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!): http://www.springthyme.co.uk/songtexts/JohnAndersonMyJo.html
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…
December 19th, 2012
Christmas songs – don’t you just love them? Me neither.
The problem is not really the songs themselves. Most of them are just pop songs, released on the off-chance of making a few bob for the artists concerned. Christmas carols, such as Mendelssohn’s Hark the Herald Angels Sing or Come All Ye Faithful may have the quality, or the gravitas, to stand being repeated year after year but that certainly isn’t true of most Christmas hits.
John Lewie’s Stop the Cavalry was catchy and witty when it first came out in December 1980 but incessant annual repetitions since then have caused its charm to wear very thin indeed. Cliff’s Mistletoe and Wine is enough to make anyone give up drinking and kissing for the rest of their lives. I really don’t need to hear Aled Jones singing Walking in the Air when I’m shopping at Sainsbury’s. And the less said about Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody the better. Will that wretched song ever fall off the radar?
But there is one Festive Season song which, for me, has always had a deeper resonance, and that is because the words were written – or, at any rate, compiled – by a great poet. It’s that song which we invariably hear at the very end of New Year’s Eve and the very beginning of New Year’s Day, not usually presented at it’s best, usually roared out by those who have had more to drink than usual, with the words invariably mangled, sometimes beyond recognition.
At least Auld Lang Syne only appears at one specific time of year and it is not thrust down our throats for weeks on end. It doesn’t wear out its welcome. And because the words come from a poet of real stature there is plenty to ponder beneath the surface.
Auld Lang Syne has been around for a while. Burns wrote it in 1788, but not from scratch. There were versions of this song stretching back centuries before Burn’s own time. But he fashioned the material into something special – a poem with depth. It was always intended to be sung, but maybe not originally to the tune we all know.
One of the most curious features of this song is the fact that while everybody knows it only a very few can quote it with any degree of accuracy and very few people indeed know anything more of it than its first verse and chorus. Because it is written in a Scots dialect, very few non-Scottish English speakers really know what it means and most of those who think they do invariably misquote it. Let’s take a closer look at this very familiar yet strange song.
Problems begin with the title. A literal translation of “Auld Lang Syne” would be “Old Long Since”, which doesn’t make sense in English. But if we take “long since” as a Scottish idiom for “past times” or, more literally, “old long ago” then the intended meaning becomes clear.
The version of the text I’m using here is from the Oxford Book of English Verse (ed. A. Quiller-Couch 1919). In that version, the repeated chorus appears as the last verse. As the chorus is always interspersed when performed, let us look at the first verse and chorus in Burns’ original version and in an unaccredited translation I found online:
SHOULD auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to min’?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o’ lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne.
This translates as follows:
Should old acquaintances be forgotten,
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintances be forgotten,
And days of long ago !
For old long ago, my dear
For old long ago,
We will take a cup of kindness yet
For old long ago.
Now – is it me, or do most people “sing” the opening line as: “Let old acquaintance be forgot / and never brought to mind”? Those who sing it that way completely reverse the meaning of Burns’ lines. Burns is not saying: Let the past be forgotten; he is asking a rhetorical question: Should the past be forgotten? And it is not a question to which he provides a direct answer.
Once we know the meaning of the title, the over-familiar chorus should pose no problems. But what exactly is a “cup of kindness”? And what sort of person or friend do you address as “my dear”? Already, in these two simple verses, there are questions and ambiguities. Acquaintances are not the same as friends. One might address a friend as “my dear”, but what about an acquaintance? There are references to alcohol later in the poem, so presumably the “cup of kindness” contains booze of one sort or another. But the choice of the word “kindness” seems to raise all sorts of possibilities. Is this about mutual forgiveness? Or shared sympathy? Or reconciliation? What, exactly?
The next two verses deepen the mystery rather than shed light on it:
We twa hae rin about the braes,
And pu’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d monie a weary fit
Sin’ auld lang syne.
We twa hae paidl’t i’ the burn,
Frae mornin’ sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin’ auld lang syne.
And in translation:
We two have run about the hillsides
And pulled the daisies fine,
But we have wandered many a weary foot
For old long ago.
We two have paddled in the stream
From noon until dinner time,
But seas between us broad have roared
Since old long ago.
