Sorley MacLean,
Poems to Eimhir (Dain do Eimhir)
(Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2002)

Although Sorley MacLean's sequence Poems to Eimhir is recognised as one of his greatest works, it was only published in part during his lifetime. This new edition, edited by Christopher Whyte, includes the complete cycle of the 61 love poems (except one that has been lost) including six previously unpublished.

Whyte suggests that the sequence "arguably constitutes the major achievement of Scottish Gaelic poetry in the 20th century." Parallel English translations are provided for the Gaelic text, which are either the poet's own or the editor's. Whyte makes it clear though that the new edition concentrates on the Gaelic text and the commentary (in English) is appropriately directed towards interpreting the original rather than the translation.

MacLean (1911-1996) wrote the bulk of the sequence between 1939 and '41, but seemed to turn against it later in life presumably because of some of the painful memories it evoked for him. Whyte shows how difficult it is consistently to make links between the poems and the poet's biography but it is apparent "that the cycle's notional dedication to Eimhir embraces several different women."

MacLean's poetry is always challenging to the reader, particularly to those of us having to rely on the complexity of the translation (although I understand even in the original it is difficult). While the text can be read, of course, without reading the detailed commentary, I found that it was useful to refer to it throughout as it greatly enhances the reading experience especially through drawing attention to the richness of the Gaelic text.

At the heart of the poems is a sense of lamentation for lost love and opportunity. Poem I establishes the tone of heartfelt longing which is characteristic of the whole: "Listlessly the wind shakes the sail, / my heart is dumb, aching for your music, / today and tomorrow indifferent to my expectation." A key theme too is the tension between MacLean's love interest(s) and his political commitment at a dramatic historical moment. But it is his passionate yearning for Eimhir that makes the greatest impact as in Poem V: "and my swift, strong blood / agonising for your love." And can there be any more powerful description of love than Poem XXXIX? "As the slow embers of the fire / become a pure sparkling flame, / so my love for you / becomes a white adoration."

This is an edition to be warmly welcomed as it presents the original Gaelic poems in a restored sequence and makes it more widely accessible too through the English translation. Along with the Collected Poems (published in 1999), MacLean's poetry is steadily emerging from the literary shadows to take its place in the centre of 20th century European poetry.

- Rambles
written by Andy Jurgis
published 17 April 2004

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