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”

The Glens Trail, Gorge Metro Park

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On May 13, 2017, between my mother’s birthday and Mother’s Day, the husband and I ventured out on a trail in our area to hike and explore for the first time—and what a discovery!

We could almost claim the Glens Trail of Gorge Metro Park for ourselves on that beautiful spring Saturday. Although the parking lot was packed, few locals seem to realize how the Glens’ beauty matches or exceeds that of the Gorge Trail.

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How could we be ignorant of this treasure so nearby?

The park resides in the city limits of Cuyahoga Falls, our former hometown of seven years and the place where both my parents grew up. Aunts, uncles, and their siblings, my folks, came to know the area well during the 50s and 60s.

Back then, I daresay, the natural beauty of the Gorge was taken for granted. To our predecessors, it was just another close place of recreation in which to pass idle childhood moments. They had no idea how unique this playground was.

Its danger, however, became all too familiar to one family member, who shall remain anonymous. Playing hooky from school one day with a friend, this relative fell nearly 100 feet down into the Gorge. We think it was somewhere along this section of the Cuyahoga River bank, if not on what is now the Glens Trail itself.

The friend thought our family member was dead, but luck, providence, or fate would have it that the landing was mercifully soft, though not far from a treacherous boulder. No major head trauma, no broken bones. A bona fide miracle. Next time, there would be no skipping school at the Gorge—only in much safer places.

Nothing so dramatic but the view accompanied our virgin visit to the trail. Although the going wasn’t easy, we know from experience it was easier than if we had taken the Gorge Trail, which is much more vertical, narrower, and rougher. The Glens Trail is almost 2 miles long, out and back; the return is on the same path.

Looking at the park map before arriving, I had expected a lower elevation, riverbed sort of trail. I think we were both pleasantly surprised by the scenic geology and dense greenery.

The Glens Trail runs parallel to the Cuyahoga River, but the trees made river views rare. With daylight waning, most water we could see was either frothed with white foam, trickling from a pipe atop the opposite bank, or more brown than blue from steady current through a shallow river, with its silty sedimentary bed and some urban contamination.

IMG_1640_foam-swirlIMG_1717_log-on-river-shoreIMG_1617_water-sky-trees-blue-yellow

Investigating the sediment content online led me to learn more about the geologic history of the area. The main features combine shale, sandstone, and conglomerate rock layers.

Most of northeast Ohio is built on Bedford Shale (most easily eroded) overlain by Berea Sandstone (evident at Glens Trail).

The Sharon Conglomerate came later and is the most erosion resistant of the three layers. The best examples of this occur in parks and trails with the word Ledges in their names.

But I also found this note: The most accessible location to view Mississippian and Pennsylvanian rocks, including the Sharon Conglomerate, is in Gorge Park, part of the Metro Parks, Serving Summit County system.” Source: “Bedrock Beneath” at Green City Blue Lake, The Cleveland Museum of Natural History

With glaciation, erosion, damming, pollution, restoration, and now talk of removing certain dams, the Cuyahoga Valley has undergone many changes over the millennia.

The map: Cuyahoga River

The height and sheer faces of the cliffs are breathtaking, an unexpected feature of the trek that made us slow down and look around more than we might have otherwise.

An orphaned slab made way for a partial cave roof that appears to have been used, perhaps centuries ago, for shelter. A soot stain on the “ceiling” suggests repeated fires.

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Birds were plentiful for an afternoon, due to the secluded, protected nature of the trail. We spotted catbird, sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, robins, cardinals, and Canada goose, among others, along with a kind of swallow I’m still not sure of.

I think I’ve narrowed it down to either a bank swallow or a tree swallow. By name, a cliff or cave swallow would make more sense, as it was perched on rock outside a nest in the cliff crevice, but colorings and territory ruled those out. Bank swallows usually nest in colonies in sandy hillside holes, whereas tree swallows nest singly in trees or cavities.

It may have been a juvenile or female tree swallow orIMG_1684_swallow a bank swallow taking its home where it could. As you can probably see, the picture is blurry, so the starker lines between the tree swallow’s blue-green head cap, back, and wings versus white throat, belly, and under tail may have been smudged more softly together. Really, I was lucky to capture its image at all.

“Angry” bird: Robin flings debris in search of food or nesting material.

There were a few narrow parts where ducking was in order and some uneven ground to manage, including hills, but the views, especially of the rocks on our left going out, were well worth the effort. The drop-off is steep, but it’s steeper on the other side of the river.

From the parking lot up the hill at 1160 Front Street, Cuyahoga Falls, visitors have central access to three major trails at Gorge Metro Park, Summit County, Ohio: Glens, Gorge, and Highbridge.

Next time, we’ll try out the Highbridge Trail. Another moderate path, but almost twice as long as the Glens, it should be manageable with sufficient time. Directly opposite the Gorge Trail along the river, Highbridge goes roughly west. Glens goes roughly east.

Although the Gorge is the rock star of the park, the Glens Trail, wandering away alone, also deserves a second look.


Happy trails to you this summer, wherever you find yourself.

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