Not Rule Britannia

Posted on July 13, 2015 in Essays

Review of Robert Crawford & Mike Imlah, eds,
The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (2000)

We are so used to the phenomenon of English being an international language, or most people’s first choice of a second language, that we don’t reflect on how extraordinary it is. I’m not talking of the linguistic complacency that follows from finding English-speakers more or less everywhere these days. Nor of the fact that any moderately interesting book in English will find readers (and reviewers) not only in America and Australia but in Scandinavia and France and Chile – something that doesn’t happen, for example, for writers in Portuguese or Spanish, or Dutch. No, the most extraordinary aspect of world English is the number of movements of political and cultural resistance that have had to express their nationalism in English.

It’s often said to have begun in America. But that revolution was an offshoot of the enlightenment. It was in Haiti and Latin­America that the cultural-nationalist predicament was most fully experienced in the New World – Toussaint L’Ouverture rebelling in French and Simon Bolivar in Spanish. Almost simultaneously, Irish and Indian nationalists began stealing the emperor’s clothes. Since then, in the British Caribbean, and Malaysia and Africa, English has been in country after country the language of cultural resistance and national independence. Local languages have always had a part in this, fighting back hard with their own agenda, and infiltrating the local versions of English to form krios of their own. Yet English has been made to appear modernising, unifying and ‘national’, while the local languages have seemed backward-looking and divisive. In Zambia, for example, with its seven recognised local languages and its seventy-nine so-called ‘tribes’, the status of English is secure. More precisely, it is after English is secure that the local languages can be cultivated.

These comments are provoked by the real privilege of reviewing The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse. Living outside Britain, I know little of the local in-fighting that must be part of this book’s context, and my typology is crude: Gaelic is the ‘tribal’ language, and ‘Scots’ the krio, both of them privileged now Scotland has its own parliament. English remains the language in which Scotland conducts most of its dealings with the modern world. The question is: what does a reader outside the whole process gain from a book like this?

It’s a shame in some ways that an anthology has to have a programme. A book that lets you browse over the centuries that separate St Columba from Don   Paterson, taking in so many marvellous, unfamiliar poems, is amply justified, without worrying about how it relates to the new parliament or what happened to the oil revenues. ‘St Columba’s hymn’, translated from the Latin by Edwin Morgan, is an A to Z of God’s attributes, Patterson’s an A to Z of malt whiskies – a neat illustration of a steady diminishing of the themes, from the vast topics engaged by Henryson and Dunbar and William Drummond of Hawthornden to the isolated, fragmented consciousness of the post­romantic poems. There’s nothing particularly Scottish about this, of course. Any European anthology would chart something similar. But it does cast a certain light on Scottishness as a theme. The programme can’t be shirked. It pops up in too many of the poems, and the paradoxes are unavoidable.

It was Edwin Muir who threw down the gauntlet. “Scottish dialect poetry is a regression to childhood, an escape from the responsibility of the whole reason to the simplicity and irresponsibility of the infant mind”. Even Hugh Macdiarmid, who attacked him bitterly for this, conceded in the end that his own Scots “wasn’t sufficiently malleable for the whole range of modern intellectual and artistic interests”. The trouble is once you surrender to English, the ‘nationalism’ has to subsist in the content – Scottish themes, Scottish settings – supplemented by a flavour of usage and a certain cast of mind as a way of laying claim to a part of the planet not altogether defined by natural boundaries. It’s hard to feel satisfied with this. In the   face of Max Weinreich’s dictum that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, most of us want to resist a little. We can’t all become American.

James Thomson (1700-1748) illustrates one aspect of the problem. Born in Roxburgh, he headed south as soon as he could and it was in Eng. Lit. he made his substantial mark. It would have been fun if Crawford and Imlah had been outrageous enough to include ‘Rule Britannia’ – after all, his most famous poem – in an anthology of Scottish verse. Instead, they opt for the only part of the once   canonical Seasons that can be labelled ‘Scottish’ – viz., bits of the ‘Winter’ section, poor Scotland being defined by its weather. Thompson’s ‘Summer’ wanders off to   Africa and the Caribbean, something a truly ‘Scottish’ (or Welsh) poet isn’t really allowed to do. Yet travel the empire, there was always a Scotsman running the plantations, skippering the ships, laying the railroad, driving the machinery. The figure of David Livingstone comes irresistibly to mind, trudging the African footpaths, consoling himself for the loss of the wife he had driven to drink and death on the Zambesi with maudlin ballads about ‘bonny highland Mary’. There’s a gap in ex-perience here that needs mending.

