Book Review: East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, a book review

BookCover_East-of-Eden_Penguin-Steinbeck

Caution: This review may contain spoilers.

Maybe I shouldn’t read others’ reviews of a book before I write my own. Having read one extremely negative review of a book I rather loved has me on the defensive, coiled to spring with rebuttal fangs. Why did I read the review in the first place?

It started by looking at any reviews and then by noticing the number of stars in each review’s rating on Goodreads.com. From there, from seeing only one star on the review, it was a blend of intrigued indignation, morbid curiosity, and that creeping doubt of my own sound judgment as a reader that induced me to “read more.” I asked myself what I missed and thought maybe this reader could tell me.

O, ye of significant reading experience, intuitive literary thinking, English literature teacher training and three years’ teaching experience, studious involvement in a classics book club, a writer’s view of writing, and reasonable intelligence and good taste, how little faith you have!

No, I don’t know everything and never thought I did, but knowledge is different from evaluation, discernment, analysis. Credentials don’t guarantee the ability to look with an open mind, but I brought both to this reading experience. I followed an intelligent woman’s, a friend’s, passionate recommendation to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Having read it more than a few years after that recommendation, I am so far from regret, it is hard to fathom any literary soul hating this book. And yet such people exist. Then again, they exist for all great, good, or popular books. That is not my concern. All I can say is I am glad that the reviewer I mentioned did not have the power to keep East of Eden, or any other beloved books, from me.

East of Eden is not my favorite book. I have enjoyed some books more than Steinbeck’s, even this year, novels such as Howards End by E. M. Forster and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. But East of Eden is a very good book. Wait a minute. Am I tamping down my fervor because it’s uncouth to be enthusiastic about literature? Am I curbing my enthusiasm for the sake of appearances? Am I modulating my response because not all books can be “the best”? In a word, yes. I’m putting on my professional, objective, scholarly hat to prevent myself from looking ridiculous with glee. I’m judging a book for the public’s benefit by direct assessment and by comparing it with other books I’ve read.

On one hand, there is this empathy for the author, being a writer myself, that turns me away from harsh criticism. On the other hand, I feel the responsibility of a writer for the public, even my small cadre of readers, to be as objective as possible. But what it comes down to is that I really did like the book; I cannot force that view into objectivity. And what’s so bad about passionate love for a book or for an author’s writing, anyway? Well, one might argue, love is blinding. We cannot see the real truth of a book’s merit once we fall in love with it. This is the dilemma of subjectivity. But let’s start with the objective lens.

Premise and Opening

A book about families, about people and their relationships to each other and to their land, era, and wider society, it is not just a novel, not a work of pure invention; it’s also a memoir of John Steinbeck’s family history. The narrative is based on real people if not entirely true events or details, and the narrator places himself in that context as the son of Ernest and Olive Steinbeck of Salinas, California.

The story begins with the place, the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck takes his time setting the scene and presenting in brief the region’s history before introducing any characters. This exposition is gradual but interesting, logically ordered and beautifully rendered. It’s an opening that invites the reader to settle in for an epic by making the surroundings visible and cozily American. Yet, some of the description of the hardships inherent in trying to farm the Salinas Valley reminds the reader of Grapes of Wrath‘s depiction of Dust Bowl Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Summary and Genre

The story involves the lives of these people from the 1860s until the end of World War I. The Hamiltons, emigrating from Ireland, are Steinbeck’s ilk. He introduces them with the memoirist’s caveats of partial memory and reliance on hearsay and imagination for a full picture. In the next chapter, there is no caveat, and presentation of the Trask family reads at first like pure fiction. Moving to California from Connecticut, the Trasks serve as the focus of the author’s allegorical exploration of humanity through the lens of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel.

Genre sets a reader’s expectations of a book’s characteristics: A novel should have a good plot, and a memoir should be true to the writer’s life and emotions. One could argue that both should have good plots and human truths. As a novel, a memoir, and a genre bender, East of Eden accomplishes both ends. Switching between families throughout, the book starts with Hamilton and ends with Trask. While not formulaic or tidily paced, the plot of East of Eden follows the life story of the narrator’s grandfather Samuel Hamilton and his family, as well as three generations in the family of his grandfather’s neighbor and friend, Adam Trask.

Point of View and Characters

Steinbeck maintains the occasional sharing of a personal viewpoint on the Hamiltons and eventually inserts first-person voice into parts of the Trasks’ story. These latter characters all receive space in which to express themselves, through third-person omniscient point of view and the free indirect style of stating a character’s thoughts as straight narration, instead of using italics or quotes.

On the Trask side, there are three archetypal “C” characters, and three archetypal “A” characters, and yet, the author draws them all uniquely. Cathy is one fascinating specimen. Adam is almost as enigmatic. Charles, his brother, and Cal, his son, provide flickers of the wicked streak that Cathy fully embodies. Adam, his son Aron, and Abra, Aron’s girlfriend, symbolize sweetness, goodness, and beauty, and also the illusions that accompany the good soul’s initial experience of the world.

Employing memoir but leaning toward fiction, the book showcases Steinbeck’s skill with invention and description, even of characters. In one chapter, he provides a signal that he is imagining Cathy a certain way and then proceeds to develop intimate anatomical and physiological details of her pregnancy that no one who would actually ever speak about it really knew or observed.

That section starts, “I’ve built the image in my mind of Cathy, sitting quietly, waiting for her pregnancy to be over, living on a farm she did not like, with a man (Adam) she did not love.” These bare foundational facts prove true to the story’s outcomes, but as with most memoirs, the specifics of the story are subject to faulty memory, incomplete records, insufficient research because dead people can’t answer questions, and so on.

So how can we trust any character details in a memoir-novel? At bottom, we really can’t. We have to treat all aspects equally—those not observable by visitors to west central California or witnessed by current or former residents in the past. That is, we must treat those details as almost fully invented. It’s the only “safe” approach to maintain suspension of disbelief where needed and sustain basic belief in the author’s credibility generally.

The experienced reader of classic fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and other forms is more likely to understand that the narrator is a character in the story, too, a persona being drawn, just like other characters. None are trustworthy; all operate from their own motives and agendas with imperfect humanity. I’ll get into flaws in Steinbeck’s narration later on. Back to characters for now.

