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‘Sing til the warld we loo’d’: Alexander Scott’s War Poems

David Robb
ScotLit 35, 2007

During his lifetime, it was well known that not only was Alexander Scott (1920–89) a prominent Scottish poet, academic and cultural journalist, but also something of a war hero: ‘MC’ usually appeared after his name in any formal context. As I discovered recently while researching a critical biography of Scott, however, his war experiences were something he rarely talked about, except (sometimes) to close male family members and, even more rarely, to very close friends well into a drinking session. It was a reticence which appeared to have been carried over into his writing, prompting his erstwhile student Margery Palmer McCulloch, for example, to ask at an ASLS annual conference in 1998, ‘Where are Alex Scott’s war poems?’ On the face of it, it is indeed strange that such a committed poet as Scott had apparently little or no verse to show arising out of one of the most intensely lived phases of his life. The much-anthologised ‘Coronach’, of course, is a notable exception.

The matter had been raised earlier by Alan Bold in an article in Chapman in 1979, which elicited, in a characteristically testy letter from Scott, at least part of the explanation for this apparent puzzle.

The reason why I have written so little about the war since it ended is that I wrote and published innumerable poems, articles and stories about it while it was still going on. However, none of this work has been collected, and your unawareness even of its existence has led you far astray.

Despite the hint of blame here, Bold’s ignorance was pardonable. Only if one investigates (in the University of Aberdeen) the locally-based periodical North-East Review (1940–6), which is not to be found in any other library, and also the manuscript notebooks in which Scott systematically recorded his poems (deposited by his family in the National Library only recently), can one discover how true his assertion to Bold actually was. His wartime writing of all kinds – poems, short stories, articles, book reviews, letters – was indeed copious, and much of it directly described his army experiences. There are many poems reflecting his two and a half years in uniform before he saw actual fighting, and even while on active service in north-west Europe after D-Day he wrote when he could and sent his material to his wife for passing on to the periodical editors. Thirteen poems seem to have been written during interludes in the fighting after he landed in France on the afternoon of 6 June 1944. He was wounded during the battle of the Falaise Gap in mid-August and invalided home (where he wrote five more poems), returning to his unit in December in time to participate in the counter-attack against the German offensive in the Ardennes. He won the Military Cross for his actions during the first days of the Battle of the Reichswald in February 1945 and participated in the Rhine crossing, at Rees, in March. 5/7th Gordons finished their war at Bremerhaven, becoming thereafter part of the army of occupation. Scott, however, was granted early release from the army and returned to undergraduate life in Aberdeen in December 1945.

Why did he not reprint any of this large body of material? His letter to Bold does not imply that he despised it; indeed, it was one of his characteristics throughout his life that he cherished much that he had produced, even when he knew that it was not publishable. Thus, in one academic CV from the 1970s he even listed his first-ever publication, a short story he had written at the age of fourteen and which had been published in The Hotspur (this, too, was kept among his papers throughout his life, and the comic is now with the rest of Scott’s material in the National Library). The bulk of this wartime material, however, is essentially journalism, with no long-term claim on a readership – Scott produced literary and general cultural journalism throughout his life, temperamentally engaged as he usually was with the here-and-now. The result was the paradox that such a driven writer, who was so prickly in justification of everything which came from his pen, left comparatively little, either poetry or prose, which seems addressed to posterity. In the war, Scott’s sense of battle was that it was something which had to be fought, endured and (with luck) survived on the way to a better future. In his numerous literary and academic campaigns in later life, it was as if he took the same view: he was fighting for a cause (essentially, the dominance and then survival of MacDiarmid’s Renaissance prescription for Scottish writing) which made constant demands on his creative energies. Hence his copious journalism, and hence (at least to some extent) the comparative paucity of a purely academic, or poetic, long-term output. And as he discovered in 1944–5, when you complete one battle, you just have to move on to the next – but despite the waste of energy this implies (and, in war, the waste of lives) the process can be viewed as supremely important, nevertheless, if you are striving for a cause. Scott’s journalism may now be of purely historical interest, but he wrote it then with immense commitment.

