Private Morgan: World War Two & Edwin Morgan’s ‘The New Divan’

edwin morgan
© Jessie Ann Matthew, National Galleries Scotland

 

Richie McCaffery

 

While many of Edwin Morgan’s (1920-2010) Scottish near contemporaries in poetry, such as Hamish Henderson and Sorley MacLean, wrote immediate, resonant and powerful work about their active experiences in North Africa during World War Two, it was not until 1977, when Carcanet published Morgan’s third major collection (not neglecting a raft of pamphlets and collections of translations) The New Divan that Morgan acknowledged the long title poem as his belated ‘war poem’. This poem sequence both captures a sense of Morgan’s wartime trauma but also the newfound freedom and sexual discovery that a role in conflict offered a young man from a conservative, middle-class background.

 

Some of the more erotically-charged poems in ‘The New Divan’ show that the liberation Morgan felt in North Africa was too much for him to adequately capture in his verse at the time. This failure, and an uncertainty about his artistic direction led to his darkest decade, the 1950s, which was a time of artistic struggle, malaise and confusion. Latency is one of the most obvious aspects of Morgan’s poetry of the war; beyond one ‘highly-mannered’ poem written during the event itself, Morgan was unable to write about his experiences until the mid-1970s when the Middle East was once again in the news. It is clear that ‘The New Divan’ was, for Morgan at least, one of the major lodestones of his poetic career and he was to speak very possessively and defensively of it in interviews claiming ‘it is my hidden poem, which no one writes about.’ It replaces what Morgan has referred to as his earlier ‘surrogate’ war poem, his 1952 translation of Beowulf, which explores the imagery of sea-voyaging and male companionship as something akin to his involvement in the war.

 

What marks ‘The New Divan’ out from many of the contemporary poems of World War Two is that it is a ‘very delayed action kind of thing […] it all comes through a process of memory and recreation of the war, which is not at all like writing about the war in any ordinary sense of the word.’ Roderick Watson has noted that Morgan is a poet of ‘growth, change, flux and delight’ and this drive for transformation over tradition twinned with the fact that ‘The New Divan’ is unlike any other war poem means that Morgan is not merely copying Persian poetic modes but using them in vital and often defamiliarising ways, similar to the Russian formalists whose work he had read, enjoyed and in many cases translated into English and Scots. Morgan’s aim for ‘The New Divan’ was almost revolutionary in its attempt to offer a different type of poetry from that popular in the West, where the ‘reader is worked too hard’ and driven along by an unyielding narrative. The result is something of a battle-scarred medina, where the reader can ‘move around […] cast your eyes here and there’ around a series of emporia that offer different wares and within this is contained a sense of the personal liberation Morgan felt as a young man; the reader is liberated and the poet is free to write in the most ‘cryptic’ and then sexually explicit terms:

 

Not in King’s Regulations, to be in love.
Cosgrove I gave the flower to, joking, jumping down
the rocky terraces above Sidon, my heart bursting
as a village twilight spread its tent over us
and promontories swam far below
through goat-bells into an unearthly red.

 

In 1940, the then twenty-year old Edwin Morgan registered as a conscientious objector. Morgan’s stance as a conscientious objector, however, was transient as he quickly ‘began to believe that there was, by that time, no real alternative to war with Germany but his lingering sympathy for pacifism drove him to an uneasy compromise and he asked that he might serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps.’ In Morgan’s oral entry for the Remembering Scotland at War website he recalls his experience and expresses relief at his non-combatant posting as a ‘Private’ in the 42nd General Hospital branch of the Royal Army Medical Corps, a unit that Hugh MacDiarmid himself had served in during World War One. For Morgan, it was important to play a part but it had to be in a capacity where ‘I could be killed myself, but they couldn’t be killed by me’. In his 1990 interview for STV’s series of interviews with Scottish writers from the 1980s and 1990s, ‘Off the Page’, Morgan explains that while this posting suited him and enabled him to travel widely within the Middle East, giving a rich milieu to ‘The New Divan’, it was the fact that he was ‘behind the front-lines’ which meant some of the ‘sharpness’ of the war only gradually filtered down to him and gave rise to the delayed nature of his war poetry.