Then, there’s Lee. The most compelling and unexpected character, his personality and initiative receive free rein with Adam as his master and, later, his non-romantic family partner. An educated, well-spoken Chinese immigrant, Lee’s Pidgin-speaking habits for the public’s benefit he drops not long into the story. Lee is the glue that holds the Trask family together, and he becomes the surrogate mother figure to Adam’s twin boys.

In connecting Sam Hamilton’s and Adam Trask’s world views, Lee presents the book’s central theme of the importance of recognizing one’s free will when the path seems as predestined as a Biblical story. Some themes, like this one, announce themselves overtly while others percolate more subtly within the story.

Between Chinese labor camps, soldiering to control Indians on the western frontier, World War I, the stubborn poverty of the Hamiltons, and the accursed riches of the Trasks, these characters all experience degrees of great hardship, family tragedy, and personal struggles with their identities, their moral fiber, and the temperamental nature of love.

Steinbeck focuses on portraying their lives and thoughts without judging them, and yet he pulls no punches in revealing the follies that keep the Hamiltons poor or in fleshing out characters’ weaknesses as much as their strengths. The peculiar Hamiltons are depicted ultimately as beaten down by life, and in emphasizing the Trasks, also experienced in tragedy, Steinbeck urges the reader to invest in their hopes and dreams.

Plot and Structure

Steinbeck could have written this book as a series of vignettes or short stories, but he connects the stories end to end and across the text, tying them back to place or theme or his personal experience growing up among many of these characters. Presenting a solid chronology of family development and activity, the author uses no fancy flashbacks or flashes forward in time.

The first half of the book tells the stories of the first generations and their impacts on the book’s central characters. Charles and Adam Trask grow up as very different people receiving love unequally from their brusque, military father Cyrus in rural Connecticut. They are half brothers, each losing his mother before his maturity. Adam is sent to the army without wanting to go, but Charles is kept at home despite wanting to fight.

They eventually inherit an unexpected sum from their father. While working their childhood farm, Adam struggles to come to terms with life after the military and the implications of the inheritance, but Charles moves deliberately forward without fully grasping his character and purpose. The second half of the book follows Adam to the west coast.

Samuel and Liza Hamilton are the maternal grandparents of the narrator, and the book explores their large family’s relationships and how they cope differently with conditions of poverty on a farm in the Salinas Valley of California. The Hamiltons have no fewer than nine children (in rough age order)—Lizzie, George, Mollie, Will, Olive, Tom, Dessie, Una, and the youngest, Joe.

A few of them die young after suffering physical and mental anguish in their adult lives, and the death of a favorite permanently breaks another family member’s heart, taking some of his spirit away. “The Hamiltons were strange, high-strung people, and some of them were tuned too high and they snapped. This happens often in the world,” Steinbeck tells us, almost too obviously. Samuel is their story’s focus.

Steinbeck uses his ink rather wisely, creating a lengthy saga that meanders and sometimes drags with anecdotes but never strays off point, even in slower parts, because place and moment are pillars of the novel. He takes his time to develop a home for the story to live in, to grow in, to breathe in. This approach creates a book for the reader to invest in, and the returns are substantial, numerous, varied, and beautiful.

Central World and Theme

The contextual tapestry emerges with grace, setting the background for subsequent insight on events and characters. Featured through the narrative are things like the advent of the automobile, farming practices, brothels, the military draft, the nature of small-town life, and WWI attitudes toward local Germans. Religious themes are grounded in human realism, which elevates religious insight to the level of Biblical awe like the relief of the Gabilan Mountains and Santa Lucias rising on either side of the valley.

East of Eden is a story about legacy and its rejection, about differences confronted and either conquered or reinforced, about the messiness of life and the forgiveness of love. It is large in scope and detailed in development. The signature word of the novel, the Hebrew translation of a key passage from Genesis, is “Timshel,” which means “Thou mayest.” It says the way is open, you are free, and you have God’s blessing. Lee offers this as a beacon of hope in the lives of Samuel and Adam, as well as in his own.

Cleverly couching this hope in the hearts of non-religious characters, Steinbeck weaves a thread of evolving personal philosophies through his portrayal of the everyday joys and sorrows in the lives of two families. A brewing transcendence permeates the pages even while dark tragedies play out and loom on the horizon. The lasting impression speaks of the human soul’s capacity to expand, even or perhaps most, in moments of its greatest pain.

Peers in Literature

East of Eden has earned its place in American literature as a modern classic. Of the Steinbeck works I’ve read, it is better constructed and less pedantic than The Grapes of Wrath, grander in scale than Of Mice and Men, and far less depressing than The Red Pony. The tone is consistently ponderous but also factually documentary, though at times pretentious. The characters offer many different ways to produce a reader’s smile. The style reminds me of other great classics and some of my favorite nonfiction writers, including Annie Dillard.

As American literature, Steinbeck’s East of Eden is smoother than Hemingway and Twain, more accessible than Faulkner, and less heady than Fitzgerald. Steinbeck’s epic reads like a classy but comfortable pair of jeans—snug, flexible, quintessentially American, yet totally individual. Its beauty, relevance, and simmering intensity remind me of another beloved work, Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for which I played the narrator in high school theatre.

Flaws in Storytelling

This brings me to flaws in the narrative perspective, which are somewhat puzzling in origin and made me wonder if they were intentional, but to what purpose I couldn’t tell. Right away, in the third paragraph of the book, using first-person voice, Steinbeck describes the pleasing nature of one mountain range and the “unfriendly” character of another, to him as a child. But then, in stating he loved the first and dreaded the second, he declares, “Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say.”

Well, he just said it, didn’t he? The Santa Lucias were “brooding” while the Gabilans offered “a kind of invitation.” What’s to solve? This apparent lack of awareness of the thread of his own narration is confusing, especially since, after claiming he can’t say where he got this idea, he goes to the trouble of conjecturing about it further. Unfortunately, such passages inevitably raise concern if not doubt in the reader’s mind about the author’s clarity of thinking or level of intelligence.

There are similar examples throughout the book. These suggest to me that either his editors were too timid in their suggested changes for improvement, weren’t intelligent enough to notice the flaws in logic or sense, or tried hard to impose their wisdom on an intractable Steinbeckian will.

