A Dog’s DNA, Part 2

Photo credit: umseas on VisualHunt / CC BY


In Part 1 of this blog series, I considered the state of things before receiving our dog Ethan’s DNA test kit results, including some guesses as to what those results might show.

A reminder of why we care, whether or not we should: “Dogs vary in size, shape, color, coat length and behavior more than any other animal” (Weber Shandwick as cited in ScienceDaily, 2008). As our best friends and family members, dogs’ unique physical variations naturally pique our curiosity about which parts come from which sources.

In this post, I reveal the results and discuss the aftermath of our dog’s DNA analysis. Some things haven’t changed, and some will never be the same.


DNA Denial

They don’t believe it. They say it can’t be. They’re incredulous about what lies beneath the surface—the surface features of our dog, that is. Reasons in the unbelievers for their disbelief may involve the following:

  1. Aversion to a fact due to prior negative associations
  2. The intractable human tendency to believe only our eyes
  3. Simple unmet expectations

Then, there is the plain fact that genetics is a complex science with equally complex social and cultural implications.

But what exactly is so incredible? And am I a true believer by contrast?

  • Unbelievable: The breeds represented in—and missing from—our dog’s DNA.
  • Me: Ever the skeptic but open to possibilities. (Just see this blog’s About me page.)

In short, “I want to believe,” but like Fox Mulder of The X-Files, my fatal flaw would be to believe that “the truth is out there” when, actually, the truth that matters most is in here, in me, when it comes to my family, which includes my dog.

Facts are not truth, and especially not absolute “Truth.” They can only inform–and only if we let them. These particular dog-related facts are the result of scientific research, the genomic analysis of the DNA from my dog’s saliva.

And it’s no easy science for us lay people to grasp. From terms like “genotype,” “locus,” “phenotype,” and “allele” to phenomena “wolfiness,” “paternal haplotype,” “genetic age,” and the diverse functions genes have in an organism, it’s a lot to unpack. DNA analysis piles on thousands of data and facts to sift through if we have any hope of reaching some larger truth that relies on it.

“Ethan, what are you?”

The bottom-line fact for my family is that our dog isn’t what any of us thought he was. Sure, he’s still a dog and a best friend. But his breed make-up was definitely a surprise to everyone from the immediate family to dog-owning friends to his foster mom to our dog trainers. (I haven’t informed the vet yet.)

But really, I’m not so distant in my reactions from the more staunch non-believers. I look at my dog, and I look at these breed photos, and I think, “I don’t see any of that in there.” I can’t blame them for doubting the science; I am not without doubt. But then, the results are not without holes, remaining questions, and uncertainty, anyway.

We thought we knew . . . some things.

A fact and a truth as old as dirt is that appearances can be deceiving. The fascinating thing is how many different kinds of applications that truth really has. It’s not just our eyes that lie to us, though. It’s also precedent, accepted practice, tradition, conventional wisdom, emotional denial, and the assumptions of what we thought was “common” knowledge.

Specifically, the precedents and traditions that form convention tell us what certain dog breeds are supposed to look like. Then, common belief tells us we can identify mixed breeds by using our eyes and memories to link aspects of physical appearance that we see with our understanding of breed types.

From novice dog owner to seasoned dog trainer to veterinarian, dog shelter manager, and animal control warden, people interested in canines tend to think we know which breeds are most likely present in a dog of mixed breed heritage simply by looking at the creature before us.

But, man, are we wrong. So. Very. Wrong.

No one likes being wrong, even when we claim we’re only guessing. We like to think we’re well qualified to chime in, even if we’re not quite experts. We like to think our contribution is helpful, informative, unique perhaps, even if we give it off the cuff. We like to be right, and we certainly hate admitting when we’re wrong.

In light of our stubbornness, I think I need to say it again so we have some time to get used to the idea: We’re frequently and very much wrong when it comes to identifying dog breed mixes by sight alone–without registration papers or knowledge of a dog’s both male and female parentage. Part 3 of this series will explain exactly why this is so.

Science can provide answers, but it can also raise more questions than it answers. The journey to discovering my dog’s breed ancestry is one such case. Like it or not, the issues take some unpacking, along with a healthy dose of patience and humility.

So, as a matter of curiosity and entertainment, and maybe some education and insight, in this post, I’d like to share our dog’s DNA results, our reactions to them, and some reflections on their implications. First, a caveat.

Three Key Points

I believe it’s important to keep three key points in mind while digesting all of this.

1. Time, tradition, and cultural rituals have shaped and fixed our conceptions of dogs, dog breeds, and their relationships with people and each other.

2. Prejudice for or against certain dog breeds, like human-focused prejudice, has some basis in fact, some in cultural tradition, and some in outright misconception influenced in large part by pop culture stereotypes and the media. Deny it if you wish, but none of us is free of harboring some kind of racism–whether our focus is human, canine, floral. . . .

3. The meaning of anything can be highly personal, and meaning should be informed by more than one factor in life–such as reason, emotion, dreams and goals, research, study, established scientific fact, the mysteries of nature science has yet to uncover, and the practical demands of living.

With these thoughts in our back pocket, let’s consider the results and implications of one dog’s breed mix analysis and other DNA details, as well as my family’s and my reactions to them.

My Guesses

If you read Part 1, you’ll see a bit of conjecture as to my dog Ethan’s possible breed ancestry. Although I labeled it a “hypothesis,” that’s really a misnomer, suggesting a degree of scientific method I did not apply. Instead, what I’ll now call my “guesses” from Part 1 came down to the following:

"If I were to pick the largest number of possible ingredients 
going into the oven that made my dog, it would include 
but perhaps not be limited to:
Vizsla
Labrador retriever
German shepherd
springer spaniel or Brittany
Doberman
Dachshund
and some terrier blend

"If I were to pick the smallest number of possible ingredients, 
it would include one of the following:
Vizsla, German shepherd, or
Vizsla, Labrador retriever, or
Vizsla, retriever (non-Lab)"

DNA Analysis Genetic Breed Results

Here are the actual DNA breed results from Embark.

"Mixed Breed

24.2% Rottweiler ["Rotti"]
24.1% American Pit Bull Terrier ["Pittie"]
17.4% German Shepherd Dog ["GSD"]
6.2% Doberman Pinscher ["Dobie"]
28.1% Supermutt

"What's in that Supermutt? There may be small amounts of DNA 
from these distant ancestors:
Collie
Golden Retriever
Boxer
Chow Chow"

See the full Embark DNA analysis results on Ethan’s public profile: embk.me/ethan5. They include a brief Summary, Genetic Breed Result, Genetic Stats, Breed Mix Matches, DNA Breed Origins, Family Tree, Traits (physical), Maternal Haplotype, and Paternal Haplotype. Good luck! It is fascinating. The only parts not included in the public profile are Research (additional surveys we took about Ethan), Health, and DNA Relatives.

Initial Reactions?

Number 1: Surprise.

Ethan, December 2017

The biggest surprise? I think it’s a tie between his having no measurable trace of Hungarian Vizsla and the prominence of Rottweiler and pit bull in his blood.

Some of my guesses involved the right idea: GSD, retriever, Dobie, some terrier due to size. But actually, the Rotti, though stocky like the rest of the identified breeds, is medium-sized, too.

Nevermind that we originally set out to look for a Vizsla as our pet dog.

Nevermind that the rescue organization we adopted Ethan from advertised him as a “Vizsla/Lab mix.”

Nevermind that everywhere we go at least one person asks, “Is that a Vizsla?”

Nevermind that we’ve been answering everyone with “Yes, we think he has some Vizsla in him.”

He’s not a Vizsla. Not even close. He may not even have any trace of the breed in him at all, and we’ll probably never know one way or the other. Bye-bye, Vizsla fantasy.

Family Reactions

Number 2: Alarm.

For some of my family members, learning that all these powerful breeds historically used for guarding, protection, police work, attack, and fighting come together somehow in our dog was more than a surprise. It was alarming. Their images of the Rottweiler, pit bull, German shepherd, and Doberman are not of friendliness, safety, or even “goodness” in a dog. These breeds, at least some of the time, are seen as mean, vicious, predatory killers, barely controlled by their owners and often used for nefarious purposes.

Hollywood, the media, and traditional breeding have all played a role in forming this stigma. Although the guarding nature of these dogs, such as the Doberman, can be used for comic relief, the premise is always that the breed is formidable, imposing, even monstrous. Films like Up and ’80s TV shows like “Magnum P.I.” play up the alpha dog image of the Doberman, the pet of the eccentric, wealthy elite and the animal antagonist that terrorizes the hero in the story. 

Rottweilers can be associated with the junk yard and cartoons where the dog is tasked with keeping out pests and trespassers. In the ’80s cult classic film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the Bueller family Rotti rips the trespassing principal to shreds in his meddlesome pursuit of the truant Ferris.

As the breed most commonly used for K-9 police units, German shepherds sniff out drugs, guns, bombs, and dead bodies, and run down and subdue crime suspects. High energy, fierce looking, and powerful, they’re the bad asses of the law enforcement sector.

Little needs to be said about the nasty reputation of the pit bull, though, like all these others, it is grossly misrepresentative and extremely unfair. See the more fitting profiles of the pit bull in a later section and at the bottom of this post.

None of these dogs is portrayed as an obedient sporting, sprightly terrier, or lap-dog toy breed character. They’re not seen as playmates or accessories. They’re seen as dangerous and downright scary–creatures, not dogs, always to be avoided. 

Influence of Personal Experience

It doesn’t help that my parents have negative associations with at least one of these breeds. My brother was bit in the face by a German shepherd at age 5, and my mother for one has been afraid of them ever since. My mother-in-law was bitten by a dog, though not one of these breeds. My father-in-law doesn’t like pit bulls at all, and he’s not alone, but he has a special bond with our dogs and other pets any time they interact.