 

Morgan was both a ‘private’ in terms of his rank, a rank he steadfastly held onto, but also a deeply private poet, as Roderick Watson reminds us when he states that Morgan had ‘an essentially private and optimistic nature’. Morgan’s compulsion to avoid any promotion in terms of rank and his non-violent contribution to the war effort mean that we can already see, from the outset, a poet going against the traditional route of heroism or action in war poetry and setting a tone of self-effacement that would characterise much of his later work. His commitment to the esprit de corps in his unit, ranging from the potential for homo-social and platonic relationships to physical homosexual trysts, meant that Morgan was without the privacy he needed to write. ‘The New Divan’ makes clear that while the war for Morgan could be deeply harrowing, in the case of poem 99, subtitled ‘I hated stretcher-bearing’, much of the frankness of this collection shows that it could also bring Morgan more opportunity for sexual exploration and risk-taking. Many reviewers of ‘The New Divan’ have been quick to detect the twin drives of candour and obscurity in the sequence, caught on what Christopher Whyte has termed ‘a middle path between explicitness and concealment’. David Kinloch, most recently, has written that ‘The New Divan’ is in many ways not a poem like those written by Morgan’s ‘heterosexual compatriots’ about ‘adequately representing World War Two in language’ but an ‘evocation of [its] sensual reverberations through time and space’. The journey we are taken on is one of ‘obliquity to frankness’ representing ‘a process of difficult “coming out”, of coming to terms in all senses of that expression, a veritable rite of passage.’

 

James McGonigal, Morgan’s biographer, compares Morgan’s creative frustrations in the 1950s to that of ‘the haltering reconstruction of Scotland after the war’. Morgan’s breakthrough 1968 collection The Second Life deals with the creative, personal and national regeneration after the war and celebrates Morgan’s embracing of the eclectic and intellectually dynamic bent in his work. It also marks Morgan as becoming more candid, letting in personal experience and giving out more private revelations which would be brought to a new level of explicitness, particularly about sexuality, in ‘The New Divan’, although it would not be until a 1990 interview with Christopher Whyte where Morgan would finally state his homosexuality.

 

The Second Life shows signs of the poet sloughing off his conservative background and being re-born much like the development of Glasgow around him. Using Glasgow as his physical locus, Morgan travels further than many of the poets of his generation into space, time-travel and science fiction, making him a poet very much of place and of the autochthonous but also the cosmos, an image he would further explore in ‘The New Divan’ where he conjures Charles Doughty in relation to the desert of World War Two and how ‘desert landscapes give you long thoughts’ and ‘you begin to understand why monotheism, Islam after all means submission, did arise in those parts’. The main gateway poem that precedes ‘The New Divan’ is ‘The Unspoken.’ Written between 30th December 1963 and 1st January 1964, it is one of Morgan’s first war poems to deal directly with his experiences and is divided into three discrete but juxtaposing passages. It opens with an awed and awe-inspiring evocation of Morgan’s troopship ‘pitching round the Cape’. The air is celebratory and gives a glimpse of the camaraderie Morgan was to enjoy with his fellow privates:

 

[…] Tommy Cosh started singing ‘Mandalay’ and we joined in with
our raucous chorus of the unforgettable song,
and the dawn came up like thunder like that moon drawing the
water of our yearning
though we were going to war, and left us exalted,
that was happiness […]

 

However, the key is not the almost hedonistic image of the troops enjoying a sing-along nor is it Morgan’s then current interest in space travel represented by nations of people fearing and pinning their hopes on a dog sent up in an exploratory rocket; it is the ‘unspoken’ and the dreary Glasgow day when Morgan and his partner kiss in a bus shelter. Morgan repeats that all of these cosmic and momentous events were real but ‘it is not like that’. These events are milestones, but they are not sustainable and the poem’s power comes from the gradual diminution of events to this private vignette of two lovers making an ordinary day ‘extraordinary’ with the level of their ‘feeling’. McGonigal has said that Morgan’s poetry gains its power ‘from things not declared’ and the rousing closing lines to ‘The Unspoken’ read:

 

O then it was a story as old as war or man,
and although we have not said it we know it,
and although we have not claimed it we do it,
and although we have not vowed it we keep it,
without a name to the end.