The example of the third paragraph’s mountain range comparison could be seen as a symbol of Steinbeck’s black and white moral thinking represented elsewhere in the novel. Periodically, Steinbeck opens a chapter by exploring a truism or aphorism that applies to the times, the region, its people, or humanity. These serve to set the stage for subsequent events, placing them in his chosen context. Sometimes, the truisms don’t ring true in a human universal sense where intended, and in many of these philosophical passages of social comment, the author comes off as pedantic and pretentious.

Some spots could be read as facetious decrees or other rhetorical devices meant to demonstrate through logical formality, for instance, the impossibility for normal humans to avoid pain. Or, he could be speaking in the limited mindset of the characters he refers to next, but it seems unlikely when compared to other omniscient passages, and even less so when the reader reaches Chapter 34. See below.

Because of these features, if we give Steinbeck and his editors the benefit of the doubt, the use of narrative voice raises further questions about narrator perspective and identity. While imagining the people in the pool of his origins, does Steinbeck stray into magical thinking about himself as well? What magic, for instance, enables him to gain the impossible insights his narrator persona seems to possess?

Flaws in Thinking

One of the most striking examples of mediocre philosophy on Steinbeck’s part occurs in Chapter 34, which serves as the introduction of Part 4, the last in the book. Here he presents a treatise on the story of good versus evil in the space of a few pages that comprise the whole chapter. I examined the ideas at length and found some fundamental holes in the argument, but narratively, what’s worse is that this preface is easily forgotten because it proves at first only tangentially related to the next events and, later, insufficient to capture or effectively foreshadow the story’s outcomes.

In essence, Steinbeck argues, “We have only one story. . . . the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” While there is validity in the claim that this question is central to human existence, he exaggerates in saying it is alone in its centrality or even importance. It’s almost as if he means to impose the rules of fiction on everyday life, when most people’s lives, at least in America today, prove far less dramatic in contrasts. If anything, we’re droning along in a humdrum banality of digital vacuousness. Little did he know . . .

He finishes his treatise by saying virtue is stronger and ultimately more successful than vice. Sadly, this brands some of his key ideas as unseasoned and foolish. It may be his wish that virtue will win (most people want this), but how can we tell? If we while living cannot know the consequences for the evil-acting people of the world when they die or know completely what lies in the heart or actions of every human being—more good or more evil—what basis do we have for declaring virtue the winner? He takes it on faith.

Then, there’s the completely neglected question of happiness and the fact that a life of virtue does not guarantee it, whether in the process or in the end. As you can see, this chapter distracted me well.

Whether true, only ringing true, or missing the mark, many of the narrator’s reflections and efforts to understand people and their motivations do at least represent the spirited candor of one who earnestly reaches back without knowing exactly what he touches. The important thing, the entire book emanates to the reader, is to reach. Still, the distraction created by strange, confused, and confusing exposition cannot be ignored or dismissed. If not tangents in themselves, reading them encourages tangential thinking in the thoughtful reader, which needlessly detracts from the story.

Theme: A Closer Look (Spoilers ahead)

At the fulcrum of the saga, the revelation Lee experiences in studying the Book of Genesis delivers the concept of “Timshel,” or “Thou mayest,” with respect to 16 verses in the fourth chapter of Genesis and the supposed imperative or promise that man will rule over sin. “Timshel” reveals it as a choice man can either make or not, perhaps emphasizing that man has not only the power but also the responsibility, and he cannot deflect blame for his own ignorance, or its persistence, onto God’s unfulfilled promise.

With this difference in translation, the power of man is elevated to a divine level because he retains his choice no matter how much of whatever else is stripped away from him (Steinbeck Centennial Edition, Penguin Books, p. 301). The embrace of this truth among the men discussing it—Lee, Samuel, and Adam—sets the stage for the second half of the book. That half reenacts the Cain and Abel story in the next generation of brothers, Adam’s twin sons Cal and Aron.

Characterization

Immediately in the first chapter of Part 3 (of 4), which introduces them as young boys, their fates are foreshadowed through the hunting of a rabbit. From there, the book intensifies its allegorical aura. I found the second half of the book more interesting and of heightened conflict, where the adults have already had their turn, and it is now up to the youth to make something of themselves. Experiencing the sorrows, dreams, and potential of these families through the first two parts of the book, the reader’s anticipation rises to see if the first generation can be redeemed, improved upon, and set at peace through the second.

Yet, the adults continue to grow and evolve through the rest of the story as well, especially Adam Trask. He experiences an awakening after his own personal heartbreak that renews his relationship with his sons and with Lee just as we are getting to know the twins, and his unpredictability adds tension and excitement to the unfolding story of his progeny. Even Lee reaches a crossroads as he is forced to decide where he ultimately belongs.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s life without Adam or her sons has its own color and curiosities, and, like her, Will Hamilton plays a key role in the lives of the Trasks in their highest-stake moments. Lee continues to serve as a soul guide of wise counsel while focusing his energies on maintaining the Trask household.

What do they learn in the end? What does Steinbeck finally have to tell us about these people and what they teach us about humanity? The first half could be interpreted as an echo of the Old Testament while the second half resonates with New Testament sensibilities. Old: Black and white morality, wrath of God, violence, Job (Samuel?). New: gray area, reserving judgment, mercy, forgiveness, more subtle movements of evil.

Above even allegory, though, the messages “I wish” and “I love” come through the story from Steinbeck’s commemorating heart, starting from sentence one of the book: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” Adding to these waves of emotion, the second half and final chapters seem to beckon the reader to “Be the best version of yourself no matter what” and “Love and know yourself loved deeply always,” and some characters show potential to understand and to achieve.

However, just as the point was in reaching back to family and home for Steinbeck, the importance overall is in the journey where you fail but get up again to keep trying. Life guarantees no happy endings, but, above all, there is love. And we who are helped by such things as the epic of East of Eden to learn this, we are among the blessed.

Indulgent in detail, East of Eden respects its subjects and literary tradition. As a novel and a memoir, its resolution is fittingly incomplete as it emphasizes atmosphere and journey. Steinbeck has blended personal genealogy with updated mythology to create a story of contrasts and common ground. By turns idyllic and realistic, the characters leave indelible impressions that made me want to meet them in person. Of local color but rarely provincial, East of Eden portrays the intimacies of a specific region in turn-of-the-century California where universal themes bloom like deep blue lupines, fiery Indian paintbrush, radiant cream-colored poppies, and golden summer grasses.

