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Life: 'Seven Decades' and 'At Eighty'

'Seven Decades' and 'At Eighty' by Edwin Morgan

A reader says...

"['Seven Decades'] casts a cool eye over his life as poet, professor and polyglot. Vignettes of a bookish childhood… and his wartime youth as a repressed homosexual… evoke a life in which literature has served as an emotional refuge as well as a dominant agent of personal change."

Gerald Mangan, Times Literary Supplement, 15 Nov 1991

Background

Edwin Morgan's 'Seven Decades' is an autobiographical poem – to 1990 at least, when he turned seventy. 'At Eighty', written ten years later, is less directly autobiographical, but reveals something of his mood a decade on.

 
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Notes on 'Seven Decades'

Notes on some of the references in 'Seven Decades' - to people, poems and places.

 
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'Seven Decades'

'Seven Decades' was first published in Felt-tipped Hosannas: for Edwin Morgan on his 70th birthday (1990). It also appeared as an 'epilogue' to the Collected Poems published in the same year.

Read and discuss

  • Read the poem aloud.
  • How does the poem work fomally?
    • Consider the line lengths, stanza lengths, rhymes.
  • How might you describe Edwin Morgan's character, based on this poem?
    • Look at stanza 1, 4 and 7. How would you describe the mood or tone of these verses?
    • Look at the stanzas between – 2 and 3, then 5 and 6. How would you describe the mood or tone of these verses?
    • How would you describe the overall trajectory of the poem – of Morgan's life?
  • Look the other people mentioned in the poem
    • Several men but no women are mentioned. How does this affect your reading of the poem?
    • Other writers and texts are mentioned – how do these affect your understanding of Edwin Morgan – as a person, and as a writer?
  • How typical a life do you think Edwin Morgan's is?
    • Can you think of others – public figures, or people known personally to you – which are similar, or very different?
 
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At Eighty

'At Eighty' was first published in Unknown is Best: A celebration of Edwin Morgan at eighty (2000), edited by Robyn Marsack and Hamish Whyte. It is also included in Cathures (2002).

Comparison

  • Compare 'Seven Decades' with the poem 'At Eighty'.
    • Think about the poems' form,
    • their tone, mood and emotion,
    • to whom the poems are addressed.
  • To what extent and in which ways does 'At Eighty' continue the trajectory of 'Seven Decades'?
  • What are the main differences and the main similarities between the two poems?
 
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Further reading

Read these poems in:

Morgan, Edwin. Cathures.
Manchester: Carcanet, 2002.

Morgan, Edwin. Collected Poems 1949-1987.
Manchester: Carcanet, 1990.

Felt-Tipped Hosannas: for Edwin Morgan on his 70th Birthday.
Ed. Susan Stewart and Hamish Whyte.
Glasgow: Third Eye Centre, 1990.

Unknown Is Best: A Celebration Of Edwin Morgan At Eighty.
Ed. Robyn Marsack and Hamish Whyte.
Glasgow and Edinburgh: Mariscat And The Scottish Poetry Library, 27 April 2000.

Read about the poems' points of reference in:

Morgan, Edwin. Beowulf: A Verse Translation Into Modern English.
Aldington: The Hand And Flower Press, 1952. Other editions: Berkely: University of California Press, 1952. Manchester: Carcanet, 2002.

Morgan, Edwin. Collected Translations.
Manchester: Carcanet, 1996.

Morgan, Edwin. Crossing The Border: Essays On Scottish Literature.
Manchester: Carcanet, 1990.

Morgan, Edwin. The New Divan.
Manchester: Carcanet, 1977.

Morgan, Edwin. Nothing Not Giving Messages: Reflections on Work and Life.
Ed Hamish White.
Edinburgh: Polygon, 1990.

Morgan, Edwin. The Second Life.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1968.

Mayakovsky, Vladimir. Wi the Haill Voice.
Translated by Edwin Morgan.
Oxford: Carcanet, 1972.