While not necessarily afraid of them, my father was the one who pointed out how our culture has conditioned us to fear these and other specific breeds. People who do not currently own and never owned dogs will more easily tend to fall victim to those stereotypes in their interactions with dogs. My husband did not grow up with dogs as I did, so he is more tentative around less familiar dogs than I tend to be, but only mildly so.

Number 3: Rejection.

Even after I attempted to explain the results, my in-laws emphatically declared, half in jest, “We don’t care what the results say. We’re saying he’s a Vizsla.” I had nowhere to go from there, so I accepted it with a smile and a “Fair enough.”

If the details or reasons for the results don’t matter to others, you can’t change that; nor can you imbue anyone with curiosity they just don’t have. We all have our priorities of what to focus on. But I can try to satisfy my own curiosity, and I wanted to try to understand. So, since I started this blog series, I decided to do my best to bring it to some meaningful resolution.

My Personal Reactions

Number 4: Confusion.

Absence of the Vizsla breed in my dog, though admittedly a little disappointing, hasn’t been the main issue for me. Likewise, I don’t have a problem with these breeds in the mix. With the influence of Cesar Millan’s Dog Whisperer TV show, reading about raising and training dogs, and substantial lay research about dogs in general, I’ve long held positive views of just about every breed of dog. So I don’t carry the same degree of typical prejudices held by others.

For me, it’s simply hard to see in my dog what the DNA results claim about his breed mix and the likeliest associated character traits and behaviors.

There are important scientific and societal reasons for this that you won’t want to miss later on. See Part 3.

Meanwhile, let’s get to know the breeds in Ethan’s genetic mix.

Enter Research.

The Rottweiler (24.2%)

After popping in and out of all the linked question marks on Embark’s results package, one of the first additional things I did was find out more about Rottweilers.

Looking for similarities primarily, as opposed to differences, I discovered I could see some Rottweiler traits and behaviors in our Ethan. These include:

  1. intelligence–Ethan learns faster than I do in agility class, that’s for sure.
  2. stubbornness–This often goes hand in hand with smarts.
  3. food orientation–Ethan is nothing if not food driven.
  4. strength and physicality–He’s also pretty strong and can play rough at the dog park.
  5. lounging preference–Ethan can be a lazy boy, too, preferring the cozy indoors to especially wet conditions outside.
  6. lack of barking–Our dog hardly ever barks.
  7. direct eye contact–I suppose he often looks me in the eye. . .
  8. athleticism–Ethan jumps, climbs, leaps up onto neighborhood boulders, picnic tables, and utility boxes–all with our initial permission when he was a pup; he loves turning corners, running through tunnels, jumping hurdles, and running faster than every other dog at play. Source consulted: “11 Facts Rottweiler People Understand Better Than Anyone”

Consulting just one source on this, I found that Ethan matches up with Rottweiler behavior in a solid 7 of 11 traits, which are only general tendencies and, as with all breed traits, do not apply to every individual of that breed.

The ones he lacks from that list are lap dog behavior (prefers to lounge alone), loyalty to the point of guard dog behavior (he’s as eagerly friendly and mild as they come), and carrying the stigma/responsibility of being an obvious member of the breed (he really looks nothing like a Rottweiler).

He’s also deferential enough not to stare us down, though he can make eye contact frequently. He’s strongly bonded to me, but he’s still not entirely comfortable being invited onto the couch since we initially taught him not to go on it, or even having us lie down beside him (he gets suspicious), and he has shown no particular protective or possessive tendencies with either of us.

While this is only one source, it opened my eyes at least to the possibilities of similarity to a breed I was less familiar with and hadn’t considered during my concerted guessing period.

Physically, Ethan also has ears that seem to match in many photos I’ve seen of Rottweilers.

Despite these parallels, however, there is truth in the notion that all this is simply an exercise in finding what you look for–in this case, similarities. That’s called confirmation bias, a plague rampant in the media. What’s to say I wouldn’t find the same degree of similarity between my dog and ten other breeds? Speaking of other breeds . . .

The American Pit Bull Terrier (24.1%)

So, what about the American Pit Bull Terrier? Which of its typical behaviors match Ethan’s?

Thankfully for his relationship with people (including close family with fear of the breed), as with the Rottweiler, Ethan bears practically no physical resemblance to the pit bull or related breeds. However, are there behaviors unique to the pit bull that Ethan might exhibit?

The Embark description characterizes pit bulls as “sweet, talented, and affectionate.” Ethan has become more affectionate over time, gradually, but he did not start out all hugs and kisses with us. Ethan is sweet and talented, but these traits are so vague as to apply to at least a dozen other breeds or simply great individual dogs.

Embark’s description also says that pit bulls “enjoy the company of their family members” and “get along very well with children.” Both are true of Ethan–and lots of other dogs and dog breeds.

I was unable to use an American Kennel Club (AKC)’s breed description because American Pit Bull Terrier is not an official AKC-recognized breed. The closest related breeds in their database are the American Staffordshire Terrier (“Amstaff”) and Staffordshire Bull Terrier (“Staffie”). The key words associated with the former are “confident, smart, good-natured” and with the latter “clever, brave, tenacious.”

It’s the “bull” and associated traits that made the Staffie a good fighter. Even this minor shift in emphasis between the two breeds assures me that it would be faulty to compare breed characteristics to the American Pit Bull Terrier as a way of ascertaining from another source the breed “type” most likely represented in Ethan.

But based on the Embark details, we can still make some basic assessments: Unlike the stereotypical pit bull, Ethan thinks every other dog is his best friend, and he is not as high energy as most pit bulls I’ve observed. However, he can be pretty scrappy at play, and he does excel at agility, an example of pit bull versatility and talent. But again, pit bulls vary in behavior just as much as any other pure breed’s specimens.

So much for the pit bull. Despite its comprising almost a quarter of Ethan’s DNA, very little closely, and nothing exclusively, associates him with the breed’s visual–or purportedly standard behavioral–traits.

Other Breeds

Without swimming in the details, it’s a similar story for the German shepherd (17.4%) and Doberman (6.2%).

Photo credit: gomagoti on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

Some traits line up; others don’t.

If you’d like details about any of the breeds identified in Ethan’s mix, including “Supermutt” estimated trace breeds, see the bottom of this post for a full set of breed profile highlights from Embark, American Kennel Club, and Westminster Kennel Club. See also my section below about the significance of the Supermutt component.

After receiving the results and learning more about the science behind all this, it was interesting and disappointing how the “a-ha” moments kept pace, neck and neck, with continued puzzlement.

Second Impressions: The Double Take

So why should these 4 breeds NOT dominate almost 70% of Ethan’s genetic inheritance?

Because, even going beyond the quick glance from Embark’s identified breeds to the creature we live with–and back, across man, it just doesn’t seem to stack up. Here’s why:

1. First, there’s his build.

The only breed named in his mixture that’s remotely close to Ethan’s body structure is the Doberman, which makes up the smallest percentage of definitively identifiable pure breed present at 6.2%.

Otherwise, he’s not stocky or broad-jawed like the pit bull, he doesn’t have the shorter muzzle of the Rotti or pittie, he’s not tall like the GSD or prick-eared like three-fourths of them, and, though several of them have deep chests, his rather high pelvic tuck matches none of them.

Instead, Ethan is lanky and wiry, slender even, with a long torso and bony butt, and, yes, he eats plenty every day. He’s downright petite. I’d sooner believe he had whippet in him than any of these four main breeds. Looking deeper, there may be some resemblance to the build of the collie.

Otherwise, the causes for his shape remain mysterious, at least to the same extent that other representatives in Ethan’s “Supermutt” DNA (beyond traces of collie, golden retriever, boxer, and chow chow), say, the other 15-25%, are themselves mysterious.

Go back far enough, if we really could, and you would think every mutt in Ethan’s ancestry has a pure breed ancestor. But it turns out that conception is wrong, too. More on original dog breeds later.

2. Second, that curly tail.

The only breed named in the mix with a curly tail is the chow chow. The tightness of the curl in Ethan’s tail more closely matches the chow chow than the more gradual curve of any of the other breeds’ tails. His tail shape is distinctive without a clear source, certainly not one source alone.

3. Third, his red color.

Ethan doesn’t have the coloring of any of these breeds’ standard versions that come to mind. Red is recessive, I learned from the trait science, but it was definitely a major factor leading us to believe in the Vizsla component. He also has a blond or buff undercarriage, underside of his tail and faint patch on his chest.

The only breed with a slightly stronger tendency in these directions is the pit bull, along with some of the breeds among the traces of retriever, collie, boxer, and chow chow that Embark supposes may be present.

4. Fourth, behavior.

Items 1-3 have to do with appearance, but we all inherit a lot more from our ancestors than just our looks. Off hand, the behaviors that strike me most about Ethan are his keen sense of smell relative to other breeds and his high propensity for scent tracking. I attributed these to some sort of hound breed in his DNA. What I did not think about during my guesses was how scent-oriented the German shepherd is. Caught me napping.

Behaviorally, Ethan sits like a Vizsla and is shy/sensitive like a Vizsla, but there isn’t much else I could point to in the Vizsla besides looks. Along with face shape and build, another reason I had ruled out pit bulls was muscle strength, but that’s hard to judge comparatively without owning other dogs, and Ethan is pretty strong in neck and jaw when we play tug of war. On the other hand, he routinely tumbles under the heftier charges of stocky dogs at the dog park. Note: My knowledge of the Vizsla breed profile comes from many sources beyond kennel clubs.

I might be one of the more easily convinced among my family members as to the veracity of the numbers, but seeing those numbers and reading the basic profile of each breed included in the results was not enough to settle my mind about match-up.

Even though I knew something about dog breeds already, the picture created by these results really didn’t look right, and searching for the reasons for them was the obvious next step.

