The “Merry Devil of Edmonton” and “The Witch of Edmonton”

The following is adapted from the introduction to my adaptations of The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton.

Out of Shakespeare’s Shadow

     That fellow from Stratford casts a long, virtually impenetrable shadow over the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. Few today would be able to think of another playwright from the period — I hear a few of you shout “Marlowe”. Fewer still would be able to name a non-Shakespearean play from the period — “Dr. Faustus” one or two yell, as Marlowe peeks out of Shakespeare’s shadow again. But Shakespeare and Marlowe were just two of a multitude of playwrights of the period, and many, many plays of varying quality have come down to us that have nothing to do with Bill the Bard. But how many of those plays ever see a stage today? And how many of those plays have you seen performed? I confess, apart from an occasional bit of trans-Atlantic leakage from the BBC, I’ve never seen a production of a non-Shakespearean Elizabethan play. On the other hand, I’ve lost count of the number of Midsummer Night’s Dreams I’ve tripped over, from Patrick Stewart in a loincloth as Oberon at Stratford in 1977 to Edmonton’s Winter Shakespeare Festival’s production in 2020.

     I don’t think it in anyway diminishes Shakespeare’s genius to suggest that the time is long past for him to yield the stage for an evening or two to some of his illustrious but neglected colleagues. There is so much good and great theatre out there in the world (And I don’t mean just the English Language stage tradition – I dream of seeing a production of Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño !): I can’t help thinking that it is the responsibility of theatre artists to provide, and theatre audiences to demand, a broader view of our shared inheritance of great drama. I am so very grateful that Benjamin Blyth and Danielle La Rose of the Malachites feel the same way and are bringing The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton to the place these plays truly belong: a stage in Edmonton.

The Merry Devil of Edmonton

     The Merry Devil of Edmonton first came into my life as an accidental side benefit of my (possibly) pathological book collecting. A few years ago I was walking home from The Bookseller (96th Street and Whyte Avenue in East Strathcona, hard by the Mill Creek Bridge) examining my latest finds with happiness, when my eye fell with startlement on a title in a small volume of Elizabethan Tragedies: The Merry Devil of Edmonton. “Why have I never heard of this?!” I exclaimed, perhaps aloud. There and then began a decade or so of study, writing, and mild badgering of the Edmonton theatre community about the need to somehow bring the Merry Devil (and, later, The Witch of Edmonton) to the stage in their namesake city in the distant woods of Rupert’s Land. A passing mention of the plays to Danielle La Rose of the Malachites (over frozen haggis, if I remember) about a year ago, led to a staged reading of the two plays at Edmonton’s first Winter Shakespeare Festival in 2020.

     The Merry Devil as it has come down to us is what would be termed a “bad” text. Many passages seem garbled and whole scenes appear to be missing. I have emended one speech, in Act IV, Scene ii, to remedy a generally recognized corruption of the text. Three scenes, those of Fabell disguised as Hildersham meeting the knights in the Rectory of Holy Trinity, of Sir John’s singing in the woods of the Mill Creek Ravine with his friends (the songs themselves are traditional), and of Smug and the Tavern Signs are my own creations. I have added these scenes to clarify very apparent inconsistencies in the play as it has survived. The events in my added scenes are hinted at in the play and the latter two survive in a chapbook version of the adventures of Peter Fabell, Smug the Smith, and his friends. I have little doubt that in some Elizabethan performances of The Merry Devil of Edmonton similar scenes would have been performed.

     Peter Fabell (like most of the characters in The Merry Devil of Edmonton) is a folkloric figure with perhaps some basis in fact. He bears resemblance to the Faust legends, but, unlike Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Fabell traditionally outwits the Devil, saving his own soul (by being buried in the exterior wall of the Church in the Village of Edmonton, in the space between consecrated and unconsecrated ground) while having enjoyed the benefits of his Demonic contract.

     In our play, Fabell is still a young man, just beginning on his magical career of outwitting demons and the older generation. But he is already a powerful trickster figure. With his tricks Fabell helps his young friends overturn the plans of their parents. In fact, Fabell works to effect the transition of his society from the Medieval to Modern — in Marshall McLuhan’s words, “out of the world of roles into the new world of jobs” (The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 22 in my old Signet paperback copy). Young Raymond, Millicent and their friends, and particularly Fabell, are not willing to quietly submit to the roles prescribed to them by their elders. Instead they set about, with the help of Fabell’s wit and magic, the job of creating their own future, and, in the end, they draw their elders into that world as well.

