STARN: Scots Teaching and Resource Network
Gaelic and Scots in Harmony
Deer on the High Hills: the elusiveness of language in the poetry of Iain Crichton Smith
This paper is unashamedly metaphysical in its approach to Crichton Smith's poetry, and the concerns with language which engage him so strongly. There are concerns which matter as much to him, concerns perhaps more pleasingly and satisfyingly handled in his work, in the sense that relatively positive and definite conclusions are reached. His relationship with his mother is one such, in its moving, obsessive, and therapeutically developed treatment in the many 'Old Woman' and the severe, yet often immensely dignified maternal figures of the fiction descending from Mrs Scott of Consider the Lilies (1968). It's arguable that this concern, in which the mother took on a role representative of much more than local family, in poems like 'Old Woman' ('your thorned back') or in the eponymously named Mrs Scott of Consider the Lilies, a role in which she stood for the inhibitions and dominance of traditional Calvinist Gaelic and Scottish culture, dominates the first half or so of Smith's work, with its attendant themes of the duties, of 'home' and filial piety set against the 'duties', discovered through reading and Romantic conceptions of self, to discover one's own life potential and freedom of spirit. There's no clear-cut point of transition to different and new outlooks; I argued in Chapman 34 (1983) that the 'true dialectic' of Smith's work was a continual swing between affirmation of Grace over rigid human Law, and a nihilistic view of life and experience which dissevered no significance behind the random flashes, nightmares, and brief alliances of a humanity Smith saw all too often as irredeemably bourgeois and sordid. There's no clear development, formally or thematically, in his work, in the sense of say, Muir's development towards 'One Foot in Eden'; but increasingly it seems to me that, amongst the patterns of opposites which structure his imagery and ideas, and emerging slowly as more important as a concern than that of his guilt regarding mother, village, Lewis, Gaeldom, and central to all the polar opposites, lies an awareness of the insufficiency of language, the difficulty of matching words with thinking and feeling, and an awareness that what is said will depend on whether the poet is using the perspective of emotion or the perspective of reason. The first section of 'The White Air of March' (introducing the poem's tragicomic, epic-ironic shifts) cites the famous apothegm; ' "Tragedy," said Walpole, "for those who feel./For those who think, it's comic".' Smith feeling produces Mrs Scott; Smith thinking, the absurd Murdo, of Murdo and Other Stories.
Thus I ask you to imagine a patterned layout in which lines of opposition intersect at a central point, like the spokes of a wheel. I must be far too terse and subjective about the identification of some of the lines of opposition, since their central intersection is my main concern. But primary 'north and south' must surely see polar opposites in Smith's grouping together of disparate ideas and images like Lewis, the colour black, notions of over-rigid social and moral law, his own guilt regarding his inability to come up to the demands of his upbringing and background, and a sense of barrenness often expressed in the image of the thistle; all set diametrically against a grouping of ideas and images including the idea of exile from the island, the colour red, the notion of human fallibility as a positive moral condition ('you bleed from all that's best/your active anima' argues 'Deer on the High Hills', together with blood as 'a natural running lustre', or 'She Teaches Lear' and its conclusion that 'from our own weakness only are we kind'), a kind of Grace, a sense of the rightness of rebellion against and moral law, and a sense of transient human flowering expressed in the image of the rose. (This far too facile identification of opposites has to be qualified by realising that Smith can find qualities of the one arising in the heart of the other; a young Highland girl studying poetry can be shown to have Grace of a kind perhaps superior to that of the Arts; and even 'Poem of Lewis' allows a kind of essential survivalist craft or residual Grace amongst the people who have no time for poetry.) Lying as East-to-West opposites it might then be argued, are Smith's dual conceptions of types of humanity; recurrently favoured by him are sensitive teachers, children, the vulnerable of past and present, often typified in figures like Hamlet, Orpheus, and Robinson Crusoe; while against them are set a type I have called 'absolute hunters'. 'She Teaches Lear' admirably sums them up in Goneril, Regan and Edmund - beautiful, spare, willing to die for the fulfilment of primary and selfish hedonism, Romantic as they spur their tall horses into the bright blue, past the 'little dreaming flocks' of the lesser people, the vulnerable. Smith finds them in his Calvins, Johnsons, and his recurrent motif of the Romans; stamping their view of life on others. (Again, the pattern mustn't be over-simplified; especially in the earlier poetry, as in 'Statement by a responsible Spinster', the vulnerable who have been tied by family ties and social respectability are sometimes seen as victims of their own excessive fear, and rightly deserving a colourless and barren life.)