His poetry, however, always written in an entirely different spirit, was another matter, so that the question – why did he subsequently withhold his wartime verse? – is even more urgent. The answer is that he knew perfectly well that it was not good enough. The war years were crucial to Scott’s development in various ways, not least because this was the period in which he was transformed, as a poet, from a schoolboy Romantic to an adult Modern. During the war, he first became aware of what was happening in contemporary verse, both in its global and domestic Scottish aspects. The example of Eliot and his successors of the 1930s helped Scott break free from the preciousness of his adolescent style and enabled him to find his own harder, sardonic, more brittle voice. And as the war progressed, he discovered MacDiarmid and Soutar so that, after an initial hesitation, his search for his own modern practice brought him to commitment to the Scottish Renaissance and to the use of Scots. His sudden search for a modern poetic voice coincided with the psychological pressures of a war situation, with all its forcing of maturity on the young, and all its imperatives to live life while one can. He knew, however, that one does not really mature as a poet overnight and also that active service is not necessarily the ideal environment to nurture a poetic transformation. As he wrote to his young wife in April 1945:

Not that I have very many illusions about my poetry. Since I joined the Army it has not progressed; I have not had the leisure for the necessary study. Much of what I write now is careless, slack, muddled and wordy. It could not be otherwise…

Nevertheless, the crucial literary commitments were made at this time, his transition from latter-day Romantic to hard-bitten maker simultaneously impelled and retarded by the realities and exigencies of the moment. Looking back from June 1954, when he composed ‘Words for the Warld’, he saw his younger self scrabbling to find guidance in a maze of literary inspirations,

Til the warld itself gaed grab at the scruff o my life,
Shuke me intil a shennachie, skailed frae my ain
New-opened makar’s mou the wale o words.

*

Even before the war started, while he was a schoolboy, he was writing poems which reflected the sense of coming conflict, and which he referred to, in his autobiography written while an undergraduate, as his ‘war poems’. For example, on 1 September 1939 (the day Germany invaded Poland), he wrote ‘In the Shadow of War’ which begins

I doubt now if these words will ever be read
That I write in the fitful flame of a flickering candle,
With shadows strange on the ceiling and under my eyes,
This first night of September. This may be
The latest night of peace man ever will know.
This morning the Cross of Peace was shattered in twain,
And hell is loose across the world ...

For months before this, however, he had been writing poems full of a generalised foreboding, replete with a sense of mortality.

So short a space we laugh and weep,
So short a time we cry and smile,
We love and hate a little while,
Are young, and love: grow old – and sleep ...

And when he wrote (Keats-like) about his first readings of Homer, and of Euripides, it had apparently been the battle scenes which had filled his imagination.

Once the war started, however, his student verse was less preoccupied with the war than one might have expected: many of the poems are love poems, in fact, reflecting, no doubt, his actual emotional life. Imagery of war, and explicit references to the conflict, inevitably crop up, of course, and when he entered upon army life in December 1941 the poems express his feelings and observations almost as a diary would, as in ‘On Manoeuvres: Night Guard-Duty.’

For others, fortunate, this night of sweat
Has closed in sleep’s too brief oblivion,
But I must guard the darkness, must await
My slow relief…

From D-Day onwards, though, he was in a different world, one where (in the words of the title of the first poem he wrote in Normandy) ‘There’s No Time Now.’ He found time to write eighteen poems, however, though what marks them above all is the near-complete avoidance of descriptions of combat. Poem after poem, written in the lulls between actions, evoke the thoughts and observations arising in those oases of peacefulness, their writing perhaps a way of inhabiting those havens ever more intensely. Thus, his second Normandy poem is ‘The Sleepers’, describing the sleeping soldiers for whom night is precious respite. In ‘Sentries’ he not only describes sentry duty but envisages the entire British army acting as a guard so that people back home can sleep soundly. In some ways, these poems are like letters home – moments of escape and of reconnection with the world left behind (and, with luck, to be returned to), rather than moments of engagement with present horror.

Remember us, for we remember you,
And carry you like treasure in our hearts,
Tokens of all the golden love we knew
Before the war upset our apple-carts
And tumbled us out to lie in the mud and rain
Till thunder passes and time is clear again.

And home these poems went in a small but steady flow. Scott’s continued involvement in the North-East Review was doubtless a major psychological aid in the midst of stress. In a revealing late poem from this group, ‘One More River to Cross’, he writes in the penultimate line, ‘Here I must build a song against my own terror.’ It was a terrifying moment, certainly: this poem is dated 16 March 1945, two days after the rehearsal for the crossing of the Rhine – that immense defensive barrier, more psychological than physical considering the river’s place in Germany’s self-perception – and one week before the actual crossing in which the 51st Highland Division would play a leading part. The poem describes the journey across Europe he has already made, but instead of the battle-torn landscapes of reality he depicts an empty, eerie dreamscape which he is crossing alone. The campaign is transformed into a literary, rather than literal, journey, Scott focussing on his own inner life rather than on the outward reality with which he was contending.