Conclusions

My initial impulse with East of Eden was to shower praise and contradict the Steinbeck-hating reviewer. But note the strike-through marks and words added later in pink: “However, when, objectively, a well-organized, lyrically unfolding narrative replete with delicious turns of phrase, methodical, lilting description, realistic, smooth, absorbing dialogue, well-integrated themes, and juicy, three-dimensional characters persists page after page, how can I not fall in love admire it? John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is that kind of book.”

Then, as I re-read several parts of chapters in the novel’s first half, I found myself back-pedalling to a less generous assessment that does indeed make a book that feels weighty and remarkable suddenly seem rather mundane.

I guess judging as a lay reader the value of a classic work of literature comes down to how well one understands what one has read and how much one enjoyed reading it. Granting that some of what I didn’t understand could be my own mind’s problem and some of it could be the author’s thinking or writing foibles, the fact remains that I did not understand some of Steinbeck’s ideas about moral philosophy. Those I did understand didn’t always ring true for me. This incomplete and disappointed understanding lessened my enjoyment noticeably.

I greatly enjoyed several sections and aspects of the book, and I closed it upon finishing with a general sense of satisfaction. However, I wasn’t reduced to tears, gasping in awe, mind-blown beyond reason, or enamored of anything in the book so much that I felt compelled to re-read it completely or immediately, or to shout from the rooftops about it. And there have been a handful of books in my life that did some of those things to me.

On reflection, East of Eden stands on a par with lots of other really good classics. What it doesn’t do is stand out as a magnificent product of masterful brilliance. Sure, in it are outstanding description, great sections and ideas and characters, and a respectable mark of the author’s thematic ambition. However, as a whole, East of Eden has plenty of flaws that diminish its value, if only slightly. The most serious I can identify is the unfortunate effect of perceiving that the author has tried too hard to mold a novel with memoir elements to fit a philosophical viewpoint, rather than allowing the reader to craft her own conclusions from a simpler presentation of the raw narrative materials. Leo Tolstoy did this even more overtly with politics in War and Peace, as I discussed in that review.

In determining a rating for East of Eden, I could give it 3 out of 5 stars based on the above. However, there are other important personal facts to consider: (1) I was rarely without interest in the narrative, (2) I felt comfortable and swept along on almost every page, (3) I never felt tempted to stop reading altogether, (4) I loved most of the writing, and (5) I genuinely wanted to know what happens to the characters in the end.

After having read and thought about it a while, I found that the highlights of description, dialogue, and characterization, as well as some of the memoir traits of the book, added to my level of enjoyment and positive feeling about the book. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience give the book less than a 4. It’s just not a 4.7; it’s more like a 4.3. All things considered, even as long as it is, East of Eden is well worth reading.

Who This Book Is (and Is Not) For

If you like Steinbeck, you’ll really like East of Eden. It is praised far and wide as his ultimate literary achievement. If you like American literature, chances are good you’ll like this book. If you enjoy looking closely into the emotional lives of families, and aren’t afraid of sad outcomes or open-ended paths, this book might just be for you. If you’re a descriptive writer and love the English language, I recommend sampling at least the beginnings of Eden’s many vivid chapters.

If not, if you have hang-ups about Steinbeck, American literature, intelligent prose, flawed narration, emotional insight, or the notion of a classic, move on to the next book on your list. If you prefer high-concept science fiction or fast-paced mystery, fantasy, action-adventure, fan-fiction, or popular romance to human-centric realism and religious and philosophical inquiry, you probably won’t appreciate East of Eden.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy stories about turn-of-the-twentieth-century America or rural California or the psychological dynamics of archetypal characters in a highly particular setting and situation, this book is worth your while. If you’re keenly interested in studying, or witnessing characters grapple with, the nature of good and evil and are fascinated by the potential of humans both to rise to divine levels and to sink into being hellions on Earth, you might regret not adding East of Eden to that mix.

Just balance out your Steinbeck with a little Nietzsche or Sartre, and maybe some Capote, when you’re done. The way is open, and you are free. Timshel.

As for me, did my reading of that negative review improve or worsen mine? You know, it just may have helped me strike a better balance. So, thanks, Steinbeck hater! You made me think more carefully, see more clearly, and justify my love for Steinbeck’s many gifts.


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If you’d like more of my thoughts on judging classics and choosing the best books, and to see which novels I recommend most, visit Great American Reads.

Book Review: Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Possible spoilers, explicit sexual terminology included

While I have yet to solidify, if possible, my knowledge and perception of the different versions of the novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and the controversy surrounding them over the course of 30 years of critics’ reactions and Hardy’s revisionist responses to those reactions starting in the late 1880s, I can unreservedly share some gems of beautiful writing to be found in one version or another. That, along with a brief summarizing book review, is the purpose of this post.
The Transatlantic Press (TAP) 2012 edition preserved or restored several paragraphs’ worth of text missing from the Penguin Classics edition (1998), which is based on a not-easily-identifiable mixture of previous editions. Whatever its sources, TAP 2012 includes the Chaseborough dance scene first restored, from Hardy’s drafting prior to the first 1891 publication, only in the 1912 edition, over 20 years later. Other aspects of TAP’s version preserve text from the 1891 publication, based on direct comparison after I purchased the Penguin Classics rendering of that version while reading the 2012 TAP edition.
That’s the barest tip of the tip of the iceberg that constitutes this novel’s textual history. Suffice it to say there were moral objections to several parts of the work from different quarters, stirring in Hardy different shades of both defiance and compliance to society’s sensibilities over a 30-year span. Amidst the intrigue, according to the Penguin editor, Tim Dolin, Hardy had the foresight, lament it though he would, to bowdlerize his own work in order to pre-empt unwanted excisions by publishers.