 
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Notes on 'Seven decades'

l.1, 'Mayakovsky'
Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), Russian poet who enthusiastically supported the Bolshevik revolution. Increasingly disillusioned, he committed suicide in 1930. Wi the Haill Voice (Carcanet, 1972) features Morgan's Scots translations of his poems.

l.2, 'lyublyu'
люблю, I love

l.3, 'my English teacher'
Morgan attended Rutherglen Academy and the High School of Glasgow. "I did not like school! It wasn't that I wasn't doing well. I was doing well enough except when I disliked certain subjects but I didn't feel at all happy about it. It wasn't quite so bad in the later years; a bit more freedom, and I began to enjoy it a little." Nothing Not Giving Messages (Polygon, 1990), p.90

l.11, 'marching orders'
In 1940 Morgan "registers as [a] Conscientious Objector [and] enlists in the Royal Army Medical Corps". Felt-tipped Hosannas (Third Eye Centre, 1990), p.4

l.13, 'Glentress'
An army training camp near Peebles in the Scottish Borders.

l.22, 'Beowulf'
Morgan's 'verse translation into modern English' was first published in 1952.

l.25, 'Sydney Graham'
The Scottish poet W.S. Graham (1918–1996). The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W.S. Graham (Carcanet, 1999), includes a letter to Morgan dated 4 January 1969; it refers to the magazine Scottish International and concludes 'SydneyX (on the cheek) your letter and the magazine make me homesick.' Morgan's essay 'The Poetry of W.S. Graham', plus a selection of Graham's letters to him, are included in Crossing the Border: Essays on Scottish Literature (Carcanet, 1990).

ll.27-8, Rilke's Lonelieness is like a rain'
The only Rilke poem Morgan has translated, it is included in Morgan's Collected Translations (Carcanet, 1996), but not in Rites of Passage (Carcanet, 1976), his earlier book of translations.

l.31, 'At forty I woke up...'
Cf the title poem of The Second Life (Edinburgh University Press, 1968), which begins 'Does each man feel like this at forty?'

ll.33-4, 'Saõ Paulo's poetic-concrete revolution'
Morgan's translations of work by several Brazilian concrete poets including Edgard Braga, Haroldo de Campos and Pedro Xisto are included in Rites of Passage (Carcanet, 1976) and Collected Translations (Carcanet, 1996).

l.36, 'John',
John Scott. Morgan dedicated The Second Life (Edinburgh University Press, 1968) to him. (See note on l.51 below.)

l.42, 'Palestine'
Morgan's war service was spent in and around Palestine – "El Ballah, Sidon, Haifa" (Felt-tipped Hosannas (Third Eye Centre, 1990), p.4)

l.44, 'a hundred-handed Sindbad'
The title sequence of The New Divan (Carcanet, 1977) consists of a hundred short poems. Morgan said of it, "it's really largely about the war, though it goes back in time, into prehistory, in fact. It's not just one thing, but to me, it's my war poem. (…) I must have been storing up some very strong impressions of actual places that I was in. When it came to be written, I think it was probably because the Middle East was again so much in the news. It brought it all back to me. The places that were in the news I had been in and had very strong feelings about." Nothing Not Giving Messages (Polygon, 1990), pp.148-9

l.48, 'Doughty'
The English explorer Charles Doughty (1843-1926) wrote Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888).

ll.51, 'a grave'
"When [John Scott] died and [his family] phoned me, and I went to the funeral, I was quite surprised that at the burial they gave me a cord to hold, which normally would only be the family circle, so they must have reckoned this was something they accepted. (…) We had a quarrel just about a year before [his death] and didn't properly make it up. About nothing, the way people who are very close to each other do quarrel sometimes. I hadn't seen him for quite a while before he died, and I very bitterly regret that. But that's just the way these things happen sometimes." Nothing Not Giving Messages (Polygon, 1990), pp.173-4

l.62, 'Port Said'
Port Said, or Bur Sa'id, is an Egyptian city at the northern end of the Suez Canal. See Morgan's The New Divan (Carcanet, 1977), poem 89.

 

Resource written by Ken Cockburn, April 2009

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