And this was symptomatic of his whole approach to writing during the war. The two worlds of Scott the soldier and Scott the poet were kept essentially apart. While he was fighting, only in one poem – ‘How Strange It Is’ – and only in one stanza does he fleetingly describe combat:

How strange it is:
All that was strange become so strangely now familiar,
The landscape grey and desolate as the moon,
Littered with ruins,
Shells of houses, husks of trees, the dead
Huddling the earth their grave like broken dolls,
Machineguns chattering shrill hysterical laughter
Over the heaps of rubble and fields the mortars plough,
Horizons plumed with slow funereal smoke
Like the heads of horses dragging a hearse to the tomb,
And through the smoke and under the hammer of guns
Men running and men falling and men still running
Forward forward forward since to hang back is shame.

For Scott, the war and his poetic destiny were mutually opposed, the former merely getting in the way of (and threatening the premature thwarting of) the latter. True war poets have found in the subject matter a means of tapping their deepest creativity, but this was never Scott’s way. Poetry belonged to ‘home’ – his writing while dodging the bullets was merely a way of keeping his hand in, and of staying sane. That sense of an immense boundary, between the familiarity of home, and this dangerous region where everything is strange, is perhaps to be felt in his first mature poem in Scots, ‘Untrue Thomas’, apparently written as, newly recovered from wounds, he rejoined his unit in Belgium in December 1944. At first glance an exercise in the use of Scots and the utilisation of material from the Scottish tradition, the poem can also be read, it seems to me, as an ironic exploration of the unbridgeable imaginative gap between the ‘home front’ and those who must return to the land ‘whaur yirth’s a wonder, / It never needs the graip or plou’ and where ‘the chiels retire afore they’re twenty’.

And what of the period of his post-war poetic maturity? He looked back seldom, and tried to recapture the experience of battle even more seldom. Earlier in the exchange with Alan Bold, he declared (19 February, 1979), ‘My poems about the war are “Coronach”, “The Sodgers”, “The White Devil”, “Twa Images”, “Front Line” and “Rice Price”, all written since ’45.’ Soon after this, in July 1979, he wrote a brief poem describing D-Day, ‘Paradise Attempted’; it is not notably successful and he printed it only once, in Akros (April 1981). Its references to sea-born Aphrodite and to Milton’s goal of justifying the ways of God to men are insufficiently worked out. Yet there is a sense of painful paradox in the poem, embodied in the goddess associated both with love and war: her dualism focuses the proclivities of mankind for both loving and killing.

We came up out of the sea
(Like Aphrodite?),
Out of the sea
Half-drowned, half-dead,
To kill to live, to live by killing,
To cry in the blinding blood,
To blindly cry and
Sing.

The hints of autobiography here are not obvious, but Scott may well be recalling his own near-drowning as he stepped off the landing-craft, and also the later slaying of his second-in-command with a bullet to the head, a wound which did not kill instantly. Reference to himself emerges more obviously towards the end of the poem:

We killed men,
They killed us,
All of us loving the world,
All Aphrodite,
All dead
Except this killer who killed to create and
Sing.

The poems he listed to Bold do indeed all refer to the war, and the slaying of his comrade is surely the source of the wartime image in ‘Twa Images’, one of the few other poems in which he actually describes combat. Yet even here, and in all the other poems he mentions, his real concern is with the present contents of his mind, and his attempts to come to terms with what he remembers. Even ‘The White Devil’, with its account of the solitary wounded soldier hoping for rescue before he succumbs, is not really an attempt to recreate wartime experience: it is a fiction drawing, no doubt, on his recollections of his own wounding (not that he had been left to languish, but the fierceness of the fight had caused a substantial delay in the evacuation of the wounded) and also of the bitter winter of the Ardennes offensive. Yet his real concern in this poem is the constant one which underlies all his later ‘war poems’, even ‘Coronach’: his present need to reconcile the vastly different sides of his own personality and experience – Scott the warrior and Scott the poet. The difficulty this complex and dynamic man had in integrating the different aspects of his being marked his life from start to finish.

 

Copyright © David Robb 2007

 

Last updated 18 August 2010.