A Dog’s DNA, Part 2

Photo credit: umseas on VisualHunt / CC BY


In Part 1 of this blog series, I considered the state of things before receiving our dog Ethan’s DNA test kit results, including some guesses as to what those results might show.

A reminder of why we care, whether or not we should: “Dogs vary in size, shape, color, coat length and behavior more than any other animal” (Weber Shandwick as cited in ScienceDaily, 2008). As our best friends and family members, dogs’ unique physical variations naturally pique our curiosity about which parts come from which sources.

In this post, I reveal the results and discuss the aftermath of our dog’s DNA analysis. Some things haven’t changed, and some will never be the same.


DNA Denial

They don’t believe it. They say it can’t be. They’re incredulous about what lies beneath the surface—the surface features of our dog, that is. Reasons in the unbelievers for their disbelief may involve the following:

  1. Aversion to a fact due to prior negative associations
  2. The intractable human tendency to believe only our eyes
  3. Simple unmet expectations

Then, there is the plain fact that genetics is a complex science with equally complex social and cultural implications.

But what exactly is so incredible? And am I a true believer by contrast?

  • Unbelievable: The breeds represented in—and missing from—our dog’s DNA.
  • Me: Ever the skeptic but open to possibilities. (Just see this blog’s About me page.)

In short, “I want to believe,” but like Fox Mulder of The X-Files, my fatal flaw would be to believe that “the truth is out there” when, actually, the truth that matters most is in here, in me, when it comes to my family, which includes my dog.

Facts are not truth, and especially not absolute “Truth.” They can only inform–and only if we let them. These particular dog-related facts are the result of scientific research, the genomic analysis of the DNA from my dog’s saliva.

And it’s no easy science for us lay people to grasp. From terms like “genotype,” “locus,” “phenotype,” and “allele” to phenomena “wolfiness,” “paternal haplotype,” “genetic age,” and the diverse functions genes have in an organism, it’s a lot to unpack. DNA analysis piles on thousands of data and facts to sift through if we have any hope of reaching some larger truth that relies on it.

“Ethan, what are you?”

The bottom-line fact for my family is that our dog isn’t what any of us thought he was. Sure, he’s still a dog and a best friend. But his breed make-up was definitely a surprise to everyone from the immediate family to dog-owning friends to his foster mom to our dog trainers. (I haven’t informed the vet yet.)

But really, I’m not so distant in my reactions from the more staunch non-believers. I look at my dog, and I look at these breed photos, and I think, “I don’t see any of that in there.” I can’t blame them for doubting the science; I am not without doubt. But then, the results are not without holes, remaining questions, and uncertainty, anyway.

We thought we knew . . . some things.

A fact and a truth as old as dirt is that appearances can be deceiving. The fascinating thing is how many different kinds of applications that truth really has. It’s not just our eyes that lie to us, though. It’s also precedent, accepted practice, tradition, conventional wisdom, emotional denial, and the assumptions of what we thought was “common” knowledge.

Specifically, the precedents and traditions that form convention tell us what certain dog breeds are supposed to look like. Then, common belief tells us we can identify mixed breeds by using our eyes and memories to link aspects of physical appearance that we see with our understanding of breed types.

From novice dog owner to seasoned dog trainer to veterinarian, dog shelter manager, and animal control warden, people interested in canines tend to think we know which breeds are most likely present in a dog of mixed breed heritage simply by looking at the creature before us.

But, man, are we wrong. So. Very. Wrong.

No one likes being wrong, even when we claim we’re only guessing. We like to think we’re well qualified to chime in, even if we’re not quite experts. We like to think our contribution is helpful, informative, unique perhaps, even if we give it off the cuff. We like to be right, and we certainly hate admitting when we’re wrong.

In light of our stubbornness, I think I need to say it again so we have some time to get used to the idea: We’re frequently and very much wrong when it comes to identifying dog breed mixes by sight alone–without registration papers or knowledge of a dog’s both male and female parentage. Part 3 of this series will explain exactly why this is so.

Science can provide answers, but it can also raise more questions than it answers. The journey to discovering my dog’s breed ancestry is one such case. Like it or not, the issues take some unpacking, along with a healthy dose of patience and humility.

So, as a matter of curiosity and entertainment, and maybe some education and insight, in this post, I’d like to share our dog’s DNA results, our reactions to them, and some reflections on their implications. First, a caveat.

Three Key Points

I believe it’s important to keep three key points in mind while digesting all of this.

1. Time, tradition, and cultural rituals have shaped and fixed our conceptions of dogs, dog breeds, and their relationships with people and each other.

2. Prejudice for or against certain dog breeds, like human-focused prejudice, has some basis in fact, some in cultural tradition, and some in outright misconception influenced in large part by pop culture stereotypes and the media. Deny it if you wish, but none of us is free of harboring some kind of racism–whether our focus is human, canine, floral. . . .

3. The meaning of anything can be highly personal, and meaning should be informed by more than one factor in life–such as reason, emotion, dreams and goals, research, study, established scientific fact, the mysteries of nature science has yet to uncover, and the practical demands of living.

With these thoughts in our back pocket, let’s consider the results and implications of one dog’s breed mix analysis and other DNA details, as well as my family’s and my reactions to them.

My Guesses

If you read Part 1, you’ll see a bit of conjecture as to my dog Ethan’s possible breed ancestry. Although I labeled it a “hypothesis,” that’s really a misnomer, suggesting a degree of scientific method I did not apply. Instead, what I’ll now call my “guesses” from Part 1 came down to the following:

"If I were to pick the largest number of possible ingredients 
going into the oven that made my dog, it would include 
but perhaps not be limited to:
Vizsla
Labrador retriever
German shepherd
springer spaniel or Brittany
Doberman
Dachshund
and some terrier blend

"If I were to pick the smallest number of possible ingredients, 
it would include one of the following:
Vizsla, German shepherd, or
Vizsla, Labrador retriever, or
Vizsla, retriever (non-Lab)"

DNA Analysis Genetic Breed Results

Here are the actual DNA breed results from Embark.

