A wee look at Gàidhlig war poetry from Jacobites and the World Wars.
Poetry from the First and Second World Wars have few similarities to the poetry of earlier conflict, like Jacobite poetry, though they in places seem to be used as an homage or link to the poetry of earlier conflict. Far greater are the number of differences, most notably in tone, characterisation and style.
The most striking difference in the poetry of the two World Wars is in the tone. Gone is the bluster and optimism, and the certainty of victory, if not heroic defeat. Instead we see poetry that is sombre, reflective and sad, it evokes a feeling of a war that was stripped of its nobility-in-battle and relied more heavily on making it through and the lottery type chance of daily survival. In The Dead in the Field by Murchadh Moireach and translated by Ian MacDonald, this sense of sobriety is extended and built-upon with the description of the dead in battle, their loss meaningless to those in command and yet at the same time important to those in the field. No great commemoration can be made, their lives silently and softly mourned by those around them.
‘ Beside them quietly, silently dig a grave And in their battle attire there bury them Where they fell down, death to the enemy in their cry. Silently lift them, who won fame for glorious deeds,’
The people in the poems are largely anonymised. There are few scattered references to individuals directly, but are mostly vague and often simply referred to as ‘men’ and have few defining characteristics imparted to them aside from reference to physical appearance.
A good example of this appears in Heroes by Sorley MacLean where he describes the character in the poem in less than flattering terms. This is perhaps to show that the men in war were everyday ordinary, otherwise unremarkable people, if not just boys.
‘A poor little chap with chubby cheeks and knees grinding each other, pimply unattractive face – garment of the bravest spirit.’
This anonymisation of the men in war is further demonstrated in Sorley MacLean’s ‘An Autumn Day’
‘On that slope on an autumn day, the shells soughing about my ears and six dead men at my shoulder, dead and stiff – and frozen were it not for the heat – as if they were waiting for a message.’
This is in almost direct contrast with the poetry of the Jacobite era where names and lineage are given prominence and import, like is shown in this section of A Song to Lochiel by Alexander Cameron, translated by John Lorne Campbell, the way in which the men the poet is speaking to are named specifically acts to give the poem a greater sense of identity.
‘And the kinsmen are many To be seen here in Scotland, To Sleat thou’rt related And the young heir of Dreòllainn, To Mac Shim of the banners In need’shour not faint-hearted, And young Ewen of Cluny And his folk would rise with thee.’
On the whole, it appears the panegyric code has largely been dropped, Heroes appears to use elements of panegyric code perhaps as an homage to the older poets in an effort to build the characters normality. He is projected, at the start of the poem, contrasted to the heroes of old and to then have him rebuilt as a hero in the poets eyes at the very end of the poem; it builds his heroism in an understated, somehow unheroic manner.
‘I saw a great warrior of England, a poor manikin on whom no eye would rest; no Alasdair of Glen Garry; and he took a little weeping to my eyes.’
This is in stark contrast to poems like Iain MacCodrum’s ‘A Song Against The Lowland Garb’, translated by John Lorne Campbell, which is full of imagery of heroism both in their presentation and their vigour in battle
‘Not a mothers son you saw on street or on parade-ground Finer than the Gaël, of truly splendid presence; Kilted tartan wearing, his sword behind his buckler, His pistol so well oiled the flint straight-way fires the priming; His shield upon his shoulder, his slim beneath his armpit, No foreigner alive but would expire before the vision.’
The poems describe men in almost polar opposite fashion, perhaps, showing the difference in how war was both perceived and experienced. One being a valourous endeavour and the other a necessity without splendour.
This appears as a recurring and similar theme in the poetry of the World Wars in that fame and acclaim are not large reasons for being in the fight. This seems in contrast to the poetry of earlier conflict where even death in battle comes across as noble.
The styles of writing within the poems change greatly. Jacobite poetry reads as though it is to be read aloud to gatherings of people and from that, to recruit or even muster men to arms, or at the very minimum prime them for battle yet to come. The poetry of modern warfare reads as far more personal. Like a diary entry or a piece to be read to ones self in quieter periods to help combat personal feelings of solemnity, or to help the writer cope with the chance and brutality that comes alongside mechanised warfare. In An Autumn Day the recurring motif of ‘six dead men at my shoulder’ gives a perception that the reader could easily have been one of those six men, and that he is very aware of that reality.
‘One Election took them And did not take me, without asking us which was better or worse: it seemed as devilishly indifferent as the shells.’
There is also a more inclusive language, using ‘us’ and ‘our’ instead of talking to individually named parties within the poem itself. This actively is bringing the reader into the poem as a participant, not just a call to the warrior class. As shown in The Song of Arras by Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna, translated by Ronald Black;
‘Some of us will return unscathed, Some in agony of bloody blade, And, according to our fate, Some in company of death will stay; Lads, march at ease!’
