Book Review: East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, a book review

BookCover_East-of-Eden_Penguin-Steinbeck

Caution: This review may contain spoilers.

Maybe I shouldn’t read others’ reviews of a book before I write my own. Having read one extremely negative review of a book I rather loved has me on the defensive, coiled to spring with rebuttal fangs. Why did I read the review in the first place?

It started by looking at any reviews and then by noticing the number of stars in each review’s rating on Goodreads.com. From there, from seeing only one star on the review, it was a blend of intrigued indignation, morbid curiosity, and that creeping doubt of my own sound judgment as a reader that induced me to “read more.” I asked myself what I missed and thought maybe this reader could tell me.

O, ye of significant reading experience, intuitive literary thinking, English literature teacher training and three years’ teaching experience, studious involvement in a classics book club, a writer’s view of writing, and reasonable intelligence and good taste, how little faith you have!

No, I don’t know everything and never thought I did, but knowledge is different from evaluation, discernment, analysis. Credentials don’t guarantee the ability to look with an open mind, but I brought both to this reading experience. I followed an intelligent woman’s, a friend’s, passionate recommendation to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Having read it more than a few years after that recommendation, I am so far from regret, it is hard to fathom any literary soul hating this book. And yet such people exist. Then again, they exist for all great, good, or popular books. That is not my concern. All I can say is I am glad that the reviewer I mentioned did not have the power to keep East of Eden, or any other beloved books, from me.

East of Eden is not my favorite book. I have enjoyed some books more than Steinbeck’s, even this year, novels such as Howards End by E. M. Forster and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. But East of Eden is a very good book. Wait a minute. Am I tamping down my fervor because it’s uncouth to be enthusiastic about literature? Am I curbing my enthusiasm for the sake of appearances? Am I modulating my response because not all books can be “the best”? In a word, yes. I’m putting on my professional, objective, scholarly hat to prevent myself from looking ridiculous with glee. I’m judging a book for the public’s benefit by direct assessment and by comparing it with other books I’ve read.

On one hand, there is this empathy for the author, being a writer myself, that turns me away from harsh criticism. On the other hand, I feel the responsibility of a writer for the public, even my small cadre of readers, to be as objective as possible. But what it comes down to is that I really did like the book; I cannot force that view into objectivity. And what’s so bad about passionate love for a book or for an author’s writing, anyway? Well, one might argue, love is blinding. We cannot see the real truth of a book’s merit once we fall in love with it. This is the dilemma of subjectivity. But let’s start with the objective lens.

Premise and Opening

A book about families, about people and their relationships to each other and to their land, era, and wider society, it is not just a novel, not a work of pure invention; it’s also a memoir of John Steinbeck’s family history. The narrative is based on real people if not entirely true events or details, and the narrator places himself in that context as the son of Ernest and Olive Steinbeck of Salinas, California.

The story begins with the place, the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck takes his time setting the scene and presenting in brief the region’s history before introducing any characters. This exposition is gradual but interesting, logically ordered and beautifully rendered. It’s an opening that invites the reader to settle in for an epic by making the surroundings visible and cozily American. Yet, some of the description of the hardships inherent in trying to farm the Salinas Valley reminds the reader of Grapes of Wrath‘s depiction of Dust Bowl Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Summary and Genre

The story involves the lives of these people from the 1860s until the end of World War I. The Hamiltons, emigrating from Ireland, are Steinbeck’s ilk. He introduces them with the memoirist’s caveats of partial memory and reliance on hearsay and imagination for a full picture. In the next chapter, there is no caveat, and presentation of the Trask family reads at first like pure fiction. Moving to California from Connecticut, the Trasks serve as the focus of the author’s allegorical exploration of humanity through the lens of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel.

Genre sets a reader’s expectations of a book’s characteristics: A novel should have a good plot, and a memoir should be true to the writer’s life and emotions. One could argue that both should have good plots and human truths. As a novel, a memoir, and a genre bender, East of Eden accomplishes both ends. Switching between families throughout, the book starts with Hamilton and ends with Trask. While not formulaic or tidily paced, the plot of East of Eden follows the life story of the narrator’s grandfather Samuel Hamilton and his family, as well as three generations in the family of his grandfather’s neighbor and friend, Adam Trask.

Point of View and Characters

Steinbeck maintains the occasional sharing of a personal viewpoint on the Hamiltons and eventually inserts first-person voice into parts of the Trasks’ story. These latter characters all receive space in which to express themselves, through third-person omniscient point of view and the free indirect style of stating a character’s thoughts as straight narration, instead of using italics or quotes.

On the Trask side, there are three archetypal “C” characters, and three archetypal “A” characters, and yet, the author draws them all uniquely. Cathy is one fascinating specimen. Adam is almost as enigmatic. Charles, his brother, and Cal, his son, provide flickers of the wicked streak that Cathy fully embodies. Adam, his son Aron, and Abra, Aron’s girlfriend, symbolize sweetness, goodness, and beauty, and also the illusions that accompany the good soul’s initial experience of the world.

Employing memoir but leaning toward fiction, the book showcases Steinbeck’s skill with invention and description, even of characters. In one chapter, he provides a signal that he is imagining Cathy a certain way and then proceeds to develop intimate anatomical and physiological details of her pregnancy that no one who would actually ever speak about it really knew or observed.

That section starts, “I’ve built the image in my mind of Cathy, sitting quietly, waiting for her pregnancy to be over, living on a farm she did not like, with a man (Adam) she did not love.” These bare foundational facts prove true to the story’s outcomes, but as with most memoirs, the specifics of the story are subject to faulty memory, incomplete records, insufficient research because dead people can’t answer questions, and so on.

So how can we trust any character details in a memoir-novel? At bottom, we really can’t. We have to treat all aspects equally—those not observable by visitors to west central California or witnessed by current or former residents in the past. That is, we must treat those details as almost fully invented. It’s the only “safe” approach to maintain suspension of disbelief where needed and sustain basic belief in the author’s credibility generally.

The experienced reader of classic fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and other forms is more likely to understand that the narrator is a character in the story, too, a persona being drawn, just like other characters. None are trustworthy; all operate from their own motives and agendas with imperfect humanity. I’ll get into flaws in Steinbeck’s narration later on. Back to characters for now.

Then, there’s Lee. The most compelling and unexpected character, his personality and initiative receive free rein with Adam as his master and, later, his non-romantic family partner. An educated, well-spoken Chinese immigrant, Lee’s Pidgin-speaking habits for the public’s benefit he drops not long into the story. Lee is the glue that holds the Trask family together, and he becomes the surrogate mother figure to Adam’s twin boys.

In connecting Sam Hamilton’s and Adam Trask’s world views, Lee presents the book’s central theme of the importance of recognizing one’s free will when the path seems as predestined as a Biblical story. Some themes, like this one, announce themselves overtly while others percolate more subtly within the story.