The Witch of Edmonton

This natural infirmity is most eminent in old women, and such as are poor, solitary, live in most base esteeem and beggary, or such as are witches; insomuch that Wierus, Baptista Porta, Ulricus Molitor, Edwicus, do refer all that witches are said to do, to imagination alone, and this humour of melancholy.
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Pt. I, Sec. 2.

     The story of Elizabeth Sawyer, the Witch of The Witch of Edmonton, is a most quintessential tragedy, made even more tragic by the fact that Elizabeth Sawyer was a real woman tried and executed just a few years before the play was first performed. Mother Sawyer was scapegoated and killed for witchcraft. This in spite of the fact that the educated of her time, such as the real-life scholar Robert Burton, writing about what we might term “geriatric depression” in 1621 above were quite convinced that witchcraft was not really a “thing”. Mother Sawyer is a woman far more sinned against than sinning. She is condemned as a witch by neighbours who project their own fundamental ugliness onto her truly superficial ugliness. She wishes nothing else than to cling to her meagre existence, to be left alone, but she is condemned, beaten, and killed by the wealthy and the privileged, while those same wealthy and privileged go about their sinful business. Mother Sawyer so rightly describes that business of the privileged as actual “witchcraft”. Mother Sawyer is a tragic and pitifully realistic counterbalance to the educated and urbane Fabell. Both Fabell and Sawyer deal with the Devil, but it is only in poverty that the Devil truly has full, unrestrained power to do his damage.

     For the Winter Shakespeare Festival, I very heavily abridged the text of The Witch of Edmonton to bring it within the time constraints of the staged readings. This was a quite painful process: there is much poetry in this telling of the true-life tragedy of Elizabeth Sawyer. Much of the abridgement came down to the removal of single words, often of lines or brief speeches, but once of a large portion of a scene. The process was very opposite to that of adapting The Merry Devil, which largely involved adding my feeble creations rather than vandalizing a wonderful and coherent piece of art.

A Note on Locations

     The localities mentioned in the original text of the plays — Edmonton, Waltham, Enfield, Cheston (Cheshunt) — are now neighbourhoods of North London, but in Elizabethan times they were rural towns and villages in their own right. Just so, many neighbourhoods of our Edmonton were their own towns and villages not so very long ago. My own neighbourhood, Strathcona, was once a city in its own right. Since truly human truths are true wherever their story is told, I felt it would be both true and entertaining for modern Edmonton, Canada audiences if I quietly replaced the localities of London, England, circa 1600 with names of neighbourhoods, churches, and other landmarks around my home in 21st century Edmonton.
The Village of Edmonton in the plays, Fabell’s and Mother Sawyer’s home, is the namesake of our City of Edmonton, where so many today are energetically working like Fabell’s cohort, or tragically struggling like Mother Sawyer, to use imagination and wit to invent and reinvent themselves and their home. It has been small but enjoyable work to move the localities from the banks of the Thames to the banks of the North Saskatchewan.

Vanessa and the Mob

     There is a lady who lives in my neighbourhood– let’s call her “Vanessa”. She has a small dog, and she sells slim street newspapers each Saturday outside the “Farmers’” Market just down the Avenue from my house. If you live in Old Strathcona, you probably recognize Vanessa. The vast majority of the shoppers who pass by Vanessa drive cars from the suburbs each Saturday to get their little bit of “local” stuff before driving back to their distant homes. They can afford to shop at the Market. Vanessa can’t afford to buy her groceries at the “Farmers’” Market.

     Vanessa’s dog looks anxious, perhaps anxious to please. She is very calm, but when you talk to Vanessa– really talk to her — you get to know that she has — with reason – plenty of anger in her.

But Vanessa is kind.

     I help Vanessa out sometimes – less than I am able. And Vanessa has helped me, too, out of all proportion to the occasional twenty or collection of empties I’ve given her. She’s a “Street Person”, perhaps, but she’s definitely not “down and out”. Vanessa has a home. I have seen Vanessa survive surgery, eviction, alcoholism, and stuff I suspect but hesitate to imagine. Vanessa and her little dog are survivors.

     This evening, as I sit thinking about The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton in my comfortable home in a comfortable neighbourhood of a comfortable Canadian city in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century — a time when all statistical indicators tell us unequivocally that I live in the best of times ever for humans on this planet (despite the quite apparent coming climate apocalypse) — I think of Vanessa and her little dog. And I see that I am Fabell — little but fortunate, not a survivor — and Vanessa is Mother Sawyer, gathering sticks just to survive. I wish so much Fabell had been a totally real person, not largely myth, and that he had used his cunning to help the tragically real Mother Sawyer, even if only with a shilling, or a few sticks, or nothing more than a kind word.

