Dear friends and readers,
Yesterday I was reading some Scottish women’s poetry of the 18th century, and my line of thought and textual allusion brought me back to a beautiful ballad-like poem by Alison Cockburn (1713-94), one of the first of many set to the bagpipe folk tune.
Cockburn’s poem has repeatedly been misinterpreted as a lament honoring dead soldiers. Cockburn told Walter Scott that she was referring to social and economic injustices and private loss that she and others sustained around the year 1777 in Ettrick Forest, Selkirkshire “when there was a great deal of distress & misfortune come upon the Forest by seven Lairds becoming ruined in one year.” Yes, listening to the music and looking at the of the lone animal, one could yesterday (a Veterans’ Day) think of the hundreds of thousands of people killed, maimed, their lives destroyed in war, of those in uniforms who are trained to kill and come back altogether or semi-destroyed and treated badly (the many tours leave them emotionally traumatized and sometimes crippled terribly), but I remembered and mourned the thousands and thousands dead, dying, maimed, suffering here in other kinds of battlefields (some are violent — say on the street if anyone protests) and in my case from cancers and the diseases inflicted on us by our present Lairds.
It is very much a woman’s poem: Cockburn looks out from her experience of joy, happiness, beauty in the world, and then knows Dante’s nadir of remembering
I’ve seen the smiling of Fortune beguiling,
I’ve tasted her favours, and felt her decay;
Sweet is her blessing, and kind her caressing,
But soon it is fled, —- it is fled far away.
I’ve seen the forest adorn’d of the foremost,
With flowers of the fairest, both pleasant and gay;
Full sweet was their blooming, their scent the air perfuming,
But now they are wither’d and a’ wede away.
I’ve seen the morning, with gold the hills adorning,
And the red storm roaring, before the parting day;
I’ve seen Tweed’s silver streams, glittering in the sunny beams,
Turn drumly and dark, as they roll’d on their way.
O fickle Fortune! why this cruel sporting?
Why thus perplex us poor sons of a day?
Thy frowns cannot fear me, thy smiles cannot cheer me,
Since the flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.
When I found the YouTube for the Scottish music I realized the long historical trail of Pete Seeger’s great song, “Where have all the flowers gone … ” — truly a lament for those who have died so uselessly (it became an anti-Vietnam ballad in its stanzas “where have all the soldiers gone … long time ago … “):
It’s come to me as I’ve met other widows and widowers whose beloved died in their fifties or sixties, we are joined “in the bonds” because the beloved who made our lives what they were was him or herself cut off so early — as yet with years to go before becoming elderly or aging with diseases of old age. We can never be untrue to them because of their loss.
I have begun a massive volume I know I will enjoy, a little at a time in the evening, the half-hour before I turn out my light and take my sleeping pill: A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, edd. Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan and hope to share some of its recording of poetry and Scots cultural here from time to time.
How he loved to have others sing with him.