ‘Aniara’ broadcast on the BBC Third Programme in November 1962 (Copy at Ms. 2973-2974).

Out of control and pulling away from the solar system towards outer space, Aniara is finally thrown onto a course pointing to the star system of Lyra, ‘and no change of direction could be thought of’. The 8,000 occupants realise that they are doomed to an endless journey to nowhere.

‘In the sixth year Aniara flew on

with unbroken speed towards the Lyra…’

(Canto 13)

Having lost all ties to their past and with no hope of a future, their fears, bitterness and nostalgia set the mood for the poem. It offers a prophetic foresight of what we all might expect from nuclear warfare and its aftermath. Through Mima – a deity assuming the role of group-conscience to the voyagers, a device merging artificial intelligence with galactic wifi – a kind of electronic brain (using the terminology of a 1962 article in the Radio Times), a brain which ‘shows it all’, the occupants of the goldonda witness the destruction of Dourisburg, ‘the mighty town which once was Dourisburg’.

The short 'Radio Times' resume of 'Aniara' broadcast on the BBC Third Programme in November 1962 (Ms. 2973).

The short ‘Radio Times’ resume of ‘Aniara’ broadcast on the BBC Third Programme in November 1962 (Copy at Ms. 2973-2974).

Martinson’s work written in 103 Cantos (or songs) carries yet more of its own vocabulary. Canto 2 refers to the spaceship’ s gyrospiner and how it tows her up to the ‘Zenith’s light where powerful magnetrines annul Earth’s pull’…. the gyrospiner being, according to MacDiarmid’s notes, ‘a kind of propeller, possibly something like a helicopter’, and the magnetrine a ‘machine of the future which annihilates the power of the gravitational fields’.

References to Mima, in Canto 32. Manuscript. Gen. 894.

References to Mima, in Canto 32. (Manuscript in Gen. 894).

In Canto 15 we are introduced to gammosan – a drug relating to gamma rays – used on one of the emigrants, ‘pale and scarred by radiation burns’, who ‘very nearly fluttered away but was hauled back each time’. In Canto 26 we meet the phototurb – or nuclear bomb – in which ‘total mass is transformed to light quanta’.

‘…souls were torn apart

and bodies hurled away

as six square miles of townland twisted

themselves inside out

as the Phototurb destroyed

the mighty town…’

(Canto 26)

Mima, as illustrated by Sven Erixson to accompany an article written by Alfred Alvarez printed in 'Dagens Nyheter', 6 May 1963. Ms. 2974.

Mima, as illustrated by Sven Erixson (1899-1970) to accompany an article written by Alfred Alvarez printed in ‘Dagens Nyheter’, 6 May 1963. Erixson had been involved in decor and costume sketches for ‘Aniara’, the opera, in 1959. (Copy of article at Ms. 2973-2974).

In October 1959, and only a few weeks after the staging of Aniara the opera at the Edinburgh Festival, MacDiarmid had been approached by the publisher Hutchinson with a view to ‘getting out an English version’ of the poem. The initial approach emphasised a smaller version of the poem… ‘the self-contained first twenty-nine cantos’ which had been published as Cikada (1953). MacDiarmid is asked if he would ‘consider taking on such a task’ in a rendering that ‘would have to be pretty free’ and ‘done by someone who is in his own right a poet of the first quality’. By November 1959, MacDiarmid had been informed that there was ‘in London happily a completely bilingual Scots-Swede who could collaborate’ with him in the task… Elspeth Harley Schubert.


By February 1960, Hutchinson had concluded an agreement with Bonniers of Stockholm for a publication of Aniara in English, and that rather than working on ‘only the first twenty-nine cantos’ MacDiarmid and Schubert would be funded by the Council of Europe sharing French Francs 416,000 for a translation of ‘the whole poem’. MacDiarmid’s share was to be French Francs 208,000 (or £150 sterling). Correspondence in the MacDiarmid collections in CRC indicate that work had begun certainly by March 1960.


