The Poetry Of William Neill
by Emanuela Zocca
translated by William Neill
edited by John Hudson and Elspeth Brown
Italy has always shown an interest in Scottish letters. Zocca's thesis, written at Bologna University, represents the longest sustained argument around one of Scotland's foremost living poets. When, one might ask, will native critics begin to address their own contemporary literature in such a committed manner? Markings will be serialising Zocca's writing on Neill over the next four issues. The poet himself has kindly translated what follows from the Italian.
gl = Galloway Landscape, Urr Publications 1981; fp = Four Points of a Saltire, Reprographica 1972; cn = Colin Nicholson - Poem, Purpose, & Place, Celtic Dept., Glasgow University 1983; wp = Wild Places, Luath Press 1985
Part One: A Late Developer
We might attempt with difficulty the task of pigeon-holing the work of William Neill within a defined poetical system, we might force it to disclose analogies between his own personality and that of other contemporary Scottish poets, but what is sure is that own search did not lead to any definitely satisfying result. Neill is constituted of many aspects, first above all that of extreme versatility, a special case in the ambit of the contemporary Scottish literary scene. One of the aspects which greatly validates such a judgement is the fact that he defines himself as a "late developer", one, that is to say who has come to a systematic study of English and Celtic letters at a mature age and who, notwithstanding that he is prolific without any doubt, has published his collections at a rather advanced age. This situation he expresses in:
"Late Developer" (gl).
William Neill was born in Prestwick, Ayrshire in 1922. We will recall that the same country was the birthplace of Robert Burns and of the notable poet in the Welsh language, Taliesin. At five years old his family moved to Ayr and he completed his schooling in Ayr Academy. The serene childhood spent here brought a contact with the dwellings and habits of the rural community which represents one of the fundamental stages of his poetical existence, deeply recalled through such detail of the farmhouse in which the young Neill lived in his poem,
"Ayrshire Farm" (fp).
Here already in this vivid imagery one of Neill's basic poetic characteristics comes out, indeed the ability to build a depth of feeling in realism, in simple things, in the authentic description. All the same, the constant appeal to the senses amplifies its beauty and musicality.
In 1938 till 1967 Neill was away in the Royal Air Force from which he emerged with the rank of Warrant Officer. Here is what he thinks of the experience: "Looking back on it now, I'd rather have done something different with my life, but I was caught at an early age, and that was that. I did a great deal of reading though -when I wasn't sitting in an aeroplane I was sitting with a book. Like every autodidact, I suppose, much of this reading was random."(cn).
In 1967 Neill matriculated in the University of Edinburgh: four years in which he won the Sloane and Grierson Verse prizes for poetry and graduated with an Honours degree in Celtic Studies. In 1969 Neill caused a great sensation as one of the few Lowlanders to have won the title of honour, "The Bardic Crown," at the Aviemore Mod. This is the Festival which since 1892 has celebrated Gaelic music and literature. Now Neill reveals his expertise as a fine composer in the Gaelic language. On this occasion he wrote "Aviemore Mod 1969"(sp) wherein it is as if we see further advanced what becomes customary to Neill, his open polemicizing against the abandonment by those Scots who live in the great cities of their Gaelic language, the language of their first origins in favour of a ridiculous London accent.
After graduation Neill taught for ten years in Castle Douglas High School, living in the nearby village of Crossmichael. We see also the special capacity for "patriotic polemic" in Neill's appointment as editor of "Catalyst," the official magazine of the 1320 club. Here is his account: "1320 of course was the date of the Declaration of Arbroath. 'While a hundred of us are left alive we will never submit to domination of the English,' says that noble document. The 1320 Club was composed by and large of Scots of all political persuasion. MacDiarmid was a member and he was a Communist and it also had High Tories as members. The common aim was a parliament for Scotland and the magazine was first instituted in the late sixties in furtherance of those aims. I realised that it wouldn't attract intelligent attention unless it had more to say than just politics, though the politicians, naturally, didn't like it. I published some poets for the first time in "Catalyst," as well as established poets like George Campbell Hay and Norman MacCaig."(cn)
"Scotland's Castle," a work entirely in Scots in 1969 began the publication of work by Neill, and was followed by many other collections of poetry, as well as prose essays and translations.
It is interesting to point out in this context with the copious production of our poet his collaboration with three other important names among Scottish poets of this century: Sorley MacLean, George Campbell Hay and Stuart MacGregor. Together they published "Four Points of a Saltire." The strong personality, the patriotic vein, the social teaching represents the common denominator that binds the work of these authors in a fascinating poetical declaration.
With the issue of "Wild Places," in 1985 Neill received a further special prize from the Scottish Arts Council, and his work appeared in specialist magazines such as "Spectrum" and had recitals on radio and television. Furthermore, in Scotland and Ireland his work obtained acclaim as well as in Italy and Germany where he was invited to read his work and to debate the role of "minority" languages in the ambit of a society who gave special privilege to such as expressed themselves in "standard."
Of that which obtains expressly to the thematic concerns of Neill's work, as we see it, we deal with each core subject under distinct headings. Among these are nationalism, the attachment to a Scottish basis through past and present, a pride in his own Gaelic roots, the celebration of the countryside as opposed to the drabness and coldness of the cities, the homage to Scottish poets past and present, the omnipresence of death. At the same time a unique polemico-satirical vein and the adoption of classic metrical forms which characterises the entire work, as well as those in which social engagement does not appear as a determining factor.
At the present time Neill, retired from teaching, devotes himself totally to poetry and translation, living in a charming white cottage in Crossmichael in Galloway, in which he "lives frugally on vegetables grown by wife and wine fermented by self," wherein we happened to meet last summer.