Between Chinese labor camps, soldiering to control Indians on the western frontier, World War I, the stubborn poverty of the Hamiltons, and the accursed riches of the Trasks, these characters all experience degrees of great hardship, family tragedy, and personal struggles with their identities, their moral fiber, and the temperamental nature of love.

Steinbeck focuses on portraying their lives and thoughts without judging them, and yet he pulls no punches in revealing the follies that keep the Hamiltons poor or in fleshing out characters’ weaknesses as much as their strengths. The peculiar Hamiltons are depicted ultimately as beaten down by life, and in emphasizing the Trasks, also experienced in tragedy, Steinbeck urges the reader to invest in their hopes and dreams.

Plot and Structure

Steinbeck could have written this book as a series of vignettes or short stories, but he connects the stories end to end and across the text, tying them back to place or theme or his personal experience growing up among many of these characters. Presenting a solid chronology of family development and activity, the author uses no fancy flashbacks or flashes forward in time.

The first half of the book tells the stories of the first generations and their impacts on the book’s central characters. Charles and Adam Trask grow up as very different people receiving love unequally from their brusque, military father Cyrus in rural Connecticut. They are half brothers, each losing his mother before his maturity. Adam is sent to the army without wanting to go, but Charles is kept at home despite wanting to fight.

They eventually inherit an unexpected sum from their father. While working their childhood farm, Adam struggles to come to terms with life after the military and the implications of the inheritance, but Charles moves deliberately forward without fully grasping his character and purpose. The second half of the book follows Adam to the west coast.

Samuel and Liza Hamilton are the maternal grandparents of the narrator, and the book explores their large family’s relationships and how they cope differently with conditions of poverty on a farm in the Salinas Valley of California. The Hamiltons have no fewer than nine children (in rough age order)—Lizzie, George, Mollie, Will, Olive, Tom, Dessie, Una, and the youngest, Joe.

A few of them die young after suffering physical and mental anguish in their adult lives, and the death of a favorite permanently breaks another family member’s heart, taking some of his spirit away. “The Hamiltons were strange, high-strung people, and some of them were tuned too high and they snapped. This happens often in the world,” Steinbeck tells us, almost too obviously. Samuel is their story’s focus.

Steinbeck uses his ink rather wisely, creating a lengthy saga that meanders and sometimes drags with anecdotes but never strays off point, even in slower parts, because place and moment are pillars of the novel. He takes his time to develop a home for the story to live in, to grow in, to breathe in. This approach creates a book for the reader to invest in, and the returns are substantial, numerous, varied, and beautiful.

Central World and Theme

The contextual tapestry emerges with grace, setting the background for subsequent insight on events and characters. Featured through the narrative are things like the advent of the automobile, farming practices, brothels, the military draft, the nature of small-town life, and WWI attitudes toward local Germans. Religious themes are grounded in human realism, which elevates religious insight to the level of Biblical awe like the relief of the Gabilan Mountains and Santa Lucias rising on either side of the valley.

East of Eden is a story about legacy and its rejection, about differences confronted and either conquered or reinforced, about the messiness of life and the forgiveness of love. It is large in scope and detailed in development. The signature word of the novel, the Hebrew translation of a key passage from Genesis, is “Timshel,” which means “Thou mayest.” It says the way is open, you are free, and you have God’s blessing. Lee offers this as a beacon of hope in the lives of Samuel and Adam, as well as in his own.

Cleverly couching this hope in the hearts of non-religious characters, Steinbeck weaves a thread of evolving personal philosophies through his portrayal of the everyday joys and sorrows in the lives of two families. A brewing transcendence permeates the pages even while dark tragedies play out and loom on the horizon. The lasting impression speaks of the human soul’s capacity to expand, even or perhaps most, in moments of its greatest pain.

Peers in Literature

East of Eden has earned its place in American literature as a modern classic. Of the Steinbeck works I’ve read, it is better constructed and less pedantic than The Grapes of Wrath, grander in scale than Of Mice and Men, and far less depressing than The Red Pony. The tone is consistently ponderous but also factually documentary, though at times pretentious. The characters offer many different ways to produce a reader’s smile. The style reminds me of other great classics and some of my favorite nonfiction writers, including Annie Dillard.

As American literature, Steinbeck’s East of Eden is smoother than Hemingway and Twain, more accessible than Faulkner, and less heady than Fitzgerald. Steinbeck’s epic reads like a classy but comfortable pair of jeans—snug, flexible, quintessentially American, yet totally individual. Its beauty, relevance, and simmering intensity remind me of another beloved work, Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for which I played the narrator in high school theatre.

Flaws in Storytelling

This brings me to flaws in the narrative perspective, which are somewhat puzzling in origin and made me wonder if they were intentional, but to what purpose I couldn’t tell. Right away, in the third paragraph of the book, using first-person voice, Steinbeck describes the pleasing nature of one mountain range and the “unfriendly” character of another, to him as a child. But then, in stating he loved the first and dreaded the second, he declares, “Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say.”

Well, he just said it, didn’t he? The Santa Lucias were “brooding” while the Gabilans offered “a kind of invitation.” What’s to solve? This apparent lack of awareness of the thread of his own narration is confusing, especially since, after claiming he can’t say where he got this idea, he goes to the trouble of conjecturing about it further. Unfortunately, such passages inevitably raise concern if not doubt in the reader’s mind about the author’s clarity of thinking or level of intelligence.

There are similar examples throughout the book. These suggest to me that either his editors were too timid in their suggested changes for improvement, weren’t intelligent enough to notice the flaws in logic or sense, or tried hard to impose their wisdom on an intractable Steinbeckian will.

The example of the third paragraph’s mountain range comparison could be seen as a symbol of Steinbeck’s black and white moral thinking represented elsewhere in the novel. Periodically, Steinbeck opens a chapter by exploring a truism or aphorism that applies to the times, the region, its people, or humanity. These serve to set the stage for subsequent events, placing them in his chosen context. Sometimes, the truisms don’t ring true in a human universal sense where intended, and in many of these philosophical passages of social comment, the author comes off as pedantic and pretentious.

Some spots could be read as facetious decrees or other rhetorical devices meant to demonstrate through logical formality, for instance, the impossibility for normal humans to avoid pain. Or, he could be speaking in the limited mindset of the characters he refers to next, but it seems unlikely when compared to other omniscient passages, and even less so when the reader reaches Chapter 34. See below.

Because of these features, if we give Steinbeck and his editors the benefit of the doubt, the use of narrative voice raises further questions about narrator perspective and identity. While imagining the people in the pool of his origins, does Steinbeck stray into magical thinking about himself as well? What magic, for instance, enables him to gain the impossible insights his narrator persona seems to possess?

