Wednesday, August 10, 2016

When will the war be by?

An estimated half-million Scots enlisted in the British army in the First World War; 125,000 of those men died, never to return home.  Perhaps the most popular Scots poet of his day, Charles Murray published a slim volume of poems in 1917 titled A Sough O’ War (in Scots dialect, a sough is a deep sigh or strong breeze, and the word may also be used figuratively to refer to a song).    

Murray’s lovely poem “When will the War be By?” is poignantly read with accompanying images in the first 1:15 of this video.  Below is the poem in Scots (on the left) and my rough translation in modern English (on the right).     

When Will the War Be By?                                         When Will the War Be Over?

‘This year, neist year, sometime, never’                 ‘This year, next year, sometime, never,’
A lanely lass, bringing hame the kye,                      A lonely lass, bringing home the cows,
Pu’s at a floo’er wi’ a weary sigh,                          Pulls at a flower with a weary sigh,
An’ laich, laich, she is coontin’ ever                      And softly, whispering, she is counting ever
‘This year, neist year, sometime, never                  ‘This year, next year, sometime, never
When will the war be by?’                                     When will the war be over?’

‘Weel, wouned, missin’, deid,’                              ‘Well, wounded, missing, dead,’
Is there nae news o’ oor lads ava?                         Is there no news of our lads at all?
Are they hale an’ fere that are hine awa’?            Are they strong and unbroken that are far away?
A lass raxed oot for the list to read—                    A lass reached out for the list to read—
‘Weel, wounded, missin’, deid’;                           ‘Well, wounded, missing, dead’;
An’ the war was by for twa.                                  And the war was over for two.
                        --Charles Murray, 1916

Noon, by George Henry
In both its language and action, the poem evokes the simple traditions of the countryside: herding the cattle home from the fields and the timeless practice of plucking at daisy petals while reciting “He loves me; he loves me not.”

In Murray’s poem, however, the young lass recites a variation on the chanted refrain, seeking a different kind of foreknowledge. She isn’t asking if her love is returned, but instead if her lover will return. Is the young man who occupies her thoughts well or wounded? Worse still, might he be missing or dead? 

Men died quickly, but news traveled slowly.  In the time before telephone, television, and the internet, women anxiously waited for the latest publication of the war casualty lists (in the poem, this is the list that the young woman reaches out to read). The British War Office published its first casualty list on September 1, 1914, naming all soldiers reported killed, wounded, or missing. For nearly three years, a daily list was released, and several newspapers included the list in their publications (including The Times and The Scotsman) until August 1917. At that time, newspapers decided to stop publication of the lists, due to their length and the amount of space needed to report the names of thousands upon thousands of casualties. His Majesty’s Stationery Office assumed the task of printing the war casualty lists, selling them for 3 pence each. 

While it is difficult to fully comprehend what 125,000 war deaths meant to Scotland, this poem hauntingly speaks of how the death of a single man upended the world of the woman who waited for him.  This one Scottish soldier’s war ended on foreign battlefield; the war was over, too, for his sweetheart who had so closely followed its progress, praying for her soldier’s return -- “An’ the war was by for twa.” 

Charles Murray, describing his admiration for the Scots dialect, wrote, “I was raised upon Ramsay, Fergusson, and Burns, and the old Scots, and all my life as a boy I was taught to look out for quaint phrases, out of the way expressions, and to study and delight in the old, original characters of the countryside.”*  Murray was fifty when the war began in 1914, and many of his poems are deeply patriotic, appealing to the ideal of the traditional Scottish warrior. However, there is often also an underlying melancholy in his poetry, heard in the whisper of the sough of war as it blows through the glen with the news of a clansman’s death.   

 *“The Making of the Poems,” Charles Murray: Poet, Prospector, Public Servant

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