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”

Adapted Bawdy Lyrics: Outlander TV Series, Episode 114, “The Search”

Caution: This post contains old-time and foreign, though no less explicit, lyrics.

If you read my last post “Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy” and wondered what the TV version lyrics of this naughty song were, I’ve added below what I could best discern from watching and listening. The earlier post includes a Scots terms glossary for both song versions. Also note that no details of Claire’s singing appear in the book; this content is unique to the show.

Stop_quoting_bible_Claire_drag_Murtagh_stage_TheSearch.gif

Here are Outlander Starz TV‘s adapted lyrics of traditional Scots bawdy song “The Reels o Bogie.” Arranged to the tune of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” featured in Season 1, Episode 114, “The Search,” and sung by actor Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser in drag, or as Murtagh puts it, “a Sassenach lady dressed as a laddie”:

Scene 1

[As stage fright hits her, Claire prefaces her performance with a 20th-century expletive, omitted here]

Verse 1:

Here’s to all you lads and lasses that go out this way.

Be sure to tip your coggie when you take her out to play.

The lads and lasses toy and kiss.

The lads never think what they do is amiss.

Because there’s Kent, and Keen, and there’s Aberdeen,

And there’s nane [none] as muckle as Strath-bogie-wogie.

Verse 2:

For every lad’ll wander just to have his lass,

And when they see a pintle rise, they’ll raise a glass,

And rowe about their wanton een.

They dance the reel as the troopers go over the lea.

Because there’s Kent, and Keen, and there’s Aberdeen,

And there’s nane as muckle as Strath-bogie-wogie.

A-root, a-toot, a-rooty a-doot….

Scene 2 (continuation)

[scatting]

He giggled, goggled me.

He was a banger.

He sought the prize between my thighs,

became a hanger.

[next is only a partially audible stanza as attention shifts to the crowd where Murtagh makes inquiries about Jamie Fraser]

[something] muckle chump [?]

I suppled both the ends…. [per 6th stanza of the original song (see link from previous post for details)] [something, something] boogie

[refrain repeats:]

Because there’s Kent, and Keen, and there’s Aberdeen,

But there’s nane as muckle as the Strath-bogie-wogie.

[Claire signals instrumental accompaniment to halt for her a capella finale:]

No, there’s nane as muckle as the wanton toun of Strathbogie.

Credits: song by Don Raye and Hughie Prince (1941), brought to popular culture by the Andrews Sisters; lyrics based on “The Reels o Bogie” and adapted by the writers and producers at Outlander Starz and Sony Pictures Television.

For fascinating insights into the score created for what he calls Outlander’s “trilogy” of episodes concluding with “The Search,” visit series composer Bear McCreary’s Outlander site at the following page: http://www.bearmccreary.com/#blog/blog/outlander-lallybroch-the-watch-the-search/. He emphasizes the ever-present Scottish folk elements in these episodes of the series.

To learn the meaning of these adapted lyrics and to access and learn about the original—much naughtier—song lyrics, see my earlier post: “Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy.”

To see and hear the adapted song and lyrics in action (totally worth it), catch re-runs of the episode “The Search,” showing this week on Starz, or stream it online. Mature audiences only.


For more posts using Scots and/or Scottish Gaelic terms for body parts, or trippy poems about mammals and stones (and possibly some stoned mammals), try:


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Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy

Caution: Post contains old-time, though no less explicit, lyrics.

As a demonstration of the extent of my obsession with Outlander these days (largely what has been keeping me from blogging), here is an in-depth look at the words and music re-purposed for the most recent episode of the Starz TV adaptation.

Just as the main characters Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) of author Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series are both funnier and (he) more brutish than their TV series counterparts, the real Scottish bawdy song upon which the song used in the most recent episode, “The Search,” was based is both longer and raunchier. And yet, ramping up the humor this time, Caitriona Balfe’s and Duncan LaCroix’s (Murtagh Fraser) performances evoked guffahs galore from this avid viewer.

“It’s a bonny tune, but you need a Scottish song,” says Murtagh to Claire’s attempt to help him improve his show by singing to him her own century’s “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” I loved the screenwriters’ innovation of using the tune as the anachronistic foundation for Claire’s provocative, though reluctant, cross-dressing performance meant to summon her missing husband Jamie. Oh, the things we do for love. I would be equally interested to hear the tune of the original Scottish folk song (still looking for a recording with words). If you find that, let me know.

Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser playing

Actor Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser in drag, Outlander Starz TV episode 114, “The Search.” Image credit Sony Pictures Television

Before you bugger off to the link of the song lyrics farther down the page, here’s a quick glossary of Scottish dialect and slang terms to help you enjoy their full effect. This list draws upon both the Scots Glossary at The Mudcat Cafe and the Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL), as well as Wikipedia and Dictionary.com. The rest of the commentary is my interpretive opinion.

abootadv., about

baithadj, both

bogien., can mean outhouse, or boogie man, or cooking galley of a fishing boat (among other meanings), but is more likely a reference to the River Bogie (from Wikipedia): Note: Mention of Aberdeen in the tune helps to confirm this interpretation, though it’s possible there is double meaning intended in the song.

