Norman MacCaig was an Edinburgh poet, born in the capital in 1910, and educated at the Royal High School and Edinburgh University. Much of his life was spent either in Edinburgh or the Western Highlands, and his poetry often reflects these conflicting identities.
MacCaig was suspicious of authority, and believed in the power and catharsis (relieving of tensions) that nature could provide. His poems often centre on other people, although in doing this, MacCaig reveals much about himself. His poem 'Aunt Julia' describes his Gaelic-speaking relative and her death, but in so doing, focuses on MacCaig's own sense of loss, and the conflict he feels between his life in Edinburgh, and his heritage in the Highlands.
MacCaig's poetry is based on traditional Celtic lyricism (the story of the poem being more important than other aspects), although MacCaig update this to focus on using precise language. His poems often appear simple, as they are free verse (they do not conform to structural rules), and often have very simple and descriptive language. In particular, his use of metaphor is notable in linking together what he can see and what he feels. MacCaig often uses simple images and stories as a way to explore broader themes. For example, 'Basking Shark' appears to be a story about seeing a basking shark when out rowing, although it touches upon the relationship between man and nature, and of MacCaig's own questions about his identity.
As MacCaig got older, and many of his close friends and relatives died, his poetry becomes more obsessed with death, and have a sadder tone. In particular, MacCaig's critique of religion became stronger, and his poems from his later life have a more pessimistic feel to them. Because MacCaig famously claimed that his writing style was speedy, and because he only wrote poems, his canon of work is larger than many of his contemporaries. Throughout his life, MacCaig's writing style changed to reflect his life circumstances, and this often means that two MacCaig poems can be completely different in terms of form, tone and imagery. However, lyricism and precise metaphors remain common themes throughout his career, up until his death in 1996.
Click here to read 'Visiting Hour' online (courtesy of the Scottish Poetry Library).
Visiting Hour' is a poem about visiting a loved one in hospital, and how depressing this can be. A key technique within this poem is synecdoche - where a small part of something is used to represent the whole thing. The first example of this comes when MacCaig says 'the hospital smell combs my nostrils'. His nostrils represent the whole of his body, and he is here stating that the hospital offends his whole being. MacCaig also talks about the hospital in terms of his senses, describing it through its smell, as well as its colour: 'green and yellow', and the overall emotional sense it gives him. The poem therefore starts off with a playful or humorous tone, although this soon changes to something darker and more serious.
In the second stanza, MacCaig continues to emphasise the depressing nature of the hospital, talking about 'corpses' being moved 'heavenward'. In reality, the person he is talking about is still alive, and the upward movement comes from a lift, but MacCaig higlights that he is feeling depressed and pessimistic, and clearly views hospitals only as a waiting place for death. The enjambment between 'vanishes' and 'heavenward' is important in emphasising the uncertainty that occurs after death, as well as suggesting that the hospital lifts are not as speedy as they could be. Again, MacCaig is comparing the physical state of the hospital with the emotional sense it creates.
The third stanza is another short one, in comparison with the longer ones that follow. This creates a staccato rhythm, which illustrates MacCaig's nervousness at being in the hospital. In the third stanza he builds on the growing emotion of the previous two, by asserting that he 'will not feel', thus willing himself to be strong. However, it is less than convincing, and suggests that he may be struggling with the emotional pressure of being in the hospital. He repeats the phrase, in which the words juxtapose with his emotions. The fact that he repeats 'I will not feel' makes him seem less, rather than more sure of himself. Again, his use of enjambment indicates pauses, and a lack of certainty in his ability to remain strong. The enjambment also emphasises that he knows he will eventually stop feeling strong, by producing a pause before he says ‘…I have to.’
The fourth stanza returns to the playful tone of the first, suggesting the emotional uncertainty MacCaig is feeling. He begins talking about the nurses, almost in a flirtatious manner, describing them moving ‘lightly, swiftly’ and mentions their ‘slender waists’. This indicates that MacCaig is experiencing a range of emotions, and serves only to highlight the confusion and the lack of clarity he feels in the hospitals. However, the fact that the nurses are portrayed in a positive light is contrasted with the ‘burden’ of the ‘pain’ and ‘deaths’ that they deal with. Again, MacCaig uses synecdoche to describe the nurses, stating that their ‘eyes/still clear after/so many farewells’. He focuses on their eyes remaining clear in order to illustrate their lack of crying, but also to represent their minds, which do not seem to be depressed in the same way as MacCaig by the constant presence of death. The mental strength of the nurses is contrasted with their physical size in the line, ‘their slender waists miraculously carrying their burden’. ‘Miraculously’ also refers back to the idea of heaven in stanza two, and the ever-present idea of death. The stanza finishes with ‘farewells’, which helps to create a deeply pessimistic tone.