"Mixed Breed

24.2% Rottweiler ["Rotti"]
24.1% American Pit Bull Terrier ["Pittie"]
17.4% German Shepherd Dog ["GSD"]
6.2% Doberman Pinscher ["Dobie"]
28.1% Supermutt

"What's in that Supermutt? There may be small amounts of DNA 
from these distant ancestors:
Collie
Golden Retriever
Boxer
Chow Chow"

See the full Embark DNA analysis results on Ethan’s public profile: embk.me/ethan5. They include a brief Summary, Genetic Breed Result, Genetic Stats, Breed Mix Matches, DNA Breed Origins, Family Tree, Traits (physical), Maternal Haplotype, and Paternal Haplotype. Good luck! It is fascinating. The only parts not included in the public profile are Research (additional surveys we took about Ethan), Health, and DNA Relatives.

Initial Reactions?

Number 1: Surprise.

Ethan, December 2017

The biggest surprise? I think it’s a tie between his having no measurable trace of Hungarian Vizsla and the prominence of Rottweiler and pit bull in his blood.

Some of my guesses involved the right idea: GSD, retriever, Dobie, some terrier due to size. But actually, the Rotti, though stocky like the rest of the identified breeds, is medium-sized, too.

Nevermind that we originally set out to look for a Vizsla as our pet dog.

Nevermind that the rescue organization we adopted Ethan from advertised him as a “Vizsla/Lab mix.”

Nevermind that everywhere we go at least one person asks, “Is that a Vizsla?”

Nevermind that we’ve been answering everyone with “Yes, we think he has some Vizsla in him.”

He’s not a Vizsla. Not even close. He may not even have any trace of the breed in him at all, and we’ll probably never know one way or the other. Bye-bye, Vizsla fantasy.

Family Reactions

Number 2: Alarm.

For some of my family members, learning that all these powerful breeds historically used for guarding, protection, police work, attack, and fighting come together somehow in our dog was more than a surprise. It was alarming. Their images of the Rottweiler, pit bull, German shepherd, and Doberman are not of friendliness, safety, or even “goodness” in a dog. These breeds, at least some of the time, are seen as mean, vicious, predatory killers, barely controlled by their owners and often used for nefarious purposes.

Hollywood, the media, and traditional breeding have all played a role in forming this stigma. Although the guarding nature of these dogs, such as the Doberman, can be used for comic relief, the premise is always that the breed is formidable, imposing, even monstrous. Films like Up and ’80s TV shows like “Magnum P.I.” play up the alpha dog image of the Doberman, the pet of the eccentric, wealthy elite and the animal antagonist that terrorizes the hero in the story. 

Rottweilers can be associated with the junk yard and cartoons where the dog is tasked with keeping out pests and trespassers. In the ’80s cult classic film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the Bueller family Rotti rips the trespassing principal to shreds in his meddlesome pursuit of the truant Ferris.

As the breed most commonly used for K-9 police units, German shepherds sniff out drugs, guns, bombs, and dead bodies, and run down and subdue crime suspects. High energy, fierce looking, and powerful, they’re the bad asses of the law enforcement sector.

Little needs to be said about the nasty reputation of the pit bull, though, like all these others, it is grossly misrepresentative and extremely unfair. See the more fitting profiles of the pit bull in a later section and at the bottom of this post.

None of these dogs is portrayed as an obedient sporting, sprightly terrier, or lap-dog toy breed character. They’re not seen as playmates or accessories. They’re seen as dangerous and downright scary–creatures, not dogs, always to be avoided. 

Influence of Personal Experience

It doesn’t help that my parents have negative associations with at least one of these breeds. My brother was bit in the face by a German shepherd at age 5, and my mother for one has been afraid of them ever since. My mother-in-law was bitten by a dog, though not one of these breeds. My father-in-law doesn’t like pit bulls at all, and he’s not alone, but he has a special bond with our dogs and other pets any time they interact.

While not necessarily afraid of them, my father was the one who pointed out how our culture has conditioned us to fear these and other specific breeds. People who do not currently own and never owned dogs will more easily tend to fall victim to those stereotypes in their interactions with dogs. My husband did not grow up with dogs as I did, so he is more tentative around less familiar dogs than I tend to be, but only mildly so.

Number 3: Rejection.

Even after I attempted to explain the results, my in-laws emphatically declared, half in jest, “We don’t care what the results say. We’re saying he’s a Vizsla.” I had nowhere to go from there, so I accepted it with a smile and a “Fair enough.”

If the details or reasons for the results don’t matter to others, you can’t change that; nor can you imbue anyone with curiosity they just don’t have. We all have our priorities of what to focus on. But I can try to satisfy my own curiosity, and I wanted to try to understand. So, since I started this blog series, I decided to do my best to bring it to some meaningful resolution.

My Personal Reactions

Number 4: Confusion.

Absence of the Vizsla breed in my dog, though admittedly a little disappointing, hasn’t been the main issue for me. Likewise, I don’t have a problem with these breeds in the mix. With the influence of Cesar Millan’s Dog Whisperer TV show, reading about raising and training dogs, and substantial lay research about dogs in general, I’ve long held positive views of just about every breed of dog. So I don’t carry the same degree of typical prejudices held by others.

For me, it’s simply hard to see in my dog what the DNA results claim about his breed mix and the likeliest associated character traits and behaviors.

There are important scientific and societal reasons for this that you won’t want to miss later on. See Part 3.

Meanwhile, let’s get to know the breeds in Ethan’s genetic mix.

Enter Research.

The Rottweiler (24.2%)

After popping in and out of all the linked question marks on Embark’s results package, one of the first additional things I did was find out more about Rottweilers.

