Bruce, George

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BRUCE, George

Nationality: British. Born : Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, 10 March 1909. Education: Fraserburgh Academy; Aberdeen University, M.A. (honors) in English. Family: Married Elizabeth Duncan in 1935 (died 1994); one son and one daughter. Career: Teacher of English and history, Dundee High School, 1933–46; general programs producer, Aberdeen, 1946–56, and since 1956 documentary talks producer, BBC, Edinburgh. Fellow in creative writing, Glasgow University, 1971–73; visiting professor, Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia, 1974; writer-in-residence, Prescott College, Arizona, 1974; visiting professor, College of Wooster, Ohio, 1976–77; and St. Andrews Presbyterian College, Laurinburg, North Carolina, 1985. Awards: Scottish Arts Council award, 1968, 1971; Scottish Australian Writing fellowship, 1982. Litt. D.: College of Wooster, 1977. O.B.E. (Officer, Order of the British Empire), 1984. Address: 25 Warriston Crescent, Edinburgh EH3 5LB, Scotland.



Sea Talk. Glasgow, Maclellan, 1944.

Selected Poems. Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd, 1947.

Landscapes and Figures: A Selection of Poems. Preston, Lancashire, Akros, 1967.

The Collected Poems of George Bruce. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1970.

The Red Sky Poems. Laurinburg, North Carolina, St. Andrew's Press, 1985.

Perspective: Poems 1970–1986. Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Press, 1987.

Pursuit: Poems 1986–1998. Edinburgh, Scottish Cultural Press, 1999.


To Scotland, with Rhubarb (produced Edinburgh, 1965).

Radio Play: Tonight Mrs. Morrison, music by David Dorward, 1968.


Scottish Sculpture, with T.S. Halliday. Dundee, Findlay, 1946.

Neil M. Gunn. Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, 1971.

Anne Redpath. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1974.

The City of Edinburgh: A Historical Guide. London, Pitkin Pictorials, 1974; revised edition, 1977.

Festival in the North: The Story of the Edinburgh Festival. London, Hale, 1975.

Some Practical Good: The Cockburn Association 1875–1975. Edinburgh, Cockburn Association, 1975.

William Soutar 1898–1943: The Man and the Poet. Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, 1978.

"To Foster and Enrich": The First Fifty Years of the Saltire Society. Edinburgh, Saltire Society, 1986.

Editor, The Exiled Heart: Poems 1941–1956, by Maurice Lindsay. London, Hale, 1957.

Editor, with Edwin Morgan and Maurice Lindsay, Scottish Poetry One to Six. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1966–72.

Editor, The Scottish Literary Revival: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Poetry. London, Collier Macmillan, and New York, Macmillan, 1968.

Editor, with Paul H. Scott, A Scottish Postbag. Edinburgh, Chambers, 1986.

Editor, with Frank Rennie, The Land Out There. Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Press, 1990.


Manuscript Collections: State University of New York, Buffalo; National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh; University of Texas, Austin.

Critical Studies: The Scottish Tradition in Literature by Kurt Wittig, Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd, 1958; The Scots Literary Tradition by John Spiers, London, Faber, 1962; "Myth-Maker: The Poetry of George Bruce" by Alexander Scott, in Akros (Preston, Lancashire), December 1975; "Sea Talk" by Iain Crichton Smith, in Towards the Human, Edinburgh, Macdonald, 1986; "George Bruce at Eighty" by Trevor Royle, in Scottish Poetry Library Newsletter (Edinburgh) 13, Summer 1989; "An Impression of Continuity" by Colin Nicholson, in Poem, Purpose and Place, Edinburgh, Polygon, 1992; "'Make Marble the Moment': The Poetry of George Bruce" by J.H. Alexander, in Northern Visions: The Literary Identity of Northern Scotland in the Twentieth Century, edited by David Hewitt, East Lothian, Tuckwell, 1995.

George Bruce comments:

(1970) I belong, I suppose, to the current Scottish literary revival, though I believe I owe nothing in style to any of my Scottish contemporaries. I have learned the craft of verse especially from Ezra Pound.

