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”

Just Because

Explicit Election

I stare blankly into the distance at the unfolding horror story of the inevitable doom approaching our nation, because:

Donald Trump’s a blustery Clinton plant who faces a serious “oh shit!” moment if elected, one that lasts four years (at most, please!), turning America into a no-shit “oh shit!” show.

Hillary Clinton’s a false feminist, lying fascist, megalomaniacal criminal, war hawk, and Obama clone who has been leaking evilness since before Bobby Kennedy’s assassination.

Gary Johnson’s a wishy-washy wimp without a prayer, but, hey, check out Libertarianism anyway; it’s really not so bad.

Jill Stein’s a nut-job doctor determined to spend the country into a Hades oblivion while handcuffing investors at every level, just like Trump and Clinton (and especially Bernie), because, save Earth so we can’t afford to acknowledge it’s been saved, let alone enjoy it.

And even if, before the election, Clinton is indicted for something (options are many and meaty), and Trump finally implodes for real, Joe Biden’s a senile, creepy-uncle pervert who falls asleep on camera like the rest of them (e.g., Bill at Hillary’s DNC acceptance speech).

Embrace the suck.

Or, you know, move. I’m staying put for the bloody spectacle–albeit indefinitely burrowed deep into a fog-enshrouded artistic and literary den of avoidance. It’s clear, after all, I could do much, much worse.

Five-Phrase Friday (22): Why Freedom?

Five-plus phrases of things to celebrate about freedom of the press and free expression:

  1. revelation through openness: unfettered expression of facts, opinions and impressions, making possible the discovery of truths
  2. diverse, idea-rich culture and personal responsibility instead of sacred cows and “safe” spaces for absolutely everything: Such riches flow out of sources ranging from irreverent comics to wise, reasonable academicians and beyond.
  3. constraint and dissent against bureaucracy and corruption: government transparency, accountability, restraint of power; courageous whistle blowers; the repeal of bad and excess laws
  4. greater personal safety, freedom, and fairness–and less fear: no to a military-style police state, no to federal intimidation, no to economic imprisonment, no to political entitlement, no to terror, no to executive power grabbing, no to detention without charges or trial, no to knee-jerk litigation, no to more prohibition (yes, upholding the Constitution in general is essential to numbers 3 and 4)
  5. lighten up, get real and get out of your own way: uncork childhood and let them breathe, laugh at ourselves, leave the Internet unregulated, and say “yes” to risk, to play, to innovation, to experiments in arts and sciences–to better life

Roosevelt was right: Our greatest enemy is our own fear. And guilt is a close second.

Most of us theoretically want the foundation of the five conditions above; we just advocate different ways of getting there. For my part, I say:

Self-control is a skill worth cultivating alongside rational and critical thinking.

Let not your pulsing heart scream silently in ready offense, righteous indignation, outrage, despair, doom, panic, self-hatred, or vengeance. And if you can’t help it, delay the impulse to give your heart voice until after it consults your mind (or a neighbor’s if you are out of yours).

To kick our addictions to dread and catastrophe, and curb our bad habit of trying to change others, if we really want to make life better, first we have to change our own hearts and minds. Adaptation propels us beyond mere survival into thriving.

You find what you look for, so look for the good in others. You cultivate what you rave about, so, if you must rave, rave about the good you have found. Replace the need to spread anger and fear with an addiction to the highs of good news and hope.

Oppression rules when we approach life as an error to correct, as a problem to solve, as something broken to be fixed. Hypocrisy and idiocy reign when we engage with and operate from assumptions of imaginary woes and wars within society.

Out of such an atmosphere spring useless, tyrannical communism; insidious, oppressive fascism; and volatile religious fanaticism–and their attendant violence. Feel free to despair at that point, but then quickly dust yourself off to fight the now-real war.

Either way, no one is getting out of here alive.

Therefore, let life pursue its natural course–improvement. Let there be creativity on earth, and let it begin . . . with freedom. Only under this necessary first condition can we hope for truth, love, integrity, respect, and trust in ourselves and each other to foster widespread, lasting peace and prosperity.