Tess was his second to last novel, followed by Jude the Obscure, after which, out of fatigue or frustration with critics’ and publishers’ opinions (the general public generally received the novel with enthusiasm) and the hassle of straddling between his own wishes and theirs, he swore off novels and spent the rest of his long life writing excellent poetry. An excerpt from his poem “The Darkling Thrush” kicks off my Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series on this blog.
Setting that complicated history and the questions it raises aside, I center this post on a literary appreciation of Thomas Hardy’s controversial work in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Like most changes Hardy made, was asked to make, or purposely neglected to make, the deleted and restored scene provokes moral objections. Its palpably sensual tone and sexually suggestive content at the turn of the twentieth century was a challenge for a Western world barely recovered from the era of Victorian mores and not yet liberated by the sexual revolution of first the 1920s and then the 60s and 70s.
Leading up to the Chaseborough dance scene, Tess has been working for Alec d’Urberville’s blind mother, caring for her birds at their estate and journeying on summer Saturdays to fairs and other outings among fellow laborers in the vicinity of the fictitious town of Trantridge, real county Dorset. On one of these Saturdays, she comes upon a singular atmosphere. Alec is the instrument of her ruin which has yet to strike, and the scene serves not only as that event’s foreshadowing but also as perhaps a blend of frankness and lyrical abandon on Hardy’s part in its indirect comment and direct depiction of real society dressed warmly in Romantic and mythological allusions.
Once she reaches the source of the fiddler music unaccompanied by the sound of dancing feet, she peers through the doorway of the outhouse. The total portion of the scene represented in the TAP 2012 edition comprises some 15 paragraphs of variable length. From the second of these paragraphs, the reader shares Tess’s somewhat entranced gaze:
“It was a windowless erection used for storage, and from the open door there floated into the obscurity a mist of yellow radiance, which at first Tess thought to be illuminated smoke. But on drawing nearer she perceived that it was a cloud of dust, lit by candles within the outhouse, whose beams upon the haze carried forward the outline of the doorway into the wide night of the garden.”
“When she came close and looked in she beheld indistinct forms racing up and down to the figure of the dance…” (start of para. 3).
The residue making up the “yellow mist” had come from “the storage of peat and other products, the stirring of which by their turbulent feet created the nebulosity that involved the scene” (para. 3). And this “residuum,” or “scroff” as Hardy first labels it, accounts for the muffling of the sound of the dancers’ nonetheless very active feet.
Then, the energy rises with the number of sexual connotations, adding also some scientific tonality:
“Through this floating, fusty debris of peat and hay, mixed with the perspirations and warmth of the dancers, and forming together a sort of vegeto-human pollen, the muted fiddles feebly pushed their notes, in marked contrast to the spirit with which the measure was trodden out.”
As we zoom in, the Greek mythological allusions binding sex with music begin and pile on thickly. I include definitions and references for further reading following the passage:
“They coughed as they danced, and laughed as they coughed. Of the rushing couples there could barely be discerned more than high lights–the indistinctness shaping them to satyrs clasping nymphs–a multiplicity of Pans whirling a multiplicity of Syrinxes: Lotis attempting to elude Priapus, and always failing.”
satyr – “creatures of the wild, part man and part beast, who in Classical times were closely associated with the god Dionysus. Satyrs and Sileni were at first represented as uncouth men, each with a horse’s tail and ears and an erect phallus. In the Hellenistic age they were represented as men having a goat’s legs and tail. Rival theories differentiate silenis from satyrs.” – Britannica.com.
similar creatures: faun (Roman), minotaur, centaur, harpy, siren. – Wikipedia
nymph – “a minor female nature deity typically associated with a particular location or landform. Different from other goddesses, nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from the restricted and chaste wives and daughters of the Greek polis. They are beloved by many and dwell in the mountainous regions and forests by lakes and streams.” forever young, can bear immortal children by gods, though not necessarily immortal themselves. examples: Charybdis and Scylla. similar creatures: mermaid, huldra, selkie, siren. the frequent target of satyrs – wikipedia
Pan – “god of nature, the wild, shepherds, flocks, of mountain wilds, rustic music and impromptus, and the companion of the nymph, often associated with sexuality” – Wikipedia
Syrinx – “a nymph and follower of Artemis, known for her chastity. Pursued by the amorous god Pan, she ran to a river’s edge and asked for assistance from the river nymphs. In answer, she was transformed into hollow water reeds that made a haunting sound when the god’s frustrated breath blew across them. Pan cut the reeds to fashion the first set of pan pipes, which were thenceforth known as syrinx.” – Wikipedia
Priapus – “a god fo animal and vegetable fertility whose originally Asian cult started in the Hellespontine regions, centring especially on Lampsacus. He was represented in a caricature of the human form, grotesquely misshapen, with an enormous phallus. Father was Dionysus, the wine god; mother either a nymph or Aphrodite, the goddess of love.” “in Hellenistic times . . . in the country adopted as a god of gardens . . .” – Britannica
– “a minor rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. Priapus is marked by his oversized, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism.” – Wikipedia
priapism = “a persistent, painful erection of the penis unaccompanied by sexual excitation or desire” – Britannica
Lotis – “a nymph mentioned by Ovid. In his account, at the Liberalia festival, Priapus tried to rape her when everyone had fallen asleep, but she was awakened by a sudden cry of Silenus’s donkey and ran off, leaving Priapus in embarrassment as everyone else woke up too and became aware of his intentions. In another account, she was changed into a lotus tree to escape Priapus; later, Dryope picked a flower off the tree Lotis had become and was transformed into a black poplar.” “In Book 6 of the Fasti Ovid tells much the same story, but with the goddess Vesta rather than Lotis as the intended victim. According to some sources, Lotis was the daughter of Neptune or Nereus. Ovid suggests that Priapus later kills the donkey.” – Wikipedia
And, Pan and Syrinx are the parents of the satyrs and nymphs. Phew! Lots to unpack.

