Yet aye in a belth o’ Thocht Comes alist like the Fleein’ Dutchman . . . These passages, where the Scots is at its thickest and hardest for the English reader to understand, the language is very much idiomatic. MacDiarmid takes pleasure in it in a similar way that he does in the “bonny idiosyncratic place names”. His use of idioms suggests these pre-Renaissance qualities are a product of an ancient Scottish consciousness, made up of groups of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.
The Caledonian Antisyzygy is built through forms of expression, and whole constructions peculiar to the Scots language and it is an inherent meaning rather than a logical or grammatical one. To build up a bank of idioms for synthetic Scots, MacDiarmid drew language from medieval poets, particularly William Dunbar, to find idioms from as many mediums as possible. He believed in the language as a receptacle and carriers of a great culture to be recovered from in Auld Makars in the movement of the Scottish Renaissance.
The vernacular we encounter in The Drunk Man has a history and was produced by mental processes entirely different from English. We must be aware that it cannot retain all its nuances in translation. It is to such ancient mental processes that MacDiarmid wishes to bind Caledonian Antisyzygy. The language, furthermore, has other significant traits, as the author goes on to point out: “a more important fact is that this complicated wildness of imagination is, in Scots literature, associated with a peerless directness of utterance…
” It is in this way he suggests a kind of essentialism is at the heart of his poetry. Scots is the closest and most direct access to these essences. The implication by MacDiarmid seems to be that Scots covers the whole field of the subconscious – which is necessarily shaped by an essence of Scottishness. He must have believed this to be so, when he branded the English extirpation of the Scottish accent in schools to be a ‘psychological outrage’ (Ibid, p.50)
The Scottish spirit in some way belongs to the accent of its people and this is highlighted by the fact that Scots words have onomatopoeic qualities – resonances and sounds that belong to the Scots and in this way the Caledonian Antisyzygy is to some extent only heard. It is in this way passages from A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle resemble ballads and literature from the oral tradition: It’s a queer thing to tryst wi’ a wumman When the boss o’ her body’s gane, And her banes in the wund as she comes Dirl like a raff o’ rain. (p. 51)
This style of verse is significant because it is with the occult of words that MacDiarmid allows us to pass from the real to the fantastic, and blends the “actual and the apocalyptic in an incalculable fashion”; traits of the Caledonian Antisyzygy. It calls to mind Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Here we feel the mysterious power of archaic language to communicate something powerful and profound but seemingly paradoxical – our mind grapples with the pleasure of horror. This new/old speak, is an ideal synthesis through which to express paradox.
It is partly carried in language and MacDiarmid makes it the basis of a new technique, at once completely modern yet intimately related to the whole history of Scots psychology and conjoining in the closest fashion the artists we are about to become, if the Scottish Renaissance realizes its objectives, with the Auld Makars and the ballad-makers whose achievements we have yet to parallel and continue. Although in this case the Scottish strain is very much bound up with Scots itself, MacDiarmid is quick to point out that language is certainly not its only vessel. In Albyn: or Scotland and the Future, he explores its use in music.
This once again implies that it exists within the people as a kind of essence before it is transmitted into any kind of expression at all. The beauty of the Caledonian Antisyzygy is that it appears to transcend language. Composers have the power to make music out of discord. This is something we can feel without the need of language. The way MacDiarmid describes a “profound harmony with the phonetic and expressive genius of Scots” suggests he uses poetry similarly as a faculty of concordia discors; a way of fashioning meaning out of the great paradoxes of life.
This is a God-like task. The poet, like God, is alpha and omega; the beginning and the end; reconciler of all opposites: ‘Let there be Licht,’ said God, and there was A little: but He lacked the poo’er To licht up mair than pairt o’ space at aince, And there is lots o’ darkness that’s the same As gin He’d never spoken (p. 85) It would not be lost on MacDiarmid that the Christian faith is built on paradoxes and at its heart is its greatest: that the world will be saved by failure.
