Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies

In honor of Black History Month (and the birthday of poet Thylias Moss), here are some ideas and resources for exploring nature poetry–and uses of nature in literature–across the Black* and African diasporas of the Americas.

In nature poetry and environmental literature
Resource

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Camille T. Dungy, ed. Published by University of Georgia Press (2009). The review by Alexa Mergen at the Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing is undated. Here’s a basic description of the anthology, which I just ordered online:

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy, provides 180 windows from 93 poets onto views of nature.”

Ideas
  1. Consider the role of nature in the history of American slavery and other forms of Black oppression and destruction. Examples: trees used for lynchings, rivers for trafficking slaves. Can you hear Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit?” Slave-driven American agriculture appropriated both nature and Africans.
  2. Natural race, racial nature: As with nature-based portrayals of women, white patriarchal literary and other traditions have used nature concepts and imagery to dehumanize, reduce and limit Black experience and existence, under the assumption that nature, too, is to be dominated. On the other side, feminists and scholars have theorized means of liberation through ecofeminism–a blend of feminism and environmentalism. I read Ecological Feminist Philosophies for a course during college. Perhaps I’ll look at nature poetry from a feminist perspective in the future. Jon Claborn recently published a nonfiction work titled Civil Rights and the Environment in African-American Literature, 1895-1941. Camille T. Dungy, referenced above, highly praises the book.
  3. Derek Walcott, an award-winning contemporary Black Caribbean poet, died in March of last year. His book-length poem Omeros, a work I also read–and loved–in college, weaves together language, rhythm, sea and island symbolism, myth, and allegory. The poem’s main purpose is to illuminate the history of colonization and the nature of post-colonial life in St. Lucia, the West Indies.
  4. Wild Africa: poems about nature in Africa, though not necessarily by African poets.
African American poetry resources

Moving beyond the subject of blackness: from the Modern American Poetry series at the University of Illinois, “Furious Flower: African American Poetry, An Overview” by Joanne V. Gabbin:

“Rita Dove, acknowledging her own debt to the Black Arts Movement, said that if it had not been for the movement, America would not be ready to accept a poet who explored a text other than blackness. Unencumbered by a necessarily political message, Dove in her Pulitzer Prize winning book Thomas and Beulah (1987) brings wholeness and elegance to the histories of her grandparents. Dove, who held the post of Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 until 1995, is representative of a large accomplished group of poets who published their first poems during the late 1970s and 1980s: Yusef Komunyakaa, Cornelius Eady, Melvin Dixon, Dolores Kendrick, Thylias Moss, Toi Derricotte, Gloria Oden, and Sherley Anne Williams.”

Dolores Kendrick, Poet Laureate of Washington, D.C., passed away last November. Here is an in memoriam from her southwest D.C. community, including her poem “Epoch.” The Poetry Foundation notes that Kendrick made connections through poetry. She said, “Good poetry does not belong to the poet.”

See also the Academy of American Poets interview with poet Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Asked Gwendolyn Brooks about the Creative Environment in Illinois,” which includes among its subjects the issue of real and perceived neglect of black writers by white anthologists. The absence of Gloria Oden (G. C. Oden) and Sherley Anne Williams from the the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation websites may speak to that neglect, though the Poetry Foundation does include Williams’ profile page. Below is the salient excerpt from the Brooks interview.

Angle: Do you think that the fact that you are a Negro placed you under any handicap in a writing career?

Brooks: If it has, I don’t know about it. Certain things might have happened that I don’t know about, but I can’t say that I have been hindered because of my race in the field of writing. I am not aware of this being true. I have written poems. I have submitted poems to editors and publishers. When the poems were poor they were returned (as a rule!). When they were other than poor they were published. Everything that I have written that I wanted to see published has been published, with the exception of one juvenile which needs a couple adjustments. And for many years I have had writing invitations from editors and publishers.

I have something further to say on the subject, however. I do believe that it is true, as Karl Shapiro says, that many white anthologists will not admit black writers to their pages. Mr. Shapiro wrote (in a foreword to Melvin Tolson’s “Harlem Gallery”): “One of the rules of the poetic establishment is that Negroes are not admitted to the polite company of the anthology. Poetry as we know it remains the most lily-white of the arts.”