By May 1960, the publisher was hoping that MacDiarmid might find the time to let them know ‘how things seem to be shaping’ albeit acknowledging the difficulties of ‘collaboration’ and the ‘technical problems which must be involved’. The imminent performance of Ariana, the opera, in London, in autumn 1960, was intimated too, and that while the translation ‘can’t possibly’ be completed, printed and published by then, it might be ‘wise to have it on the stocks as soon as possible’. In March 1961 however there was still no typescript in spite of promises from MacDiarmid in January to have it sent ‘very shortly’.


In May 1961, Hutchinson acknowledged MacDiarmid ‘for the completion of Aniara‘ and expressed agreement with him ‘that there should be a brief introduction’ to the work. By August, Martinson had offered ‘some interim notes’ and Schubert and Martinson were ‘to incorporate their suggestions in the typescript’. For her part, Schubert writing from Sweden in October 1961 expressed to MacDiarmid that she found his treatment of her own original translation ‘very liberal and sensitive’. On the matter of an introduction, she suggested that a foreword be written by ‘a Swede who knows the whole background, and is also an expert on the terminology and on natural science’. She recommended Martinson’s biographer Dr. Tord Hall (1910-1987), mathematician, professor and author, of Uppsala University.

A year later, in May 1962, MacDiarmid had been sent the ‘printers’ marked proofs of Aniara together with the manuscript’ for him to ‘go through immediately and make any corrections’. The English language translation was released in February 1963, though readings were aired by BBC Radio in 1962.

Article by Alfred Alvarez in 'Dagens Nyheter' which as critical of the MacDiarmid/Schubert translation. Ms.2974.

Article by Alfred Alvarez in ‘Dagens Nyheter’ which was critical of the MacDiarmid/Schubert translation. (Copy of article at Ms.2973-2974).

In the national Swedish daily – Dagens Nyheter – on 6 May 1963, the English poet and critic Alfred Alvarez (b. 1929) wrote a rather critical piece about the MacDiarmid and Schubert translation. Olof Lagercrantz (1911-2002) Swedish writer, critic, literary scholar and publicist provided a commentary to the Alvarez piece in the same paper. Alvarez writes that MacDiarmid, ‘the most talented Scottish poet after Burns, […] has achieved a kind of Harris Tweed version of the poem… simple, unpretentious and serviceable’. Alvarez is ‘under the impression that Martinson’s poem may have lost a lot in translation’. Following up on the Alvarez piece, Lagercrantz comments that, as far as Swedish readers of the translation are concerned, it is ‘perhaps especially remarkable to hear Martinson characterised as grimly devoid of humour. Such an astounding opinion has to have its roots in the translation’.

One thing Alvarez is certain about is that ‘the English translation that now exists will never be the huge audience success in the UK that it has been in Sweden’, adding that ‘a work reaching sales of 36,000 copies in the UK would in a Swedish context make the work a sure best-seller’.

The MacDiarmid correspondence reveals a letter from Schubert dated March [1963] in which she expresses a feeling of being ‘out in the cauld blast’ and that they should both be girded ‘for the fray’. She asks MacDiarmid if there is ‘no fellow poet who can take up the cudgels’. Cannot he himself ‘write to the Times Literary, defending the original’?


The poem itself – this Harris Tweed, this simple, unpretentious and serviceable version of the poem – ends in the blackness of deep space, of space-night…:

‘…the Zodiac’s lonely night became our only home,

a gaping chasm in which no god could hear us […]

With unabated speed towards the Lyra

the goldonda droned for fifteen thousand years,

like a museum filled with bones and artefacts,

and dried herbs and roots, relics from Douris’ woods.

