Week 382: Mill O’Tifty’s Annie, by Anon

This week a Scots ballad, Child 233, that takes us back into a dark mediaeval time, scarcely imaginable now, when a woman was the chattel of her family, to be disposed of in marriage for their profit and convenience, and if she stepped out of line could be brutalised and even subject to a so-called ‘honour killing’. This girl’s crime was to love one below her station; in the similarly themed ‘Bonnie Susie Cleland’ (Child 65) the crime is even worse: Susie falls in love with an Englishman. Along with the tragedy here there is a bit of perhaps unintentional Jane-Austenish social comedy: Lord Fyvie is struck by Annie’s beauty, and rather regrets that of course there could no question of a mere miller’s daughter becoming Lady Fyvie, while at the same time Annie’s father is equally dismissive of the idea of Annie marrying a mere trumpeter, even one in Lord Fyvie’s retinue. Doesn’t say much for the social standing of musicians…

The ballad has been covered by, among others, Jean Redpath on ‘Song of the Seals’ and Martin Simpson.

Mill O’Tifty’s Annie

At Mill O’ Tifty there lived a man
In the neighbourhood of Fyvie
He had a bonnie dochter dear
Whose name was Bonnie Annie.

Her bloom was like the springing flower
That hails the rosy morning,
With innocence and graceful mien
Her beauteous form adorning.

Lord Fyvie had a trumpeter
By the name o’ Andrew Lammie
He had the art tae win the heart
O’ Mill o’ Tifty’s Annie.

Proper he was, both young and gay,
His like was not in Fyvie,
Nor was ane there that could compare
With this same Andrew Lammie.

Lord Fyvie he rade by the mill
Whaur lived Tifty’s Annie
And his trumpeter rade him before
Even this same Andrew Lammie

Her mother cried her tae the door
Saying, ‘Come here tae me, my Annie
Did e’er ye see a bonnier man
Than the trumpeter o’ Fyvie?’

Nae thing she said, but sighing sore
‘Alas for Bonnie Annie’.
Love so oppressed her tender breast
Thinking on Andrew Lammie

‘Love comes in at my bedside
And love lies doon aside me
Love has possessed my tender breast
And love will waste my body

‘The first time me and my love met
‘Twas in the woods o’ Fyvie
His lovely form and speech so soft
Soon gained the heart of Annie.

He ca’d me ‘Mistress’, I said ‘No
I was Tifty’s Bonnie Annie’
With apples sweet he did me treat
And kisses soft and mony.

‘It’s up and doon in Tifty’s den
Where the burn runs clear and bonnie
I’ve often gane tae meet my love
My bonnie Andrew Lammie’

Her faither cam’ tae hear o’ this
And a letter wrote tae Fyvie
Tae say his dochter was bewitched
By his servant Andrew Lammie.

Then up the stair his trumpeter
He called soon and shortly:
‘Pray tell me soon what’s this you’ve done
To Tifty’s bonny Annie.’

‘Woe be to Mill of Tifty’s pride,
For it has ruined many;
They’ll not have ’t said that she should wed
The trumpeter of Fyvie.

‘In wicked art I had no part,
Nor therein am I canny;
True love alone the heart has won
Of Tifty’s bonnie Annie.

Lord Fyvie he rade by the mill
‘What ails ye, Bonnie Annie?’
‘It’s a’ for love that I maun die
For bonnie Andrew Lammie’

‘Oh Tifty, Tifty gie consent                     [Lord Fyvie speaks]
And let your dochter marry.’
’It’ll be tae ane o’ higher degree            [Annie’s father speaks]
Than the trumpeter o’ Fyvie.’

