- I was afraid and they gave me guts.
- I was alone and they made me love.
- Round that wild heat they built a furnace
- and in the torment smelted me.
- Out of my fragments came design:
- I was assembled. I moved, I worked,
- I grew receptive. Thanks to them
- I have fashioned me.
- Joseph Macleod (from 'An Old Olive Tree', 1971)
- Who am I?
Championed by Ezra Pound and Delmore Schwartz; published, then roundly rejected, by T.S.Eliot; life-long friend and youthful collaborator of Graham Greene and Adrian Stokes; poet; theatre director; playwright; actor; historian; biographer; author; Labour Parliamentary Candidate and one of Orwell's Cryptocommunists: there are abundant hooks upon which a person's interest might catch along all the branches of the life and work of Joseph Todd Gordon Macleod (1903-1984) and yet the man and the products of his pen have failed to snag many new admirers since his death with the majority of his reasonably modest output out-of-print and off the beaten track. The number of books that make up his body of work may be relatively small in number but they are, however, expansive in scope and all are long overdue restoration to the realm of the read.
Macleod's first book is a stimulating and idiosyncratic book of literary criticism entitled 'Beauty and the Beast' (Chatto & Windus, 1927) in which he guides us along his own journey through literature to that point, sets out the principles that guide his taste and which he bookends with two of his own poems. This book followed contributions to various Oxford Journals, including the Oxford Outlook under the editorship of Graham Greene and his own editorship at Cherwell, and marked Macleod out as a high modernist; an identification cemented with the publication, three years later, of 'The Ecliptic' (Faber and Faber, 1930).
Poems and frontispiece from 'Beauty and the Beast'.
(Click to enlarge)'The Ecliptic' is a long poem, a collection of interlinked verse divided up under the signs of the Zodiac with a preface of short synopses of each section. The poem seeks to chart the journey through existence of a single consciousness. It is inevitably and, in a sense deliberately, difficult reading; Macleod acknowledges the turn in modern taste towards the generally easier literary form: the novel, and is seeking to resurrect and remind readers of the rewards of grappling with a poem of great length and 'strange symbolism'. The poem's design and Macleod's versification earned the admiration of both Ezra Pound and Delmore Schwartz with the former being in part responsible for the publication of the poem; having recommended it for publication to T.S.Eliot who was then Poetry Editor at Faber and Faber. Macleod corresponded with both Pound and Schwartz for a time and both selected his work for their own literary journals.The next work Macleod submitted for publication, 'Foray of Centaurs: a poem of to-day' (1931, revised 1936), my favourite of his poems, was a displacement of the centaur myth in to the London of the day and deals with themes of civilisation and barbarism and desire and abstinence. This work was roundly rejected by everyone it was submitted to. Eliot published a section from the poem in 'The Criterion' but denied it publication with Faber and Faber and it was not until 2009 when the Waterloo Press published their selections from Macleod's poetic works, 'Cyclic Serial Zeniths From the Flux', that the piece became available as a whole.
A favourite passage from the opening of 'Foray of Centaurs'. A ritual beheading during a sword dance.
(Click to enlarge)Later, and perhaps partly due to the failure of 'Foray of Centaurs' to find a publisher; though also related it would seem, to his rising profile as a BBC newsreader, Macleod adopted the pseudonym Adam Drinan. Along with this assumed name came a shift in style and focus in his work. Whilst still displaying some modernist complexity and still seeking new and rewarding forms he now began to strive for realism and a documentary style and also began to incorporate dialect words and rhythms of, in the first instance, Cornwall and then thereafter in the Drinan phase those of the Scottish Highlands and Western Islands to which his family line immediately led. The works of the Drinan period include: 'The Cove: A poem sequence' (French & sons, 1940): a thirty-three poem sequence set in Cornwall under the shadow of war; 'The Men of the Rocks' (Fortune Press, 1942): another poem sequence but this time set in the Scotland of the time and this time with the Highland Clearances casting the shadow; 'The Ghosts of the Strath' (Fortune Press, 1943): a play written in verse set in Sutherland and concerned with both the Highland Clearances and the onset of World War II and 'Women of the Happy Island' (MacLellan & Co., 1944): forty-seven soliloquies of mainly female characters left behind on the Hebridean Isle of Barra when the men go off to war. In 1946 Drinan/Macleod composed 'The MacPhails of London' but it failed to find a publisher. The final book Macleod wrote as Drinan, 'Script from Norway' (MacLellan & co., 1953), was a call for Scottish independence from Britain in the form of a poem in the form of a film script that follows a group of documentarians looking to make a film in Norway (Norway having gained independence from Swedish rule in 1905). Macleod revealed himself as Drinan at this point by attaching his own name to 'Script from Norway' alongside the pseudonym This was not, however, the first time the names had been published together, selections from Macleod and his Drinan persona were included in Kenneth Rexroth's 'The New British Poets' anthology in 1949 but in that instance no link was made between the two. Prior to Macleod revealing he was Adam Drinan the disguise seems to have been entirely effective and, aside from a very small number let in on the secret, few seem to have realised it was a pseudonym let alone guessed who was behind it. When he finally cast off the mask it was, for those paying attention, a great surprise, and for some who had corresponded with Macleod as Drinan, or both with Macleod as well as with Macleod-as-Drinan, perhaps a slightly uncomfortable one.