Looking for similarities primarily, as opposed to differences, I discovered I could see some Rottweiler traits and behaviors in our Ethan. These include:

  1. intelligence–Ethan learns faster than I do in agility class, that’s for sure.
  2. stubbornness–This often goes hand in hand with smarts.
  3. food orientation–Ethan is nothing if not food driven.
  4. strength and physicality–He’s also pretty strong and can play rough at the dog park.
  5. lounging preference–Ethan can be a lazy boy, too, preferring the cozy indoors to especially wet conditions outside.
  6. lack of barking–Our dog hardly ever barks.
  7. direct eye contact–I suppose he often looks me in the eye. . .
  8. athleticism–Ethan jumps, climbs, leaps up onto neighborhood boulders, picnic tables, and utility boxes–all with our initial permission when he was a pup; he loves turning corners, running through tunnels, jumping hurdles, and running faster than every other dog at play. Source consulted: “11 Facts Rottweiler People Understand Better Than Anyone”

Consulting just one source on this, I found that Ethan matches up with Rottweiler behavior in a solid 7 of 11 traits, which are only general tendencies and, as with all breed traits, do not apply to every individual of that breed.

The ones he lacks from that list are lap dog behavior (prefers to lounge alone), loyalty to the point of guard dog behavior (he’s as eagerly friendly and mild as they come), and carrying the stigma/responsibility of being an obvious member of the breed (he really looks nothing like a Rottweiler).

He’s also deferential enough not to stare us down, though he can make eye contact frequently. He’s strongly bonded to me, but he’s still not entirely comfortable being invited onto the couch since we initially taught him not to go on it, or even having us lie down beside him (he gets suspicious), and he has shown no particular protective or possessive tendencies with either of us.

While this is only one source, it opened my eyes at least to the possibilities of similarity to a breed I was less familiar with and hadn’t considered during my concerted guessing period.

Physically, Ethan also has ears that seem to match in many photos I’ve seen of Rottweilers.

Despite these parallels, however, there is truth in the notion that all this is simply an exercise in finding what you look for–in this case, similarities. That’s called confirmation bias, a plague rampant in the media. What’s to say I wouldn’t find the same degree of similarity between my dog and ten other breeds? Speaking of other breeds . . .

The American Pit Bull Terrier (24.1%)

So, what about the American Pit Bull Terrier? Which of its typical behaviors match Ethan’s?

Thankfully for his relationship with people (including close family with fear of the breed), as with the Rottweiler, Ethan bears practically no physical resemblance to the pit bull or related breeds. However, are there behaviors unique to the pit bull that Ethan might exhibit?

The Embark description characterizes pit bulls as “sweet, talented, and affectionate.” Ethan has become more affectionate over time, gradually, but he did not start out all hugs and kisses with us. Ethan is sweet and talented, but these traits are so vague as to apply to at least a dozen other breeds or simply great individual dogs.

Embark’s description also says that pit bulls “enjoy the company of their family members” and “get along very well with children.” Both are true of Ethan–and lots of other dogs and dog breeds.

I was unable to use an American Kennel Club (AKC)’s breed description because American Pit Bull Terrier is not an official AKC-recognized breed. The closest related breeds in their database are the American Staffordshire Terrier (“Amstaff”) and Staffordshire Bull Terrier (“Staffie”). The key words associated with the former are “confident, smart, good-natured” and with the latter “clever, brave, tenacious.”

It’s the “bull” and associated traits that made the Staffie a good fighter. Even this minor shift in emphasis between the two breeds assures me that it would be faulty to compare breed characteristics to the American Pit Bull Terrier as a way of ascertaining from another source the breed “type” most likely represented in Ethan.

But based on the Embark details, we can still make some basic assessments: Unlike the stereotypical pit bull, Ethan thinks every other dog is his best friend, and he is not as high energy as most pit bulls I’ve observed. However, he can be pretty scrappy at play, and he does excel at agility, an example of pit bull versatility and talent. But again, pit bulls vary in behavior just as much as any other pure breed’s specimens.

So much for the pit bull. Despite its comprising almost a quarter of Ethan’s DNA, very little closely, and nothing exclusively, associates him with the breed’s visual–or purportedly standard behavioral–traits.

Other Breeds

Without swimming in the details, it’s a similar story for the German shepherd (17.4%) and Doberman (6.2%).

Photo credit: gomagoti on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

Some traits line up; others don’t.

If you’d like details about any of the breeds identified in Ethan’s mix, including “Supermutt” estimated trace breeds, see the bottom of this post for a full set of breed profile highlights from Embark, American Kennel Club, and Westminster Kennel Club. See also my section below about the significance of the Supermutt component.

After receiving the results and learning more about the science behind all this, it was interesting and disappointing how the “a-ha” moments kept pace, neck and neck, with continued puzzlement.

Second Impressions: The Double Take

So why should these 4 breeds NOT dominate almost 70% of Ethan’s genetic inheritance?

Because, even going beyond the quick glance from Embark’s identified breeds to the creature we live with–and back, across man, it just doesn’t seem to stack up. Here’s why:

1. First, there’s his build.

The only breed named in his mixture that’s remotely close to Ethan’s body structure is the Doberman, which makes up the smallest percentage of definitively identifiable pure breed present at 6.2%.

Otherwise, he’s not stocky or broad-jawed like the pit bull, he doesn’t have the shorter muzzle of the Rotti or pittie, he’s not tall like the GSD or prick-eared like three-fourths of them, and, though several of them have deep chests, his rather high pelvic tuck matches none of them.

Instead, Ethan is lanky and wiry, slender even, with a long torso and bony butt, and, yes, he eats plenty every day. He’s downright petite. I’d sooner believe he had whippet in him than any of these four main breeds. Looking deeper, there may be some resemblance to the build of the collie.

Otherwise, the causes for his shape remain mysterious, at least to the same extent that other representatives in Ethan’s “Supermutt” DNA (beyond traces of collie, golden retriever, boxer, and chow chow), say, the other 15-25%, are themselves mysterious.