Here we see, not the human race, but an omnipotent God fail in his task and the poet goes on to find enlightenment in the dark that only exists on account of what little light God could muster: Licht thraws nae licht upon itsel’; But in the darkness them wha’ een Nae fleetin’ lichts ha’e dazzled and deceived Find qualities o’ licht, keener than ony licht… (p. 86) The light/dark paradox is presented as fundamental and complex. Such antisyzygy is fundamental to the poem’s philosophy – a structural paradox of the kind found in the works of the metaphysical poets, particularly Donne and Marvel.
MacDiarmid shows triumphantly how he can, in a peculiar Scottish way, harness the possibilities of paradox as a structural device which sustains the dialectic and argument of a poem. The thistle, as the poem’s principle leitmotif, is also characterised repeatedly in terms of the Caledonian Antisyzygy. It is useful that the thistle, as an organism that can’t really decide whether it wants to be a weed or a plant, lends itself well to the concept of antisyzygy and MacDiarmid exploits creatively and metaphorically its use as a metonym for Scotland.
The drunk man also identifies himself with the thistle and the portrait of him, both as an individual and a demographic, intermingles with the representation of the thistle: Gurly thistle – hic – you canna Daunton me wi’ your shaggy mien, I’m sair – hic – needin’ a shave, That’s plainly to be seen. A man can be unkempt like the thistle and throughout the poem such comparisons recur. The thistle takes on human qualities and man becomes thistle-like in what could be described as a two-way metamorphosis: O for a root in some untroubled soil.
Some cauld soil ‘yont this fevered warld,That ‘ud draw darkness frae a virgin source, And send it slow and easefu’ though my veins, Release the tension o’ my grisly leafs, Withdraw my endless spikes… It is a metaphysical union and is all the more significant in light of the fact that MacDiarmid describes the thistle in terms of oxymoron and the drunk man defines his own philosophy in terms of contradiction. Made “a symbol o’ the puzzle o’ man’s soul” (p. 84), to look at the thistle itself is to study an example nature’s own union of opposites.
The drunk man responds ambivalently to the plant calling it “beauty and ugliness alike” (p.64) and draws constant attention to the different qualities of its spikes and flowers; seemingly opposing features that co-exist in the same organism. The poem closely identifies the thistle with the Scottish people and actually uses it as a symbol to represent the Caledonian antisyzygy: Grugous thistle, to my een Your widdifow ramel evince Sibness to snakes wha’s coils Rin coonter airts at yince, And fain I’d follow each Gin you the trick’ll teach As we have seen, the drunk man refuses to exist halfway through great extremes but, if the thistle will teach him, he will travel both ways.
He dislikes definite and confident philosophies because there isn’t usually one incontrovertible answer to complex metaphysical questions. It is sort of a negative capability as defined by Keats. However, unlike Keats, the drunk man feels he has an identity and a nature; he can, in his Caledonian way, become Janus-faced. The presence of the thistle adds greatly to the general impression of antisyzygy in the poem but it also provides an image for the most startling and ingenious use of it mid-way through: And still the idiot nails itsel’ To its ain crucifix, While here a rose and there a rose Jaups oot abune the pricks.
(p. 60) This stanza, better than any other, encapsulates the essence of Caledonian Antisyzygy. It is definitely worth listing the characteristics it displays as they are all on display at some point in the poem, just never all at once and so perfectly, as with this example. It is, just as Professor Gregory Smith said it should be: a fun image but an undeniably profane one at the same time with no misgivings. The thistle is both crucified and crucifier at once, which is a paradox with profound religious implications and a beautiful metaphor for the simultaneous determined existence and reckless self-annihilation of man.
The imagery is hard and clear, the language concrete, simple and direct as in a haiku. It manages to appear ballad-like in metre and benefits from being read aloud to give accent to lively Scots words such as ‘jaup’ their wonderful liveliness of character. The dual tone of the voice is Scotland making fun of itself – accusing the thistle of idiocy – at the same time as raising grave concerns for its own existence, brought home by the anguish and stoicism evoked by the crucifix image.
This image is the thistle, with its two extremes of personality, shaking hands with itself; the Celtic snake with its tale in its mouth. And it is definitely a union, resulting in a circle, which, it is suggested, may well be the shape of the universe rather than an equilibrium which depends on a centre point. We have here, in four short lines, the spirit of the entire epic – a wild, uncontrollable and incalculable union of opposites, fashioned out of distinctly Caledonian poetry.