Consequently, other recurrent images, figures and situations arrange themselves in opposition in ways which often seem to echo the Law-and-Grace, Black-and-Red polarity, but which, like the stay-at-homes in tension with the 'absolute hunters' can often carry an ambiguity of value. For instance, the figure of the young girl, golden in her promise and vivacity, contrasts recurrently in poetry and fiction with the figure of the old woman, worn down to intolerant austerity; but the egocentric 'Schoolgirl on Speechday' can also give way to the figure of grace of the beautiful poem 'Young Highland Girl Studying Poetry', while the old woman of so many of the poems of that name, together with poems like 'Statement by a Responsible Spinster', can cross over in value through a personal dignity and traditional power to become the mother figure of the prose-poems (or prose translations of Gaelic poems) of Bìobuill is Sanasan-reice (Bibles and Advertisements), a perspective which moves the blame on to the poet in his awareness of selfish academic indulgence in Aberdeen set against the idea of his mother as a girl gutting fish in the raw discomfort of Yarmouth, a poor exile. Similarly the perspective on the polarised versions of the notions of village and island can change from the initial and prevalent condemnation of parochial intolerance and Calvinist rigidity; the moving story 'The Brothers' of The Hermit collection must be read to qualify the refrain of stories like 'An American Sky' of The Black and the Red, while a central long poem, 'Return to Lewis', is poised exactly between the poles of the) early 'Poem of Lewis' ('Here they have no time for the fine graces'), 'The Island' or 'That Island Formed You' and the (admittedly qualified, but none the less valid) nostalgia for and acceptance of home, village and island in the earlier of the two 'Prodigal Son' poems ('He got up and went home: "This place is as good as others" he shouted through the untellable music'). It's fascinating to read the later prodigal son treatment, with its opposite message: 'Would he not leave once more when useless growth/barrenly blossomed?'. And related to this is the opposed presentation of Gaelic and Hellenic culture, set against apparently debased modern bourgeois attitudes of villages or towns, from Lewis to Glasgow, and the world of TV, neon lights, and the Bomb. Again, an important poem, 'For John Maclean, Headmaster and Classical and Gaelic Scholar', poises itself between the two opposite positions; looking back with regret to the legendary past, but accepting that it must be legend; endorsing a world of 'superficial quanta' and neon, albeit reluctantly. The more extreme positions are well represented in the long poem 'Shall Gaelic Die?', or more obviously in the striking and reductive juxtapositions of 'The White Air of March' ('This is the land God gave to Andy Stewart', and the towering Cuillins set against Highland dancers, Glasgow violence and nuclear stockpiles by Loch Lomond). Of all Smith's equivocal attitudes, this towards the cultural past and present is the most tormenting for him. While the poet Duncan Bàn MacIntyre is constantly seen as the high point of Gaelic culture, a perfect poise between natural man and his animal surroundings, between 'culture' and 'reality', and while the Gaelic language is seen as sophisticated and immensely rich, nevertheless Smith knows how cultural systems, from the Roman to the Calvinist, can cripple the instinctive skills, so that even in 'Shall Gaelic Die?' the careful reader will find amongst the obvious regrets and recognitions that it's a way of life and a way of seeing that's dying, a concomitant recognition that, as with Maclean and his Hellenic certainties, a time may have come which is right for their change and even their death.
And the contemplation of 'Shall Gaelic Die?' brings us back firmly to the notion of language in Smith's poetry. I've taken a little while to sketch out a model of Smith's North-South, East-West dualisms of thought, because increasingly I feel that the point of intersection of all these polarities is ultimately to do with the complexities - or the elusiveness - of language itself. In Chapman 34 I argued that Smith belonged to that tradition of writers in Scotland and New England America who suffered from, and articulated, a Puritan dilemma, a condition of being trapped between a loved-and-hated, but totally conditioning religious and social ethic, and alternatives of release which, however enticing and logically persuasive, were simply insufficient to fulfil or replace the needs created by the original conditioning. I further argued that Smith's 'way out' of this dilemma lay in the adaptation (an adaptation common to modern Scottish writers from MacDougall Hay to Jenkins, from MacCaig to Alasdair Gray) of the concept of Grace. While not abandoning either of these arguments, I suggest now that the problem of articulation, the finding of appropriate language both to express occasions of Grace and - perhaps more frequently, to the point where this is the dominant aspect of the poetry - to express a 'reality' which Smith perpetually admits to be inexpressible, and which in gloomier moments takes on something of the aspect of 'the horror' which Conrad's Mr Kurtz ultimately perceived, is the central concern of the poetry.
