Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

To judge from the opening sentence, the theme of “We Must Look at the Harebell” is a version of the biblical line “Consider the lilies of the field. They toil not, neither do they spin.” As a communist, MacDiarmid was committed to the idea of freeing workers from the drudgery of labor for capitalist factory owners. Harebells or lilies, which “toil not,” offer an alternative to the alienation of labor in freedom and the “recreation” that comes from reimmersing oneself in ever-changing nature.

“We Must Look at the Harebell” represents a shift in tone from what comes before it in “The Snares of Varuna” and seems to suggest the results of freedom from the effects of capitalism and English domination. If the tone of the poem is taken to be optimistic(with the exception of the one caustic line about the English sheep being more interesting than English people), MacDiarmid seems to be calling for a recognition of the healing powers of nature. In fact, MacDiarmid is more interested in people than in sheep.

The whole collection in which “We Must Look at the Harebell” appears is a meditation on language, praising what James Joyce accomplished with his linguistic experiments in Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), but also striking out in a different direction to create a work on the scale of Joyce’s masterpieces. Like Joyce, who was an Irishman living in exile in Europe, MacDiarmid saw himself as a...

(The entire section is 543 words.)