April is National Poetry Month in the U.S., and I thought I’d do my small part in celebrating it before the month slips by. So here I’ll be featuring my latest adventure in poetry: Robert Burns (1759—1796), whose 250th birth anniversary is being celebrated this year.
How did I “discover” good ol’ Rabbie? Well, you know how reading one book usually leads to other authors and other books? That’s precisely what happened here. I was reading a series of novels which (yes, it was a love story), surprisingly, led me to the man o’ the ladies himself. I was intrigued enough that I searched for Mr. Burns on my next foray at the used books store—the best place to find long-gone poets—and a gem did I find. For there in those slightly disorganized shelves of slightly musty books I found a nice, clean copy of Poems and Songs of Robert Burns (Souvenir Edition, 1960, Collins: London and Glasgow), edited by James Barke, and appropriately dressed in blue tartan. Can you hear the bagpipes?
They don’t make ’em like this anymore. This handsome, hardbound volume claimed to have “the most complete to date” collection of Burns’s work. And, as I discovered, Burns’s body of work turns out to be quite substantial. The volume includes a brief introduction by Barke, the all-important index to titles and first lines which should accompany any collection of poems, and a glossary which is indispensable for understanding many of the regional words and spelling that Burns used. Besides the glossary, unfamiliar words are also regularly defined at the margins of the poems (for example, gowd means gold). Moreover, this souvenir edition includes 31 photographic images relevant to Burns’s life story interspersed throughout the book.
In the introduction, Barke wrote of Burns, “He also loved women in the particular. He loved many women in his lifetime.” And so explains the many love poems that Burns wrote. But that is not the only thing he wrote—he wrote of many other things, as I discovered, the general impression which they left me being of a compassionate person. A compassion which apparently extended to hares and sundry critters.
When I started perusing Burns’s poetry, it became apparent that they were best spoken with a Scottish accent. And since I could only fool myself for a few verses that I had one of those, I decided to search for an audiobook of Burns’s poetry. After sampling several readers, I finally found one that I liked: Gordon Kennedy. In this album, Kennedy’s sweetly expressive, lilting, and soothing reading of Burns’s poems is a pleasure to listen to. My only complaint about this album is that there is only one of it, and the 20 poems featured in it do not even begin to scratch Burns’s body of work.
I leave you for now with a sampling of three of Burns’s poems, some lines of which are probably familiar to many of you. Until our paths cross again, fare thee weel, dear readers, fare thee weel!
TO AN OLD SWEETHEART (Written on a copy of his poems) Once fondly lov'd and still remember'd dear, Sweet early object of my youthful vows, Accept this mark of friendship, warm, sincere-- (Friendship! 'tis all cold duty now allows); And when you read the simple artless rhymes, One friendly sigh for him--he asks no more-- Who, distant, burns in flaming torrid climes, Or haply lies beneath th' Atlantic roar.
A RED, RED ROSE O, my luve's like a red, red rose, That's newly sprung in June. O, my luve's like the melodie, That's sweetly play'd in tune. As fair art thou, my bonie lass, So deep in luve am I, And I will luve thee still, my Dear, Till a' the seas gang dry. Till a' the seas gang dry, my Dear, And the rocks melt wi' the sun! O I will luve thee still, my Dear, While the sands o' life shall run. And fare thee weel, my only Luve, And fare thee weel a while! And I will come again, my Luve, Tho' it were ten thousand mile!
IS THERE FOR HONEST POVERTY Is there for honest poverty That hings his head, an' a' that? The coward slave, we pass him by-- We dare be poor for a' that! For a' that, an' a' that, Our toils obscure, an' a' that, The rank is but the guinea's stamp, The man's the gowd for a' that. What though on hamely fare we dine. Wear hoddin grey, an' a' that? Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine-- A man's a man for a' that. For a' that, an' a' that, Their tinsel show, an' a' that, The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor, Is king o' men for a' that. Ye see yon birkie ca'd "a lord," What struts, an' stares, an' a' that? Tho' hundreds worship at his word, He's but a cuif for a' that. For a' that, an' a' that, His ribband, star, an' a' that, The man o' independent mind, He looks an' laughs at a' that. A prince can mak a belted knight, A marquis, duke, an' a' that! But an honest man's aboon his might-- Guid faith, he mauna fa' that! For a' that, an' a' that, Their dignities, an' a' that, The pith o' sense an' pride o' worth Are higher rank than a' that. Then let us pray that come it may (As come it will for a' that) That Sense and Worth o'er a' the earth Shall bear the gree an' a' that! For a' that, an' a' that, It's comin yet for a' that, That man to man the world o'er Shall brithers be for a' that.
Still here, but the odds were not really against it. Things tend to quiet down sooner or later and then I allow myself the luxury of doing things which I find creatively satisfying. While neglecting this blog I was learning other things, mostly about people, and I’ll leave it at that. I have also found myself in the delightful situation of reading multiple books at the same time. From Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, it’s a wonderful, if self-indulgent, place to be for one striving to be literate. My recent acquisition of a Sony eBook reader certainly has a lot to do with that. So, yes, I have been reading, just not writing, and I have some catching up to do in the blogging department.