I had to learn more if I was going to make sense of either the behavioral or physical appearance traits in the breeds the DNA says my dog Ethan contains.

Aside from identifiable breeds, the meaning of the Supermutt factor must also be considered.

Supermutt (28.1%)

Amidst the tendencies, likelihoods, prevalences, possibilities, and estimations inherent in this package of results, the largest variable of breed ID lies in the Supermutt designation. Obviously, this is not a breed but a label that shouts “no single breed dominates.” Not only that, at almost 30%, this component makes up the highest distinct percentage of Ethan’s breed mix DNA results.

Despite Embark’s guesses as to traces of breeds (again, see the bottom of this post for breed profile highlights) that could be present in this 28.1% mix of mixes, it really opens up the field of possible ancestors and the range of possible traits from those dogs. In so doing, “Supermutt” diminishes the potential influence on my dog of all of the first four breeds listed.

Conclusions? More Questions.

The results suggest their own decreasing significance for us. He’s a mutt, a highly mixed animal with no single dog breed making up who he is genetically. What more can be said? And where else in the results can I turn to find meaning?

As the picture complicates, it also distracts from the key points at this post’s intro. What can we really learn about pure breed prejudice through Ethan’s case?

The answers lie in answering the question, “How can a dog look so different from the physical breed traits of his genetic heritage?” And only the science can answer that.

During this educational process, I did gain clarifying insights, but I stewed about the breed appearance factors for quite some time afterwards. I would have to dig deeper to understand how a dog’s appearance and breed heritage can seem so at odds.

Not only the science but also the reason for the dissatisfaction really does beg for explanation. I mean, What gives? Did we waste our money? And how trustworthy are Embark’s science and report, anyway? 

Answering these questions will be the task of Part 3 of this post series. In Part 3, we’ll:

  • Learn why and how a dog can look so different from the physical breed traits of its genetic heritage.
  • Uncover what this insight means for visual breed identification of mutts when their parents are unknown.
  • Wrap up the series with an evaluation of our DNA analysis supplier, remaining questions, and final reflections.

Stay tuned!

See the full Embark DNA analysis results on Ethan’s public profile: embk.me/ethan5. They include a brief Summary, Genetic Breed Result, Genetic Stats, Breed Mix Matches, DNA Breed Origins, Family Tree, Traits (physical), Maternal Haplotype, and Paternal Haplotype. Good luck! (It is fascinating.)


Have you had your dog’s DNA analyzed?

What are your thoughts on all this?

Do Ethan’s results surprise you?

Feel free to share in the comments.


Sources Consulted and Cited

American Kennel Club. https://www.akc.org/

Embark. embarkvet.com. embk.me/ethan5

Finn, Maureen. (n.d.). 11 facts Rottweiler people understand better than anyone. The Dog People. Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.rover.com/blog/facts-rottweiler-people-understand/

Weber Shandwick Worldwide. (2008, June 23). DNA study unlocks mystery to diverse traits in dogs. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 27, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080622225503.htm

Westminster Kennel Club. https://www.westminsterkennelclub.org/


Dog Breed Profile Comparison: Embark, American Kennel Club, and Westminster Kennel Club

Rottweiler

Embark description – “descended from Roman Molosser-type dogs” “one of the oldest herding breeds” “guarding” “protective . . . loving . . . loyal . . . can also show aggression if not properly socialized and trained” “Intelligent, energetic and loving” “short, high-shedding coat and a high tendency of drooling”
AKC – “loving, loyal confident guardian” “strength, agility, endurance” “robust working breed” “great strength” ” descended from the mastiffs of the Roman legions” “gentle playmate and protector” “observes outside world with a self-assured aloofness”
WKC – “medium large working breed with a strong willingness to please” “versatility” “originally designed to be an all-around farm dog” “endurance, agility, and strength” “compact, muscular build” “devoted companion”

German Shepherd Dog

Embark – “confidence, courageousness, and keen sense of smell coupled with notable intellitence” “heavy shedding coat that comes in both short and long varieties”
AKC – “confident, courageous, smart” “finest all-purpose worker” “large, agile, muscular” “noble character and high intelligence” “loyal, confident, courageous, and steady”
WKC – “highly intelligent, exceptional family dog” “willing companion” “enjoys endeavors of its owners” “herding and protection” “adaptability” “competitive in all performance activities”

Doberman Pinscher

Embark – “intelligent, loyal, and make for perfect companions as well as guard dogs” “a mixture of many different dog breeds that includes Beauceron, German Pinscher, German Shepherd, and Rottweiler” “very athletic and often excels in agility” “trainable and one of the top five smartest dogs”
AKC – “loyal, fearless, alert” “sleek and powerful, possessing both a magnificent physique and keen intelligence” “incomparably fearless and vigilent” “among the world’s finest protection dogs”
WKC – “an elegant athlet in a tight-fitting wrapper” “square, compact, muscular” “grace, beauty and nobility” “energetic and fearless” “an intelligent, affectionate, and obedient companion”

American Pit Bull Terrier*

Embark – “sweet, talented, and affectionate.” “enjoy the company of their family members” and “get along very well with children.”

* “American Pit Bull Terrier” is not an AKC- or WKC-recognized breed.

American Staffordshire Terrier

Embark – “fighter . . . easily managed . . . sweet, trusting disposition” “playful and people oriented” “stocky, muscular” “great strength” “grace, elegance” “generally playful and friendly” “showing affection to new people in the presence of their owner” “can be aggressive toward strange dogs” “protective nature if threatened” “intelligent, trained without much difficulty” “lively”
AKC – “confident, smart, good-natured” “courage proverbial” “loyal, trustworthy” “springy gait” “agile and graceful” “stiff, glossy coat” “keenly aware of surroundings” “game for anything” “lovable ‘personality dogs’” “like mental and physical challenges” “highly trainable”
WKC – “weight proportional to height” “loyal, trustworthy, courageous” “intelligence, strength and agility make him an excellent all-around dog”

Staffordshire Bull Terrier

Embark – “bull baiters, tenacity, aggression, intelligence” “stubborn” “really love people” “extremely social and loving” “enthusiastic and exuberant personality” “intense energy needs” “ability to get along with canines varies from dog to dog” “love of children” “’nanny dogs’” “strength and size . . . ideal for older children”
AKC – “clever, tenacious brave” “muscular but agile” “mild, playful with a special feel for kids” “sweet-natured, family-oriented” “true-blue loyal companions” “old fighting instinct lurks within”
WKC – “strength, intelligence, tenacity” “alert stance, big smile, wagging tail” “’affection for its friends and children in particular, its off-duty quietness and trustworthy stability’” “all-purpose family dog” “steady, dependable” “outstanding athletic ability”

Supermutt

Collie

Embark – “wonderfully loyal and intelligent family dog” “good looks and soft temperament” “popular among the social elite” “intelligent and quick to learn” “great athleticism, possessing great strength and speed” “sweet and friendly nature . . . loyalty and willingness to please” “not as energy intensive as the Border Collie” “otherwise quiet nature”
AKC – “devoted, graceful, proud” “famously fond of children” “swift, athletic” “thrive on companionship and regular exercise” “With gentle training, learn happily and rapidly” “loyalty, intelligence, sterling character”
WKC – “beautiful in temperament and body” “gentleness, intelligence, loyalty” “willingness to work closely to master” “exceptional with children” “devotion to family legendary” “primary focus on people” Rough = gatherer. Smooth – drover.

Golden Retriever

Embark – “hunting companion” “friendliness and intelligence” “generally lankier and darker than their British counterparts” “love of play and water”
AKC – “friendly, intelligent, devoted” “exuberant Scottish gundog” “great beauty” “serious workers at hunting and field work” “enjoy obedience and competitive events” “endearing love of life” “sturdy, muscular” “medium size” “broad head” “friendly and intelligent eyes” “smooth, powerful gait” “feathery tail carried with ‘merry action'” “outgoing, trustworthy, eager-to-please” “joyous and playful” “puppyish behavior into adulthood” “energetic, powerful” “enjoy outdoor play” “swimming and fetching”
WKC – “willing, adaptable, trainable nature” “ideal family dog”

Boxer

Embark – “a Molosser-type dog” “distinctive underbite and strong jaws” “bred as a fighter” “patient and spirited family dogs” “intelligence and energy of their forebearers”
AKC – “bright, fun-loving, active” “loyalty, affection, intelligence, work ethic, good looks” “bright, alert” “sometimes silly” “always courageous” “smooth and graceful, powerful forward thrust” “upbeat and playful” “patience and protective nature” “serious watchdog/guardian”
WKC – “highly intelligent, medium-sized, square, clean lines, balanced proportions” “bred from ancestors in Germany called Bullenbeisers” “fearless but tractable, energetic and wonderfully patient with children” “extremely intuitive” “responsive to his master’s moods” “ideal family dog” “boisterous and clownish” “cherishing toys and family into his oldest age”

Chow Chow

Embark – “an ancient breed probably originated from Mongolia or Siberia”
AKC – “dignified, bright, serious-minded” “muscular, deep-chested aristocrat” “air of inscrutable timelessness” “dignified, serious-minded, aloof”
WKC – “possessive nature” “hunting, herding, pulling, protection”

To a Haggis on Burns Night

It’s Burns Night, the traditional celebration of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most iconic poet. Often with a traditional Scottish meal, songs, and poetry reading, Burns Night is celebrated across the Scottish diaspora every year on January 25th.

Although I won’t be partaking in a Scottish meal (though I do love me some haggis . . . not really; it’s okay, but I prefer black pudding), I celebrate by sharing with you excerpts from Burns’ poem “Address to a Haggis,” written in 1787.

Related posts on this blog involving Robert Burns’ poetry, language translation, and definitions include:

As with those posts, I have done my best to add word meanings below for the Scots terms. Again I used the Dictionary of the Scots Language as my source.

