Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Eemis stane

This is 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.

It's a lovely poem, in both sound and meaning, but the meaning is very hard to grasp. It slithers about and almost lets you take it, but then it slides away again and you have to come at it from a different angle and, again, you think you're there, you have it in your hand but, if you look up, you can see it keeking at you from someplace else.

I'm fascinated by the idea that MacDiarmid thinks of history as a lichen (hazelraw), covering the story, obscuring the words. We know that history is never settled, that it is always, and can only ever be, the interpretation of then from the point of view of now; and tomorrow's now will inevitably be different, so tomorrow's version of history will also be different from today's.

But MacDiarmid, here, is talking about history obscuring the now, isn't he? This is suggestive of a two-way process. I suppose it's true. Our knowledge of the past affects our present: the Second World War is the obvious one, the guilt that generations of Germans feel for what happened; or slavery, perhaps, which has extra resonance this year because of the false sense of history arising from arbitrary anniversaries; or, for Scots, the even more false collective "memory" of the Highland Clearances which, even to this day, colours the attitudes of many Scots towards English people. That it didn't happen in the way we think it happened is irrelevant: the history is as it is remembered.

It feels a strong message to me: be what you are, not what you think you should be.

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