There are exceptions to my exception, of course. Sometimes Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and James Weldon Johnson may be found. Sometimes I may be found. Sometimes LeRoi Jones may be found, but never with his best work, which is the poetry of The Dead Lecturer. Never Kent Foreman, Don Lee, Dudley Randall, Margaret Danner, David Lhorens, Ted Joans, G. C. Oden, Julia Fields, Robert Hayden, Conrad Rivers, Owen Dodson, Margaret Walker. (You will find these people in the Negro anthologies, in Hughes’s and Bontemps’s anthologies.)

Poem by an African American

Finally, an excerpt of a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa, the full text of which can be found through the Poetry Foundation and JSTOR:

Excerpted from "Blessing the Animals"
by Yusef Komunyakaa

. . . An elephant daydreams, nudging
ancestral bones down a rocky path,
but won't venture near the boy
with a white mouse peeking
from his coat pocket. Beyond
monkeyshine, their bellows
& cries are like prayers 
to unknown planets & zodiac
signs. The ferret & mongoose
on leashes, move as if they know
things with a sixth sense.
Priests twirl hoops of myrrh. . . .

Bibliography

Academy of American Poets. “We Asked Gwendolyn Brooks about the Creative Environment in Illinois.” Accessed February 27, 2018. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/we-asked-gwendolyn-brooks-about-creative-environment-illinois.

Claborn, John. Civil rights and the environment in African-American literature, 1895-1941. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.

Dungy, Camille T. Black nature: four centuries of African American nature poetry. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.

Gabbin, Joanne V. 2004. Furious flower: African American poetry from the Black arts movement to the present. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. (listing: https://www.worldcat.org/title/furious-flower-african-american-poetry-from-the-black-arts-movement-to-the-present/oclc/52424044 )

“The Furious Flower Conference of 1994 represented the largest gathering of African American writers at one event in nearly 30 years. This work assembles a second selection of works by 43 Furious Flower participants covering three generations. It includes biographies and photographs by C.B. Claiborne of many of the Furious Flower participants.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. “Blessing the Animals,” Poetry, July 1997, 220-21.  Accessed February 27, 2018 through Poetry Foundation and JSTOR. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?volume=170&issue=4&page=39.

Walcott, Derek. Omeros. München: Hanser, 1995.


* Black – The term is here distinguished from “African American” to acknowledge the various groups of black people who (1) did not descend from Africa (any more than all of humanity does, which it does) but are in fact descendants of darker-skinned peoples relatively more native to different parts of, for instance, the Caribbean, in this “Americas” context, and (2) are neither geographically nor culturally American.

The term “Black” is here capitalized as a sign of respect for traditionally subjugated and marginalized groups, who, while not ethnically or culturally homogeneous, tend to have darker skin compared to whites and other people of color, and whom white, majority cultures have oppressed, over the centuries, in large part because of that darker skin. For more on the debate over color labels and their use in type, see “Black and white: why capitalization matters” by Merrill Perlman at Columbia Journalism Review.


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)–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: The Good Earth

Book Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


If you enjoyed this review, you may also like:

Book Review: War and Peace

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Scots: Living Language, Not Bygone Dialect

The Dream of Turning 40

My birthday’s gift to you? Getting personal–one day early.


Each time I’ve thought of this coming birthday, I have heard Meg Ryan’s immortal lines:

“And I'm gonna be forty!”
“When?” asks Harry.
“Some day,” Sally adds weakly.
“In eight years!” Harry reasons.
“Yes, but it's just sitting there like this big dead end. . . .”

As with many of my favorite movies, and even ones I don’t like much, I occasionally hear these movie lines from When Harry Met Sally running through my head as I go about my day. These days, this particular record is broken.

Sally wants a family and has just learned that her several months’ ex-boyfriend Joe is engaged. Harry has gone to her place to comfort her. She’s crying rather hysterically, having shown no signs of grief post-breakup. Finally, the bubble has burst, and Harry and Sally’s friendship takes an irrevocable turn.

What’s my point? Lord knows. But isn’t that a great scene? More entertaining than I find everyday life, which is probably why I live in the cinematic fantasy world a significant portion of the time. (Don’t need the video; it’s all memorized.) Besides, the trauma is happening to someone else. I’m comforted, safe, but it also often means the joy and rapture are more likely found elsewhere. What reward without risk?

My eight years have passed, and 32 more besides. That reminds me, I’ve decided to state my age as “ten and thirty,” as in the days of yore. That sounds much more forgiving. Go for it, 60-year-olds! Say, “I am twenty and forty” or “I am twice thirty.” Sounds younger. I got this idea from my husband, who is nearly 14 months younger than I. Very thoughtful, Dear.

