Edwin Morgan was one of Scotland’s best loved poets of the last fifty years. Few artists in any discipline would have enjoyed the same level of public acclamation and support when he was named first as Glasgow’s poet laureate in 1999 and then later as Scotland’s Makar, the first official national poet, in 2004.
Prolific and approachable, his work was hailed in many quarters. He received the Queen's Gold Award for Poetry, his collections have several times been selected as Poetry Book Society Choices and Recommendations. He was awarded the Royal Bank of Scotland Book of the Year Award in 1983, the Soros Translation Award (New York) in 1985 and the the Stakis Prize for the Scottish Writer of the Year in 1998.
A committed nationalist and a pacifist, he wrote about everything from his native city of Glasgow, which he loved without being entirely uncritical of its tendency to sentimentalise its past, to space exploration. He also wrote vividly of love in poems such as Strawberries, The Unspoken, and One Cigarette which has led them to be quoted frequently at weddings and funerals alike. When he finally came out as gay at the age of 70, to no-one’s very great surprise, his poems continued to appeal to the same wide range of enthusiasts. He went on to be commissioned to write a special poem for the opening of the new Scottish parliament building in 2004 which was read by Liz Lochhead, his close friend and fellow-poet because by then he was not well enough to attend.
Edwin George Morgan was born in Hyndland, in Glasgow’s west end, before the family moved to Pollokshields on the south side, then Rutherglen. His schooling was at Rutherglen Academy followed by Glasgow High School. His father was a clerk in the shipping industry and the family lived a comfortable middle class existence.
He started writing poetry as young as 12: he remembered his teachers complaining about the amount of work he would give them to mark. He received a first class degree from Glasgow University and then served in Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon during the war with the army medical corps. He found writing difficult both during the war and afterwards when he returned to the University to teach, a post which would become his home for over 30 years. “I quite liked the idea of a regular job" he once told an interviewer. "It seemed to suit me temperamentally to have that."
His breakthrough as a writer did not come until 1968 with his collection The Second Life. His one regret was not coming out earlier than he did but, as he said later, “it just seemed impossible at that time, just because of the nature of the public attitude towards such things and the fact that my own upbringing had been so inhibiting”.
He was also a great translator, usually into Scots, from languages as diverse as Hungarian and Anglo-Saxon (a version of Beowulf), and collaborator, working with artists in other disciplines such as jazz musician Tommy Smith, for whom he wrote the libretto of a jazz opera, and theatre director Gerry Mulgrew for whom Morgan wrote a triumphant Scots version of Edmond de Rostand’s swashbuckling Cyrano de Bergerac which was the toast of the Edinburgh Festival in 1992. He also wrote original work for the stage including a trilogy of plays about Jesus which provoked some controversy as Morgan himsefl was atheistic and the plays portrayed Jesus as having sexual as well as spiritual feelings.
His collected poems was published by Carcanet Press in 1990. It ran to 600 pages.
In this 1989 interview in STV's Off the Page series, he discussed his literary career and influences with Donny O’Rourke.
VIDEO: Edwin Morgan appearing on STV's Off the Page programme
- VIDEO: Edwin Morgan appearing on STV's Don't Look Down programme
A biography of Morgan, written by James McGonigal, called Beyond the Last Dragon will shortly be available from Sandstone Press. The "last dragon" was how he referred to the prostate cancer that eventually killed him.