“My job is to rattle the bars”, says the devil in the opening poem of Edwin Morgan’s sequence Demon (from his collection Cathures, 2002), something that Morgan himself was happy to do throughout his long career. He was born in 1920 and published his first collection of poems in 1952. It was his second – The Second Life (1968) – that introduced the experimental poetry and poems about his native Glasgow that would establish him as one of Scotland’s most important and well-loved poets and lead him to become Glasgow’s Poet Laureate in 1999 and Scotland’s “Makar” or National Poet in 2004. Morgan is a poet who could find a voice in everything; and late in his career he actually turned to the stage, producing colloquial Scots versions of Cyrano de Bergerac (1992), Doctor Faustus (1999) and Phèdre (2000).
In “The Demon at the Walls of Time”, the final poem from the sequence, Morgan speaks through another Faustian figure, one who, if he is still chafing at the limits of language, is also defiantly outfacing his own mortality in lines that burst with physical and intellectual energy. “The life-lines of unreadable inscription” he feels and follows are precisely that – finger holds that allow him to make his death-defying climb until his “crest, like a shadow . . . tops the top of the wall”. This had better be “the climb of climbs”, he says as his head disappears into the stars: life would be “a wersh [sour] drag without it”.
The Demon at the Walls of Time
I ran and ran. I was so fresh and fuelled –
The rubble of the plain hardly felt me,
Far less held me back – so filled and flash
With missionary grin and attitude
I almost laughed to find the barrier
As big in its dark burnish as they’d warned.
No top to it that I could see, no holds
Except a filigree of faint worn sculpture.
Is challenge the word or is it not?
Is it the climb of climbs, morning noon and night?
It had better be! What a wersh drag without it –
Life, I mean!
Up it is then – careful! –
Zigzag but steady, glad to have no scree,
Not glad of useless wings, tremendous downdraught,
Nails not scrabbling – please! – but feeling and following
The life-lines of unreadable inscriptions
Cut by who by how I don’t know, go
Is all I know. Beautifully far below
Now is the ground, the old brown beetly ground.
No beetles here! It’s the sun and the blue
And the wall that almost everything
Seems rushing to if I dare one more look
Down, there’s a sea, a clutch of cities,
Cross-hatch of rolling smoke, is it a war
Somewhere on the hot convex, I’m sure
There’s war here on the wall too, written
Never to be lost, lost now, tongues, gods.
You’ll not lose me so easily! I’m climbing
Into the evening until I see stars
Beyond what is only rampart rampart rampart
And if I don’t I’ll take the night too
And a day and a night till my crest like a shadow
(It’s not a shadow though!) tops the top of the wall.
I know you can still hear me. Before I vanish:
You must not think I’ll not be watching you.
I don’t come unstuck. I don’t give up.
I’ll read the writing on the wall. You’ll see.
EDWIN MORGAN (1998)