What does Smith see in the idea of 'language'? Again, simply extracting from the poetry what seems impressively definitive won't do: 'For John Maclean' told us 'that what protects us from the animals is language healthy as a healthy pulse', a strong quotation tempting in its apothegmatic clarity. But as I've suggested regarding other of Smith's concepts, we must be wary. For one thing, the context says 'happy who can judge' like this - as John Maclean was happy - but wrong, or at least anachronistic, as the poem goes on to argue. Elsewhere we find that animals aren't to be dismissed as lesser than the human in Smith's view - indeed, rather the opposite, as deer and crow and fox inhabit their systems, and accept the grammar of their unknowable lives, with a grace (lesser than Grace perhaps, but akin) that the ego of man cannot find. Language for Smith isn't what it is to Maclean, a matter of exactitude in expression, an awareness of harmony in numbers, 'unanswerable grammar'. It's varieties of rhetoric, it's plays like Lear struggling to express something in their totality, it's Bacon's art (the contemporary painter Francis Bacon, whose tortured melting faces fascinate Smith) struggling to make a statement. And looking for other definitions throughout the range, one finds (in The Notebooks of Robinson Crusoe, a long poem sequence obsessed with language) that landscape can be invested with grammar, that language is something that humans, in their absurd condition, bleed; that (in a long section on 'Names') language cannot, for Robinson, nail 'sea' to sea, or 'well' to water, let alone allow an 'ought' to emerge from the summer; and finally, with Robinson coming out of the island, from the middle of his dark wood of solipsism and loneliness, 'language is other people'.
I conclude - tentatively! - that Smith has about five positive views of language and its possibilities, and that each of the five has its darker negative. Firstly, grammar is seen as the backbone of systems for structuring thought, a precondition for sanity. In 'By the Sea' Smith, watching the random play of images of a seaside town, tells us that 'thick rings of routine save us, rings like marriage rings' - and the rings are clearly the banalities of communication so hated by Murdo, Smith's comic challenger of social convention. For all Crusoe found a discrepancy between names and things, he still needed and desired that 'the data erect a ladder'; some system to catch experience was finally necessary, since 'without the net, the sweetest fish are tasteless'.
Given the first necessity of language, what is its function? John Maclean stood for one definition; but his belief that learning language properly led to 'the rule of Rome/the gravitas of Brutus and his calm/ ... his love of books,/his principle and practice', an emphasis on a kind of language-based set of moral exercises which led to the school Dux, and healthy minds in healthy bodies, is a belief attractive but anachronistic to Smith. Perhaps one closer to Smith's real respect for the function of language is found in 'Johnson in the Highlands', with its striking image of Dr Johnson's mind imposing order on 'sad wastes' through its 'tough reasoning'. No romantic, devoid of pathetic fallacy, Johnson saw lochs and deer with 'a classical sanity', and Smith accords his prose and apprehension of reality through language a rare tribute by terming it 'a healthy moderation'. Whatever later qualifications he makes, Smith allows that language can, and should, try to translate reality into terms unswayed by human ego and imposition.