Flaws in Thinking

One of the most striking examples of mediocre philosophy on Steinbeck’s part occurs in Chapter 34, which serves as the introduction of Part 4, the last in the book. Here he presents a treatise on the story of good versus evil in the space of a few pages that comprise the whole chapter. I examined the ideas at length and found some fundamental holes in the argument, but narratively, what’s worse is that this preface is easily forgotten because it proves at first only tangentially related to the next events and, later, insufficient to capture or effectively foreshadow the story’s outcomes.

In essence, Steinbeck argues, “We have only one story. . . . the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” While there is validity in the claim that this question is central to human existence, he exaggerates in saying it is alone in its centrality or even importance. It’s almost as if he means to impose the rules of fiction on everyday life, when most people’s lives, at least in America today, prove far less dramatic in contrasts. If anything, we’re droning along in a humdrum banality of digital vacuousness. Little did he know . . .

He finishes his treatise by saying virtue is stronger and ultimately more successful than vice. Sadly, this brands some of his key ideas as unseasoned and foolish. It may be his wish that virtue will win (most people want this), but how can we tell? If we while living cannot know the consequences for the evil-acting people of the world when they die or know completely what lies in the heart or actions of every human being—more good or more evil—what basis do we have for declaring virtue the winner? He takes it on faith.

Then, there’s the completely neglected question of happiness and the fact that a life of virtue does not guarantee it, whether in the process or in the end. As you can see, this chapter distracted me well.

Whether true, only ringing true, or missing the mark, many of the narrator’s reflections and efforts to understand people and their motivations do at least represent the spirited candor of one who earnestly reaches back without knowing exactly what he touches. The important thing, the entire book emanates to the reader, is to reach. Still, the distraction created by strange, confused, and confusing exposition cannot be ignored or dismissed. If not tangents in themselves, reading them encourages tangential thinking in the thoughtful reader, which needlessly detracts from the story.

Theme: A Closer Look (Spoilers ahead)

At the fulcrum of the saga, the revelation Lee experiences in studying the Book of Genesis delivers the concept of “Timshel,” or “Thou mayest,” with respect to 16 verses in the fourth chapter of Genesis and the supposed imperative or promise that man will rule over sin. “Timshel” reveals it as a choice man can either make or not, perhaps emphasizing that man has not only the power but also the responsibility, and he cannot deflect blame for his own ignorance, or its persistence, onto God’s unfulfilled promise.

With this difference in translation, the power of man is elevated to a divine level because he retains his choice no matter how much of whatever else is stripped away from him (Steinbeck Centennial Edition, Penguin Books, p. 301). The embrace of this truth among the men discussing it—Lee, Samuel, and Adam—sets the stage for the second half of the book. That half reenacts the Cain and Abel story in the next generation of brothers, Adam’s twin sons Cal and Aron.

Characterization

Immediately in the first chapter of Part 3 (of 4), which introduces them as young boys, their fates are foreshadowed through the hunting of a rabbit. From there, the book intensifies its allegorical aura. I found the second half of the book more interesting and of heightened conflict, where the adults have already had their turn, and it is now up to the youth to make something of themselves. Experiencing the sorrows, dreams, and potential of these families through the first two parts of the book, the reader’s anticipation rises to see if the first generation can be redeemed, improved upon, and set at peace through the second.

Yet, the adults continue to grow and evolve through the rest of the story as well, especially Adam Trask. He experiences an awakening after his own personal heartbreak that renews his relationship with his sons and with Lee just as we are getting to know the twins, and his unpredictability adds tension and excitement to the unfolding story of his progeny. Even Lee reaches a crossroads as he is forced to decide where he ultimately belongs.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s life without Adam or her sons has its own color and curiosities, and, like her, Will Hamilton plays a key role in the lives of the Trasks in their highest-stake moments. Lee continues to serve as a soul guide of wise counsel while focusing his energies on maintaining the Trask household.

What do they learn in the end? What does Steinbeck finally have to tell us about these people and what they teach us about humanity? The first half could be interpreted as an echo of the Old Testament while the second half resonates with New Testament sensibilities. Old: Black and white morality, wrath of God, violence, Job (Samuel?). New: gray area, reserving judgment, mercy, forgiveness, more subtle movements of evil.

Above even allegory, though, the messages “I wish” and “I love” come through the story from Steinbeck’s commemorating heart, starting from sentence one of the book: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” Adding to these waves of emotion, the second half and final chapters seem to beckon the reader to “Be the best version of yourself no matter what” and “Love and know yourself loved deeply always,” and some characters show potential to understand and to achieve.

However, just as the point was in reaching back to family and home for Steinbeck, the importance overall is in the journey where you fail but get up again to keep trying. Life guarantees no happy endings, but, above all, there is love. And we who are helped by such things as the epic of East of Eden to learn this, we are among the blessed.

Indulgent in detail, East of Eden respects its subjects and literary tradition. As a novel and a memoir, its resolution is fittingly incomplete as it emphasizes atmosphere and journey. Steinbeck has blended personal genealogy with updated mythology to create a story of contrasts and common ground. By turns idyllic and realistic, the characters leave indelible impressions that made me want to meet them in person. Of local color but rarely provincial, East of Eden portrays the intimacies of a specific region in turn-of-the-century California where universal themes bloom like deep blue lupines, fiery Indian paintbrush, radiant cream-colored poppies, and golden summer grasses.

Conclusions

My initial impulse with East of Eden was to shower praise and contradict the Steinbeck-hating reviewer. But note the strike-through marks and words added later in pink: “However, when, objectively, a well-organized, lyrically unfolding narrative replete with delicious turns of phrase, methodical, lilting description, realistic, smooth, absorbing dialogue, well-integrated themes, and juicy, three-dimensional characters persists page after page, how can I not fall in love admire it? John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is that kind of book.”

Then, as I re-read several parts of chapters in the novel’s first half, I found myself back-pedalling to a less generous assessment that does indeed make a book that feels weighty and remarkable suddenly seem rather mundane.

I guess judging as a lay reader the value of a classic work of literature comes down to how well one understands what one has read and how much one enjoyed reading it. Granting that some of what I didn’t understand could be my own mind’s problem and some of it could be the author’s thinking or writing foibles, the fact remains that I did not understand some of Steinbeck’s ideas about moral philosophy. Those I did understand didn’t always ring true for me. This incomplete and disappointed understanding lessened my enjoyment noticeably.

I greatly enjoyed several sections and aspects of the book, and I closed it upon finishing with a general sense of satisfaction. However, I wasn’t reduced to tears, gasping in awe, mind-blown beyond reason, or enamored of anything in the book so much that I felt compelled to re-read it completely or immediately, or to shout from the rooftops about it. And there have been a handful of books in my life that did some of those things to me.

On reflection, East of Eden stands on a par with lots of other really good classics. What it doesn’t do is stand out as a magnificent product of masterful brilliance. Sure, in it are outstanding description, great sections and ideas and characters, and a respectable mark of the author’s thematic ambition. However, as a whole, East of Eden has plenty of flaws that diminish its value, if only slightly. The most serious I can identify is the unfortunate effect of perceiving that the author has tried too hard to mold a novel with memoir elements to fit a philosophical viewpoint, rather than allowing the reader to craft her own conclusions from a simpler presentation of the raw narrative materials. Leo Tolstoy did this even more overtly with politics in War and Peace, as I discussed in that review.

