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

Poetry in song: Indie rock music lyrics

My preferences in music lie in this general direction: good lyrics, good groove, good singing, complex instrumentation, but my tastes are much more specific. The truth is, I can be kind of a musical snob. I grew up learning the trombone, a little piano, and dancing and singing on the fly whenever I could. Learning how to read and listen to music for its parts opened the door for me to enjoy music in greater variety and depth, which made me a more discerning consumer.

I don’t tend to like mainstream pop. I go more for alternative rock, indie pop, New Wave, electronica, movie and TV soundtracks, jazz, and classical, or rock that incorporates combinations of these elements. Such as No Doubt’s use of ska or Kings of Leon’s and Glass Animals’ blues-heavy alt rock. See the glossary at bottom for genre definitions.

I’m also a sucker for the occasional nostalgic 80s pop tune and musical theater production. I listened to a A Chorus Line a lot as a kid and have memorized most of the Rent soundtrack. Growing up on Olivia Newton-John, Madonna, Prince, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Billy Joel took a dramatic turn in the early 90s with my exposure to alternative bands The Cure and Depeche Mode. I always liked U2, INXS, and Duran Duran.

Then, at age 13, I became a Tori Amos fanatic, with sides of Bjork and The Sugarcubes, Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, PJ Harvey, and Sheryl Crow through the next decade, much of which I’ve outgrown, though I do reminiscence. The story is similar with Fiona Apple and The Ditty Bops, and, earlier on, The Cranberries and The Sundays.

Today, some of my favorite bands include Young the Giant, Foster the People, Of Monsters and Men, Modest Mouse, Nothing But Thieves, Chvrches, The Killers, Bastille, and Cold War Kids. I went through a Florence+the Machine phase (Baroque pop), and I really like Hozier, Lorde, Jack White (The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, and The White Stripes), The Black Keys, Silversun Pickups, The Kooks, Muse, Tame Impala, Metric, Snow Patrol, Joywave, Big Data, Matt & Kim, Alice Merton, Phantogram, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Two Door Cinema Club, Vampire Weekend, Saint Motel, and St. Vincent.

I still groove to the likes of Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, Interpol, The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys, Incubus, Keane, Ra Ra Riot, Faith No More, Cake, Fitz and the Tantrums, Phoenix, Garbage, Soundgarden and Audioslave, Ben Harper, Over the Rhine, G. Love & Special Sauce, Radiohead, Foo Fighters, Beck, Metric, Gorillaz, Rilo Kiley, Passion Pit, Ben Folds Five, The Smashing Pumpkins, Tove Lo, Queens of the Stone Age, Siouxsie and the Banshees (keep hearing “Turn to Stone” in my head for some reason), and The Clash when they pop up. Alternative rock, alterna-pop, punk, funk, post-punk revival, and offshoots of those.

I also love the music of James Brown, Blondie, Sam Cooke, The Police, Bob Marley, The Pretenders, Van Morrison, Otis Redding, Prince, Donna Summer, and Michael Jackson.

I don’t like most of today’s streaming radio apps. I like to choose my own playlist of specific songs, not songs derived from the artist or song I chose. But I’m also still looking for a music player app that truly understands the definition of random shuffle. Open to suggestions.

Anyway, these somewhat rigid standards translate into listening to a lot of the same music on repeat–for years. Thus, the following throwback recommendation. As a send-off to National Poetry Month 2018, I’m sharing some poetry in modern musical form. 

One of my favorite bands for great lyrics is The Shins, described as an “indie rock” band by Wikipedia. Guitar-based, keyboard-infused, and vocally and lyrically focused, The Shins strike the listener with their dynamic melodies, pop sensibilities, and pleasing harmonies. With more keen listening, their wit and ennui emerge.

I only have a couple of their albums, but the songs are very singable and packed with meaning. In dance terms, they tend to be more for swaying and head bobbing. Wincing the Night Away (2007) is my preferred Shins album between the two I own, the other being Oh, Inverted World (their first record, 2001), which I bought second. Wincing seems to me to have a more consistent and polished sound across the album.

 

The song lyrics below form a representative example of the turns of phrase, ideas, mood, and rhythms in many Shins tunes, especially on Wincing the Night Away.