I do have a few books wrapped up and ready to be blogged. I’ll be writing about these in the coming weeks. The short version of the reviews: I loved them all.
In the meantime, how about a full-length movie? Yes, it’s Jane Austen—Ang Lee’s 1995 award-winning film, Sense and Sensibility, Oscar-winning screenplay written by Emma Thompson, who also co-starred in the film with Kate Winslet. It’s free and it’s legal. For now, it’s available only to U.S. audiences. Courtesy of Hulu.
Or how about something from Emily Dickinson? I can’t lose either way. From c. 1858:
It’s all I have to bring today —
This, and my heart beside —
This, and my heart, and all the fields —
And all the meadows wide —
Be sure you count — should I forget
Some one the sum could tell —
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.
Often a second-hand book would wave to me from a bookshop shelf without my meaning to look for it, like a dog in a kennel looking to be adopted. Which is why I frequently browse my favorite used-books store. This is what waved to me the other day: The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Brontë, edited by Janet Gezari (Penguin Books, 1992). (Note that the illustration on the cover is a pencil drawing of a fir-tree by Emily Brontë.)
This collection contains 182 of Emily Brontë’s extant poems, 21 of which were published in the 1846 book of poems written by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë—Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell—the names referring to their respective pseudonyms (this 1846 collection of poems is available from Project Gutenberg). The editor, Gezari, seems to have performed more than satisfactory and painstaking scholarship in putting together this collection. In the introduction, Gezari presents a brief historical survey of Emily Brontë’s poems, and details the choices and decisions which she made regarding the copy-text she used for the poems in this collection, the ordering, the amalgamation of fragments, titles, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. The book also includes extensive notes at the back. Because relevant dates for most of the poems are included, it is possible to study how Brontë’s poetry changed with age.
Emily Brontë died in 1848 at a young age of 30; Anne died in 1849 at the age of 29. Charlotte was the last of the siblings to die, in 1855 at the age of 38. In the notes section, it is said that Charlotte only discovered Emily’s poems ‘one day, in the autumn of 1845,’ which implies that Emily kept her poems a secret, at least from Charlotte. It was also interesting to learn that Charlotte edited seventeen of Emily’s poems to accompany a new edition of Wuthering Heights in 1850. Indeed, when I compared the version of ‘No coward soul is mine’ printed in my copy of the 1943 Oxford Book of English Verse (another book that waved to me) to that in this new collection, which includes both Emily’s and Charlotte’s versions, I found that Charlotte’s changes persisted.
Now, although I am not indifferent to poetry—I have actually tried to educate myself on the subject—I am hardly qualified to pass literary judgement on a poem. However, I do not demand much, and it is enough that a poem gets to me and makes me feel and makes me think and sings to me and stays. If I have to rely on professional literary criticism for this judgement, then I am hopeless. I therefore proclaim, after perusing this collection, that Emily Brontë is a genius.
Brontë’s poems were written in definite measures and rhyme schemes, as is to be expected of poems from that period. They are ‘melodious’ and I find that I thoroughly enjoy reading them. As a sample, I reproduce, verbatim, one of the poems in the collection, written by Brontë in November 1837, when she was 19 years of age. Note that ‘Gondal’ is the name of an imaginary island invented by Emily and Anne and which was to have figured in their ‘Gondal Chronicles.’
Now trust a heart that trusts in you And firmly say the word Adieu Be sure wherever I may roam My heart is with your heart at home Unless there be no truth on earth And vows meant true are nothing worth And mortal man have no control Over his own unhappy soul Unless I change in every thought And memory will restore me nought And all I have of virtue die Beneath far Gondal's Foreign sky The mountain peasant loves the heath Better than richest plains beneath He would not give one moorland wild For all the fields that ever smiled And whiter brows than yours may be And rosier cheeks my eyes may see And lightning looks from orbs divine About my pathway burn and shine But that pure light changeless and strong Cherished and watched and nursed so long That love that first its glory gave Shall be my pole star to the grave
When I first read this poem, it immediately resonated with me. I will not succumb to the temptation of explaining why I like this poem, or any poem I post, because that will defeat the purpose of my posting it. Readers are welcome to discuss, of course. 😉
I first came across this poem while I was browsing the book Good Poems for Hard Times, compiled by Garrison Keillor. I don’t own the book, but from time to time I browse through it when I’m at a bookstore. One time, when I was at Border’s and having a snack of sandwich and coffee, I looked up this poem again in the book and copied it on a piece of napkin. Here it is. Enjoy.
There was a woman in Ithaca
who cried softly all night
in the next room and helpless
I fell in love with her under the blanket
of snow that settled on all the roots
of the town, filling up
every dark depression.
in the motel coffee shop
I studied all the made-up faces
of women. Was it the middle-aged blonde
who kidded the waitress
or the young brunette lifting
her cup like a toast?
Love, whoever you are,
your courage was my companion
for many cold towns
after the betrayal of Ithaca,
and when I order coffee
in a strange place, still
I say, lifting, this is for you.