The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 482 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 483 words.)