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”

Five-Phrase Friday (40): Subversive Farewell

Caveat/Warning/Disclaimer/Note: This post is not for the faint of heart, i.e., the wimps. Explicit language included. Proceed with caution and discretion. Or don’t proceed, of course. It’s your choice. Choose wisely. Wise choices are good. I commend those who choose them. This might be you. Bravo, discerning consumer. Pat yourself on the back, but maybe wait until after you read. Rewards are best postponed until after a goal is reached or task completed. That way, you actually get stuff done.

For the foreseeable future (not sure what that is), this is my final set of five phrases for Friday as I transition into other projects. If you missed some or all of the other 39, just search my blog by “Friday,” and they should all come up. They are also collected in their own menu section on the home page.

This post is dedicated to my husband since the topic was his suggestion last year. Disclaimer: We both like cats just fine, he probably more so than me, so this is all in jest. See also the additional disclaimer below the list.

For those of us with a preference for dogs over cats, and who enjoy jokes about how cats are the Devil’s minions, here are five ways to skin a cat, including method and evaluation:

  1. After anaesthetic — most humane
  2. Using a serrated blade — most efficient
  3. Shark Week, anyone? — most entertaining
  4. With its own claws — most creative
  5. Tail first — most challenging

Further disclaimer: Neither my husband nor I endorses the act of literally skinning animals of any species unless done respectfully, after the animal is confirmed dead, and for food, fuel, or other means of survival and sustaining life. We begrudge no farmer, distributor, or butcher his or her profits, and we won’t be joining PETA, but we also love animals in a peaceful, affectionate way without violence or intent to harm or inflict pain or death. We find them cute and funny and sweet, we like to laugh at them, and make fun of them, sometimes tease them (though not excessively), and also tickle them. We encourage this sort of relationship with animals. In other words, if we catch you neglecting, overtly abusing, or otherwise being cavalier with the health, well-being, or life of a domestic or wild animal, you will be shot on sight (with a camera) and reported to the proper authorities, you sick bastard. Cat skinning is for figurative expression only, as a reminder of the wonderful innovations and problem-solving skills of humanity–and its animal companions.

A note for the weekend: If you’ll be enjoying barbecue over the 4th of July holiday (whether in patriotism or mere coincidence as a non-American), make sure it’s not cat, horse, or especially dog meat. Wild, farmed, or displaced–but non-threatened or endangered–pigs, cows, sheep, goats, lambs, calves, birds, shellfish, fish, nematodes, turtles, snakes, frogs, insects, bugs, vegetables, legumes, grains, eggs, cheese, and fruit will serve. (Good luck figuring out how to barbecue all that.) Also, don’t eat people. If you’re vegetarian, vegan, or fruitarian and any of these statements offend you, I don’t care. Lighten up.

Also, please spay and neuter your cats (even if you don’t like to see them as being yours; understandable, but no wily disownership now). And protect your dogs (all dogs) from dehydration, vehicle traffic, long toenails, pest infestations, toads, holiday costumes, gratuitous bathing, and those scary fireworks, and kids, and cats.

Happy Independence Day. Freiheit!


Miss anything, or just want seconds? Bon appetit.

Five-Phrase Fridays (All)

