MacDiarmid on Burns

Posted on January 25, 2010

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A post for Burns night – well, why not?

My students tell me I quote Hugh MacDiarmid too much; maybe, but he is unquestionably Scotland’s greatest modern poet, perhaps alongside Burns and Dunbar one of the three greatest this land has produced. I tend, I confess, to his more philosophical, later, and lesser poems written in standard English. His masterpiece, though, is the early (1926) Scots poem, ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’: some stanzas from there on Burns:

Rabbie, wad’st thou wert here – the world hath need,
And Scotland mair sae, o’ the likes o’ thee!
The whisky that aince moved your lyre’s become
A laxative for a’ loquacity

O gin they’d stegh their guts and haud their wheesht
I’d thole it, for ‘a man’s a man,’ I ken,
But though the feck ha’e plenty o’ the ‘a’ that,’
They’re nocht but zoologically men.

I’m haverin’, Rabbie, but ye understaun’
It gets my dander up to see your star
A bauble in Babel, banged like a saxpence
‘Twixt Burbank’s Baedeker and Bleistein’s cigar.

This, to my mind, is classic MacDiarmid, carelessly, almost aggressively elitist (the echo of (pastiche on?) Wordsworth is obvious enough, but the throwaway reference to T.S. Eliot, in a poem published in 1926, assumes and demands so much of the readers),but remarkably populist in tone, the whole lamenting what Scotland could and should be.

And, it being Burns night, two more lines from the same poem, again on Burns:

Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
Than in ony’s barrin’ liberty and Christ.

(Some vocab: ‘stegh’ = ‘stuff’; ‘haud their wheesht’ = ‘be quiet’; ‘thole’=’put up with’; ‘feck’=’majority’ (‘folk’); ‘haverin’ = ‘rambling’ or ‘burbling’; ‘dander’ = ‘temper’)

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