When Hugh MacDiarmid began writing poetry seriously after serving in World War I, the Scots literary tradition had reached one of its lowest points. In the century following the deaths of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Lord Byron, Scottish poetry consisted largely of enervated and sentimental effusions that imitated the surface mannerisms of Burns’s lyrics. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that MacDiarmid wrote his earliest poems in standard English. Although his style was reminiscent of English Romanticism, it had from the start more vigor and individuality than the work of most of his contemporaries.
A Moment in Eternity
The best of these early poems, A Moment in Eternity, establishes MacDiarmid’s essentially Romantic disposition, “searching the unsearchable” in quest of God and immortality. Although his style and technique were to change radically, these ambitions remained with him, and “eternity” remained to the end of his career one of the most frequent words in his poetic vocabulary. His rhythms in this early poem are supple, varied, but basically iambic; his diction, pleasant but rather conventional.
Sangschaw and Penny Wheep
It was not long, however, before he began to write under his pseudonym in a vocabulary forged from various local Scottish dialects and words from literary Scots dating as far back as the late medieval period of Scottish literary glory, when Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas, and others overshadowed the best English poets. He charged this “synthetic Scots” with a surprising vitality in two early books of lyrics, Sangschaw and Penny Wheep. The poems were about God, eternity, the Scottish countryside, love, and other subjects. Because he broke with the stereotypes of recent Scottish poetry and because he challenged his traditionally literate countrymen with a diction reaching back to a time of Scottish literary ascendancy, MacDiarmid was basing his strategy on an appeal to the best in his readers.
A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle
Before the publication of the second of these works, he was already shaping another book. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, also issued in 1926, proved a much more ambitious work: a sequence of lyrics and meditative poems making up one long, symbolically unified poem. Although MacDiarmid was to write many long poems, he would never find a structural principle more effective than the one he used here. Although some critics have objected to the titles of the fifty-nine poems as interfering with the unity of the book, anyone reading through the sequence will have no trouble perceiving its integrity. The first title, “Sic Transit Gloria Scotia,” signals the poet’s concern with the cultural and literary decline of his native land and suggests his intention of arresting that decline personally. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle has come to be recognized as more than a regional achievement, though MacDiarmid took several risks that probably delayed recognition of the scope of his achievement.
In the first place, the title, while accurate, is an odd one for an ambitious literary work, as it seems to lack seriousness and in fact to cater to the common perception of the Scottish peasantry as whiskey-guzzling ne’er-do-wells. His employment of a Scots vocabulary also posed problems. The vocabulary threatened to repel English readers, who expected poets to clothe respectable verse in literary English. The numerous dialect words required heavy use of a specialized dictionary. Even if willing to wrestle with the words, however, such readers were likely to associate Scots with feeble imitations of Burns. MacDiarmid appeared unconventional and frivolous not only in choosing a drunkard as the poem’s speaker but also in choosing the lowly thistle, rather than a more “worthy” flower such as a rose, as his central symbol. Who else had made anything of such a homely weed since the rhetorical question of Matthew 7:16: “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?”
Nevertheless, MacDiarmid had reasons to hope for a harvest. His format permitted him a series of lyrical, comical, and satirical reflections in a variety of meters and stanzas, both rhymed and unrhymed, with the concomitant advantage of showing off his technical versatility. He could also expect that his more extravagant poetic flights, being merely the dreams of a drunken man, would not reflect on him. Apparent digressions were no problem, either, for everyone expects a drunken man to meander. Therefore, while his character indulged in a leisurely display of reactions to all that ailed him and Scotland, the poet could carefully guide his inebriated speaker along a purposeful path.