In determining a rating for East of Eden, I could give it 3 out of 5 stars based on the above. However, there are other important personal facts to consider: (1) I was rarely without interest in the narrative, (2) I felt comfortable and swept along on almost every page, (3) I never felt tempted to stop reading altogether, (4) I loved most of the writing, and (5) I genuinely wanted to know what happens to the characters in the end.

After having read and thought about it a while, I found that the highlights of description, dialogue, and characterization, as well as some of the memoir traits of the book, added to my level of enjoyment and positive feeling about the book. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience give the book less than a 4. It’s just not a 4.7; it’s more like a 4.3. All things considered, even as long as it is, East of Eden is well worth reading.

Who This Book Is (and Is Not) For

If you like Steinbeck, you’ll really like East of Eden. It is praised far and wide as his ultimate literary achievement. If you like American literature, chances are good you’ll like this book. If you enjoy looking closely into the emotional lives of families, and aren’t afraid of sad outcomes or open-ended paths, this book might just be for you. If you’re a descriptive writer and love the English language, I recommend sampling at least the beginnings of Eden’s many vivid chapters.

If not, if you have hang-ups about Steinbeck, American literature, intelligent prose, flawed narration, emotional insight, or the notion of a classic, move on to the next book on your list. If you prefer high-concept science fiction or fast-paced mystery, fantasy, action-adventure, fan-fiction, or popular romance to human-centric realism and religious and philosophical inquiry, you probably won’t appreciate East of Eden.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy stories about turn-of-the-twentieth-century America or rural California or the psychological dynamics of archetypal characters in a highly particular setting and situation, this book is worth your while. If you’re keenly interested in studying, or witnessing characters grapple with, the nature of good and evil and are fascinated by the potential of humans both to rise to divine levels and to sink into being hellions on Earth, you might regret not adding East of Eden to that mix.

Just balance out your Steinbeck with a little Nietzsche or Sartre, and maybe some Capote, when you’re done. The way is open, and you are free. Timshel.

As for me, did my reading of that negative review improve or worsen mine? You know, it just may have helped me strike a better balance. So, thanks, Steinbeck hater! You made me think more carefully, see more clearly, and justify my love for Steinbeck’s many gifts.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like some of these book and TV reviews:

If you’d like more of my thoughts on judging classics and choosing the best books, and to see which novels I recommend most, visit Great American Reads.

Argyll with Àdhamh, Part 1 of 4

Ask anyone who knows me well. They might say I’m a magician at turning small units of time into much larger ones. Or, they might just say, as I have said, that I operate on a geologic time scale, at a glacial pace. I tend to drag out projects and procrastinate. Because of this and possibly an underlying difficulty letting go of the past, plus genuine interest, I have managed to explode a fortnight’s Scottish vacation from September 2016 into a series of blog posts spread across nearly two years since this trip.

To illustrate the span of time, here are a few examples:

Scottish Color: A Photo Essay – overview of sensory highlights (posted Oct 12, 2016)

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 1 – my take on Outlander tourism, presenting filming sites in Central Scotland (posted December 1, 2016)

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)

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)

With several in between, but then nothing derived directly from the trip, until now.

This one has been a long time coming for several reasons, or excuses. I’ll spare you those. Suffice it to say I’ve been writing and thinking about this day ever since my husband and I experienced it, and I wanted its expression to do the moment justice in every way possible. And, I suppose I wanted to keep experiencing it for as long as possible, too, without having to labor over representing it.

All things end, but with those endings, other things begin. While it is in our power to effect that transition, to allow new things to happen, we can also prevent it. But the world and we are the poorer for that stagnation. As Mr. Willoughby says in Outlander STARZ ep309, “The Doldrums,” once I tell my story, I have to let it go. So, it is with bitter sweetness that I let go and share, and smile with hope and wonder to think where it might lead.

Road to Argyll

The Outlander Connection

On a mild Tuesday in mid-September 2016, my love for the Outlander book and TV series gave my husband and me our best day of a two-week Scotland vacation. We attended no conference with actors from the STARZ show. No Outlander filming or book sites came into play, as we had taken an Outlander tour on the first day. We did not meet Diana Gabaldon, author of the book series and consultant for the show.

Naturally, Outlander fans might wonder what would be the point of such a day, unless you’re also captivated by Scotland, whether just its romanticized image or its complex realities as well. Scotland fans just becoming familiar with the country, however, can anticipate from this post series new insights, revealed secrets, intimate portraits, and enticing destinations for future travel.

What we did was simply take a car ride through the inimitable region of Argyll & Bute with Àdhamh Ó Broin (AH ghuv o BROYN), a friendly Scot who just happens to be the Gaelic Language Consultant for Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series and its TV adaptation. It felt like a new neighbor was showing us his backyard, but it was much more because the backyard was very, very large.

I’ve been a fan of Gabaldon’s Outlander series since I first read book one in 2011, after two friends from different circles of mine recommended it. Once I discovered the STARZ show’s existence and high quality, I fell in love with it, fascinated by spoken Scottish Gaelic and inspired to learn what the Highlander characters say, in both Scots and Gaelic, in the Season 1 episodes.

It was perhaps the simple genius of the STARZ production’s decision not to provide English subtitles for most of their scripts’ Gaelic lines—had Àdhamh suggested this?—that paved the way for our wonderful day with Mr. Ó Broin. In watching scenes involving Gaelic speech, the viewer feels the outsider narrator Claire’s confusion, alienation, and suspense.

The lack of subtitles also allowed me to focus on and enjoy the words for their sounds and the shapes made by characters’ mouths. Sharing time traveller Claire’s “Sassenach” (“outlander” or “Englishwoman”) perspective on the unknown Scottish Gaelic language fosters a sense of mystery and curiosity, and, for some like me, a real need to know more than could be gleaned from gestures, facial expressions, music, or interactions.

In a handful of fan blogs devoted to translating the Gaelic from the show into English, I’ve found translations of some of those early lines that inspired me to learn more words and phrases of this beautiful language, threatened, like so many, by obsolescence.

Evolution

As a result, I was one of many thousands of visitors in 2015 who began studying this unlikely tongue through free, self-guided lessons and the two-way Gaelic-English dictionary on the LearnGaelic.scot website (founded 2011). A project newly updated in 2015 with the support of series actors Gary Lewis, who plays Colum MacKenzie, and Gillebride MacMillan, who plays Gwyllyn the Bard, along with Àdhamh Ó Broin, its popularity has greatly increased since the show began.

