This is the sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume VI: Poems and Songs, Burns
One obvious observation about the Harvard Classics is the very heavy Anglo-American bias. This is evident even from the very first volume: Franklin, Woolman, Penn. None of those authors are indispensable in a set that purports to be a collection of essential readings for a basic liberal education, but all are Anglo-American. Whether Dr. Eliot’s reliance upon American and British authors is reasonable, it is at very least explainable.
The Harvard Classics was published for an American public, with the intent to provide the framework of a liberal education. As such, at least twa considerations favor American and British works over others.
In the first place, it makes sense that an American liberal education should focus on American thought and literature. If a similar project were undertaken in France, it would be shocking if more French authors and works were not included. The same would be true of Russia, or China, or any other nation or region. British authors similarly feature heavily in the Harvard Classics because the history of American thought and literature is inextricably linked with that of England. (William Penn is an instructive inclusion on this point; he is American in the sense that he is the founder and namesake of Pennsylvania, but he was an English gentleman his entire life.)
In the second place, the inclusion of American and British works avoids the serious problem of translation. The books, intended for an English-speaking public, must needs be in English. To the extent that Dr. Eliot was able to select works already in his native tongue, he was able to avoid the serious, and occasionally impossible, task of finding a good translation.
This consideration brings us to this week’s volume: the poems and songs of Robert Burns. On the one hand, Burns is an important part of the Anglo-American literary tradition. On the other hand, his most famous works were written in Scots. (The debate over whether Lowland Scots is a distinct language or merely a dialect must be put off for another day. For now, it is enough to note that it is has limited mutual intelligibility with English.) Although much of Burns’ Scots writing is clear enough for the average American Reader, his vocabulary often requires notes or a dictionary. For example, in The Twa Dogs, (the title of which, itself, is in Scots but is readily comprehensible,) some lines are practically straight English:
“Love blinks, Wit slaps, an’ social Mirth
Forgets there’s Care upo’ the earth.”
Some lines, however, are all but unintelligible without aide:
“At kirk or market, mill or smiddie,
Nae tawted tyke, tho’ e’er sae duddie,
But he wad stan’t, as glad to see him,
An’ stroan’t on stanes an’ hillocks wi’ him.”
And Burns is but one example of this sort of problem. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English can be a real struggle to understand. Even American authors who write in dialect can be a tough read. Consider this quotation from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:
“Oh, it’s de dad-blame’ witches, sah, en I wisht I was dead, I do. Dey’s awluz at it, sah, en dey do mos’ kill me, dey sk’yers me so. Please to don’t tell nobody ’bout it sah, er ole Mars Silas he’ll scole me; ‘kase he say dey AIN’T no witches. I jis’ wish to goodness he was heah now– DEN what would he say! I jis’ bet he couldn’ fine no way to git aroun’ it DIS time. But it’s awluz jis’ so; people dat’s SOT, stays sot; dey won’t look into noth’n’en fine it out f’r deyselves, en when YOU fine it out en tell um ’bout it, dey doan’ b’lieve you.”
Difficult to understand, perhaps, but fun.
Beer of the week: Magic Hat #9 – This Vermont beer is a very solid choice. It is clear and amber. The aroma is of malt and some sour, dark fruit. Apricot is certainly the star of the flavor, backed by bready malt. Even so, the beer is not overly sweet, just darn good. And I really dig that the 12 oz. bottle is labeled as “3/4 pint”.
Reading of the week: The Twa Dogs by Robert Burns – This poem is a great piece of satire by Burns. The dogs, one a farmers collie and the other a lord’s Newfoundland(?), discourse about how different the lives of the rich are from those of the poor.
Question for the week: Is it better to have copious notes, explaining even obvious words or analogies, or to have too few notes, requiring lots of guesswork?
Last week, I complained that the law library does not circulate its volumes of the Harvard Classics. As it turns out, a brief email was all that was needed to get the situation remedied. I sent a message politely stating the reasons that these books should circulate, and I received a reply after a couple days informing me that the set had been re-cataloged. Now I can finally get liberally educated in only fifteen minutes a day!
