Monday, November 5, 2018

Ballad of Remembrance

Pipers from Cameron Highlander Regiment marching to the front
from The Daily Record 9 Nov 2014

Describing the poetry of Scottish writer Marion Angus, a reviewer wrote, “To read her verse is like sitting in an empty room where fingers tap on the window pane, and outside the house, something passes on noiseless feet.”*

Empty noiselessness: an earlier post on this blog has noted the unnatural quiet that marked the Armistice. All along the battlefront, men described the sudden silence:
The silence is oppressive. It weighs in on one’s eardrums. We have lived and had our being in din …. The air is full of half-forgotten sounds: the rustling of dead leaves, the organ tone of wind in the tree tops, whispers through the underbrush, lazy echoes of voices in the road…. it can’t be true…We cannot comprehend the stillness.**

Silence was experienced by those on the home front as well, but for them, the stillness echoed with absence and extended down through the years. 

James Gray, Scottish WW1 soldier
Remembrance Day

Some one was singing
     Up a twisty stair,
   A fragment of a song,
   One sweet, spring day,
When twelve o’clock was ringing,
   Through the sunny square—

‘There was a lad baith frank and free,
Cam’ doon the bonnie banks o’ Dee
Wi’ tartan plaid and buckled shoon,
An’ he’ll come nae mair to oor toon. ‘—

‘He dwells within a far countree,
Where great ones do him courtesie,
They’ve gien him a golden croon,
An’ he’ll come nae mair to oor toon.’—

No one is singing
      Up the twisty stair.
Quiet as a sacrament
      The November day.
Can’t you hear it swinging,
      The little ghostly air?—
   Hear it sadly stray
   Through the misty square,
In and out a doorway,
      Up a twisty stair—
Tartan plaid and buckled shoon,
He’ll come nae mair to oor toon.
      —Marion Angus

Reworking the ballad form, Angus contrasts traditional Scottish music before the war with the raw and painful ways in which the old ballads were heard after the tragic losses of the Great War.  An estimated 125,000 Scottish soldiers never returned home.

Angus was known for writing in Scots, but “Remembrance Day” begins in English, then shifts to Scots to sing of a young soldier “baith frank and free” who will come no more to his home town. The poem reverts to English as it describes a bereft voice that sings no more and the sacramental silence that falls on Remembrance Day, before the poem returns to Scots, closing with the ghostly notes of an ancient ballad that now keens for the recent war dead.

Marion Angus
from National Library of Scotland
Hugh MacDiarmid, a contemporary of Marion Angus and one of the best-known modern Scots writers of the twentieth century, notes, “the Scottish consciousness is divided […] this linguistic division means that Scotsmen feel in one language and think in another, that their emotions turn to the Scottish tongue.”***

Fluent in both Scots and English, Marion Angus worked during the war at the Stobs, a British Army training camp in the Scottish Borders that became an internment camp for civilians and prisoners of war.  By May of 1916, there were over 4,500 prisoners in the camp.  Her first book of poetry, The Lilt, was published in 1922.  At the time of her death in 1946, Marion Angus was credited as being “one of the most distinctive voices of the modern Scots revival,”†† but her poetry, which focuses almost entirely on women’s experiences, has been largely forgotten. 

“Remembrance Day” captures the essence of Marion Angus’s poetry: she had a “genius for telling a story in a few verses, of almost unbearable poignancy.”†††
* Winifred Duke, “Women Poets of Today,” Glasgow Herald, 15 Jan 1936, p. 8, cited in Aimée Y. Chalmers’ The Singing Lass: A Reflection on the Life of the Poet Marion Angus, Thesis submitted to the University of St. Andrews, 2010, p. 30.
** Robert J. Casey, The Cannoneers Have Hairy Ears, J.H. Sears, 1927, pp. 329-330.
*** Hugh MacDiarmid (1936) cited in D. Dunn (ed.) The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry, Faber and Faber, 1992, p. xxxiii.
† Chalmers, The Singing Lass, p. 43.
†† Anonymous obituary, “Death of Marion Angus Scots Vernacular Poet,” (1946) cited in Chalmers, The Singing Lass, p. 82.
††† Marion Lochhead, “Feminine Quartet,” Summer 1980, cited in Chalmers, The Singing Lass, p. 82.

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