“Lost in That Dream”: Some thoughts on Audrey Alexandra Brown’s “Laodamia” and a few associated poems.

Forþon biþ eorla gehwam æftercweþendra
lof lifgendra lastworda betst . . .
— The Seafarer, ll. 72-3

Audrey Alexandra Brown is a poet unjustly neglected. I certainly had never heard of her until I found, in a rural Alberta antique store, a first edition of her somewhat surprisingly titled collection A Dryad in Nanaimo. (It is from this 1931 copy from Macmillan that all quotations below come.) When her collection appeared, she had the praise and support of (male) powerhouses of the Canadian poetry scene. The poet Duncan Campbell Scott (today remembered for his work in the civil service rather than for his fine poetry) promoted her work. Pelham Edgar — literary scholar, major force behind the creation of the Canadian Writers’ Foundation, and powerful influence on Northrop Frye — wrote the preface to A Dryad in Nanaimo and in that preface gave particular high praise to her poem “Laodamia”: “one of the most beautiful decorative narrative poems that has come out of America”. What Edgar did not mention is that with “Laodamia” Brown was going toe-to-toe and head-to-head with William Wordsworth, Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom.

Brown won the match by a knockout.

But first a few notes on the first three poems of Brown’s collection. After a longer discussion of “Laodamia”, I’ll leave the rest of Brown’s poems for you to discover on your own.

A Dryad in Naniamo opens with the poem which gives the collection its title. “A Dryad in Nanaimo”, the poem, is an appreciation of the landscape with only the briefest of nods to the history of the landscape. The focus is on a single maple tree and the spirit of that maple, the Dryad of the title. I can’t help but think that the Dryad is the poet’s shy vision of herself, having learned that she was herself reserved and uncomfortable in company. There is such bitter-sweetness in the powerful acknowledgement of both the seasonal mortality of the leaves and the ultimate mortality of the tree, and of the dryad herself. The poem is most definitely a meditation on mutability with all the vivid power of Ovid but far greater gravity than the Roman usually managed to achieve. Although Brown’s classic style would not suit our sadly narrow post-modern attitudes, and the absolute lack of mention of the pre-Contact population of the landscape would offend our modern drive for Acknowledgment, “The Dryad in Nanaimo” remains a moving and powerful expression of a love of place and a love of the spirit of Nature, an expression that is very much relevant to our world today. It is unfortunate that our own prejudices will likely keep “A Dryad in Nanaimo” in obscurity, sadly lost as her maple tree was also doomed to be.

“The Reed” at first seems a bit light and frothy, but it soon becomes a pleasant meditation on inspiration and the muses. And the pastoral land of Arcady is described as “the shepherdess-land” which is an interesting feminization of a land traditionally dominated by shepherds.

“Diana” is a fine classical piece. But “This is not Greece” and “Pan is dead” she writes. A melancholy, elegiac farewell to the lost world of gods and men.

With the opening three pieces, Brown has set an elegiac tone that to my mind sets her work apart from the English Augustans she in some ways so resembles. Brown is not so much celebrating the Classical world of order and duty. Yes, Brown is fond of the richness of that lost world, but she has no illusions that it is a world that is not lost. Brown is clearly looking at the real world around her, the real landscape of Vancouver Island, the real trees outside her window. She is using and remaking old forms and old symbols to talk about the real, modern, everyday world around her. “Laodamia” is the story of a war widow in a land distant from war receiving the messenger carrying her husband’s death notice, the story of so many young women just a decade before Brown wrote her poem. And it is in “Laodamia” that Brown most fully fuses the classical forms and symbols with her everyday reality. And it is in “Laodamia” that Brown writes poetry that transcends literary pigeon-holes such as Augustan, Classical, Romantic, Victorian, Modern, Post-Modern, Keatsian, or “decorative narrative”, and achieves something as timeless as anything human can be.

If you read English, but, like Shakespeare as described by Ben Jonson, have small Latin and less Greek, and yet would like to have a true, visceral understanding of the difference between Virgil and Homer, I have a recommendation for you: find a copy of “Laodamia” by William Wordsworth and (with perhaps more difficulty) find a copy of the poem with the same title by Audrey Brown. Read Wordsworth’s piece. Try to pretend that this treatment of the grief of a war widow by the Father of Romanticism is not pompously Augustan and remarkably, uncomfortably, male. Wordworth’s piece is startlingly impersonal and emotionless, flat and contrived. Lines 13-18 have to be some of the worst verses ever produced in English:

O terror! what hath she perceived?—O joy!
What doth she look on?—whom doth she behold?
Her Hero slain upon the beach of Troy?
His vital presence? his corporeal mould?
It is—if sense deceive her not—’tis He!
And a God leads him, wingèd Mercury!