The drunkard begins by complaining of the difficulty of keeping up with his drinking partners, especially since the Scotch does not compare with the old-time variety, thereby establishing that everything Scottish now seems to be “destitute o’speerit,” including the appalling poetry now produced by supposed devotees of Burns. An immediate dilemma presents itself: How can one be a good Scot yet shake off the Scottish lethargy and mediocrity? Interestingly, MacDiarmid’s method involves the occasional incorporation of translations and adaptations from French, Belgian, German, and Russian poets, and two original lyrics addressed to Fyodor Dostoevski. MacDiarmid obviously considered the great Russian novelist a kindred spirit in the struggle to repossess imaginatively a stubbornly recalcitrant homeland. To be a good Scot meant, among other things, to accept competent assistance wherever available.
In a poem called “Poet’s Pub,” based on a poem by Aleksandr Blok, the drunkard resists the idea of going home to his wife, Jean, who is sure to nag him. Instead, he hopes to discover the truth said to be in wine, especially those truths ordinarily dark to him and to his cronies. He catches sight of a “silken leddy” in the pub, but she soon fades from sight, and eventually he stumbles outside to begin his homeward trek. The fourth poem of the sequence introduces the thistle and the image with which MacDiarmid customarily pairs it, the moonlight: “The munelicht’s like a lookin’-glass,/ The thistle’s like mysel,” he observes, one of the resemblances being that he needs a shave.
In the poems that follow, the symbolic values of thistle and moonlight proliferate. A poem addressed to“The Unknown Goddess”—again adapted from Blok—presumably refers to the mysterious lady of the pub, who may represent his muse but is certainly the opposite of Jean. The drunkard’s attention alternates between depressing reality (“Our Educational System,” “The Barren Fig,” “Tussle with the Philistines”) and inspired visions (“Man and the Infinite,” “Outward Bound,” “The Spur of Love”). The drunken man is not sure of much: “And yet I feel this muckle thistle’s staun’in’/ Atween me and the mune as pairt o’ a Plan.” He regards himself as his nation’s “soul” and thus free to appropriate the humble thistle: In one of his flights he compares his homeward course to the wanderings of Ulysses; in another he sees himself “ootward boond” toward eternity. The thistle may serve to unite humans and the infinite, or it may simply take off on its own and leave humans nothing but the hole in which it was once rooted. Periodically his thoughts return to Jean, who “ud no’ be long/ In finding whence this thistle sprang,” for it is in her absence that the plant has grown for him.
The man’s thoughts oscillate between Scotland—materialistic, Philistine, ill-educated, yet worth redemption—and himself as representative of the more general human condition—earthbound and mortal yet aspiring to eternity. The thistle has, despite its general ugliness, the capacity to flower, to put out at its tip a “rose” that permits MacDiarmid the traditional associations of that flower in a different context. In “The Form and Purpose of the Thistle,” the speaker reflects on the “craft” that produced the odd, prickly stalk capable of breaking into flowers “like sudden lauchter,” a craft of puzzling contrarieties. In “The Thistle’s Characteristics,” the poet ranges over humanity’s illusions and presumptions. “For wha o’s ha’e the thistle’s poo’er/ To see we’re worthless and believe ’t?” Later he employs the Norse myth of Yggdrasill, the ash tree that binds together Earth, Heaven, and Hell; in this case, however, humanity is a “twig” on a giant thistle that, far from uniting creation, “braks his warlds abreid and rives/ His heavens to tatters on its horns.” The Yggdrasill poem insists on humanity’s suffering and ends by seeing humans as so many Christs, carrying their crosses “frae the seed,” although as the drunkard slyly puts it, most feel it far less than he “thro’ bein’ mair wudden frae the stert!” Such satiric thrusts at his countrymen occur frequently in the work as a whole. However painful the life, the soul will soar in its “divine inebriety.” Intoxication, then, is also a metaphor in this poem, standing for the poetic imagination that can rise above, and gain solace by reflecting on, humankind’s common “Calvary.”
The drunken man contemplates the oppressive English rule over an exhausted and often foolish Scotland, but even more often, his thoughts wind between Heaven and Earth, between the aspirations of the rose and the limitations of the rooted stalk. He longs for the mysterious lady, then is gripped by the recollection of practical Jean at home. Near the end of the work, he sees himself, God, the...
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