Go back far enough, if we really could, and you would think every mutt in Ethan’s ancestry has a pure breed ancestor. But it turns out that conception is wrong, too. More on original dog breeds later.

2. Second, that curly tail.

The only breed named in the mix with a curly tail is the chow chow. The tightness of the curl in Ethan’s tail more closely matches the chow chow than the more gradual curve of any of the other breeds’ tails. His tail shape is distinctive without a clear source, certainly not one source alone.

3. Third, his red color.

Ethan doesn’t have the coloring of any of these breeds’ standard versions that come to mind. Red is recessive, I learned from the trait science, but it was definitely a major factor leading us to believe in the Vizsla component. He also has a blond or buff undercarriage, underside of his tail and faint patch on his chest.

The only breed with a slightly stronger tendency in these directions is the pit bull, along with some of the breeds among the traces of retriever, collie, boxer, and chow chow that Embark supposes may be present.

4. Fourth, behavior.

Items 1-3 have to do with appearance, but we all inherit a lot more from our ancestors than just our looks. Off hand, the behaviors that strike me most about Ethan are his keen sense of smell relative to other breeds and his high propensity for scent tracking. I attributed these to some sort of hound breed in his DNA. What I did not think about during my guesses was how scent-oriented the German shepherd is. Caught me napping.

Behaviorally, Ethan sits like a Vizsla and is shy/sensitive like a Vizsla, but there isn’t much else I could point to in the Vizsla besides looks. Along with face shape and build, another reason I had ruled out pit bulls was muscle strength, but that’s hard to judge comparatively without owning other dogs, and Ethan is pretty strong in neck and jaw when we play tug of war. On the other hand, he routinely tumbles under the heftier charges of stocky dogs at the dog park. Note: My knowledge of the Vizsla breed profile comes from many sources beyond kennel clubs.

I might be one of the more easily convinced among my family members as to the veracity of the numbers, but seeing those numbers and reading the basic profile of each breed included in the results was not enough to settle my mind about match-up.

Even though I knew something about dog breeds already, the picture created by these results really didn’t look right, and searching for the reasons for them was the obvious next step.

I had to learn more if I was going to make sense of either the behavioral or physical appearance traits in the breeds the DNA says my dog Ethan contains.

Aside from identifiable breeds, the meaning of the Supermutt factor must also be considered.

Supermutt (28.1%)

Amidst the tendencies, likelihoods, prevalences, possibilities, and estimations inherent in this package of results, the largest variable of breed ID lies in the Supermutt designation. Obviously, this is not a breed but a label that shouts “no single breed dominates.” Not only that, at almost 30%, this component makes up the highest distinct percentage of Ethan’s breed mix DNA results.

Despite Embark’s guesses as to traces of breeds (again, see the bottom of this post for breed profile highlights) that could be present in this 28.1% mix of mixes, it really opens up the field of possible ancestors and the range of possible traits from those dogs. In so doing, “Supermutt” diminishes the potential influence on my dog of all of the first four breeds listed.

Conclusions? More Questions.

The results suggest their own decreasing significance for us. He’s a mutt, a highly mixed animal with no single dog breed making up who he is genetically. What more can be said? And where else in the results can I turn to find meaning?

As the picture complicates, it also distracts from the key points at this post’s intro. What can we really learn about pure breed prejudice through Ethan’s case?

The answers lie in answering the question, “How can a dog look so different from the physical breed traits of his genetic heritage?” And only the science can answer that.

During this educational process, I did gain clarifying insights, but I stewed about the breed appearance factors for quite some time afterwards. I would have to dig deeper to understand how a dog’s appearance and breed heritage can seem so at odds.

Not only the science but also the reason for the dissatisfaction really does beg for explanation. I mean, What gives? Did we waste our money? And how trustworthy are Embark’s science and report, anyway? 

Answering these questions will be the task of Part 3 of this post series. In Part 3, we’ll:

  • Learn why and how a dog can look so different from the physical breed traits of its genetic heritage.
  • Uncover what this insight means for visual breed identification of mutts when their parents are unknown.
  • Wrap up the series with an evaluation of our DNA analysis supplier, remaining questions, and final reflections.

Stay tuned!

See the full Embark DNA analysis results on Ethan’s public profile: embk.me/ethan5. They include a brief Summary, Genetic Breed Result, Genetic Stats, Breed Mix Matches, DNA Breed Origins, Family Tree, Traits (physical), Maternal Haplotype, and Paternal Haplotype. Good luck! (It is fascinating.)


Have you had your dog’s DNA analyzed?

What are your thoughts on all this?

Do Ethan’s results surprise you?

Feel free to share in the comments.


Sources Consulted and Cited

American Kennel Club. https://www.akc.org/

Embark. embarkvet.com. embk.me/ethan5

Finn, Maureen. (n.d.). 11 facts Rottweiler people understand better than anyone. The Dog People. Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.rover.com/blog/facts-rottweiler-people-understand/

Weber Shandwick Worldwide. (2008, June 23). DNA study unlocks mystery to diverse traits in dogs. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 27, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080622225503.htm

Westminster Kennel Club. https://www.westminsterkennelclub.org/


Dog Breed Profile Comparison: Embark, American Kennel Club, and Westminster Kennel Club

Rottweiler

Embark description – “descended from Roman Molosser-type dogs” “one of the oldest herding breeds” “guarding” “protective . . . loving . . . loyal . . . can also show aggression if not properly socialized and trained” “Intelligent, energetic and loving” “short, high-shedding coat and a high tendency of drooling”
AKC – “loving, loyal confident guardian” “strength, agility, endurance” “robust working breed” “great strength” ” descended from the mastiffs of the Roman legions” “gentle playmate and protector” “observes outside world with a self-assured aloofness”
WKC – “medium large working breed with a strong willingness to please” “versatility” “originally designed to be an all-around farm dog” “endurance, agility, and strength” “compact, muscular build” “devoted companion”