Smith's third position, while still 'positive' in a sense, is less confident. Significantly, the best expression of this centres on another eighteenth-century and pre-Romantic thinker, David Hume (in a poem simply called 'Hume'). Hume is admired for the delicacy of the movement of his thought and its articulation 'through all the daring firths of broken Scotland'. At least I think this is what Smith is saying, as this is an extremely difficult poem, an example of several in which I suspect Smith's ambitious statement overcomes his means of expressing it. I confess I'm still puzzled by the last verse, which either accuses Hume of substituting, like Johnson, rationalism for acceptance of random reality, or praises him for avoiding mere 'diplomacies'. The last line, 'the Corrievreckan of bad art', is both tortuous in itself and ambiguous in that the reader doesn't know if grammatically it attaches to 'diplomacies' or to its immediate predecessor, 'the inner grace'. And where Hume stands in relation to the last verse is utterly unclear, even by inference. Nevertheless, I take the poem to praise Hume for making the clear places he did, and for finding utterance in a dark, virtually medieval Scotland; but to conclude that full experience - the otter with the salmon, the mist across the roadless land - lies beyond Hume's philosophy and language. In this third category language is a necessary diplomacy, valid but limited. There is throughout Smith's poetry a recognition that we need this protocol; but almost always followed by a realisation of its impossible limits. And 'For the Unknown Seamen' of Iona churchyard expresses another reason for the necessary diplomacy of language;
One would like to be able to write something for them
not for the sake of the writing but because
a man should be named in dying as well as living...
... and because
the brain being brain must try to establish laws.
I quote at length because this encapsulates well Smith's positive desire for 'rings of routine', 'a moderate jargon' (to use MacCaig's term for the 'go-between' nature of language from 'Culag Pier'), and for a diplomacy of language which accompanies rites' of passage. The poem also anticipates the fourth category of language as 'other people' which we found in The Notebooks of Robinson Crusoe, sentiments very close to those of the novels A Field Full of Folk and In the Middle of the Wood, in which ordinary human converse, sharing, and social arrangements are seen as redemptive, and close in idea to the conclusions of poems like 'To a Young Highland Girl Studying Poetry', in which language's nature and importance become almost the simplicity of communication through gesture and action rather than the sophistication of words, the arts, or philosophy, through deeds rather than speech. It's one of the most endearing qualities of Smith's poetry that it genuinely questions its own importance at every turn, honestly examining its validity in the light of the mundane and workaday.
The fifth category is very close to crossing over into being negative; meaning through language is reduced to a glimmer, as in the fragmentary glimpses and contradictions of 'The White Air of March':
'and I mysel in crammasie'.
out of the darkness.
Green, green moments
Or out of the waterfall a sudden face... (section 16)
Clearly through these deliberate echoes of moments from MacDiarmid we are close to our central area of Grace; here, moments of grace in which language, against all odds, snatches a meaning and a beauty, from surrounding darkness.
We are now at the heart of Smith's ideology. Moving through ideas of language as sensation, perception, and relationship with the world, he discards or relegates all five categories to arrive at what he calls 'the true dialectic'- neither positive nor negative, only truer because it tries not to be rhetoric, not to create pathetic fallacies, but simply accepts. It is even beyond poetry, in the end:
... the true dialectic is to turn
in the infinitely complex, like a chain
we steadily burn through...
not to be dismissed in any poem
by admiration for the ruthless man
not for the saint, but for the moving on
into the endlessly various, real, human,
This, from 'Lenin', sums up the suspicion Smith has for false dialectic, false use of language, and represents his consistent drive underlying all changes of mood and evaluation, moral and social. I say 'consistent' because it does seem that this reductive, stripping, self-questioning activity is independent of topics and occasional attitudes, and pervades all his work.
It's also independent of the negative evaluations of language which are the dark twins of those I've discussed as positive. The order I present these in is open to rearrangement, but I would judge the rejection of language to begin with (and here again the kinship with MacCaig is unmistakeable!) a distrust of and disgust with the falsity of metaphor. In 'Carol and Hamlet' he tells us 'I too was terrified of words once. / I was so frightened of where words would lead me ... / where language sent each yellow writing root...'. And the use of past tense reveals that this fear of language is something from which he intermittently recovers, only to fall prey to it again and again. It's a far more serious condition than MacCaig's 'I lie, afraid of where a thought might take me', in 'Summer Farm', where even the 'lie' is a joke, since his metaphors are benign lies, and he lets the thought take him readily enough. Smith's distrust of metaphor is a genuine doubt about its being nonsense, as in the dialogue with himself, 'About that Mile', in which the wishing and dreaming of humanity is finalised in a dreadful, convincing last line, in which the alter ego says 'I turn to poetry for such foolery!' Again, and confessionally, Smith recounts his feelings at a public meeting, surrounded by efficient decision-makers, when suddenly
this fear struck me with a dizzy force
that this was real and the poems I make
mere cardboard coins to fill a childish purse.