But the piece constantly echoes Virgil, particularly the Virgil whose hero sails away from the suicidal love of his life because his fate calls him on and never thinks of Dido again until he can’t avoid her in Hell.

In line 90 Wordsworth remarks that Love’s “favourite seat be feeble woman’s breast” and cements his position as the Misogynist Laureate of England. In line 106 he mentions the “fields investead with purpureal gleams” whatever purpureal gleams might be. And, to continue with his denigration of the title character, just before her husband dies (again), Wordsworth has him tell her:

“And Thou, though strong in love, art all too weak
In reason, in self-government too slow;
I counsel thee by fortitude to seek
Our blest re-union in the shades below.
— ll. 139-42

For what is life — or death — without a husband? She hasn’t seen the guy in a few years, and shouldn’t be surprised to have to wait at her loom for two decades, going about the affairs of life, managing a household on her own, being Penelope, for goodness sake!, but, if she gets final, certain word that her old man has caught a spear at Troy, she should off herself? How very noble is this world Wordsworth has given us!

And then there’s Audrey Brown’s “Laodamia”, a far more sensitive and, in short, better piece of art in so many ways than Wordsworth’s (mis)treatment of the mythic title figure. Brown’s treatment is a woman speaking for a woman in a woman’s voice, instead of a bombastic bit of versified mansplaining. And Brown’s poem is distinctly Homeric in tone and image which should perhaps spur us all to reconsider one of Samuel Butler’s less accepted theories.

Brown begins symbolically in media res, with explicit reference to Demeter’s grief for her lost daughter Persephone in her first stanza. Wordsworth, in contrast, does not get around to linking Laodamia’s loss to the mythic macrocosm of grief until lines 79 ff. Instead of getting to the emotional point, as Brown does, Wordsworth rambles on with exposition like Alexander Pope on a drunken tear in stanzas that are one shot short of heroic couplets.

Brown’s stanza’s, feeling more like Sappho’s lyrics than Pope’s couplets, root Laodamia’s grief in the grief of Demeter (stanza one), the tragedy of Acteon (stanza three), of Phaedra (stanza four), of long-suffering Penelope (stanzas six and eight), a Tennysonian hint of the Lady of Shallot (stanza seven). We feel Laodamia’s loss without needing to be told of it directly by a Wordsworthian loudspeaker or billboard. The specifics are not necessary to Brown’s poetic power; she is using the Homeric, perhaps Hesiodic, rustic pastoral mode to root us into a physical and emotional landscape. Wordsworth, on the other hand, is stuck in Virgil’s historic/prophetic/bombastic mode, and the result is an unfortunate emphasis on the dead male in neglect of the living, grieving female. One finds oneself wishing Wordsworth had been rereading Virgil’s Eclogues rather than The Aeneid before composing his “Laodamia” — but even then, he might have given us something like Lycidas singing of Amarylis as a metaphor of Livia, or, worse, Lycidas mourning for Aeneas, forced by manly fate to sail from Carthage.

Audrey Brown has obviously studied her Classics as carefully as she has studied the natural world around her:

. . . the brindled hound that lay
Beside his couch, unmoving, half the day —
The lame old steed it was his will to keep,
That from the stable turned soft eyes of pain
Seeking Protesilaus, even as she, in vain. (p. 17)

the absent master’s waiting hound and horse, of course, parallel Odysseus’ faithful old dog Argos.

A lovely little tragedy provides the prophet Chalcas’ prophecy:

“Then rose King Agamemnon, and he cried
To Calchas sitting silent at the feast
Cold-eyed, among the lowest and the least —
‘Come — that our spirits may be satisfied,
Rise, prophesy with all-divingin lips —
What honeyed fortune waits our southward-seeking ships?”