Paragraph 4 further emphasizes the sense of illusion and transformation:
“At intervals a couple would approach the doorway for air, and the haze no longer veiling their features, the demigods resolved themselves into the homely personalities of her own next-door neighbors. Could Trantridge in two or three short hours have metamorphosed itself thus madly!”
But it doesn’t stop there, and Tess interacts next with not one but two men who notice her nervous hope that the dance will end soon so her neighbors will leave and she won’t have to journey back in the dark alone. Each man is presented as a god- or saint-like figure in an ironic sense, as they are both drunken and make suggestive comments akin to Alec d’Urberville’s assuaging overtures to Tess up to this point.
The first is described as “one of [the] Sileni of the throng,” and the singular, a “Silenus,” is a particularly older, mentor-like figure in the company of the wine god Dionysus. “The plural sileni refers to the mythological figure as a type that is sometimes thought to be differentiated from a satyr by having the attributes of a horse rather than a goat.” – Wikipedia
After these exchanges, we return to the dance floor itself in paragraph 11 of this edition’s surplus Chaseborough scene:
“The movement grew more passionate: the fiddlers behind the luminous pillar of cloud now and then varied the air by playing on the wrong side of the bridge or with the back of the bow. But it did not matter; the panting shapes spun onwards.”
Here, the dancers are reduced to nebulous forms themselves, less sexual beings and more impressions of objects, like protons spinning around an atom’s nucleus. This lends the suggestion of inevitable, eminently natural movement, the essence of life and energy. Their identities are again obscured; they could be either animals or something else, but something either supra-human or subhuman.
Hardy then focuses on the dancers’ tendencies to stay with the partner they’re inclined to once begun, as if to point out the glue-like, intimate nature of these pairs, in contrast to traditional country dances of ever-changing partners and a communal sense of order and purpose and propriety. In the middle of that paragraph, number 12 of the passage, the theme of cosmic movement reaches a pinnacle:
“It was then that the ecstasy and the dream began, in which emotion was the matter of the universe, and matter but an adventitious intrusion likely to hinder you from spinning where you wanted to spin.”
The use of the pronoun “you” personalizes the described experience to the reader’s frame of reference while simultaneously bringing emotion and human intention into equality with the ultimate nature of the cosmos. This moment serves as the climax of the figurative sexual intercourse that is the dance.
The next description reiterates the sense of accomplished sexual union and orgasmic release. However, Hardy takes it one step further in continuing to emphasize the collective over an individual couple, suggesting with no great subtlety orgiastic abandon. Paragraph 13:
“Suddenly there was a dull thump on the ground: a couple had fallen, and lay in a mixed heap. The next couple, unable to check its progress, came toppling over the obstacle. An inner cloud of dust rose around the prostrate figures amid the general one of the room, in which a twitching entanglement of arms and legs was discernible.”
Again, Hardy returns to the medium of the dance: the “fusty” “yellow mist” operating even more now as a sexual fluid of semen or the mixed pool of male and female ejaculate fluids.
Even more scandalous in his day, however, must have been his final coup de grace at the end of paragraph 14:
“. . . female accents from the human heap–those of the unhappy partner of the man whose clumsiness had caused the mishap; she happened also to be his recently married wife, in which assortment there was nothing unusual in Trantridge as long as any affection remained between wedded couples; and, indeed, it was not uncustomary in their later lives, to avoid making odd lots of the single people between whom there might be a warm understanding.”
Translation:
The husband’s clumsiness with a partner other than his wife, resulting in their falling down together, led to his wife and her partner’s collision with the first couple. This arrangement of non-wedded pairs of dance partners was not unusual in Trantridge if there was affection between sets of couples and unwedded members of the opposite sex. Well into their married lives, it was not uncommon to switch partners so that single people did not feel left out in the mix either, and to make of the crowd a more unified whole of versatile dance partners, and, implicitly, sexual partners. Swingers, orgies, etc.
As if that weren’t enough discomfort for the die-hard Victorian or Puritan reader, later when the crowd departs, Hardy overtly attaches halos to their heads, as if their very sensuality and its shameless expression have made them somehow saintly or angelic.

Hardy had balls, that’s for sure.
One would think there might be a Chapter X general note in the Penguin Classics edition concerning this deleted scene, but they don’t give it such prominence. However, they do include a note marked at the specific location where the text is significantly different between versions:
“2 – When Hardy removed this chapter from Graphic [first publication in this magazine for serial form of the text] it included a long dance scene at this point. It was retained when the chapter was published separately [as Saturday Night in Arcady], but was not restored to Tess until 1912. Appendix V reproduces both versions.”
Spoilers ahead.
At this point in the story, an incident during the journey home directly precipitates Tess’s fatal decision to go with Alec d’Urberville, who takes her into the forest and in some versions rapes while in others seduces her, resulting in her birthing a daughter, prior to which one version replaces the rape/seduction scene with a duplicitous false marriage scene between Tess and Alec.
And the confusion about Tess’s character and morality only mounts with the increase of changes and counter-changes Hardy makes over the ensuing years, in everything from subtle actions taken to gestures and tears to comments on her thought processes. The same goes for other principal figures in the book, so that when the revisions have finally ended, the modern reader hardly knows what to make of it all.
Still, and amazingly, despite all the complications, Hardy manages to deliver into posterity a well-loved narrative and tragedy of Greek proportions in a captivating writing style. Its considerable length is buffered by a noticeable economy of language coupled with playful use of extraneously large, technical-sounding words, and some made-up ones, such as “vegeto-human.” This latter feature particularly irritated many critics, but as an incorrigible intellectual in love with big words, I love Hardy for it. The tale is epic and complete and the commentary on society’s moral hypocrisy not only discernible but memorable.
Hardy elevates our understanding of human complexity, not only in his carefully told tale but also in the vacillations of all that pre-emptive shaping, editing, redaction, and rewriting. Tim Dolin, editor of the Penguin Classics edition’s textual history section and end notes, remarks on the practical impossibility of identifying a definitive edition, and proposes there may really be no such thing.
Indeed, this notion may be the simple truth of most published writing; especially in hindsight, the author knows that more could have been done or done better, but at some point they pull the trigger or nothing ever gets published. For the reader as well as the writer, the work always remains to some degree unfinished, which only adds to the fascination of literature.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles has become a new favorite book of mine, and I am sorely tempted to eschew future plans on my to-read list to take another sensual spin full of rich, transporting description around Thomas Hardy’s d’Urberville universe and the magnificently complex and shape-shifting character of Tess Durbeyfield. All that remains is the tiny matter of which edition to choose next.

book on the grass

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Culling the herd, an original poem

Here’s to a more contemplative, considered, measured Earth Day 2018 (on, around, or far from 4/21), as for all intended days of remembrance, tradition, action, and activism.

Here’s to an antidote to do-something-ism, the arrogance of action for the sake of acting without intelligent, careful thought, patience for information, debunking myths, withholding judgment, uncovering assumptions, probing conventional understanding, and placing a check on emotionalism. Certainty is impossible, but near-certainty must be earned, not used as an excuse or a form of denial beforehand.