The poem, 'Studies in Power', doesn't accept this fear; but it's recurrent through his work.
The second suspicion concerning the validity of language is of its inability to capture 'reality', the unknowable. This is probably the strongest and most pervasive statement of all throughout his poetry, from 'For the Unknown Seamen' on; their deaths, their present decomposed state, why they die, their final significance are simply beyond language.
Yet these events are not amenable
to any discipline that we can impose
and are not in the end even imaginable.
These things happen and there's no explaining
And to call them chosen might abuse a word.
Johnson's 'healthy moderation' of reality through language couldn't hear 'like a native dog notes beyond his ran '; the animality of experience is more real, and even Johnson is seen as twisted by an animal pain he can't control or explain. Hume left out the world of otter and salmon, and in 'Shall Gaelic Die?'
Winter has its own dictionary, the words are a blizzard building a
tower of Babel. Its grammar is like snow. Between the words the
wild-cat looks sharply across a No-Man's-Land, artillery of the
And the whole burden of 'Deer on the High Hills' is to the effect that the deer 'inhabit wild systems', the poem asking unanswerable question after question of them.
What is the knowledge of the deer?
Is there a philosophy of the hills?
Do their heads peer into the live stars?
Do rumours of death disturb them? They do not live
by local churchyards, hotels or schools.
They inhabit wild systems.
As the later 'Prodigal Son' says, 'that simple weather/seemed so beyond the power of literature/I couldn't focus...'.
The third negation of language is another paradox, in that it produces some of Smith's most telling ironic treatments of debased modern living. In this mood, Smith breaks up language and experience into grotesque fragments, deploring the inability of language to do the very thing he's actually doing. For example, the prose-poem 'What is Wrong?'
But one day I saw a black pit in green earth, a gardener kissing
flowers, an old woman squeaking in her loneliness, and a house
sailing on the water.
I don't know whether there is a language for that, or, if there is,
whether I would be any better breaking my imagination into a
Similarly the prose-poem 'Sighting the, Mountains of Harris' merges (again, like the MacCaig of 'Centre of Centres', in which taxis of Edinburgh run around Suilven and crofters and traffic wardens merge in his imagination) mountains and neon lights, guitars and broken ships, nylon girls and 'the stones of Woolworths in the bay'. 'The White Air of March' is really a series of bitter and jarring haikus, again paradoxical in its contradiction between its claim that it's a poem of exile 'in a verse without honour or style', when clearly its style does achieve sharp effect. Again, 'Six Haiku' mocks linguistic systemisation, but achieves random and vivid effects, like
A piano in the desert,
Beethoven at a ceilidh -
A girl with nylons
Walking past a prison -
the poetry of William Ross.
Such expression of pointlessness of existence is further darkened in the fourth assertion of language's limitations, in Smith's ubiquitous perception of mortality and the insubstantiality of a life. 'At the Sale' collects the bric-a-brac of lives from the Duke's to the widow's, from beds and books and fireguards to pianos and bibles and hourglasses, and lives are seen as pointless machinery; ('we will /endlessly pump and turn for forty years/ and then receive a pension..'), no more significant than any of the gadgets whose purpose is long since indiscernible. 'O hold me, love, in this appalling place', implores Smith at the end; but whether it is his earthly love beside him being implored, or whether it is the abstract notion of love, and whether any response is given, is left unanswered. And the 'appalling place' gets even darker, becoming the circus, 'a place of mirrors, an absurd conclusion', in 'Hamlet'. If Hamlet of all people can't find language, who can?
There is repeated in the poetry a disturbingly nasty image, that of the dead eel, suspended, livid white, in dark waters. It disturbs, because it is an image also of humanity as Smith perceives it in his darkest moods. The eel, the dead sheep, the unknown seamen, and the drowned of the Iolaire of 1918 - all bring Smith to his lowest point, where Hagasaki, 'children with skin hanging to them like the flag in which Hagasaki was sacrificed' (in another poem of grotesque conjunction, 'At the Stones of Callanish') and political injustice merge with a horror of day-today existence itself to produce probably his most negative poems, like 'If You Are About to Die Now', where the separate linguistic utterances are random, close to madness, deliberate statements about meaninglessness. And 'In the Middle', title poem of a 1977 collection, is quite simply about the total breakdown of any systematisation, linguistic or perceptual.
