Published 90 years ago today, Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle is generally regarded as Scotland’s masterpiece of Modernism.
Written during MacDiarmid’s time in the north east town of Montrose, the 2,685 line poem journeys through multiple themes, including the celebration of Robert Burns and the 1926 General Strike, as he grapples with the state of the nation and the divided Scottish self.
The Scottish Poetry Library describes the work as shocking, adult, wry, difficult, piercingly sweet and brutal as he takes on the condition of modern Scottish culture.
As MacDiarmid - born Christopher Grieve in Langholm, Dumfries and Galloway, in 1892 - looks into ‘this root-hewn Scottis soul’, the end result is acknowledged as both intellectually demanding and distinctly Scottish as he works to reclaim a neglected literary history.
MacDiarmid, a founder member of the National Party of Scotland in 1928, is credited with almost single-handedly forging a Scottish Renaissance movement that severed the nation’s literary ties with the folksy sentimentality of the 19th century.
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Critics continue to debate the dominant themes in the poetry of MacDiarmid, who is often described along the lines of an ‘awkward genius’.
MacDiarmid, who died in 1978, possibly offers the best analysis of himself in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle: ‘I’ll hae nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur Extremes meet.’