Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Perhaps it is only when we are released from the stranglehold of the deep freeze that we can once again celebrate cold, snowy art. Today between Hogmanay (New Year’s) and Burns Night (Jan. 25), I bring you a Scottish, though autumnal, chill–the blizzard, the wind, the land, and their combined efforts to confound. Still, may your eyes and heart be open wide to the imagery, the sounds, and the impact that only poetry can deliver.

Recently, I rediscovered the work of a famous poet I was vaguely familiar with: Hugh MacDiarmid, celebrated Scottish poet of the 20th century (1892-1978). Again, I became so fascinated with the Scots language he used to effect his art that I started trying to translate the Scots of one of his poems into standard English. A bit more challenging than “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, the poem is also more somber and contemplative. A novice in translation for personal interest alone, I am unsure of how well it came out and some of it I couldn’t parse, but I thought the poem interesting enough to share with you.

The poem’s title “The Eemis Stane” translates roughly as “The Unsteady Stone.” If you’ve been following my series on nature poetry, you may have realized by now that sometimes there is a fine line between nature poetry and poetry that uses nature imagery but operates through a different primary theme or mode. Although MacDiarmid’s poem also uses nature imagery, as with many poems, its true subject is more abstract and societal. I believe, though, that all nature poetry need not just celebrate nature; it can also lament it. In that sense, “The Eemis Stane” could legitimately bear the tag “nature poetry.” It would simply need other tags as well.

Following is a bit about Hugh MacDiarmid with a link to more information about the poet, and then the poem in full with my translation and analysis.

According to the Poetry Foundation,

“C. M. Grieve, best known under his pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid, is credited with effecting a Scottish literary revolution which restored an indigenous Scots literature and has been acknowledged as the greatest poet that his country has produced since Robert Burns.”

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

Message of the poem

More about perhaps the nature of history and understanding than about nature itself, here is my interpretation: Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. Alternatively, though less likely, it could mean that only history’s obfuscation of events allows the observant man to see things clearly, as if transgression alone, however unintended, is what urges one’s keen attention to matters. Compounded by this confusion, or perhaps contributing to it, is the timing of the attempt: the darkest point of the night, a metaphor for the hardest moment in life, when you are shaken to your core and too discombobulated to make sense of it.

Means of the message

We can trust the reputable MacDiarmid to use the Scots language precisely, but ambiguity is the primary theme echoed by method across the poem. With compound images and multiple word meanings (fog/smoke/moss, fame/foam), unclear things masked in layers (darkness, fog, eerie memories, blizzard, lichen), and unexpected shifts in visual perspective (in total darkness, harvest night’s earth wobbling in the sky as seen from what vantage point?), the reader feels the speaker’s disorientation.

One example of a mysterious reference, the idea of the “words” cut out in the stone literally suggests either gravestone, monument, or ancient language, but figuratively calls to mind efforts to make one’s mark, the tantalizing nature of age-old mysteries, or a foundation marred or eroded by words and time. Then, stanza 2’s double negative (“couldna” plus “No’”) raises further questions of interpretation.

The speaker’s reaction to the confusion is a lament, with the consistent choice of words that collectively mourn: “how-dumb-deid” (darkest point), “cold,” “nicht” (night), “eemis” (unsteady, unstable, untethered, precarious, tenuous, unreliable), “wags” (wobbles, shakes, waggles, jars, dislocates, disorients), “eerie,” “fa'” (fall), “couldna” (could not), “cut oot” (cut out), “fug” (smoke, haze, fog, moss), and, most obviously, “yirdit” (buried). These account for our mood of sadness, solemnity, and empathetic bereavement.

Unlike the poem’s subject, with the help of such words, its overall impression proves firm, immutable by poem’s end. Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.


Read more Hugh MacDiarmid, aloud for the music or for the challenge of deciphering, but always for the artfulness of poetry:

For more from my collection of famous nature poetry, see:

square-rock-lichen-Nether-Largie-stone_DSCN3484_eds-2017-12-20

Lichen grows on a rock at the base of a Nether Largie standing stone in Kilmartin Glen, at the heart of Argyll & Bute on Scotland’s west coast. Image © 2016 C. L. Tangenberg


Two weeks later . . .

My eureka moment: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Golden Globe Nod for Caitriona Balfe

Now that a wonderful Outlander Season 3 has wrapped, soon I’ll share a post outlining my plan for getting through Droughtlander #3. Meanwhile, congratulations to Caitriona Balfe for her Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress TV – Drama based on Season 3 of Outlander! A repeat nod! But this time, surely a win . . . .

via Golden Globes for Outlander Starz!

See the Outlander Community page at the official Outlander STARZ site for a complete set of stills summing up Season 3 based on Voyager, book 3 of the Outlander series.

Pen Sketch of Ethan

So thankful

“Ethan’s Evenings,” sketch in black Pentel gel ink, 2017, by C. L. Tangenberg

 

 

Backyard Brief: Harvest, Daddy, Soldier, Fly

Canada has invaded. The soldiers are legion. They are large. They are serious. Or . . . at least I thought so. Canadian soldiers, I now learn, are evidently synonymous with mayflies. Mayflies do frequent the Cleveland area, coming off Lake Erie to menace the streets and beaches only to die 3 days later. They show up on radar as if they’re rain. More aptly referred to as northern invaders, then, would be those mayflies.