In the middle
shakings and glitterings.
Arms that come from the right,
Arms that come from the left.
Whispers at corners. 'Is Hamlet better? Is Sarah?...'
Notes that are sent about thunder,
Cards about lightning...
papers that come from the left,
posts that breathlessly rush over moorland and road...
A postbag of clouds.
Note the emphasis on meaningless communications and messages. Language has broken down here to incoherence and horror. How far we have come from language being other people, or language making us, as in 'Shall Gaelic Die?'!
We are faced, after all these positive and negative statements about language, with the conclusion that Smith sees, in some moods, life-enhancing possibilities in language, and in others, limitations and uselessness. Is then the most positive thing we can say about him that at least he insists on 'the true dialectic', a rigorous questioning of all human pretensions in the metaphysical and aesthetic? Tentatively, I'd like to conclude by suggesting that, just as there are positive and negative statements concerning language, so even the 'true dialectic', that honest facing of the complex unknowability of humanity, has its doppelgänger, its opposite twin. This twin goes beyond language, elusive, unverifiable, but recurrent.
What makes this most affirmative quality in Smith's poetry even more complex and difficult to treat of is the fact that it can occur, and usually occurs, within a context which doesn't so much act as foil to it, in the sense of a spiritual experience occurring in a dark place, as render it ambiguous and uncertain. 'Poem of Lewis' laments the lack of graces in 'this black north', but implicitly suggests a subtle undergrace in the very deepest things, like weaving, drawing water, tending land. There's no denying that the conclusion is that this isn't enough, since the lack of 'the great forgiving spirit of the word' is seen firstly in almost biblical terms, as the first requisite, and secondly (and almost, seen from a devout islander's point of view, blasphemously) as murdered by the island people. They crush beauty - and the poem shares an early 'Old Woman' image, that of the daffodil as grace, destroyed here by Calvinism as well as by weather, just as it was 'steadily stamped' by the old woman. But 'lightning' lies at the heart of the poem; and 'lightning' becomes a Smith shorthand image for a miraculous leap of mind, of inexplicable manifestation of beauty, so that by the time of 'Deer on the High Hills' it is akin to the leap of a great deer, itself a metaphor for the bounding leap of the mind of God. We're outside language now; signs and sudden manifestations in art, in animal existence, and especially in the natural and the animal in humans, become his essential hope. 'The Good Place' turns, in familiar fashion' the view of Lewis around in the way we previously noted; now it's seen almost as Edwin Muir looked back at Orkney, 'the adults friendly and the children happy', with dazzling oceans, 'fighting bells', 'bees content'. Typically, however, the conditional creeps in; like that 'one would have thought' in 'Poem to Lewis', here 'you'd say it was a good place except that sometimes/ a wish for terror and for lightning strode/down the great mountains to the village rhymes/ to find in lakes the wicked face of God.' I paraphrase this as meaning that the place is indeed 'good' in all recognised social and domestic ways; but that the restless and truly creative mind sometimes feels claustrophobia, and yearns for a fuller spectrum of emotional experience, together with a (guilty) wish that the decorous placidity of village and village culture (rhymes) could be upset, for the poet's sake and for the discomfiture of the villagers, by the appearance of a God whose sheer energy and natural force would be unrecognizable to the homely churchgoers, who would call such a terrible force evil. The meaning is in the end closer to MacDiarmid in Sangschaw and Pennywheep than the Muir of 'One Foot in Eden'. It reveals that such a writer will never be content in however idyllic a local setting; and that it's not Calvinism which essentially causes his unrest, but a deeper existential hunger. Yes, Calvinism is blamed, as in Consider the Lilies, as a Patrick Sellers of the imagination, an interior clearance; but, like the novel, deeper issues are about the writer's mind struggling to come to terms with the nature of existence itself, an existence in which Calvinism is a protagonist early and effectively dealt with. Follow these poems with the beautiful seven-part reflection 'Return to Lewis', and the bitterness against the black men is so tempered that there is now real regret in the way the poet sees their island beliefs dying in the face of 'progress'; 'God is surrendering to other gods/ as the stony moor to multiplying roads', 'the Bible faded to TV', black sunglasses are replacing black hats. Beyond the polarised responses of hate and love, the real meaning is that of Sorley Maclean's 'Hallaig', a contemplation of time and change which, like Gibbon's final view in A Scots Quair, transcends local human issues to seek the face of a stranger God behind. And at best Smith finds a Muir-like and optimistic significance; the fourth of 'Love Songs of a Puritan', observing beauty in girl and weather, concludes
All things that speak of surety and grace
proclaim us heretic from our proper place
though venomous devils preach against the light...