German Shepherd Dog

Embark – “confidence, courageousness, and keen sense of smell coupled with notable intellitence” “heavy shedding coat that comes in both short and long varieties”
AKC – “confident, courageous, smart” “finest all-purpose worker” “large, agile, muscular” “noble character and high intelligence” “loyal, confident, courageous, and steady”
WKC – “highly intelligent, exceptional family dog” “willing companion” “enjoys endeavors of its owners” “herding and protection” “adaptability” “competitive in all performance activities”

Doberman Pinscher

Embark – “intelligent, loyal, and make for perfect companions as well as guard dogs” “a mixture of many different dog breeds that includes Beauceron, German Pinscher, German Shepherd, and Rottweiler” “very athletic and often excels in agility” “trainable and one of the top five smartest dogs”
AKC – “loyal, fearless, alert” “sleek and powerful, possessing both a magnificent physique and keen intelligence” “incomparably fearless and vigilent” “among the world’s finest protection dogs”
WKC – “an elegant athlet in a tight-fitting wrapper” “square, compact, muscular” “grace, beauty and nobility” “energetic and fearless” “an intelligent, affectionate, and obedient companion”

American Pit Bull Terrier*

Embark – “sweet, talented, and affectionate.” “enjoy the company of their family members” and “get along very well with children.”

* “American Pit Bull Terrier” is not an AKC- or WKC-recognized breed.

American Staffordshire Terrier

Embark – “fighter . . . easily managed . . . sweet, trusting disposition” “playful and people oriented” “stocky, muscular” “great strength” “grace, elegance” “generally playful and friendly” “showing affection to new people in the presence of their owner” “can be aggressive toward strange dogs” “protective nature if threatened” “intelligent, trained without much difficulty” “lively”
AKC – “confident, smart, good-natured” “courage proverbial” “loyal, trustworthy” “springy gait” “agile and graceful” “stiff, glossy coat” “keenly aware of surroundings” “game for anything” “lovable ‘personality dogs’” “like mental and physical challenges” “highly trainable”
WKC – “weight proportional to height” “loyal, trustworthy, courageous” “intelligence, strength and agility make him an excellent all-around dog”

Staffordshire Bull Terrier

Embark – “bull baiters, tenacity, aggression, intelligence” “stubborn” “really love people” “extremely social and loving” “enthusiastic and exuberant personality” “intense energy needs” “ability to get along with canines varies from dog to dog” “love of children” “’nanny dogs’” “strength and size . . . ideal for older children”
AKC – “clever, tenacious brave” “muscular but agile” “mild, playful with a special feel for kids” “sweet-natured, family-oriented” “true-blue loyal companions” “old fighting instinct lurks within”
WKC – “strength, intelligence, tenacity” “alert stance, big smile, wagging tail” “’affection for its friends and children in particular, its off-duty quietness and trustworthy stability’” “all-purpose family dog” “steady, dependable” “outstanding athletic ability”

Supermutt

Collie

Embark – “wonderfully loyal and intelligent family dog” “good looks and soft temperament” “popular among the social elite” “intelligent and quick to learn” “great athleticism, possessing great strength and speed” “sweet and friendly nature . . . loyalty and willingness to please” “not as energy intensive as the Border Collie” “otherwise quiet nature”
AKC – “devoted, graceful, proud” “famously fond of children” “swift, athletic” “thrive on companionship and regular exercise” “With gentle training, learn happily and rapidly” “loyalty, intelligence, sterling character”
WKC – “beautiful in temperament and body” “gentleness, intelligence, loyalty” “willingness to work closely to master” “exceptional with children” “devotion to family legendary” “primary focus on people” Rough = gatherer. Smooth – drover.

Golden Retriever

Embark – “hunting companion” “friendliness and intelligence” “generally lankier and darker than their British counterparts” “love of play and water”
AKC – “friendly, intelligent, devoted” “exuberant Scottish gundog” “great beauty” “serious workers at hunting and field work” “enjoy obedience and competitive events” “endearing love of life” “sturdy, muscular” “medium size” “broad head” “friendly and intelligent eyes” “smooth, powerful gait” “feathery tail carried with ‘merry action'” “outgoing, trustworthy, eager-to-please” “joyous and playful” “puppyish behavior into adulthood” “energetic, powerful” “enjoy outdoor play” “swimming and fetching”
WKC – “willing, adaptable, trainable nature” “ideal family dog”

Boxer

Embark – “a Molosser-type dog” “distinctive underbite and strong jaws” “bred as a fighter” “patient and spirited family dogs” “intelligence and energy of their forebearers”
AKC – “bright, fun-loving, active” “loyalty, affection, intelligence, work ethic, good looks” “bright, alert” “sometimes silly” “always courageous” “smooth and graceful, powerful forward thrust” “upbeat and playful” “patience and protective nature” “serious watchdog/guardian”
WKC – “highly intelligent, medium-sized, square, clean lines, balanced proportions” “bred from ancestors in Germany called Bullenbeisers” “fearless but tractable, energetic and wonderfully patient with children” “extremely intuitive” “responsive to his master’s moods” “ideal family dog” “boisterous and clownish” “cherishing toys and family into his oldest age”

Chow Chow

Embark – “an ancient breed probably originated from Mongolia or Siberia”
AKC – “dignified, bright, serious-minded” “muscular, deep-chested aristocrat” “air of inscrutable timelessness” “dignified, serious-minded, aloof”
WKC – “possessive nature” “hunting, herding, pulling, protection”

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”

Book Review: War and Peace

I wrote the bulk of this book review in September, but I wasn’t happy with it, so I set it aside. Despite its retaining some flaws, I decided it has enough going for it to make it worth sharing, so here it is: my review of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace.

