He won the Soros Translation Award in 1985, and spent the prize money on a day trip to Lapland on Corcorde
Scotland’s first official Makar in modern times, Edwin Morgan was endlessly inventive, inquiring, energetic, internationalist, and deeply committed to his home city of Glasgow.
A book of poems in his honour, Unknown Is Best, was produced to celebrate Morgan’s eightieth birthday in 2000. His own poem, ‘At Eighty’, was characteristic of the poet’s work, faring forward into the future, embracing change: ‘Push the boat out, compañeros / Push the boat out, whatever the seas…. push it all out into the unknown! / Unknown is best, it beckons best…’.
This seems an unlikely sentiment from a man of Morgan’s background. He was the only child of loving, anxious and undemonstrative parents, Stanley and Margaret (née Arnott) Morgan, politically conservative and Presbyterian. His father was a director of a small firm of iron and steel merchants. Edwin George Morgan was born on 27 April 1920 in Glasgow’s West End, and brought up in Pollokshields and Rutherglen. He attended – unhappily – Rutherglen Academy, moving on to complete his schooling at Glasgow High and entering Glasgow University in 1937. When he was called up in 1940, he horrified his family by registering as a conscientious objector. He reached a compromise position while waiting for his case to be called, and asked to serve in the RAMC, with which he spent the war in Egypt, the Lebanon and Palestine.
He was demobbed in 1946, returned to Glasgow and took a first class Honours degree in English Language and Literature. There was a chance of studying at Oxford, but Morgan preferred to take up the offer of a Lectureship in the Department of English at Glasgow University, where he remained. Having become Titular Professor in 1975, he retired from the University in 1980. He was a much-valued colleague and himself appreciated the structure and salary that academic life gave him.
Morgan first published under the name ‘Kaa’ in the High School of Glasgow Magazine, in 1936, and went on using that nom de plume in the Glasgow University Magazine, emerging as reviewer and translator under his own name in a variety of periodicals after the war. His first collection, The Vision of Cathkin Braes, was published by William MacLellan of Glasgow in 1952, and in the same year the Hand and Flower Press issued his translation of Beowulf (reissued by Carcanet Press in 2002). For fifty years Morgan maintained this double output, translations from Russian and Hungarian, Latin and French, Italian and Old English keeping pace with his own work, showing astonishing variety and technical skills in both. He won the Soros Translation Award in 1985, and spent the prize money on a day trip to Lapland on Corcorde.