     And if, as it came for Elizabeth Sawyer, the mob ever were to come for Vanessa, in this modern time, in this Gilded Age of (anti-)Social Media in which it seems so easy for mobs to appear, I hope that I would help her, that the whole neighbourhood would help her, that Edmonton would help her, somehow.

     But I wonder . . .

Twin wishes, for these Plays, and for the Reader

     I wish that through my small efforts of adaptation, through the creativity of the actors performing the staged readings at the Winter Shakespeare Festival, and through the publication of my adaptations in a little volume, The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton will have been, first of all, appreciated, if only for an evening, by an audience in Edmonton; and secondly, that at some point in the not too distant future these two plays will be taken up and be given a fuller production — and a new home — by Edmonton’s wonderful community of theatre artists.

     Foibles afflict all of our lives, and we all need distractions from the little and the big things that disrupt our days and nights. I hope you, Reader and Theatre-goer find these two undeservedly unknown plays at least a small, pleasant diversion. Most importantly, may all your future foibles be nothing like Mother Sawyer’s tragedy, and much, much more like Smug’s comedy.

     And if you see Vanessa anywhere in your travels, say “Hello. I hope you’re doing okay.”

     And give her a fiver, for her paper.

On Larry Niven’s “Flash Crowd” and the internet mob.

I like to reread the science fiction I first read when I was a teenager.  I find interesting the perspective a life lived in history gives to the artifacts of youth.  Recently I reread Larry Niven’s collection of short stories The Flight of the Horse and was particularly struck by “Flash Crowd”, a description, originally published in 1973, of an imagined future world in which personal teleportation has recently become ubiquitous and inexpensive, much like public telephone booths became in the last century.

The story follows an investigative reporter (we might call him a videographer today), first as he scouts stories by flitting between displacement booths, and later, for most of the story, as he tries to find a way to convince the world that he is not to blame for an ongoing, teleportation driven riot that began as he recorded it.  In the end he demonstrates that it is not he, as a representative of the free press, but rather the new technology of unregulated transfer booths that is responsible for what threatens to be a plague of floating flash riots around the world.  As one part of his investigation, he takes a booth to Tahiti and discovers that already there are permanent lawless crowds plaguing parts of the world, that the riot back home in Los Angeles is what parts of the world have been dealing with since shortly after the first displacement booths were installed.  In the end a plan is suggested which will see police having control of an emergency switch which will quickly bring any flash mobbed area back under the rule of law.

The details of the plan Niven comes up with are not of much interest to me at the moment.  My interest, rather, is in what I find to be striking parallels between our world and Niven’s Flash Crowd world, in which everyone with an axe to grind, a protest to make, a chip on their shoulder, a product to hawk, a fraud or theft to commit, a conspiracy to postulate, or even a book to review, can simply dial a code in a displacement booth and find themselves before the eyes of the world in an instant piled-on flash mob.  In Niven’s world, displacement booths allow individuals to actually go into the thick of the mob.  In our world, like so much else, the mob has become virtual.

I’ve written a bit elsewhere about what I see to be one of the dangers of our modern ability to travel virtually to virtually any spot on earth: that there are virtues and benefits for an individual in taking time and effort to experience things.  It is better to trek on foot to Everest  than it is to simply helicopter into Base Camp before climbing.  I think Niven’s story points out that there is also a danger to society in the instant gratification available to us in our digitally interwoven world.  Especially when our baser urges — what are traditionally known in some cultures as the Seven Deadly Sins — are allowed to be indulged instantly, the danger of the virtual mob is every bit as real as the danger Niven imagined in his world of displacement booths and physical flash mobs.

There is no need, I think, to rehearse the list of people who have had lives ruined by social media mobbing.  I’m sure there are few who are not aware, even if they’ve never visited them,  that there are permanently dangerous and unpleasant places in the underbelly of the online world.  But I do think there is a great need for thoughtful people to seriously consider the implications of this world we’ve created, to not simply live in a happy online bubble of cat gifs and instant links to family and friends.  Behind the cartoons are countless virtual floating flash riots which are causing and will continue to cause very real pain and loss to very real people.

I don’t have any answers, but I can suggest that a reading of Larry Niven’s “Flash Crowd” can offer some perspective from an unexpected half-century old source.

