George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) was a Scottish poet, born in Stromness in the Orkney Islands. He lived there most of his life and for more than 20 years published a weekly essay in The Orcadian, the newspaper of the Orkneys. Readership: “1,600 townsfolk,” as Brown puts it in his introduction to Letters from Hamnavoe, the first of three published collections of his columns. The edition I have was published in 1975 by Gordon Wright of Edinburgh.
Newspaper writing is not always ephemeral hackwork. Consider Don Marquis, Flann O’Brien and Murray Kempton. Brown’s pieces, which he started writing in 1971, are neither pretentious nor patronizingly “folksy.” His eye is always on the local – people, livestock, the natural world, the sea. He writes in the Introduction:
“Look for no odysseys of the imagination in 400 weekly words of journalism. (Poetry with its rhythms, symbols, patterns, takes no harm from brevity). These `Letters from Hamnavoe’ are walks out of doors in all weathers. You meet this neighbour, that friend, and linger and gossip a little about the weather and the old days; drop into a shop for tobacco, maybe; look over a garden wall at green things growing. The sound of the sea is everywhere. You notice a new structure that must have something to do with oil in Scapa Flow. Then it is time to stroll home again, wondering mildly if the yeast has `taken’ in the bin of new ale.”
For an American who has never visited Scotland, there’s a danger of romanticizing life in the Orkneys, even in the nineteen-seventies, as somehow more real, more “in tune with nature,” than life lived in London, New York City or Houston. Something comparable happened with Synge and the Aran Islands in Ireland. But the modern world, in the form of North Sea oil, has already encroached on Brown’s world. In 1974, when he had been writing his column for three years, Occidental Petroleum started construction of an oil terminal on Flotta, one of the Orkney Islands, and oil becomes the background hum in his subsequent columns. Brown appears not to have been a particularly political animal. In a column dated May 10, 1973, he writes:
“It is the possibility of environmental pollution that is most disturbing of all; hills torn to pieces, fish floating belly-up in the sea, stenches in the wind.
“Whenever I feel utterly depressed by the prospect in front of us, I am cheered by a line of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins -- `There lives the dearest freshness deep down things….’ He lived at a time when industrialism was spreading its unutterable ugliness all over the pastoral hills and villages of England. What he is saying is: no matter how grievously men tear and rend and filthy nature, the essential roots and sources of life go very deep; so deep that they can never really be touched, and they will go on sending up new springs and new blossoms till the end. `There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.’
“It is a consolation of a kind – less so, perhaps, when one has come to love a place, and only three-score-and-ten years are allotted; and it may take many centuries for the pristine freshness to overcome the entrenched rust, and steel, and concrete.”
The column is nicely titled “The Use of Poetry.” Brown was no peasant-poet. He makes passing reference to Joyce, Pound and Alfred Jarry (of all people), and frequently mentions Burns, Shakespeare and Wordsworth. The Hopkins line he quotes, and had used earlier in his March 23, 1972, column, is from the sonnet commonly called “God’s Grandeur”:
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
Brown became a Catholic in 1961, and as a post-graduate student at Edinburgh University he wrote a thesis on Hopkins, but his literary enthusiasms are often admirably surprising. One wonders what his readers made of the essay from April 25, 1974, which begins “What can be done when the bookshelves begin to overflow with the mass of books I have accumulated over the past thirty years?” but turns into an unexpected paean to another writer:
“To only about a hundred books am I thirled with any passion – I could go on reading them, quite happily, over and over again, for the rest of my days. One of the authors I delight in is an old blind Argentinian called Jorge Luis Borges. He hasn’t written much – only a handful of stories (some of them very short indeed) and a few poems. But they are so perfectly imagined and wrought that they are models of their kind.”
“Thirled” is not a typo. It’s the past participle of “thirl,” with Old English roots from at least the 10th century, meaning to pierce or perforate. From there, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, meanings proliferated. By the 16th century it meant to enslave, to mortgage, to whirl around, to hurl. Judging from the context, Brown is saying only 100 books on his shelves captivate him, enslave him with passion.