The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown

Of all 20th-century poets George Mackay Brown is perhaps the most rooted in a particular place – ‘the small green world’ of the Orkney Islands where he was born, and where, excepting two short spells as a mature student on the Scottish mainland, he spent the whole of his life. Using the history, legends and landscapes of his remote home, he managed, perhaps not even paradoxically, to create a poetry of universal appeal.

The lamp is needful in spring, still,
Though the jar of daffodils
Outsplendours lamplight and hearthflames.

In summer only near midnight
Is match struck to wick.
A moth, maybe, troubles the rag of flame.

Harvest. The lamp in the window
Summons the scythe-men.
A school-book lies on the sill, two yellow halves.

In December the lamp’s a jewel,
The hearth ingots and incense.
A cold star travels across the pane.

Robert Crawford writes:

Brown’s Christianity, strengthened by his reception into the Catholic Church in 1961, reinforced both his art and, eventually, his repressiveness. The concentrated spirituality of his work is one of its glories, but eventually even the poetry fell victim to a spiritual exercise regime that became oppressive. Fergusson points out that there was in his last years ‘a striving for personal purity of thought and word and deed that sometimes bordered on neurosis’. In his 1991 Selected Poems, she adds, ‘poems with even the smallest sexual connotation have either been jettisoned or reworked, invariably for the worse.’ At times, Archie Bevan and Brian Murray, editors of his Collected Poems, seem to agree with this, and choose earlier versions rather than Brown’s later revisions. Though not without typos, the Collected Poems makes available a resolute and remarkable body of more than four hundred poems, which establish an authoritative familiarity, yet can still seem as arrestingly strange as the ‘rinsed eye’ of a whale.

(LRB 22 February 2007)