So, the poet / singer and the person he is addressing are, or were, old friends. As Burns is a man we may assume that the authorial voice is male, but what is the gender of the person he is addressing? Later references to shaking hands and drinking suggest a male pair. But, even allowing for the passage of time between Burns’ day and ours, would two boys run about the hillsides picking daisies? This seems to be more the sort of thing that a young boy might do with a girl he liked. In the second of this pair of verses, two boys might go paddling together, but so might a boy and a girl. The reasons for their separation are just hinted at, but in a powerful way, consistent with the imagery of each verse. Thus, running among the daisies becomes a long and weary wandering. The two are united in the stream but separated by broad and roaring seas.
Whoever these two are, they have grown apart.
And here ‘s a hand, my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o’ thine;
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught
For auld lang syne.
And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I’ll be mine;
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne!
And there is a hand, my trusty friend,
And give us a hand of yours,
And we will take a goodwill draught (of ale)
For old long ago!
And surely you will pay for your pint,
And surely I will pay for mine!
And we will take a cup of kindness yet
For old long ago!
On the other hand, these last two verses, with their mutual drinking, handshaking and “going Dutch”, suggest a more typical male companionship. Yet the Scots word fiere, translated here as friend, can also mean “spouse”. So, this could be an older man and woman, remembering the past, sharing a drink and basking, if only momentarily, in mutual kindness. Why and how they parted, why and how they are reunited, is for us to decide.
This is what makes this poem (and, I almost hate to say it, song) so touching. Simple though it is, it is flexible enough to encompass a wide variety of scenarios in which two people, after long separation, might come together and remember the past.
The answer to Burns’ rhetorical question at the beginning of the poems presumably is: No, the past should not be forgotten nor should those who shared it with us.
Is he right? As L P Hartley said, “the past is a foreign country” but it is a country which gets bigger and more populous the older we get. Today, with Facebook, Skype, Twitter and other such “social media” monstrosities, there is very little excuse for forgetting old acquaintances. Everyone now is reachable, everyone just an email or a text-message away. But what such media offer is something utterly different from Burns’ warm, mutual drink.
I remember a Primary School reunion which I attended, some 27 years after I left the school in question. I had seen none of those who attended that reunion since we were at school together. 27 years is a long time, but maybe not that long. When I saw them again I recognized faces, greeted them and shared a memory or two. But what really struck me was that these people, with whom I had shared years of my life, were now strangers. They were all familiar, and yet I was not meeting them again – I was meeting them for the first time.
Old acquaintances should not be forgotten, nor should past times. But we should also remember that the past is the soil from which we sprang, not a prison which confines us. We change. We are all, even the most seemingly sedentary of us, on our own route to our own personal Ithaca, and maybe we will never arrive. But what is true of us is also true of those who shared the earlier part of our journey. So when we are lucky enough to share a cup ‘o kindness with a fellow traveller from auld lang syne, part of that great pleasure can be the joy of discovery.
For a fine reading of Burns’ poem by Duncan McIntyre, click here.
April 23rd, 2012
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…
(Richard II, Act 2 Scene 1, lines 40 – 50)
Before saying anything about the lines above I suppose I ought to begin by defending the application of the term “great” to a writer such as Shakespeare. It is no longer considered to be politically correct to say that writers such as Shakespeare are “great”. It is elitist. It will lay you open to the terrifying charge of “intellectual snobbery”.
This applies not only to English Literature in general, and Shakespeare in particular, but also to all other branches of the arts. I teach Classical Studies at the Open University. The courses I have taught over the years have contained some of the greatest works of art ever to have been produced by the human brain. But the course materials never once mention this. The present-day “official” attitude towards the art of the past is to regard it as an invaluable repository of information about earlier historical periods, not as something which has a certain special intrinsic value. An Open University Classics course will tell you a huge amount about, say, the plays of Sophocles. What it will not do is even discuss whether the plays in question have any purely artistic merit. Such matters are now regarded simply as matters of individual taste.
I do not and cannot accept this. But I do acknowledge that if we’re going to speak of “greatness” in art we need to be clear about what we actually mean. Here, then, is my criterion for greatness in art:
A work of art is “great” if, and only if, it is rich enough to allow the reader or listener or viewer to discover new things within it, or derive new experiences from it, every time they experience it. This doesn’t mean that a work of art must be lengthy or complex. The tiny songs of Hugo Wolf, the lyrics of Sappho, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience – they all fall into the category of great art because, small though they are, they never cease to surprise us, or to offer us new experiences every time we read or hear them.