From about 1941 to 1953 the main subject matter was life in a sea town and the environment of that life. The approach was definitive rather than descriptive. I was concerned to establish the extraordinary nature of the case, that people continued to believe in life and to make a particular thing of it in circumstances that might have warranted despair, but then should one not despair in any case of human life that is, ipso facto, precariously placed between light and dark?

I came to this subject when the war seemed to confirm by its explicit outrage on human dignity the evidence of Eliot's The Waste Land. In these circumstances I found myself—for I did not seek to do so—making a statement in verse about the establishing of life on a minimal basis. I noted the fishermen whose lives were almost continuously threatened by the life-giving and killing element from which they drew their livelihood. To their adaptation to, and acceptance of, their situation they added an apparently unreasonable belief in a personal God. I could not identify myself with their attitudes nor with them. But in looking with particularity at them, the sense of a separate existence came home at a time when the word "object" was almost meaningless to me. I had found an "objective correlative."

I proceeded to apply a craft of verse that I had learned from Ezra Pound, particularly from Mauberley, with, as far as I could, clinical exactness. Just as much of my country was mere rock, so my language should be, so the rhythms short and vigorous. When I applied my ear to what I had written, I found the tone and accent an articulation of the words, and sentences related more closely to the manner of speech of the community in which I had been brought up (and to some extent continued about me, for I believe there is a tendency in educated Scottish speech in English to certain general characteristic) than to the implied accent of Pound or to the speech of southern England. A strong emphasis on consonants and a high articulation are characteristic. In my more successful poems of this period I think these elements are present. This was a point of beginning. All my poems were in English.

Then I became increasingly interested in the idea of order. That aspect of nature I knew best, and the irregular characteristic of growth itself threatened order. My poem about St. Andrews, "A Gateway to the Sea," is written as an exposition on the order of a mediaeval town that embodies theological concepts of order in its structure, an order that is threatened by men and by the ravages of the sea. This interest is subordinated in several poems to a rejoicing in the irregularity and variety of creation. It is easy enough to accept that variety as one looks back in history; it is more difficult to accept when the force of life expresses itself in what appears to be brashness and vulgarity. This is the main concern of my poem Landscapes and Figures.

(1980) In the 1970s there have been two new developments in my poetry. The one is the use of contemporary events, social and political, as material, on which I have made generally satiric comment. The other is the writing of poetry in Scots, which medium I have also applied to the current social scene. This led Alexander Scott to comment on my having "an uproarious sense of sardonic humor."

(1985) As my poetic interests widened, I came to use a longer line but to incorporate short lines for incantatory or dramatic purposes. Then I included Scots in my poems as the voice of a persona, using the same brief rhythms as I had done in English, the abruptness of the Scots reflecting the utterances of the fishermen under duress. More recently I have written poems in Scots as ironic commentaries on the social scene, but where I have felt most intensely the casual cruelties and injustices of our time, I have made my comment in poems in English, these frequently provoking as counterbalance personal love poems.

(1995) In 1944 my first collection of poems, Sea Talk, contained no poems in the vernacular of Scots, which I spoke as a boy, though the poems dealt with the experience of living in the Aberdeenshire coast. I felt then oppressed by the parochial, sentimental character of the verses written in that mode and that I required the clarity of English. Since then my sketches of fishermen in poems in English have accepted their speech. Then I wrote, and continue to write, bilingual poems such as "The Chair," in Interim, (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) 10(2), edited by A. Wilber Stevens. Finally, returning to my origins, I write poems in Scots based on the Aberdeenshire vernacular, such as my narrative poem "The Broch," published in The Five Toons Festival Collection, edited by George Gunn, Banff & Buchan District Council. This augurs a renewed confidence in the vitality and applicability of Scots to contemporary subjects.

*  *  *

The term "regional poet" can either mean a minor writer who celebrates his locality with a certain amount of enthusiasm and charm or a writer who uses the sights and smells and sounds of his native district as imaginative material for containing problems and predicaments that are those of humanity. It is in this second, good, sense that George Bruce is the poet of the northeast of Scotland, with its cold farmlands, its rugged cliffscapes, and its dour and tenacious fishermen.

