Scrapbooking Old English with Edwin Morgan – ‘the nerves must sometimes tingle and the skin flush’.

Morgan’s 1952 translation of Beowulf (SP 120)

Guest blog post by Dr Francesca Brooks, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of York with the Department of English and Related Literature, and University of Glasgow Library Research Fellow

In the preface to his 1952 translation of Beowulf, the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) wrote of how archaic translations filled with ‘twixts and ‘twills had left this Old English poem ‘faintly gleaming like a dragonfly under an inch of amber’. In his own Beowulf, Morgan promised to leave behind the ‘linguistic crinkum-crankum’ that he felt had characterised so many previous translations. For Morgan the poem was live material that must be made to speak to the present. ‘[T]he nerves must sometimes tingle and the skin flush, as with original poetry’, he wrote in his preface, which is also something of a manifesto for the translation career that lay ahead of him. In the preface to Carcanet’s republication of his Beowulf in 2001, Morgan admitted that in revoicing this early medieval text he had also, however unconsciously, committed his own unwritten war poem to paper. With its themes ‘of conflict and danger, voyaging and displacement, loyalty and loss’, Morgan had made Beowulf speak again through his own experiences of the Second World War.

In early 2020 I found out I had been awarded a Visiting Fellowship with the University of Glasgow Library. The pandemic kept me from Glasgow for a long time, but in March of this year I was finally able to take up the fellowship. I hoped to think about the role that visual and material culture had played in Morgan’s reworking of early medieval texts, by bringing together his translations of Old English poetry with the sixteen scrapbooks he entrusted to the archive.

I had some idea of what Morgan’s scrapbooks were like from the research of Chris Jones, and the incredible Digitising Morgan project, which explored the problems of copyright and made just some of the thousands of pages available online. Yet nothing had quite prepared me for my own physical encounter with these records of Morgan’s creative energy and development, produced across four decades between 1931 and 1966.

MS Morgan C/1 p227-228

Vast, unruly, and uniquely magnificent, the scrapbooks form a compendium of literary quotations, found newspaper clippings, and imagery from a wide array of printed materials, all refracted through the imagination of the Glasgow laureate and Scottish Makar. In a 1988 letter to his publisher at Carcanet Michael Schmidt, Morgan described the scrapbooks as ‘a mixture of autobiography, documentary, and art’ and expressed his hope that they might one day be published.

MS Morgan C/7 p1059

As his process developed the composition of some pages became more sophisticated, with scrapbooking bursting into original collage and concrete poetry, prefiguring his News Poems. Many of the collages seem to be centred around Morgan’s fear and awe at the atrocities of war and nuclear devastation, however, one of my favourite examples is a collage from Scrapbook 7 that offers a meditation on the cross and its symbolism in a time of war. The collage juxtaposes jewelled medieval artefacts, and quotations from the Old English Dream of the Rood, and the Middle English Pearl poem, with a picture of Salvador Dali’s tortured painting The Visage of War, and a photograph of a solitary cross marking the site of the Lidice massacre, a town in what is now the Czech Republic that was razed to the ground in 1942 at the order of Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. Here the modern creative technology of collage, made possible by advances in printing and chromolithography, allows Morgan to revivify medieval imagery.

The copyright surrounding the scrapbooks is incredibly complicated, as the Digitising Morgan project found. As a result of this, the first challenge I had to contend with was that I couldn’t take any photographs of the material I was working on. In figuring out how to transcribe the pages that seemed most relevant to my research, I ended up thinking more conceptually about how a scrapbook should be read.

MS Morgan C/1 p225-226

Scrapbook 1 is brim-full of early medieval material, with quotations from Old English poems such as Beowulf, Maxims and The Phoenix, along with images of the Ruthwell cross, the Franks casket, and pages from illuminated manuscripts. These medieval fragments jostle for space alongside pictures of jellyfish, sea anemones and goose barnacles, photographs of blasted snow-bound mountains, or surreptitious allusions to queer desire, as well as news items about cosmic rays and potential radio transmissions intercepted from outer space. Should a scrapbook be read page-by-page, spread-by-spread, or book-by-book? Can we pick up individual threads and pursue a reading of the scrapbooks, or a single scrapbook, through them? Or does this distort the project? Morgan’s consecutive numbering of each of the books, and all the pages within them, suggests that there is some coherence of vision across all sixteen books, but as a viewer these 3600 pages of compositions are disorienting and mind-boggling.

Amongst the chaotic towers of books in Voltaire and Rousseau on Otago Lane, I found a copy of James McGonigal’s biography of Morgan, Beyond the Last Dragon, which offered one suggestion for how to read Morgan’s scrapbooks. McGonigal uses Morgan’s comments about the Arabic or Persian divan to suggest how ‘randomness [can be] a “structuring principle”’. Morgan writes about the divan as a collection of poems: ‘something that you enter; you move around; you can cast your eye here and there, you look, you pick, you perhaps retrace your steps’. For Morgan there is ‘something that in a mysterious, subterranean sense would be structure, an emotional structure […] perhaps relating to the life of the person that had written it’. Here was permission, freedom even, to find my own way through the scrapbooks.

Morgan pasted the cut-out of line 380 of Beowulf into the bottom right corner of this scrapbook page. (MS Morgan C/1 p216)

Across the scrapbooks there is a continued fascination with the strange and the unfathomable. To my eye, this interest in wonder, the monstrous and the incomprehensible is in dialogue with Beowulf, the Old English epic that Morgan had been translating first as a student and then as an apprentice poet in his first major literary project. The idea of knowledge, especially what can be known and what is beyond our ken, is something that fascinates me in the Old English poem, and it represents a current in Morgan’s scrapbooking too, which is shot-through with cut-out quotes from Beowulf as found in his copy of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader. This is not to say that Morgan’s scrapbooks represent a reworking of Beowulf in another form, but rather that just as Morgan’s life had found its way into his translation of the poem, Beowulf had also become one lens in the larger kaleidoscope through which Morgan tried to comprehend the modern world.

I would like to thank the University of Glasgow Library Archives and Special Collections, including Julie Gardham, Sam Maddra, Claire Daniel, Philippa Cardy, and all of the archives team, for their generosity in hosting me at the library, and for all of the help and advice they offered.

Further References:
Chris Jones, Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006)
Chris Jones, ‘“While crowding memories came”: Edwin Morgan, Old English and nostalgia’, Scottish Literary Review, 4 (2012), 123-44
James McGonigal, Beyond the Last Dragon: The Life of Edwin Morgan (Sandstone Press ltd, 2010)
Edwin Morgan, Beowulf: A Verse Translation in Modern English (Carcanet, 2002)
The Scrapbook History Podcast: The scrapbooking poet Edwin Morgan

Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

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