Below the Green Corrie

Norman MacCaig


Norman MacCaig

Nationality: Scottish

Norman MacCaig was a Scottish poet and teacher.

His poetry is remembered for its humor and simple use of language.

‘Below the Green Corrie’ is dated roughly 1969, and can be found in the posthumously published collection of poetry, Collected Poems, edited by his son. On the surface, it is a poem about a man’s nostalgia for a place known as the ‘Green Corrie’ – Corrie is a hollow in the center of a mountain – and the poem goes into the beauty of the area, and how it overwhelms him to look at it nowadays.

Well, I’ll answer the first one first. I was on a panel and I was asked what my religion was and I said ‘Zen Calvinist,’ just to shut them up. And the second question, can poetry be taught? I didn’t think so. When I was asked to be Writer in Residence at Edinburgh I thought, you can’t teach poetry. This is ridiculous. I’d always been suspicious of ‘Creative Classes.’ However, I learned something. I thought that if the young person, the student, has poetry in him or her, to offer them help is like offering a propeller to a bird. And if they haven’t got poetry in them, there’s nothing you can do that will produce it. I used to quote a fascinating couplet: ‘The feathered tribes on pinions skim the air, / Not so the mackerel and still less the bear.’ But I found that when the students brought me things, I never taught them in the sense of, ‘You should do this, you should do that.’ The thing was to discover what they wanted to write about and the form that they wanted to write it in, and go through each poem with a toothcomb in an attempt to show them how they could improve the poem. A very common thing was to find a line I just couldn’t understand, and I’d say, ‘I don’t understand that line. It’s very boring to ask, I know, but what does it mean?’ Extraordinarily often they’d say, ‘Well as a matter of fact I don’t know.’ And I’d say, ‘What’s it doing there then?’ And they would say, ‘I liked the image.’ I’d say, ‘So do I. But I don’t know what it means. It’s a nice line. Remove it. Make it the start of a new poem.’ And I found that talking like that was a big help to them. Two things happened. One was, because they had a sympathetic guy to talk to, they started writing more. The other thing was, since they knew I was going to go through it, niggling away, they wrote far more self-critically, and they improved to an extraordinary degree. I would think I saved them a few years in reaching the stage they did.

— Jennie Renton, Norman MacCaig: An Interview, Textualities

Norman MacCaig was a Scottish teacher and a poet who lived mostly in the West Highlands and in the city of Edinburgh. He was married once, and they had two children, and although today he is known as perhaps one of the best poets of the Scottish Highlands, he made his living as a primary-school teacher. His pacifist views, during World War II, earned him a jail sentence that would later shadow the rest of his career, however, MacCaig still went on to become Reader in Poetry at Stirling University.

Below the Green Corrie by Norman MacCaig


Below the Green Corrie Analysis

First Stanza

The mountains gathered round me
full of threats, full of thunders.

The opening imagery in ‘Below the Green Corrie’, which can be read in full here, is quite ominous. The personification of the mountain presents an image of a sharp, unfeeling landscape, threatening the viewer, and at first glance, one is not sure how the reader feels about this place – it carries on with the idea that the mountains are ‘like bandits’, that they ‘swagger’ up close in the dark light (appearing in shadow without warning) and are ‘full of threads, full of thunders’.


Second Stanza

But it was they who stood and delivered.
They filled me with mountains and thunders.

In the second stanza of ‘Below the Green Corrie’, however, there is a sharp change in the pattern of ‘Below the Green Corrie’. Whereas the first stanza spoke about the threatening view of the mountains, the second pivots the opinion to talk about how the mountains themselves ‘stood and delivered’, hence giving up their own enrichment for the experience and the youth of the viewer. It is not the mountains, then, that are threatening, only their appearance, as they seek only to bring joy to the viewer. The mountains, in the second stanza, take on a comfortable warmth, and an idea that the mountains themselves are somehow strengthening the reader.


Third Stanza

My life was enriched
with an infusion of theirs.
I clambered downhill through the ugly weather.
that swashbuckling mountain,
was wearing
a bandolier of light

In the last stanza of ‘Below the Green Corrie’, the poet admits ‘my life was enriched / with an infusion of theirs’, thus making it quite obvious that he is the man that he is due to the presence of the mountains in his life; he is strengthened, both spiritually and mentally, by the presence of the mountains. He goes on to state that he climbed down in hideous weather, and that he was so enamored by the view of the mountains that he turned to ‘look’ goodbye, calling back to the previous personification by implying that the mountains would care, one way or another, whether he stood and looked or not. He also calls them ‘marvellous prowlers’, an image mostly associated with wild, cat-like behaviour, lazy beasts sunning themselves and sleeping in the darkness. The weather, which has already been described as ugly, changes – suddenly a ‘sunshaft’ comes through the clouds, and the mountains are no longer thugs and bandits, but a ‘swashbuckling’ mountain – drawing allusion to the children’s startling interest in pirates – that is wearing a ‘bandolier of light’, perhaps alluding to a certain heavy divinity, as the bandolier could easily be taken for a halo. The word ‘swashbuckling’ also implies that the mountains, although bold, are not quite weak; they still retain their weapons, and their fearsome nature, and they are not to be mocked or turned away from.

However, upon reading ‘Below the Green Corrie’, one can clearly feel the love that the poet has for the Highlands; Norman MacCaig wrote many such poems on the same thing, and his love of the Highlands was immortalized in poems such as this, ‘A Man in Assynt’, and in the bulk of his Collected Poems.


Historical Background

His place in Scottish literature is unique, as the best recent writer in English, pure English. The achievement wins praise where you don’t expect it. I was out on the tiles a few months ago with a young skinhead Scottish writer domiciled on what I suppose we will come to call the Irvine Welsh Heritage Trail. He surprised me by expressing his utter love of MacCaig’s verse. We deplored together the fact that MacCaig was in failing health, never quite himself again after the loss of his much-loved consort, Isabel. We plotted to surprise him with a bottle of whisky in his home in Leamington Terrace. We never did it. I regret that. I offer, too late, this poem: “Your death is beyond belief / which you never had, anyway / It comes upon one as a private grief / – the ultimate enemy.
Norman Alexander MacCaig, poet: born Edinburgh 14 November 1910; FRSL 1965; Fellow in Creative Writing, Edinburgh University 1967-69; Lecturer in English Studies, Stirling University 1970-72, Reader in Poetry 1972- 77; OBE 1979; ARSA 1981; FRSE 1983; Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry 1986; married 1940 Isabel Munro (died 1990; one son, one daughter); died Edinburgh 23 January 1996.

— Angus Calder, The Independent.

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