Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473

MacDiarmid is a poet of vast though sometimes helter-skelter erudition. Many of his poems are written in “Lallans,” a Scottish dialect he synthesized out of several existing dialects, along with words that had fallen out of use but that MacDiarmid found in John Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808). A Scottish nationalist, MacDiarmid saw himself as doing something akin to what Geoffrey Chaucer did with English and Dante did with Italian, writing in the vernacular rather than in the approved language of the dominant academy (Latin in the case of Chaucer and Dante, English in the case of MacDiarmid). Though he sometimes regarded the English as the enemy and often wrote caustically about English political and poetic domination, in “Crystals Like Blood” MacDiarmid uses English to good effect.

If the whole poem is rather mechanical, working out the intersecting comparisons as persistently as the pile drivers work on the cinnabar, the language is quite simple and precise, and the end result is more nearly sentimental than mechanical. MacDiarmid’s aesthetic choice is to confine himself to clear, simple statements of fact in order to concentrate the poem’s emotional impact at the end. Until the last verse paragraph the poem is virtually without emotional language. In the first two verse paragraphs there are no words suggesting emotion at all. In the third verse paragraph emotion creeps into the poem in the word “fantastically” as a reaction to the “symmetrical spider” of the pile driver, and in “monotonous” as a judgment of the way the machine works. The word “spider” may also be taken to have vaguely negative emotional associations for some readers, but until the last verse paragraph nothing in the poem gives a hint that its actual subject concerns the relationship between two people.

MacDiarmid’s description of the process of mercury production suggests how mercurial the things people remember can be, for at the moment of remembrance memory and the thing remembered are one. Contrasted with the detailed description of the crystal-bearing stone and the mechanical process of mercury extraction, the description of what he remembers of the dead person is conveyed in a single fleeting line. Even the line in the last verse paragraph limits itself to those three abstract words, “felicity, naturalness, and faith,” which arguably have less emotional weight than the phrase “dear body rotting.”

By concentrating his poem’s explicit statement of emotion in three abstract words, MacDiarmid runs the risk of being criticized for vagueness, but the sensuous evocation of a rotting corpse (also in three words) in juxtaposition with “bright torrents” drawn from memory precisely focuses the tension between the living and the dead that is the point of “Crystals Like Blood.” To describe what endures, MacDiarmid deliberately avoids using language drawn from sensory experience. The body dies, but the spirit lives on.

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