‘Had she been born o’ richer kin           [Lord Fyvie speaks]
As she is rich in beauty
I was hae ta’en the lass mysel’
And made her my ain lady’

‘Oh, Fyvie’s lands are far and wide       [Annie speaks]
An’ they are wondrous bonnie
But I wadnae gie my ain true love
No’ for a’ your lands o’ Fyvie’

At this her faither struck her sore
And likewise did her mother
Her sisters a’ they did her scorn
But wae’s me for her brother

Her brother struck her wondrous sore
Wi’ cruel strokes and many
He broke her back on the high hall-door
A’ for likin’ Andrew Lammie

‘Oh faither, mother, sisters a’
Why sae cruel tae your Annie?
My heart was broken first by love
Noo my brother’s broke my body

‘Oh mother, mother mak’ my bed
An’ lay my face tae Fyvie
Thus will I lie and will I die
For my ain dear Andrew Lammie’

Anon

Week 381: The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost

This is a famous and in my view somewhat misunderstood poem, the misunderstanding being entirely the fault of the poet. Robert Frost liked to put it about that this was a playful poem written to tease his friend Edward Thomas, who was, it seems, given to reflecting ruefully on the choice of path after one of their country walks together and saying now if only they’d gone the other way… In particular the last line, Frost claimed, was an ironic joke at Thomas’s expense and not to be taken literally. Thomas did indeed take the tease seriously and was apparently quite perturbed by the poem, but to me all this was just Frost putting up a smokescreen: clearly the poem is about him and not Thomas, the road less taken is the path of poetry, and there is no reason not to take the last line at face value: our life choices do indeed make a difference. I’m afraid Frost liked to play these games, maybe from a wish to disguise the act of self-revelation, or from a fear of committing himself too deeply to his own truth, or just from a mischievous sense of fun. Which doesn’t make it any less of a fine poem.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

Week 380: The Cool Web, by Robert Graves

I think this is the kind of poem that shows Robert Graves at his best as a lucid yet profound explorer of the human psyche. This one is always associated in my mind with the time my small son, then not quite two, was toddling down the garden path when he suddenly started crying inconsolably, shaking and pointing at something in the border. I hurried to him thinking he must have been stung by a bee, but then saw a small yellow frog hopping away into the undergrowth. ‘It’s just a little frog, it won’t hurt you’, I reassured him. He relaxed visibly. ‘Fwog’, he said, and I thought this is it, the cool web at work, another piece of the world’s strangeness and otherness named, tamed, pigeonholed, filed away. And paradoxically, it is part of the role of poetry to undo that naming and taming, to make us see again that disconcerting otherness and strangeness. Not that I want us to be terrified of frogs, you understand…

The Cool Web

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

Robert Graves

Week 379: November Surf, by Robinson Jeffers

This is an uneasy poem for those of us who like to think of ourselves as humane liberals. We may be aware that a lot of the earth’s problems are caused by overpopulation, but we don’t want anyone to actually die – just go a bit easy on the procreation thing, eh guys? Robinson Jeffers made no pretence of being a humane liberal and seems to be foreseeing, with some relish, a more decisive solution to our problems, though the exact nature of the storm that the future is preparing for us is not specified. Take your pick…

November Surf

Some lucky day each November great waves awake and are drawn
Like smoking mountains bright from the west
And come and cover the cliff with white violent cleanness: then suddenly
The old granite forgets half a year’s filth:
The orange-peel, eggshells, papers, pieces of clothing, the clots
Of dung in corners of the rock, and used
Sheaths that make light love safe in the evenings: all the droppings of the summer
Idlers washed off in a winter ecstasy:
I think this cumbered continent envies its cliff then. . . . But all seasons
The earth, in her childlike prophetic sleep,
Keeps dreaming of the bath of a storm that prepares up the long coast
Of the future to scour more than her sea-lines:
The cities gone down, the people fewer and the hawks more numerous,
The rivers mouth to source pure; when the two-footed
Mammal, being someways one of the nobler animals, regains
The dignity of room, the value of rareness.

Robinson Jeffers

Week 378: John Kinsella’s Lament For Mrs Mary Moore

I confess to having a soft spot for this week’s cheerfully disreputable piece. OK, I’m not sure that the Irish Catholic Church would have approved of John Kinsella’s somewhat cavalier attitude towards familial ties, and I suppose I shouldn’t either, but it’s good fun, and it does show Yeats’s unusual range as a poet – it’s a long way from this sort of thing to poems like ‘Easter 1916’.

John Kinsella’s Lament For Mrs Mary Moore

A bloody and a sudden end,
Gunshot or a noose,
For Death who takes what man would keep,
Leaves what man would lose.
He might have had my sister,
My cousins by the score,
But nothing satisfied the fool
But my dear Mary Moore,
None other knows what pleasures man
At table or in bed.
What shall I do for pretty girls
Now my old bawd is dead?

