Primary feelings

jane at 10.png
The author aged ten, with inefficient hairband, plus pearls

Turned the Oxford Book of English Verse page from William Blake (see yesterday’s post) to find myself in Robbie Burns country.  I stopped for a moment to wonder if ‘Address to the Unco  Guid’ was the poem for me today – no, too long, but what a great last couple of lines – looking at others, judging them, from the outside, Burns tells the  rigidly righteous, is no good;

What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.

It’s brilliantly realistic that  even ‘what’s done’ we can’t fully know – the outside, visible bit of someone else’s actions. And then the caution – we absolutely can’t know ‘what’s resisted.’ We don’t know and can’t imagine someone else’s inner battles.

Then I stopped to enjoy ‘John Anderson, my Jo’ and  though I think it is a love song (my Jo = my beloved, sweetheart) I thought of long friendship and some of the hills I have climbed (not literally, think we’ve only done that once, Beeston Hill, with some German students) with my old friend Angie, and how now,

Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we’ll go…

Hand in hand, dear old friend, tottering down. Lovely. I passed right over ‘The Silver Tassie’  with the  thought ‘drinking song, not interested’ – though as to that,  when I looked more closely it is also a  man going to war love  song, so maybe worth reading another day, but for now my eye been caught by ‘The Banks o’ Doon’ and I know already, without reading, that’s the poem for today. Why? I know it so well, almost off by heart.

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon
How ye can bloom so fresh and fair
How can ye chant ye little birds
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care
Thou’lt break my heart, thou warbling bird
That wantons thro’ the flowering thorn
Thou minds me o’ departed joys
Departed never to return

Aft hae I rov’d by bonnie Doon
To see the rose and woodbine twine
And ilka bird sang o’ its love
And fondly sae did I o’ mine
Wi’ lightsome heart I pu’d a rose
Fu’ sweet upon its thorny tree
But my false lover stole my rose
But ah! She left the thorn wi’ me

Like ‘Jerusalem’ this one has been with me a  very long time. I learned it as a song in Eastham Village Primary School, where singing was one of the weekly lessons. We had a  school songbook in which other favourites of mine were  Hearts of Oak, Greensleeves,  The Skye Boat Song…But this was my top favourite. Now I must ask myself, why? Most the language was incomprehensible.  I was nine or ten. I didn’t know anything about love or broken hearts.

I remember knowing it was partly about landscape – I think I knew , certainly know now as I try to remember what knowing the words of this lyric meant, that it was about place and heart, and that place was lovely and loveliness made the song/me sad.

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon
How ye can bloom so fresh and fair?
How can ye chant ye little birds
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care?

The side by side-ness of  the outside lovely world ‘so fresh and fair’ and the inside world of me ‘ I sae weary ful of care’,  is the main thing. Seeing light against darkness,  joy right up against sorrow casts  strong  emphasis on both states. What interests me remembering this is what was there in me then as a ten-year old that responded so powerfully to this split? I do not think  I was unhappy  – not more unhappy than anyone else suffering the humiliations and sorrows of childhood at that time. Did the song touch  parts of my experience that were not yet in my consciousness ?

My parents had recently divorced, we had moved many times, Eastham Village  was my fifth primary school in as many years. Was I ‘weary and ful o care?’ My mum was ill, and struggling as a single parent with four children, was beginning the drinking that would  lead to her alcoholism. How much did I realise of all that?  Not very much. It wouold be another two years – aeons in child-time – before it began to get to me enough to make me run away from home. But was the song  speaking to that growing  unhappiness ?

When we are very unhappy, things of joy seem to hurt us. I seem to remember (aware I could be making most of this up!) that I knew the sound of those birds, and that birdsong contains a sadness, or provokes it, late Spring birdsong  does sometime pierce that heart –

How can ye chant ye little birds
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care?

How? how? asks the poet , as if unable to hold together the co-existence of joy with his sorrow. How can there even be other-than-this?

How ye can bloom so fresh and fair?
How can ye chant ye little birds…?

I’m thinking of Wordsworth lines ‘a timely utterance gave that thought relief/and I again am strong’ – Tintern Abbey isn’t it?  I think finding ways of express otherwise unexpressed feelings is a key to some sort of equilibrium. Not that I became a balanced teenager. But I did survive my childhood and adolescence with something intact or strong enough to keep growing.

‘The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts’ George Eliot writes, at the end of Middlemarch.  Small things such  as giving children a way of enjoying songs and poems and stories that hold or express feelings  might  make a difference to  our growing child mental health problems. Certainly, things might have been much worse with me if I had not had this and other poems in my soul repertoire.