No, my husband is a hoot and adorable, and my parents, bless them, still vital and being parents. But I currently have no pets or children to look after (besides the backyard birds), which is the most accepted form of daily joy. No little ones to amuse me each day, which is, of course, the primary function of kids. Right, parents? Well, maybe not “primary,” but it’s mixed in there with all the exhaustion, stress, bewilderment, and worry.

The truth is I’m on the fence about having kids and have been for a while, but the inevitable alarm bells for presumably fertile women go up in volume a few decibels with the introduction of that dreaded digit “4.” No more thirties, not that I’ll miss the years themselves. No more legitimately falling into the young category. I’m entering that middle zone some refer to as “too young to be old and too old to be young.” Sounds like license for a mid-life crisis, for sure. 

But it’s certainly not a mid-reproductive years crisis. No, if it is a crisis or anything like, it’s that we’re coming down to the wire. As Sally Albright says after “this big dead end,” “and it’s not the same for men. Charlie Chaplin had babies when he was 73.” Harry replies: “Yeah, but he was too old to pick ’em up.” Sally starts to laugh but it returns to sobs.

Generally, women who want children and haven’t found a mate by their mid- to late-30s have more cause for mid-life crisis than men do, but science and evolution give us hope for higher numbers of fertile years and higher survival rates amidst high-risk pregnancies and complications of childbirth. Risk is always there, and danger still increases with age, but the 21st century is patient with late bloomers, whereas even as recently as 150 years ago, unmarried women past their twenties were already doomed to spinsterhood.

Risks and rewards come in many forms, and mean different things for different people. We as a society seem to believe we have no right to seek, let alone expect, healthy challenge or happiness in work or marriage itself or travel or the arts, especially not instead of in reproducing. Shouldn’t we take growth and joy everywhere we can get them?

You might think it depends on whether you’re passive or active in the “getting.” Actively seeking seems more honorable somehow, more adult, more enlightened than waiting for manna from heaven, as if we’re helpless, inert, ineffectual, and faithfully convinced of it. I.e., sheep.

Two movies intercede here. The Sound of Music and She’s Having a Baby, another 80s gem. “The Reverend Mother says you have to look for your life,” Maria tells Captain Von Trapp. And: “What I was looking for was not to be found but to be made,” says Jefferson Edward (“Jake”) Briggs of his wife and newborn son. Love that John Hughes.

Yet, even when we look for and make a life, nothing that results is absolutely great or horrible. Just as important as the issue of seeking actively or passively is to weigh the potential risks and rewards together.

For me, added risks come with carrying and birthing a child. Greatest of these besides age is that, due to inflammatory arthritis, any pregnancy would be considered by clinicians to be “high risk” from the start. I can imagine, have imagined the possible rewards as I watched my friends expand their families and now watch their eldest become teenagers. I’ve made my mental pros and cons lists and thought about all the right and wrong reasons and good and bad ways to have children. I’ve assessed our suitableness for parenthood and the question of passing on hereditary health conditions. Most important, after all that careful consideration and consultation, though, is to feel the desire rise above fear and doubt.

But whatever ends up touching us, however strangely or improbably it happens, however deliberately, desperately, or passionately we reach for it, there it is. It can either be good or bad for us, or both. We receive the good with the bad whether or not we want either of them.

The universe presents good, bad, worse, and better to us sometimes as options from an à la carte menu. The tongs grab the casual sex instead of the terrifying emotional chemistry that means risking great loss. Single woman will take slavery to meddling, co-dependent mother with side of slaw, instead of daunting freedom of looking for life, with unsweetened iced tea. But we always get a full plate. Another memorized movie brings the idea to a head:

“I have this theory of convergence that good things always happen with bad things, and I mean, I know you have to deal with them at the same time, but I don’t know why . . . . I just wish I could work out some sort of schedule. Am I babbling? Do you know what I mean?”

An enamored Lloyd Dobler replies, “No.”

But I got it perfectly! “Diane Court, whoa.” Genius of 1988, valedictorian of the class in Say Anything . . . Weren’t the 80s golden for rom-coms? She finds love just when her father’s life is falling apart. She can’t pick and choose. They both descend unbidden, and neither is going away any time soon. So she does the logical thing and pushes away the good out of loyalty to her lying, thieving father.

We do that sometimes—make self-sabotaging choices, afraid of happiness, scared of the sin of it, especially as others suffer, whether we play any role in their suffering or not. It feels wrong to be happy when loved ones are not. Fortunately . . . perhaps, Diane rights herself, rejecting Dad for Lloyd. The ending is open ended.