“Among the many lights a sudden moth
Ventured, and perished in a little smoke:
–Slowly the prophet raised his head, and spoke:
‘Thus do the gods forewarn me, being wroth,
Blood is required. Who leads you to the shore
Shall see these happy fields of blossomed vine no more’. (p. 18-19)

I have been unable to find any classical source for this particular image as an augury; it seems to be Audrey Brown’s own felicitous invention.

Brown’s Laodamia is, not “weak in reason”, as Wordsworth describes his heroine. She is not fooled by any talk of the immortality of memory:

“Have thy comrades wrought
Thy name and deed in all-enduring stone?
Nay, but the jasper shall be overthrown
By the dim years; and thou will lie unsought,
Unhonoured, mingled with that common earth
From which shall spring new nations, ignorant, to birth. (p. 24)

But she has not passed over into some sort of mortal despair:

“Yet while we live, behold us: for our care
Shall keep thy name remembered; we will make
Our sad eyes blind with weeping for they sake,
And sorrow as a garment we will wear. (p. 24)

Everyone, every monument, every memory must crumble to dust, but the best monument to the dead is the memory of the living.

Laodamia wanders the palace in a daze of grief, until . . .

There was a casement looking to the west,
Bound dark with clematis and striped with rain;
There, when her sight returned to her again,
Laodamia found herself. A nest
Hung in the tattered vine, deserted now,
And fallen petals starred the fading jasmine bough. (p. 25)

She sees her own emptiness reflected in the deserted nest on that tattered vine, and at last she weeps the tears she had promised:

All the world like smoke
Wavered before her seeing eyes, and passed,
As with undreamed-of tears her spirit broke at last. (p. 25)

And so she prays to Persephone, and the prayer is effective:

“They prayer is heard in Hades. Of her grace,
And for the love she never knew, with pain
Persphone gives back they dead again,
That though may’st weep with him, and may’st embrace,
And take farewell. One day, no more, is given
From the eternity of Hades and of heaven.

“Sleep; let the drowsy poppies of my hand
Breathe slumber on they heart, and seal thine eyes
With such an aching dream as weary lies
Upon the meadows of the twilight-land:
Sleep take thee, as the uplands take the rain;
Fear not; at daybreak rise, and find thy love again.” (p. 27)

With the “heavy sweetness” of the poppies of Persephone, Laodamia falls into a deep sleep, and there is the possibility that her in-the-end-permanent reunion with her husband ought to be construed as a wonderful opium dream, a dream, in fact, induced by a fatal overdose. Rather than leaving her alone, on the floor with Death, as Wordsworth does, Brown gives Laodamia and her husband Protesileus the permanent brightness and lightness of Love:

“And in that twilight world, whose floodless sea
Washes the margin of a silent land,
We shall not walk alone, but hand in hand,
And Love shall warm our immortality
With an eternal spring; since even death
Cannot dispart our souls, nor chill our mingled breath”.

So at the door they kissed with wordless lips,
And crossed the sill together: nightingales
Made rapturous all the air; the misty sails
And shadowy hulls of unreturning ships
Went by them seaward; but they looked above,
Lost in that dream whose height, whose breadth and depth is Love. (p. 38)

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A Brief note on “Norse Poems” translated by W. H. Auden and Paul Beekman Taylor

One of the joys to be derived from second-hand books is the faith that the volume one holds and reads was held and read by someone in the past — one walks this new road with an unseen companion. I have written previously about this sort of experience — but with companions well-known to me and exceedingly well-met — involving a volume of The Paston Letters. Recently I’ve enjoyed another such friendly meeting-by-means-of-a-second-hand-book involving the translation of Norse Poems by W. H. Auden and Paul Peekman Taylor published by Faber in 1981. While mildly disappointed in the translation, which seemed to me to lack both the poetry I would expect from Auden and the fidelity to the original Norse I might have expected from Taylor, the volume as a particular object brought me a sweetness of empathetic affect a brand new copy could never have brought. I will explain why.  On the front flyleaf, a little down from The Bookseller, Mr. Prins’ penciled price of $8.00, is the not terribly careful inscription “Bradley Willis, JUNE 2002”. “Who,” I thought, “might Bradley Willis be?” Well, thanks to the wonders of Googling, I know a little about the late Mr. Willis, scholar and attorney-at-law, and I have gazed on his slightly melancholy but still smiling quite Norse-looking face. Included in his 2019 obituary in the Edmonton Journal are these paragraphs, which was always in my mind as I read, amongst my books, “stacked floor to ceiling” the little blue volume that had been in Mr. Willis’ hands as he had read it himself:

A gifted scholar, Bradley’s passion for literature, languages and music was second to none. His home was filled to the brim with books that showed, stacked floor to ceiling, his eclectic interests and thirst to know a little bit about everything. He will be remembered for his wit, charm, encyclopaedic knowledge and sesquipedalian tendencies. He was unbeatable at Trivial Pursuit.Of particular interest to Bradley was Icelandic language and culture. Both his maternal grandparents immigrated to Winnipeg from Iceland, and he had strong ties to and deep affection for his Icelandic heritage. He immersed himself in that country’s language and literature throughout his life. In 2011, he was finally able to travel to Iceland to see it himself for the first time.

It is the passing of a book from hand to hand, from mind to mind, across space and time and generation which makes the book-as-object so much more than simply a text. I have a very large “collection” of books. But the books most important to me are not important because they are rare or high priced or “desired by collectors” or even visually beautiful. Among the individual book-objects that are most valuable to me are, for example: the copy of Alexander Pope’s Poems with a dried begonia leaf plucked over a century ago from the grave of Abelard and Eloise; the bookworm-eaten Greek Grammar printed in Lyon seven years before Shakespeare died; various volumes that have been owned as undergraduates by professors who later in life influenced me as an undergraduate; and, now, a slim volume of Norse Poems in translation that once belonged to Mr. Bradley Willis, who I would have very much liked to have met.So, if by chance Juliet, Aaron, Gaïa, Nathan, Randy, Jay, Slade, Kirsti, Colleen, Marvin, Dea-Anne, or all those nieces, nephews or two grandchildren of Mr. Willis should somehow happen upon this little note, please know that your husband, father, brother, uncle, grandpa has touched one more life through a book that he bought out of his love of learning and love of learning about Iceland. Thank you for sharing Bradley Willis.This book that was once his has now become one of my treasures.

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On Certain Events Along the Shores of ‘Nnalubaale, Separated by a Century

History is almost always written by the victors and conquerors and gives their viewpoint.
Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India.
In his account of his circumnavigation of ‘Nnalubaale (now known as Lake Victoria), Henry Morton Stanley, furthering the explorations of Burton and Speke, describes a moment of tension and violence on the Lake. It is March 27th, 1875, somewhere along the south coast of the Island of Uvuma — now Buvuma — off what is now Uganda’s Lake Victoria coast. Perhaps interestingly, Stanley had sailed past the peninsula of Entebbe just a few days before.
The canoes astern clapped their hands gleefully, showing me a large bunch of Mutunda beads which had been surreptitiously abstracted from the stern of the boat. I seized my repeating rifle and fired in earnest, to right and left. The fellow with the beads was doubled up, and the boldest of those nearest us was disabled. The big rifle, aimed at the waterline of two or three of the canoes, perforated them through and through, which compelled the crews to pay attention to their sinking crafts, and permitted us to continue our voyage into Napoleon Channel and to examine the Ripon Falls.
Through the Dark Continent, Vol. I, chapter VIII.

In dispassionate legal terms, Claus Kreß and Benjamin K Nußberger describe an event that occurred about a hundred kilometers west of and about a hundred years after Stanley’s encounter on the lake:
Shortly after midnight on 4 July 1976, as ‘the sand in the hourglass [is] about to run out’ the Israeli machines land ‘by surprise and without any authority from the Ugandan Government’ at seven-minute intervals at Entebbe International Airport. Only fifty-three minutes later, they depart with the freed hostages. The Israel Defence Forces had stormed the airport terminal, killing seven hijackers and liberating the prisoners. Yet, the rescue operation also results in four casualties, three Israeli passengers and one Israeli officer, and a number of serious injuries. About twenty Ugandan soldiers are fatally wounded and the airport building is heavily damaged. Furthermore, allegedly in order to ensure their safe return flight, Israeli soldiers destroy a number of Ugandan aircrafts, which are parked nearby, and other military equipment. After a refuelling stop in Nairobi in Kenya, which is allowed ‘purely on humanitarian grounds’, Israel’s rescue mission safely returns to Israel
The Knesset of Israel also offers a description of this incident:
. . . Following the Government’s decision to go forward with the plan, four transport aircrafts took off from Sharm el-Sheikh en route to Entebbe. The raid on the airport resulted in five Israeli casualties: IDF officer Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu (brother of MK and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu); Dora Bloch, an elderly woman hospitalized during the raid and murdered after the raid (her remains were returned to Israel in June 1979); Ida Borochovitch, Jean Jacques Maimoni, and Pasko Cohen were killed during the Operation. On the return flight, the planes landed in Nairobi, Kenya for refueling to attend to the fatally wounded with medical care. IDF Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur announced it at first as an emergency landing, but it seemed to have been coordinated with Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta. . . .