Soon after I started watching the show, my obsessive re-watching gave rise to posts such as my top-viewed “Adapted Bawdy Lyrics,” a translation from Scots into standard English of the song Claire sings in ep114, “The Search.” Then, on Twitter I began following not just the actors but also the producers, crew and consultants, including my favorite contemporary novelist Diana Gabaldon and, of course, Mr. Àdhamh Ó Broin.

For his social media followers, Àdhamh shares Gaelic words, phrases, and sentences, often translating them. In August 2016, after having passed 20 or so lessons on LearnGaelic.scot, and reviewing some of them, I replied to his tweet of a translated caption about a picture he received of a sunny Scottish day.

In my first reply, I wrote:

Or, literally, “Sky blue ‘n’ leaves plenty for the stroll of the morning”? Showing syntax, word matchup.

Then, I thanked him for adding “sky” (speur), “leaves” (duilleagan), and “stroll” (sràid) to my Gaelic vocabulary. His liking my tweets assured me I had it right. At the time, I tried not to take my study too seriously, since I’m not a Scottish or Canadian resident–where most fluent Gaelic speakers live in certain community pockets–who can practice and become conversational. After that brief lesson, I had no illusions of greater significance in our exchange, or of further contact afterwards.

Although Àdhamh “liked” both replies, he had not remembered them when I later emailed him our Scotland trip itinerary as an informal request for recommendations. I expected neither that he would recall nor that he would reply to my email, but that reply came! And more swiftly and positively than I had dared to hope.

From Whim to Intention

It was a bona fide wonder that he should be available when we’d be in the region, and I was truly thrilled by the chance to meet him and share the day. At first, I assumed, albeit in amazement, that he must have remembered me from Twitter. Otherwise, why would a semi-renowned Scottish Gaelic language expert be so trusting and kind to a stranger as to offer his company and expertise for the Argyll-area portion of our trip? Surely, he wouldn’t just open himself up like that out of the blue to just anybody.

True enough. When I asked him about it later, he told me that it was the detail and earnestness in my planning (perhaps showing an underlying passion for seeing the country) that helped convince him to pitch his services. It’s amazing where a little encouragement and curiosity can lead when the opportunity arises.

We took our unexpected journey through Argyll & Bute with Àdhamh Ó Broin on 20 September 2016. I waited much longer than intended to finish writing about it because I wanted to make sure I did it justice. Sin mi a-nis agus seo agad ciamar.

Sin mi a-nis / agus seo agad ciamar Now is my chance / and this/here is how

Getting from Edinburgh to Argyll

That morning, I had dry eyes partly from growing fatigue and, I suspect, partly from dehydration. Besides, there was no sorrow or vexation to well up, no aspect of the first phase that had gone horribly wrong or had been even mildly disappointing. In fact, we had seen many marvelous sights, eaten well, heard great stories, and slept comfortably. Wide eyed and alert, we faced an exciting time as we began the second leg of our Scotland adventure earlier into its first day than we’d begun any day up to that point.

Having packed up from our Edinburgh base at the Residence Inn, newly ensconced in our rental car, and taking a 2-hour, week-day drive to Arrochar in the Trossachs National Park, I was the most nervous I had been so far during the trip. With my husband driving, we were carving our path to Argyll, waving toward Glasgow along the way, to meet and spend the day with the Gaelic language consultant for the Outlander STARZ TV series.

Àdhamh Ó Broin

Psst, a little advice: When an Outlander STARZ / Diana Gabaldon consultant and upbeat native of a country you’re about to visit for the first time offers to show you around for a day, you find a way to make it happen! Àdhamh Ó Broin, like Gabaldon (though herself a Sassenach), faithfully represents the ageless beauty of Scotland and Scottish culture.

When we first met Àdhamh at our B&B in Arrochar, bagpipes case in hand, he greeted my husband with a handshake and half man-hug, half pat on the back, and me with a kiss on the cheek. Of moderate height, his figure betrayed only trace evidence of a whisky belly beneath a baggy, dark grey T-shirt and black zip-up jacket.

Although Àdhamh sported his usual high-cut straight bangs thin and flat against his forehead, his hair suggested no baldness for pushing 40 years of wear. His robust but uniform beard ran a half-shade darker than the natural red with a touch of strawberry blond haze on his crown. Àdhamh wore well-loved brown hiking boots and saggy-hipped jeans in a medium blue that matched his eye color. He fit the part of the humble, fun-loving person who values substance over style. Our kind of people.

Originally from Argyll & Bute, Àdhamh voices a softened (as in, intelligible to Sassenachs) Glaswegian accent. At the time of our jaunt together, Glasgow was his city of residence. The location is convenient for meeting with the cast and crew of the Outlander TV show, which houses its studios just outside the city, on the way to Edinburgh from Glasgow.

Unplanned Plan

My husband and I hired Àdhamh as a guide to help us explore Argyll. After I devised a basic travel plan prior to communicating with Àdhamh, he then upended my original itinerary. I had thought maybe we’d go to Inveraray Castle, Auchindrain Museum, and perhaps the Crarae Gardens. All of these are probably lovely, but I didn’t feel their lack as Àdhamh steered us to more unusual treasures. The schedule may have been out of our hands, but Àdhamh skillfully shaped the journey around our interests. He had places in mind to show us, but he adapted that rough plan to our interests in scenic vistas, wilderness, and ancient sites.

For my husband’s first-ever UK driving experience, he drove from our hotel in Edinburgh past Glasgow through the Trossachs to Loch Long in Arrochar. Then, for the next 7 hours, over 200 miles of winding, hilly, and many single-track roads, in both daylight and darkness, Àdhamh navigated while my husband bravely pressed on. Despite describing the experience as “terrifying,” hubby remained our DD the whole way. There was never a dull moment, in or out of that little black rented Vauxhall Corsa.

From having perused Àdhamh’s website and the Twitterverse, I had only a vague notion of what to expect. But over the course of the day, we enjoyed 5 hours of visits to chapels, a parish church and graveyard, 19th-century croft ruins, farmland, canals, an ancient kingdom’s fort, standing stones, cairns, wild landscapes, seascapes, and loch-scapes, a canal-side coffee shop, and lunch at a little inn off a boat-filled cove. It was a personalized, story-driven portrait of life in Argyll & Bute, past and present.

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Loch a’ Bhealaich / inlet of Taigh a’ Bhealaich (village of Tayvallich) viewed from restaurant window during lunch. Images © C. L. Tangenberg unless otherwise indicated

Argyll & Bute

A conglomeration of land bridges, peninsulas, and islands, with diverse waterways among them, the modern council area of Argyll & Bute (A & B), sometimes alternatively styled as Argyll and the Isles, can appear fragmented and, thus, arbitrarily collected. It’s a part of Scotland where it’s hard to tell whether loch, sea, or land is more pinched off at its edges.

But imagine Scotland, and the outline of its map, as the figure of a bagpiper in full regalia from severed knee at the English border to feathered beret reaching through the Arctic Circle, much like the frame of the constellation Orion.

