In a letter to his publisher in 1926, MacDiarmid described A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle as a “long poem . . . divided into several sections having within the sections a great variety of manners and measures of verse.” The various forms MacDiarmid employed were designed to demonstrate the poet’s intellectual alliance with the most advanced currents of thought of his time. The basic stanza of the poem, the abcb of the classic Scots folk ballad, roots the poem in a cultural context that the poet wished to elevate to international significance. The drunk man who is the narrative consciousness of the poem is somewhat ironically labeled the “village drunk.” He is a representative of the poet’s ambitions and a Scots Everyman. His spiritual quest to become something like “A greater Christ, a greater Burns” is treated with considerable humor as the narrative action—patterned after Burns’s “Tam O’Shanter”—shifts abruptly to follow the fleeting moods, emotions, and ideas of the poet’s imagination. The poem is about visionary experience.
Joycean influence on the poem includes a final section in which a woman named Jean gives the poet—as Molly Bloom in Ulysses gives her husband Leopold—the promise of love. MacDiarmid also incorporates elements from Dante (a man in a dark wood), from the French surrealist poet Paul Valéry, from a number of Russian writers, and especially from T. S. Eliot, whose The...
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