“Turn on Me” by The Shins (from Wincing the Night Away, SubPop Records, 2007)

You can fake it for a while
bite your tongue and smile
like every mother does her ugly child
but it starts to leaking out
like spittle from a cloud
amassed resentment pelting ounce and pound
you entertaining any doubts

(chorus) ’cause you had to know that I was fond of you
(fond of y-o-u)
though I knew you masked your disdain
I can see the change was just too hard for us
(hard for us)
you always had to hold the reigns (sic)
but where I’m headed you just don’t know the way

so affections fade away
or do adults just learn to play
the most ridiculous repulsive games
all our favorite ruddy sons
and their double-barreled guns
you’d better hurry rabbit run run run
’cause mincing you is fun
and there’s a lot of hungry hatters in this world
set on taking it over
but brittle thorny stems
they break before they bend
and neither one of us is one of them
and the tears will never mend

(divergent chorus/bridge) ’cause you had it in for me so long ago
(boy I still don’t know)
I don’t know why and I don’t care
well hardley (sic) anymore
if you’d only seen yourself hating me
(hating me)
when I’d been so much more than fair
but then you’d have to lay those feelings bare
the one thing I know has still got you scared
yeah all that cold ire
and never once aired on a dare

(chorus) you had to know that I was fond of you
(fond of y-o-u)
so I took your licks at the time
a change like that is just so hard to do
(hard to do)
don’t let it whip-crack your life
and I’ll bow out from the fight
those old pius (sic) sisters were right
the worst part is over
now get back on that horse and ride.


Note the unique word choices, robust lines of ideas, verb tense nuances, use of repetition in words (sonically a harmonized echo) and verse rhymes (aaabbbb, dddeeeexxffff), which has this unique “oh, and one more thing” effect, and chorus variations. Yet, the chorus also holds a fairly consistent rhyming pattern, especially between the last two: chorus 1, cdxdd; chorus 2, ghgxhhhxh; chorus 3, cacaaaxa.

The tune opens with a spare, rising and falling guitar line with slight reverberation in a minor key, there’s a medium tempo with fast lyric delivery, and the song ends abruptly after the last line.

The collective effect of the words, rhymes, pace, notes, and rhythm is a message of sad but insistent coming to terms with personal differences leading to relationship’s end, seemingly with a friend rather than a lover. It plays as a kind of overture to be frank with the former friend, not to be interrupted, not expecting it to be reciprocated (though knowing the other might heal if release were allowed), in order to reveal that the speaker was more aware of their dynamics than the other probably assumed.

The second verse portrays a sort of cat-and-mouse (or rabbit-and-hatter) game between the people in this relationship, only to dismiss it as pointless role-play that doesn’t befit them. Fans of Lewis Carroll and followers of my blog may notice the Alice in Wonderland references with “rabbit” and “hatters.”

There’s all this friction, tension, wasted aggression, and drama. He “took” the “licks,” put up with the contempt and attitude of “disdain” because of love. But now he sees their fracture was inevitable and releases the other from the struggle, by leaving it himself and encouraging their moving on without clinging to the pain.

It ends with a message, more to self than to other, to get on with life now that he’s said his piece and supposedly found closure in it. He’s trying his best. However, the very need to sing the song, the “oh, and one more thing” pattern in the rhyming lines, the abruptness of the ending (before the declaration has a chance to sink in even to the one making it), and the emphatic, staccato delivery of the last line collectively suggest there will always be some part of it that at least one, if not both, of them can never get over.

As a result, the title “Turn on Me” reads in two ways: (1) Here’s what you did and I never understood why (the question haunts me), and (2) here’s what I almost dare you to do, to respond whether to explain or keep battering away at me, even though my final words say “nevermind, I’m out.”

Even without being put to music, it’s a sophisticated piece of poetry as a whole, conveying a theme not often found in mainstream pop, using incisive remarks, clever yet concise phrasing, and raw but controlled emotion. Like most poetry though, of course, it’s made to be listened to.

Among songs on the album, I also really like the more well-known singles “Australia” and “Phantom Limb.” The tunes “Girl Sailor” and “Red Rabbits,” though not popular on Amazon, are additional favorites of mine based on the lyrics and, ultimately, Wincing‘s great sound. Although I find the tune a little too stripped down musically, I do like the lyrics to “A Comet Appears,” the album’s last song.