 

The quality that Morgan refuses to, or cannot, name is two-fold: it is both the Lord Alfred Douglas notion of ‘the love that dares not speak its name’ and a matter of such privacy and affection shared between two people that Morgan will not spell it out, for to do so would be to banalise it. We must consider both Morgan’s right to privacy and the societal constraints that existed but were beginning to be eroded when this poem was written in 1963. For Morgan, World War Two was in many ways a positive experience in terms of his sexual awakening. In this light, he is almost teasing the reader with some of the more enigmatic passages in ‘The Unspoken’. However, by the time he comes to write ‘The New Divan’ he is willing to reveal more. Using Arabic poetic modes he has found a way to both reveal and disguise his homosexuality in a way that was not possible before. In this light it is little surprise that this was one of Morgan’s favourite poems from his own vast oeuvre. When his poetry was accused of being too impersonal Morgan defended ‘The New Divan’ in which ‘my life is embedded’ (an unconscious play on the polysemous meanings of ‘divan’) and that ‘it’s just as personal a poetry as anybody else’s, but the clues are not perhaps as clearly spelt out as they would be in other people’s poetry’. Morgan not only delves into the landscape and poetry he experienced during his time in the Middle East, but he finds that narrative structure is almost a Western artifice and that we are ‘too obsessed by structure’.

 

Mimi Khalvati, speaking about ‘the old Persian form’ of the ghazal, has said that such a poem must somewhere contain a signature of the poet, either by name, pseudonym or word-play. The Arabic term roughly translates as ‘speaking to women’, since the form would have been used as a lyrical and courtly mode, its lapidary form of a sequence of between five to fifteen self-contained couplets acting as a necklace of poetry, a fine offering. Looking at Morgan’s poems in ‘The New Divan’ we see that he at many times deviates from the strictness of the form, thus underscoring the idea that this poem is a real departure for Morgan, that he will instead be speaking about men. This goes someway to explaining why Morgan’s ‘divan’ is potentially mysterious, and while these poems are not traditional ghazals – Morgan conjures up the spirit of Hafiz, a renowned composer of Persian ghazals, as his recurring point of reference. The cryptic tones of the earlier poems in the sequence play tribute to Middle Eastern forms of storytelling but also serve to focus the later poems which are much closer to Morgan’s actually experiences and contain both affecting and startling disclosures, such as Morgan’s dalliance with Cosgrove on Mount Carmel in poem 98 and his fear of stretcher-bearing in poem 99. The sea change takes place at a crucial opening line in poem 86 where Morgan makes it clear that it was ‘Not in the King’s regulations, to be in love’. Love and lust manifest themselves in increasingly candid and autobiographical ways as the sequence draws to a close and, amid the danger of war, the reader is reminded that Morgan ‘takes comedy seriously’ as we see in poem 98, that after sex on Mount Carmel, Cosgrove finds a ‘dog’s turd flattened’ on his shirt. The comic effect of this image is sharply undercut by Morgan’s acceptance that the thrills he enjoyed were transient, as he reminds us in ‘The Unspoken’ that ‘it is not like that’, for Cosgrove’s shirt is ‘really unwashable laundry / that finally had to be thrown away.’

 

While the earlier poems of ‘The New Divan’ try on different guises and personae and try to get inside some of the poetry of the desert and Sufi mysticism, it is the final 15 poems that bring the collection towards Morgan’s time in the desert during World War Two. The earlier poems serve to show Morgan’s ‘almost superstitious respect for the mystery of inspiration’. McGonigal has written that poems 60 to 80 are characterised by different incarnations of ‘commitment – political, religious, artistic’ and this supports Morgan’s assertion that one of the major roles of the poem was of going into the unknown to search for answers. Morgan did not ‘start off from having a firm basis of ideas or belief’ and instead uses the trope of the epic quest to reveal in both candid and coded ways his experiences and reactions to what happened to him in the Middle East. For instance, in poem 60 we smell the ‘blood of revolutions’ and ‘not roses’; poem 62 reminds us of the story-teller’s ability to evoke magical tales from the most mundane of settings, so while he talks about ‘Sindbad’ and his flying carpet, the storyteller is merely sitting down, ‘chomping cake.’ Poems 64 and 65 become more comminatory with talk of the atom bomb, radiation of children and hell which is ‘after you’. Rain, which has been a recurrent image in the sequence, suddenly heralds something more direful, the coming of war:

 

Clouds bringing rain brought more than rain, brought war.
Machines tore out, like a tooth, a hemisphere.
[…] It was the goal of bones.