However, dear students and enthusiasts, I leave you to analyze the first section of this haggis poem to your hearts’ content. Enjoy its text in full through, for example, the link found in a 2017 article about Burns Night from International Business Times. My primary source for the text of the poem is The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, a gift I received last year.

Address to a Haggis

Opening 3 stanzas

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ yet tak your place,
                        Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
                        As lang’s my arm.

fa’ (v.) – fall
sonsie (adj.) – good, honest, lucky (said esp. of women)
Aboon (prep.) – above, higher than
a’ (pron.) – all
tak (v.) – take
painch (n.) – paunch, belly, stomach
tripe (n., adj.) – tall, thin, ungainly person; slovenly, gangling
thairm (n.) – gut or bowel
weel (adj.) – well
wordy (v.) – worthy
grace (n.) – grace-drink, taken at the end of a meal after grace is said
lang (adj.) – long

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
                       In time o’ need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
                       Like amber bead.

trencher (n.) – round or square plate or platter of wood or metal (i.e., flatware)
hurdies (n.pl.) – buttocks, hips, haunches of humans and animals
wad (v.) – would

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
                        Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
                        Warm-reekin’, rich!

dight (v.) – clothe, deck or adorn
onie (adj.) – any
reekin’ (adj.) – reeking

The next 3 stanzas share delicious language about competing for a portion of the food, defying foreigners to disdain their feast, and the unpleasant consequences after supper awaiting those who ate too well.

The last 2 stanzas frolic with the feaster as he makes his bloated way home until at last we see the final statement of haggis’s superiority to other refreshments, such as porridge and milk.

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
                         He’ll make it whissle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ hands will sned,
                         Like taps o’ thrissle.

walie (adj.) – fine, excellent; big, strong
nieve (n.) – fist, grip
whissle (v.) – spend? (as in explode?)
sned (v.) – chop (off)
taps (n.pl.) – tufts, as of bird crest feathers
thrissle (n.) – thistle

Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
                        That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,
                        Gie her a haggis!

wha (pron.) – who
mak (v.) – make
auld (adj.) – old
nae (adj.) – no
skinking (adj.) – pouring, pitcher
jaups (v.) – dash, splash, ripple
luggies (n.pl.) – small wooden dishes or vessels used in serving milk, porridge
gie (v.) – give
haggis (n.) – “A dish consisting of the pluck or heart, lungs and liver of a sheep minced and mixed with suet, oatmeal, onion and seasoning and boiled in a sheep’s maw or stomach.” (also used as an insult, a term of contempt for a person – blockhead, stupid)

And so, what is Burns Night to a haggis? Complete annihilation.


For a recipe and more information, see “What Is Haggis Made of?” at The Spruce Eats. Of course, Burns Night isn’t complete without bagpipes and whisky. Nae bother, we’ll be better organized by next January.

Happy Burns Night–and weekend. . . .

Speaking of weeks and ends, catch the Season 4 finale of Outlander, Sunday, January 27, at 8pm Eastern on STARZ. Episodes guide here.

Traditional haggis. Photo credit Reuters via International Business Times, UK, 2017.

Primary References

Dictionary of the Scots Language. / Dictionar o the Scots Leid. (n.d.). A database supported by the Scottish Government and hosted by the University of Glasgow. Retrieved from http://www.dsl.ac.uk/

Waverley Books. (2011). The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns. Glasgow: The Gresham Publishing Company Ltd. pp. 194-195.

Book Review: East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, a book review

BookCover_East-of-Eden_Penguin-Steinbeck

Caution: This review may contain spoilers.

Maybe I shouldn’t read others’ reviews of a book before I write my own. Having read one extremely negative review of a book I rather loved has me on the defensive, coiled to spring with rebuttal fangs. Why did I read the review in the first place?

It started by looking at any reviews and then by noticing the number of stars in each review’s rating on Goodreads.com. From there, from seeing only one star on the review, it was a blend of intrigued indignation, morbid curiosity, and that creeping doubt of my own sound judgment as a reader that induced me to “read more.” I asked myself what I missed and thought maybe this reader could tell me.

O, ye of significant reading experience, intuitive literary thinking, English literature teacher training and three years’ teaching experience, studious involvement in a classics book club, a writer’s view of writing, and reasonable intelligence and good taste, how little faith you have!

No, I don’t know everything and never thought I did, but knowledge is different from evaluation, discernment, analysis. Credentials don’t guarantee the ability to look with an open mind, but I brought both to this reading experience. I followed an intelligent woman’s, a friend’s, passionate recommendation to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Having read it more than a few years after that recommendation, I am so far from regret, it is hard to fathom any literary soul hating this book. And yet such people exist. Then again, they exist for all great, good, or popular books. That is not my concern. All I can say is I am glad that the reviewer I mentioned did not have the power to keep East of Eden, or any other beloved books, from me.

East of Eden is not my favorite book. I have enjoyed some books more than Steinbeck’s, even this year, novels such as Howards End by E. M. Forster and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. But East of Eden is a very good book. Wait a minute. Am I tamping down my fervor because it’s uncouth to be enthusiastic about literature? Am I curbing my enthusiasm for the sake of appearances? Am I modulating my response because not all books can be “the best”? In a word, yes. I’m putting on my professional, objective, scholarly hat to prevent myself from looking ridiculous with glee. I’m judging a book for the public’s benefit by direct assessment and by comparing it with other books I’ve read.

On one hand, there is this empathy for the author, being a writer myself, that turns me away from harsh criticism. On the other hand, I feel the responsibility of a writer for the public, even my small cadre of readers, to be as objective as possible. But what it comes down to is that I really did like the book; I cannot force that view into objectivity. And what’s so bad about passionate love for a book or for an author’s writing, anyway? Well, one might argue, love is blinding. We cannot see the real truth of a book’s merit once we fall in love with it. This is the dilemma of subjectivity. But let’s start with the objective lens.

Premise and Opening

A book about families, about people and their relationships to each other and to their land, era, and wider society, it is not just a novel, not a work of pure invention; it’s also a memoir of John Steinbeck’s family history. The narrative is based on real people if not entirely true events or details, and the narrator places himself in that context as the son of Ernest and Olive Steinbeck of Salinas, California.

The story begins with the place, the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck takes his time setting the scene and presenting in brief the region’s history before introducing any characters. This exposition is gradual but interesting, logically ordered and beautifully rendered. It’s an opening that invites the reader to settle in for an epic by making the surroundings visible and cozily American. Yet, some of the description of the hardships inherent in trying to farm the Salinas Valley reminds the reader of Grapes of Wrath‘s depiction of Dust Bowl Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Summary and Genre

The story involves the lives of these people from the 1860s until the end of World War I. The Hamiltons, emigrating from Ireland, are Steinbeck’s ilk. He introduces them with the memoirist’s caveats of partial memory and reliance on hearsay and imagination for a full picture. In the next chapter, there is no caveat, and presentation of the Trask family reads at first like pure fiction. Moving to California from Connecticut, the Trasks serve as the focus of the author’s allegorical exploration of humanity through the lens of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel.

Genre sets a reader’s expectations of a book’s characteristics: A novel should have a good plot, and a memoir should be true to the writer’s life and emotions. One could argue that both should have good plots and human truths. As a novel, a memoir, and a genre bender, East of Eden accomplishes both ends. Switching between families throughout, the book starts with Hamilton and ends with Trask. While not formulaic or tidily paced, the plot of East of Eden follows the life story of the narrator’s grandfather Samuel Hamilton and his family, as well as three generations in the family of his grandfather’s neighbor and friend, Adam Trask.

Point of View and Characters

Steinbeck maintains the occasional sharing of a personal viewpoint on the Hamiltons and eventually inserts first-person voice into parts of the Trasks’ story. These latter characters all receive space in which to express themselves, through third-person omniscient point of view and the free indirect style of stating a character’s thoughts as straight narration, instead of using italics or quotes.

On the Trask side, there are three archetypal “C” characters, and three archetypal “A” characters, and yet, the author draws them all uniquely. Cathy is one fascinating specimen. Adam is almost as enigmatic. Charles, his brother, and Cal, his son, provide flickers of the wicked streak that Cathy fully embodies. Adam, his son Aron, and Abra, Aron’s girlfriend, symbolize sweetness, goodness, and beauty, and also the illusions that accompany the good soul’s initial experience of the world.

Employing memoir but leaning toward fiction, the book showcases Steinbeck’s skill with invention and description, even of characters. In one chapter, he provides a signal that he is imagining Cathy a certain way and then proceeds to develop intimate anatomical and physiological details of her pregnancy that no one who would actually ever speak about it really knew or observed.

That section starts, “I’ve built the image in my mind of Cathy, sitting quietly, waiting for her pregnancy to be over, living on a farm she did not like, with a man (Adam) she did not love.” These bare foundational facts prove true to the story’s outcomes, but as with most memoirs, the specifics of the story are subject to faulty memory, incomplete records, insufficient research because dead people can’t answer questions, and so on.

So how can we trust any character details in a memoir-novel? At bottom, we really can’t. We have to treat all aspects equally—those not observable by visitors to west central California or witnessed by current or former residents in the past. That is, we must treat those details as almost fully invented. It’s the only “safe” approach to maintain suspension of disbelief where needed and sustain basic belief in the author’s credibility generally.

The experienced reader of classic fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and other forms is more likely to understand that the narrator is a character in the story, too, a persona being drawn, just like other characters. None are trustworthy; all operate from their own motives and agendas with imperfect humanity. I’ll get into flaws in Steinbeck’s narration later on. Back to characters for now.

Then, there’s Lee. The most compelling and unexpected character, his personality and initiative receive free rein with Adam as his master and, later, his non-romantic family partner. An educated, well-spoken Chinese immigrant, Lee’s Pidgin-speaking habits for the public’s benefit he drops not long into the story. Lee is the glue that holds the Trask family together, and he becomes the surrogate mother figure to Adam’s twin boys.