My introduction to The Shins was through their single “New Slang”‘s prominent role in the movie Garden State with Zach Braff and Natalie Portman. That lovely single appears on the Oh, Inverted World album.

album-cover_Wincing-the-Night-Away_The-Shins_2018-Amazon

Cover of The Shins’ 2007 album Wincing the Night Away. Credit to image owner.

Notes on the text: I’ve based the lyrics above primarily on the album’s CD jacket text for the song. I forgive The Shins’ editors the CD jacket’s spelling errors, but I do mark them rather than correct them as some lyrics sites have. I’ve represented the lyrics without punctuation except for the abbreviations and contractions containing apostrophes, the hyphens, and the final period as shown in the jacket. I retain most of the line break model provided by MetroLyrics for ease of reading since the jacket has only 3 lines of text for the entire song, extending across two and a half page spreads. It’s one big run-on. To learn where each sentence really ends, buy and listen to the recording.

I restore lowercasing as shown in the jacket text and have re-broken stanzas according to my own sense of idea units and shifts in musical elements between verses and chorus. Per the original published text, I retain phrase truncation and omit question marks, though some lines are questions. I add parentheses around the echoed harmonies that MetroLyrics adds as separate lines of lyrics, as these are not in the original. I also correct several wording errors from the MetroLyrics text.


I recommend more music in these posts:


Glossary of Music Genre Terms

alternative rock, a.k.a. alternative music, alt-rock, or alternative – “a style of rock music that emerged from the independent music underground of the 1980s and became widely popular in the 1990s. . . . as distinct from mainstream rock music.” Benefiting from “the groundwork laid by the independent, DIY ethos of punk rock from the 1970s,” the term has been used at times to describe underground rock artists that are seen to be descended from punk rock (punk, new wave, and post-punk).” (Wikipedia excerpts) In short, not mainstream rock but not easily defined.

Baroque pop/rock – a fusion of rock/pop and classical music with Baroque compositional styles and use of instruments commonly associated with this movement of the classical genre, such as harpsichords (as on Tori Amos’ album Boys for Pele), strings, and, in the case of Florence+the Machine, harps (paraphrase of Wikipedia)

electronica – a variety of “styles including techno, house, ambient, jungle, and industrial dance, among others” (Wikipedia)

electropop – “a variant of synth-pop that places more emphasis on a harder, electronic sound, revived in popularity and influence since the 2000s.” (Wikipedia)

indie pop – “a genre and subculture that combines guitar pop with DIY ethic in opposition to the style and tone of mainstream pop music.” (Wikipedia)

* indie rock – a genre of alternative rock that originated in the U.S. and UK in the 1980s, originally referring to their independent record labels, evolving into a style and further evolving as different genres and subgenres ebbed and flowed in popularity. Often seen as an underground movement stemming from grunge, punk revival, and Britpop bands, some artists described using this term moved into the mainstream as well. At one point used to describe music produced on punk and post-punk labels. (paraphrase of Wikipedia) In short, once a clear genre, now muddled.

funk – “a music genre that originated in African American communities in the mid-1960s when African American musicians created a rhythmic, danceable new form of music through a mixture of soul music, jazz, and rhythm and blues (R&B). It de-emphasizes melody and chord progressions . . . and brings a strong rhythmic groove of a bass line played by an electric bassist and a drum part played by a drummer to the foreground.” (Wikipedia) In short, sexy, groovy awesomeness.

post-punk (originally “new musick”) – “a broad type of rock music that emerged from the punk movement of the 1970s, in which artists departed from the simplicity and traditionalism of punk rock to adopt a variety of avant-garde sensibilities. Inspired by punk’s energy and DIY ethic but determined to break from rock clichés, artists experimented diversely with sources including electronic music and black styles like dub, funk, free jazz, and disco; novel recording and production techniques; and ideas from art and politics, including critical theory, modernist art, cinema and literature. . . .” (Wikipedia). In short, punk morphed into anything they wanted.

punk rock or punk – “a rock music genre developed in the mid-1970s in the U.S., UK, and Australia rooted in 1960s garage rock and other forms of what is now known as “proto-punk” music; punk rock bands rejected perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock . . . typically produced short or fast-paced songs, with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics.” (Wikipedia). In short, angry protest rock.