Scotia Est Divisa In Voces Tres (wp p. 130)
It was the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and the succeeding Union of Parliaments in 1707 that confirmed the political fusion of England and Scotland which relates today to a Scottish cultural and literary tradition distinct from that of England, not really of an anachronistic type if one considers those Scottish writers who are most innovative and eclectic, first of all our William Neill -in the feeling of 'diversity,' of opposition to the "Establishment" of English culture which seems not only deeply felt but impossible to abandon. And it is of such a conscious nature -much more intense than is recognised - that the chosen themes spring: social and especially linguistic, of the writer in his search for his own "Scottish" identity. So in the first place, there emerges the wish to revive the history of the Scots by means of the revitalisation of the three great Scottish linguistic and cultural traditions: Scots, Gaelic and English which over the course of centuries are encountered, intertwined, and compared in that small kingdom on the margin of Western Europe. Neill's chosen path is extremely interesting because he is the only poet of this century who, together with George Campbell Hay, alternates his components with the same mastery, going from the use of Scots to Gaelic and English.
In an essay entitled modern Poetry in Scots and Gaelic, Neill states: "at the outset it should be pointed out that the Scots are not English and often have to suffer considerable irritation by being so described. England forms the greater part of the island of Britain, but it is by no means all of it. The English of London, through the medium of television and radio, is of course perfectly intelligible to all Scots. Nevertheless, the English spoken only a mile or so over the border is immediately obvious to the Scottish ear as being non Scottish. The Scottish accent, even in the speaking of standard English, has been formed through long centuries when the Gaelic and Scots tongue were universally spoken, not only by the common people, but by the ruling and professional classes. In Modern Scotland, either Gaelic or Scots is still the mother-tongue of many Scots."
Gaelic was introduced to Scotland by an Irish invasion round about 500A.D. The Scots in fact found Argyll and the islands of Scotland a very attractive area in which to establish themselves. In the sixth century A.D. many crossed from the territory of Northern Ireland called Dalriada and founded in the new country a settlement which they called by the same name as the area from which they came. One of their kings, Fergus Mor, settled his territory in Kintyre while his brothers founded minor kingdoms in the Oban area and in the islands of Jura and Islay. Here we have the strange situation in which one king ruled over two territories separated by the sea, although under the same name. The Crown was disposed in a hereditary manner and it is probable that the most famous clan names such as MacGregor and MacLean originated in these times. (Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry: A History of Scotland)
"In Gaelic there was a tradition, either written or oral but especially oral dating back to the eleventh century A.D that it took over from Scotland's other Celtic languages as the tongue of the courts and the people. Nevertheless, about the 7th century A.D. the early Germanic origins of Modern English began to penetrate bands of territory in Scotland until it gradually became the language of the city wherein the merchant affairs developed. Close to the end of fourteenth century Gaelic came to be confined to the peripheral areas and that Old English which ended by being named Scots, was grounded in the Lowlands, the plains of Scotland. But this development was not the same as that which took place in England. The flexion and lexis varied notably; the vowel sounds are profoundly at variance. Modern Scots still retains phonemes and allophones which sound strange to an English ear; Scots contains a more ample Scandinavian lexis as well as terms obtained from Gaelic; it contains French loan-words unknown in England and above all it preserves the full fricative sound of words spelt with a silent gh:; night and might are in Scots nicht and micht. It is beside the point, says Neill, to argue about whether Scots is a language or a dialect or a parallel development. If it is a dialect, then it is significantly close in its commonality of terms. In the first place it has an uninterrupted literary tradition from the fourteenth century till our own day ..... furthermore, it was the habitual means of communication among educated people. James VI of Scotland, who was first to reign over both England and Scotland together, used that tongue just as his judges and magistrates and university teachers." (Modern Poetry in Scots and Gaelic, ed., Elio Cipriani, Andrea Fabbri, Giovanni Nadiani)
To be much more precise, the birth of the Scottish poetic tradition in Scots, at least, has its origins in 1300, with the epic "Bruce" of John Barbour which celebrates the victory of the Scots over their proud antagonists of England in the War of Independence. Following this Scots became the literary language of The Makars, the great Scottish writers of the fifteenth century -Robert Henryson, (1480) William Dunbar, (1460 -1520) and Gavin Douglas. (1475 -1522) Subsequently, however, with reformist leadership of John Knox, Scots ran into danger by taking up numerous traditions of the Bible in English rather than Scots. Another severe attack on Scots took place in 1603 when James VI whom we have already seen as perfectly well versed in that tongue took himself off to London with his court and all the Scots poets who surrounded him. As soon as they got to London these adopted the English style of composition. However, the Scottish people of the Lowlands continued to speak Scots while the Highlanders remained loyal to Gaelic. With the Union of Parliaments the Scots suffered another blow because the Scottish ruling class began to express themselves in English and the richer people sent their sons to English schools to prepare them to occupy commanding positions in England where the centre of power lay. Fortunately the literary Scots rebelled and the eighteenth century produced a revival of Scottish letters. Alan Ramsey wrote in English but even better in Scots an published an anthology called the Tea Table Miscellany which encouraged other poets to follow on the road he had marked out. Best among these was Robert Fergusson who, notwithstanding his early death at twenty-four years of age, left verses of great vitality and energy. After this came the Burns "era": he dominated poetry in Scots for more than a hundred years, as late as the beginning of this century. Meanwhile the Scots had undergone a slow process of industrialisation, when those who chose to write in Scots attached themselves not only to the language of Burns but also to his rural themes.