In connecting Sam Hamilton’s and Adam Trask’s world views, Lee presents the book’s central theme of the importance of recognizing one’s free will when the path seems as predestined as a Biblical story. Some themes, like this one, announce themselves overtly while others percolate more subtly within the story.

Between Chinese labor camps, soldiering to control Indians on the western frontier, World War I, the stubborn poverty of the Hamiltons, and the accursed riches of the Trasks, these characters all experience degrees of great hardship, family tragedy, and personal struggles with their identities, their moral fiber, and the temperamental nature of love.

Steinbeck focuses on portraying their lives and thoughts without judging them, and yet he pulls no punches in revealing the follies that keep the Hamiltons poor or in fleshing out characters’ weaknesses as much as their strengths. The peculiar Hamiltons are depicted ultimately as beaten down by life, and in emphasizing the Trasks, also experienced in tragedy, Steinbeck urges the reader to invest in their hopes and dreams.

Plot and Structure

Steinbeck could have written this book as a series of vignettes or short stories, but he connects the stories end to end and across the text, tying them back to place or theme or his personal experience growing up among many of these characters. Presenting a solid chronology of family development and activity, the author uses no fancy flashbacks or flashes forward in time.

The first half of the book tells the stories of the first generations and their impacts on the book’s central characters. Charles and Adam Trask grow up as very different people receiving love unequally from their brusque, military father Cyrus in rural Connecticut. They are half brothers, each losing his mother before his maturity. Adam is sent to the army without wanting to go, but Charles is kept at home despite wanting to fight.

They eventually inherit an unexpected sum from their father. While working their childhood farm, Adam struggles to come to terms with life after the military and the implications of the inheritance, but Charles moves deliberately forward without fully grasping his character and purpose. The second half of the book follows Adam to the west coast.

Samuel and Liza Hamilton are the maternal grandparents of the narrator, and the book explores their large family’s relationships and how they cope differently with conditions of poverty on a farm in the Salinas Valley of California. The Hamiltons have no fewer than nine children (in rough age order)—Lizzie, George, Mollie, Will, Olive, Tom, Dessie, Una, and the youngest, Joe.

A few of them die young after suffering physical and mental anguish in their adult lives, and the death of a favorite permanently breaks another family member’s heart, taking some of his spirit away. “The Hamiltons were strange, high-strung people, and some of them were tuned too high and they snapped. This happens often in the world,” Steinbeck tells us, almost too obviously. Samuel is their story’s focus.

Steinbeck uses his ink rather wisely, creating a lengthy saga that meanders and sometimes drags with anecdotes but never strays off point, even in slower parts, because place and moment are pillars of the novel. He takes his time to develop a home for the story to live in, to grow in, to breathe in. This approach creates a book for the reader to invest in, and the returns are substantial, numerous, varied, and beautiful.

Central World and Theme

The contextual tapestry emerges with grace, setting the background for subsequent insight on events and characters. Featured through the narrative are things like the advent of the automobile, farming practices, brothels, the military draft, the nature of small-town life, and WWI attitudes toward local Germans. Religious themes are grounded in human realism, which elevates religious insight to the level of Biblical awe like the relief of the Gabilan Mountains and Santa Lucias rising on either side of the valley.

East of Eden is a story about legacy and its rejection, about differences confronted and either conquered or reinforced, about the messiness of life and the forgiveness of love. It is large in scope and detailed in development. The signature word of the novel, the Hebrew translation of a key passage from Genesis, is “Timshel,” which means “Thou mayest.” It says the way is open, you are free, and you have God’s blessing. Lee offers this as a beacon of hope in the lives of Samuel and Adam, as well as in his own.

Cleverly couching this hope in the hearts of non-religious characters, Steinbeck weaves a thread of evolving personal philosophies through his portrayal of the everyday joys and sorrows in the lives of two families. A brewing transcendence permeates the pages even while dark tragedies play out and loom on the horizon. The lasting impression speaks of the human soul’s capacity to expand, even or perhaps most, in moments of its greatest pain.

Peers in Literature

East of Eden has earned its place in American literature as a modern classic. Of the Steinbeck works I’ve read, it is better constructed and less pedantic than The Grapes of Wrath, grander in scale than Of Mice and Men, and far less depressing than The Red Pony. The tone is consistently ponderous but also factually documentary, though at times pretentious. The characters offer many different ways to produce a reader’s smile. The style reminds me of other great classics and some of my favorite nonfiction writers, including Annie Dillard.

As American literature, Steinbeck’s East of Eden is smoother than Hemingway and Twain, more accessible than Faulkner, and less heady than Fitzgerald. Steinbeck’s epic reads like a classy but comfortable pair of jeans—snug, flexible, quintessentially American, yet totally individual. Its beauty, relevance, and simmering intensity remind me of another beloved work, Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for which I played the narrator in high school theatre.

Flaws in Storytelling

This brings me to flaws in the narrative perspective, which are somewhat puzzling in origin and made me wonder if they were intentional, but to what purpose I couldn’t tell. Right away, in the third paragraph of the book, using first-person voice, Steinbeck describes the pleasing nature of one mountain range and the “unfriendly” character of another, to him as a child. But then, in stating he loved the first and dreaded the second, he declares, “Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say.”

Well, he just said it, didn’t he? The Santa Lucias were “brooding” while the Gabilans offered “a kind of invitation.” What’s to solve? This apparent lack of awareness of the thread of his own narration is confusing, especially since, after claiming he can’t say where he got this idea, he goes to the trouble of conjecturing about it further. Unfortunately, such passages inevitably raise concern if not doubt in the reader’s mind about the author’s clarity of thinking or level of intelligence.

There are similar examples throughout the book. These suggest to me that either his editors were too timid in their suggested changes for improvement, weren’t intelligent enough to notice the flaws in logic or sense, or tried hard to impose their wisdom on an intractable Steinbeckian will.

The example of the third paragraph’s mountain range comparison could be seen as a symbol of Steinbeck’s black and white moral thinking represented elsewhere in the novel. Periodically, Steinbeck opens a chapter by exploring a truism or aphorism that applies to the times, the region, its people, or humanity. These serve to set the stage for subsequent events, placing them in his chosen context. Sometimes, the truisms don’t ring true in a human universal sense where intended, and in many of these philosophical passages of social comment, the author comes off as pedantic and pretentious.

Some spots could be read as facetious decrees or other rhetorical devices meant to demonstrate through logical formality, for instance, the impossibility for normal humans to avoid pain. Or, he could be speaking in the limited mindset of the characters he refers to next, but it seems unlikely when compared to other omniscient passages, and even less so when the reader reaches Chapter 34. See below.

Because of these features, if we give Steinbeck and his editors the benefit of the doubt, the use of narrative voice raises further questions about narrator perspective and identity. While imagining the people in the pool of his origins, does Steinbeck stray into magical thinking about himself as well? What magic, for instance, enables him to gain the impossible insights his narrator persona seems to possess?

Flaws in Thinking

One of the most striking examples of mediocre philosophy on Steinbeck’s part occurs in Chapter 34, which serves as the introduction of Part 4, the last in the book. Here he presents a treatise on the story of good versus evil in the space of a few pages that comprise the whole chapter. I examined the ideas at length and found some fundamental holes in the argument, but narratively, what’s worse is that this preface is easily forgotten because it proves at first only tangentially related to the next events and, later, insufficient to capture or effectively foreshadow the story’s outcomes.

In essence, Steinbeck argues, “We have only one story. . . . the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” While there is validity in the claim that this question is central to human existence, he exaggerates in saying it is alone in its centrality or even importance. It’s almost as if he means to impose the rules of fiction on everyday life, when most people’s lives, at least in America today, prove far less dramatic in contrasts. If anything, we’re droning along in a humdrum banality of digital vacuousness. Little did he know . . .

He finishes his treatise by saying virtue is stronger and ultimately more successful than vice. Sadly, this brands some of his key ideas as unseasoned and foolish. It may be his wish that virtue will win (most people want this), but how can we tell? If we while living cannot know the consequences for the evil-acting people of the world when they die or know completely what lies in the heart or actions of every human being—more good or more evil—what basis do we have for declaring virtue the winner? He takes it on faith.

Then, there’s the completely neglected question of happiness and the fact that a life of virtue does not guarantee it, whether in the process or in the end. As you can see, this chapter distracted me well.

Whether true, only ringing true, or missing the mark, many of the narrator’s reflections and efforts to understand people and their motivations do at least represent the spirited candor of one who earnestly reaches back without knowing exactly what he touches. The important thing, the entire book emanates to the reader, is to reach. Still, the distraction created by strange, confused, and confusing exposition cannot be ignored or dismissed. If not tangents in themselves, reading them encourages tangential thinking in the thoughtful reader, which needlessly detracts from the story.

Theme: A Closer Look (Spoilers ahead)

At the fulcrum of the saga, the revelation Lee experiences in studying the Book of Genesis delivers the concept of “Timshel,” or “Thou mayest,” with respect to 16 verses in the fourth chapter of Genesis and the supposed imperative or promise that man will rule over sin. “Timshel” reveals it as a choice man can either make or not, perhaps emphasizing that man has not only the power but also the responsibility, and he cannot deflect blame for his own ignorance, or its persistence, onto God’s unfulfilled promise.

With this difference in translation, the power of man is elevated to a divine level because he retains his choice no matter how much of whatever else is stripped away from him (Steinbeck Centennial Edition, Penguin Books, p. 301). The embrace of this truth among the men discussing it—Lee, Samuel, and Adam—sets the stage for the second half of the book. That half reenacts the Cain and Abel story in the next generation of brothers, Adam’s twin sons Cal and Aron.

