Poetic feet now ON fire

They were brought to the heat, and now they just might be ablaze. You be the judge.

In my last post, I talked about preparing for a writing performance and publishing opportunity happening in July. Originally approached for revision simply to reshape it for optimal total number of lines to comply with submission guidelines, one particular poem seemed finished to me otherwise.

But I have learned anew the truth of how good writing happens. It ain’t quick, and it ain’t easy. I think I’ve had a notion for a while that, because poetry is my favorite mode and the one I’ve received the most recognition for, I don’t have to work as hard at it compared to other writing. Nothing could be more false.

If, as Anne Lamott says in her book Bird by Bird, we’re to expect and get used to writing “sh**ty first drafts” in prose, the same applies to poetry. That may be an exaggeration, but the quality does have huge potential to rise with revision.

I also notice that the more time I spend with a poem, the greater tendency it has of becoming more formal in meter. The demands of rhythm take over, and I’m compelled to make it consistent across the poem. This is what has happened with my poem “Inspirator,” shared previously on this blog. There’s a lot of counting, yes, even using my fingers, to make sure lines are complete and don’t go over the set number of stresses, which in this case is seven.

What I see as improvements extend to:

  • better word choice
  • shorter sentences to get the point across sooner
  • less reliance on other favorite words such as “bloat” and “forth” as in “bring forth” (I’ve noticed them in several of my poems)
  • reduced number of hyphenated descriptors, a crutch of mine
  • fewer needless words such as prepositions, some articles, and the pronoun “all,” another crutch
  • removal of unneeded descriptors–by the 2nd-to-last line, the reader gets that the imagery is “fiery”; no need for another adjective just to use every way of saying it
  • smoother phrasing that aligns with rhythm and is easier to say out loud
  • clearer communication of meaning in individual images and overall
  • closer connection between title and poem, using the word in the text
  • less alliteration, a device best reserved for comedy or levity (not for this poem)
  • closer attention to the reader’s journey through the field described, addressing the reader directly
  • while the meter is not uniform in unstressed syllable use, there are exactly 7 stresses in every line, and I noticed alternation between starting lines stressed and starting unstressed, until the last stanza, which consists solely of iambic heptameter (unstressed, stressed; 7 stresses per line)

See if you can find some of those improvements and new features in the revised first stanza of the poem “Inspirator,” originally shared here:

Giddy feathers, beige but tall, perch unnamed fronds; their crowns
in fanned-out spikes sprout up to play both fire and ashy end.
Higher still, the color starts. Smooth leaves, chartreuse beneath,
grey-green their backs—or are they faces?—cast off half-domes,
masonry left homeless; unimpressed, the orphans bow
half-hearted honor, fractured praise, or simple nodding off.

which replaces the earlier version‘s:

Giddy beige feathers in
this field of tall, unnamed fronds
perched at a tilt, sprout their crowns
in fanned-out spikes, forging two things
into one: fire and ashy aftermath.

Two heads’ lengths above
these frozen flames,
the color starts.

Green, rounded leaves
of chartreuse underbellies
and grey-green backs, or faces—
I can’t tell which—huddle like
discarded half-arches, craft of the
stone mason who made too many,
just in case. A half-hearted bow
only at their very tops, partly
praising the fractional work.

Can you detect the following types of figurative language and literary device in the first one or last two stanzas of the poem?:

  • fire imagery and theme
  • metaphors – equivalences
  • personification – giving inanimate objects human-like qualities
  • theater/performance/façade/pretense theme
  • breath/consumption and output themes
  • irony – reversal of typical sense or connotation; appearance contrasting reality
  • synecdoche – an expression in which part of something stands in for its whole, as in “hand” for a person’s help when “we need more hands for the project”

Some sky-bound spirit forages and slurps all this combustion,
pulling smoke from grey below; above, from yellow-white
sun fumes. The wind roars conflagration, feigns inspirator*,
while darker soot envelops lighter, breathing victory.