The fifth stanza continues the pessimistic tone and provides our first introduction to why MacCaig is in the hospital. It begins with a minor sentence ‘Ward 7.’ This not only is an abrupt setting of the scene, but also echoes the unemotional nature of hospitals, where the signs on the doors show little sense of the sadness within. He introduces the patient only as ‘She’, which highlights a closeness between her and MacCaig. MacCaig also uses enjambment after ‘She lies’, which hints to the reader that she may have died. Although she is alive, the use of enjambment foreshadows the likely ending. The patient is described as being extremely frail. The room being a ‘white cave of forgetfulness’ is not only symbolic of the fact she has been ‘forgotten’ by the outside world, but also subtly echoes the idea of heaven that runs throughout the poem. MacCaig uses synecdoche again to describe the patient, referring to her in terms of a ‘withered hand’ ‘eyelids too heavy to raise’ and ‘an arm wasted’. The ‘glass fang’ is the needle in her arm, although it is talked of in terms of a vampire, but one that’s ‘giving’ life, not taking it. The stanza ends with MacCaig lamenting the ‘distance’ between him and the patient. This not only shows that the patient is unable to communicate, but also the fact that MacCaig cannot bear the physical pain she feels. It also foreshadows the patient’s death, as this is the ultimate distance that cannot be crossed.
The final stanza starts with a slight more positive mood, as the patient ‘smiles a little’, although this still suggests an element of weakness and frailty. MacCaig refers to himself as a ‘black figure’. This not only contrasts with the patient in her ‘white cave’ (stanza five), but also hints at the idea of Death (usually portrayed as a figure in black) present in the room. The use of ‘swimming’ as a metaphor illustrates that life is a process of treading water, and hints that the patient may soon be unable to hold on much longer. This also refers back to the initial idea of ‘nostrils bobbing’, which is another aquatic image. He also mentions that he ‘clumsily rises’, suggesting that he is awkward and uncomfortable in the patient’s presence. The ending of the stanza highlights the fact that the patient is dying. Ironically, this is done by suggesting that MacCaig is ‘growing fainter’. This highlights that the patient is losing consciousness, and is less and less aware that MacCaig is in the room. The poem ends with the implied death of the patient, leaving behind ‘books that will not be read’ and ‘fruitless fruits’. ‘Fruitless fruits’ in an oxymoron, in that it is a contradiction of itself. Here he is saying that the fruits are pointless, as the patient will never eat them (as are the books). In both cases, MacCaig is emphasising the helplessness he feels, as he can’t do anything to help the patient, but make meaningless gestures. In addition, the idea of fruits rotting uneaten in a bowl highlights the nature of death, and leaves the poem on a truly bleak tone.
Hotel Room, 12th Floor
‘Hotel Room, 12th floor’ is about a trip MacCaig took to New York. While there, he considers why cities exist. His central argument in the poem is that even though cities are a way civilisation has attempted to keep out nature and danger, in reality it is man who is the most dangerous to man. MacCaig juxtaposes technology and nature, as well as the idea of civilisation in order to create his commentary on the fact that the potential for inhumanity lies within each individual.
In the first stanza, MacCaig sets the scene, writing that he watched ‘from here’ (presumably his hotel room on the twelfth floor), ‘a helicopter skirting like a damaged insect’. The simile he uses to represent the helicopter is the first introduction to the link between technology and nature. It is a menacing image, because not only is the idea of a giant insect a troubling one, MacCaig also emphasises that the insect is ‘damaged’. This highlights that though it may appear that nature is the biggest danger to man, it is in fact man itself. This begins the poem with a pessimistic and bleak tone. He then goes on to describe the Empire State building as a ‘jumbo size dentist’s drill’. Again, this reinforces the fact that human technology is not something to be impressed by, but to be feared. The idea of a giant dentist’s drill is something that makes the reader feel uncomfortable, and makes the Empire State building seem less reassuring, and more menacing. After using this dark imagery to describe the helicopter and the skyscrapers, MacCaig writes that ‘Midnight has come in from foreign places’. This highlights that darkness is an alien and potentially dangerous concept. The personification of Midnight makes it seem sinister, and MacCaig sets up the dynamic of conflict between cities and darkness when he says that its darkness ‘is shot at by a million lit windows’. He is here emphasising the fact that technology is designed to keep out the darkness. This is indicated by the use of the word ‘uncivilised’ to describe the darkness, which juxtaposes with the ‘civilisation’ of the city.
