Crystals Like Blood
I remember how, long ago, I found
Crystals like blood in a broken stone.
I picked up a broken chunk of bed-rock
And turned it this way and that,
It was heavier than one would have expected
From its size. One face was caked
With brown limestone. But the rest
Was a hard greenish-grey quartz-like stone
Faintly dappled with darker shadows,
And in this quartz ran veins and beads
Of bright magenta.
And I remember how later on I saw
How mercury is extracted from cinnebar
—The double ring of iron piledrivers
Like the multiple legs of a fantastically symmetrical spider
Rising and falling with monotonous precision,
Marching round in an endless circle
And pounding up and down with a tireless, thunderous force,
While, beyond, another conveyor drew the crumbled ore
From the bottom and raised it to an opening high
In the side of a gigantic grey-white kiln.
So I remember how mercury is got
When I contrast my living memory of you
And your dear body rotting here in the clay
—And feel once again released in me
The bright torrents of felicity, naturalness, and faith
My treadmill memory draws from you yet.
– Hugh MacDiarmid
In this elegy, Hugh MacDiarmid compares the emotions released by his memories to the entrancing behaviour of liquid mercury extracted from its ore. The poet is aware of the reality of the corpse within its grave and relates it to the rather unattractive ore, but his mind, in grief, grinds in repetitive circles of memory and eventually releases a brilliant joyfulness.
While the imagery of the poem is firmly rooted in reality, the choice of mercury as a metaphor brings other associations to the reader’s mind, which add greater depth and dimensions to the poem.
Mercury ultimately takes its name from the Roman god, who shared many characteristics with the Greek Hermes. Hermes was a messenger, including between the living and the dead, and he was a psychopomp, who ferried souls to the underworld; to Jung, this symbolised the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious. Standing over a grave, remembrance of the dead, and the emotions stirred by the memories, are forms of communing with the dead, and if the afterlife is considered to be remaining in the memory of the living, then mercury can represent this.
In alchemy, mercury was an important metal both symbolically and practically. Among other concerns, alchemists searched for the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, supposedly died from ingesting mercury, ironically intended to make him immortal. Anyone in grief may have fantasies of a magical source of eternal life, symbolised by alchemical mercury.
As Chaucer knew, alchemy and astrology were closely linked and Wikipedia tells me that the planet Mercury was thought to influence the nervous system, the brain, the respiratory system, and the sense organs. These are in fact the main organs affected by mercury poisoning, which is the first association I get when I think of mercury.
Cinnabar is a common ore of mercury. It occurs as blood-red crystals of mercury sulfide and has been mined since prehistory as a pigment and as a source of metallic mercury. Cinnabar is processed by crushing and then roasting, creating mercury vapor which then condenses and is collected. Presumably, modern mercury kilns have strict emission controls, but historically mercury mining and processing were great sources of environmental pollution, and the workers suffered extensive health problems and short life expectancies. The imagery of mercury processing, with the associations of mercury poisoning and especially its targetting of the sense organs and the central nervous system, carries sinister connotations in a poem on death, memory and emotion. Perhaps the narrator and the deceased both worked in a mercury extraction plant? The ‘bright torrents of felicity, naturalness, and faith’ stand out against the mostly matter-of-fact descriptions in the rest of the poem: are they simply natural grief and emotion, or has the mercury damaged the narrator’s mind and heightened their response to the death?