Today marks 25 years since George Mackay Brown died on 13th April 1996 in Stromness, Orkney. But 2021 also sees the centenary of his birth. Polygon will be publishing a trio of books in celebration: a selected poems, edited by Kathleen Jamie; selected short stories, edited by Malachy Tallack; and a new edition of An Orkney Tapestry, edited by Linden Bicket and Kirsteen McCue, which brings this book back into print for the first time since the 1970s.
This week’s poem, then, looks forward to that centenary – it is a benediction for a new child, Emma (ECL), composed by Brown towards the end of his life in 1993. Alexander McCall Smith selected it for his anthology, A Gathering: A Personal Anthology of Scottish Poems and wrote the following:
We welcome new children with small ceremonies – the crossing of the palm with silver, the touching of the forehead, the giving of a kiss, the sprinkling of the head with water. We think of what lies ahead, and wish the child safe passage. We do not mention our anxieties, our doubts, as to the future of mankind and of this dear green planet. It’s over to you, now. May our manifold and manifest mistakes not make your life’s journey an impossible one.
Among such poems of bon voyage, George Mackay Brown’s ‘A New Child’ is without equal. It is one of the most beautiful Scottish poems of the twentieth century. A close second, in my view, is ‘Soave sia il vento’, from Mozart’s Così fan Tutte, where those departing are wished gentle winds to carry them on their journey. And of course there is Auden’s ‘Many Happy Returns’, which is a birthday poem for a seven-year-old boy and one that wishes him balance in his life – a life that marries intellect and the senses, and which gives him that most sensible of advice – to follow his nose.Alexander McCall Smith, A Gathering: A Personal Anthology of Scottish Poems
A New Child: ECL George Mackay Brown I Wait a while, small voyager On the shore, with seapinks and shells. The boat Will take a few summers to build. That you must make your voyage in. II You will learn the names. That golden light is ‘sun’ – ‘moon’ The silver light That grows and dwindles. And the beautiful small splinters That wet the stones, ‘rain’. III There is a voyage to make, A chart to read, But not yet, not yet. ‘Daisies’ spill from your fingers. The night daisies are ‘stars’. IV The keel is laid, the strakes Will be set, in time. A tree is growing That will be a tall mast All about you, meantime The music of humanity, The dance of creation: Scored on the chart of the voyage. V The stories, legends, poems Will be woven to make your sail. You may hear the beautiful tale of Magnus Who took salt on his lip. Your good angel Will be with you on that shore. VI Soon the voyage of EMMA To Tir-Nan-Og and beyond. VII Star of the Sea, shine on her voyage.