Twenty-six items from Special Collections (u)

Exhibit ‘U’: Scots Gaelic. (Sorley Maclean, 'Hallaig,' 1954)

Bibliography: Modern Scottish Gaelic Poems, by Sorley Maclean, George Campbell Hay, Derick Thomson, Iain Crichton Smith, and Donald MacAulay: A bilingual anthology edited and introduced by Donald MacAulay (New Directions, 1977). Maclean's poem "Hallaig" appears on pages 84–89: English on the left, Gaelic on the right.

Comment: I'm like everybody else. If you ask me "Which is better, clear or vague?", I say "clear." (Or, actually, if you ask me that, I sense a trap immediately and say something sophisticated. But if a beginner asks me, I say what I really think: "clear.")
   Problem is I merely think clarity is better, I don't really believe it. If I really believed it, I wouldn't love the poem I'm posting today. To me this piece is vague—maybe because I don't understand it, maybe because it really is vague. That's my angle on Osip Mandelshtam too. I don't know if he's vague; he's vague to me. But I love him.
   With Mandelshtam, I always assume the stuff comes off rather less vague in Russian than it does in English, because of the rhyme and the rhythm. One of the great beauties of rhyme and rhythm is they make stuff seem like it makes more sense than it does. Maclean's case appears to be similar. He rhymes in Gaelic, see for yourself. And I feel confident the stuff is simply and straightforwardly better in Gaelic. Yet the English is pretty splendid. He has the touch. His vague created (like his theme) sublime, in number, weight, and measure, needs not rhyme.
   It remains to be mentioned that Frederick Seidel quotes "Hallaig" in the first poem of his third book, These Days (1989). The poem is called "Scotland." I'll append the first and last stanzas of it, why not, at the bottom of this post.

'Time, the deer, is in the Wood of Hallaig.'

The window is nailed and boarded
through which I saw the West
and my love is at the Burn of Hallaig
a birch tree, and she has always been

between Inver and Milk Hollow,
here and there about Baile-chuirn:
she is a birch, a hazel,
a straight slender young rowan.

In Screapadal of my people,
where Norman and Big Hector were,
their daughters and their sons are a wood
going up beside the stream.

Proud tonight the pine cocks
crowing on the top of Cnoc an Ra
straight their backs in the moonlight—
they are not the wood I love.

I will wait for the birch wood
until it comes up by the Cairn,
until the whole ridge from Beinn na Lice
will be under its shade.

If it does not, I will go down to Hallaig,
to the sabbath of the dead,
where the people are frequenting,
every single generation gone.

They are still in Hallaig,
Macleans and MacLeods,
all who were there in the time of MacGille Chaluim:
the dead have been seen alive—

the men lying on the green
at the end of every house that was,
the girls a wood of birches,
straight their backs, bent their heads.

Between the Leac and Fearns
the road is under mild moss
and the girls in silent bands
go to Clachan as in the beginning.

And return from Clachan
from Suisnish and the land of the living;
each one young and light-stepping,
without the heartbreak of the tale.

From the Burn of Fearns to the raised beach
that is clear in the mystery of the hills,
there is only the congregation of the girls
keeping up the endless walk,

coming back to Hallaig in the evening,
in the dumb living twilight,
filling the steep slopes,
their laughter in my ears a mist,

and their beauty a film on my heart
before the dimness comes on the kyles,
and when the sun goes down behind Dun Cana
a vehement bullet will come from the gun of Love;

and will strike the deer that goes dizzily,
sniffing at the grass-grown ruined homes;
his eye will freeze in the wood;
his blood will not be traced while I live.

"Tha tìm, am fiadh, an Coille Hallaig."

Tha bùird is tàirnean air an uinneig
triomh ’m faca mi an Aird an Iar
’s tha mo ghaol aig Allt Hallaig
’na craoibh bheithe, ’s bha i riamh

eadar an t-Inbhir ’s Poll a’ Bhainne,
thall ’s a bhos mu Bhaile-Chùirn:
tha i ’na beithe, ’na calltuinn,
’na caorunn dhìreach sheang ùir.

Ann an Screapadal mo chinnidh,
far robh Tarmad ’s Eachunn Mór,
tha ’n nigheanan ’s am mic ’nan coille
ag gabhail suas ri taobh an lóin.

Uaibhreach a nochd na coilich ghiuthais
ag gairm air mullach Cnoc an Rà,
dìreach an druim ris a’ ghealaich—
chan iadsan coille mo ghràidh.

Fuirichidh mi ris a’ bheithe
gus an tig i mach an Càrn,
gus am bi am bearradh uile
o Bheinn na Lice f’ a sgàil.

Mura tig ’s ann theàrnas mi a Hallaig
a dh’ ionnsaigh sàbaid nam marbh,
far a bheil an sluagh a’ tathaich,
gach aon ghinealach a dh’ fhalbh.

Tha iad fhathast ann a Hallaig,
Clann Ghill-Eain ’s Clann MhicLeoid,
na bh’ ann ri linn Mhic Ghille-Chaluim:
chunnacas na mairbh beò—

na fir ’nan laighe air an lianaig
aig ceann gach taighe a bh’ ann,
na h-igheanan ’nan coille bheithe,
dìreach an druim, crom an ceann.

Eadar an Leac is na Feàrnaibh
tha ’n rathad mór fo chòinnich chiùin,
’s na h-igheanan ’nam badan sàmhach
a’ dol a Chlachan mar o thùs.

Agus a’ tilleadh as a’ Chlachan,
á Suidhisnis ’s á tir nam beò;
a chuile té òg uallach
gun bhristeadh cridhe an sgeòil.

O Allt na Feàrnaibh gus an fhaoilinn
tha soilleir an dìomhaireachd nam beann
chan eil ach coimhthional nan nighean
ag cumail na coiseachd gun cheann,

a’ tilleadh a Hallaig anns an fheasgar,
anns a’ chamhanaich bhalbh bheò,
a’ lìonadh nan leathadan casa,
an gàireachdaich ’nam chluais ’na ceò,

’s am bòidhche ’na sgleò air mo chridhe
mun tig an ciaradh air na caoil,
’s nuair theàrnas grian air cùl Dhùn Cana
thig peileir dian á gunna Ghaoil;

’s buailear am fiadh a tha ’na thuaineal
a’ snòtach nan làraichean feòir;
thig reothadh air a shùil ’sa choille;
chan fhaighear lorg air fhuil ri m’ bheò.

Appendix: The first and last stanzas of Frederick Seidel's "Scotland"—

A stag lifts his nostrils to the morning
In the crosshairs of the scope of love,
And smells what the gun calls Scotland and falls.
The meat of geology raw is Scotland: Stone
Age hours of stalking, passionate aim for the heart,
Bleak dazzling weather of the bare and green.
Old men in kilts, their beards are lobster red.
Red pubic hair of virgins white as cows.
Omega and Alpha, rock hymen, fog penis—
The unshaved glow of her underarms is the sky
Of prehistory or after the sun expands.

[ . . . ]

A vehement bullet comes from the gun of love.
On the island of Raasay across from Skye,
The dead walk with the living hand in hand
Over to Hallaig in the evening light.
Girls and boys of every generation,
MacLeans and MacLeods, as they were before they were
Mothers and clansmen, still in their innocence,
Walk beside the islanders, their descendants.
They hold their small hands up to be held by the living.
Their love is too much, the freezing shock-alive
Of rubbing alcohol that leads to sleep.