Love does not guarantee happiness; the opposite is more likely. But that doesn’t mean we should shun love. Pain is a powerful teacher. Once in a while, we learn something valuable to apply to the future.

Oh so much wisdom can be found in film. Our movie and TV heroes show us how we stumble and how to recover. They demonstrate how it’s done. The best stories at least hint at the fact that it’s an ongoing process, until it’s not.

If we’re lucky, we get to choose to embrace life or embrace death. “Get busy living, or get busy dying,” says Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. Even more fortunate is the blessing of joy in this life. We may make our own happiness. We can certainly try.

Failing that, we can preserve our sense of wonder, mystery, beauty, or hope, even when rapture is out of reach. Even when disability, disease, injury, mistakes, conflict, or loss seems to mock our reaching.

In truth, fortune is fickle, and navigating it takes effort and patience, of initiative and waiting and recovery, and, for some, of praying. It really does seem to be all about the balance.

Whether equilibrium or tipped scales, the balance holds all. A 40-year-old can wobble like a toddler in heart or mind or body. A six-year-old can dispense ancient wisdom effortlessly. A 90-year-old can cut through the bullshit with razor sharpness. Nothing is completely as we might assume. Expect to have your expectations defied.

When you do, the likelihood of it may just increase. Sometimes a taste of the possibilities outside convention opens up the horizon like a star exploding. It’s messy, destructive even, but creative, too. We are all more resilient than we suppose, more capable of renewal and starting fresh after a fall or fallout or the numbing effects of time. I must remember this.

I think about death a lot, particularly my own, and not just because it’s my birthday. I expect to be struck down at any moment, much of the time. Especially any time I get in a car. I don’t really fixate; I just let the thoughts meander through. There’s little to stop them. Sometimes, I think I focus on death as a way to force myself to embrace life more vehemently. Losing grandparents, aunts, uncles, former classmates, and friends hasn’t done the trick. The terror does not yield to carpe diem, and some darkness lingers.

Losing the dog last February, however, brought new emptiness, which I greedily filled with guilty pleasures and renewed ambitions. Seen another way, I dusted myself off and kept going. However, along with vigorous effort and focus comes not just hope, but expectation.

We have no right to expect positive outcomes just because we are open to them or want them or reach for them or demand them. But while we’re here, we might as well try to build and enjoy something that is ours. Few will remember us for long after we’re gone, and eons from now, no one will.

Nowadays, almost as much as I think about death, I wonder about having kids, and my husband and I discuss it periodically (no, not monthly). The questions arise, along with the concerns. Answers are few and indefinite. In short, neither desire nor aversion has yet won.

People like to say, “It’s never too late,” but frankly, for everything, one day it will be. The line cavalierly sanctions procrastination of major life decisions. It’s little different from “There’s always tomorrow,” but that may truly never come, and one day, it just won’t. Do now, be now. All we know for sure is now. Do what, you ask? What is most true to yourself. This notion has become a trend and may now be somewhat out of fashion.

I’ve read my share of self-help books, most before the age of 30, and some have pearls of wisdom I’ve tucked away. You may know one that says, “Your mission in life is where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (I won’t say which one; I’m promoting movies, not books, today.) In reading these, and favoring this quote, I’ve trained myself to be alert to my inner truth and its expression, and it seems to be working as I work. I don’t seek out those kinds of books anymore; too many better options await my attention.

If we all cop out or settle to some degree and at some point, or even if only most of us do, it’s no great tragedy. On the other hand, if we ignore our soul’s longing completely, it may not be a mortal sin, but it could become a terminal regret. My fear of regret keeps me asking important questions such as, How can I make the most of my life? What am I meant to do?

Like today, even tomorrow may be nothing but a dream. In that case, I choose to embrace the dream, and the dreams within it. I’ve made it this far. I survived. I fulfilled the dream of turning 40. It’s a milestone, a benchmark, a signpost, a weigh station (I try not to stop at those). As if life is an aging contest or some sort of race to the finish, as if the finish line were not death itself.

Age is a sort of accomplishment in our culture. For people with, say, a terminal illness or violent household, this may well be true. Obviously, war-torn countries are so described because of death and maiming, where celebrating survival may become almost necessity. Still, in places and times of relative peace, we celebrate birthdays from year one forward, and in weeks and months before that. When birthdays are used to celebrate life and becoming, it makes sense to add some hoopla.