Entombed in our immense sarcophagus

we were borne on across the desolate waves

of space-night, so unlike the day we’d known,

unchallenged silence closing round our grave…’

(Cantos 102, 103)

Dr. Graeme D. Eddie, Assistant Librarian Archives & Manuscripts, Centre for Research Collections

In the construction of this blog post the following were used: (1) Clippings from the Radio Times, November 1962, contained in the MacDiarmid collections, Ms.2973-2974; (2) ‘Aniara på engelska’, av A. Alvarez, Dagens Nyheter, 6 Maj 1963, clipping in the MacDiarmid collections, Ms.2973-2974; (3) Hutchinson Group correspondence in the MacDiarmid collections, and correspondence with Elspeth Harley Schubert, Ms. 2094/5/2031-33, and Ms.2967; (4) Manuscript, some cantos of Aniara, in the MacDiarmid collections, Gen.894; and, (5) Aniara, A Review of Man in Time and Space, adapted from the Swedish by Hugh MacDiarmid and Elspeth Harley Schubert. Hutchinson: London, 1963.

If you have enjoyed this dip into the MacDiarmid material, have a look at earlier posts to the blog: I – Ms letter from Dylan Thomas; II – Ms letter from the Project Theatre, Glasgow; Recent acquisition – small archive relating to ‘The Jabberwock’; William Soutar’s caricatures of Hugh MacDiarmid, by Paul Barnaby; Hugh MacDiarmid and Mary Poppins: An unpublished letter in EU Archives, also by Paul Barnaby; and, Hugh MacDiarmid introduces Lewis Grassic Gibbon to publisher


Hugh MacDiarmid and Mary Poppins: An Unpublished Letter in EU Archives

An unpublished letter from Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers to Hugh MacDiarmid in Edinburgh University’s C. M. Grieve Archive casts further light on the surprising relationship between the two writers revealed in an article in today’s The National. Our letter shows that Travers was so taken by MacDiarmid’s writing that she urged her publisher to bring out an edition of his selected poems.

0078552cJennifer Morag Henderson‘s essay in The National (‘Poppins and MacDiarmid – Truly Whaur Extremes Meet’) reveals that MacDiarmid and Travers met in London in 1931 or 1932, probably under the aegis of Irish writer and mystic George William Russell (1853–1919) who wrote under the pseudonym ‘AE’. Russell was something of a spiritual and literary mentor to Travers, who was then working as a journalist and drama critic, but he also contributed an ‘Introductory Essay’ to MacDiarmid’s 1931 collection First Hymn to Lenin and Other Poems.

As Henderson notes, the meeting is recorded in a published letter from MacDiarmid to another Irish writer Oliver St John Gogarty, dated 22 January 1932, where he writes: ‘The lady with the pheasant-coloured hair [Travers] is quite a figure in Bloomsbury circles. We have had some most amusing times together – and would have had more but for the horrible tangle of my own affairs (the divorce went through last Saturday).’ Henderson wonders whether the pair discussed their conflicting views on nationalism or their mutual interest in Soviet Russia (which Travers was to describe in her book Moscow Excursion). She concludes, however, that during MacDiarmid’s messy divorce from Peggy Skinner, Travers probably interested MacDiarmid ‘as a woman first and writer second’.

mdsmrThe letter from Travers in our Grieve Archive (Gen. 2094/5 f. 2325), apparently overlooked by editors of MacDiarmid’s correspondence, confirms Henderson’s conjectures as to mutual areas of interest but also suggests that their relationship had a strongly literary character. The letter is undated. A reference to MacDiarmid’s First Hymn to Lenin which Travers ‘would love to have … some day’ might place it in the 1931-32 time-frame discussed by Henderson. The fact, however, that Travers clearly already has a strong relationship with publisher Gerald Howe, who published the first Mary Poppins book in 1934, makes the mid-1930s a more probable date.

