In the fairly recent publication, Hallaig and Other Poems, two of Sorley Maclean’s most devoted acolytes, Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul (Angus Peter Campbell) and Aonghas MacNeacail – both respected poets in their own right – have selected over seventy of what I assume are their personal favourites from the renowned, late Raasay poet’s work. Drawn mainly from the Dàin do Eimhir (Poems to Eimhir) and An Cuilithionn (The Cuillin) collections, this book could be considered an introduction for any newcomer to Maclean’s work, and a handy paperback which can be tucked into an inner pocket to accompany a walk.
When I first delved into Maclean’s Gaelic poetry, I was immediately struck by his incredible range of vocabulary describing landscape and nature; one could compile a Gaelic glossary of geological and geographical terms from his poetry alone. With this in mind, I started to compile some of the intensely descriptive landscape collocations employed in the 1989 collection O Choille gu Bearradh (From Wood to Ridge) for my own consumption.
Whether I actually complete the glossary or not, the fact remains that the sheer volume of landscape vocabulary employed in poems such as the grand “An Cuillithionn” (1989) is as impressive as the sight of that mountain range itself; even in a short poem such as “Ceann Loch Aoineart”, depicting that area’s mountainous terrain, his nature poetry can be quite breathtakingly beautiful. It lends itself well to being read aloud, and if you were to do so, it might literally have your heart pounding. The following stanza will demonstrate that to some degree:
Eachraidh bheanntan, marcachd mhullaichean
deann-ruith, shruthanach càthair
sleamhnachd leacannan, seangachd chreachainnean
srannraich leacanach àrd-bheann.
(A cavalry of mountains, horse-riding summits,
a streaming headlong haste of foam,
a slipperiness of smooth flat rocks, small-bellied bare summits,
flat-rock snoring of high mountains.)
Most words in Gaelic are stressed on the first syllable; in Ceann Loch Aoineart the rhythm is extremely important in depicting the scenery, with the number of syllables being subordinate to the stress pattern. Rhyming most often occurs between vowel-sounds in Gaelic, falling here between the first vowel-sounds of the two-syllable words, càthair (of foam) and àrd-bheann (of high mountains). These words are also in the genitive case – a most useful grammatical tool in Gaelic poetry.
Iain Crichton Smith is quoted on the front cover referring to Maclean as “one of the great love poets of the world” and he may well be right. If you want to get a flavour of how this aspect of his poetry has come to be so highly regarded, you will find a good number of love poems in this book. If you find yourself wanting to read more, whether in translation or not, then get hold of the superbly-annotated edition of Dàin do Eimhir (Poems to Eimhir), published in 2007 by Polygon. The editor, the poet and novelist, Christopher Whyte makes mention of the influence of Yeats on a few of his poems, and of Sorley’s admission that a “core inspiration” for poem LVII was Yeats’ “Where had her sweetness gone” from the Winding Stair and other poems. However, there is plenty to discover here before you move on to larger editions.
Gaelic learners will enjoy deciphering “A Chiall ’s a Ghràidh (Reason and Love)”. While his reason struggled, the protagonist, who may well be the poet, had put up a “shadow of a fight’” (faileas strì) before the foolish barrier (“a’ chòmhla bhaoth”) was broken, and his intellect and love mingled together (“tha an coimeasgadh sa ghaol”).
I’ve only mentioned nature and love poetry but you’ll find a wide variety of themes here. You will gain further insight through Angus Peter Campbell and Aonghas MacNeacail’s bilingual accounts of aspects of Sorley’s life and poetry, which also suggest a continuing influence on the latter’s own practice.