That tenacity, that necessary, continuing belief in life at its basic food-winning level during the early years of World War II, inspired some of the poems in Bruce's first book, Sea Talk. His technique he learned to some extent from T.S. Eliot, though principally from Ezra Pound, especially Mauberley. But the tone and timbre of the application of the technique are very much his own, related to those durable qualities among which he had been brought up. "Just as much of my country was mere rock," the poet has explained, "so my language should be, so the rhythms short and vigorous." Comparing the graciousness that allowed Gothic spires to flourish in windswept Balbec and Finistère with the granite knuckle thrust where the Buchan fisherman has his being, Bruce exclaims,

   To defend life thus and so to grace it
   What art! but you, my friend, know nothing of this,
   Merely the fog, more often the east wind
   That scours the sand from the shore,
   Bequeathing it to the sheep pasture,
   Whipping the dust from fields,
   Disclosing the stone ribs of earth—
   The frame that for ever presses back the roots of corn
   In the shallow soil. This wind,
   Driving over your roof,
   Twists the sycamore's branches
   Till its dwarf fingers shoot west,
   Outspread on bare country, lying wide.
   Erect against the element
   House and kirk and your flint face.

Just as the relentless action of wind and waves has shaped his coastline, so past generations have molded his northeast character:

   This which I write now
   Was written years ago
   Before my birth
   In the features of my father.
   It was stamped
   In the rock formations
   West of my hometown.
   No I write
   But perhaps, William Bruce,
   Cooper …

Against this backcloth of the elements, Bruce sets the hero, determinedly going about his business.

Twenty-three years lie between Sea Talk and Landscapes and Figures. By the time of the second collection the range and power of the verse have deepened. There is still the hero, "a man of inconsequent build," his "Odyssey the trains between/Two ends of telephone &"

There are also clear, objective recollections of the details of childhood, as in the much praised "Tom." In one part of this sequence, "Tom on the Beach," the poet asks himself,

   How many years since with sure heart
   And prophecy of success
   Warmed in it
   Did I look with delight on the little fish,
   Start with happiness, the warm sun on me?
   Now the waters spread horizonwards,
   Great skies meet them,
   I brood upon uncompleted tasks.

Bruce occasionally uses Scots, though usually only for special colloquial effects in the counterpoint of his verses' rugged music. Henry Moore's sculpture, the impact of distant wars through the television screen, and the experience of an Italian sojourn have given him new thematic material. I doubt if anything can surpass "A Gateway to the Sea," his elegy for the changelessness of change. The "gateway" leads to ruined St. Andrew's Cathedral, where once there was living gossip:

   … Caesar's politics.
   And he who was drunk last night;
   Rings, diamants, snuff boxes, warships,
   Also the less worthy garments of worthy men!

Here once:

   The European sun knew these streets
   O Jesu parvule; Christus Victus: Christus Victor.
   The bells singing from their towers, the waters
   Whispering to the waters, the air tolling
   To the air—the faith, the faith, the faith.

But "all that was long ago. The lights/Are out, the town is sunk in sleep &" and yet,

   Under the touch the guardian stone remains
   Holding memory, reproving desire, securing hope
   In the stop of water, in the lull of night
   Before dawn kindles a new day.

I know of no other so-called regional poet whose treatment of the oldest and most universal theme of all is as powerfully affecting as Bruce's in this poem. The voice is Scottish, but the words are warmed into poetry by a European mind.

At a comparatively advanced age Bruce undertook lecture tours in the United States and in Australia. His European mind responded in verse to these wider experiences, as his collection Perspective clearly shows, notably in "Aborigine with Tax Form." "The Desert" is a narrative poem reflecting the bleakness of bigotries and the human wastes they create.

   The mother called the children home
   in the evening. In the morning the bell
   called them to the village school.
   Peewits flopped in the air.
   Cows rubbed their hairy backs on posts.
   In the school the children learned words
   so that they could know of the desert far away
   that one day would be their desert.

There is also a highly amusing pseudolament for the much heralded demise of the Scots tongue, blown out of its tomb by "a fuff o' win" (wind), leaving the

   … gran mourners, the Editor o' the Scottish National Dictionary,
   Heid o' the Depairtment o' Scot-Lit.,
   President o' the Burns Federation,
   President o' the Lallans Society,
   President o' the Saltire Society,
   a' present in strict alphabetical order …

—Maurice Lindsay

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Bruce, George

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