This poem appears in Stony Limits, and Other Poems (1934). To convey the treeless, windswept, almost uninhabited world of the Shetland Islands where he lived during the mid-1930’s, MacDiarmid attempted to craft another dialect, using technical vocabulary. Employing modern scientific terminology, MacDiarmid begins “On a Raised Beach” with a catalog of geologic terms:
All is lithogenesis—or lochia,Carpolite fruit of the forbidden tree,Stones blacker than any in the Caaba,Cream-coloured caen-stone, chatoyant pieces,Celadon and corbeau, bistre and beige,Glaucous, hoar, enfouldered, cyathiform,Making mere faculae of the sun and moon . . .
The geological allusions are mingled with references to religious phenomena (the Caaba is a shrine holding a sacred black stone). The poet joins his feelings of isolation with an exceptionally close scrutiny of the terrain in order to avoid spiritual desolation. MacDiarmid felt he was in a kind of exile, but he thought if he could enliven the bare and forbidding terrain with a creative appreciation of its beauty, then he could thereby demonstrate the redemptive power of art.
After establishing the setting, MacDiarmid turns toward an extended philosophical consideration of the stones on the beach. In long lines and measured cadences, MacDiarmid develops a mood of meditative reflection, raising some of the most fundamental questions of human existence. While insisting on the literal qualities of the stones, the poem aims toward transcendence. The stones stand for permanence (“There are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined stones”); MacDiarmid recognizes that a refocusing of attention is required to establish a connection with higher realms. Acknowledging his somewhat intemperate nature—“Hot blood is of no use in dealing with eternity”—MacDiarmid creates a serious context for inquiry, his long lines echoing biblical verse.
The poem is more than four hundred lines in length, and while MacDiarmid was accustomed to working in long forms, he knew that the intense mood he was developing could not be sustained until the conclusion. Consequently, he balances philosophical propositions with images of landscape. The language of science helps him reach an “abode of supreme serenity” in which the largest questions, if not answered, have at least been posed.