Travers writes that ‘I have been to see Howe and with every sweet and noble adjective at my command put your suggestion of the 50-100 of your very finest selected’. Howe was ‘definitely interested’ but ‘would not commit himself’. He invites MacDiarmid to submit a selection of verse, either directly or through Travers, but on the understanding that Howe is not ‘bound in any way’. Travers confides that Howe ‘knows nothing in the world about poetry’ and depends entirely on advice from an unnamed writer who, fortunately, is a good personal friend of Travers and whom she believes she can influence in MacDiarmid’s favour.

Travers repeatedly stresses her personal enthusiasm for the project (‘Personally I think the idea such a good one!’) and mentions that Howe had particularly liked the suggestion that W. B. Yeats might write an introduction to the MacDiarmid volume.

In the rest of the letter, Travers mentions that ‘AE’ has dined with her the previous night, and that they had talked about MacDiarmid. She also mentions an article that she is writing on ‘Nationalism and Internationalism’, hinting at the political differences between the pair mentioned in Henderson’s article. While MacDiarmid, of course, combined revolutionary socialism with Scottish nationalism, the Australian-born Travers considered herself a citizen of the British Empire. Here she remarks that the concepts of nationalism and internationalism surely ‘don’t exist on other stars’.

The anthology of MacDiarmid’s selected poems never appeared. Travers mentions Gerald Howe’s fears that, as a poet, MacDiarmid might be tied to his original publisher Victor Gollancz ‘the “cutest” drafter of an agreement in London’, and perhaps that effectively stymied the project. The letter is nonetheless a record of what was clearly a warm literary friendship between figures from what one might have thought were very different worlds.

Signature of P.L. [Pamela] Travers

Paul Barnaby


MacDiarmid and ‘Nisbet: An interlude in post-war Glasgow’


Letter-head from a letter to Christopher Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) from the Project Theatre, Glasgow, 1932

Letter-head from a letter to Christopher Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) from the Project Theatre, Glasgow, 1932

Among the many letters to Hugh MacDiarmid from producers and directors  of theatre companies across the UK and Europe,  and from editors of journals and reviews, is a couple of pieces of correspondence from the Director of the Project Theatre, Glasgow.


Writing on 9 November 1932, the Director, Frederic Grant, mentions that the Theatre producer had found an old number of the Scottish Chapbook (August/September 1922) in the Mitchell Library. On looking through it he came across a one act play written by Grieve entitled Nisbet, He now had ‘the urge to produce’ the play the next month – December – ‘along with other one act plays’. Grant was ‘under the belief’ that they play had ‘not yet been produced’ and requested Grieve’s ‘permission to give it stage presentation’.

Body of the letter from Frederic Grant to Christopher Grieve, 9 November 1932, asking permission to put on 'Nisbet'.

Body of the letter from Frederic Grant to Christopher Grieve, 9 November 1932, asking permission to put on ‘Nisbet’.

The play in question was Nisbet, An Interlude in Post War Glasgow which had been published in 1922 in two issues of the Scottish Chapbook which had become an important outlet for his writing. The Nisbet in question was John Bogue Nisbet a young poet friend of Grieve who was killed at Loos during the First World War. The two used to go cycling and camping in Berwickshire and elsewhere.

Grant’s letter continues: ‘In accordance with our rules we do not pay authors for performing their plays when it is a case of first time on any stage. Our organisation has been founded for various reasons, one outstanding feature is our desire to help playwrights to have their work presented to the public’.

A second letter from the Project Theatre on 3 January 1933 announces that Nisbet had ‘jumped its first hurdle’. Grant continues: ‘I didn’t think for one moment you ever expected it to be played. Some of the passages came out very well indeed, but as you may agree there was a lack of theatre. Nevertheless the experiment was interesting’.


Grant then describes how the Theatre workshop had created a back-cloth ‘in symbolic design, depicting piles of tenements and everything that is loathsome of Glasgow’. he also refers to the review in the Daily Record the morning after (probably 24 December 1932) in which the play was described as a ‘Cerebral Puzzle’.

Nevertheless, the Director of the Project Theatre was keen to know if Grieve had ‘any more to offer us?’ The Theatre was ‘intent upon doing new plays whenever possible. What a wealth of expression our present time affords’.

