'A Dawn in Britain': The Poetry of Joseph MacLeod

Article Image It is the first time since 1971 that a book by British modernist poet Joseph Macleod (1903-1984) has appeared in its entirety, and also the first time one has been re-issued. In this triple volume of book-length poems that appeared under the pseudonym ‘Adam Drinan', the reader is presented with the key texts the author published in the 1940s and 50s. Andrew Duncan's Selected Poems of Joseph Macleod (Waterloo Press, 2008) broke new ground in bringing a twenty-first century public's attention to the significant skill of this English-born poet of Highland Scots ancestry. Now, in a collaboration between myself and Andrew, we present you with The Cove (1940), The Men of the Rocks (1942) and Script From Norway (1953), three magnificent works of modernist verse which fully display Macleod's capability for innovation, coupled with a focus upon history and an advocacy for both the country of his family's origin, and the place that was most dear to him: Scotland. Each is book unique in its own right, but the three together capture an entire era of his creativity whilst working as one of the four London-based newsreaders at the BBC throughout World War II. His postal address for Drinan was that of his closest friend, the art critic Adrian Stokes, who regularly delivered to Macleod the correspondence that arrived from various illustrious admirers, many of whom became close friends, including W S Graham, Compton Mackenzie, Graham Greene, Edwin Muir, Naomi Mitchison, T S Eliot and many more.

Macleod was the son of Scottish parents, and was educated at Rugby School and Balliol College, Oxford. He passed his Bar examinations, though he never practiced as a barrister, preferring a career as an actor, and he also had aspirations as a poet. At Rugby School he was close friends with Adrian Stokes, and at Oxford he became close friends with Graham Greene.

From 1927, he was an actor and producer at the experimental Cambridge Festival Theatre. In 1933 he became the theatre's director and lessee. Five of his own plays were staged there, including Overture to Cambridge (1933) and A Woman Turned to Stone (1934). Under Macleod, the theatre became famous throughout Europe for its avant garde productions, and staging of lesser known works by great playwrights. Macleod staged some of Ezra Pound's Noh plays, and also some Ibsen, Chekhov (his company, The Cambridge Festival Players, was one of the first in the UK to stage Chekhov's play The Seagull). The theatre was forced to close due to financial difficulties in June 1935, and has never reopened. He was intermittently involved in theatre production after this, and in 1952 won the Arts Council Silver Medal for his play Leap in September.

In 1930, Macleod had his first book of poetry published, The Ecliptic, a highly complex book of verse divided into the signs of the zodiac, which was helped through to publication at Faber and Faber through a recommendation from Ezra Pound, who thought highly of Macleod's abilities as a poet. A long-running correspondence was thus begun between the two poets. Macleod's first book was published alongside W. H. Auden's first book, Poems, and the Poetry (Chicago) editor Morton Dauwen Zabel hailed these two poets as "a Dawn in Britain" in his editorial. However, Macleod's next book, Foray of Centaurs, was considered "too Greek" for publication by Faber and Faber, and although this gained publication in Paris and Chicago, it was never to be published in the UK during Macleod's lifetime. Basil Bunting was an admirer of this early poetry, and claimed Macleod was the most important living British poet in his 'British' edition of Poetry (Chicago).

Placing his energies into the theatre, Macleod became director of the highly experimental Cambridge Festival Theatre in 1933 and remained so until 1936. In 1937 he became secretary of Huntingdonshire Divisional Labour Party and stood as a Parliamentary Candidate, but failed to gain election.

In 1938, Macleod became an announcer and newsreader at the BBC, where he began to write and publish poetry under the pseudonym "Adam Drinan". These poems dealt with the Highland clearances, and described the Scottish landscape in rich detail, using Gaelic assonances. He was one of the first to succeed in rendering the qualities of Gaelic poetry in English. These poems and verse plays won praise from many Scottish writers- Naomi Mitchison, Norman MacCaig, Edwin Muir, Compton Mackenzie, George Bruce, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Maurice Lindsay and many more. Macleod's "Drinan" poetry was in much demand in both England and Scotland, as well as Ireland and the US. Editors such as Tambimuttu (of Poetry London), Maurice Lindsay (Poetry Scotland) and John Lehmann (Hogarth Press and New Writing), all requested and published large amounts of his poems in the 1940s. Both "Drinan" and Macleod are included in Kenneth Rexroth's New British Poets anthology (1949), published for New Directions. The "Drinan" pseudonym was not publicly revealed until 1953, which Hugh MacDiarmid commented was ‘for so long one of the best kept secrets of the contemporary literary world'. Adrian Stokes received and dealt with Macleod's 'Drinan' correspondence.

Macleod moved to Florence in 1955, where he lived until his death in 1984. His work was recently re-discovered in the late 1990s, and Cyclic Serial Zeiths From the Flux: The Selected Poems of Joseph Macleod, edited and with an introduction by Andrew Duncan, was published by Waterloo Press in 2008.


James Fountain is co-editor of The Drinan Trilogy, and also co-author of its accompanying introduction. He researched the first PhD on Joseph Macleod at the University of Glasgow, andhas writtenvarious articles about him, including his wikipedia entry, his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, and a double-page Commentary in the Times Literary Supplement. In 2010 Fountain published Glaciation, his first poetry pamphlet, published by Poetry Monthly Press.

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