Endless flyting : the formulation of Hamish Henderson’s cultural politics
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This is a critical study of Hamish Henderson (1919-2002). It examines his work as a poet, translator, folklorist, and cultural and political commentator. Through close textual analysis, this project shows how Henderson’s various writings can be considered part of a life-long engagement with the complex relationship between politics and aesthetics. This includes the purpose of poetry and its relation to ‘the people’; the defining qualities of folk culture and its political potential; conceptions of nationalism and internationalism; and notions of Scottish history and ‘tradition’. Bemoaning a modern disconnect between the artist and society, Henderson explored the possible causes of this disjuncture and proposed various solutions. His views on these issues were tested in a series of public ‘flytings’, or opinion column debates, with the poet Hugh MacDiarmid between 1959 and 1968. Chapter One is an analysis of the form and content of these exchanges. In Chapter Two, Henderson’s poetic responses to the War, his collected Ballads of World War II (1947) and Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (1948), are considered in light of his professed aim to create a poetry that ‘becomes people’. Chapter Three examines Henderson’s relationship with the life and works of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). Drawing from Henderson’s translation of Gramsci’s prison letters, this chapter examines how the Italian thinker both validated and undermined his approach to folk culture. Chapter Four considers Henderson’s perceived ‘turn’ away from art-poetry towards folk-song. With reference to his writings on various poets, his own poetry and song, and that of others that he admired, this chapter reflects on Henderson’s ideas about the distinctiveness of the Scottish literary tradition, and about the politics of authorship. Chapter Five interrogates Henderson’s various writings on folk culture according to his role as a ‘folk revivalist’ who seeks to reinstate folk-song as a popular mode of collective selfexpression, and as a ‘folklorist’ who documents the folk tradition. This project argues for a holistic examination of Henderson’s cultural politics, restoring his writings to their original contexts and providing an account of the constantly renegotiated relationship between art and society present throughout his work.