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”

Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

book-cover_The-Good-EarthA fictional portrayal of the full life of a Chinese man from his start as a farmer to his death as a townsman still clinging to his farmland and its place in his heart, The Good Earth rarely wavers from the perspective of Wang Lung. Written in third-person point of view, the narration makes Wang Lung the central character from beginning to end. In so doing, the author delivers an unwashed, complex depiction of a human being who is very much a product of his time, his country, and his land while still being unique in his blend of naiveté, instinctual wisdom, hot temper, and abiding affections.

There is no happy ending, no comeuppance for moral wrongs done, no neat destruction or spectacular triumph. Just the steady, everyday hopes, aspirations, worries, resentments, choices, goodness, mistakes, successes, failures, moral decay, and general imperfections of a man making a living and raising a family in late 19th- and early 20th-century China.

The plot is less a plot than a complete time line of a life, but the story shares the journey through that life as lived by the main character Wang Lung. Although that journey may seem to lag in places, I interpreted those parts to be necessary components of the full picture of this character study, and the vast majority of the text never strays into tangents and never dwells on anything that is not relevant to the development of the character and his story. There is always something happening, something brewing, or something being reflected upon, but none if it feels indulgent on the author’s part. Nothing felt particularly extraneous; much of it felt very essential to a full portrayal.

The issue I take with the lagging parts is that the writing is not strong enough to support them properly. Overall, Buck is a great writer. The diction, rhythm and flow of the text keep the preponderance of pages turning. In part, the meandering quality of the prose effectively reflects the stream-of-consciousness thinking of our protagonist Wang Lung, which associates the book with other modernist literature. Written in the 1930s, The Good Earth, too, is recognizably a product of its literary moment. Still, despite these considerations, the applied technique does not escape tedium in its repetitiveness, which drags the novel down a bit.

Characters, even minor ones, never felt over-simplified. Buck had a knack for revealing personality in the sparest of gestures and shortest of lines. Some readers may disagree with this appraisal in light of Wang Lung’s sexist viewpoint, but his attitude is a reasonable revelation of context-bound character—true to both history and fictional integrity—not any kind of misogyny in the author.

Even the best of men in Wang Lung’s midst held the same foolish and limiting judgments of girls, women, and their places in Chinese society. A very strong current of Chinese culture is the favoring of male over female offspring, which persisted well into the late 20th century, with echoes even today through, for instance, high numbers of unwanted Chinese girls adopted outside of China.

Foot binding, seen in Western cultures as a barbaric form of female bodily mutilation and crippling, was common practice in making women attractive to male Chinese sensibilities. As in too many other societies of centuries past, girls and women were seen and used primarily as socioeconomic commodities and objects of male control and pleasure. To follow some misguided moral instinct of shame-based concealment into the erasure of these cultural imprints on Chinese history would have been not only false rewriting of history but also dangerous hindrance to modern efforts toward equality. How can the past be improved upon if it is not fully represented?

Yes, this is a thread in the depicted culture that reveals Wang Lung’s and his fellow men’s flaws and failings, but even a main character need not be morally superior to be worth writing and reading. The fact that their fates do not reflect a karmic meting out of justice does not make their characters any less flawed, but such neat justice might have made their lives less fascinating. The flaws make them human, and the getting away with it makes life unfair, which is eminently realistic. If reader ennui is the necessary result, I say so be it.

Furthermore, this is the story of Wang Lung, not the story of O-lan, his first wife, which means that Wang Lung’s perspective is uppermost in telling his story. Readers are free to take on the fan-fiction project of telling the same or similar period of fictional existence from O-lan’s or Lotus’ or Cuckoo’s or one of the daughters-in-law’s perspectives.

The question of whether any of the characters was likable is irrelevant to the evaluation of the book as a whole. I never need to love a character absolutely to follow his or her journey with curiosity and absorption. The need for a moral hero to champion is, in my view, a sign of unreached intellectual and emotional maturity in a reader. Such a reader either has not read enough traditional heroic tales to have outgrown or assimilated their appeal, or the reader utterly resists all semblance of the sharp, rough edges of realism, or both. This reader seeks literature to enjoy in an escapist, fantasist quality only. The trouble is that classic literature, often categorized as such through a solid foundation of many readers of balanced wisdom, is rarely, if ever, fodder for escapism.

The more pertinent literary question for me is how does any character relate to his environment? How does he express himself as a product of his environment, how does he navigate that environment, and how if at all does he transcend his upbringing and environment? By environment I mean all those people, places, and things that make up a character’s immediate sphere of influence and being influenced. On the other hand, too, how does a character relate to himself, transcend himself, or not?