The Nature of War and History

Leo Tolstoy was a better storyteller than philosopher in his classic work War and Peace. More frequently and for longer sections than in other classic novels I’ve read, the author strays from storytelling into open rhetoric. Tolstoy gives himself ample space for this focus with a book of 587,287 words. Then, he lingers on pontification, unfortunately, through the second and final epilogue.

I can’t say how he does compared to other Russian authors such as Dostoyevsky because I haven’t yet read enough of those, but I can compare him to professional philosophers and myself as a philosophy graduate and self-directed student. Mainly, I’m interested in considering Tolstoy’s efforts within this single volume of writing.

From my post Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

What is war, after all, but a stamp of failure, the failure of people–clans, nations, and their leaders–to solve problems fairly, honestly, and peaceably? At best, it’s a self-serving grab for power and land, glory and good standing. At worst, fratricide, genocide, evil. Occasionally, it is a pure demand for deserved freedom, but that purity is never uniform across the hearts of those who fight. Generally, war is far less romantic than either fiction or history or current events media portrays, though some things do remain worth fighting for. . . .

To paraphrase Tolstoy from War and Peace, history is the habit of focusing on great leaders’ military conflicts as defining lands and their peoples, whereas it is the individual person going about everyday life, both in waging war and in tending to private affairs, that has most influence on a country’s fate. It is discrete human consciousness and conscience that matter most, not the “hive mind” of collectivism, of self-sacrificing glory and patriotic heroism.

In solemn honor, reverent pride, and moist-eyed commemoration of great public figures, military commanders, and extraordinary patriots credited with ingenious tactics, singular vision or instinct, and pivotal acts of bravery and skill, we write books, erect monuments, fill museums, name streets, and conduct ceremonies.

Yet the greatness of great leaders lies not in their human empathy, but in their ruthlessness, singular focus, and emotionless problem-solving skills. Commanders of armies, Tolstoy claims, cannot allow compassion, mercy—in short, human conscience—to cloud their tactical judgment if they are to be effective warriors. His example is Emperor Napoleon, but the principle applies equally to queens, colonels, dukes, generals, and princes.

It is regular people instead, Tolstoy argues, the common man and woman toiling anonymously and focused on their own lives and families—those who fight, suffer, bleed, and die not for a cause but as a matter of course—who deserve greatest praise and emulation. Better that each does for himself than for the public good; as a result, the public is better served.

Based on direct narrative arguments, characterization, and plot in War and Peace, I think Tolstoy’s belief in the importance of these actions lies in how they preserve people’s lives, loves, and souls. Let your life be a beacon so that others avoid the grandiose, power-hungry, cruel, machine-like, nationalistic, and imperialistic ambitions that only ever result in countless acts of evil.

His arguments are not without merit; most of them I found to be novel (no pun intended), therefore intriguing, extremely well developed, and frequently persuasive. Tolstoy is better at this in the earlier books and chapters of War and Peace than toward its end. Yet, for all its careful argumentation, War and Peace proves its most remarkable illustration of those arguments, and its best outright craft, in the fictional story itself.

People in 19th-Century Russia

All the main characters become highly complex, dynamic, real human creations by the time their epilogue, the first of two, ends. Whether the reader focuses on Andrew, Natasha, Pierre, Nicholas, or Mary, the shocking rises and falls they experience lay the groundwork, in at least three cases, for an immense depth and breadth of change that defies reader expectation and imagination.

One character’s girlish exuberance brings her readily to love, but then inexperience makes her prey to shameless seduction, which plunges her into mournful ruination, and thence to physical illness. With medical intervention, she recovers. Her spirit’s plunder gives rise to austere devotion in the midst of war, and she returns to deepest mourning. Renewed connection to a reformed friend at last allows her to live in her element with unapologetic womanly vitality that saturates her large, happy brood.

Another’s troubled soul, as heir to the fortune of an estranged parent, becomes trapped in external corruption, seeks spiritual solace, and commits to religious renewal. Though he marries sloth and gluttony, he cannot escape his palpable conscience, which compels him into mission-bound patriotism and thence to a purified, liberated spirit as he escapes from war imprisonment and suffering. Thus cleansed by conflict, robbed of legal freedom, and reduced to attending only his basic human needs, he emerges like a phoenix into spiritual freedom, and then into balanced, happy, duty-bound marriage and fatherhood.

His friend, who begins as a spiritual foil to him, in embittered, cynical not-quite-youth caught in an unwanted marriage, allies his atheism with devoted military service and advancement. Shackled by his sense of family duty, his extended courtship as a widower with a son jeopardizes his future happiness. Transformed by falling under the oppressive weight of disappointed hopes and twice into near-death experiences, he is temporarily re-embittered, then fully embraces forgiveness, transcendence, and God.

A subservient daughter with unshakable religious fervor endures hateful, long-extended parentage and, despite having effectively adopted a child from within the family, discovers freedom in her parent’s death. After slowly treading the gauntlet of requisite postmortem guilt for feeling a natural sense of freedom after wishing for the parent’s suffering to end, she finally asserts her natural leadership in estate affairs. She then falls in love with a strikingly earth-bound admirer but retains her faith in God and her strong moral center to the end.

A spoiled playboy with childhood sweetheart matures gradually through a series of experiences the reader might think should have greater impact on his character. Following a false start in his native high society, he seeks glory in war but discovers the shame of false recognition. He gradually detaches himself from the girl he still loves as he devotes himself to Russia, even as libertine tendencies persist.

He later surprises himself by falling in love with a woman very unlike him, takes his time accepting it, then ages painfully under the austerity of inherited debt and dedication to his mother’s unfettered expenditures. Though eventually happy in his new worker’s role, he struggles to reshape his pugilistic instincts with a much more scrupulous, cerebral wife who loves him fully without even remotely understanding him.

Each character’s capacity for completely loving others takes a form as unique as each individual, but that fully proven capacity testifies to their humanity more than anything can which they experience directly or live through nationally.

