October 19, 2005

B is for Burns

I was going to write about both of my favorite two 'B' poets, until I saw just how long the post on the first one had gotten (I couldn't resist the bawdy stuff). So I'll leave Browning for another writer (hint, hint, Swooop) and instead write about oor Rabbie.

whB.gif is for Burns.

Here's the thing about Burns. It's true he was born poor, and that he wrote his first poems while working unsuccessfully as a farmer. (More of his problems may have arisen from his "irregular" liason with the woman who later became his wife, and the resulting kirk censure, than from any lack in his farming, but that's another issue.) But he wasn't uneducated, though much of it may have been self-education, and when he wrote in braid Scots it was through choice, not because it was the dialect he normally spoke. At least when writing to an ENglish audience, he wrote in standard English, though he may have been like the Scots of John Muir's day who spoke in Scottish to the Scots and in English to the English, and who when with the former saved the latter dialect for moments of fury. Burns was lionized in Edinburgh and was offered positions both on a London newspaper and in a Scottish university, though he turned both down.

Here's the other thing about Burns: he left a whole set of poetry that wasn't in your high school anthology. He kept them in a locked drawer, and some of them were eventually published with other material as "The Merry Muses of Caledonia". Some were songs he collected, some he wrote. Here's the version of John Anderson, my Jo, that I first learned, a sweet song reminiscent of Browning's "Grow old along with me / The best is yet to be":

JOHN ANDERSON, my jo, John,
When we were first acquent,
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonnie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John, 5
Your locks are like the snow;
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my jo!

John Anderson, my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither; 10
And monie a canty day, John,
We've had wi' ane anither:
Now we maun totter down, John,
But hand in hand we'll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot, 15
John Anderson, my jo.

But it's set to the tune of an earlier song he'd collected, in which John Anderson's wife is not so happy about his aging:

John Anderson, my jo, John,
I wonder what ye mean,
To lie sae lang i' the mornin',
And sit sae late at e'en?
Ye'll bleer a' your een, John,
And why do ye so?
Come sooner to your bed at een,
John Anderson, my jo.

John Anderson, my jo, John,
When first that ye began,
Ye had as good a tail-tree,
As ony ither man;
But now its waxen wan, John,
And wrinkles to and fro,
I've twa gae-ups for ae gae-down,
John Anderson, my jo.

I'm backit like a salmon,
I'm breastit like a swan;
My wame it is a down-cod,
My middle ye may span:;
Frae my tap-knot to my tae, John,
I'm like the new-fa'n snow;
And it's a' for your convenience,
John Anderson, my jo.

O it is a fine thing
To keep out o'er the dyke,
But its a meikle finer thing,
To see your hurdies fyke;
To see your hurdies fyke, John,
And hit the rising blow;
It's then I like your chanter-pipe,
John Anderson, my jo.

When ye come on before, John,
See that ye do your best;
When ye begin to haud me,
See that ye grip me fast;
See that ye grip me fast, John,
Until that I cry "Oh!"
Your back shall crack or I do that,
John Anderson, my jo.

John Anderson, my jo, John,
Ye're welcome when ye please;
It's either in the warm bed
Or else aboon the claes:
Or ye shall hae the horns, John,
Upon your head to grow;
An' that's the cuckold's mallison,
John Anderson, my jo.

It's not entirely clear why he felt the need to clean up John Anderson, considering that Burns himself wrote Nine Inches Will Please a Lady. Some of the Scots words may not be clear, but the gist is fairly easy to make out:

Come rede me dame, come tell me dame,
My dame come tell me truly,
What length o' graith when weel ca'd hame
Will sair a woman duly?"
The carlin clew her wanton tail,
Her wanton tail sae ready,
"l learn'd a sang in Annandale,
Nine inch will please a lady."

"But for a koontrie cunt like mine,
In sooth we're not sae gentle;
We'll tak tway thumb-bread to the nine,
And that is a sonsy pintle.
Oh, Leeze me on, my Charlie lad,
I'll ne'er forget my Charlie,
Tway roaring handfuls and a daud
He nidged it in fu' rarely."

But wear fa' the laithron doup
And may it ne'er be thriving,
It's not the length that makes me loup
But it's the double drivin.
Come nidge me Tom, come nidge me Tom
Come nidge me, o'er the nyvel
Come lowse an lug your battering ram
And thrash him at my gyvel!

graith=gear, equipment; clew=scratched, fondled;
tway thum-bread=two thumb-breadths; sonsy=healthy;
daud=a lump, a bit; laithron=lazy; doup=rump;

Posted by dichroic at October 19, 2005 04:56 PM
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