A passage from 'Script From Norway'.
(Click to enlarge)The Drinan works are not all that easy to come by but three of them have been published recently, once again by The Waterloo Press. 'The Cove', 'The Men of the Rocks' and 'Script From Norway' comprise 'A Drinan Trilogy' (2012).
Macleod/Drinan titles from Waterloo Press.
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During the Drinan period Macleod published another poem that centered on Scotland but which was published under his real name. 'The Passage of the Torch: a heroical-historical lay for the fifth centenary of the founding of Glasgow University' (Oliver & Boyd, 1951) is, as the title suggests, a lay of rhyming couplets which tells of the carrying of a torch across Scotland in celebration of the fifth centenary of Glasgow University and offers poetic description and historical account of the places passed through.
Macleod's last work as a poet, 'An Old Olive Tree' (M. Macdonald, 1971), came after eighteen years in which he published no new volumes of poetry and is markedly different from all that went before. Whilst all his work displays an expansive vocabulary and a linguistic precision this final collection is of a much simpler nature. Here is a small group of short poems about family, friends and aging with a poem each for Graham Greene and Adrian Stokes. The print run for the book was limited to two hundred and fifty copies and none of the poems were published anywhere else.
Two poems from 'An Old Olive Tree'. The poem on the left is dedicated to Adrian Stokes whilst the one on the right was, secretly, dedicated to Graham Greene.
(Click to enlarge)If Macleod is remembered in the literary world it is primarily as a poet, and rightly so, an encounter with his verse is something unlikely to be soon forgotten; after my own first encounter with his poetry it was not long before he took up a presiding position in my own pantheon of poets (expand on others in a note?). As the opening of this post indicated though, poetry was not Macleod's only passion and his work outside the poetical sphere stands happily beside his work in it and certainly merits rediscovery also.Almost equal to his passion for poetry was his passion for the theatre. Macleod developed a deep interest in the art and served as director at the Cambridge Festival Theatre where he also contributed plays, directed, produced and acted. He even contributed poems to the theatre programme/newsletter under the symbol of Taurus - a form of pseudonym that preceded the Drinan moniker but which did not really seek to hide the true identity of the author, Macleod's first contributions having been made under his own name.Out of this love of, and involvement in, the theatre grew six books. Half of those books were concerned with Soviet theatre; the state of the art and its audience: 'The New Soviet Theatre' (Allen & Unwin, 1943), 'Actors Cross the Volga: A Study in 19th Century Russian Theatre and of Soviet Theatre in War' (Allen & Unwin, 1946) and 'Soviet Theatre Sketchbook' (Allen & Unwin, 1951). The first of these Soviet studies earned Macleod a front cover of the Times Literary Supplement where it received a glowing review.
From 'The New Soviet Theatre.
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From 'The New Soviet Theatre.