These pebbles see up sprays of grass to ashen, flying feathers,
but more to rushing bands of smoky clouds and asphalt char,
the path astride this field. My molten shadow drips off stones.
The tar now fused and cooled, I walk it back to turgid fires.

which replaces:

The wind roars like a terrible
conflagration, and the grey,
not white, smoke is winning.

Stone-piles at my feet see up
to the short spray of grasses,
hints of feathers on higher fliers,
and my shadow. But mostly,
to the rushing bands of smoky
clouds, straight up, and the char
of an asphalt path set down
astride the still, fiery field.

Blown quiet, I walk on
cold coals, most unhurried,
back, into no fire.

All this is to just to reiterate what I said last time, that the specter of a live audience and official publication is a healthy catalyst for fruitful revision. Since exploring the nature of the writing process with my poetry in my series “On Process: Verse Writing,” I have come to realize, too, that the particulars of the process matter less than going through it. But it should consist at least of a shift in types of attention to the work: writing with creative abandon, then reading with editorial skepticism, and, once this due diligence is done, being willing to put the editor away again if the piece needs another injection of creativity.

So, by way of advice, I would say don’t skip revision and be open to rewriting. You may not only learn new things but also greatly improve your work. The trick at that point is knowing when to stop and say, “It’s as good as it’s going to get,” because writing can be overworked, too.

Well, what do you think of the changes to “Inspirator”? Are these poetic feet on fire, or am I sifting through the ashes of ideas lost to change?


* The word “inspirator” can mean four different things: (a) a device or agent that serves as an injector of vapor, air or liquid, (b) something that enlivens or gives spirit to someone or something, (c) something that inspires in an artistic or conceptual sense, and (d) something or someone that takes in breath (creative license here). I mean it in all four senses at different points in the poem.


If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Brief Book Review: Howards End

Posted first on Goodreads and Amazon, read entirely on Kindle.

Odd voice & construction, yet so fascinating I highlighted nearly the whole.

I found Howards End by E. M. Forster intriguing start to finish, which was both good and not so good. Sometimes perplexed by dialogue and theories, I also felt unsettled by and distant from characters meant to be the most relatable (Helen, and to some degree, Margaret). Still, I was entertained and moved enough to keep thinking about it all and, most important, to keep reading. Reading Forster’s A Passage to India for book club, and enjoying his style and insight, contributed to my picking up this book soon after.

The novel is both very English and insular in attitude (a bit ironically Imperialistic, perhaps, or was that intentional?) and expansive, universal, even cosmic in symbolism. Complex and at times disjointed in style, especially narrative voice, but also imagery, plot and some characterization, the novel remains endlessly rich with striking ideas. Filled with drama, philosophy, politics, feminism, realism, Industrialist economics, familial intimacy, and, most of all, late Victorian-Edwardian England, Howards End calls for careful reading, if not re-reading. It’s a British social history artifact as much as a novel.cover_Howards-End

Some of my favorite characters now include Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox. So different in levels of class, age, and emotional intelligence, priorities, interests, needs, subcultures, and educations, they are bonded by mutual affection and two different forms of steadiness, but above all, by marital tradition, real estate, and the late Mrs. Wilcox.

At the same time, Margaret, an intellectual of the early 20th century, has anything but a traditional outlook and serves as protagonist. Despite his obtuseness, “unweeded kindness,” and being “criminally muddled,” according to Margaret, Henry’s personality remains rather sympathetic. He is a product of his upbringing, his prior marriage, and his businessman’s world view, but he proves an amiable product. 

I enjoyed comparing the book with the recent TV adaptation starring Hayley Atwell (good though not great as Margaret) and Matthew MacFayden (a more faithful rendering of Henry), and I’m now eager to see the acclaimed 90s film with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins. It’s been on my to-watch list for ever since its release.

Writers like Forster are why feminist avoidance of male authors is so misguided. He was ahead of his time and sex and species. With a somewhat bewildering perspective–bestowing Helen Schlegel, among others, with shades of it–in Howards End, E. M. Forster still manages insightful humanistic exploration and largely page-turning fiction. Above all, the author delivers a master stroke in depicting the ironic fatal consequences of one man’s hypocrisy.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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:

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

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


Two weeks later . . .