The second stanza continues this idea of conflict, and begins to introduce MacCaig’s belief that night and darkness are not the real enemies. It states ‘But midnight is not/so easily defeated’. This emphasises the futility (uselessness) of the fight against midnight, and changes the tone to one of depression and resignation (acceptance of a fate). MacCaig continues this tone by stating ‘I lie in bed’. This suggests that he has become less of an observer to the conflict, and is instead trying to hide from it. Interestingly, he lies between ‘a radio and a television set’, which shows that he is trying to use technology as a way to block out the darkness. There is some reassurance that comes from watching TV and listening to the radio. Here the poem takes on a more aggressive and dangerous tone, as the focus shifts. No longer is darkness the enemy, but MacCaig begins to focus on the danger that comes from other humans.
Despite the technology, MacCaig cannot avoid hearing the shouts and sirens of the city below, which he describes as the ‘wildest of warwhoops continually ululating’. This use of onomatopoeia describes the sounds he hears, as well as his use of imagery reflecting the primitive nature of the sounds (warwhoops are war cries from Native Americans and other tribal peoples, and ululating is a form of war cry – click the link here to hear an example here ). He begins to use rural imagery to describe the city, with the ‘glittering canyons and gulches’ representing scenes from the American West. The conquering of the American West was seen as bringing civilisation to the area, although MacCaig is highlighting that this can never be the case, as it is humanity that brings danger. To emphasise this, he uses graphic imagery to describe the police cars and ambulances travelling to ‘broken bones’, which is a synecdoche (the use of a small part to represent a whole – here the bones represent the overall injured person). In addition, MacCaig picks up the loud, piercing noises mentioned before, and states that there is ‘harsh screaming’ that comes from ‘coldwater flats’ (flats in poorer areas where there would have been no hot water). MacCaig says that this is such an essential part of the city that the ‘blood glazed on the sidewalks’. Here he indicates the fact that violence is part of the city, and that the sidwalks (pavements) are made up of blood.
In the final stanza, MacCaig draws his conclusion on the nature of cities. Again, he uses military imagery, using terms such as ‘frontier’ (boundary, usually between armies or the edge of civlisation) and ‘stockades’ (military defences) to emphasise the ongoing war between civilisation and nature. However, his core point is that while humanity has built all of these defences (lights, skyscrapers etc.) to ‘keep the midnight out’, the real danger comes from man, and this can never be kept out. The poem finishes on a bleak tone, using enjambment to emphasise that the ‘stockades’ can’t keep the danger away.
Click here to read 'Assisi' online (courtesy of the Scottish Poetry Library).
The poem ‘Assisi’ describes MacCaig’s trip to the town of Assisi, in the centre of Italy. While here, MacCaig visits the church of St. Francis of Assisi, who was an important figure in Christian history. St. Francis was famous for his love of animals, as well as for his work with the poor. Despite being a wealthy man, St. Francis spent some of his life begging in Rome, in order to better understand the life of the poor. For the rest of his life, he lived in poverty, and he founded the Franciscan order, a religious group within the Roman Catholic Church who believed in living in poverty. There are still Franciscans today who believe that money leads individuals away from a truly religious experience.
To learn more about St. Francis of Assisi watch this (short) biographical video, by clicking here. This will give you an isnight into what drove MacCaig to write his poem.
