Week 282: O Wha’s The Bride, by Hugh MacDiarmid

At first sight, the idea behind this poem seems a bit daft. The poet imagines a bridegroom on his wedding night apparently about to be shocked by the realisation that his virgin bride is actually the product of a long process of genetic mingling. Well, unless he had thought up till then that the human race had survived throughout the millennia by parthenogenesis, it shouldn’t really have come as a surprise. Nor is it clear why he should view the process as malevolent and despoiling: it’s just the way things are, and after all his bride wouldn’t be there without these contributions from his predecessors. And yet, viewing the matter from another angle, perhaps MacDiarmid is right: just because things are the way they are doesn’t mean that there is not an intangible and disturbing mystery about them, and if we normally shut our eyes to that mystery, then it is all the more the poet’s job to open them. Still not quite sure I grasp his thought, and yet it seems to me a remarkable poem.

O Wha’s The Bride

O wha’s the bride that carries the bunch
O’ thistles blinterin’ white?
Her cuckold bridegroom little dreids
What he sall ken this nicht.

For closer than gudeman can come
And closer to’r than hersel’,
Wha didna need her maidenheid
Has wrocht his purpose fell.

O wha’s been here afore me, lass,
And hoo did he get in?
– A man that deed or I was born
This evil thing has din.

And left, as it were on a corpse,
Your maidenheid to me?
– Nae lass, gudeman, sin’ Time began
’S hed ony mair to gie.

But I can gie ye kindness, lad,
And a pair o’ willin’ hands,
And you sall hae my breists like stars,
My limbs like willow wands.

And on my lips ye’ll heed nae mair,
And in my hair forget,
The seed o’ a’ the men that in
My virgin womb ha’e met.

Hugh MacDiarmid

6 thoughts on “Week 282: O Wha’s The Bride, by Hugh MacDiarmid

  1. Hi David, I was reading the dialogue as marked below. Is that right?

    Husband: “O wha’s been here afore me, lass,
    And hoo did he get in?”
    Wife: “A man that deed or I was born
    This evil thing has din”.
    Husband: “And left, as it were on a corpse,
    Your maidenheid to me?”
    Wife: “Nae lass, gudeman, sin’ Time began
    ’S hed ony mair to gie.
    But I can gie ye kindness, lad,
    And a pair o’ willin’ hands,
    And you sall hae my breists like stars,
    My limbs like willow wands.
    And on my lips ye’ll heed nae mair,
    And in my hair forget,
    The seed o’ a’ the men that in
    My virgin womb ha’e met”.

  2. Hi David, thank you. “gudeman” – husband? “But” (in the penultimate verse) – indeed? (It doesn’t seem to mean “but”!)

    • Yes, ‘gudeman’ here just means husband or householder; the Scots form of ‘goodman’, and the feminine equivalent is ‘gudewife’ or ‘goodwife’. ‘The ‘but’ in the penultimate verse does seem to me just a normal ‘but’ – ‘I can’t give you a virginity unsullied by any genetic inheritance – no woman since time began has been able to give a man any more than that – but what I can give you is kindness etc.’ As I say, it’s a bit of a strange, even slightly macabre idea that doesn’t make too much sense taken literally.

  3. Your reading makes better sense than mine. (I was trying to read “Nae lass, gudeman, sin’ Time began / ’S hed ony mair to gie” as a boast – “No lass since Time began has had more to give than I”. Then I thought “But” didn’t make sense. I was wrong.) Regarding the idea of a “corpse” maidenhead, is it the kind of idea Hamlet might have had? Eg consider: “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm”.

    • I find ‘as it were on a corpse’ a bit hard to explain. You feel like saying ‘Come on, man, you’ve got a live and willing woman waiting for you, stop rabbiting on about corpses and count your blessings’. I did wonder if there was some echo here of the Penthesilea legend, Penthesilea being the Amazon queen who came to fight on the side of the Trojans in the Trojan war and was killed by Achilles, who then promptly fell in love with her virgin corpse. But that doesn’t really explain anything.

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