- probably the most explicit statement of belief in a 'dear theology' ever made by Smith. Later, and more profound, poetry, was to be altogether more enigmatic concerning the nature and validity of God. Perhaps the most ambitious of all these later explorations is 'Deer on the High Hills', a 'meditation' in fourteen loosely connected parts. It perhaps tries to do too much; as well as being simultaneously an attack on, and exploitation of, excessive metaphoric richness and pathetic fallacy, it's a series of musings on the metaphysical nature of deer, as seen by man, and in actuality, with an ever-growing under-theme concerning the unattainability of knowledge of God through reason. These last two are indeed eventually inseparable, since Smith comes close in this poem to suggesting that direct apprehension of natural experience unmediated by language or 'cloudy systems' of any human kind, such as he imagines the deer to experience, is perhaps the only attainable experience of God. They are 'half-in, half-out this world', with their 'electric instinct'; section ten evokes, their totally alien and sensual world with much of the intuitive empathy of the poetry of Ted Hughes, but with the additional development in section eleven that the deer, with their 'vibrant music, high and rich and clear,/mean what the plain mismeans, inform a chaos'. Smith is not saying that man cannot know this music; more simply that man's ego, pathetic fallacies (in his insistence that landscape echoes his moods and desires), his 'dull ironic crown' and his implacable insistence on 'the idea', remove instinctive skills and animal acceptance. This is why Duncan Bàn MacIntyre is given pride of place at the heart of the poem in section six; he alone not only knew them intimately, but 'was one of them', and shared their music. This is as close as Smith comes to the 'Golden Age' mythology beloved of Renaissance writers like MacDiarmid, Muir, Gibbon and Gunn; but it's not really any endorsement of Muir's 'a simple sky roofed in that rustic day', of the ancient wholeness seen by Muir in'Scotland 1941'. Maclntyre is unique in having come to terms with praising the deer and killing the deer;
It was a kind of Eden these days
With something Cretan in his eulogy.
Nevertheless he shot them also.
Like shooting an image or a vivid grace.
Brutality and beauty danced together...
The final plea of the poem is that we accept that language cannot find God (although Smith will later, in 'Shall Gaelic Die?' suggest that 'God is outside language, standing on a perch', and that if He exists, He should 'emanate from the language', like perfume from flowers). The final paradox of Smith's poetry, and 'Deer on the High Hills' particularly, is that it says that words can't cope with random reality, yet comes astonishingly close to the elusive goal of making them cope. After all his deliberate parody and pastiche of poets from Eliot to MacDiarmid, Muir to Hughes, after all the overheating of metaphor in which Smith slyly indulges, in his comparisons of deer to 'debutantes on a smooth ballroom floor', or 'fallen nobles', an effect is attained in the final section fourteen that, taken out of context and without the hothouse atmosphere of most of the earlier sections, would read as simply banal.
There is no metaphor. The stone is stony ...
The rain is rainy and the sun is sunny.
The flower is flowery and the sea is salty ...
It's dangerously close to jingle. Yet let this be read after the mind-stretching discussions of metaphor and pathetic fallacy which precede it, and the sense of stepping out of a hothouse of language is refreshing, bracing, and lucid. The last section is altogether about the limits of language, our misuse of its process and function, to bolster our transient self-esteem. And the poem - as all Smith's poetry - asks us to accept primary experience and to learn to live with 'this distance deadly' between 'reports' (through language) and 'reality'.
The deer step out in isolated air.
Forgive the distance, let the transient journey
on delicate ice not tragical appear
for stars are starry and the rain is rainy,
the stone is stony, and the sun is sunny,
the deer step out in isolated air.
All quotations can be located under poem titles in Selected Poems 1955-1980, ed. Robin Fulton (Macdonald, Loanhead, Midlothian, 1981).
See also Chapman, 34, February 1983 (Vol. VII, No. 4, p. 39-46) for my article 'The True Dialectic: the Fiction and Poetry of Iain Crichton Smith'.