From Glasgow to Sobieski’s Shield:
Diversity in the Poetry of Edwin Morgan (1920-2010)
by James Graham
5: The Love Poems
There’s no room in a short essay to discuss Morgan’s many translations, which account for three out of the nine major awards he earned during his lifetime. He worked in eight European languages, and his translations from Hungarian are especially acclaimed. Not to include at least one of his love poems, however — there are enough to fill a book — would be to do him a disservice.
Where are you in this darkness? I put out
a hand, the branch outside
touches only cold October air
and loses leaves, it is hard
to wish for you, harder to sleep, useless to weep.
How can I bear the darkness empty
and how can the darkness bear love?
I bore the darkness lying still, thinking
you were against my heart,
till I heard the milk-cart horse
come clattering down the hill
and the brash clear whistle
of the milk-boy dancing
on his frosty doorsteps,
uncaring as the morning star.
Come back to me — from anywhere come back!
I’ll see you standing in my door,
though the whistling fades to air.
There’s a special feature of Morgan’s love poetry which must be unique. He was gay but, for various personal (and legal) reasons, did not come out until later in life. The extraordinary thing is that none of the poems is gendered. Addressed to ‘you’, and not referring to ‘he’ or ‘she’, they can be read as heterosexual or homosexual.
Schoolteachers, aware perhaps of latent (or indeed blatant) homophobia among their teenage pupils, have been known to present one of the love poems to a class without reference to the poet’s orientation. But this is dishonest, even cowardly. As soon as we learn that the poet was gay, we can see in them how tender homosexual love and longing can be. And those still afflicted with homophobia can, to be optimistic about it, perhaps be moved to respect what they fail to understand. Under a good English teacher, a little light can be turned on inside the heads of even the most immature teenagers in the class.
What we are left with in fact are love poems which make sexual orientation irrelevant. Facing one way or the other, the poems are equally engaging and moving.
To describe Morgan as a virtuoso might give the impression that he was little more than an outstanding wordsmith, a skilful practitioner in many varieties of verse writing. I hope readers will explore more of his work online and in print (see below) and discover that he was indeed that kind of virtuoso, but that he was much more besides.
Edwin Morgan was born in Partick, in the West End of Glasgow, but spent most of his childhood in Rutherglen, one of the city’s satellite towns. He entered Glasgow University in 1937. During World War 2 he served in the Royal Medical Corps as a non-combatant conscientious objector. Returning to his studies, he graduated with First Class Honours in 1947. Until his retirement in 1980, he worked as a lecturer in English Literature in the same university.
Bibliography and Links
At time of writing, these books and the CD are all available on Amazon.
- Edwin Morgan, Collected Poems, Carcanet Press 2012
- James McGonigal, Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan, Sandstone Press Ltd 2012
- James McGonigal, The Poetry of Edwin Morgan, (Scotnotes series) Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS) 2013
- Official website: www.edwinmorgan.com
Edwin Morgan Archive at the Scottish Poetry Library: edwinmorgan.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/
The poet reading his own work: 23 Poems of Edwin Morgan: Read by Edwin Morgan, with Commentary by Professor Roderick Watson, Audio CD, ASLS 2005
Copyright © 2016 by James Graham