Though stiff to strike a bargain,
Like an old Jew man,
Her bargain struck we laughed and talked
And emptied many a can;
And O! but she had stories,
Though not for the priest’s ear,
To keep the soul of man alive,
Banish age and care,
And being old she put a skin
On everything she said.
What shall I do for pretty girls
Now my old bawd is dead?

The priests have got a book that says
But for Adam’s sin
Eden’s Garden would be there
And I there within.
No expectation fails there,
No pleasing habit ends,
No man grows old, no girl grows cold
But friends walk by friends.
Who quarrels over halfpennies
That plucks the trees for bread?
What shall I do for pretty girls
Now my old bawd is dead?
 

W.B.Yeats

Week 377: The Old Couple, by F. Pratt Green

A poem that in its theme and sad tenderness is reminiscent of Elizabeth Jennings’s ‘One Flesh’ (see week 23), though it incorporates more in the way of social detail. Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) was a Methodist minister perhaps best known as a writer of hymns.

The Old Couple

The old couple in the brand-new bungalow,
Gagged with the milk of municipal kindness,
Fumble their way to bed. Oldness at odds
With newness, they nag each other to show
Nothing is altered, despite the strangeness
Of being divorced in sleep by twin-beds,
Side by side like the Departed, above them
The grass-green of candlewick bedspreads.

In a dead neighbourhood, where it is rare
For hooligans to shout or dogs to bark,
A footfall in the quiet air is crisper
Than home-made bread; and the budgerigar
Bats an eyelid, as sensitive to disturbance
As a distant needle is to an earthquake
In the Great Deep, then balances in sleep.
It is silence keeps the old couple awake.

Too old for loving now, but not for love,
The old couple lie, several feet apart,
Their chesty breathing like a muted duet
On wind instruments, trying to think of
Things to hang on to, such as the tinkle
That a budgerigar makes when it shifts
Its feather weight from one leg to another,
The way, on windy nights, linoleum lifts.

F. Pratt Green

Week 376: The Toome Road, by Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney is not, I think, a difficult poet, unlike, say, his contemporary Geoffrey Hill who chose to guard his word-hoard with dragons of impassable obscurity. But Heaney did select his words very carefully, and that care merits close attention, as in this poem expressing his feelings of resentment at the presence in his countryside of what to him were after all, regardless of what his political sympathies might be, soldiers of an occupying power. That ‘omphalos’, for example – the omphalos (Greek for navel) was a stone at Delphi that in Greek lore had been placed there by Zeus to mark the centre of the world, and is here used by Heaney as a quietly defiant symbol of the farmland on which his own being was centred, and which is here evoked with a bleakly beautiful precision. I am also fascinated by his choice of the word ‘warbling’ in the second line. Quite right for the sound of heavy tyres, but I just wonder also whether Seamus also had in mind some association with the warble fly, a parasitic fly that burrows under the skin of cattle and lays its eggs – maybe he was thinking of these foreign invaders as resembling such parasites, burrowing under the skin of his countryside? Of course, it is easy to get carried away with this kind of thing – when I was young there was a critical work very much in vogue called ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’, which one reviewer tartly dismissed as carrying the remarkable thesis that the more ways there were to misunderstand a poem, the better it was. Anyway, to the poem….

The Toome Road

One morning early I met armoured cars
In convoy, warbling along on powerful tyres,
All camouflaged with broken alder branches,
And headphoned soldiers standing up in turrets.
How long were they approaching down my roads
As if they owned them? The whole country was sleeping.
I had rights-of-way, fields, cattle in my keeping,
Tractors hitched to buckrakes in open sheds,
Silos, chill gates, wet slates, the greens and reds
Of outhouse roofs. Whom should I run to tell
Among all of those with their back doors on the latch
For the bringer of bad news, that small-hours visitant
Who, by being expected, might be kept distant?
Sowers of seed, erectors of headstones…
O charioteers, above your dormant guns,
It stands here still, stands vibrant as you pass,
The invisible, untoppled omphalos.

Seamus Heaney