Here’s to Earth, to people, to animals, to reason, and to love. To a balanced appetite for details and the big picture. To doubt, to questioning, to human rights, and never killing to punish. To you, if you’re with me on these–if you, too, would cull the herd mentality, whether it claims to come from truth, patriotism, freedom, control, justice, safety, mercy, love, or God.

And here’s a poem of sorts.

Culling the herd    © 2018, Carrie Tangenberg

Sometimes to love animal
 means to love human-animal balance,
 if love is a balanced act of
 compassion, reason, acceptance,
 for human is animal, too.

I couldn’t pull the trigger
 in everyday conditions,
 but I don’t begrudge the hunter,
 farmer, game warden, parks
 ranger, zoo keeper, veterinarian,
 wild survivor, adventurer, 
 conservationist, naturalist,
 lost traveller who may have to,
 want to.

Who am I to stop everything?
 Save everything? Or anything?
 Start something? What exactly and why?
 What is wisdom, wise action here?

Cull the herd, naturally.
 Cull the herd naturally.

What does it mean?
 What is natural? What unnatural?
 Where is the line between?
 And which herd will it be?
 And how?

Curiosity, discovery,
 fascination, wonder, awe,
 anxiety, annoyance, frustration,
 disgust, confusion, amusement,
 anger, sadness, startlement,
 fatigue, and sometimes fear—

These are the feelings
 of living among wild prey
 when one owns a dog
 and a yard with grass
 you don’t want dug up
 by any but yourself,
 and a house built on
 pavement ant pandemic.

But free will is never free,
 never without consequence.
 What if making a difference 
 means doing more harm than good?
 Did you know? Do you? Always? 
 Respect the what-if, at least.

I don’t get squeamish
 reading about creature
 death, butchery, predation,
 and harvesting for food,
 watching wild death
 on TV or the Web, or watching 
 vet shows, trauma, surgeries, 
 sorrows.

I would, I do not like to see
 blood up close, so bright,
 so red, so shiny, fresh, raw.

All it took was a clip
 of the quick on my dog’s
 left back toenail to
 send me into panic
 where I’m usually calm.

It wouldn’t stop bleeding.
 General Chaos conquered.
 It was Easter 2018.

Bleeding eventually stops,
 and so do breeding, foraging,
 fleeing, hiding, sleeping,
 mating, hunting, scavenging,
 migration, habitats, and life.

We can’t stop everything,
 but everything stops, even
 rivers, seas, forests, islands,
 valleys, mountains, plains,
 planets, stars, solar systems.

Even senses, motion, heart,
 brain, growth, and breath.

Even love, even faith, even hope,
 even panic, idiocy, evil, insanity,
 and this listing of word lists.

If this post or poem resonated with you, you may also enjoy:

Five-Phrase Friday (34): Earth Day, Every Day

Call of the Wild Poetry

Five-Phrase Friday (1): The Poetry Politic

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

“The Eemis Stane” reconsidered, 1/26/18, via Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Without a complete translation, there can be no complete interpretation. This I realized after re-reading yesterday my post on Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “The Eemis Stane,” featured January 9 on my blog.

Although I knew the picture was incomplete, I attempted to analyze it anyway. And although I understood much of the poem’s message without full decoding, it is only after making a firm choice of translation between two possibilities originally left in competition, and, thus, better understanding the concepts behind the words, that I see how much difference a complete, more accurate translation makes, especially in poetry.

Accuracy of interpretation suffers when the meaning of individual words remains in doubt, even one or two words. In such a short poem, so economically constructed, indeed every word counts.

By reading again, and by further considering through logic and deduction the context of a certain passage’s uncertain meaning to me, I was able to insert the last major puzzle piece. As I believe I have now come closer to understanding the nature and significance of the poem’s message as a whole, I’d like to share these new revelations with you.

For reference, here’s the original poem and my first translation:

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

And this is the essence of what I said about meaning:

Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. . . .

Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

There are several reasons why definitively selecting “moss of fame” makes the most sense, and why both “fog/smoky atmosphere” and “foam” do not.

1. Poetically, the translation would have to be very close to “moss of fame” to establish parallelism with the concept and metaphor of “lichen of history.” Each provides a concrete living thing paired with an abstract societal concept. Each image produced is similar to the other in that this concrete living thing obscures in a similar manner to the other, growing on rocks, spreading itself over their surfaces.

Use of connectors: The fact that both moss and lichen are “of” their paired abstract ideas means that those things, fame and history, inherently bring with them these ironically polluting elements. The poet’s choice to join these metaphors so closely in proximity using the word “and” signifies that the distorting natures, or by-products, of fame and history necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, when one considers it further, they are interdependent.

2. The second reason why “fame” is the correct choice is that the words “cut oot i’ the stane” refer to remembrance, part of the point of memorializing being to preserve a legacy, to obtain or solidify some form of fame in the eyes of observers.

3. Crucially, the key reason that unlocked the meaning for me is that the alternative translation creates a conflict in imagery between an active blizzard and lingering fog or smokiness. Physically, such a thing as fog, mist, haze, or smoke would have to be blasted away by the blizzard. They cannot exist in nature in the same space at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. So process of elimination comes in handy here.

4. Finally, combining these pieces of evidence results in a more robust interpretation of message. Look more closely at the behavior of fame and history as depicted in this poem’s parallel metaphors. They not only obscure the truth but also grow continuously like powerful adhesive upon the “unsteady stone,” further destabilizing it, as moss and lichen both grow on a literal headstone or memorial monument.

A distinct tone of cynicism emerges as these negative sides of fame and history appear. The suggestion is that their “growths” continue uninhibited and uninterrupted, with no one and nothing successfully clearing them away to improve the reputation of fame or history and, by extension, of man. They are natural processes but stubborn nuisances as well, insidious and marring or tainting in how they creep in and take over gradually, almost imperceptibly.

At poem’s end, aided by the described effects of fame and history, the final impression the reader receives is quite clear. The speaker condemns the hubris and vanity of a human race that worships and perpetuates both this “moss” and this “lichen,” implying the absence of the opposite qualities because of mankind’s failure to prevent these incursions. Humanity’s alternate course would be to seek and uphold simple, honest, humble truths—the bedrock, as it were, of goodness, integrity, and justice.

Therefore, the poem is an undoubted lament of those particularly incorrigible, wretched human habits that make the world such a precarious, dangerous place for the individual, and its future such a dismal one for all.