If the country’s shape resembles a kilted Scottish warrior—with the Borders and Southwest comprising the pleats below the waist, the Grampian Mountains bearing the shoulder-draped section of plaid, and Northwest Scotland the slanted beret atop a bushy beard—then Argyll & Bute is the fringed sporran swinging from the Highlander’s belt as he marches proudly across the face of the blue-and-white Saltire sky.

And the region is just as full of singular secret treasures as the sporran of Outlander’s Jamie Fraser is.

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Scotland map from booklet Top 10 Scotland, published by DK

The range of Argyll & Bute extends from roughly northeast—beyond where sea-sourced Loch Linnhe replaces the land spread of the Great Glen (at Fort William)—to south and southwest.

The Great Glen is the seam that divides the Northwest and West Highlands from the Grampian Mountains of the Highlands. Though scattered by the sea, Argyll comprises the southern-most wedge of the Grampian Mountains.

East of Argyll, the traveller encounters the Central Lowlands, with its famed cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, south of which the Southern Uplands border England.

Enfolding the isles of Mull, Jura, Islay, Oronsay, Colonsay, Iona, Tiree, Coll, Gigha, and Arran among the Inner Hebrides within its borders, the A & B council area also claims the western shore of Loch Lomond, the Isle of Bute, and the Mull of Kintyre, headland area of the Kintyre Peninsula.

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Argyll section of Scotland map from booklet Top 10 Scotland, published by DK

Argyll & Bute also borders the Firth of Clyde, a bay connected to the river of the same name coursing through Glasgow.

The main peninsulas of A & B stretch south-southwest toward a foreign shore. The extension of the longer, the Kintyre, peninsula halts only 13 miles across the North Channel from Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland shares its island with Northern Ireland beginning at the same latitude but farther west from Scotland.

The Path

To help my family with context for our Argyll slide show, I traced our circuit on a map of the area from a page in Fodor’s Travel: Essential Great Britain. The path is shown below.

The Journey

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In dark black ink, the path we drove from Arrochar and Loch Long through Argyll and back. Label “Dunadd Fort” is obscured by criss-cross marks. Map: (2015) Fodor’s Travel Essential Great Britain guide book.

Morning in Argyll

September 20th, just after 10 am

In the southernmost of the Southern Highlands, close enough to Glasgow to encourage frequent visits by hill walkers and climbers, the Arrochar Alps punctuate the base of Argyll’s Cowal Peninsula like a primitive stone necklace. West of Loch Lomond, and north and west of Arrochar where we lodged, these mountains cut a majestic gateway to the west coast of Argyll. Here we spent a whole day with Àdhamh Ó Broin.

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View from Seabank B&B, 9/21/16. Morning fog over Loch Long, with the tip of Ben Arthur “The Cobbler” (upper left) just visible behind the ridge. Image © C. L. Tangenberg

First Foray

Draped in morning fog, ruddy tidal plains rim the northern arcs of long sea inlets, where up sprout the sharp mountain ridges of Argyll. Some of their bright green flanks shoulder darker tree lines. Whether seen as attractive patchwork or ugly open wounds (Àdhamh saw them as the latter), the swaths are signs of more recent conifer forestry. In a borderland between sea and loch, some waters are fresh and some brackish, and Argyll’s complex web nets incredibly diverse and abundant wildlife.

We launched our day in Argyll from accommodations in the town of Arrochar, near the heart of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. Along with the Cairngorms, it is one of only two national parks in Scotland. Here, freshwater and sea loch fingertips reach up from the heart of Argyll through the southern parts of the park. Our lodging, Seabank B&B, sits on the northeast edge of Loch Long, a sea loch, just a stone’s throw seaward from the large, freshwater, and famous Loch Lomond. The A83 motorway led us to the west coast.

Curling first around Loch Long’s northern tip, we passed Beinn Ime to the northeast, between fingertips, and then began our ride around Loch Fyne. From the north, we cleaved to Fyne’s western bank as we drove southwest toward the Atlantic. The shortest path by car between points in Argyll is never a straight line, and never on level ground.

“It’s in the folds and twists of the countryside, the interplay of land and water and the views out to the islands that the strengths and beauties of mainland Argyll lie” – Rough Guides – Scotland, Argyll

As we drove the glens, Àdhamh told us the eerie story of a woman named Mary whose neighbor’s premonition saved her from being washed away by a rainstorm’s flood in Gleann Cinn Ghlais (Glen Kinglas), meaning “valley of the greenish-grey (or grey-green) head,” describing the color of the hills.

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Inveraray-Castle-from-car-driving_DSCN3218_eds-2018-07-29

view of Inveraray Castle from inside the moving car on a bridge crossing the river

Past the town of Inveraray, stronghold of Clan Campbell, with a glimpse of its castle from a bridge, we continued south, where the A83 pulls to the southwest, leaving Loch Fyne’s shores. Eventually, we waved to the Auchindrain Township Museum on the left as we kept driving, drawn back again to Loch Fyne’s western bank on the same A83.

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from the car, near Glen Kinglas

At this point, my husband’s terror had not yet begun since first climbing into the driver’s seat of the rental car in Edinburgh; although hills, curves, turns, narrow single tracks, and stonewall bridges greeted us, it was still daylight, the sun shining. On our way to the coast, we made a pit stop at the Crinan Coffee Shop for a sip and a view of the Crinan Canal, along with some lively conversation where my husband could relax and fully participate.

In the next posts, Part 2 and Part 3, look for the wonder and intrigue of new and deeper mysteries surrounding key moments in Scottish history. We’ll start it off with a cup of joe and some details of our conversation.

Argyll with Àdhamh, Part 2 of 4

Argyll with Àdhamh, Part 3 of 4


Sources Consulted for Argyll & Bute and the Isles

Argyll and the Isles Tourism Co-operative Ltd (AITC) http://www.exploreargyll.co.uk/about.php since 2012

Walking and climbing in Argyll and the Isles: Come to Argyll and the Isles for unbeatable walking and climbing. Enjoy epic long-distance routes, magnificent munros, loch-side strolls and coastal treks – all amid stunning Scottish scenery.

The Rough Guides – Scotland, Argyll: https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/europe/scotland/argyll/

LearnGaelic.scot: a resource for free, self-guided lessons and a two-way Gaelic-English dictionary on the LearnGaelic.scot website (founded 2011). A project newly updated in 2015 with the support of actors Gary Lewis, who plays Colum MacKenzie, and Gillebride MacMillan, who plays Gwyllyn the Bard, along with Àdhamh Ó Broin

Walk Highlands – Argyll, Bute and Oban: https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/argyll/

Loch Fyne and the Coast

Inveraray Castle Visitor Information: An iconic Scottish castle in Argyll, Scotland.