Wang Lung is no great hero, but he is no great villain either. Yet this does not make his story a bland one at all. I found moments of great sympathy for him and moments of gritting my teeth and shaking my head at him. Perhaps it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, but when a reader spends this much time with a character, a rising affection is understandable, regardless of the character’s goodness score. I found myself rooting for Wang Lung even as I waited for his punishments for wrongdoing, for there are worse moral actors than he in Buck’s story, just as there are better ones.

Moreover, Buck’s drawing of Wang Lung is wonderfully consistent and unapologetic in its nuanced results for plot and character. Although not a completely static character, Wang Lung possesses a frank incorrigibility and pervading tenderness worth loving.

There is relativism, and there is “it is what it is” and “que sera sera,” but The Good Earth never descends into this pit of simplistic judgment. In the end, the reader is free to wonder at the great changes that have occurred in Wang Lung’s life, family, and society by the time he comes to his passing. Glimmers of the wider cultural changes, in the words and actions primarily of his sons, peek through the closed curtains of Wang Lung’s singular, personal focus. At the same time, the proliferation of his family and his accumulation of wealth greatly change the needs and aspirations of that family.

The earth has been good and it has been bad for their livelihoods, but Wang Lung’s connection to the land is what is dying most with him. Even to him, however, the ground lost some of its sacredness well before he decides to move to town. The cultural and economic tides are turning under his nose and far from his sight almost his entire life. Perhaps it is the gradual nature of this change that makes the letting go less bitter and its long embrace less sweet in the reader’s eyes.

Ultimately, like so many, Wang Lung is a creature of habit and tradition. He rides the plow of these principles until there are none left anymore to work such an implement. New conveyances for new habits and traditions plant new roots for these transplanted people. While the fates of his family do not appear to be all bad in the end, Wang Lung sees the ceasing of earth works, or at least earth ownership, as the great tragedy of his legacy. However, there are worse things a family can come to, and they were coming long before the land’s primacy was ending.

In The Good Earth, the land begins and remains a powerful symbol of a simpler time of simpler pleasures, but like all things, the purity of the land’s beauty and the centrality of its importance throughout the story are always both real and illusory.


Reader Rating for The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
4.2 stars overall: 5 stars for consistent, unflinching characterization; 4 stars for vivid description and atmospheric setting; 3.5 stars for story and plot; 4 stars for prose; 4.5 stars for cultural, including literary, resonance


If you enjoyed this review, you may also like:

Book Review: War and Peace

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Hannah Heath: 9 Different Descriptive Settings to Use In Your Fantasy Novel (Without Using Forests)

a pressed post

Source: Hannah Heath: 9 Different Descriptive Settings to Use In Your Fantasy Novel (Without Using Forests)

Response – the comment that wouldn’t post:

Great topics, Hannah! Thanks for the photo inspiration, too. I like the rice terrace idea Nathan mentioned.

Let’s see, other settings – canyons, badlands, active volcanoes, forests made of giant stalks of crops (wheat forest!), mine dwellings, something like the chocolate factory, castle as entire world, Africa-like savannahs or bush, underwater bubble worlds, some kind of constantly stormy place.

I’m writing a Through the Looking-Glass fanfic of sorts. I’m keeping all of the original features—chess squares, railway, reedy lake, Knights’ Forest, nearby meadow, Tulgey Wood adding a ravine, Garden of Live Flowers, magical brook crossings, feast hall for Alice’s coronation. I’ve added a river, sea coast, bog, mountains, alpine lake, farm, and Wonderland as the next-door neighbor, at least for now. This is my first foray into fantasy writing, so I’ll have to consider these other ideas! It helped to draw a map.

Does it automatically switch from fantasy to sci-fi if we go to space? Do we care?

Save

This Hunted Story

Am I late, am I late, for a very important date?

If not, as long as I tell myself I run that risk, motivation survives, at least for something I already feel compelled in a deeper way to do—writing. So before it IS too late, it’s time to journal about my Jabberwock novel, a story of Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There from the Jabberwock perspective. Time to muse upon the fickle nature of the Muse. Time to log, on the Web, my thoughts about this story-making process, the state of this art. Time to blog about novel writing.