Characterization

Immediately in the first chapter of Part 3 (of 4), which introduces them as young boys, their fates are foreshadowed through the hunting of a rabbit. From there, the book intensifies its allegorical aura. I found the second half of the book more interesting and of heightened conflict, where the adults have already had their turn, and it is now up to the youth to make something of themselves. Experiencing the sorrows, dreams, and potential of these families through the first two parts of the book, the reader’s anticipation rises to see if the first generation can be redeemed, improved upon, and set at peace through the second.

Yet, the adults continue to grow and evolve through the rest of the story as well, especially Adam Trask. He experiences an awakening after his own personal heartbreak that renews his relationship with his sons and with Lee just as we are getting to know the twins, and his unpredictability adds tension and excitement to the unfolding story of his progeny. Even Lee reaches a crossroads as he is forced to decide where he ultimately belongs.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s life without Adam or her sons has its own color and curiosities, and, like her, Will Hamilton plays a key role in the lives of the Trasks in their highest-stake moments. Lee continues to serve as a soul guide of wise counsel while focusing his energies on maintaining the Trask household.

What do they learn in the end? What does Steinbeck finally have to tell us about these people and what they teach us about humanity? The first half could be interpreted as an echo of the Old Testament while the second half resonates with New Testament sensibilities. Old: Black and white morality, wrath of God, violence, Job (Samuel?). New: gray area, reserving judgment, mercy, forgiveness, more subtle movements of evil.

Above even allegory, though, the messages “I wish” and “I love” come through the story from Steinbeck’s commemorating heart, starting from sentence one of the book: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” Adding to these waves of emotion, the second half and final chapters seem to beckon the reader to “Be the best version of yourself no matter what” and “Love and know yourself loved deeply always,” and some characters show potential to understand and to achieve.

However, just as the point was in reaching back to family and home for Steinbeck, the importance overall is in the journey where you fail but get up again to keep trying. Life guarantees no happy endings, but, above all, there is love. And we who are helped by such things as the epic of East of Eden to learn this, we are among the blessed.

Indulgent in detail, East of Eden respects its subjects and literary tradition. As a novel and a memoir, its resolution is fittingly incomplete as it emphasizes atmosphere and journey. Steinbeck has blended personal genealogy with updated mythology to create a story of contrasts and common ground. By turns idyllic and realistic, the characters leave indelible impressions that made me want to meet them in person. Of local color but rarely provincial, East of Eden portrays the intimacies of a specific region in turn-of-the-century California where universal themes bloom like deep blue lupines, fiery Indian paintbrush, radiant cream-colored poppies, and golden summer grasses.

Conclusions

My initial impulse with East of Eden was to shower praise and contradict the Steinbeck-hating reviewer. But note the strike-through marks and words added later in pink: “However, when, objectively, a well-organized, lyrically unfolding narrative replete with delicious turns of phrase, methodical, lilting description, realistic, smooth, absorbing dialogue, well-integrated themes, and juicy, three-dimensional characters persists page after page, how can I not fall in love admire it? John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is that kind of book.”

Then, as I re-read several parts of chapters in the novel’s first half, I found myself back-pedalling to a less generous assessment that does indeed make a book that feels weighty and remarkable suddenly seem rather mundane.

I guess judging as a lay reader the value of a classic work of literature comes down to how well one understands what one has read and how much one enjoyed reading it. Granting that some of what I didn’t understand could be my own mind’s problem and some of it could be the author’s thinking or writing foibles, the fact remains that I did not understand some of Steinbeck’s ideas about moral philosophy. Those I did understand didn’t always ring true for me. This incomplete and disappointed understanding lessened my enjoyment noticeably.

I greatly enjoyed several sections and aspects of the book, and I closed it upon finishing with a general sense of satisfaction. However, I wasn’t reduced to tears, gasping in awe, mind-blown beyond reason, or enamored of anything in the book so much that I felt compelled to re-read it completely or immediately, or to shout from the rooftops about it. And there have been a handful of books in my life that did some of those things to me.

On reflection, East of Eden stands on a par with lots of other really good classics. What it doesn’t do is stand out as a magnificent product of masterful brilliance. Sure, in it are outstanding description, great sections and ideas and characters, and a respectable mark of the author’s thematic ambition. However, as a whole, East of Eden has plenty of flaws that diminish its value, if only slightly. The most serious I can identify is the unfortunate effect of perceiving that the author has tried too hard to mold a novel with memoir elements to fit a philosophical viewpoint, rather than allowing the reader to craft her own conclusions from a simpler presentation of the raw narrative materials. Leo Tolstoy did this even more overtly with politics in War and Peace, as I discussed in that review.

In determining a rating for East of Eden, I could give it 3 out of 5 stars based on the above. However, there are other important personal facts to consider: (1) I was rarely without interest in the narrative, (2) I felt comfortable and swept along on almost every page, (3) I never felt tempted to stop reading altogether, (4) I loved most of the writing, and (5) I genuinely wanted to know what happens to the characters in the end.

After having read and thought about it a while, I found that the highlights of description, dialogue, and characterization, as well as some of the memoir traits of the book, added to my level of enjoyment and positive feeling about the book. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience give the book less than a 4. It’s just not a 4.7; it’s more like a 4.3. All things considered, even as long as it is, East of Eden is well worth reading.

Who This Book Is (and Is Not) For

If you like Steinbeck, you’ll really like East of Eden. It is praised far and wide as his ultimate literary achievement. If you like American literature, chances are good you’ll like this book. If you enjoy looking closely into the emotional lives of families, and aren’t afraid of sad outcomes or open-ended paths, this book might just be for you. If you’re a descriptive writer and love the English language, I recommend sampling at least the beginnings of Eden’s many vivid chapters.

If not, if you have hang-ups about Steinbeck, American literature, intelligent prose, flawed narration, emotional insight, or the notion of a classic, move on to the next book on your list. If you prefer high-concept science fiction or fast-paced mystery, fantasy, action-adventure, fan-fiction, or popular romance to human-centric realism and religious and philosophical inquiry, you probably won’t appreciate East of Eden.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy stories about turn-of-the-twentieth-century America or rural California or the psychological dynamics of archetypal characters in a highly particular setting and situation, this book is worth your while. If you’re keenly interested in studying, or witnessing characters grapple with, the nature of good and evil and are fascinated by the potential of humans both to rise to divine levels and to sink into being hellions on Earth, you might regret not adding East of Eden to that mix.

Just balance out your Steinbeck with a little Nietzsche or Sartre, and maybe some Capote, when you’re done. The way is open, and you are free. Timshel.

As for me, did my reading of that negative review improve or worsen mine? You know, it just may have helped me strike a better balance. So, thanks, Steinbeck hater! You made me think more carefully, see more clearly, and justify my love for Steinbeck’s many gifts.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like some of these book and TV reviews:

If you’d like more of my thoughts on judging classics and choosing the best books, and to see which novels I recommend most, visit Great American Reads.

Book Review: Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Possible spoilers, explicit sexual terminology included

While I have yet to solidify, if possible, my knowledge and perception of the different versions of the novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and the controversy surrounding them over the course of 30 years of critics’ reactions and Hardy’s revisionist responses to those reactions starting in the late 1880s, I can unreservedly share some gems of beautiful writing to be found in one version or another. That, along with a brief summarizing book review, is the purpose of this post.
The Transatlantic Press (TAP) 2012 edition preserved or restored several paragraphs’ worth of text missing from the Penguin Classics edition (1998), which is based on a not-easily-identifiable mixture of previous editions. Whatever its sources, TAP 2012 includes the Chaseborough dance scene first restored, from Hardy’s drafting prior to the first 1891 publication, only in the 1912 edition, over 20 years later. Other aspects of TAP’s version preserve text from the 1891 publication, based on direct comparison after I purchased the Penguin Classics rendering of that version while reading the 2012 TAP edition.
That’s the barest tip of the tip of the iceberg that constitutes this novel’s textual history. Suffice it to say there were moral objections to several parts of the work from different quarters, stirring in Hardy different shades of both defiance and compliance to society’s sensibilities over a 30-year span. Amidst the intrigue, according to the Penguin editor, Tim Dolin, Hardy had the foresight, lament it though he would, to bowdlerize his own work in order to pre-empt unwanted excisions by publishers.