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


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 (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns

In honor of my trip to Scotland, the harvest season, nature poetry, and Scottish National Poet Robert Burns, this post shares a few excerpts and a discussion of his famous poem “To a Mouse.”

See the end of the post for links to more information and the poem’s full text, as well as a list of earlier posts from this blog series on nature poetry by well-known poets.


To a Mouse
On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785

Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
               Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
               Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
               Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
               An' fellow-mortal!

Language.

The first thing you may notice in these first two stanzas is the unorthodox orthography. Contractions for words like “cowering” and “timorous” and unusual terms such as “sleekit,” “bickering,” and “brattle” used in stanza one challenge the average reader.

The poem begins in a Scots dialect using conversational vernacular. This approach both conveys the startling nature of the encounter for the ploughman and creates intimacy between speaker and subject. The ploughman deeply sympathizes with his frightened, thwarted neighbor who happens to be a mouse. The regular, liberal use of exclamation points heightens this effect.

Distinctly formal diction then counteracts that sense of closeness with a thoughtful, reverential tone when Burns opts for the dramatic “O” and distancing pronouns “thy,” “thou,” and “thee” in place of “your” and “you.” Such choices set the mouse on a pedestal, almost as an object of worship.

Between word choice and ideas, the poem amounts to a humble, emotional message of significant length, firmly declaring Burns’s love for even the smallest wildlife despite its serving no utilitarian purpose as either food source, working animal, or even personal pet.

Scots terms in the first stanza:

  • sleekit – adj., sleek or, figuratively, slick (in Outlander ep105, Willie facetiously praises braggart Angus’s sexual prowess using this word: “Aye, aye, ye sleekit dog!”)
  • na – not
  • awa – away
  • sae – so
  • bickering – adj., hurried
  • brattle – n., scamper
  • wad – would
  • laith – loath
  • rin – run
  • pattle – plowstaff (“paddle”)

The stark shift to a philosophical tone in stanza 2 coincides with a shift in dialect from Scots to more standard English. While still directly addressing the mouse, this stanza’s language sets it apart from the rest, presenting the poet’s main thesis in words that non-Scots readers also will easily understand. Stanza 3 then returns to dialect, which persists through the end of the poem.

Central to the poem’s meaning, an oft-quoted line appears in stanza 7 of 8:

7
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
               Gang aft a-gley.
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain
               For promised joy.
8
Still thou art blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e
               On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
               I guess an' fear!

This famous line, of course, inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men.

Scots terms in the last two stanzas:

  • no thy lane – not alone
  • gang aft a-gley – often go awry
  • lea-e – leave
  • e’e – eye

Rhyme scheme. “To a Mouse” gives us a unique opportunity to explore the nature of rhyme. The overall pattern in the poem for each stanza is a rhyme scheme of aaabab. Six lines containing two distinct sets of rhymes in each stanza. The repetitive sound of the first three lines creates a build-up of emotion and suspense. Next, the change late in each stanza accents the new indented lines of a different rhyming pair, leaving us with those ideas to ponder as we move on to the next stanza.

The effect of his use of near rhyme adds interesting possibilities. Debates have surfaced over the centuries as to whether writing in dialect is a legitimate enterprise. Burns, among others, was heavily criticized by some for his chosen approach in cases like “To a Mouse.” As time has passed, judgments of acceptableness have evolved and varied. Ultimately, it is each reader’s prerogative to judge the work being read. So you decide: Do you see an artful use of “slant” or “near” rhyme, a perversion of standard English, or something else entirely? Consider the patterns and their aberrations.

