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...
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