Hugh MacDiarmid’s “We Must Look at the Harebell,” a forty-one-line free-verse lyric, makes a curious circle. The opening sentence, “We must look at the harebell as if/ We had never seen it before,” directs attention to a particular flower. The poem ends with the general statement that “The universal is the particular.” The opening sentence is not as specific as it appears, calling attention to a species rather than a particular flower. Meanwhile, the final sentence asserts the particularity of the universal. The poem thus manages to move from particular to general and general to particular at the same time.
Although MacDiarmid at first points to a specific type of flower, the harebell, he veers off to discuss in parenthesis various types of sheep and, after the parenthesis, various other kinds of flowers: white bedstraw, pinguicula, bog-asphodel, sundew, parsley fern, and Osmunda Regalis (Regal Fern). After the first sentence in the poem, the harebell is never mentioned again. MacDiarmid wants to give a sense of the abundance and beauty in universal nature represented by sheep and flowers one might find in the Scottish landscape. He seems less interested in nature, “flowers, plants, birds and all the rest,” than in words and ideas.
The poem is filled with seemingly miscellaneous details to back up or illustrate the assertions in the first eight lines of the poem. Those assertions are: Pay attention to the harebell; memory offers “an accumulation of satisfaction” and therefore an apparent escape from change; “change is in itself a recreation,” both a relaxation and a re-creation, and looking at the harebell would be a change; and “An ecological change is recreative,” which moves toward the particular. Yet rather than next giving an example of a particular ecological change, MacDiarmid inserts a parenthesis (lines 8-21), followed by a more general statement, “Everything is different, everything changes.”
The long parenthesis is not a closer look at the harebell but a disquisition on sheep, who are “different/ And of new importance.” The point of the digression seems to be that even the most ordinary things, such as sheep in Scotland, “change” when you take the time to look at them. MacDiarmid then mentions several types of sheep: the Herdwick, the Hampshire Down, the Lincoln-Longwool, the Southdown, “and between them thirty other breeds.” The punchline of the parenthesis is the caustic remark that in England, “the men, and women too,/ Are almost as interesting as the sheep.” MacDiarmid, an ardent Scottish nationalist, thus takes a jab at the enemy.
The last part of the poem returns to flowers, enumerating and briefly describing several kinds of flowers and ferns. The penultimate line of the poem offers an enthusiastic summing up to reassert that the sheep and flowers he has described exemplify change. By generalizing that “The universal is the particular,” the last line reminds readers of the particular flower with which the poem began.
Forms and Devices
“We Must Look at the Harebell” is extracted from the verse essay “The Snares of Varuna,” which is part of the extended essay and poetic sequence In Memoriam James Joyce, which is in turn part of an uncompleted four-volume project under the working title A Vision of World Language. “The Snares of Varuna” refers to the Hindu scripture Rigveda (c. 1500-1000 b.c.e.; Eng. trans., 1896-1897), where it is stated that the snares of the deity King Varuna catch one who tells a lie but let the honest person pass. Straightforward truth-telling is MacDiarmid’s overarching goal. The method MacDiarmid uses in “We Must Look at the Harebell” is consistent with the method of the larger work, but the excerpted section stands alone effectively as a lyric poem.
“We Must Look at the Harebell” is written in fluent, conversational free verse. The vocabulary of the poem is relatively ordinary English. The meanings of unusual words—names of sheep and flowers for the most part—can be deduced from the context. MacDiarmid’s style seeks to be as transparent as possible. After the first sentence, the beginning and ending of the poem rely on abstract language, such as “Remembrance gives an accumulation of satisfaction.” The abstractions are counterpoised by concrete details about sheep and flowers.
Lines in “We Must Look at the Harebell” break in terms of syntax rather than rhyme or meter. When MacDiarmid uses poetic effects such as alliteration, as in “The Lincoln-Longwool, the biggest breed in England,” the effect seems incidental and artless, which is to say “natural.” The form of the poem seems less important to MacDiarmid than the ideas the poem develops.
MacDiarmid suggests the universal by mentioning particulars, though they are particulars of type rather than individual examples. He does not describe an individual example of a harebell in sensory detail. In fact, from the poem, all the reader knows of the flower is its name. Similarly, for all but botanists, “a pinguicula” seems to hide the flower in its Latin name, but MacDiarmid goes on to describe the “purple-blue flower” in more detail, mentioning “its straight and slender stem,” much more description than he ever gives of the harebell, though that description might equally well describe the harebell, whose bluebell-shaped flowers hang from thin stalks. The nature in the poem is more from books than from experience: “It is pleasant to find the books/ Describing” the regal fern as “very local.”
“We Must Look at the Harebell” can be read as a meditation on language and representation. The long middle part of “We Must Look at the Harebell” is an abstracted walk in nature, but a domesticated nature populated with wool-producing sheep as well as wildflowers. The sheep and flowers in the poem are subtly metaphorical, like the words from numerous languages In Memoriam James Joyce is peppered with, some natural and some bred by humans.