My hope in doing so is that it will help me get a handle, by November 1st at midnight, on my story outline so I can hit the ground running as NaNoWriMo 2016 kicks off. The goal of National Novel Writing Month is to “write with reckless abandon,” and as a planner (as opposed to a pantser), I’ll feel readier to do that if I have a sound story structure to populate with all that compelling characterization, magical description, and sparkling dialogue. * sigh *

Prompted by S of JS Mawdsley to write fanfic “so [S] wouldn’t be the only one” doing that for Camp NaNoWriMo this past July, I showed up at a write-in early in the month and started listing the fiction I’m a fan of. Not long into the exercise, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass popped up and led to my premise.

In a reversal, or extension (depending on your viewpoint), of the situation in Looking-Glass Land, I set up the Jabberwock as the story’s hero and the Red and White Nobles as the antagonists in their world of giant chessboard squares. Alice retains a position resembling her protagonist role in the original stories, entering the grand game of chess in book two in order to become queen by reaching the Eighth Square.

Simple, right?

So . . . I’ve been working on this intermittently since July and figured there’s plenty to write in November, too. Although I don’t exhibit the discipline JS Mawdsley do/es, which leads to such awe-inspiring story-writing productivity, it’s been a victory for me to remain interested in my story even after each, sometimes long, hiatus.

I’m intrigued enough by the concept, along with the outlining, mind mapping and analyzing I’ve done of it so far, and the handful of scenes I’ve written in full, that I feel confident I won’t lose interest any time soon, let alone halfway through NaNoWriMo.

The magic has come from seeing themes, symbols, and character relationships periodically connect in unexpected ways, from discovering that the ideas that bubble up work with the overall concept instead of against it. It gives me hope that the unity of the story can be preserved, assuming I can build it into a cohesive whole in the first place. This is the year, baby!

Still, it is by no means simple. The plot has been quite the code to crack. For me, that’s typical, but this one poses the extra challenges to work within the original story structure, use pre-existing characters, and figure out how the heck to weave in the new story.

If I have bitten off more than I can chew, by gum, at least I’m still chewing on it and my jaw hasn’t yet broken or frozen.

I confess to adding the pressure of creating something brilliant and eminently publishable out of a timeless classic that’s been thoroughly studied, adapted, spoofed, and spun off in every direction for over a hundred years. Otherwise, why spend all this time on it? But I’m fighting that tendency, too. I’m making a point of not reading the spin-off books and of not watching any more versions of the movie than I have already seen. I’m trying to let love lead. Love of Lewis Carroll’s work.

In addition, S made the point that because Looking-Glass is the less well-known of the pair of Alice stories, it will be wise to borrow characters from Adventures for this re-telling, to add reader interest. I’ll try not to make that issue a major priority; it, too, presumes publication.

The saving grace may be that, if a tangible end result ever does come, and whether or not it’s any good, at least it will have been one hell of a writing experiment that prepared me for success on simpler projects. Oh, if only I knew how to go simple. To do the work, day after day, without imploding under the weight of expectation.

Although I may not blog liberally about the intricacies of the Jabberwock story puzzle, I’ll try to use both blogging and private journaling to keep up my momentum through the exciting upcoming month of story stress, construction, and socializing.

A couple of days ago, I chose a title that took entirely too much time to think of: Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land. Song is my main character, the teenage Jabberwock heroine who, in partnership with the younger human Alice, fights the good fight against the establishment. This much I know.

Hunted Song is my first fantasy story, first fan fiction (sort of, if we don’t count the one about Shakespeare’s mistress), and possibly first happy ending compared to my two most recent stories, which I actually finished drafting. There’s so much to look forward to, and the fact that I started this story well before November reassures me of my stamina to see it through to whatever moment declares itself the end.

Perhaps it’s fitting that this is my topic in the year of the 150th anniversary of the first book’s publication. These splashes of newness and flashes of specialness are keeping my eye on the prize, to follow through to create a good story that I can call mine.

What’s your story?

Join me and half a million other people worldwide this year in the storytelling adventure called NaNoWriMo. No experience necessary. No Plot? No Problem. No judgment. Just start writing. Ready. Set. Novel!. Also, check out the NaNoWriMo Blog.


For more about how my current story’s journey started, check out this summer’s post Packing for Camp.

jabberwocky

Featured image: Illustration of the Jabberwocky by John Tenniel, original artist for both Alice books.