In “To a Mouse,” if we go by only the vowel sound of the very last syllable of each line and follow standard English expectations, the rhyme schemes of the dominant rhyming lines in each stanza (lines 1, 2, 3 and 5 as opposed to the indented 4th and 6th lines) would be as follows:

  • St. 1: beastie breastie hasty thee – a a a a
  • St. 2: dominion union opinion companion – a a a a
  • St. 3: thieve live thrave lave – a b ? c
  • St. 4: ruin strewin new ane ensuin – a a b a
  • St. 5: waste fast blast past – a b b b
  • St. 6: stibble nibble trouble dribble – a a b a
  • St. 7: lane vain a-gley joy – a a a b
  • St. 8: me thee e’e see – a a ? a

On the surface, with simple line analysis, there appears to be no consistent rhyming pattern at all, but at least the first two lines of each stanza usually rhyme with each other. For larger patterns, only the first two stanzas of these groupings, that we can say with certainty, consistently rhyme with each other.

In this context, as one might expect, the more formal second stanza is among those with the most regular rhyme. The most divergent vowel sounds occur between the first three lines and line 5 of stanza 7, as the long “a” sound in “lane,” “vain,” and “a-gley” doesn’t even remotely resemble the vowel sound in “joy.” (Farther down the page, I discuss the special cases of the Scots terms in bold above.)

The only dominant pattern overall is of consonance or assonance ending each line, specifically, with the consonants n, v, st, and b, as well as the e vowel sounds. All stanza 7 gives us is the visual common y consonant between “a-gley” and “joy.” Like stanza 2, stanza 7 is an outlier.

The result of this close investigation might suggest unintended sloppiness on Burns’s part.

Form and meaning. However, is it coincidence that the themes of stanzas 2 and 7 match their respective degrees of exactness in rhyme? Standard English, -ion endings, and the idea of unity in stanza 2? Dialect, divergent line endings, and the idea of destroyed plans in stanza 7? Even if it was done subconsciously, Burns was an artist, an educated man, an intelligent person, and, like the rest of us, an incorrigible “schemer.” So, no. It’s not likely to be coincidence.

And what about their placement in the poem–a sort of thesis position for stanza 2 and similar location for stanza 7, the second and second-to-last stanzas, placed symmetrically in relation to one another across the whole poem?

Perhaps Burns is making a statement not only about man’s relationship with nature–between the broken union with the wild and the industrialization of the field–but also about man’s relationship with man, particularly, the relationship between the masterly English and the servile Scottish peoples. Or, is it a more egalitarian critique of the hubris and, thus, inevitably negative effects, of at least some of everyone’s best intentions?

Boldfaced Scots (no pun intended): I used question marks to indicate my ignorance about how to pronounce the bolded Scots words. I would be inclined to pronounce “breastie” like “beastie,” assuming a humorous intent on first reading the poem, but it could be pronounced with the short e vowel sound as in the typical pronunciation of “breast.” As one reads more of the poem, its serious tone becomes apparent.

In the next instance, not knowing the word at all, I would most likely take it on face value and pronounce “thrave” like “grave.” Lastly, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce “e’e” as a contraction of “eye.” Is it the long e as in “thee,” the long a in “way,” or the long i sound as in the standard “eye”?

At the very least, first-hand knowledge of this Scots dialect in its 18th-century context and perhaps a scholarly knowledge of Burns’s intent and poetic patterns across his body of work would be required to say definitively. It’s possible, however, that pronunciation could vary even further, placing spoken vowel sounds, not just of these isolated words but of any number of others, in between the surmised alternatives we know from standard English.

There is no single, perfected version of a dialect of any language, just as what we think of as standard language can vary within itself as well. In other words, there are multiple Scots dialects within the umbrella of English dialects.

If Burns and other writers in dialect teach us anything about spoken language, it’s that it is subjective and fluid, different and constantly changing across all sorts of cultural boundaries. Those boundaries are not stark black dividers, but gray realms of overlapping traditions and identities. Whatever linguistic purists might say, certainly spoken language, along with written language in many ways, is a living, breathing, moving–and sometimes wild–thing.

Meter and rhythm.