Auchindrain Township, Inveraray. The last surviving example of a Highland farm…

Sources Consulted for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park

Elizabeth Forest Park: Trossachs – The Lodge Forest Visitor Centre – Forestry Commission Scotland

Loch Lomond – Day Trip Loch Lomond Waterfalls: Guided Walking and Sightseeing Highland Day Tours for independent travellers wanting to experience Scotand beyond the major tourist attractions and the confines of a bus.


Gáidhlig Dhail Riada. If you are interested in the rich Gaelic heritage of Dalriada and would like to find out more…

Àdhamh Ó Broin – Gáidhlig Dhail Riada

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”

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:

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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


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”

Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

book-cover_The-Good-EarthA fictional portrayal of the full life of a Chinese man from his start as a farmer to his death as a townsman still clinging to his farmland and its place in his heart, The Good Earth rarely wavers from the perspective of Wang Lung. Written in third-person point of view, the narration makes Wang Lung the central character from beginning to end. In so doing, the author delivers an unwashed, complex depiction of a human being who is very much a product of his time, his country, and his land while still being unique in his blend of naiveté, instinctual wisdom, hot temper, and abiding affections.

There is no happy ending, no comeuppance for moral wrongs done, no neat destruction or spectacular triumph. Just the steady, everyday hopes, aspirations, worries, resentments, choices, goodness, mistakes, successes, failures, moral decay, and general imperfections of a man making a living and raising a family in late 19th- and early 20th-century China.

The plot is less a plot than a complete time line of a life, but the story shares the journey through that life as lived by the main character Wang Lung. Although that journey may seem to lag in places, I interpreted those parts to be necessary components of the full picture of this character study, and the vast majority of the text never strays into tangents and never dwells on anything that is not relevant to the development of the character and his story. There is always something happening, something brewing, or something being reflected upon, but none if it feels indulgent on the author’s part. Nothing felt particularly extraneous; much of it felt very essential to a full portrayal.

The issue I take with the lagging parts is that the writing is not strong enough to support them properly. Overall, Buck is a great writer. The diction, rhythm and flow of the text keep the preponderance of pages turning. In part, the meandering quality of the prose effectively reflects the stream-of-consciousness thinking of our protagonist Wang Lung, which associates the book with other modernist literature. Written in the 1930s, The Good Earth, too, is recognizably a product of its literary moment. Still, despite these considerations, the applied technique does not escape tedium in its repetitiveness, which drags the novel down a bit.

Characters, even minor ones, never felt over-simplified. Buck had a knack for revealing personality in the sparest of gestures and shortest of lines. Some readers may disagree with this appraisal in light of Wang Lung’s sexist viewpoint, but his attitude is a reasonable revelation of context-bound character—true to both history and fictional integrity—not any kind of misogyny in the author.

Even the best of men in Wang Lung’s midst held the same foolish and limiting judgments of girls, women, and their places in Chinese society. A very strong current of Chinese culture is the favoring of male over female offspring, which persisted well into the late 20th century, with echoes even today through, for instance, high numbers of unwanted Chinese girls adopted outside of China.

Foot binding, seen in Western cultures as a barbaric form of female bodily mutilation and crippling, was common practice in making women attractive to male Chinese sensibilities. As in too many other societies of centuries past, girls and women were seen and used primarily as socioeconomic commodities and objects of male control and pleasure. To follow some misguided moral instinct of shame-based concealment into the erasure of these cultural imprints on Chinese history would have been not only false rewriting of history but also dangerous hindrance to modern efforts toward equality. How can the past be improved upon if it is not fully represented?

Yes, this is a thread in the depicted culture that reveals Wang Lung’s and his fellow men’s flaws and failings, but even a main character need not be morally superior to be worth writing and reading. The fact that their fates do not reflect a karmic meting out of justice does not make their characters any less flawed, but such neat justice might have made their lives less fascinating. The flaws make them human, and the getting away with it makes life unfair, which is eminently realistic. If reader ennui is the necessary result, I say so be it.

Furthermore, this is the story of Wang Lung, not the story of O-lan, his first wife, which means that Wang Lung’s perspective is uppermost in telling his story. Readers are free to take on the fan-fiction project of telling the same or similar period of fictional existence from O-lan’s or Lotus’ or Cuckoo’s or one of the daughters-in-law’s perspectives.

The question of whether any of the characters was likable is irrelevant to the evaluation of the book as a whole. I never need to love a character absolutely to follow his or her journey with curiosity and absorption. The need for a moral hero to champion is, in my view, a sign of unreached intellectual and emotional maturity in a reader. Such a reader either has not read enough traditional heroic tales to have outgrown or assimilated their appeal, or the reader utterly resists all semblance of the sharp, rough edges of realism, or both. This reader seeks literature to enjoy in an escapist, fantasist quality only. The trouble is that classic literature, often categorized as such through a solid foundation of many readers of balanced wisdom, is rarely, if ever, fodder for escapism.

The more pertinent literary question for me is how does any character relate to his environment? How does he express himself as a product of his environment, how does he navigate that environment, and how if at all does he transcend his upbringing and environment? By environment I mean all those people, places, and things that make up a character’s immediate sphere of influence and being influenced. On the other hand, too, how does a character relate to himself, transcend himself, or not?

Wang Lung is no great hero, but he is no great villain either. Yet this does not make his story a bland one at all. I found moments of great sympathy for him and moments of gritting my teeth and shaking my head at him. Perhaps it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, but when a reader spends this much time with a character, a rising affection is understandable, regardless of the character’s goodness score. I found myself rooting for Wang Lung even as I waited for his punishments for wrongdoing, for there are worse moral actors than he in Buck’s story, just as there are better ones.

Moreover, Buck’s drawing of Wang Lung is wonderfully consistent and unapologetic in its nuanced results for plot and character. Although not a completely static character, Wang Lung possesses a frank incorrigibility and pervading tenderness worth loving.

There is relativism, and there is “it is what it is” and “que sera sera,” but The Good Earth never descends into this pit of simplistic judgment. In the end, the reader is free to wonder at the great changes that have occurred in Wang Lung’s life, family, and society by the time he comes to his passing. Glimmers of the wider cultural changes, in the words and actions primarily of his sons, peek through the closed curtains of Wang Lung’s singular, personal focus. At the same time, the proliferation of his family and his accumulation of wealth greatly change the needs and aspirations of that family.

The earth has been good and it has been bad for their livelihoods, but Wang Lung’s connection to the land is what is dying most with him. Even to him, however, the ground lost some of its sacredness well before he decides to move to town. The cultural and economic tides are turning under his nose and far from his sight almost his entire life. Perhaps it is the gradual nature of this change that makes the letting go less bitter and its long embrace less sweet in the reader’s eyes.

Ultimately, like so many, Wang Lung is a creature of habit and tradition. He rides the plow of these principles until there are none left anymore to work such an implement. New conveyances for new habits and traditions plant new roots for these transplanted people. While the fates of his family do not appear to be all bad in the end, Wang Lung sees the ceasing of earth works, or at least earth ownership, as the great tragedy of his legacy. However, there are worse things a family can come to, and they were coming long before the land’s primacy was ending.

