On the walk from city park to parking lot we passed a derelict house with a dense carpet of moss on the roof and an impressively overgrown yard. A light burned by the front door and someone had aligned seven paper coffee cups on the porch but the lawn had reverted to prairie. I thought of France as described by the Duke of Burgundy in Henry V --
“Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility…”
-- though beauty and utility were not lost in this green profusion. In three minutes the boys and I picked eight species of wildflower, including two types of daisy and a delicately pink wild rose. We could have added mullein but that would have destroyed the velvety plant, and we could have picked thistles but that would have hurt. The latter were tall, spiky and purple-flowered, and my wife had no objections to a mullein-free, thistle-free, cost-free bouquet, now in a vase on the kitchen counter. The next morning I had this message from a reader in New Hampshire:
“We have big old plants of `golf-ball thistles’ -- have you ever seen one of these odd-looking plants? The golf-balls are coming into bloom now (early, as everything here is this year) & the bees are all over them. I've seen as many as six on a single circular bloom.”
The name “golf-ball thistles” is new to my lexicon of floral folk names. (My lucky reader may be referring to this.) Like much in nature, thistles mingle beauty and the possibility of pain – lure the bee, repel the cow. Lazily, I think of all thistles as Scottish thistles, an impression reinforced by my reading of Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, written largely in Scots and published in 1926. (Read portions of it here.) The edition I’m using is a pleasure to look at and hold, edited by John C. Weston and published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 1971. It’s also a pleasure to read, as Weston provides good notes and marginal glosses for most Scots words. He helps make sense of a poem that I might otherwise be forced to read in paraphrase or translation.
The title describes the literal setting and action of the poem: On a moonlit night a drunken man leaves a tavern and on the way home falls on a hillside and contemplates a thistle. He “graipples” with it. Weston writes:
“…the thistle represents not only the traditional Scotland or Scotsmen, but in MacDiarmid’s private symbolism, the divided nature of himself, the Scot, and of all mankind, a division which must be exploited, engaged, harmonized. The blossoms represent, like the moon toward which they extend, our spiritual, idealistic, romantic aspirations; the roots, our animal and fleshly ties; the disorderly growth of foliage and thorns between represents the contradictory elements of life…”
This is vaguely accurate but heavy-handed and programmatic, and ignores the humor and beauty of MacDiarmid’s poem, and though I don’t always understand what I’m reading I’m enjoying it. MacDiarmid’s drunk on the hillside occasionally reminds me of one of Beckett’s little men, human detritus with the Celtic comic gift. For sublimity, take this:
“How can I graipple wi the thistle syne,
Be intricate as it and up to aa it moves?
Aa airts its sheenan points are loupon yont me,
Quhile still the firmament it proves.”
A little glossing: syne is “since” or “then”; aa, “all”; airts, “ways”; sheenan, “shining”; loupon, “leaping”; quhile, “while.” In short, there’s something of heaven in a wildflower.