  1. Five-Phrase Friday (1) – hints of politics in poetry
  2. Five-Phrase Friday (2) – snippets (tippets?) of Emily Dickinson
  3. Five-Phrase Friday (3) – terms of endearment for my dog
  4. Five-Phrase Friday (4) – compound modifiers in action
  5. Five-Phrase Friday (5) – 1980s comedic cinema
  6. Five-Phrase Friday (6) – favorite Apples to Apples matchups
  7. Five-Phrase Friday (7) – funny, punny small-town slogans
  8. Five-Phrase Friday (8) – select lines from cherished poems
  9. Five-Phrase Friday (9) – Shakespeare-style insults
  10. Five-Phrase Friday (10) – Outlander‘s Frasers & Mackenzies
  11. Five-Phrase Friday (11) – Halloweenish rock band names
  12. Five-Phrase Friday (12) – phonetics of bird calls
  13. Five-Phrase Friday (13) – Emily Dickinson reprise
  14. Five-Phrase Friday (14) – portrait of a cycle of terrorism
  15. Five-Phrase Friday (15) – blessings I’m thankful for
  16. Five-Phrase Friday (16) – first and last lines from my NaNoWriMo novels
  17. Five-Phrase Friday (17) – best songs on a beloved Christmas album
  18. Five-Phrase Friday (18) – books on perfectionism (we shall overcome…)
  19. Five-Phrase Friday (19) – five pop culture lists of five great things
  20. Five-Phrase Fridays 2015 – round-up of the first 19 posts
  21. Five-Phrase Friday (20) – from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch
  22. Five-Phrase Friday (21) – my own bits of spring green verse
  23. Five-Phrase Friday (22) – reasons to save freedom of expression
  24. Five-Phrase Friday (23) – awesome animals around the world
  25. Five-Phrase Friday (24) – 2016 book reading plans–most worked out!
  26. Five-Phrase Friday (25) – contradictions in terms, expressions that lie
  27. Five-Phrase Friday (26) – odd, resonant poem titles, W. Szymborska (bonus lists)
  28. Five-Phrase Friday (27) – on film contenders for the 88th Academy Awards
  29. Five-Phrase Friday (28) – more awesome animals, in translation
  30. Five-Phrase Friday (29) – on the trend of using puns for cosmetic color names
  31. Five-Phrase Friday (30) – Briticisms from travel mag London 2016 Guide
  32. Five-Phrase Friday (31) – bloody bunny breakdown, Monty Python style
  33. Five-Phrase Friday (32) – lines on perfectionism from poet Maggie Anderson
  34. Five-Phrase Friday (33) – my list of best dog breeds (bonus list)
  35. Five-Phrase Friday (34) – predators and prey in my own nature verse
  36. Five-Phrase Friday (35) – satirical verse about verse, Kenneth Koch
  37. Five-Phrase Friday (36) – Outlander Season 2, laughter through tears
  38. Five-Phrase Friday (37) – villainous descriptors, Sandringham in Outlander
  39. Five-Phrase Friday (38) – Outlander-inspired Scotland travel plans
  40. Five-Phrase Friday (39) – intimate look at one 17-year flying visitor
  41. Five-Phrase Friday (40) – gruesome, illegal acts (you’re here–don’t do it!)

The World Cup: Never Final

The 2014 FIFA World Cup Final match plays today at 3:00pm EST, about an hour from now, at the Maracana stadium, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, South America, Western and Southern Hemispheres, Earth, our solar system, the Milky Way Galaxy. Here.

I’m told you can see the Milky Way, and its gradual tilt overnight, somewhere in the corn fields of Iowa, and perhaps in rural regions the world over. This way is a symbol of constant change and perceived constancy, a swirling path we travel within while ourselves rotating on an oscillating axis and revolving around a sun that rises and sets in this galaxy, just as it does on our planet.

Another setting, another rising have brought us to this day: A global, month-long sports tournament and exhilarating spectacle, recurring every four years for twenty World Cups, once again climbs to a pinnacle and, with the greater speed of gravity, descends to rest dormant–though beating and breathing–in the imaginations and emotions of the everyday lives of fans young and old, spectators old and new.

Courtesy of The Daily Mail - dailymail.co.uk

Courtesy of The Daily Maildailymail.co.uk

Yet the intense work scarcely hesitates, restarting the same process, until the next fourth summer in the Northern Hemisphere (winter in the Southern, as it has been in Brazil).

We live our lives by cycles, by seasons of all sizes and types, returning to familiar states of being, forever saying “so long” to others. A drilling down into the crust of this earth exposes the layers of cycles of our many pasts, in the bones of our ancestors, and some descendants, and in the strata of the living, pulsing planet.

What a rare and wonderful blessing, to feel the security of knowing one’s rightful place in time and space. So few living human beings may luxuriate in such a sense of rightness, and the feeling, like all feelings, is fleeting. How precious these moments in experience.

That they may be shared and collectively enjoyed from time to time amplifies the rightness into greatness, expands elation into rapture. Win or lose, we experience the unmistakable richness of high and deep emotion fused into an undeniable, unified energy.

Together–across the sectors and lines of city, region, country, continent, ocean, and hemisphere; through the boundaries of language, culture, neighborhood, street, household, stadium, and playing pitch–the unity of a common love of futbol, team, and player penetrates.