The first book that I decided to check out was Volume 6, The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns. So far, it has made for good train reading. I particularly enjoy some of his more humorous works. For example:
Epitaph on a Henpecked Country Squire
As father Adam first was fool’d,
(A case that’s still too common)
Here lies a man a woman ruled,
The devil ruled the woman.
And its sequel:
Epigram on the Said Occasion
Oh Death, had’st thou but spar’d his life,
Whom we this day lament,
We freely wad exchanged his wife,
And a’ been weel content.
Ev’n as he is, cauld in his graff,
The swap we yet will do’t;
Tak thou the carlin’s carcase aff,
Thou’se get the saul o’ boot.
Beer of the Week: Crabbie’s Original Alcoholic Ginger Beer – According to his works, Burns drank both ale and Scotch whiskey. I have not seen anything in his poems about ginger beer though. Most people are familiar with ginger beer and ginger ale as soft drinks. However, traditional ginger beers are a sort of sparkling wine: fermented from ginger and sugar-water with yeast and fungus. Crabbie’s modern version is a bit of a cheat, I think, with alcohol added instead of fermented directly from the ginger and sugar. So this is closer to a wine cooler than a beer, but it is still quite tasty. Served over ice, it is crisp and refreshing. It does not have as strong a ginger bite as most non-alcoholic versions I’ve had, but perhaps that is because most soft ginger beers are really meant to be used as mixers, so the taste has to be stronger. Crabbie’s is certainly worth a try if you like ginger and you like your soda pop to be alcoholic. It is not, however, a beer.
Reading of the week: Scotch Drink by Robert Burns – In this ode to whiskey, Burns refers to the drink as “poor man’s wine.” He also points out that food supports life, but life is not worth living without booze to ease all of life’s pain and grief.
Question of the week: The poem addresses “John Barleycorn… king o’ grain.” Given his description of rich brown foam spilling over the lip of the cup, is it possible that the poem is not only about whiskey, but also about barley’s other alcoholic progeny: beer?
I observed some time ago that our imagination fills in very large sections of our memories. We really only remember a few details and imagine the rest. For example, when remembering things about my time in Australia, I made a startling discovery: in my mind’s eye, the driver’s seat in the car was on the left side. When I took the time to think about it, I realized that I must have simply remembered a few specifics and when my imagination pieced it back together the cars went back to my memory’s default setting.
I need hardly mention that the past get’s colored with emotion. The principle cause of nostalgia is that there are chunks of time for which we ignore the bad things that happened (even without realizing it.) The same, of course, can be true of remembering hard or unpleasant times, but somehow that seems far less common.
The future is doubly unclear. We can only guess what the future holds, so we imagine based on our past experience. That is to say, we rely very heavily on a flawed memory of the past whenever we try to anticipate the future. So if a farmer whose memory was colored by recent hardship and whose best laid schemes have gone awry say of the future “tho’ I canna see, I guess an’ fear!” The cause of this guess is nothing other than a projection of memory: “things have gone wrong in the past, they’ll go wrong again.”
To be sure, understanding the past is key to anticipating the future. As George Santayana said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But the quality of the memory matters and has a profound influence on the outlook.
So we live on a breadthless line between a blurry past and dim future, trying to clarify the one to shed light on the other.
Beer of the Week: Tucher Pilsner – “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley,” but this beer doesn’t seem like the result of a well laid scheme. Overall, it seems rather half-hearted. Unlike our past or our future, the beer is extremely clear and light (although that’s not really a good thing in this case.) The head fades quickly and the aroma is nearly nonexistent. The overall flavor was no more impressive. Bland with an unpleasant aftertaste. Not a good choice.
Reading of the week: To a Mouse by Robert Burns – The poet says that the mouse is blessed in comparison to man, if only because the mouse lives entirely in the present. The mouse has no regrets and no dread of the future. At least it sounds that way, I don’t speak Scots. (Oh, and in case you can’t figure out either, I’ve attached a video to help with pronunciation.)
Question of the week: If plans go wrong, were they really “the best laid schemes”? Is there any contingency that absolutely, positively could not have been accounted for with just a bit more attention to detail and a wider imagination?