Further evidence of Burns’s well-laid schemes emerges with a look at the rhythmic elements of the poem. The meter is set down regularly as iambic tetrameter paired with iambic dimeter, and the changes closely match the rhyme scheme shifts. Lines 1-3 and 5 follow tetrameter, with 4 iambs per line, and lines 4 and 6 use dimeter, with 2 iambs per line. An iamb is a set of two syllables, also known together as a metric foot, that begins with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

A simple illustration of an iambic foot is in the infinitive form of any one-syllable verb: to go, to breathe, to call, to jump, to know. We pronounce this pair of words with emphasis on the unique word in each pair: go, breathe, call, jump, and know. We don’t pronounce each set in the opposite manner, which would result in phrases with the sound of “TOO go,” “TOO breathe,” and so on, making the words sound strange, like the Roman garment “toga” or imaginary “tookle” for “to call” or “tune-o” for “to know.” Theoretically, one could create an iambic phrase solely out of infinitive verb phrases:

to WANT to KNOW, to WALK to YOU to SMILE  (iambic pentameter, five metric feet of syllable pairs, the first being unstressed, the second stressed)

where the capitalized words signify landing on them more heavily than on the word “to.”

Often, then, the stressed half of the metric foot (in these cases, the iamb) is where the more important words, and natural stresses in multi-syllabic words, arise. Another iambic pentameter line:

And if I fail to call, you’ll know I’ve left. The words if, fail, call, know, left make the central message.

The unstressed half of an iambic line is where the connecting words, less important words, and natural lack of stresses in multi-syllabic words would be.

And if I fail to call, you’ll know I’ve left. The words And, I, to, you’ll, I’ve are links and pronouns.

The unique feature of the iambic lines in “To a Mouse” is their often ending with a weak final syllable after the recognizable pattern of four or two iambs. Stanzas 1, 2, 4, and 6 contain this feature, ending on words like “beastie,” “startle,” “ruin,” and “dribble”–all words with a strong first syllable. There are exceptions even in these stanzas, with lines 4 and 6 in stanza 4 ending in “green” and “keen,” for instance, with stressed final syllables.

Still, the overarching tendency to add half an iambic foot to the end of many lines creates a lilting rhythm and lightness in tone, suggesting affectionate tenderness, as we sense from words like “beastie” and “nibble,” which are emotionally similar to diminutives like “sweetie” and cutie.”

The alternating stanzas with stressed last syllables and regular iambic feet include, from stanza 3, lines 1 (tetrameter, 4 stresses) and 4 (dimeter, 2 stresses):

“I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve; / . . . . ‘S a sma‘ request:”

The final two stanzas, shown above, also have regular iambic meter throughout, emphasizing the message there contained, for example, in the poem’s final two lines:

“An’ forward, tho‘ I canna see, / I guess an’ fear!”

Ultimate message.

In his poem, Burns deliberately places men and mice on an equal plane, both subject to the whims of fate and nature. Equating man with mouse is a startling choice, provoking thought and sometimes indignation. But the poet takes it one step farther, elevating the mouse above the man again in the final stanza: You know only how to live in the moment, you free and lucky mouse, whereas I’m a slave to regret for the past and to fear of the future.

For the full text of this poetic ploughman’s speech to a mouse, visit “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns. For an annotated version defining all the Scots terms, try scholarly sources such as page 748 of the full fifth edition (paperback) of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. My source for the terms I defined was the fourth edition.

The Burns legacy.

To learn more about Scots poet Robert Burns, check out the extensive article at Poetry Foundation. I also enjoyed visiting The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, which featured artifacts, writings, illustrations, and recordings about authors Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are many other sites in Scotland dedicated to Burns and his legacy that I did not get to visit. I’ll share more about Scottish literary tourism in an upcoming post.

As the National Poet of Scotland, Robert Burns even has his own holiday: Burns Night, January 25th, when people in Scotland and worldwide Scots create and enjoy a special feast and a night of beloved poetry.

I also wrote about the use of Burns’s work in the first Outlander TV series by STARZ:

Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy

Robert Burns’s fellow poet and countryman Hugh MacDiarmid built on this literary legacy in the 20th century. Hugh’s work continues the series: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots.