The poem begins with a shocking and engaging image of a ‘dwarf with his hands on backwards’. Although this may be a metaphor to refer to the fact that the beggar has his hands facing upwards, asking for change, it also suggests that he may be deformed. The idea of his hands being ‘on backwards’ also subtly references the idea of God creating man, by suggesting that the beggar was simply built incorrectly. The second line dehumanises the beggar, saying that he ‘slumped like a half-filled sack’. This emphasises the sense of emptiness and incompletion that the beggar feels. In addition, sackcloth is an important part of the Christian tradition, and some monks wear sackcloth clothes in order to remain uncomfortable and to symbolise their penance (repenting of sins). This is the first link MacCaig makes between the beggar and the idea of religious purity. MacCaig continues the idea of the physical deformity of the beggar, stating he has ‘tiny twisted legs’. This is juxtaposes with the magnificence of the building ‘three tiers of churches’, and begins a recurring contrast between the beauty of the church and the physical deformity of the beggar. MacCaig also introduces the technique of irony (which runs throughout the poem) by stating that the enormous church was build ‘in honour of St. Francis, brother of the poor’. MacCaig also states that St. Francis could talk with birds, which is an idea he picks up later in the poem. The stanza ends on a pessimistic line, saying that the only ‘advantage’ enjoyed by the beggar was that he was not dead. Even this is left open, as MacCaig ends the line with ‘yet’, implying that the beggar will perhaps not have long left before he dies.
The second stanza sees MacCaig touring around the inside of the church, being shown around by a priest. The key theme of this stanza is hypocrisy, as the priest is seemingly unaware of the fact that there is a beggar outside this glorious (and expensive) building, dedicated to a man who believed in helping the poor. The priest is characterised as an arrogant man, explaining ‘how clever it was of Giotto’ (a painter) to paint pictures to teach the illiterate poor about the stories of the Bible. The subtle irony here is that the Church spent money on paintings, rather than teaching the poor to read. This would suggest that they were more interested in creating an ornate church rather than really caring for the poor. Ironically, even though these frescoes ‘tell stories’, the priest is still forced to explain it, suggesting that it might not have been as clever as it seems. The key moment of hypocrisy in the stanza comes when the priest talks about the ‘suffering/of His Son’ (Jesus). The use of enjambment is important in creating a short pause after ‘suffering’. This makes it seem as if the priest is about to talk about the suffering that still exists, although he does not. This reinforces the fact that the priest is blind to the suffering of the beggar outside. MacCaig finishes the stanza with a sardonic (cynical mocking) tone, ‘I understood/the explanation and/the cleverness’. This suggests he is aware of the hypocrisy of the priest, as well as feeling that the priest does not understand the real message behind the art.
In the final stanza, MacCaig moves from attacking the priest to attacking his fellow tourists, who are equally unaware of the irony of celebrating St. Francis whilst also ignoring the beggar. MacCaig uses animal imagery (specifically bird imagery) in this stanza, thus echoing the idea of St. Francis being able to talk to birds. He describes the tourists as ‘clucking contentedly’ after the priest as he ‘scattered the grain of the word’. He is referring to them here as chickens, being herded around unthinkingly. It is clear MacCaig feels that they are just blindly visiting the church without taking in any of the core messages of St. Francis. MacCaig draws the link with the beggar in the next line when he describes him as ‘the ruined temple’. This emphasises the juxtaposition between the glorious church they have just toured round, and the crippled beggar outside. MacCaig continues to use graphic imagery to describe the beggar and to shock the reader, giving him ‘eyes [that]/ wept pus’, his ‘back higher than his head’ and his ‘lopsided mouth’. All of these help the reader to build a vivid picture of the beggar, which makes it even more amazing that the tourists do not notice him. In addition, the three deformities of the beggar contrasts with the ‘three tiers’ of the church outside which he sits.
Towards the end of the stanza, MacCaig gives the beggar some money. This causes a change in both tone and imagery towards the man. The beggar says ‘Grazie’ (thank you in Italian) and is described as having a voice ‘as sweet/ as a child’s’. This not only makes the beggar a more sympathetic character than the priest or the tourists, but also highlights the idea of all humans being ‘God’s children’. The beggar’s voice is also described as being like a ‘bird when it spoke/to St. Francis’. This is the clearest link between the beggar and the work of St. Francis in the poem. MacCaig is saying that although the tourists are chickens, they are not capable of speaking to St. Francis (and show no willingness to do so). By contrast, the beggar is able to communicate with St. Francis, and therefore represents a purer figure.
The key technique used in this poem, therefore is juxtaposition (direct comparison for contrast). MacCaig juxtaposes the deformity of the beggar with the beauty of the Church; the work St. Francis did with the poor and the fact that the priest ignores the beggar; the uncaring attitude of the tourists with the spiritual nature of the beggar; and the nobility of suffering with the comfortable and unaware attitudes of almost everyone in the poem.
Image 1: by Dr. Macro via Wikimedia Commons