Sunday, February 01, 2004

Sometimes you read a quote or learn a fact that summarizes a great deal about living, and you know immediately it's going to stick with you forever. Here is the best thing I've read in days:

And in practice we find that those poets or political leaders who come from the people, and whose experiences have really been searching and cruel, are the most sanguine people in the world. These men of the old agony are always optimists; they are sometimes offensive optimists. A man like Robert Burns, whose father (like Dickens' father) goes bankrupt, whose whole life is a struggle against miserable external powers and internal weaknesses yet more miserable -- a man whose life begins grey and ends black -- Burns does not merely sing about the goodness of life, he positively rants and cants about it. -- G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens

The quote comes by way of Goliard at the NYT "Meander Where You May" Forum, in response to my own belated tribute to the Jan. 26 birthday of Robert Burns, it reads as follows:

I first heard the Burns song "Duncan Gray' in Jane Campion's marvelous 1990 film An Angel at My Table about the life of the New Zealand writer Janet Frame -- who, incidentally, died just a few days ago. The song serves as something of a leitmotif in the film, mainly I think to signal Frame's own childhood; the song melody is key to the film's score, lyrics serve as epigraphs, and there is a scene of marvelous simplicity in which a group of children sit on a grassy cliff, singing it accapella. I was so intrigued by it -- this was in the pre-Internet days --that I went to my small local library and tracked it down; took some doing, as I recall, as it doesn't appear to be the most anthologized of his works. Anyway, since then I've rounded up about six recorded versions of the song from various sources.

Here it is, although for a better explanation of the Scottish terms, try here.

1. Duncan Gray cam' here to woo,
Ha, ha, the wooing o't,
On blythe Yule-night when we were fou,
Ha, ha, the wooing o't,
Maggie coost her head fu' heigh,
Look'd asklent and unco skeigh,
Gart poor Duncan stand abeigh;
Ha, ha, the wooing o't.

2. Duncan fleech'd and Duncan pray'd;
Ha, ha, the wooing o't,
Meg was deaf as Ailsa Craig,
Ha, ha, the wooing o't:
Duncan sigh'd baith out and in,
Grat his e'en baith blear't an' blin',
Spak o' lowpin o'er a linn;
Ha, ha, the wooing o't.

3. Time and Chance are but a tide,
Ha, ha, the wooing o't,
Slighted love is sair to bide,
Ha, ha, the wooing o't:
Shall I like a fool, quoth he,
For a haughty hizzie die?
She may gae to-France for me!
Ha, ha, the wooing o't.

4. How it comes let doctors tell,
Ha, ha, the wooing o't;
Meg grew sick, as he grew hale,
Ha, ha, the wooing o't.
Something in her bosom wrings,
For relief a sigh she brings:
And oh! her een they spak sic things!
Ha, ha, the wooing o't.

5. Duncan was a lad o' grace,
Ha, ha, the wooing o't:
Maggie's was a piteous case,
Ha, ha, the wooing o't:
Duncan could na be her death,
Swelling Pity smoor'd his wrath;
Now they're crouse and canty baith,
Ha, ha, the wooing o't.

What so appeals to me about this song? Because it's about love and death -- a song about courting, and a kind of meditation on the brevity of time. Duncan Gray loves Maggie but she spurns him; he keeps trying, then finally says the hell with it. Then Maggie gets sick, thinks of the life she may have given up, and if Duncan doesn't return, she will certainly die -- Duncan, being a lad of grace, returns. Happiness ensues; now they are blithe and happy spirits. Boy wants girl, boy loses girl, girl wants boy, girl gets him -- oldest love story in the world, yet with this somber, melancholy edge to it that says everything we want a love song to say -- namely, that love is more important than death, and may even beat it.

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