Otherwise, encountering another year really isn’t much of an achievement. This time, a song borrows the old adage: “Wisdom doesn’t follow just because you’ve aged.” Experience doesn’t guarantee learning. “Been there, done that” doesn’t mean you’re really any better off than someone who hasn’t. So don’t gloat so much, old fogie.

I’m certainly not done yet, not done trying to “fulfill” my “potential.” At some point, you’ve got to deliver, Dodo-head, or find yourself going the way of the dodo. And who would mourn the loss? The inability to evolve, to persevere, maintain a foothold on earth, on behalf of your species? To represent! I always feel that pressure to achieve, to make a difference, to leave a legacy, but with long-term pressure, I risk overcooking.

One side of you is saying, “And so you should.” And perhaps: “How selfish of you, how typical, to lament the inevitable passage of time, to make excuses for not using yours wisely. More selfish still, just spending (wasting) the time thinking about it because you ‘have the time’ to do so.” That’s my projected criticism from all those busy family people my age who don’t have such a “luxury,” the disapproval from the other voices in my head.

Why do I choose to look at it this way? Is that motivating? Even with these last quote marks, my defiance comes through. “I am what I am and that’s all that I am,” says Popeye. It’s a defiance to convention, conformity, being ordinary. It’s an insistence on forgiving myself for not being perfectly healthy, at my ideal weight, in shape, and bursting with energy while also juggling two jobs, a home, and children. Besides, I do juggle many parts of a busy life.

I defy contempt for privilege, I defy the progressive insistence that moral rightness means impoverishing oneself in the name of equality, and I defy the stigma and misconceptions about writers’ and artists’ lives. I could do office work, and I have done lots of it. I could do manual labor if I really, really had to, but I don’t. Now I work to be an artist, I teach for some income, and, thanks to my husband, I’m not starving. There, I said it.

Of course I would consider writing about, which requires dwelling upon, turning 40. I am a writer. And what’s more, a writer in a culture accustomed to celebrating and obsessing about birthdays. I’ve often thought that I am better suited to life as a free-wheeling scholar from the Age of Enlightenment or something than to traditional, modern-era work. Rather than snub the blessing, I embrace the chance to be just that kind of scholar and writer, while still working toward greater individual contributions to our income.

I usually try to keep my defiance in check in my writing, never wanting to seem too selfish, self-righteous, self-absorbed, too forthright, feminist, emotional, emotionalist, or otherwise stereotypically female, except in jest. But also because I claim a cherished penchant for reason and logic. True, the suppression is a bit neurotic, but, hey, awareness is the first step.

I really like that first step. I walk it all the time. It’s an infinite loop, as though I have one leg much shorter than the other and am walking in circles. Selfish –> anxious about it –> neurotic about anxiety –> selfishly neurotic. It’s oh so productive.

Suppressing defiance or anger, though, just comes across as being cold, rigid, emotionally distant, or, perhaps worse, dishonest. Unlikely I’m fooling anyone but me.

Defiance leaks out, anyway, eventually, in other contexts, the rest that I have—tutoring, friends, family. I’m human and American. Overall, I like to think my students and loved ones are pleased with me despite my egocentric leanings. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

Maybe I shouldn’t try so hard to defy expectation and to be different. The effort has become its own sort of tedious convention. Those who know me have come to expect it. Who, in the end, is truly 100 percent original? We are creatures of habit, pattern, and imitation. Relax a little when faced with things you really can’t change. Do everything in moderation, even moderation. Let loose on occasion. Balance.

And so, I revel in the riches of imagination, in all its forms, mediums, shapes, and colors. “God is in the rain,” says Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta. In nature, in reverie, in reflection. That’s where God lives for me. Where I can find something of grace, of beauty, of serenity, invigoration, balance. It is my universe. I can touch it, see it, hear it, taste it, examine it, love or hate it, reject or accept it.

We all need ways to shelter ourselves from the certainty of death, at least long enough to invest in our lives and to dream new dreams. The only soul I have to live with is this living, sensing one. I mean to do right by it. Invest in the balance, and then, “wait and hope,” as the Count of Monte Cristo says. And smile.

My new dream? Only one of many: the chance to see how I feel about all this at age 50. What of effort, deepest joy, money, ego, pain, employment, God, imagination, kids, limits, convention, neurosis, the world’s hunger, potential, balance, or wisdom then? I hope I’ll see–and hear those movie lines calling.


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graduate school graduation, age 31, or “ten and 21”

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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