Narrative. The Stories that get told. The Stories *we* tell. The Stories we tell each other and ourselves. Look at these stories.
We know Stanley’s name. We can look at photographs of him. Read his words. His Story.
The man holding the beads in the canoe and his uncounted and barely visible companions at the receiving end of Stanley’s “big rifle” are cyphers, placeholders, unknown tokens, indistinguishable but readily extinguishable pawns on the black side of History’s chessboard.
We know Yoni Netanyahu’s name. We can see his photograph with a few key strokes on Google. We can hardly fail to know about his kid brother Benyamin. We can find out about all the hostages and hijackers, about Mordechai Gur and Jomo Kenyatta and Idi Amin. But there are “about Twenty” Ugandan families who lost sons and husbands and fathers that day. What are their names? Where are their pictures? What did they have for their last meal that July day in 1976? Did they laugh in joy as they left their mothers/wives/children for their work? What are their stories?
Taking a crazy and ultimately pointless long view, what would have become of the man brandishing the beads in the canoe off the shore of Buvuma that March day in 1875? Would the flapping butterfly wings of his genes and his community influence his story — have led Uganda to a different 1976? And what of the unknown number of young Ugandan soldiers killed that July night at Entebbe? What did the world lose by their deaths, by history’s erasure of their very names?
And, because the victors, the conquerors have preserved his name for us, what would the story have been if Yoni Netanyahu had returned alive from Entebbe? What would his kid brother have been like under the influence of an older brother who, as a young man, had seen, who had been in command of the erasure of “about twenty” young men so very much like him?
We can never know.
Victory?

A Meditation on “The Ordinal of Alchemy”, A Real Book of Magic

It was a large room with three big windows and it was lined from floor to ceiling with books; more books than Lucy had ever seen before, tiny little books, fat and dumpy books, and books bigger than any church Bible you have ever see, all bound in leather and smelling old and learned and magical.  But she knew from her instructions that she need not bother about any of these.  For the Book, the Magic Book, was lying on a reading-desk in the very middle of the room. . .
– C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 10.

     The Ordinal of Alchemy is a text written by Thomas Norton, a Bristol gentleman just     below the rank of Knight, who lived about 1435 to somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1515.  The book is a long poem in rhymed couplets (in this similar to most of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) in which Norton gives instruction on the recommended course to follow to advance in the understanding and practice of Alchemy.  In the poem Norton tells us of his own progress, of his teacher, and of his own experiences as a gentleman of the court of a king (Edward IV) himself interested in Alchemical studies.  The burden of duties at court led Norton to abandon his alchemical studies until later in life when he composed The Ordinal
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Pauline Baynes’ illustration of Lucy approaching the Magician’s Library

While reading The Ordinal I found myself slowly realizing that I was quietly fulfilling a childhood dream that I might one day read actual books of magic in their original languages. Very early in my life I had read C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books and I have been quietly haunted by the scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – actually haunted by Pauline Baynes’ illustration of the chapter in which Lucy discovers the Magician’s Book of spells.  Later in life I had read silly New Age books of fake witchcraft and found them absurd, uninspired, and uninspiring.  And I have spent many years studying the twelve Old English metrical charms, which are in an authentic voice like that of Norton, but have tragically been appropriated by shallow crystalline herbal wiccans on neo-pagan websites.  It was only when reading The Ordinal of Alchemy, hidden behind it’s obscurity of language and image, that I came to realize that I was finally – had actually long been – truly in the Magician’s library.