And not just through homesickness – the Gaelic lain Mac Mhurchaidh, lamenting “It’s in America that we are now … I have little regard for the folk we have here   … We’ve become Indians, no doubt of that”:

Say farewell but greet kindly Kintail of the cows,
where once I was reared at the time I was young.
There were brown-haired young gallants all ready to dance,
and girls with long curls and cheeks like the rose.

Or Scott’s astonishingly febrile curse on those (like James Thomson?) who move on without nostalgia:

The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit far renown,
And, double dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprang,
Unwept, unhonoured and unsung.

It seems clear that the first battle for Scotland’s ‘soul’ was fought after the failure of the 1745 rebellion, which predates the American examples by three decades. Robert Burns is given ample space here, as too is James Hogg who cast himself as Burns’s rein­carnation in the face of Walter Scott’s Edinburgh conservatism, also amply repre­sented. So it’s a pity the other main contender -James Macpherson of ‘Ossian’ – is accorded only a page (and that dubiously attributed). Crawford and Imlah repeat the old charge that Ossian was a fraud. But Macpherson’s treatment of his oral sources was no more cavalier than Percy’s Reliques, and his substantial claim – that Scottish culture had a source in the Western Isles – still resonates through some of these modern poems. No other Scottish poem has ever had ‘Ossian’s’ impact throughout France, Germany and even Portugal. It was central to the rise of European Romanticism, and it is curious to see it marginalized here, as though Scottish culture is still more secure being anti-English than confidently European.

I’m not sure a conscious agenda helps some of these poems. Douglas Dunn is one of my favourite poets and I continue a loyal reader. But his ruminations on the nineteenth century photograph of St Kilda’s Parliament seems to be pushing the search for roots too far. How can he know each man is “secure in the love of a woman” or that “They are aware of what we are up to / With our internal explorations, our / Designs of affluence and education. / They know us so well and are not jealous”? If, as the poem states, apples were entirely new to them and a topic of conversation for five years, these insights seem unlikely. At another extreme, Liz Lockheed’s rambling, gossipy, self-absorbed poems seem all-too-dependent on their Glasgow accent to work for anybody not in the immediate neighbourhood.

But carping is no way to review this book. We need anthologies that put in our hands poetry drawn from a wide range of sources, to startle us with encounters that wouldn’t otherwise happen – poems we’ve never come across, or poems we’ve given up on that turn out to be good seen from a different perspective, or because   we’ve grown up a bit. I lived in Scotland as a child and have excruciating memories of being forced to recite ‘To a Mouse’ on Burns’ night in the Boys’ Brigade hut, wearing a Macleod tartan kilt (the ‘Whites” were said to be Macleods) and my sister’s knickers. How extraordinary to find now it’s a graceful, witty poem of sentiment, set in the midst of others I’ve long steered clear of. Forget haggis and the deafening bagpipes. Burns is a poet to return to.

Then, of course, there are the timeless border ballads   – ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, the ‘Wife of Usher’s Well’, ‘The Two Corbies’, ‘Barbara Allen’ (but why not Chevy Chase?) – and the ballads of known authorship, such as the matchless (even in   translation) Mrs Macgregor of Glentrae’s lament for her husband:

They placed his head on an oak stump
And let his blood fall:
If I had had a cup there
I’d have drunk it all.

Carol Ann Duffy, whom I’d taken for a good mimic, is a much more skilful, haunting poet than I’d realised. And why have I never before come across Edwin Morgan’s exuberant language games? Does his Loch Ness Monster put his question/answer in English, Gaelic or Scots?

Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g blbgl.
Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhatl tl tl –
gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.
Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok!

Or is this, possibly, an army-less, navy-less dialect of old Welsh?

First published Poetry Wales, Spring 2002.