Thursday, 8 December 2016

Hugh McDermiad, Poet, Accuses Soldiers of Being "Professional Murderers"

Hugh MacDiarmid, Controversial WWI Poet
Pic: Wiki, public domain
Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) was the pen-name of Christopher Murray Grieve, a former journalist. McDiarmaid was a Scot, a Communist and a staunch supporter of Stalin and he caused considerable controversy with his confrontational verse, especially with the poem: "Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries."

It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved or knew, anything worth any man's pride. 
They were professional murderers and they took 
Their blood money and impious risks and died
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth 
With difficulty persist here and there on earth."

All soldiers are mercenaries

If this poem were not arranged into lines, complete with its rhyme scheme, abcbdd, it could almost pass for prose. In the poem, Hugh MacDiarmid makes it clear he has no pity for these "professional murders", who took their "blood money and impious risks."  These men fought, says MacDiarmid, without knowing "anything worth any man's pride." There is no lyricism, imagery, alliteration or assonance in this poem; it is simply a statement of fact, as seen by the poet. The last two lines are an almost grudging acknowledgement that there might be something left worth fighting for. "With difficulty persist" in line 6 is more sarcastic than ironic, and as cynical as it is angry.

For some readers, the different, more distanced perspective might not engage in the same way as the impassioned expressions of feeling displayed by other war poets. The poet is simply saying that all soldiers are, in essence, mercenaries.

Crude allegations against soldiers

Tim Kendall, a professor at Exeter University, says that MacDermiad is writing about the British Expeditionary Force, sent in 1914, by a democratic government and supported by an overwhelming majority of the population. They were sent to:

"...repel invading Prussian forces and protect the sovereignty of occupied nations. To call our soldiers professional murderers is merely to make the same crude allegations against professional forces throughout history.

Are we to understand
amateur murderers are more acceptable?"

The poem seems to be a complete contradiction to the poet's strong Stalinist leanings and it is difficult to understand how Hugh MacDiarmid managed to reconcile these opposing positions.


Hugh MacDiarmid, Selected Poems, Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1994

Prof. Tim Kendall's blog

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