     By no means is Norton’s Ordinal a guide to magic or alchemy that actually works, any more than the Old English charms have much other than an accidental or psychological efficacy.  While Norton’s description (in lines 2843 ff.) of the furnace he himself invented gives a very clear picture of a remarkable piece of engineering, the discussion of actual alchemical procedures is extremely obscure.  Much of the work, as would perhaps be expected, is moral and religious (Lewdnes to cese is bettir late then nevyre. [l. 3098]), but it is all seasoned with what must be termed truly scientific theory and moments of true experiment.  Surprisingly, the fundamental instruction to the aspiring alchemist is basic capitalist advice concerning how to retain good help in one’s employ:

Therefore if ye wil voyde alle dreede,
In the grose werke do bi my reede:
Take nevir thertoo no howsholde man,
Thei ben soone wery as I telle can;
Therfore take no man therto
But he be wagide, how evir ye do,
Not bi the monthe as nye as ye may,
Ne bi the weeke, but bi the daye;
And that your wagis be to theire mynde
Bettir then thei elsewere can fynde;
And that thei nede not for wagis sewe,
But that their payment be quyke & trewe.
ll. 1349-1360
That’s right — pay them a competitive, living wage!
      Much of what Norton discusses is, as he acknowledges, rehearsal of alchemical doctrine that has come down from his predecessors in the art:
Olde men wrote in avncyen tyme
How that of sapours there be fulli nyne:
Which ye may lerne within half an houre
As sharpe tase, vntuous, and sowre
Which iij to Meen mater testifye,
As byting taste, saltish, & werish alle-so;
Othir iij came thikke substance fro,
As bitter taste, undersowre, and dowce,
These ix be fownde in many a noble howse.
ll. 2107-2116
This model of nine fundamental tastes does not, of course, fit with modern conceptions of the mechanics of taste — four fundamental flavours when I was a boy; five now that I am a man — but the model is not inaccurate, simply in need of refinement. 
And Norton is not an undiscerning devotee of all things magical:
Trust not Geomancye, that supersticious arte,
For god made reason which yer is sett a-parte;
Trust not to all astrologyeris, I say why,
For that arte is as secrete as alchymye.
ll. 2973-2976
Even alchemy is an art, not quite a science, but

No man is sure to haue his entent
With-owte ful concorde of arte with Instrument.
ll. 2897-2898
The proper tools are fundamental to success.
At times Norton seems to be saying something that makes a sort of sense to the modern reader, but we are not seeing his intent:
Liquour conioynyth male with female wyfe,
And causith dede thingis to resorte to lyfe;
Liquours clansith with their ablucion;
Liquours to oure stone be chief nutricion,
Without liquours no mete is goode,
Liquours conveith alle Alimente & fode
To euery parte of mannys bodie . . .
ll. 2189-2195
Although this may seem to be a celebration of the wonderful virtues of strong drink, this is actually a purely alchemical passage and the “liquours” in question are not such as we might tipple on a winter evening before the fire in our study.  Norton’s liquours are precursors to the manufacture of Elixer, which is itself necessary to the production of the final goal: The (Philosopher’s) Stone.
     In our post-Descartes world we often have discussions of the mind/body question.  Some will feel that we must understand them to be some sort of dualism, that there is a soulful ghost in the fleshly machine.  Others see things in a somewhat purely materialist sense, that what we think of as consciousness is just the cerebral flesh doing its thing, the software of the mind running on the wetware of the brain.  But Norton tantalizes with a different, tripartite model:
Therefore in oure werk, as auctours techith vs,
There must be Corpus, anima, & spiritus.
ll. 2397-2398
One part body, one part soul, and one part spirit.  This distinction between soul and spirit seems foreign to both the materialist and dualist modern mind, but, whatever it means, it is fundamental to the work Norton is trying to teach.  Anyone who wishes to grasp the foreign Medieval intellectual world that produced The Ordinal of Alchemy must wrestle with such different categories of experience and understanding. 
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Pauline Baynes’ illustration of the Magician’s Book

     As far as he testifies, Norton was never successful in reaching his alchemical goals.  But he has left to us a marvelous window into the Medieval alchemical world.  And he has made manifest to me the transformation of a naïve childhood goal into a happy adult awareness.     In this real, true Magician’s book Thomas Norton has given us is a challenging history of a difficult and lonely life spent trying (largely unsuccessfully) to understand the world and our relation to it, not the easy-reading text of a weekend workshop on “the practical and experiential knowledge that can help you manifest and change your life!
Thomas Norton’s The Ordinal Alchemy, edited by John Reidy, was published in 1975 by The Early English Text Society

A Brief Note on Cordwainer Smith’s “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” & “Under Old Earth”, Raleigh’s “Pilgrimage”, and the Adjective in Biblical Hebrew.