“The Two Gentlemen of Verona”: wherein the Freewill Players demonstrate how to properly “tweak” a problematic Shakespearean play.

No spoilers here.

Like the texts of a number of Shakespeare’s plays (The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, Othello), The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a little uncomfortable for audiences today.  How can one respond to a happy ending that sees the victim of attempted rape reconciled to her attempted rapist just a few moments after the crime? How can we accept the whole cast going off to celebrate a wedding just after the Bride was almost raped by the Best Man?  Well, as the Freewill Players warn us in the playbill for this year’s production, “we have tweaked Shakespeare’s ending”, and the tweak is, I feel, a profound success.  By means of a final repetition (with slight modification) of a line spoken earlier in the play, the women of the play find freedom in the only way possible: as outsiders, exiles, outlaws from the male social structure of the play.

Much is often made of images of transformation in The Two Gentleman of Verona, of references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses — this thread is made obvious in the name of one of the two Gentlemen, Proteus.  But in this Freewill production, the transformation is wonderfully turned away from the men who are textually the centre of the play, in the final moment — which I hope I haven’t spoiled — in which the ever-present Shakespearean crossdressing female character embraces her femaleness and offers escape to the trapped-in-their-gender-roles women of the play.

The “tweaking” of the ending is textually subtle (unlike the bitter, savage mess the Citadel recently made of The Tempest), just a repetition of a few words from earlier in the play which reveal a wonderful new depth of meaning perhaps inherent in the text.  Certainly, the repeated line serves only to emphasize meanings already conveyed by the body language of the actors.

If I go on, there will be spoilers, so I will end by saying, the performers were uniformly delightful, the sound system had it’s usual glitches, and,

go see Freewill’s Two Gentlemen of Verona!

On the thing called “Traditional Knowledge” and the current seeming worship of that thing

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you
can understand.

— Yeats, from The Stolen Child

I came across an article today called “It’s taken thousands of years, but Western science is finally catching up to Traditional Knowledge”.

Really. Really?

So, an anecdote about the behaviour of some birds is being investigated by “Western Scientists” and they’re finding there might be some truth to the anecdote. So . . . Western Science is catching up to traditional knowledge?

No. Some scientists are investigating an hypothesis formulated on the basis of a traditional understanding of a certain behaviour of a certain type of bird. Western Science is, as it most often has, considering traditions and weighing the actual evidence in support of or against the validity of those traditions. “Traditional knowledge” has little to teach “Western Science” about vast areas of research and discovery. One might argue that “traditional knowledge” has a lot of catching up to do.

It would be foolish to accept uncritically, as the mentioned article seems to suggest, all or even most, or even some or even any traditional knowledge. That road leads to an acceptance that the Flood covered the Earth, the Ark is on Ararat, The walls of Jericho fell at a trumpet blast, Troy burned because of a woman named Helen, St. Brendan sailed a hide boat to a sleeping whale’s back and woke the beast with his campfire, Beowulf slew Grendel, Arthur will return at the time of England’s greatest need, a man can have visions of his ancestors by sticking a stingray spine through his penis, Mohammed split the moon, and there’s a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.

Science offers us the tools to discriminate between traditions that truly reflect the world on the one hand and, on the other,traditions that may rather reflect the symbolic world of society or of psychology or of something else or of simple fancy. To dismiss “Western Science” as “finally catching up” is disingenuous at best. Science isn’t “catching up” to traditional knowledge of “firehawks”; scientists have gotten around to investigating one hypothesis among an infinitude of hypotheses waiting to be investigated.

I would rather celebrate the wonderful world “Western Science” shows us every day, a world far more full of wonder than any world offerred us by traditional systems of ordering things.

De gustibus . . .

My Office

I sat in my “office” this afternoon. A couple strolled by with their young child on their way to the public pool down the avenue in the woods.

Several hours later they strolled back, wet towels on shoulders, dripping hair plastered to foreheads, smiles on faces, strung out along the sidewalk.

I thought “How dull! To spend those hours just floating in that sunlit pool!”

And then I realized:

How dull! To spend those hours reading Carlo Ginzburg on Tristram Shandy and translating Medieval Latin!

de gustibus . . .

