Monday, February 22, 2010

George Mackay Brown

Scottish poet George Mackay Brown (1921–1996) is best known for the way he captured the landscape and culture of his home in the Orkney Islands off the extreme north coast of Great Britain. He said, “The essence of Orkney’s magic is silence, loneliness and the deep marvellous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light.” He did not seek fame, avoided travelling, and saw the poet’s task as “interrogation of silence”.

He was brought up a Presbyterian although, perhaps because of his fascination with history and place, became a Roman Catholic in 1961. An obituary in The Independent said, “Brown practised his faith quietly, but set out his convictions with increasing authority and certainty as he moved into his old age. In Beside the Ocean of Time (1994), his last novel, he achieved such a magisterial summing-up of the purpose and meaning of man’s life that it is difficult to imagine how he could have followed it.”

The following poem demonstrates the subtlety and strength of his poetic voice.

A Poem For Shelter

Who was so rich
He owned diamonds and snowflakes and fire,
The leaf and the forest,
Herring and whale and horizon —
Who had the key to the chamber beyond the stars
And the key of the grave —
Who was sower and seed and bread
Came on a black night
To a poor hovel with a star peeking through rafters
And slept among beasts
And put a sweet cold look on kings and shepherds.

But the children of time, their rooftrees should be strong.

This is the first Kingdom Poets post about George Mackay Brown: second post, third post.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: