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.

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

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

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

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

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

According to the Poetry Foundation,

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

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

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

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

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

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

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

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

not buried them.

Message of the poem

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

Means of the message

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Two weeks later . . .

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

Scotland Ventured, Scotland Gained

October 10, 2016

We’re back! Stay tuned for upcoming posts on things like driving stories, travel tips, restaurant, lodging and attraction reviews, Outlander tour ideas, whiskey (whisky) sampling results, favorite close-ups and vistas, Gaelic language lessons, pleasant surprises, and oodles of images from two weeks spent exploring the land of Scots and so much more.

Alba gu brath!


November 2016 update: Posts of our Scotland excursion are linked below, through the far-right, top-menu tab “Scotland,” and on the Philosofishal home page.

Before the trip:

  1. Book Review: Fodors Travel Essential Great Britain
  2. The Labor of Learning to Set Limits
  3. Five-Phrase Friday (38): Scotland

After the trip:

  1. Morning Fog, Loch Long, Arrochar – snapshot from the Seabank B&B, Trossachs National Park (posted Oct 11, 2016)
  2. Scottish Color: A Photo Essay – overview of sensory highlights (posted Oct 12, 2016)
  3. The Paps of Jura – sea-and-mountains vista; language lesson (posted Oct 15, 2016)
  4. Linlithgow Palace, a.k.a. Wentworth Prison – profile of a lesser-known Outlander STARZ filming site (posted Oct 20, 2016)
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 5: Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns – reading “To a Mouse” & The Writers’ Museum (posted Oct 24, 2016)
  6. Kurdish in Edinburgh – restaurant review (posted Nov 4, 2016)
  7. Dial up the sun – original poem & photos from the National Museum of Scotland (posted Nov 9, 2016)
  8. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 1 – my take on Outlander tourism, presenting filming sites in Central Scotland (posted December 1, 2016)
  9. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 2 – continuing in Central Scotland with filming sites in Glasgow, then southward to the Ayrshire coast and Dumfries & Galloway (posted December 23, 2016)
  10. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3 – wrapping up orientation with sites in the Highlands, from Perthshire to Ross & Cromarty to Inverness (posted Feb 11, 2017)
  11. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 4 – the story of my trip planning process, snapshots of planned vs. actual itinerary, summary of our experience, and reflections on improvements (posted March 11, 2017)
  12. Wildlife TV Programs This Week – a heads-up for Wild Scotland on NatGeoWild. See the end section about select Scotland nature and wildlife tourism options with brief descriptions and links to resources. (posted March 27, 2017)
  13. Review: Slainte Scotland Outlander Tour + Outlander Tourism Resources – (a.k.a. part 5) our Outlander tour and Slainte Scotland company review, notes on OL sites we visited alone, profiles of most popular OL filming sites, list of 40 OL filming sites, resources for OL book and inspiration sites, other OL tour company links, articles on the show, plus how to survive Droughtlander (posted April 11, 2017)
  14. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 6, the final post in the OL tourism series, focused on Scottish and more general travel tips and resources, based on our Scotland trip experiences (posted June 15, 2017)
  15. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots, a first attempt at deciphering this rhyming poem thick with Scots terms (posted January 9, 2018)
  16. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots – after a break, I finally translated the last bits (posted January 27, 2018)

Updated June 2017 – lined-out items appear in “An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 6″:

  • B&B, hotel & transport reviews
  • travel apps I liked (& those I didn’t)
  • my whisky tasting report
  • Inverness dining delights

Celebrating Alba – candidates for what’s next:

  • Argyll with OL‘s Àdhamh Ó Broin
  • the Scotland driving experience
  • Cawdor Castle up close
  • Edinburgh down “close”
  • our Jacobite Steam Train ride
  • Sueno’s (Pictish) Stone, Forres
  • a great Edinburgh Castle visit
  • Tomnahurich Cemetery Hill, a fairy hill
  • monuments, museums, galleries
  • Moray Firth coastal exploring
  • vistas and secrets of Glen Coe
  • what not to miss at Stirling Castle
  • Fairy Glen on the Black Isle
  • National Museum of Scottish Football

Your Suggestive Powers: Famous Nature Poetry

ICYMI: My last post in this series was Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 4: Promise of a Fruitful Plath.

Now I’d like to know what nature poets or poems you like.


CALL FOR SUGGESTIONS

I’m looking for great nature poetry to showcase in future posts of this series. I’ve been considering W.B. Yeats, Percy Shelley, Mary Oliver, Carl Sandburg, and Judith Wright, among others. BUT!

Any ideas? I’d love to see what you send.

Help shape the series! (I’m very suggestible.)

  • Diversity: So far I’ve been leaning toward all-white, western European-descendent poets. Let’s expand! I’m interested in nature verse from all over the world. *
  • Geography: Are any nature poems you like about specific places? Machu Picchu, the Everglades, the Gobi Desert, Mt. Everest, the River Nile, Natural Wonders?
  • Subject or Theme: Even if you don’t have suggestions for specific poems or poets, what subjects or themes in nature poetry would you like to read about?

I’m all for bringing recognition to poetry we think should be famous, too.

What say you?

Just comment by Monday, September 14th.

Let’s enjoy the Great Nature-Verse together.

Thanks Much!

*  Note: Poems written in or translated into English only, please.

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath

The third post in this series shared an earnest celebration of nature’s boundless beauty. Now we shift from Wordsworth in early nineteenth-century England to America’s Plath in the mid-twentieth century. As summer ends and the harvest season looms, my fourth feature in this series of nature verse by famous poets examines a far from Romantic attitude toward nature’s evident abundance.


The Poet: Sylvia Plath’s confessional poetry operates with turbulent incisiveness that often deftly exposes the true nature of life, poetry, relationships, and death, consistently with an intense gaze through the lens and at the subject of self. This biographical article at the Poetry Foundation website draws upon many literary voices observant of her life, work and legacy to demonstrate poet-human Plath as an invigorating, tragic, and ultimately fascinating figure.

Style and Subject: Although written in the midst of her struggles with mental health like most of her poems, “Blackberrying” is one of her more docile ventures into nature both experienced and hoped for. Plath selects details that speak to a clash, or perhaps a dance, between the not-so-charming wild and an even more dulling civilization. In the process, she shares her half-hearted, reluctant, and doubtful anticipation of encountering a grand natural scene.

Story: The narrative arc of the poem reveals a perspective teetering on the fence–or blackberry alley–between hope and despair, in which the speaker tries to shield herself from imminent disappointment by lowering her gaze and her expectations.

Form: The poem’s free verse with irregular but predominantly long lines conveys the speaker’s vacillating emotional journey as she describes her forward movement among the blackberries.

The Poem: Excerpts of the 27-line poem “Blackberrying” by Sylvia Plath (1961):

Lines 1-7:
Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,   
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers. 

Lines 14-16:
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.

Lines 20-22:
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,   
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt. . . .

To read the entire poem, go here.

Theme: Whatever the subject or setting (this one is probably the English coast), common threads in Plath’s work are the circumlocutions of the mind and the meanderings of the heart. But the lines in “Blackberrying” are no less charming for the contradictions and ambivalence they portray. In fact, in Plath’s and other writers’ works, such tensions often add a kind of freshness that further engages the reader.

Figurative Devices: She personifies the blackberries, the flies (lines not shown), the wind, and the hills, a choice which at once signifies her human loneliness and suggests the power and value she sees in natural elements. On the flip side, Plath points out the absurdity of nature’s abundance in her description of the blackberries’ attributes–“big,” “dumb,” “fat” things that “squander” their resources.

Language and Sound: The poem’s simple diction delivers a direct but subdued tone, creating a sad mood. Alliterative phrasing (“bush of berries,” “bluegreen bellies”) and internal rhyme (“thumb” and “dumb”; “green,” “screen,” “between,” and back to “green”) then elevate the spirit by infusing the poem with wry humor and mild amusement, which I envision as the speaker’s half-smile.

Plath’s use of echoing repetition builds reader suspense (repeated words like “nothing,” “blackberries,” “bush,” and “hills”) and conveys both an insistent plea and its futility. Like a fist loudly banging on the door of a locked and empty house, she will not be let in.

Plath’s plural nouns communicate abundance, but their repeated final “z” sound also calls attention to the buzzing of flies (which also suggests death) and the hum of the speaker’s anticipation of something more.

Your turn. After reading the above excerpts or the whole poem, consider:

What else do you notice about the poem? Are there: Surprising images? Sensory details? Subtle hints of things? Stark revelations? Simile? Metaphor? Oxymoron? Other devices?

What feelings does this poem seem to express or stir in you?

Which lines or phrases make you smile or gasp or wonder?

Does the poem show its age, or is it timeless?

Since poetry is usually best read aloud, here is a series of audio recordings of Sylvia Plath reading her own poems. Although these do not include “Blackberrying,” you may still be able to hear her intense mind and emotions coming across. Listen and see!

Do you have a favorite Sylvia Plath poem? Which one?

Comments are welcome.


ICYMI: See the starting point of this series on nature poetry by famous poets here.

Would you like to recommend a sample of nature poetry for future posts? Let me know about it. I’m considering poems by W. B. Yeats, Percy Shelley, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson, and others, but you can help me choose!

I’ve noticed a trend of all-white, western European-descendent people in my series, so I’m also looking for nature poems by American and global Blacks (Rita Dove? Derek Walcott?), Hispanics, eastern Europeans, Middle Eastern ethnic groups (Rumi anyone?), and Asians (Indian, Chinese, Japanese–haiku is all about nature–etc.), and surely I should be able to find some Native American nature poetry, perhaps in the form of songs. Many cultures have wildlife-based creation myths.

Help dispel my ignorance!

Note: Poets writing in English or poems translated into English only, please. Thanks.