If my criterion of greatness holds, then every single Shakespeare play falls into that category. And not one episode of any soap opera does. An episode of a soap opera is designed to be seen once and once only. Even diehard soap fans find it difficult to see any episode, no matter how enjoyable first time round, more than twice. But you can see, hear or read King Lear, As You Like It, or Richard II as many times as you want – you will never exhaust them.
The lines quoted about are, or were, some of the best-known lines in Shakespeare. Schoolchildren used to learn them by heart – not an exercise I would necessarily encourage. The phrase “this sceptred isle”, like Blake’s phrase “dark Satanic mills”, has found its way into common usage. As usual, those who use the phrase have little idea of the context.
This is perhaps not entirely surprising. Richard II is a truly great play. It is (I think) the only one of the plays to be written entirely in verse. If you see a really good performance of this play, or if you spend some time with the text, you will not forget the experience in a hurry. But it has never been very popular. I believe that it has only been shown once on British television. A quick visit to Amazon shows me that there are only two versions of the play on DVD. One of them, fortunately, is the BBC Television Shakespeare version with Derek Jacobi in the title role. If you’re interested, you needn’t hesitate.
The lack of popularity arises from the fact that the motivations of some of the characters, especially the central character, are hard for modern audiences to understand, let alone empathize with. Why does Richard turn on Bollingbrook? Why does he abdicate when he doesn’t have to? This is a historical play. Shakespeare can take some liberties but he cannot entirely re-write history. The play doesn’t provide conclusive answers to these and other questions. What the play does is to bring the characters and episodes to life in a unique and wonderful way and leave the viewers or readers to judge them for themselves.
The lines quoted above are from a speech by John of Gaunt. They are spoken in praise of England. These lines might be judged as having some contemporary relevance in the Diamond Jubilee year of Richard’s distant descendant Queen Elizabeth II. Events such as Royal Jubilees or Royal Weddings often evoke a certain emotional patriotism which Gaunt’s lines seem to express so eloquently. But quotations from Gaunt’s famous speech, like mine above, fail to present the whole picture. Gaunt’s speech is not a paean of praise but a lament for an England which is passing. Note how the speech ends:
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation throughout the world,
Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it –
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
That England that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
(Act 2, Scene 1, lines 57 – 66).
An England which is up for grabs, available to the highest bidder, an England in which money is all that really matters, a vain, selfish, self-serving leadership, influenced by corrupt counsel and acting in short-term self-interest, a leader who is so out-of-touch with reality that he might as well be physically blind…
Couldn’t happen these days, could it?
April 19th, 2012
I wrote a bit about this in an earlier article. It is a piece of road which I’ve used all my life and which has been used by the people of Horsham for centuries. From now on, alas, we are barred. And I’m very sad about it.
But I suppose there are two sides to every coin. The Denne Park property owners insist that the purpose of the gates is to deter teenagers with stolen trolleys full of alcohol from throwing drunken parties and dangerous barbecues in the area. Well, I walk around Denne Hill frequently and I hardly ever see anyone. But that’s not to say that such a problem doesn’t exist. When I was young, teenagers from around the ages of 16 to 18 were widely tolerated in pubs, provided that they behaved themselves. And in my day most people of that age were working full time. If they work like adults why shouldn’t they play like adults?
Nowadays things are different. If 16 – 17 year olds want to socialize over a drink they have to resort to the park, or Denne Hill. That raises problems of litter, fire safety and danger to livestock. Also in the property owners’ favour is the fact that the Old Coach Road has never been officially marked as a footpath – probably because no one ever saw the need.
I would further acknowledge that some effort has been made to make the bottom of Denne Road as attractive as possible. Presumably this was done as the expense of the landowners rather than the Council – I certainly hope so! It is also fair to point out that there is plenty of alternative access to Denne Hill – there are two official footpaths in the immediate vicinity of Denne Park Lodge.
And yet, when all’s said and done, a feeling of sadness remains. The contested gates will hardly be effective in deterring determined teenage drinkers precisely because there is so much alternative access. The only way to keep them out altogether would completely to ring-fence the area, and that would place the landlords on some very thin ice from a legal point of view. The landowners have gained their petty little victory and the real losers are those of us who used to walk along the route for pleasure.