(Click to enlarge)A further two books also dealt with theatre history. 'The Right to Act: A History of British Actor's Equity' (Allen & Unwin, 1981) was written in 1953 but did not see publication until 1981 making it the last of Macleod's works to be published in his lifetime. It is a well regarded history of the establishment of Equity though it was seen to be a little dated by the time it finally reached publication. The final piece of theatre history to mention is 'Piccolo Storia del Teatro Brittanico' (Sansoni, 1961) - a concise history of theatre in Britain which only found a publisher in Florence, the English language version being rejected by all.The final book to mention, that sprung out of Macleod's time in the theatre, was 'Overture to Cambridge: A Satirical Story' (Allen & Unwin, 1936). This was Macleod's only published novel (though he apparently had more that were not accepted for publication) and was adapted from a play he wrote and put on during his time at the Cambridge Festival Theatre. I have not been able to track down a copy of the book as yet but from the little I have read of it it appears to be a piece of dystopian prophesy likened at the time to works by H.G.Wells and Aldous Huxley.Macleod's interest in the theatre and his study of the actor's art served him well when he came to work for the BBC. In 1925 Macleod had made a small piece of history when he took part, again alongside Graham Greene, in the first radio broadcast of a poetry reading. Now, thirteen years later he found himself engaged as an announcer after the success of two programmes he produced, one of which concerned the New Soviet Theatre that he was so well versed in. Macleod soon became a household name and a beloved voice (though not without some complaints about the occasional suggestion of a Scottish accent) across the country and throughout the war but his time with the BBC was not to end well and he was urged to leave the organisation in 1945. The BBC years, from happy beginnings to uneasy end, are remembered under 'How To' headings in his 'A Job at the BBC' (MacLellan & Co., 1947).
Contents page from 'A Job at the BBC'.
(Click to enlarge)In 1973 Macleod would be involved with the BBC once more when BBC Scotland traveled to Florence, where Macleod spent much of the year from 1956 onward, to conduct an interview about his career at the BBC, life in Florence and his poetry.
Macleod reading 'To an Unborn Child'.
Two more titles complete Macleod's oeuvre; 'The Sisters d'Aranyi' (Allen & Unwin, 1969): a biography of Hungarian Emigre sisters (Jelly, Hortense and Adila d'Aranyi); two of whom became musical stars in their day but join Macleod in obscurity at present, and 'People of Florence: A Study in Locality' (Allen & Unwin, 1968): a study of Florence and its people.'The Sisters d'Aranyi' was the first of Macleod's non-fiction books I came upon and read and one which I fell in love with from the very first page.
First page of chapter one of 'The Sisters d'Aranyi'.
(Click to enlarge)The biography was a labour of love for Macleod who had been profoundly touched by Jelly d'Aranyi after seeing her play when he was a youth, he felt she ignited his love of music and that he owed pretty much all the knowledge he had of it, a knowledge on full display throughout the book, to that first fire of enthusiasm. I had heard only one recording of Jelly d'Aranyi prior to picking up the book but through Macleod's stirring descriptions of performances by Jelly and Adila as well as the countless touching, entertaining or astounding anecdotes and recollections concerning all three sisters compiled (most of which came from conversation with Jelly over an extended period, up to her death) meant that I soon shared something of the same love Macleod obviously felt for the sisters and has lead to a little digging which has increased my knowledge of the recordings of the sisters that hint at the reality reached for in Macleod's rapturous depictions.
Jelly d'Aranyi and Arthur Bergh - Vitali Chaconne in G Minor.
The work dedicated to the city of Florence is given the subtitle of 'A Study in Locality'. We can see what Macleod understands by the term 'locality' in the opening to 'The Sisters d'Aranyi' pictured above and it is clear it is an important idea throughout much of his work. It is clearly central to the Florence book but it also informs the realism of the localised Drinan works, is fruitful in his Russian studies, plays its part in the Macleod's approach to biography and, contracting the scope of its sphere to the self, provides the setting for the opening of his final poetic work.
Opening poem for 'An Old Olive Tree'.
(Click to enlarge)Macleod died in 1984 and in a fairly short space of time his work has been entirely sidelined if not largely forgotten. His body of work is mostly out-of-print and no extended consideration of his life and work has ever been published. The work has been done though, A PHD thesis by James Fountain has told the story of Macleod's life and career/s and has looked, in no small detail, at his poetical works and their development but so far it remains a thesis and has not seen commercial publication beyond its informing of Fountain's foreword to the Waterloo Press selection of Drinan poetry. The only other contribution to Macleod scholarship comes from Andrew Duncan who provides fine introductions to both of the Waterloo Press titles. With Macleod's drift in to obscurity a poet of genius and a unique voice in all the fields he explored has been temporarily silenced; an oversight that has begun to be addressed but is still far from being rectified.
- Ian Meads.
Click to read Macleod's 'Nightslide': a parody written to be part of Terence Gray's production of 'The Birds'.
Portrait of Joseph Macleod by Sadra Bronetti (1970)
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