What I’ve been seeing take over our neighborhood and flit their delicate ways into our house to hang out on the wall are called crane flies. These look a bit like daddy longlegs (those aren’t spiders, by the way), a bit like huge mosquitoes (which apparently I think is spelled without the “e” like Tostitos), and, I guess to me, something like Canadian soldiers.

20171009_052804_crane-fly-folded wings

Encyclopaedia Britannica indicates that in English-speaking countries other than the U.S., crane flies are known as daddy longlegs, but we Americans commonly know daddy longlegs to be a kind of spider. Both have long legs, so I guess we can’t fault non-Americans for the nickname. So, in a roundabout way, Canada has invaded after all.

The plot thickens, though, because the U.S. daddy longlegs are also known as harvestmen. Harvestmen are actually an order of arachnids called opiliones. Also unbeknownst to me, not all arachnids are spiders. “Spiders are the largest order in the class, which also includes scorpions, ticks, mites, harvestmen, and solifuges.[2]” (I thought scorpions were in a separate class of arthropod.) So, although they’re arachnids, not even U.S. daddy longlegs are spiders.

True insects, crane flies by contrast are wiry aerial dancers that do not bite as mosquitoes do. Leggier than winged, in the style of powder billowing out when disturbed, they emerge from the lawn at dusk as we walk among and stir them up. The dog, already prone to chasing bugs, will perk up and pounce toward20171009_052928_crane-fly-wings-extended one or two when he notices.

What’s my point? The point is that I’ve never seen so many of these what I would normally call Canadian soldiers, and never any so huge. One we found on the wall in the family room the other day—they seem to linger in wall corners—appeared to be at least four inches in diameter from front toe to back toe, or top to bottom. Normally, they seem to max out at about two inches. This is novelty in our little corner of the animal kingdom, albeit in a slender, wispy, monochrome form.

They’ve been around for a couple of weeks now. While relatively harmless, crane flies still bother this homeowner, who likes to keep the bugs out and the human and canine animals in. Then again, our neighborhood was built on one vast universe of pavement ants, so keeping out some species of insects has been a losing battle. In that respect, I think I prefer the crane flies.

I also don’t particularly enjoy being tickled by insects while walking the dog, especially at night. Despite their not being spiders, the effect of the crane flies’ legs is to make one think for a moment that one has stepped across a spider thread, which I often do when passing trees along the sidewalk during otherwise pleasant evenings. Typically, those threads drape perfectly across my face and neck so that I’m scrambling to wipe them away. But, again, if the tickling must happen, I’d prefer the non-sticky variety. Crane flies will do.

Welcome home, Canada.


Sources

Insect Identification for the casual observer:

https://www.insectidentification.org/insects-by-state.asp?thisState=Ohio

https://www.insectidentification.org/insect-description.asp?identification=Cranefly

Encyclopaedia Britannica:

https://www.britannica.com/animal/crane-fly

https://www.britannica.com/animal/daddy-longlegs

Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crane_fly

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opiliones

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arachnid


What else can you find in my backyard? Get out your binoculars . . .

Review: Slainte Scotland Outlander Tour + Outlander Tourism Resources

The legend of Lallybroch continues to gain traction with each Outlander episode that features the Fraser estate. Tonight’s episode 2, “Surrender,” of Season 3 finds a broken Jamie Fraser at home once more, but that home will never be the same without his wife Claire, back in the 20th century, and with echoes of the Jacobite rebellion’s defeat throughout the Scottish Highlands.

Today is also the date one year on from my husband’s and my Outlander day tour with Slainte Scotland, a tour that began at Midhope Castle, the site of our beloved Broch Tuarach. As I noted in this reblogged part 5 of the blog series, “An Outlander Tourist in Scotland,” we were among eight lucky fans to be the last tourist group—our intrepid insider tour guide Catriona Stevenson informed us—to visit the castle ruins two days before Season 3 filming would begin there.

The stairs to the front door were covered with plastic and construction cones, and other equipment lay off to the side in preparation for filming. Not the best for photographs but certainly magical for anticipation of an active adaptation’s continuing into a third season. And here we are.

The story comes to life again tonight, 12 months after its filming, on STARZ at 8pm EDT, perhaps with a scene or two created during that first week back at Lallybroch starting Monday, September 19, 2016.

To my husband, whose support of my Outlander habit—and habitat—is unwavering, I dedicate this commemorative reblog of our multi-faceted Outlander tour review. Welcome home, Sassenachs.

And stay tuned to this spot for more reblogs and original posts from the rest of our trip later this week and into next.

front of the house

Philosofishal by Carrie Tangenberg

I thought I could fit it all in one final post, but that proved to be a mighty miscalculation. I had far too much to say about the Outlander tour alone–big surprise!–and I still plan to provide an overall series wrap-up. In fact, this post is so substantial, with pictures and tons of Outlander-related resources, I thought it best to include a table of contents. Get ready for everything (else) you need to know to create the best Outlander adventure for you and yours!

The final post is forthcoming. If you missed any of the first 4 parts of the series An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, you can find them in my blog’s Scotland and Outlander sections, linked through Scotland Ventured, Scotland Gained, or in direct links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. The first 3 parts showcase…

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Backyard Brief: Ethan’s Playground

New dog, new world