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.

My Kind of Vehicular Idiot

Of all the things to miss about visiting Chicago, I can’t deny that driving in the city might seem like a strange, even ludicrous, choice. Drivers found around the Chicago metro area are infamous speeders, arguably reckless. Sometimes a change of “pace” or scenery brings particular delight. Sometimes a new challenge is just what you need.

The typical, experienced downtown driver in a large American city is my kind of idiot: alert, quick, and decisive. The road is one of those few places where I feel that way about myself, as I’m otherwise often hampered by too much contemplation, or “analysis paralysis.”

A greater portion of Ohio drivers in my experience threaten more danger in their tentativeness than through any deliberate recklessness. Along with the sensory impaired, I set aside drunk or high morons and the assumption that any genuine violent intent is less frequent in them than in sober maniacs.

It’s true that all the ways out there are dangerous, and I have a healthy fear of car travel, though I suspect I’m somewhat more asphalt experienced than many peers my age. I’ve driven in larger, powerful, often unreliable used cars since I started driving, and I’ve worn deep ruts over long distances in various settings from college to job commuting to cross-country road trips.

I’m comfortable with highways. You can be hurt or killed just as easily on a street going 25 mph as on the larger arteries going 70. But I’m more comfortable with large urban city streets than more suburban or rural, or even small-city, ones.

My main point is that when it comes to operating a car, it’s advantageous to have a little fender bender experience to learn from (guilty), a lot of mileage experience to draw from (check), and a healthy fear of the road through which to balance offensive and defensive driving (working on it). Extremes in driving, as in anything, tend to get you into trouble. That includes excess caution.

Personally, if I’m going to encounter, or be, a vehicular idiot, I’d rather it be on purpose with someone who knows the vehicle, knows how to evade traffic, and won’t panic in the heat of the moment. I’d rather ride with champion F1 racer Lewis Hamilton (not just because he’s cute) than with any nervous teen, soccer parent, middle-aged bookworm, or elderly citizen at the wheel. While otherwise not the greatest specimen of film making, the plot of the ’80s movie License to Drive, starring Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, clearly illustrates that treacherous driving experience tends to make one a better driver.

(Note that I’m not advocating reckless driving behavior or deliberately creating dangerous situations for the sake of skill development.)

Assuming existing skill, confidence in any venture is far more useful and likely to lead to success than is habitual hesitation. I’m a big believer in the “fake it till you make it” motto: If you don’t feel ready despite due preparation and a teacher’s, coach’s or mentor’s belief in you, pretend you are, play the part (that I can do), don’t over-think it (this I’ve got to work on), and charge ahead until you feel the confidence you instill, even if you never do.

The next time I’m feeling uncertain about my ability in something, I’ll make a point of recalling how thoroughly I enjoyed my drive through downtown Chicago last October. I successfully navigated with some helpful and some not-so-helpful GPS and passenger assistance, kept it clean and crisp among zippy cabs and other aggressive drivers, and avoided causing an accident (as far as I know–you can’t discount possible indirect chains of events far behind you). By luck or grace of God or fate or whatever combination of factors, we avoided becoming victims of a car accident as well.

Even knowing an accident or road rage can happen anywhere at any time, I was less scared of the traffic in that environment than I am of slow highway mergers, hesitating turners, and paralyzed watchers at multi-way stops back home. Such tentative behavior tends to create more danger, not least by spreading fear, than it prevents or avoids.

I prefer to avoid the kind of fear that makes one a stupid driver. I guess I see it as my responsibility as a citizen at the helm of a complex, high-mass, and fallible piece of heavy machinery. Anxiety, phobia, and poor coping in a crisis tend not to mix well with dangerous equipment. Still, more often than not, I’m content to stay at home . . . . Easy civic duty.