Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

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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 member of a culture at odds with the dominant English culture of the British Isles. MacDiarmid’s uncompleted four-volume magnum opus, A Vision of World Language, is an exposition of the possibilities of what is true of language in general and of the particular languages MacDiarmid had access to through his voluminous reading.

By examining particular details, poets often express universal truths. At first glance, MacDiarmid’s assertion that “The universal is the particular” seems more problematic. If one starts with “the universal,” the whole is so general that one cannot possibly see particulars. However, on second glance, if one can find the universal in the particular, one must also be able to find the particular in the universal. Indeed, in both the vast sweep of In Memoriam James Joyce in general and in “We Must Look at the Harebell” in particular, MacDiarmid attempts the linguistic magic trick of focusing on particulars without losing sight of the whole. Near the end of In Memoriam James Joyce he says, “The supreme reality is visible to the mind alone,” a reflection of the fact that the mind can hold general and specific, universal and particular at the same time: “An intricately-cut gem-stone of myriad facets/ That is yet, miraculously, a whole.”

The voice in MacDiarmid’s poems can be by turns brilliant and maddening. Sometimes In Memoriam James Joyce seems little more than loosely stitched-together collection of paraphrases and quotations from MacDiarmid’s astonishingly vast reading—a deluge of erudition, including snippets from many languages, and footnotes that reveal even more erudition. In the midst of all this verbiage, passages and even whole poems of great beauty appear. “We Must Look at the Harebell” is one of these, a microcosm of the larger work, but with the focus and control the larger work sometimes lacks.