 

These poems, which seem to occur on the precipice of combat, are imbued with powerful phrases that almost act as axioms on war of any kind, not simply that of the Middle East. In poem 68 we encounter a ‘ruffian sage’ who asks the speaker ‘You think / the dead will ever eat their way through space?’ but the closing lines present the previous encounter as ‘so the story says’ or ‘so the story-teller says’. It is the fusion of myth, fable and cold reality and the interchangeability of such things in this sequence that goes beyond mere ‘malleabilities of time and space’ and makes the sequence as problematic and troubling as it is rewarding. The reader can never stand with any stability on a poem that is wholly truthful or fictitious but out of this swirling and sometimes intoxicating mix of language and cultures comes a phrase which can illuminate more than the poem itself. Such a phrase can be found in poem 95, as the sequence reaches its painful but intrinsically optimistic conclusion. Here, the war in the desert is beginning to turn in the favour of the Allies and Morgan in one resounding sentence manages to put into poetry a sense of hope at winning:

 

The night is Rommel’s tree:
searchlights cut it, history the secretion.

 

Poem 87 reminds us that although history can make the mind regressive, there is a significant lacuna between what has gone and what is lost. In this case, Morgan is accepting that his companion and lover Cosgrove is ‘gone’ but as long as Morgan exists and has the power to write, Cosgrove will never be truly ‘lost’:

 

History so fearfully
draws us backward
that to be gone
even as you are these thirty years is not to be
lost, although that later war’s long done.

 

Morgan has frozen Cosgrove in a certain period, but has used this elaborate sequence to excavate not only memories of Cosgrove but to explore the roots of his own homosexuality and this is one of the key elements of the poem, which also make it a war poem unlike any other. There is an aspect of personal archaeology here that the poet does not want to make too obvious as to cheapen his memories, but as we look at poem 97, we see a return to some of the sybaritic patterns of the early poems, but this time in Cairo. Morgan talks about the ‘buzz’ of Cairo with its ‘domes, shoeshines, jeeps, glaucomas, beads’ but underneath this bustling energy are:

 

A million graves, a withered arm,
sarcophaguses red
with blood and ochre, smooth
boats on a dark sub-Nile
of slaves and captives, the
oldest way of gold,
over the dead with gold
and no haul of good.

 

There is a subterranean world here of graves, sepulchres and tombs and the poem quoted above does comes close to the thanatic drive of the Ancient Egyptians that Hamish Henderson speaks of in his Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica. The dead lie under this poem and often transgress from their vaults into the energy of the world above, while others make the journey from the living to the dead. For instance, the penultimate poem talks about ‘the easiest trip of all I don’t forget’ in the desert, tasked with stretcher bearing, Morgan carries:

 

[…] that dead officer
drained of blood, wasted away,
leg amputated at the thigh,
wrapped in a rough sheet, light as a child

 

The twin aims of Morgan’s ‘The New Divan’ are to simultaneously observe and make sense of this all-surrounding dead, ancient and modern day, but also come to terms with and re-live the beginnings of his homosexual identity, a secret that was necessarily buried at the time. The sequence is a crucible of cultures, literatures, language and sensation, from decadence and eroticism to the bloody realities of the desert war. The sequence is optimistic, for even though it is a picaresque and a quest where the boat Morgan sails on ends wrecked as a tatter of sailcloth on the shore, it is one that allows a growing artistic self-assertion and an emergence of homosexual identity. In poem 98, Morgan accepts that his dalliance with Cosgrove will be transient and that his life in the Middle East will not last, for these things are simply not sustainable, making it an elegy for the dead, a swansong for his wartime relationships, but also a testament of a journey travelled, survived and gained from. In poem 100, Morgan avoids making any profound statements based on his ‘quest’ and cannot speak of that ‘eternal break of white’, only of ‘memories crowding in from human kind, / stealthily, brazenly, thankfully, stonily / into that other sea-cave / of my head.’ Here Morgan is striking both courageous and vulnerable notes, and his sequence is one of the most strikingly profound of World War Two, and also one of the most ambitious for its weaving together of so many strands and voices whilst avoiding the singular and wonted lyric, heroic or bardic ego.

 

Richie McCaffery

About Richie McCaffery

Richie McCaffery divides his time between Ghent, Belgium where he lives with his Flemish wife and the UK. He has a PhD in Scottish literature from the University of Glasgow where he was a Carnegie scholar. He has had two collections - 'Cairn' (2014) and 'Passport' (2018) - published by Nine Arches Press. His essays on poetry have been published in places such as Studies in Scottish Literature, etudes Ecossaises, Scottish Literary Review and The Dark Horse. His poems have appeared in journals such as The North, Oxford Poetry, Ambit, The Times Literary Supplement and Magma.