“I like to give a voice to others, especially things neglected or despised.”
TRQ: Edwin Morgan, Born April 27, 1920
The first poet to be named The Scots Makar, the Scottish national poet laureate, Edwin Morgan was born in the west end of Glasgow to a family not particularly enthused by books or literature. His father was an iron and steel merchant, and Morgan had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“It surprised the family,” he remembers. “I just discovered when I was, oh, 12 or 13, that I was very interested in language – and this showed itself as poetry. There was no looking back.”
At Glasgow University Morgan studied European poetry and was particularly interested in the French symbolists like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, as well as the Russian modernists. Morgan also worked to teach himself Italian and German. He served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in World War II, which delayed his graduation from university for six years. However, after graduation, Morgan began teaching in Glasgow’s English Department, where he became emeritus professor.
Exceptionally prolific, Morgan wrote poetry, drama, and literary criticism. He also translated Russian, Spanish and French poetry. His translation of Beowulf from old English is widely considered a scholastic standard. Morgan learned Hungarian to translate his favorite Hungarian poetry, and went on to win the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary for his contributions on behalf of Hungarian literature.
In 1980 Morgan retired from teaching. In 1982, for his contribution to the arts, he appointed The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. That same year Morgan dedicated Poems of Thirty Years to his partner of fifteen years, John Scott, though he would not come out until 1990, at the age of seventy. For most of Morgan’s career, homosexuality had been criminalized in Scotland, and he relied on gender-neutrality in his writing for discretion. It was not until Nothing Not Giving Messages: Reflections (1990) did Morgan write of his sexuality.
“It was something I wanted to write about from quite early on,” Morgan confides. “Even if it wasn’t being spoken about openly, I was able to draw sustenance from it … It took a long time for me to risk being unguarded; it depended on changes in society, changes in the law, changes in the people I knew. But I had a kind of confidence that I would be able to be open eventually – and meanwhile it was so much a part of my own life and character that it was bound to be a part of the poetry.”
Literary executor and friend James McGonigal credited Morgan’s discretion with benefitting both his writing and the wider culture. “He makes this a love poetry for the whole of humanity… It’s inclusive: men and women can read themselves into it. Scotland took a long time to warm up to the idea of homosexuality, but Morgan was already so much a part of people’s hearts that, by the time they discovered he was gay, they’d accepted him.”
In 2000, he won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. After coming out, Morgan began freely writing about six decades of love and relationships, which was collected into Love and Life: 50 Poems by Edwin Morgan (2003) and later in A Book of Lives (2007).
Morgan was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1999, at the age of eighty, and when he reached the age of ninety, his birthday was celebrated across the United Kingdom. The decade had been one of his most vibrant and productive. But on August 17, 2010, Morgan died of pneumonia in Glasgow. He left behind a personal library of 13,000 books and enough of is own work to fill three archives in Scotland.