Thoughts on “A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes” by Madhur Anand

I’ve been meaning for a few years now to write down some thoughts on Madhur Anand’s 2015 collection of lyric poems A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes. Since I was a child reading Sagan and Shklovskii’s Intelligent Life in the Universe and therein discovering the poetry of Yeats, I have known that the mythical division between Art and Science is a false one. The Ancient Greeks (I want to channel Matthew Arnold and write “Sophocles long ago . . .”) saw no division: Astronomy had its Muse just as did Dance and Lyric Poetry had each their own divine patron and inspiration. The Greeks had it right: eight Muses for History, Dance, and various Poetries; one for what we would now call a science. Today we creep slowly back toward a balanced view, slipping (at times) an “A” for “Art” into STEM to advocate (at times) for STEAM education. I heartily wish for a better, unconscious, common-sense attitude amongst artists and scientist to these sadly divided pursuits of which we all, by virtue of our very humanity, are devotees. It is a vanishingly rare person who does not feel the twin urges — however repressed or supressed, to create (Art) or to find out (Science). And I doubt there is a “Scientist” who is not Artful, an “Artist” who does not use Science.
I’ve been running on a bit.
Madhur Anand is a Poet and a Scientist and is unashamedly — proudly both at the same time. And her New Index for Predicting Catastrophes is a marvelous, challenging, beautiful, and remarkably coherent collection of poems about being human in a world begging for careful exploration and sensitive understanding.
Anand begins her volume with two graphic illustrations of a glucose molecule facing twin epigrams, Adrienne Rich’s “Is it in the sun that truth begins?” and Democritus’ “Everything in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” Democritus has, as I am sure professional Ecologist Anand well recognizes, anticipated and distilled (with significantly less poetry) the essence of Darwin’s The Origin of Species into a single line.
But what of the sun, truth, and the glucose molecule?
Turn to Section One and the answer should begin to come into focus: “What We Don’t See in Light’s Dark Reactions”. And the poem of the same name begins with a sentence in little less than two lines:
The rejection of reds, a gap of blues, chlorophyll
absorbing necessary wavelengths.
Chlorophyll’s necessary response to photons it meets: rejection of some wavelengths, absorption of others — the “necessary” ones. And, from that simple chance and necessity, the rest of the poem’s description of nature, Darwin’s “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” And how have these forms been evolved? This poem’s final sentence:
Something winged, ringed molecules, sugar from light.
Look back at the winged, ringed molecules drawn as a graphic epigram. The chlorophyll has, by chance and necessity, used the light of the sun to make this ringed, winged sugar which has made the wings of the peacocks and of the bird of paradise and the rings and circles of brooches, chandeliers, oranges, and non-zero-sum games. And right there is Truth, from the Sun, through the chloroplasts of a leaf, and through the poetry on the page, and from one human mind to another.
This one poem would be more than enough for a happy book of poems, but Anand has more, many, many more “most beautiful, and most wonderful.” Many of her poems have been evolved in a way somewhat different from the usual poetic practice of relatively modern times. Some of these poems were made not by struggling over single words. Anand has made some poetic collages of passages from scientific papers. I’m reminded of the Dada poet Tristan Tzura who constructed poems from random lines clipped from newspapers. I suspect, however, the evolution of Anand’s poems is the result of a greater selective pressure than were those of Tzura. I feel that Anand is tapping into something very ancient, the now largely lost but once widespread poetic technique of formulaic poetry, originally oral. Anand is constructing poems from pre-existing elements of a scale larger than the single word, as “Homer” used the multi-word metrical formulae which were the shared poetic heritage of his culture when composing The Iliad and The Odyssey. In these poems, Anand is using ourscientific culture’s shared heritage, the heritage of shared scientific discovery and open communication to make and communicate her own discoveries.

 

So many wonderful poems. My copy of A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes is 20190309_1914383031408838012166888.jpgliberally punctuated with those little brass book darts (I order them in bulk). What to quote? The overwhelming density of reference of “The Origin of Orange”, with a richness to fill many years of contemplation? (cf. Pliny the Elder, Book XXVI, xiii.) Or the return to Orange in “Three Laws of Physics:

Two glasses sit side by side
on the table like windows
one filled with sunshine
one with melting ice caps . . .
Or maybe the marvelous linking of poetry, botany, Chinese calligraphy, and interior design of “Will it?” How about the unbearable and unbearably restrained eroticism of “What to Wear”?
I want you the way
a gold border wants
a red silk sari
I want you to be the blouse
tailored to my breasts, fastened
from behind by your eyes . . .
Too many. Too rich. Anand’s poems are too rich to paraphrase, too varied to describe, dauntingly allusive and joyfully elusive, and ultimately as concrete and as mutable as Art and Science and Human existence.
A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes is a volume to read from cover to cover, to read again, to make notes on, and to return to again throughout a life.
Seek it.
Find it.
Savour it.

