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”

Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Matthew Thorburn. A pressed post.

A post linked at bottom from the blog http://memoriousmag.wordpress.com, companion to Memorious: A Journal of New Verse and Fiction, has moved and intrigued me. It also intersects with my own blog’s areas of poetry, nature, travel, art, and reviews.

Sara A. Lewis reviews Matthew Thorburn’s book-length poem Dear Almost and presents Leslie Harrison’s interview with the poet. An epistle in four parts parallel to the four seasons, the book is about the loss of Thorburn’s unborn daughter to miscarriage.

Some of the review and discussion’s elements that caught my especial attention and urged me today to pursue the book:

  • a cultural tradition unfamiliar to me – classical Chinese poetry and Chinese language (Mandarin) through wife Lillian’s family and their 3-year-old son learning Chinese
  • the notion of the “season suite” – A book-length poetic form brewing for Thorburn (though not consciously as a form) found its subject, and the book was born.
  • the raw, peculiar experience of loss and grief for a forming but unborn child her father will never meet – This recalls for me actor Caitriona Balfe’s deeply affecting performance as Claire Fraser in episode 207, “Faith,” of the Outlander STARZ TV series (series 2 based on Gabaldon’s 2nd book Dragonfly in Amber), when Claire learns her first child, a daughter, was stillborn.
  • Thorburn’s relationship with Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, a favorite poet of mine – a coupling of attentiveness with deep, restrained emotion
  • using haiku as bookends to a longer poetic passage
  • the interviewer’s incisive sophistication and the poet’s elegant thoughts

The interview is a bit of subtle theater emulating the kind they finish it discussing–how epistolary works hold readers at bay as the audience overhears a conversation between others.

Matthew Thorburn’s fourth full-length collection, Dear Almost, has recently been released by Louisiana State University Press. A book-length poem broken into sections that correspond to the four se…

Source: Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Matthew Thorburn |

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath

The third post in this series shared an earnest celebration of nature’s boundless beauty. Now we shift from Wordsworth in early nineteenth-century England to America’s Plath in the mid-twentieth century. As summer ends and the harvest season looms, my fourth feature in this series of nature verse by famous poets examines a far from Romantic attitude toward nature’s evident abundance.


The Poet: Sylvia Plath’s confessional poetry operates with turbulent incisiveness that often deftly exposes the true nature of life, poetry, relationships, and death, consistently with an intense gaze through the lens and at the subject of self. This biographical article at the Poetry Foundation website draws upon many literary voices observant of her life, work and legacy to demonstrate poet-human Plath as an invigorating, tragic, and ultimately fascinating figure.

Style and Subject: Although written in the midst of her struggles with mental health like most of her poems, “Blackberrying” is one of her more docile ventures into nature both experienced and hoped for. Plath selects details that speak to a clash, or perhaps a dance, between the not-so-charming wild and an even more dulling civilization. In the process, she shares her half-hearted, reluctant, and doubtful anticipation of encountering a grand natural scene.

Story: The narrative arc of the poem reveals a perspective teetering on the fence–or blackberry alley–between hope and despair, in which the speaker tries to shield herself from imminent disappointment by lowering her gaze and her expectations.

Form: The poem’s free verse with irregular but predominantly long lines conveys the speaker’s vacillating emotional journey as she describes her forward movement among the blackberries.

The Poem: Excerpts of the 27-line poem “Blackberrying” by Sylvia Plath (1961):

Lines 1-7:
Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,   
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers. 

Lines 14-16:
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.

Lines 20-22:
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,   
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt. . . .

To read the entire poem, go here.

Theme: Whatever the subject or setting (this one is probably the English coast), common threads in Plath’s work are the circumlocutions of the mind and the meanderings of the heart. But the lines in “Blackberrying” are no less charming for the contradictions and ambivalence they portray. In fact, in Plath’s and other writers’ works, such tensions often add a kind of freshness that further engages the reader.

Figurative Devices: She personifies the blackberries, the flies (lines not shown), the wind, and the hills, a choice which at once signifies her human loneliness and suggests the power and value she sees in natural elements. On the flip side, Plath points out the absurdity of nature’s abundance in her description of the blackberries’ attributes–“big,” “dumb,” “fat” things that “squander” their resources.

Language and Sound: The poem’s simple diction delivers a direct but subdued tone, creating a sad mood. Alliterative phrasing (“bush of berries,” “bluegreen bellies”) and internal rhyme (“thumb” and “dumb”; “green,” “screen,” “between,” and back to “green”) then elevate the spirit by infusing the poem with wry humor and mild amusement, which I envision as the speaker’s half-smile.

Plath’s use of echoing repetition builds reader suspense (repeated words like “nothing,” “blackberries,” “bush,” and “hills”) and conveys both an insistent plea and its futility. Like a fist loudly banging on the door of a locked and empty house, she will not be let in.

Plath’s plural nouns communicate abundance, but their repeated final “z” sound also calls attention to the buzzing of flies (which also suggests death) and the hum of the speaker’s anticipation of something more.

Your turn. After reading the above excerpts or the whole poem, consider:

What else do you notice about the poem? Are there: Surprising images? Sensory details? Subtle hints of things? Stark revelations? Simile? Metaphor? Oxymoron? Other devices?

What feelings does this poem seem to express or stir in you?

Which lines or phrases make you smile or gasp or wonder?

Does the poem show its age, or is it timeless?

Since poetry is usually best read aloud, here is a series of audio recordings of Sylvia Plath reading her own poems. Although these do not include “Blackberrying,” you may still be able to hear her intense mind and emotions coming across. Listen and see!

Do you have a favorite Sylvia Plath poem? Which one?

Comments are welcome.


ICYMI: See the starting point of this series on nature poetry by famous poets 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”

Would you like to recommend a sample of nature poetry for future posts? Let me know about it. I’m considering poems by W. B. Yeats, Percy Shelley, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson, and others, but you can help me choose!

I’ve noticed a trend of all-white, western European-descendent people in my series, so I’m also looking for nature poems by American and global Blacks (Rita Dove? Derek Walcott?), Hispanics, eastern Europeans, Middle Eastern ethnic groups (Rumi anyone?), and Asians (Indian, Chinese, Japanese–haiku is all about nature–etc.), and surely I should be able to find some Native American nature poetry, perhaps in the form of songs. Many cultures have wildlife-based creation myths.

Help dispel my ignorance!

Note: Poets writing in English or poems translated into English only, please. Thanks.