Tess was his second to last novel, followed by Jude the Obscure, after which, out of fatigue or frustration with critics’ and publishers’ opinions (the general public generally received the novel with enthusiasm) and the hassle of straddling between his own wishes and theirs, he swore off novels and spent the rest of his long life writing excellent poetry. An excerpt from his poem “The Darkling Thrush” kicks off my Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series on this blog.
Setting that complicated history and the questions it raises aside, I center this post on a literary appreciation of Thomas Hardy’s controversial work in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Like most changes Hardy made, was asked to make, or purposely neglected to make, the deleted and restored scene provokes moral objections. Its palpably sensual tone and sexually suggestive content at the turn of the twentieth century was a challenge for a Western world barely recovered from the era of Victorian mores and not yet liberated by the sexual revolution of first the 1920s and then the 60s and 70s.
Leading up to the Chaseborough dance scene, Tess has been working for Alec d’Urberville’s blind mother, caring for her birds at their estate and journeying on summer Saturdays to fairs and other outings among fellow laborers in the vicinity of the fictitious town of Trantridge, real county Dorset. On one of these Saturdays, she comes upon a singular atmosphere. Alec is the instrument of her ruin which has yet to strike, and the scene serves not only as that event’s foreshadowing but also as perhaps a blend of frankness and lyrical abandon on Hardy’s part in its indirect comment and direct depiction of real society dressed warmly in Romantic and mythological allusions.
Once she reaches the source of the fiddler music unaccompanied by the sound of dancing feet, she peers through the doorway of the outhouse. The total portion of the scene represented in the TAP 2012 edition comprises some 15 paragraphs of variable length. From the second of these paragraphs, the reader shares Tess’s somewhat entranced gaze:
“It was a windowless erection used for storage, and from the open door there floated into the obscurity a mist of yellow radiance, which at first Tess thought to be illuminated smoke. But on drawing nearer she perceived that it was a cloud of dust, lit by candles within the outhouse, whose beams upon the haze carried forward the outline of the doorway into the wide night of the garden.”
“When she came close and looked in she beheld indistinct forms racing up and down to the figure of the dance…” (start of para. 3).
The residue making up the “yellow mist” had come from “the storage of peat and other products, the stirring of which by their turbulent feet created the nebulosity that involved the scene” (para. 3). And this “residuum,” or “scroff” as Hardy first labels it, accounts for the muffling of the sound of the dancers’ nonetheless very active feet.
Then, the energy rises with the number of sexual connotations, adding also some scientific tonality:
“Through this floating, fusty debris of peat and hay, mixed with the perspirations and warmth of the dancers, and forming together a sort of vegeto-human pollen, the muted fiddles feebly pushed their notes, in marked contrast to the spirit with which the measure was trodden out.”
As we zoom in, the Greek mythological allusions binding sex with music begin and pile on thickly. I include definitions and references for further reading following the passage:
“They coughed as they danced, and laughed as they coughed. Of the rushing couples there could barely be discerned more than high lights–the indistinctness shaping them to satyrs clasping nymphs–a multiplicity of Pans whirling a multiplicity of Syrinxes: Lotis attempting to elude Priapus, and always failing.”
satyr – “creatures of the wild, part man and part beast, who in Classical times were closely associated with the god Dionysus. Satyrs and Sileni were at first represented as uncouth men, each with a horse’s tail and ears and an erect phallus. In the Hellenistic age they were represented as men having a goat’s legs and tail. Rival theories differentiate silenis from satyrs.” – Britannica.com.
similar creatures: faun (Roman), minotaur, centaur, harpy, siren. – Wikipedia
nymph – “a minor female nature deity typically associated with a particular location or landform. Different from other goddesses, nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from the restricted and chaste wives and daughters of the Greek polis. They are beloved by many and dwell in the mountainous regions and forests by lakes and streams.” forever young, can bear immortal children by gods, though not necessarily immortal themselves. examples: Charybdis and Scylla. similar creatures: mermaid, huldra, selkie, siren. the frequent target of satyrs – wikipedia
Pan – “god of nature, the wild, shepherds, flocks, of mountain wilds, rustic music and impromptus, and the companion of the nymph, often associated with sexuality” – Wikipedia
Syrinx – “a nymph and follower of Artemis, known for her chastity. Pursued by the amorous god Pan, she ran to a river’s edge and asked for assistance from the river nymphs. In answer, she was transformed into hollow water reeds that made a haunting sound when the god’s frustrated breath blew across them. Pan cut the reeds to fashion the first set of pan pipes, which were thenceforth known as syrinx.” – Wikipedia
Priapus – “a god fo animal and vegetable fertility whose originally Asian cult started in the Hellespontine regions, centring especially on Lampsacus. He was represented in a caricature of the human form, grotesquely misshapen, with an enormous phallus. Father was Dionysus, the wine god; mother either a nymph or Aphrodite, the goddess of love.” “in Hellenistic times . . . in the country adopted as a god of gardens . . .” – Britannica
– “a minor rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. Priapus is marked by his oversized, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism.” – Wikipedia
priapism = “a persistent, painful erection of the penis unaccompanied by sexual excitation or desire” – Britannica
Lotis – “a nymph mentioned by Ovid. In his account, at the Liberalia festival, Priapus tried to rape her when everyone had fallen asleep, but she was awakened by a sudden cry of Silenus’s donkey and ran off, leaving Priapus in embarrassment as everyone else woke up too and became aware of his intentions. In another account, she was changed into a lotus tree to escape Priapus; later, Dryope picked a flower off the tree Lotis had become and was transformed into a black poplar.” “In Book 6 of the Fasti Ovid tells much the same story, but with the goddess Vesta rather than Lotis as the intended victim. According to some sources, Lotis was the daughter of Neptune or Nereus. Ovid suggests that Priapus later kills the donkey.” – Wikipedia
And, Pan and Syrinx are the parents of the satyrs and nymphs. Phew! Lots to unpack.

Paragraph 4 further emphasizes the sense of illusion and transformation:
“At intervals a couple would approach the doorway for air, and the haze no longer veiling their features, the demigods resolved themselves into the homely personalities of her own next-door neighbors. Could Trantridge in two or three short hours have metamorphosed itself thus madly!”
But it doesn’t stop there, and Tess interacts next with not one but two men who notice her nervous hope that the dance will end soon so her neighbors will leave and she won’t have to journey back in the dark alone. Each man is presented as a god- or saint-like figure in an ironic sense, as they are both drunken and make suggestive comments akin to Alec d’Urberville’s assuaging overtures to Tess up to this point.
The first is described as “one of [the] Sileni of the throng,” and the singular, a “Silenus,” is a particularly older, mentor-like figure in the company of the wine god Dionysus. “The plural sileni refers to the mythological figure as a type that is sometimes thought to be differentiated from a satyr by having the attributes of a horse rather than a goat.” – Wikipedia
After these exchanges, we return to the dance floor itself in paragraph 11 of this edition’s surplus Chaseborough scene:
“The movement grew more passionate: the fiddlers behind the luminous pillar of cloud now and then varied the air by playing on the wrong side of the bridge or with the back of the bow. But it did not matter; the panting shapes spun onwards.”
Here, the dancers are reduced to nebulous forms themselves, less sexual beings and more impressions of objects, like protons spinning around an atom’s nucleus. This lends the suggestion of inevitable, eminently natural movement, the essence of life and energy. Their identities are again obscured; they could be either animals or something else, but something either supra-human or subhuman.
Hardy then focuses on the dancers’ tendencies to stay with the partner they’re inclined to once begun, as if to point out the glue-like, intimate nature of these pairs, in contrast to traditional country dances of ever-changing partners and a communal sense of order and purpose and propriety. In the middle of that paragraph, number 12 of the passage, the theme of cosmic movement reaches a pinnacle:
“It was then that the ecstasy and the dream began, in which emotion was the matter of the universe, and matter but an adventitious intrusion likely to hinder you from spinning where you wanted to spin.”
The use of the pronoun “you” personalizes the described experience to the reader’s frame of reference while simultaneously bringing emotion and human intention into equality with the ultimate nature of the cosmos. This moment serves as the climax of the figurative sexual intercourse that is the dance.
The next description reiterates the sense of accomplished sexual union and orgasmic release. However, Hardy takes it one step further in continuing to emphasize the collective over an individual couple, suggesting with no great subtlety orgiastic abandon. Paragraph 13:
“Suddenly there was a dull thump on the ground: a couple had fallen, and lay in a mixed heap. The next couple, unable to check its progress, came toppling over the obstacle. An inner cloud of dust rose around the prostrate figures amid the general one of the room, in which a twitching entanglement of arms and legs was discernible.”
Again, Hardy returns to the medium of the dance: the “fusty” “yellow mist” operating even more now as a sexual fluid of semen or the mixed pool of male and female ejaculate fluids.
Even more scandalous in his day, however, must have been his final coup de grace at the end of paragraph 14:
“. . . female accents from the human heap–those of the unhappy partner of the man whose clumsiness had caused the mishap; she happened also to be his recently married wife, in which assortment there was nothing unusual in Trantridge as long as any affection remained between wedded couples; and, indeed, it was not uncustomary in their later lives, to avoid making odd lots of the single people between whom there might be a warm understanding.”
Translation:
The husband’s clumsiness with a partner other than his wife, resulting in their falling down together, led to his wife and her partner’s collision with the first couple. This arrangement of non-wedded pairs of dance partners was not unusual in Trantridge if there was affection between sets of couples and unwedded members of the opposite sex. Well into their married lives, it was not uncommon to switch partners so that single people did not feel left out in the mix either, and to make of the crowd a more unified whole of versatile dance partners, and, implicitly, sexual partners. Swingers, orgies, etc.
As if that weren’t enough discomfort for the die-hard Victorian or Puritan reader, later when the crowd departs, Hardy overtly attaches halos to their heads, as if their very sensuality and its shameless expression have made them somehow saintly or angelic.

Hardy had balls, that’s for sure.
One would think there might be a Chapter X general note in the Penguin Classics edition concerning this deleted scene, but they don’t give it such prominence. However, they do include a note marked at the specific location where the text is significantly different between versions:
“2 – When Hardy removed this chapter from Graphic [first publication in this magazine for serial form of the text] it included a long dance scene at this point. It was retained when the chapter was published separately [as Saturday Night in Arcady], but was not restored to Tess until 1912. Appendix V reproduces both versions.”
Spoilers ahead.
At this point in the story, an incident during the journey home directly precipitates Tess’s fatal decision to go with Alec d’Urberville, who takes her into the forest and in some versions rapes while in others seduces her, resulting in her birthing a daughter, prior to which one version replaces the rape/seduction scene with a duplicitous false marriage scene between Tess and Alec.
And the confusion about Tess’s character and morality only mounts with the increase of changes and counter-changes Hardy makes over the ensuing years, in everything from subtle actions taken to gestures and tears to comments on her thought processes. The same goes for other principal figures in the book, so that when the revisions have finally ended, the modern reader hardly knows what to make of it all.
Still, and amazingly, despite all the complications, Hardy manages to deliver into posterity a well-loved narrative and tragedy of Greek proportions in a captivating writing style. Its considerable length is buffered by a noticeable economy of language coupled with playful use of extraneously large, technical-sounding words, and some made-up ones, such as “vegeto-human.” This latter feature particularly irritated many critics, but as an incorrigible intellectual in love with big words, I love Hardy for it. The tale is epic and complete and the commentary on society’s moral hypocrisy not only discernible but memorable.
Hardy elevates our understanding of human complexity, not only in his carefully told tale but also in the vacillations of all that pre-emptive shaping, editing, redaction, and rewriting. Tim Dolin, editor of the Penguin Classics edition’s textual history section and end notes, remarks on the practical impossibility of identifying a definitive edition, and proposes there may really be no such thing.
Indeed, this notion may be the simple truth of most published writing; especially in hindsight, the author knows that more could have been done or done better, but at some point they pull the trigger or nothing ever gets published. For the reader as well as the writer, the work always remains to some degree unfinished, which only adds to the fascination of literature.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles has become a new favorite book of mine, and I am sorely tempted to eschew future plans on my to-read list to take another sensual spin full of rich, transporting description around Thomas Hardy’s d’Urberville universe and the magnificently complex and shape-shifting character of Tess Durbeyfield. All that remains is the tiny matter of which edition to choose next.

book on the grass

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Showcase Poems, Magnetized

For those who missed the poetry, comedy, music, stories, word battles and beautiful weather surrounding the Grand Showcase live performances last weekend in Canton, I hope you’ll enjoy these sticky slices from my reading. 

