Wednesday, July 14, 2010

`Still the Firmament It Proves'

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.


Joe Keller said...

I love mulleins. There are some lovely cultivated forms, but none as dramatic as Verbascum thapsus. The downy woodpecker feeds on its seeds in fall. It is supposed to be a host of the cucumber mosaic virus, but we've never had a problem.

Here in hedge fund land, mulleins have disappeared from manicured landscapes. On one client's 100 acre property, we allowed a large colony to prosper. Walking around with said client recently, I braced myself for the inevitable when he stopped in front of the patch.

"Wow. What's this? Did we plant this?"

"Yes," I lied. "Verbascum...all the rage these days."

"I like them."

We carried on.

Anonymous said...

"I was returning home by the fields. It was midsummer, the hay harvest was over and they were just beginning to reap the rye. At that season of the year there is a delightful variety of flowers — red, white, and pink scented tufty clover; milk-white ox-eye daisies with their bright yellow centers and pleasant spicy smell; yellow honey-scented rape blossoms; tall campanulas with white and lilac bells, tulip-shaped; creeping vetch; yellow, red, and pink scabious; faintly scented, neatly arranged purple plaintains with blossoms slightly tinged with pink; cornflowers, the newly opened blossoms bright blue in the sunshine but growing paler and redder towards evening or when growing old; and delicate almond-scented dodder flowers that withered quickly. I gathered myself a large nosegay and was going home when I noticed in a ditch, in full bloom, a beautiful thistle plant of the crimson variety, which in our neighborhood they call “Tartar” and carefully avoid when mowing — or, if they do happen to cut it down, throw out from among the grass for fear of pricking their hands. Thinking to pick this thistle and put it in the center of my nosegay, I climbed down into the ditch, and after driving away a velvety bumble-bee that had penetrated deep into one of the flowers and had there fallen sweetly asleep, I set to work to pluck the flower. But this proved a very difficult task. Not only did the stalk prick on every side — even through the handkerchief I wrapped round my hand — but it was so tough that I had to struggle with it for nearly five minutes, breaking the fibers one by one; and when I had at last plucked it, the stalk was all frayed and the flower itself no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful. Moreover, owing to a coarseness and stiffness, it did not seem in place among the delicate blossoms of my nosegay. I threw it away feeling sorry to have vainly destroyed a flower that looked beautiful in its proper place.

“But what energy and tenacity! With what determination it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life!” thought I, remembering the effort it had cost me to pluck the flower."

(the opening of Hadji Murad)