On 'Matt McGinn'

by Guusje Groote

Matt McGinn was a folk singer who started as a poor working class man and became known as the Scottish King of Folk. At the age of 48, he died in a fire at his home in Glasgow. Apart from being a songwriter, he was involved in many fields of interest throughout his life. He was very interested in politics and joined the Communist Party in 1949. He studied Economics and Political Science at Oxford, trained to become a teacher and finally became a professional entertainer. One of McGinn's most famous LPs is "Magic Shadow Show"; the album's title song starts with an adaptation from The Rubaiyat, a poem by Omar Khayyam.

Omar Khayyam was an outstanding mathematician and astronomer who lived in Persia around 1100. In the Middle East Khayyam is most famous for his mathematical achievements. He was concerned with cubic equations, astronomical tables, and contributed to calendar reform in 1079. However, in Europe Khayyam is best known for his poem The Rubaiyat. The emphasis of the poem is on the constant shift between its mystical tones and atmospheres of scepticism and frivolity. The Rubaiyat consists of a few hundred quatrains that follow a rhyme scheme of aaba or aaaa, so does the translation. Khayyam is the most famous poet to have written in this Persian verse form. One of the quatrains runs as follows:

For in and out, above, about, below,
'Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Played in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.(1)

Morgan cleverly interweaves Khayyam's lines with his sonnet on McGinn. But it is not only through quotations that Khayyam's presence is felt in the poem. At the start of the poem McGinn is presented singing at an open-air concert. He is seen from the audience's point of view. The audience looks at McGinn but fails to see him clearly. The fog is associated with Scotland, but also relates to more mystical senses of illusion. The concert becomes a magic shadow show in which nothing is what it seems to be, as shadows are nothing but illusions.

Morgan creates a sense of mysticism that draws on Khayyam's Rubaiyat. He contrasts the Scottish working-class features "A crane, a backcourt, an accordion" (l. 11) with a next line full of Eastern elements. When the "crane" is seen as a machine, the whole sentence might refer to the working class environment. However, if "crane" is understood as the tall stately bird who dances picturesquely during the mating session, the "backyard" and "accordion" get an exotic meaning as well. In the sonnet the double meaning of the word "sherbet" also links the Eastern culture with the Western culture. In Scots "sherbet" is a citrus-flavoured powder, a sweet that children like to eat. In Arabic the word refers to a pure draught.

Line 12 breathes an exotic atmosphere and gradually Khayyam's world seems to take over. "The book" (l. 13) refers to the Koran that plays a central role in the Islamic culture. The word "Mektub" (l. 14) is taken from the Koran, and is Arabic for "faith". In life many events are stumbled upon, happy as well as sad things happen, but all the contrasting elements that shape a life are predestined by faith. "Mektub" determines everything and functions as a book in which the past but also the future have been written down.

The title of the sonnet refers to the famous Scot whose life took on unexpected twists and saw great times as well as hard times. McGinn's real world was in sharp contrast with his imagined world. It was his working class background against the world of imagination. This is similar to contrasts within the Islamic world. The Koran promises an afterlife full of heavenly beauty but life on earth is not just exotic and happy. Imagination clashes with a harsh reality that is limited by strict rules. Morgan beautifully shifts between vague shadows and dream worlds. The painful Scottish working-class experience overlaps with the exotic East. The poem ends with a note on "Mektub", saying eventually everything is predestined and is to continue endlessly.


(1) Kyayyam, O., The Rubaiyat, translated by Edward Fitzgerald, 1859.


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