On Burns Night – 2

January 25th, 2013

What makes a truly great poet? Is it complexity – a style so rich and dense that you can spend half an hour staring at a couple of lines and still not have a clue what the poet is saying? Is it simplicity – a style so easy to digest that one might as well be reading prose? The answer is neither. Ezra Pound and Robert Browning are great in spite of, not because of, the sometimes impenetrable complexity of their work. And the poet who dares to be simple always runs the risk of falling off the tightrope of inspiration into the void of banality.

Whatever the answer may be, I think that one of the defining characteristics of a great poet is an ability to express something large and complex with the simplest of means. In English literature, William Blake is a shining example. And, of course, Burns.

JOHN ANDERSON, my jo, John,When we were first acquent,Your locks were like the raven,Your bonnie brow was brent;But now your brow is beld, John,Your locks are like the snow;But blessings on your frosty pow,John Anderson, my jo!John Anderson, my jo, John,We clamb the hill thegither;And monie a canty day, John,We’ve had wi’ ane anither:Now we maun totter down, John,But hand in hand we’ll go,And sleep thegither at the foot,John Anderson, my jo.

The above text is from the 1919 edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse (ed. Quiller-Couch). The meaning is immediately clear to any English speaker, but here are the meanings of the unfamiliar words and phrases:

Brent – smooth
Beld – bald
Pow – head
Monie a canty day – many a cheerful day

The above verses are a new version of an earlier, anonymous song. Actually, there seem to have been several versions of this song, one of them is very bawdy indeed. If you’re curious, the filthy version can be found here (but this is not for the easily offended!):

So – Burns has taken a smutty ditty and turned it into – what exactly? He has turned it into an expression of enduring marital love – one of the hardest things a poet can do without lapsing into sentimentality. And he does it by the simplest and most powerful use of natural imagery. In the first verse, John’s hair was black, like that of a raven, the image implying youthfulness, strength and the ability to soar into and above the clouds. Now his hair is the colour of frost and snow – and the man himself is at the end of life’s cycle of seasons. So much expressed by means of so little.

The imagery of the second verse is even more impressive. Married life is conceived of as a journey up a hill. Initially the journey is all uphill but the travellers have youth on their side and can make their way onwards and upwards. Having climbed the hill they share many a “canty” (merry, happy) day together. Now, they’re on the downward journey and they’re starting to tire and totter. At the foot of the hill lies sleep and rest. So much expressed by such simple means. And if there is more compelling image of happy and enduring married life in the whole of literature then I have yet to encounter it.

This song has a tune associated with it. For a marvellous performance of the traditional song, given by Eddi Reader (pictured above), click here:

The composer Robert Schumann also loved this poem. He set a German translation of it twice. Martial love struck a chord with Schumann, as well it might, for his supremely talented wife had sacrificed her gifts on the altar of her tormented husband’s genius. His second, simplest setting, for unaccompanied choir, can be heard here:

The simplicity and power of the original poem so beautifully captured by Schumann.

Enjoy Burns Night! Raise a glass or two to an imperishable genius. I know I will…

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