Thoughts on Burns Night: Haggis, Scotch, and Authenticity

The cottage leaves the palace far behind
– “Cotter’s Saturday Night”, l. 168

Every January 25th unknown numbers of people around the world, for largely unknown reasons, gather to celebrate something called “Burns Night”. Usually these celebrations involve the drinking of Scotch whisky, the eating of something called “haggis” and (sometimes) the reciting of a brief bit of poetry about the “Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race” in the 18th Century Scots dialect of English, pronounced with wildly varying degrees of accuracy. The whole thing is usually great fun, which is likely the reason the traditions continues: there simply aren’t that many actual Scottish, poetry-loving haggis-eaters in this world and I suspect the vast majority of celebrants know little about haggis, Scotch whisky, Scotland, or the rakish farmer-poet from Alloway, Robert Burns. Certainly few are able to call to mind even a single line of Burns’ verse apart, perhaps, from “Auld land syne . . .”.

Here are a few more lines:

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;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
– “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose”, ll. 5-12.

Robert Burns, the man whose “Imortal Memory” tradition has us toast on his Night, was born a tenant farmer in 1759 in the village of Alloway in the Western Lowlands of Scotland. His father was a bit of a self-taught polymath and made great effort to support his family and to educate his children, with greater success in the latter endeavour. Robert was schooled, both at home and more formally, in Latin, French, and English literature. This learning helped him little in escaping the back-breaking and fairly hopeless life of the tenant farmer, but it certainly provided him with forms and fodder for his poetry. Many of his most accessible pieces are love poems written in the early years of a short life. Burns spent a great deal of time, it seems, trying to convince servant girls, barmaids, and female farm workers to be his muses and lovers. At least three of his illegitimate children – not counting the four children his future wife, Jean Armour, bore him out of wedlock – are the product of his “encounters” with such “muses”. A modern sensibility can’t help but be disturbed by the power dynamic of Burns’ first reproductive success, in 1785, involving Elizabeth Paton, a servant girl in his mother’s household. Was this what we would call love? Or was it rape, one of uncountable #MeToo moments of history?

By whatever name, these “seductions” soon became a pattern of Burns’ life. In November 1788, a few years after his encounter with Elizabeth Paton, after Burns found himself sexually shut out by a lady who struck his fancy, her servant, Jenny Claw, perhaps unsurprisingly, in due course, bore Burns a son in November, 1788. In March of the same year, Jean Armour, still not married, had borne Burns twins again. The children sadly did not outlive the month. At this point, Burns had just eight more years to live and was to father six more (known) children, five by Jean Armour and one by a Dumfries barmaid, Ana Park, in 1891. The last child, a son, was born four days after his father’s death in July of 1796.

Burns was clearly, if not selflessly, devoted to sex. He was also devoted to drink and to good, simple, hearty food. But Burns also made desperate attempts to continue to make a living as a farmer, a habit which remained with him even after his poems brought him success in Edinburgh. His first volume of poems, descriptively titled “Poems: Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect”, caught the eye of an Edinburgh publisher who brought out an edition in the big city in April of 1787 and paid Burns quite handsomely. Burns was, for a time, the toast of the town, hobnobbing with the gentlemen and ladies and ladies’ maids particularly. He abandoned plans to emigrate to a new life in Jamaica, apparently thinking Scotland had become more hopeful for him. In time, however, he alienated many of his new friends with his common man republican sympathies, first for the American Revolution, and later for the revolution in France. He turned from city life, bought a new farm and continued to write. But this farm failed too, as had so many for his family. He moved to Dumfries, fathered a last child, joined a volunteer military unit in 1795, apparently to prove his loyalty to the Crown, and died a year later at the age of 37.

Some blamed drink. Some blamed the hard labour of his life. He had declined a position at a newspaper in London. He had declined a candidacy for the Chair of Agriculture at Edinburgh University. He had, quite simply, declined.

Is it this fairly melancholy life that we celebrate on Burns Night? An old mentor of mine, Dr. R. J. S. Grant, wrote a study of Burns titled “The Laughter of Love”. But where is this laughter? Where this love? In this life? Perhaps Burns tells us himself what to celebrate in his “Epistle to James Smith”, a letter in verse to his good friend and companion in drink and the seduction of the women of Mauchline:

Some rhyme a neibor’s name to lash;
Some rhyme (vain thought!) for needfu’ cash;
Some rhyme to court the countra clash,
An’ raise a din;
For me, an aim I never fash;
I rhyme for fun.