Natasha effuses love her entire life, a selfish love until scandal and tragedy humble her into contrite devotion. Then, though better balanced and more giving, with a live mind but an even more indomitable spirit, she returns to a naturally selfish state, in her unexpected renunciation of society, so as to embrace vigorous investment in marriage and motherhood.

Pierre most loves his intellect until he meets Andrew and Natasha, both of whom he loves unconditionally despite not understanding them, learns to love life after the shackles of war imprisonment, witnessed atrocities, and famine that ironically free him from his former self of decadence, social imprisonment, and eternal questioning.

Andrew has trouble showing his love to close family, even his son, until he meets Natasha, gives himself to her, then suffers the pain and humiliation of their break-up. His war experiences and severe wounds teach him a pure love of God, transcendence, and death.

Mary loves God and servitude to a fault in allowing her father’s constant abuses of her, loves her brother Andrew deeply, loves her nephew, whom she raises, learns with surprise to love Natasha as a sister in their shared love of Andrew, and loves Nicholas so deeply that she ignores or forgives all his transgressions, while also alerting him to his path of improvement.

Nicholas is the only character in the top tier that seems superficial in all his loves, first wearing the ease of beloved childhood, then the delights of wealth, followed by the steady hum of enjoyed military service, and then the application of that same sense of duty to managing his family’s debt, until he practically falls into marriage with a rich woman he has gradually grown to love without needing to love her for her money. If he seems to love superficially, perhaps it is only that he suffers by contrast with the more absolute loving in the likes of sister Natasha, would-be brother-in-law Andrew, brother-in-law Pierre, and wife Mary.

It is these distinctly different journeys through love that best convince the reader of Tolstoy’s impassioned message that history is misleading if not wholly false, that great leaders prove time and again to be inhuman hypocrites and surprisingly powerless fools, that the imperial government’s transitory and useless nature robs it of meaning, and that only love and humanity in the individual lives of common citizens really matter.

With protagonists whose motivations, experiences, and shifting outlooks testify to the depth and vividness of their simple forms of love, Tolstoy has convinced me that self-absorbed, mutually invested individuals will always be the thing that makes a nation’s shared history and collective identity great.

Tolstoy argues explicitly that the highest, purest form of patriotism is the keen attention and investment in the good of one’s own particular personal life, and he proves his claim in the storytelling. As the reader follows the lives and deaths in this microcosm of Russian society, she learns that to value individual people—siblings, cousins, friends, parents, and children, fellow citizens caught in the snares of war and punishment—is truly the best one can do.

The “Patriotic War of 1812,” a.k.a. the French Invasion of Russia

Yet, if the title were “Love Conquers All” instead of War and Peace, somehow it would lose its impact. By viewing particular humanity through the lens of society’s struggle for international survival, the contrast between killing and loving comes through more sharply. And the book is as much about abhorring war as it is about loving people.

In other respects, like similarly interminable books, War and Peace does tend to lag even in the fictional chapters, especially in the latter third of the book, which focuses heavily on portraying the military machinations of Napoleon’s and Alexander’s respective armies. In so doing, Tolstoy also gives flesh to his particular claims about the characters of Napoleon, his generals, Alexander, his generals, and the different component parts of each army’s skeletal structure.

The extent of these portrayals on the one hand feels fitting as a representation of war in action, fulfilling a promise made by the book’s title. On the other hand, I personally found myself yawning as I searched for a point in the storytelling that the author had not already made in the rhetorical sections before and after the fictionalized histories.

An unsettling, perhaps intended, irony of Tolstoy’s choice to deplore so thoroughly Napoleon and the French on one side and to expose as fools many of the Russian patriots on the other side is that the reader who deigns to believe Tolstoy’s claims about the falsehoods of history must then necessarily doubt the author’s own historical portrayals.

While his direct claims matching his fictional characterizations of the same historical figures pique reader curiosity to learn what really happened, both his highly personal insights, which history tends to omit or avoid, and the fervent broadcasting of his views ensure that the reader who does conduct individual research will meet only disappointment.

This disappointment will be twofold: You can’t verify the fictionalized accounts, and it will be extremely difficult and therefore time-intensive to find texts whose historians agree with Tolstoy’s overt perspective on historical fact. If Tolstoy’s perspective had been as revolutionary as he no doubt ardently hoped, my experience of history class in grade school would have been very, very different.

If it were one of Tolstoy’s key points to profess that history is subjective and the facts of historical events impossible to know in their truthful essence, then this juxtaposition would work in his favor. But since Tolstoy’s real point is that the typical historians are wrong and he himself is right about what really happened during the French invasion of Russia in 1812, that in fact, the truth is knowable and he knows best how to know it, his political rhetoric and war storytelling undermine his purposes to a noticeable extent.

These elements do diminish the novel’s effectiveness as a cohesive work of art, dulling its beauty that resulted from wholly admirable craft, especially in characterization of invented figures. However, what’s most remarkable to me is that, after all the toggling between philosophy, pontificating, and storytelling, I am nonetheless left with such intense admiration for the fiction in its own right.

Conclusions and Recommendations

War and Peace is a book for many different people from all walks of life. Those not educated past, say, high school may have difficulty understanding any of it—fiction or philosophy—without guidance. The rest will naturally take away things as diverse as their individual perspectives, given the real estate Tolstoy provides for readers to get lost in.

The work as a whole suffers under the weight of its author’s bifurcated ambitions, but simultaneously, a quick scan will tell the story lover or the history lover which parts to focus most on reading. There is much to learn, admire, and discuss about the massive cultural deposit that is War and Peace.

It would be nothing short of astonishing if the admiration, learning, and discussion-worthy content covered a contiguous string of pages from start to finish; as it is, while the whole picture is less complete without a complete read, its quality sinks with a forced reading of every last word.

