Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wi Bickering Brattle!

(Whisper) It is dark, so dark that I need my torch to see what I’m doing. I am twelve years old and my parents are downstairs watching television. I have been sent to bed some time ago, but instead of sleeping I’m perusing the books on my father’s bedside bookshelf. Most books are kept downstairs, but some thought unsuitable are kept here and it is one of my regular nocturnal occupations to go and read them by torchlight. If you want to stay and find out more you must be very quiet.. any noise and one of my parents will be rushing upstairs and I won’t have time to get out of this room, back to my own bed and perform my regular feigned sleep routine. They probably will be very unsympathetic to you being here anyway; I’m only twelve and how old are you again?

Don’t worry, nothing on this shelf is that bad and if these books had been kept downstairs, I would probably have not even looked at them; the fact that they have been placed where I would not normally see them makes them ‘forbidden fruit’. Let’s do a little check on what’s here; some Henry Miller..D.H.Lawrence (Lady Chatterley’s Lover of course, but also Sons and Lovers, here by association I suspect),... two volumes of The Golden Bough by Sir J. G. Frazer, (I have inherited these two paperbacks and cannot imagine my father getting past chapter one! I guess he was seduced by such headings as ‘The influences of the Sexes on Vegetation’ and ‘Tabooed Acts’ only to find a lot of stuff on trees and Ancient Celts). Ahh... that’s what I was looking for - The Merry Muses by Robert Burns ~ torch still in hand, I am settled on the side of my father's bed and start to read!

"Not suitable for Maids, Ministers or Stipplings"

Robert Burns (forgive me if you already know this) was not a highlander, but a lowlander; he did not speak Gaelic, but the Scots language, and was unlikely to have ever worn a tartan. Lowland Scots, (from whom I am descended on my mother’s side) were, in the main part, farmers who managed to grow crops in what can only be described as pretty difficult conditions. Wheat does not grow well in much of lowland Scotland so oats, and later potatoes, were the principal crops and sheep the most abundant animal. Poverty, hunger and hardship were the constant companion for Burns, like most of his contemporaries. Why then, you ask, should this copy of The Merry Muses be ‘hidden’ from my young eyes? The answer is that this collection of Burns’ poems is extremely sexually explicit and contain almost every obscenity that you can think of (and as a twelve year old growing up in South London I can think of quite a few). If you read Burns at school you might be a little surprised at his use of language as well his apparent sexual appetite! In Victorian times these poems were banned and it is only...Quick I can hear someone coming you had better go ~ Quickly ~ I’ll tell you more later!

I worked for some years in an international school and was surprised by how keen Russian students were on Burns ~ how could you set about translating vernacular Scots into Russian! Back in the USSR, Shakespeare, Dickens and Burns were all compulsory reading in schools ( I was once told by a Russian colleague that she had read Oliver Twist at school, her teacher had told her that it was a novel set in contemporary Britain and was an accurate account of life in London!). I imagine the harsh life, shortage of food and short growing season gave Soviet readers of the time a natural empathy with Burns and his work, while his egalitarianism and working class origins endured him to the authorities. Burns has affected many with his poems and even Bob Dylan once cited him as his greatest influence. He is of course, the most quoted poet on Earth, mainly because of his poem Auld Lang Syne, sung at Hogmanay around the world.

As an adult I still love Burns’ work, but I rarely turn to his bawdy material (I can never find my torch!) ~ I'd like to mention his poem often called To A Mouse which tells of a farmer disturbing a mouse’s nest with his plough, but really sums up for us the fragility of the environment, our use of nature, our gift of empathy and our own destinies. It is the most profound poem I know of ~ please read it if you have time this Burns’ Night, or whenever you need reminding what humanity is all about.

Burns original
Standard English translation
Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle.
I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
An' fellow mortal!
I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't.
Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's win's ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!
Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.
That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld.
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!
Small, crafty, cowering, timorous little beast,
O, what a panic is in your little breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With argumentative chatter!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering plough-staff.
I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
And fellow mortal!
I doubt not, sometimes, but you may steal;
What then? Poor little beast, you must live!
An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves
Is a small request;
I will get a blessing with what is left,
And never miss it.
Your small house, too, in ruin!
Its feeble walls the winds are scattering!
And nothing now, to build a new one,
Of coarse grass green!
And bleak December's winds coming,
Both bitter and keen!
You saw the fields laid bare and wasted,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cozy here, beneath the blast,
You thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel plough passed
Out through your cell.
That small bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Without house or holding,
To endure the winter's sleety dribble,
And hoar-frost cold.
But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
Still you are blest, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
 I guess and fear!

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2012 (except poem, of course)


Robert Burns;

Only if you are very old and can take some serious bad language; The Merry Muses (you may need to browse for a while to get really offended! )

Wonderful site about the Scots Language;

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