The star that rules my luckless lot,
Has fated me the russet coat,
An’ damn’d my fortune to the groat;
But, in requit,
Has blest me with a random-shot
O’countra wit.
– ll. 25-36

Burns says clearly here that whatever other reasons he may have for writing verse – he certainly wrote his share of political pieces – always the prime driver of his work is fun. He is quite clear that his fortune in life has been meagre, but there’s that random-shot of country wit he’s been granted, and he is determined to use it. Burns seems never to have had much ambition beyond ploughing a straight furrow, getting enough to eat and drink, satisfying his lust, and, most of all, writing verse.

Then farewell hopes of laurel-boughs,
To garland my poetic brows!
Henceforth I’ll rove where busy ploughs
Are whistlin’ thrang,
An’ teach the lanely heights an’ howes
My rustic sang.

I’ll wander on, wi’ tentless heed
How never-halting moments speed,
Till fate shall snap the brittle thread;
Then, all unknown,
I’ll lay me with th’ inglorious dead
Forgot and gone!
– ll. 49-60

Perhaps the only ambition he ever satisfied in life was this quest for fun. And, although he claimed not to want it, he achieved a remarkably wide, if somehow shallow, fame in death. His goals in life were simple:

While ye are pleas’d to keep me hale,
I’ll sit down o’er my scanty meal,
Be’t water-brose or muslin-kail,
Wi’ cheerfu’ face,
As lang’s the Muses dinna fail
To say the grace.
– ll. 139-145

It is in his poetry, not his melancholy life, that Burns finds for himself and passes to us the fun he seeks in simple things, in food and drink and human companionship. It is here, in the poetry, that Dr. Grant hears “The Laughter of Love”. The memory of joy preserved and transmitted in his verse is the truly Immortal Memory that is toasted at any Burns Dinner worth its Salt:

On January 25th each year we drink a toast to the Immortal Memory of the poet of the laughter of love and for one brief, shining moment we are one with our dear ones, one with our fellow men and women, one with the little mouse with whom we share a common destiny and mortality.
– R.J.S. Grant, The Laughter of Love: A Study of Robert Burns, p. 168

This unity is surely the hope gestured to at Burns Night Dinners, but what does the obscure national dish of a small country have to do with sharing “a common destiny and mortality” with the people of the world?

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
– “To a Haggis”, ll.1-2

Much wailing and face-pulling can be heard and seen at any mention of haggis-eating. This rather ordinary food product has acquired, due, I suspect, to a great deal of manly-Fear-Factor-inflation of the gross-out possibilities of organ-meats-I-have-eaten-in-my-life when good buddies get together – this haggis has acquired a bit of a reputation for being inedible or, at the very least, somehow disgusting. But consider: a principle ingredient is onion, one of the most common vegetables in almost any national cuisine. Another is minced liver, considered a delicacy under the name “paté”. Perhaps haggis needs a French accent to be acceptable to food snobs. Oatmeal goes into the beast as well, that common, warming breakfast staple. Perhaps heart is not so common in the North American diet as it once was, but a wonderful, flavourful muscle nonetheless, and one that any steak-lover would be foolish to ignore. It’s all stuffed into some bit of an animal’s digestive tract (traditionally the stomach, they say) exactly as the finest sausages are stuffed.

“But”, you shout, still anxious for the gross-out, “what about the lungs?!”

Yes, much is made, particularly by the Scottish National Chamber of Commerce and such protectors of all things Scottish, that haggis must contain the lungs – the lights as they’re also known – of the animal. Well, I have news for all living Scots at home and abroad: a dead Scot says you’re wrong. On page 160 of F. Marion McNeill’s The Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions and Recipes, published in 1929, in a “Traditional Cottage Recipe” for haggis, we read “A little lean mutton may be substituted for the lights.” To further destroy the tyranny of modern haggis convention, Ms. McNeill also suggests on the very same page that haggis may be made in a jar, or in a pan “like a stew”. Haggis is beginning to look a lot like that paté after all. To be honest, when I am asked about haggis (as, odd to say, I often am) I ask back “do you like paté?” If their face scrunches up and they say “no” I tell them “you won’t like haggis”. But if their face brightens and they say “yes” I’ll say with confidence, “give it a try.”

Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.
– “To a Haggis”, ll. 25-42

While Burns’ Address “To a Haggis” is great fun and a bit of a hype-machine itself, the dish described is no mystery. It is exactly what Burns says it is: a hearty, filling, satisfying, rich, and flavourful dish fit for the taste of a hard working rustic. It isn’t meant for those who want their “authentic”, vegan, freegan, gluten-friendly (although haggis usually is that), organic, hipster, fashionable fricassees and French ragouts. Haggis is for quelling hunger, and that is why Burns praises haggis, the “Great chieftain o’the pudding race”, as “honest” in the first line of his poem. Haggis is not, and should not be, pretentious. It is rustic food, food made with what is on hand in an 18th Century Scottish farmer’s simple home, authentic with no need to be labelled such.

This life, sae far’s I understand,
Is a’ enchanted fairy-land,
Where Pleasure is the magic-wand,
That, wielded right,
Maks hours like minutes, hand in hand,
Dance by fu’ light.
– “To James Smith”, ll. 67-72

And consider Scotch Whisky, “O thou, my Muse!” as Burns names it in the invocation of “Scotch Drink”. Today, Scotch Whisky, even of the most inferior blended sort, is a premium product. A fairly fine bottle can easily cost a day’s labour at minimum wage, and it wouldn’t be hard to drop two days’ wages for something only a little better. In Burns’ day, in contrast, Scotch Whisky was the labourer’s drink, “the poor man’s wine” (“Scotch Drink”, l. 40). Compare Canada today, where a more than decent wine can be had on sale at Superstore for less than an hour’s labour. When Burns celebrates Scotch Drink in the poem of that name, he is celebrating the home-grown, common people’s, inexpensive, consoling tipple at the end of the working day. “Scotch Drink” and the “Address to a Haggis” are nothing other than celebrations of what would today be termed Food Security, By Local, and the One Hundred Mile Diet.

For loyal Forbes’ charter’d boast

Is ta’en awa!

“Scotch drink”, ll.113-114

After the Scottish nationalist rebelion led by Bonnie Prince Charlie had been brutally crushed at Cullodden, the English Crown rewarded families who had remained loyal with gifts such as charters of excise tax exemptions. On the basis of such a loyalty exemption, the Forbes family dominated the Whisky industry for over a century from their distilleries at Farintosh. But in time the Crown recinded the Forbes’ charter. When Burns laments “Thee, Ferintosh, O sadly lost!” he is not lamenting the closure of a distillery that made his favourite, authentic, small batch three-hundred-dollar-a-bottle Scotch. He is lamenting, rather, the loss of a large scale distillery that produced copious quantities of affordable (cheap) hooch that flooded the Highlands and the Lowlands and helped to keep the labouring classes happy for at least a century. Ferintosh was the common man’s drink, a dozen levels below Johnnie Walker Red Label, sort of the two-four of Lucky Lager of the day.

Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost!
Scotland lament frae coast to coast!
Now colic grips, an’ barkin hoast
May kill us a’ . . .
– “Scotch Drink”, ll. 109-12

Take the haggis of Burns’ day, with neeps and tatties if you wish, add his affordable Ferintosh whisky, and compare these to the great pomp and formal ceremony of one of the umpteeen Burns Night Dinners at fancy hotels around the world each January. Would the Burns we have seen, the Burns of the common people, the Burns who turned down a job in London and a University position to return to the rural plough – would this Burns, “our Rabbie”, be comfortable at that fancy hotel, do you think? Perhaps briefly, but he would soon be in the kitchen, harassing the waitresses, sharing a box lunch with the dishwasher, and singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the top of his drunken lungs!

Burns was a respecter of neither pretension nor of authority. He was of rustic stock and never lost his love for the simple things of a working man’s life. If you want to celebrate Burns Night in the true spirit of Burns, don’t seek out haggis or Scotch whisky (unless they’re the sorts of food and drink the ordinary working people would eat and drink where you live) and don’t read 18th century Scottish verse if you only read it once a year and don’t understand it anyway. In my town a true Burns Night would probably involve something like beer and pizza with friends and family with whatever music brings you and your dear ones together. Maybe even something about the old sod by Spirit of the West.

If you are at a Burns Dinner this January 25th, or any January 25th, please take a moment to read “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”, and raise a glass of something affordable to a poet of the common people, a poet devoted to fun above all else, and stuff your face with comfort food, whatever that may be in your country, with your family and friends.

Wave that magic-wand of pleasure he mentioned to his friend James Smith, and have fun in the fairy-land of life!

We wander there, we wander here,
We eye the rose upon the brier,
Unmindful that the thorn is near,
Among the leaves;
And tho’ the puny wound appear,
Short while it grieves.
– “To James Smith”