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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.
The Eemis Stane begins with an image of the poet standing outside in the dead of night, in the dark of autumn. What’s he doing out there? We imagine him perhaps staring up at the sky, frost on his breath, thinking about things, pondering the stars. The universe maybe. The rhythms of “how-dumb-deid” and “cauld hairst nicht” really slow things up. These are ponderous, sonorous phrases. They sound slightly alien. We might want to look them up, but right now we’re enjoying them just for how they sound.
In the middle of the night, looking up at the sky we might expect to see some stars, the moon in one of its phases. Perhaps we feel slightly in awe of the Cosmos, but MacDiarmid is expecting us to think that and doesn’t give us time to establish the image much beyond our first impression. Man staring in awe of the Cosmos is old hat now, a bit of a cliché. We’re still impressed with Nature – but not all that impressed. We’re more impressed with ourselves, human nature is the thing now.
In line 2 we realise the poet’s not looking at the moon, he’s looking at ‘the warl’ – planet Earth. And something’s not quite right. Our perceptions are suddenly thrown off balance – how can he be looking at the sky and see the earth? Is this a reflection?
The poet sees Earth like an “eemis stane” – a great trembling rock. What’s wrong with it? What’s making it unsteady? Is it going to fall over? The language he uses is strange but reassuringly familiar. Eemis is not all that far from the standard English word amiss. Is there something amiss on planet Earth?
In line 4 the poet surprises us yet again – these images, impressions, cause him to recall “eerie memories”. Eerie we know means uneasy, or slightly sinister. Also gloomy, dark – in the sense of melancholy, but since we know MacDiarmid uses language so precisely perhaps he means it in the sense of being unable fully to bring these memories back into clear focus. He compares them to a “yowdendrift”, a blizzard – a blinding snowfall, swirling about, unclear. It is difficult to find your way in a blizzard. The triple rhythm of the beautiful word “yowdendrift” reminds us of the words in line 1 and carries us forward to the second stanza.
In the second stanza, the image changes yet again. The eemis stane has transformed from being some kind of celestial body, far away in the sky like the moon, into our own planet, and now it transforms yet again. The stone has words carved onto it – maybe it’s a tombstone, or some kind of monument. The repetition of “yowdendrift” has strengthened the image of a white-out. He cannot read the words because everything’s obscured by this flurry of indistinct memories, covered in a “fug o’ fame” and buried by “history’s hazelraw”. What are these words he cannot read? Are they an epitaph? Some kind of symbolic inscription? Whatever it is we know these words must contain important knowledge since it is the (ultimately frustrated) quest of the poet here to uncover them.
“Fug o’ fame” is one of the trickiest lines in the poem but we feel we can trust MacDiarmid to have picked exactly the right words for his purpose. Fug, a standard English word, means “smoky atmosphere” – which fits well with the sense of things being unclear established in the last lines of the first stanza. In Scots it means moss, which we might expect to see covering a stone in the middle of a field. In standard English fame means reputation or notoriety.
So we arrive at something like “the cloud of notoriety” or “moss of renown”– which still doesn’t bring us to a precise meaning. But perhaps he doesn’t want us to get the precise meaning at all. Poetry is not always about precise meanings – which is to say: poets will always use words precisely, but the meanings of the poems often have to be intuited or felt, sometimes we have to make a bit of a leap in the dark.
“History’s hazelraw” too presents us with a challenge. We know, or are told, that hazelraw means lichens – a kind of mossy organic substance that grows over rocks. In the poem the hazelraw obscures the inscription on the stone. But “history’s hazelraw?” It’s not an obvious metaphor. How is history like lichen – a creeping growth that sticks to the surface, obscuring what’s beneath? We usually think of history as a good thing – by understanding the past we are better able to figure out what’s going on in the present. But MacDiarmid is suggesting that history is some kind of fungus that gets in the way, or obscures some kind of underlying – what? Truth, perhaps.
What is the inscription anyway? Maybe it’s our literature. We can think of literature as a nation’s or a culture’s self-knowledge. Perhaps the words carved on this stone are symbolic of the words we carve in our culture’s memory. Perhaps MacDiarmid is saying that history is something that gets in the way of us ever understanding ourselves, or seeing ourselves clearly.