“The River Bogie (Scottish Gaelic: Balgaidh), also known as the Water of Bogie, is a river in NW Aberdeenshire in the north east of Scotland. Starting with the confluence of the Craig and Corchinan burns (57.2943°N 2.8910°W), near the parish of Auchindoir and Kearn, the River Bogie flows northeast for about 11 miles through Strathbogie (see entries for strath and Strathbogie below) to Rhynie and Huntly.” – Wikipedia

The TV episode’s rendition of the song refers to “the wanton toun (pron. toon) of Strathbogie,” and the Burns collection’s version refers to both the “reels of Bogie” and the “toun of Strathbogie.”

cluen., a ball of wool; fig., property, wealth, prize. In context, a sewing euphemism for sex: “bobbin on my wanton clue.” See entry for reel below.

coggien., diminutive of “cog,” meaning cup, vessel (according to the Scots dictionary). Also, a cog as “a gearwheel, esp a small one” or “any of the teeth or projections on the rim of a gearwheel or sprocket– from Dictionary.com’s listing of British Dictionary definitions. The association with spinning wheels matches the other metaphors in the song.

Its use in the TV version of the tune, “tip yer coggie,” suggests the male’s sexual agency. This imagery is similar to that used in the film Shakespeare in Love when Viola dressed as a man finds herself in a brothel being urged to “dip your wick” (as of a candle) into the “flame” of a prostitute’s loins. The wording in the online song lyrics, “tip her coggie,” however, suggests accessing the woman’s sex; thus, the notion of a woman’s vagina as “cup” or “vessel,” tipped to whichever parts of the male he chooses. Ahem….

daev., do

eenn., pl., eyes

langadj., adv., long

mairadj., adv., more

muckleadj., great, huge, tall; good (the word appears in the episode only)

pintlen., “a pin or bolt, especially one on which something turns, as the gudgeon of a hinge.” – Dictionary.com. Metaphor for penis. See entries for clue and reel.

reeln., “a cylinder, frame, or other device that turns on an axis and is used to wind up or pay out something.” In the song, a type of dance, associated with weaving and spinning, emphasizing this kind of pattern and movement (i.e., “dance the reel”). “Chiefly British. a spool of sewing thread; a roller or bobbin of sewing thread.” See entry for clue above. A metaphor for the sex act. Quoted definitions come from Dictionary.com.

rowev., to roll

snawn., snow

sochtv., sought

spreidv., spread

Strathbogien., “the old name of Huntly, Scotland, and the strath to the south of it” – Wikipedia

strath – n., “A strath is a large valley, typically a river valley that is wide and shallow (as opposed to a glen which is typically narrower and deep).[1]  An anglicisation of the Gaelic word srath, it is one of many that have been absorbed into common use in the English language. It is commonly used in rural Scotland to describe a wide valley, even by non-Gaelic speakers.” – Wikipedia

For the song’s purposes, the name of the town itself may also serve as a sexual metaphor, in the sense of its wideness and openness, i.e., lasciviousness or moral looseness.

thiesn., pl., thighs

tounn., town

I think the rest is reasonably discernible from context.

The atmosphere created by the sum of the lyrics is one of wild, whirling entertainment featuring drink, dance, the overt mechanisms of the sexual act, and a lust insatiable beyond “staying power.” The song relates the town of Strathbogie as a notorious den of reckless, extravagant (“wanton”) pleasure taking.

And without further delay, the Scottish bawdy folk song “The Reels of Bogie,” as retrieved online from pages 2 and 3 in the collection titled Merry Muses of Caledonia by famous Scots poet Robert Burns. Note that “The Reel of Bogie” is also claimed and played as an Irish folk song.

Actor Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser in drag singing

Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser in drag singing “The Reels o Bogie,” image credit Sony Pictures Television

To read the version of the song lyrics adapted for the episode, see my other post on this topic: Adapted Bawdy Lyrics: Outlander TV Series, Episode 114, “The Search.”

To locate the whole region that was once a town in Scotland, see Strathbogie on a map in the district of Aberdeenshire.

For a comprehensive look at Scots music and cultural tradition, visit Scots Language Centre.

Catch the next and likely so-far darkest episode of Outlander on Starz this Saturday at 9pm EDT. Brace yourself, though. The omnipresence of the sex motif, so playfully explored in “The Search,” takes a turn into the disturbingly perverse in “Wentworth Prison.” #BlackJackIsBack


If you’re enjoying learning some Scots, you might like more posts using Scottish Gaelic terms for body parts, or analyzing trippy Scots poems about mammals and stones (and possibly some stoned mammals):

For more Shakespearean/Elizabethan jive:

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