Previous posts in this series, featuring nature poems from both the Canon and a few contemporary poets, include:

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1): Sun Spots
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath

Posts 7, 8, and 9, respectively, dive into

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop

American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is one of my favorites of all time, and “The Fish” is one of my favorite poems of hers (not solely for its topic, mind you).

For my 100th post on this blog, samples of lines from “The Fish” and from her longer poem “The Moose” follow. Other great Bishop poems include, among others, “One Art” and “Filling Station.” I mentioned the latter here on Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day, 2014.

Excerpts from “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop, published in 1946:

He didn't fight. 
He hadn't fought at all. 
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. (lines 5-9)

I thought of the course white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony. (lines 27-33)

I looked into his eyes 
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed, 
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
--It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light. (lines 34-44)

the turning point:

. . . from his lower lip 
--if you could call it a lip--
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line, . . . . 
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw. . . . (lines 48-51, 61-64)

To take in more great descriptive details and find out what happens with the fish, see the whole poem.

Set in New Brunswick, Canada, here is an excerpt (lines 1-26) from “The Moose” by Elizabeth Bishop, published in 1976, thirty years after “The Fish” and three years before her passing:

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides, 

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats' 
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets; 

on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,

through late afternoon
a bus journeys west, . . . .

When my college poetry professor first introduced us to Elizabeth Bishop, she said “The Moose” was widely agreed upon as the definitive example of her best poetry. Obviously, I like it very much, too. Now that I’ve gotten you started, you have less of an excuse not to read the rest of this beautiful poem. And, yes, the travellers do encounter a moose.

At least one comprehensive collection of Bishop’s complete poems is available on Amazon.com.

Check out the next featured poem and poet in the series, the daffodils of Wordsworth.


And ICYMI: The official start of this nature verse series consists of two posts exploring the theme of sunshine: Famous Poets’ Nature Poems (1): Sun Spots, featuring four different poets’ work, and Famous Poets’ Nature Poems (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden,” with part of a poem by Louis MacNeice.

However, the seed for the series comes from the post Nature Poetry by Famous Poets, which features a few lines from a poem by Thomas Hardy, links to the entire series of famous nature poetry, and a list of all my posts related to birds.


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 (1): Sun Spots

For this first in a series of posts featuring nature verse by famous poets, I present to you little spots of sunlight, lines of poetry I love that describe the effects of the sun on different scenes and objects.

To celebrate summer and continue the theme from my last post of original sunset photos, here are a few splashes of poetic sunshine. (A slash mark indicates the end of a line.)


From “A Plain Song for Comadre” by Richard Wilbur:

“ . . . sometimes the early sun / shines as she flings the scrub water out, with a crash / of grimy rainbows, and the stained suds flash / Like angel-feathers . . .”

From “The Fish” by Marianne Moore:

“. . . submerged shafts of the / sun, / split like spun / glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness / into the crevices—”

From “Portrait d’une Femme” by Ezra Pound:

“For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things, / Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff: / In the slow float of differing light and deep . . .”

From “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews” by Amy Clampitt:

“But the sun / among the sundews, down there, / is so bright, an underfoot / webwork of carnivorous rubies, / a star-swarm thick as the gnats / they’re set to catch, delectable / double-faced cockleburs, each / hair-tip a sticky mirror / afire with sunlight, a million / of them and again a million, / each mirror a trap set to / unhand unbelieving, . . . // But the sun / underfoot is so dazzling / down there among the sundews, / there is so much light / in the cup that, looking, you start to fall upward.”


Equally dazzling, full versions of these poems are available online and in published collections. If you like any of the excerpts, check out the whole poem!

Or, ICYMI, catch the analyzed sample of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” I shared a few weeks ago as a prelude to this series.

Samples of my own nature verse on this blog appear in a series of 10 posts I call “Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry.” Here is the last of those.

What are some of your favorite lines of sunny verse?


Other posts in my series on famous nature poetry:

  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”

You may also enjoy a not-so-sunny musing upon the sun:

Original Poem: Of all the signs of spring