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


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Book Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Although this one wasn’t for my classics book club, I have wanted to read it for years. As a play, it’s a relatively quick read, so I was able to tuck it in among other readings.

Spoilers possible.

A Streetcar Named Desire may be a better, more entertaining play than The Glass Menagerie, but together they suggest a pattern of playwright fixation on the destruction of fragile, helpless women at the hands of hapless or hostile men. Yet, although critics claim that Stanley is the catalyst for Blanche’ s tragedy, I see undeniable, culpable shades in the sorrows of sister Stella and would-be husband Mitch. Besides these influences, a case can be made that Blanche needs little nudging by anyone to plunge her into her ultimate abyss, a place she seems headed for from the start. Either way, the question is posed clearly before the tragedy is complete: Who is to blame?

The tragic arc is a twisted tree root. Plunging through the rich soil of clever, careful staging, eerie overlays of music and echoed sounds, and crisp, character-making dialogue, the reader (not just the playgoer) falls irrevocably into the suffocating depths of a taut, primal, sensual plot. With his usually detailed stage directions, Williams also leaves nothing in the production plan to chance, while his storytelling strikes a delicate balance by revealing just enough both to engage and to mystify his audience.

The emotional effects of these elements for Blanche are a haunting by the past that cannot be shaken and a shackling by her imagination that stunts her growth. Her character is static in the course of the play as the distance between the danger and the fall proves all too short. Stanley, likewise, is static, and so they come together like immovable object and unstoppable force. The intriguing question for me is what change must occur in Stella beyond the play’s ending as a result of this close family tragedy, with one member the victim and the other, the perpetrator. Stella, at least, has dynamic potential as collateral damage.

cover_A-Streetcar-Named-Desire_images.duckduckgo.com

Penguin Modern Classics edition book cover

Still, none of the main characters reads as a monotone stereotype; they themselves get to play with those concepts as they size each other up. The tension permeating the play stems from perceptions of class differences, ethnic backgrounds, sexual attraction, and affectations brought into sharp relief by the visit of Blanche DuBois to her sister and brother-in-law’s small apartment during a typically oppressive New Orleans summer.

The result is a smoldering tragedy without a clear path as to how it might have been avoided. Remarkable paradox comes through Williams’ writing: Stella, Stanley, and Blanche all prove to be decent people even as their inflexible selfishness, by turns, renders them on many levels indecent–and ultimately inhumane–to one another.

Raw, obvious character flaws, especially Stanley’s, do contribute to the mess, however. His inherent roughness of manner, speech, action, and mere presence directly feed and elicit Blanche’s carefully constructed delicacies, charms, snobbery, and veneer of the victim. They could hardly be more different, and as foils, these opposites both attract and repulse.

Like the down-to-earth Stanley, the reader knows upon meeting her not to take Blanche at face value, but as we get to know her, we begin to empathize with, if not believe in, Blanche DuBois. When Stanley finally exposes her past sins, the whole truth of them is doubtful, they are inextricable from her suffering, and we see that both Stanley and Stella can be right about her sister in their opposing views.

Blanche is a menace being treated unfairly.

An emotional atmosphere of steamy New Orleans chaos reigns over the play. Ripples of racist overtones, sexism, raw sensuality, crime, vice, and class prejudice collide and reinforce one another to disrupt the characters’ moral compasses. Danger vibrates constantly just beneath the surface, and I kept expecting brawl, beating, or suicide around the next corner. Peripheral scenes foreshadow ultimate conflict as violence escalates, but it’s all very restrained, held in check for the bulk of the story, which makes each scene all the more intriguing.

The shock of the penultimate act of violence, committed between active scenes, can resolve into either the satisfaction of poetic justice or an indignation against grave injustice, a verdict that rings loudly through the end. The ensuing resolution is also unequivocally sad, and we even get a moral from the perfect, trembling lips of Blanche DuBois. Coming from her, the line “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is both ironic caution and sad testament to a frail psyche.

This is one of the few plays I’ve read besides Shakespeare that so strongly compels me to seek out a production to watch this very minute. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams exposes seedy corners of mid-twentieth-century American society and equally dark corners of its minds and hearts. First, he is the realistic, impartial painter of human coarseness, failure, beauty and love. Then, in affecting lyrical form, he hints at judgment of all these through their close, unflinching examination. In his complex process, Williams has crafted a true literary and theatrical treasure.

Five out of five stars.

Learn about the 1951 film version at A Streetcar Named Desire.


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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