What is left to further interpretation is whether the speaker primarily lays blame and scolds the cause or simply reels from and mourns the effects. In other words, is the final question “Can’t you see what you have done?” or “What have you done to me?”?

The former cries out for change while the latter shows a man incapable of finding the words, the power to move beyond suffering–a man whose “eerie memories,” perhaps even of learned language, scatter into fragments on the wind. He forgets how to read at all. The feeling behind the first question is a sense of urgency and some small hope, whereas the second descends into a confused, frightened, and irrevocable despair.

What do you think MacDiarmid is saying?

Are the layers of obscurity, deception, and confusion just too thick after all?

Or, by revealing them, does the speaker become a catalyst for removing them and restoring what lies beneath?

Either way, my question remains, “What then?” Will we like what we find? Do we need it regardless of how we feel about it? Will it matter?

The speaker makes clear that he cannot say. He cannot make out the words, let alone discover their import. He not only cannot provide an answer; he cannot even see to look for it. His impotence blocks even the consideration of possibility.

For that reason, I see the message as one of despair. The speaker describes the fixed laws of the universe—gravity, inertia, the physics of vibration and spinning—as well as the forces of more intimate natures. The blackness, the cold, the blinding weather, the isolation from fellow humans, and the sticky coverings over our past efforts—together they inevitably overpower man, unsteadying the stone on which he lives and making it impossible to see rightly the things around him, one way and another.

So, yes, I think I get it now.

What do you think?


To view or review the original part 6 post, go here.

For all posts in this series, visit my page under the menu tab “Writing Pool,” then “Poetry,” or under “Wild”: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry.

You can also get to them directly here:

The entire Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  10. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons
  11. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Perhaps it is only when we are released from the stranglehold of the deep freeze that we can once again celebrate cold, snowy art. Today between Hogmanay (New Year’s) and Burns Night (Jan. 25), I bring you a Scottish, though autumnal, chill–the blizzard, the wind, the land, and their combined efforts to confound. Still, may your eyes and heart be open wide to the imagery, the sounds, and the impact that only poetry can deliver.

Recently, I rediscovered the work of a famous poet I was vaguely familiar with: Hugh MacDiarmid, celebrated Scottish poet of the 20th century (1892-1978). Again, I became so fascinated with the Scots language he used to effect his art that I started trying to translate the Scots of one of his poems into standard English. A bit more challenging than “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, the poem is also more somber and contemplative. A novice in translation for personal interest alone, I am unsure of how well it came out and some of it I couldn’t parse, but I thought the poem interesting enough to share with you.

The poem’s title “The Eemis Stane” translates roughly as “The Unsteady Stone.” If you’ve been following my series on nature poetry, you may have realized by now that sometimes there is a fine line between nature poetry and poetry that uses nature imagery but operates through a different primary theme or mode. Although MacDiarmid’s poem also uses nature imagery, as with many poems, its true subject is more abstract and societal. I believe, though, that all nature poetry need not just celebrate nature; it can also lament it. In that sense, “The Eemis Stane” could legitimately bear the tag “nature poetry.” It would simply need other tags as well.

Following is a bit about Hugh MacDiarmid with a link to more information about the poet, and then the poem in full with my translation and analysis.

According to the Poetry Foundation,

“C. M. Grieve, best known under his pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid, is credited with effecting a Scottish literary revolution which restored an indigenous Scots literature and has been acknowledged as the greatest poet that his country has produced since Robert Burns.”

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

Message of the poem

More about perhaps the nature of history and understanding than about nature itself, here is my interpretation: Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. Alternatively, though less likely, it could mean that only history’s obfuscation of events allows the observant man to see things clearly, as if transgression alone, however unintended, is what urges one’s keen attention to matters. Compounded by this confusion, or perhaps contributing to it, is the timing of the attempt: the darkest point of the night, a metaphor for the hardest moment in life, when you are shaken to your core and too discombobulated to make sense of it.

Means of the message

We can trust the reputable MacDiarmid to use the Scots language precisely, but ambiguity is the primary theme echoed by method across the poem. With compound images and multiple word meanings (fog/smoke/moss, fame/foam), unclear things masked in layers (darkness, fog, eerie memories, blizzard, lichen), and unexpected shifts in visual perspective (in total darkness, harvest night’s earth wobbling in the sky as seen from what vantage point?), the reader feels the speaker’s disorientation.

One example of a mysterious reference, the idea of the “words” cut out in the stone literally suggests either gravestone, monument, or ancient language, but figuratively calls to mind efforts to make one’s mark, the tantalizing nature of age-old mysteries, or a foundation marred or eroded by words and time. Then, stanza 2’s double negative (“couldna” plus “No’”) raises further questions of interpretation.

The speaker’s reaction to the confusion is a lament, with the consistent choice of words that collectively mourn: “how-dumb-deid” (darkest point), “cold,” “nicht” (night), “eemis” (unsteady, unstable, untethered, precarious, tenuous, unreliable), “wags” (wobbles, shakes, waggles, jars, dislocates, disorients), “eerie,” “fa'” (fall), “couldna” (could not), “cut oot” (cut out), “fug” (smoke, haze, fog, moss), and, most obviously, “yirdit” (buried). These account for our mood of sadness, solemnity, and empathetic bereavement.

Unlike the poem’s subject, with the help of such words, its overall impression proves firm, immutable by poem’s end. Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.


Read more Hugh MacDiarmid, aloud for the music or for the challenge of deciphering, but always for the artfulness of poetry:

For more from my collection of famous nature poetry, see:

square-rock-lichen-Nether-Largie-stone_DSCN3484_eds-2017-12-20

Lichen grows on a rock at the base of a Nether Largie standing stone in Kilmartin Glen, at the heart of Argyll & Bute on Scotland’s west coast. Image © 2016 C. L. Tangenberg


Two weeks later . . .

My eureka moment: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots


The entire Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  10. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons
  11. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

Book Review: War and Peace

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

The Nature of War and History

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

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

From my post Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People in 19th-Century Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions and Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book-Cover_War-and-Peace_Pevear-Volokhonsky-translation

edition I recommend for print reading


If you enjoyed this review, you may also like:

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Book Review: The Good Earth

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

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

hl gibson, author

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

Why is poetry important?

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

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

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