I agree with my friends who gave me permission, a tacit recommendation, to skip the second, last epilogue. It’s largely extraneous, but I couldn’t skip it myself; I’d come too far not to finish absolutely. The second epilogue’s repetitive, obfuscating philosophy with extended metaphors confuses earlier points when it doesn’t directly contradict them.

In short, Tolstoy could have benefited from either a more insistent editor or a more flexible approach to details for the sake of a publishable whole. But as a text of many volumes, books, and chapters examining in depth the nature of individual humanity and embattled society, War and Peace will always offer something readers can find worth exploring.

War and Peace makes you think, it makes you feel, and it makes the budding writer want to abandon the enterprise. It can also drive natural thinkers a little crazy and lessen the positive effects of thought and feeling by too forcefully insisting upon explicitly intertwining the two. The book would have been a better novel if Tolstoy had simply told the story, and it might have been a better rhetorical treatise without muddling the rhetoric with fictionalization.

In the end, the imperfect, blended product proves to be an intriguing, if sometimes puzzling, exercise and a fascinating cultural artifact for multifaceted study and discussion. While not the best book club selection or high school text, War and Peace may be particularly fruitful in certain specialized college courses in history, Western civilization, world literature, and other fields.

Although I read it over a long summer that lasted from early May to late September, I wouldn’t recommend this for summer reading unless you dislike looking up in the sunshine. And while I started by repeating the diverse-medium approach that I applied to finishing The Count of Monte Cristo, Librivox’s volunteers for War and Peace proved too tedious to stick with and the book itself too long to finish with five library book renewal periods. I resorted to reading most of it on my phone using an epub file, and that worked fine.

To close, again, from Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

If we accept that history is as subjective as fiction, questions about how and how well [Outlander or Tolstoy or anyone] portrays history in fictional form pale in importance to other questions focused separately on history and on fiction. We may be tempted to ask whether something has been misrepresented and how that alteration matters, [but this questioning can only ultimately be] literary criticism.

Art is for everyone to make of what they will. As long as, and to the extent that, history’s facts, to say nothing of its general aura, remain incompletely known and in dispute by the descendants and scholars of opposing sides in a conflict (as well as of purportedly neutral persuasion), the question of accurate representation proves rather subjective, if not altogether moot.

Book-Cover_War-and-Peace_Pevear-Volokhonsky-translation

edition I recommend for print reading


If you enjoyed this review, you may also like:

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Book Review: The Good Earth

The Artist’s Corner – Talking Poetry With Poet Carrie Tangenberg, Part 2

Last week, talented storyteller and fellow blogger H L Gibson asked me to offer some thoughts about poetry, along with an original poem. Here’s Part 2 of 2. ICYMI, see also Part 1.

hl gibson, author

Welcome back to The Artist’s Corner for the second portion of my interview with poet Carrie Tangenberg.  Today, we’ll continue with Carrie’s amazing insight into poetry as well as enjoy one of her original poems.

Why is poetry important?

A literary question for the ages. I can only look through my biased poet’s lens, but I think it’s valuable not just because academia tells us it is.

For me:  Poetry gave me a way to express myself early in life that did not demand absolute clarity or lots of text. I could write what I felt or wanted to feel. I could focus on rhythm and the sounds of words. It didn’t have to make sense to anyone but me, and even then, it took me a long time to be so kind to myself. I used to be quite experimental, moving from puns to invented words and concepts, creating…

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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

On Dreams: A Reblogged Post and Response to The Belle Jar

Dear Belle Jar,

  1. My favorite funny phrase of the week, if not the month: “Sesame Street witness protection program.”
  2. This was the good dream, eh? Seems like this one might be worth dissecting with a therapist as well.
  3. I’m amazed and impressed by how detailed is your recollection of the dream; are you practiced at recording dream content right after you wake? My dreams are vivid, and increasingly realistic, enough to recall fairly well, but your telling was amazing!
  4. Have you ever tried interpreting your own dreams using guide materials? Typically, some insight can be gleaned, if not absolute enlightenment.
  5. I also love the ideas about what babies might dream. Well done.
  6. It takes a lot of courage to share such personal parts of yourself. Kudos and thank you.
  7. Your imagined explanation to the alien race is spot on and rings true for me.
  8. Your writing is excellent. I love how you shape the piece to come full circle back to birth, in light of death.

I guess at bottom most of us are just babies when it comes to dreaming. Helpless, vulnerable, at the mercy of the subconscious. But we can also make meaning out of it in a much more sophisticated way than the unborn ever can, even if it feels terribly inadequate. I encourage you not to give up on making some additional, positive use of your anxious dreaming. I’m still open to the notion that our dreams are just our subconscious mind’s way of trying to send us an important message, or at least one worth exploring.

All of my dreams are anxiety dreams when they’re not apparently meaningless bits of mundane life that I often mistake for things that really happened. Or did they? Lately, they’ve focused almost entirely on past situations in a way that suggests to me I have some unfinished business to resolve, whether with others or just within myself.

I have family with the ability to predict things through dreams, and a friend who can control the action in lucid dreaming. Is deja vu just the recollection of a predictive dream? Surely the space between waking and sleeping desires, fears, and memories is not such a chasm.

As an aside, this reminds me of my post about synchronicity. What is the relationship between apparent coincidence and the subconscious?

Great work. Keep it up.

The Belle Jar

Every morning I wake up tense, my fists clenched and my arms pressed into my chest. It’s as if I’m braced for impact, like I’m about to crash-land into the day. I tell myself that it’s the dregs of the REM paralysis that’s supposed to keep you from acting out your dreams, but that’s probably not right. I mean, I’m sure there’s some kind of science to explain it, I just don’t know what it is.

Sometimes I picture myself trying to explain dreams to an alien race that has never experienced them. Ok, I imagine saying, so for eight hours every night humans lie unconscious and vulnerable while their minds weave complex stories out of their deepest fears, memories and desires. Most humans have no control over what happens in these stories, and often they learn more about themselves than they want to. These stories feel very real while they’re happening, but…

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