I read for a little over ten minutes a total of nine poems. Most of them I have previously posted in some form on this blog and then revised this month for the program, sharing a discussion of my process:

“Hawk Side”

“Inspirator”

“Otter Sea”

“Green Turtle”

“City Lizard”

“Of all the signs of spring”

After changing my selections multiple times, altering presentation order, and almost completely recreating poems that made the cut and ones that didn’t, somehow I ended up focusing on wild animals. Go figure. The exceptions are “Inspirator,” which describes a landscape, and “Of all the signs of spring,” which is about the sun. Both of those are really about my melancholic reactions to certain things, such as missing the preferred excitement of seeing wild animals.

magnetic-poetry_Normal-Public-Library

Image courtesy Normal Public Library

I thought it might be fun this time to select parts of each poem and splice them together to create a new poem. You may be familiar with magnetic poetry kits, in which each magnet has a word on it. In this post, I use chunks of words in the form of excerpts from my poems. Each chunk piggybacks off the one before it, either through image, theme, or topic. In case it’s not quite obvious, as not all minds think alike, I note the nature of their connections in italics. Enjoy!

From “Of all the signs of spring,” the last lines:

the more I sit and stare out the window that is a door
I could open but for my blanched sight and just this–
one globe’s eyeless glare

From “Green Turtle” somewhere in the middle: the fixed gaze

I want to look away, bury head into body as it can,
retract the mind down into the heart and let the two mingle,
and educate each other; give purpose to small humps
below napes. But I can’t.

From “City Lizard” toward the end: from powerlessness to vulnerability, with a gaze

It is a dangerous decree, the buzzing bikes and trucks.
The city lizard thinks he likes his sky’s debris.

This common lizard watches me and with each glance
I wonder at his circumstance, how he’s not free.

From “Hawk Side” toward the end: truck to truck to bird

Blip of a truck, fleck of a bird.
Leaving carcasses for cars and crows,
the huntress crowns the rot of wooden fence posts
low on a highway hill.

From “Inspirator” (pron. IN spuh RA tuhr), a stanza in the middle: bird to flock

Behind their flock, a splash of ember glow, a mess of logs,
extremities in dried blood spatter . . . artful twists of sinew.
Over here! on ground beyond, a grander stage presents
an ostentatious spectacle of orange-tipped yellow dancers,
live, inspirited, and heedless of the fueling wind.

From “Otter Sea,” two middle stanzas: wind’s different effects on fire and water, whether literal water or figurative fire

The sea’s face quilts copper-
coated tents, gilt roofs on
a vast circus, reluctant
aquarium holding fathoms
unsolved. A wet coat plunges,
black-coffee chestnut sheen
poured from carafe to cup,
porpoising question marks.

Do I mistake otter scuttle
for uplifted sun shadow,
obsidian lip curl tossing
salt, krill, and faint light?
No mistake (or encore)
offers sight of thickest fur—
pale-headed, black-eyed,
quick, five-fingered things.

Bonus: one of three Haiku I read, another of which I’ve also shared before: from waves in the sea off shore to waves crashing on the shore

Scolded surf curls on
itself, ashamed its crashing
Disintegrates pearls.

Next for me in poetry are new kinds of subjects, new forms, or both. Stay tuned.


For more of my original poetry, see:

Wild Verses, Bits of Nature Poetry (1 of 10), which ends with a list of most of the poems and excerpts I’ve written on the blog, both in and out of the series.

For samples and analysis of famous nature poetry, start here:

Nature Poetry by Famous Poets

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

“The Eemis Stane” reconsidered, 1/26/18, via Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Without a complete translation, there can be no complete interpretation. This I realized after re-reading yesterday my post on Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “The Eemis Stane,” featured January 9 on my blog.

Although I knew the picture was incomplete, I attempted to analyze it anyway. And although I understood much of the poem’s message without full decoding, it is only after making a firm choice of translation between two possibilities originally left in competition, and, thus, better understanding the concepts behind the words, that I see how much difference a complete, more accurate translation makes, especially in poetry.

Accuracy of interpretation suffers when the meaning of individual words remains in doubt, even one or two words. In such a short poem, so economically constructed, indeed every word counts.

By reading again, and by further considering through logic and deduction the context of a certain passage’s uncertain meaning to me, I was able to insert the last major puzzle piece. As I believe I have now come closer to understanding the nature and significance of the poem’s message as a whole, I’d like to share these new revelations with you.

For reference, here’s the original poem and my first translation:

“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.

And this is the essence of what I said about meaning:

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. . . .

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.

There are several reasons why definitively selecting “moss of fame” makes the most sense, and why both “fog/smoky atmosphere” and “foam” do not.

1. Poetically, the translation would have to be very close to “moss of fame” to establish parallelism with the concept and metaphor of “lichen of history.” Each provides a concrete living thing paired with an abstract societal concept. Each image produced is similar to the other in that this concrete living thing obscures in a similar manner to the other, growing on rocks, spreading itself over their surfaces.

Use of connectors: The fact that both moss and lichen are “of” their paired abstract ideas means that those things, fame and history, inherently bring with them these ironically polluting elements. The poet’s choice to join these metaphors so closely in proximity using the word “and” signifies that the distorting natures, or by-products, of fame and history necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, when one considers it further, they are interdependent.

2. The second reason why “fame” is the correct choice is that the words “cut oot i’ the stane” refer to remembrance, part of the point of memorializing being to preserve a legacy, to obtain or solidify some form of fame in the eyes of observers.

3. Crucially, the key reason that unlocked the meaning for me is that the alternative translation creates a conflict in imagery between an active blizzard and lingering fog or smokiness. Physically, such a thing as fog, mist, haze, or smoke would have to be blasted away by the blizzard. They cannot exist in nature in the same space at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. So process of elimination comes in handy here.

4. Finally, combining these pieces of evidence results in a more robust interpretation of message. Look more closely at the behavior of fame and history as depicted in this poem’s parallel metaphors. They not only obscure the truth but also grow continuously like powerful adhesive upon the “unsteady stone,” further destabilizing it, as moss and lichen both grow on a literal headstone or memorial monument.

A distinct tone of cynicism emerges as these negative sides of fame and history appear. The suggestion is that their “growths” continue uninhibited and uninterrupted, with no one and nothing successfully clearing them away to improve the reputation of fame or history and, by extension, of man. They are natural processes but stubborn nuisances as well, insidious and marring or tainting in how they creep in and take over gradually, almost imperceptibly.

At poem’s end, aided by the described effects of fame and history, the final impression the reader receives is quite clear. The speaker condemns the hubris and vanity of a human race that worships and perpetuates both this “moss” and this “lichen,” implying the absence of the opposite qualities because of mankind’s failure to prevent these incursions. Humanity’s alternate course would be to seek and uphold simple, honest, humble truths—the bedrock, as it were, of goodness, integrity, and justice.

Therefore, the poem is an undoubted lament of those particularly incorrigible, wretched human habits that make the world such a precarious, dangerous place for the individual, and its future such a dismal one for all.

What is left to further interpretation is whether the speaker primarily lays blame and scolds the cause or simply reels from and mourns the effects. In other words, is the final question “Can’t you see what you have done?” or “What have you done to me?”?

The former cries out for change while the latter shows a man incapable of finding the words, the power to move beyond suffering–a man whose “eerie memories,” perhaps even of learned language, scatter into fragments on the wind. He forgets how to read at all. The feeling behind the first question is a sense of urgency and some small hope, whereas the second descends into a confused, frightened, and irrevocable despair.

What do you think MacDiarmid is saying?

Are the layers of obscurity, deception, and confusion just too thick after all?

Or, by revealing them, does the speaker become a catalyst for removing them and restoring what lies beneath?

Either way, my question remains, “What then?” Will we like what we find? Do we need it regardless of how we feel about it? Will it matter?

The speaker makes clear that he cannot say. He cannot make out the words, let alone discover their import. He not only cannot provide an answer; he cannot even see to look for it. His impotence blocks even the consideration of possibility.

For that reason, I see the message as one of despair. The speaker describes the fixed laws of the universe—gravity, inertia, the physics of vibration and spinning—as well as the forces of more intimate natures. The blackness, the cold, the blinding weather, the isolation from fellow humans, and the sticky coverings over our past efforts—together they inevitably overpower man, unsteadying the stone on which he lives and making it impossible to see rightly the things around him, one way and another.

So, yes, I think I get it now.

What do you think?


To view or review the original part 6 post, go here.

For all posts in this series, visit my page under the menu tab “Writing Pool,” then “Poetry,” or under “Wild”: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry.

You can also get to them directly here:

The entire Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  10. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons
  11. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

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


The entire Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  10. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons
  11. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”