The Project Theatre liked to ‘be not too tame neither’ !

Dr. Graeme D. Eddie, Assistant Librarian Archives & Manuscripts, Centre for Research Collections

bannerThis piece was written using: (1) Correspondence within the MacDiarmid collection, Ms. 2966; (2) Lucky Poet. A self-study in literature and political ideas, p.83 London: Jonathan Cape, 1972. In Library general collections – PR 6013. R735 Macd; (3) ‘Hugh MacDiarmid, Author and Publisher’, J. T. D. Hall, in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. 21. Issue 1. January 1986



William Soutar’s Caricatures of Hugh MacDiarmid

A few days ago I gave a talk to the Friends of William Soutar in Perth on the friendship between Soutar and his fellow Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid, as illustrated by letters in Edinburgh University Library’s C. M. Grieve Archive (MS 2960.18).

Soutar, confined to bed with a debilitating disease for the last 13 years of his life, adorned some of his letters with affectionate pen-and-ink caricatures of MacDiarmid (whom Soutar always addressed by his real forename ‘Christopher’). On 9 January 1937, he pokes gentle fun at the workaholic MacDiarmid’s idea of ‘taking it easy’, portraying him as a Marxist superman surrounded by piles of manuscripts headed ‘Lyrics’, ‘Autobiog.’, ‘Epic’, and ‘Articles’. When war breaks out, he suggests (19 December 1940) that the drafts of MacDiarmid’s works in progress will make a more than adequate bomb shelter.


Soutar was an Edinburgh University student, matriculating in 1919, after serving in the Royal Navy during the First World War (an experience that turned him into a pacifist). He began a medical degree, but soon switched to English Literature, where he proved a notoriously difficult student. He refused to study both Anglo-Saxon and novels in general as he considered both irrelevant to his future career as a poet. He did, however, publish early verses in The Student, many of which reappeared in his first published volume Gleanings by an Undergraduate (1923).

For information on our holdings of William Soutar manuscripts and correspondence, see Scottish Literary Papers.

Paul Barnaby, Centre for Research Collections

New Guide to Scottish Literary Papers

A new online guide to some of our major collections of Scottish literary papers is now available on the Centre for Research Collections website. It provides an overview of fourteen of our most significant twentieth-century collections, covering the literary manuscripts and correspondence of poets George Mackay Brown, Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Helen Cruickshank, Tom Scott, Andrew Young, Maurice Lindsay, and Duncan Glen, of short-story writer Fred Urquhart, and of historian and biographer Marion Lochhead. There are also pages on novelist John Buchan’s correspondence as literary adviser to Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd (in our Nelson Archive).

IMG_08732014-04-30 10.49.08

The guide not only lists the most significant literary manuscripts for each writer, but highlights links between the collections, charting correspondence between the featured writers, and mutually inspired creative and critical writings. For each writer, there is also a list of manuscript materials of relevance in other Edinburgh University Library collections. There are further links to online hand-lists and to relevant entries in the Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue.

The literary papers cover a great variety of materials:

  • Manuscript and typescript drafts of literary works, such as Norman MacCaig‘s version of the Brecht/Weil song Mack the Knife (above right)
  • Correspondence, including George Mackay Brown‘s application for a summer job at Edinburgh University Library (below left)!
  • Photographs, such as W. R. Aitken‘s portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid and family on Whalsay, Shetland (above left)
  • Other visual materials, such as Sydney Goodsir Smith‘s sketches for staging one of his plays (below right)


In due course, the pages will be expanded to cover smaller Scottish collections and pre-20th-century manuscripts, and to detail our holdings of writers (like Sorley Maclean or Edwin Morgan) for whom we have no discrete named collection. We hope that the guide will provide an invaluable gateway to our collections for anyone interested in researching 20th-century Scottish writing. To explore the site, go to:


Paul Barnaby