Norman Raby was absolutely right to attempt to regain public access to the Old Coach Road, which residents of Horsham had always enjoyed. I supported his campaign. The failure of the campaign is bad news. The good news is that there are still so many footpaths around Horsham, Crawley and the rest of West Sussex which walkers can use in safety and without fear of harassment.
But these footpaths need to be used. As I wend my weekend way through the network of footpaths through West Sussex I may occasionally see the odd dog walker or cyclist. Apart from that, I have these wonderful routes all to myself. But I wish more people would use them, not only because I want to share the pleasure but also because the more they are used the more established they become. And the harder it then becomes for landowners to claim them as their own.
West Sussex footpaths are routes into some of the most beautiful parts of the entire planet! Use them. Enjoy!
March 1st, 2012
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.
These are the first two verses of a poem which Dylan Thomas published when he was 20. They are full of youthful exuberance and vitality. But what do they mean? What is Thomas getting at here?
What exactly is this “force”? The force which runs through the black and white “fuse” of these words seems to be both a negative and a positive force. Positive, because it is the life force itself, the force which drives the energy of youth. Negative, because this is a force which will push us all on to destruction. It bends the rose, dries the mountain streams, blasts the roots of trees and drives youth on to old age and destruction.
Commentators on this poem have been very preoccupied as to the nature of the “force” mentioned in the very first line and deliberately likened to electricity. Bryan Magee even goes as far as to suggest that the “force” can, at some level, be equated with Schopenhauer’s concept of the “Will”. This is an intriguing suggestion, though I am very doubtful that Thomas would have ever had much time for the gloomy Sage of Frankfurt.
I’m inclined to think that this is a blind alley. The actual nature of the “force” is not the real issue. I think that what the poet is really saying is that as we are all “driven” by the same “force” then, at some level, we are all connected, related, even identical. If the whole of animate life is driven by one force, whatever its positive or negative aspects, then it can be seen as a kind of unity. Yet that is not how we experience life. We cannot communicate with “nature” and we feel isolated.
Of course, we sometimes can and do empathize and identify with creatures other than our fellow men and women. We may relate to our dog, our cat, even our budgie or goldfish as being creatures somehow essentially similar to ourselves. But how far does this really extend? To the whole of the animal kingdom, or to creatures that are less cuddly, or to insects? What about trees and plants? Maybe during times of elation, or during other “peak” experiences, we may experience some fleeting sense of unity with all that lives. But it is something rare and passing.
But Thomas’ poem goes even further. What about streams and rocks? What about earth and matter? Is it possible to feel that sense of union and identity with the whole of nature?
In his brief, and compellingly readable, autobiography, the composer Arnold Bax describes an experience which perfectly illuminates the underlying meaning of Thomas’ poem.
Bax describes in some detail a spring morning in County Dublin. Unable to work, Bax goes for a bike ride. He describes the sights in some detail. He has a rest at a bridge over a river near Glendhu wood. Then he relates an experience which had occurred before and which can only be described as mystical:
“Whilst my vision became saturated with that aerial colour of Irish distances the two sounds of which I was alone aware were in a moment fused into one. My life’s blood it was that laughed and danced down the mountain, and that hill-stream coursed through my veins – was my very being. I was also that blue rim of earth held in the tangled net of the still naked birch-stems, and deep in that multicoloured pool of consciousness I sensed the images of all the beauty and pain in beauty that had ever illuminated or shadowed the race-memory of man.
It only lasted for a moment. “Who am I? Where am I?” came the question in a kind of panic, and instantly the dusky flames in that mirror within me broke up into shafts of diminishing light and went out altogether. My consciousness slid back into the rather delicate organism that was known as Arnold Bax.” (Farewell My Youth. p 96).
The similarity here – the mention of mountains, streams and veins – is very striking. Bax and Thomas were contemporaries – they died in the same year. Thomas would have known little or nothing of Bax, and yet here are two British artists who have both hit upon the same profound truth about the nature of human existence. Thomas expressed it through his poetry, Bax through his music.
We may stand dumb before the crooked rose but at least, through the medium of great art, we can communicate with each other.
Bax, A. 1992 Farewell My Youth ed. L. Foreman, Scolar Press.
Thomas, D. 1978 The Poems ed. D. Jones, J M Dent & Sons