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Monday 4 February 2013

Rising above the hanging comma

Nay, sir, he's no good at stringin' the words together wi'out book; he'd be stuck fast like a cow i' wet clay. But he's got tongue enough to speak disrespectful about's neebors...

Seven apostrophes plus cow-byre talk! I diagnose Adam Bede disease! But the same author wrote one of the greatest novels ever in English.

George Eliot's crime with Adam Bede was to keep me away from another apostrophised British writer: Robert Burns. Except he had more excuse, he was writing in Scottish. Just recently I've made amends by letting him move me. Who could resist:

How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary, fu' o' care!
Thou'll break my heart, thou warbling bird


Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun :
And I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

Both familiar. Slightly less so (I didn't know it had been set to music) is the humanity of:

A man's a man for a' that:
For a' that, an a' that,
Their tinsel show, an a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

I read it aloud, apprehensive about, then relishing, that staccato repetition. Followed by the last verse, sung by politicians (!) at the first opening of the Scottish Parliament:

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That sense and worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That man to man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.


  1. How strange - I have just completed my next post as a draft and it all hinges on Scottish words.

    The very mention of Burns has tended to make me yawn, but your brief introduction has changed that somewhat. I had always thought that his stuff was almost incomprehensible, but the examples you quote are not difficult. It reminds me of The South Bank Show which often had unpromising tiles and subjects, but within the first couple of minutes you were hooked.

  2. I understand that Burns was or perhaps still is highly regarded in Russia. I have always wondered about the translation.

  3. He's a lyricist, which is handy, as that makes it relatively easy to memorize his poems. I trip when I read them on the page, but enjoy his poems when I hear them.

  4. Ah, the third one we read on Burns Night. My host's brother, clad in a kilt, read it beautifully. As luck would have, a Russian doctor was in attendance. She swooned at points in the evening.

  5. On a completely unrelated note, why the heck does my little yellow icon keep disappearing and appearing on your "follow" block??! ?

  6. Sir Hugh: As I imply in the first part of the post, you were a victim (both real and imagined) of Adam Bede disease. In one sense it's astonishing that the George Eliot who wrote Middlemarch (up there with War and Peace and the Red and the Black) should write Adam Bede, an everyday story about country folk. And yet in another, it isn't. GE was a very serious author and decided to get everything right about the rural Poyser family. Including their day-to-day speech: this meant endless tracts of apostrophes (to indicate ellisions and loss of endings) and carefully re-spelt words (see, for instance, "neebors"). What she hadn't realised is that after a hundred or so pages, these techniques become wearying.

    At first glance Burns' poetry appears to suffer from Adam Bede disease. But his saving grace is that he wrote poetry and if you read him aloud his strong rhythms quickly steam-roller the problems away. The apostrophes make sense because they ensure that the lines scan, a lot of the differently spelt words turn out to be close to English as we know it, and the ones that remain obscure (eg, gree) you forgive him for because they add local colour.

    And the very simplicity of what he has to say is intensely moving. I know you don't read much poetry (Neither do I for that matter) but I do believe that Burns, read aloud, while walking some desolate Highland route would fit in. Provided you are, as you prefer, alone.

    Joe: For me the world of poetry translation became far simpler, and far more disappointing, after I put together that piece about Shakespeare in French. In simple terms what was translated was a prose version of the poetry, with much of the "difficulty" (ie, the stuff that gave poetry its value) stripped away.

    Thus I suspect that the Russian translator didn't attempt to render:

    Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon,
    How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair

    but rather

    How can you, Doon's river banks and hills,
    Appear so springlike and beautiful?

    And in any case I suspect it's Burns' liberalism (as in "A man's a man for a' that") that attracted the Russkies.

    Julia: Tripping is surely a symptom of Adam Bede disease (dealt with in my response to Sir Hugh), a reaction to the physical printed appearance of English spoken with a Scots accent and using Scots words. But I love the thought that you, given your upbringing and education, are able to respond. Proof that what he wrote was poetry which has an international appeal.

    And there's another underlying reason. The basic simplicity of what Burns wrote has encouraged song writers to supply equally simple (but terrific) musical accompaniment. The three poems I mention all have superb tunes.

    RW (zs): We have to be a leetle bit careful in saluting Burns' love poetry. As I understand it, he left a trail of bastards all the way from the Clyde to the Forth, plus points north. Many a maiden swooned, only to wake up and find herself preggers.

    The winking icon. Others have complained too and I just have no idea. Alas I see things from the inside. I can only accept it as proof of affection that my commenters are willing to undergo this techno-irritation.

  7. I am a great Kipling fan, but I find his "dialect" stories very difficult reading.

  8. Avus: There was a fashion for "accented" prose in novels written in the thirties. The authors' names escape me for the moment, perhaps because I found their books so uncongenial.