In The Good Earth, the land begins and remains a powerful symbol of a simpler time of simpler pleasures, but like all things, the purity of the land’s beauty and the centrality of its importance throughout the story are always both real and illusory.


Reader Rating for The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
4.2 stars overall: 5 stars for consistent, unflinching characterization; 4 stars for vivid description and atmospheric setting; 3.5 stars for story and plot; 4 stars for prose; 4.5 stars for cultural, including literary, resonance


If you enjoyed this review, you may also like:

Book Review: War and Peace

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Scots: Living Language, Not Bygone Dialect

Five-Phrase Friday (38): Scotland

Before:

So here’s the state of the art on my painstaking vacation planning. Gee, I thought vacation was supposed to be fun. . . . Huh.

Despite (or because of) all the great things to see, despite my fondness for Shakespeare and English literature, and despite a long process of selecting favorite English regions, cities, and sights, England, let alone London, has not made the cut.

Scotland is now our sole target country for this first dedicated family trip of some length.

I feel kind of foolish because I’m not Scottish and neither is my husband. It feels illegitimate somehow, like we’re imposters or something. Since we aren’t going to an extremely different climate and culture as would be the case on an African safari or in other seemingly more exotic locales like the Tropics or Tokyo or Tasmania, I feel compelled to be very selective about the part of Europe we explore together. It feels as if we should have some personal connection, relatives, work purpose, or people we know there.

He’s Slovenian (Italian-ate) and Latvian; I’m Irish, English, German, and Dutch. I travelled France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands (where some known cousins live) almost 20 years ago during college, and he’s been to the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and France on business. I speak French; he speaks (a little) German, understands some French.

So why Scotland?

It’s really all down to Outlander and my obsession therewith. Through the journey of the story, Scotland has become personal. Scottish Gaelic is even becoming my third language. Visiting does seem full of purpose. I feel as though I do know the people, at least more than I did before my deep and abiding interest in the book and TV series set there.

No apologies, no excuses, no misgivings, no sheepishness, but maybe some sheep, and maybe for dinner . . . mmm, haggis (?!). Research, plan, prepare, go, enjoy, and remember. And be grateful for the chance. And remember, the best laid schemes . . .

Five Scottish regional destinations for a 2-week visit, clockwise order from the south-west: Most preferred sights are listed for each area, though we may will not make it to all of them.

  1. Glasgow and environs (4 nights Glasgow) – Glasgow Botanic Gardens, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Park, City Chambers, Glasgow Cathedral/Necropolis, a play, boat ride on the river Clyde; Cumbernauld (Outlander studios drive-by), Falkirk Wheel, Stirling Castle, Doune Castle (Monty Python, Castle Leoch), Wallace Monument
  2. The Trossachs, Argyll, and Central Highlands – Loch Lomond (and maybe Loch Katrine) in Trossachs National Park; Loch Awe, Inveraray Castle; Glencoe
  3. The Great Glen, Highlands, and west coast (2 nights Fort William) – Fort William, Glenfinnan Monument (Jacobite Rebellion launch), Jacobite Steam Train to Mallaig, lochs and walks in the Great Glen; Eilean Donan Castle
  4. Inverness and environs (3 nights Inverness) – Inverness Visitors Centre, excursions to Foyers Falls, Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle (maybe a boat ride), Cawdor Castle (Macbeth), Culloden Moor (Jacobite Rebellion), Clava Cairns (standing stones with split rock), Cromarty, Black Isle, Moray Firth
  5. Edinburgh and environs (4-5 nights Edinburgh) – Edinburgh Castle, National Museum of Scotland, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Calton Hill, The Royal Mile main street, which includes Writers’ Museum, Greyfriars Kirk (“Bobby” the Westie), St. Giles’ Cathedral, Scott Monument, and more; Southern Uplands including Rosslyn Chapel and maybe Abbotsford House (Sir Walter Scott) and Melrose Abbey
Glen_Coe_West_Highland_Way_ScotlandNow

Glencoe & the West Highland Way. Image by ScotlandNow, The Daily Record online

The above sites are separate from several specific towns and rural locations where the Outlander TV series has been filmed. After some consideration, I’m inclined to skip a packaged Outlander tour in favor of making our own. I know enough about the books, TV series, and show creators that information won’t be lacking, and we need not be further restricted in our movements or schedule.

EileanDonanCastle_scenic_ScotlandNow

Eilean Donan Castle, W. Highlands. Image by ScotlandNow, The Daily Record online

Outlander-related locations, many of which we can catch en route to others, include (my preferences in bold):

  1. Culross, Fife, between Edinburgh and Stirling (Crainsmuir, the Black Kirk)
  2. Falkland, Fife, with the Covenanter Hotel (Mrs. Baird’s B&B, 1940s Inverness)
  3. Pollok Country Park, Glasgow (Castle Leoch grounds, Paris woods duel)
  4. George Square, Glasgow (Frank’s wedding proposal to Claire)
  5. Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, Highlands (wool waulking, rent collection)
  6. Loch Rannoch/Rannoch Moor near Glencoe (backdrop for Craig Na Dun)
  7. Tulloch Ghru, Highlands, near Cairngorms National Park (opening credits and hilly woods between Craigh Na Dun and Leoch)

Those near Edinburgh are:

  1. Blackness Castle, on Firth of Forth (Randall’s Fort William, of Jamie’s flogging)
  2. Linlithgow Palace, West Lothian (Wentworth Prison exterior, corridors, eps 115-116)
  3. Hopetoun House, West Lothian (Sandringham’s stately home in ep109)
  4. Glencorse Old Kirk, Glencorse House grounds, Pentland Hills, Midlothian (Jamie and Claire’s wedding, ep107)
  5. Midhope Castle/House, a private residence, Abercorn, Hopetoun estate, South Queensferry (Lallybroch)

I’d also like to visit the Southwest/Borders region closest to England–including Caerlaverock Castle and Caerlaverock Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre, Dumfries, and Robert Burns sights–as well as the Isle of Skye, but there won’t be time. At some point, we’ll need to sample the peaty whiskey (whisky) among the many distilleries.

I found quite a bit of useful Scotland information in some print travel guide books, one of which I talk about at Book Review: Fodor’s Travel Essential Great Britain.

CaerlaerockCastle_Dumfriesshire_Scotland_VisitScotlandpic

Caerlaverock Castle, Borders/Southwest. Image by ScotlandNow, The Daily Record

Life is large and detailed, as is the world. I relish details, the worlds within worlds on this planet. I like to get lost in them, as must be obvious by now from my blog. For two weeks, we’ll get lost, and be found driving on the wrong side of a single-track road along a beautiful loch in the Highlands of Scotland. Details.


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)