But there was another voice somewhere, a voice which grated like the rasp of a saw cutting through bone, like the grind of a broken machine still working at ruinous top speed.  It was an evil voice, a terror-filling voice.
Perhaps this really was the “death” which the tunnel underpeople had mistaken her for.
The Hunter’s hand released hers.  She let go of D’joan.
There was a strange woman in the room.  She wore the baldric of authority and the leotards of a traveler.
Elaine stared at her.
“You’ll be punished,” said the terrible voice, which now was coming out of the woman.
– Cordwainer Smith, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town”, Galaxy Magazine, vol. 22, no. 6, August 1964, p.42.

Lady Arabella Underwood’s appearance about one third of the way into Cordwainer Smith’s classic Science Fiction story, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” comes with that brief but somehow remarkable description of her attire: “She wore the baldric of authority and the leotards of a traveler.”  Remarkable because it contains the somehow-evocative-of-something-deeply-meaningful parallel pair of  concrete nouns modified by genitive prepositional phrases.  The “leotards of a traveler” may simply be some sort of imagining of the sartorial preferences of a fictional future – although there is nothing in the story to suggest that Lady Arabella is in any real sense a traveller.  The “baldric of authority” is also unexplained (Smith’s fiction is rich with allusion to unexplained details of his richly imagined future), and may perhaps be taken as some sort of badge of office.  But this concrete “baldric” with its modifying phrase of qualitative genitive seems of a deeper rhetorical significance.
 Smith uses this construction a number of times in his stories, for example, in “Under Old Earth” (Galaxy Magazine, vol. 24 no 3 February 1966, pp. 6-48) the aged character Sto Odin stating “I wear the feathers of immunity” (p. 27) and, most charming:  “I am caught by the dry, drab enturtlement of old, old age”(p. 22).  What is Smith doing here?  Why does this construction seem so evocative to a discerning reader?
 Well, consider:
Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage;
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.”
– Sir Walter Raleigh “Pilgrimage”

What a pile of genitives of quality Sir Walter has collected here!  Every concrete item of the pilgrim’s simple equipage is qualified by an abstract. The scallop-shell (the symbol of the pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago), the staff (the physical support), the scrip (the pilgrim’s small satchel), the bottle (water for the journey), and the gown (simple clothing) are transformed with those genitive prepositional phrases into the abstract qualities which are the true sustainers of a successful pilgrim.
 Why does Raleigh use this construction, the concrete noun followed by the genitive of an abstract quality?  Why not just use an adjective – the quiet scallop shell, the faithful staff, the happy scrip, and so on?  Well, most obviously, because they don’t quite mean the same thing.  A quiet scallop shell is just a scallop shell that is not making noise.  A scallop shell of quiet is the concrete partaking of the abstract, of the transcendent, perhaps.  And, obviously for someone of Raleigh’s time, temper, and education, there is a consciousness of scriptural rhetorical forms, and the genitive of quality is decidedly an Old Testament rhetorical form.
 Jouon Paul and ‎Muraoka Tamitsu, in A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, speak of the “genitive of the quality expressed by an abstract noun”  referencing Exodus 29:29 : וּבִגְדֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ “garments of holiness”(p. 437 ), which is so clearly a parallel to Raleigh’s “gown of glory” and, perhaps, to Smith’s “baldric of authority” and “feathers of immunity”.  This construction in Biblical Hebrew has sometimes been described as a way of compensating for Biblical Hebrew’s “lack of genuine adjectives” (see, for example, Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi,  A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, p. 10).  Cynthia L. Miller-Naudé and Jacobus A. Naudé, however, argue quite convincingly that Biblical Hebrew does, in fact, have true adjectives in “Is the adjective distinct from the noun as a grammatical category in biblical Hebrew?”, In die Skriflig 50(4), a2005.  Whatever the underlying reason for the development and use of the rhetorical pairing of a concrete noun with the genitive of quality of an abstract noun in Biblical Hebrew, the evocative construction certainly has had a continuing impact on English rhetoric, from Renaissance poetry to mid-Twentieth Century science fiction stories.

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!

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 lang 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, Buy 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”