The style of battle between Jacobite and the World Wars perhaps lends itself to the styles of poetry. Earlier conflict was very much pitched battle, people knew in advance where the battle was taking place and roughly when. There was a long period leading up to the battles and afterward a period for reflection, whether they won or lost, was afforded to them too. This is reflected in the poetry of Jacobitism where they can call to arms and project assumed and future heroism on to the listener of the day, and in the poems that smooth over the losses they boost propaganda, an example of this is in Song on the Battle of Sherriffmuir by Sìleas MacDonald, no translator specified, in which the poet calls on traditionally Governmental regiments to join the Jacobite cause.
‘O Lord, I am thankful to that nobleman, Mar With whom would rise the honourable troop: With the number of excellent Forbeses Who are encircling your banner, James would profit to take them in hand.’
The ‘Forbeses’ never declared their allegiance to the Jacobite cause. Similarly other clans like Fraser and Chisholm consistently sided with the Government when it came down to mustering forces.
Contrasting this, the poetry of the World Wars is almost without place; the battles are fought outwith time, going on in perpetuity without pause for recovery or reflection. They must have needed to be written in the moment because there is no next victory to look forward to, and the fight won’t be over today.
In the reading of the older conflict poetry it comes across that the poets cared for the outcome of battle, each battle won was a step along the path to ultimate victory and each victory acted to justify the next battle. Losses being read as blips which were small set-backs in the over-all charge to that victory, as described by Iain Ruadh Stiubhart in Culloden Day, also translated by John Lorne Campbell.
‘Though they conquered us in battle, ‘Twas due to no courage or merit of theirs, But the wind and the rain blowing westwards Coming on us from the Lowlands.’
In the early twentieth century poems that does not seem to be the case, the poems read more like the poet is taken up with making it through today, ultimate victory is but a dark pixel on the horizon and the more pressing victory is to remain alive.
These great contrasts mask a commonality, all the poetry is politically charged or has political allusion. The poetry of older conflict is more verbose in nature and one can be under no illusion as to the political views of the poem. Culloden Day does an excellent job of illustrating this in the following excerpt;
‘O’er use Duke William is tyrant, That vile rogue, who has hate for us all:’
Although far less visible, the political commentary in the more modern conflict poetry is still present. I think the absence of obvious political messaging is indicative of the poets dislike and distaste at the ruling classes, who were often their commanding officers.
Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna in The Song of Arras writes:
‘Tonight, Monday night, Moving up to guard, Going to the grave, Where no bootlace is untied; Lads, march at ease’
This implies that the ruling classes were far more concerned with their men looking the part, and well turned out, than with their well-being or their ability to fight; each man was viewed as deceased before their time. From examining a variety of poems, a collection of which are quoted, it seems apparent there are far more differences between the eras of poetry than similarities. The gulf of time has allowed the poetry to advance past panegyric-ism into a more personal and informal style, that gives the impression you are alongside the composer in the reading or recital. Though the panegyric code does get a nod or two in the more modern writing, it comes across as a tool that is used to cast the character in the light of a hero, despite not being one.
Both styles of poetry succeed in their aims of connecting with the reader or listener, either for igniting a flame for battle or to express deep dismay with war itself.
Though my reading was of the English translations of Gàidhlig poetry, which seem to miss something in relation to English-language poems, the poetry that was translated or re-written in to English by the poet themselves seem to retain a fuller sense of emotion and the ideas they were trying to put on to paper.
* Campbell, John Lorne, Highland Songs of the Forty-Five, John Grant, Edinburgh, 1933
* Goldie, D., Watson, R., From the Line: Scottish War Poetry 1914-1945, Association of Scottish Literary Studies, 2014 * National Library of Scotland, https://digital.nls.uk/1715-rising/songs/la-sliabh-a-t-siorraim/index.html * Scobie, I. H. Mackay. “THE HIGHLAND INDEPENDENT COMPANIES OF 1745-47.” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, vol. 20, no. 77, 1941, pp. 5–37. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44219908
* Scottish Poetry Library, https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk * Chorùna, D. R., Òran Arras, https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/oran-arras/ * MacLean, S., Curaidhean, https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/curaidhean/ * MacLean, S., Latha Foghair, https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/latha-foghair/ * Moireach, M., Na Mairbh san Raoin, https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/na-mairbh-san-raoin/ * Rothach, I., Ar Tìr ‘s Ar Gaisgich A Thuit sna Blàir, https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/ar-tir-s-ar-gaisgich-a-thuit-sna-blair/