Here’s a poem to mark the beginning of the school year. For some people this is a happy time – a time of new hopes and progress. For others it isn’t. I’ll leave you to work out which camp the Scottish poet Robert Garioch fell into, with the poem ‘Elegy’, addressed to two elder school masters in the school that he worked at:
They are lang deid, folk that I used to ken
their firm set lips aa mowdert and agley,
sherp-tempert een rusty amang the cley:
they are baith deid, thae wycelike, bienlie men,
heidmaisters, that had been in pouer for ten
or twenty year afore fate’s taiglie wey
brocht me, a young, weill-harnit, blate and fey
new-cleckit dominie, intill their den.
Ane tellt me it was time I learnt to write –
round-haund, he meant – and saw about my hair:
I mind of him, beld-heidit, wi a kyte.
Ane sneerit quarterly – I cuidna square
my savings bank – and sniftert in his spite.
Weill, gin they arena deid, it’s time they were.
From Selected Poems 1966, reprinted in Twelve Modern Scottish Poets, ed. Charles King, University of London Press 1971
How elegiac is this elegy? The first stanza is reasonably respectful, granting them through the adjectives ‘wycelike and bienlie’ the dignity of their social status. It’s true that there are less complimentary descriptions here, but these are of their bodies rotting in the earth – and such description of those once among us now reduced to earth is perfectly sound material for an elegy, a touch of memento mori. Even calling them ‘sherp-tempert’ needn’t be thought of as especially negative. Perhaps the only sure sign that there is a distinctly unelegaic quality in this first stanza is the glee with which Garioch repeats and varies the declaration of the men’s death, at the same time narrowing the subject from a more general ‘folk’ to the two particular men he has in mind.
Then Garioch describes how ‘fate’s taiglie way’ brought him to these men, not without a certain self-pitying drama (all part of the the poem’s humour, perhaps.) Garioch really was a school teacher, and he really didn’t like it. Two vignettes show us the unlikeable traits of the men, before Garioch lands the punchline: ‘Weill, gin they arena deid, it’s time they were’. The poem has not been an elegy at all, rather a bitter reminiscence of two resented social superiors (and, more to the point, bosses). One hopes both men weren’t alive to suffer the indignity of reading the poem.
A poet who was compelled by circumstances to have to take a job as a school teacher, Garioch writes about his work with unsparing honesty – and some bitterness. He also writes with the undercurrent of humour of so much poetry written in Scots (Hugh Macdiarmid excepted). It could be seen as a kind of ‘sticking it to the boss’ poem, and, given the near-universality of the sentiment, there aren’t too many of those about.
For those of you without recourse to an English-Scots dictionary, here’s an anglicised version:
They’re long dead, folk I used to know,
their firm-set lips, mouldy and awry,
sharp-tempered eyes rotting in the earth;
they’re both dead, respectable, prosperous men,
headmasters, in power some ten
or twenty years before fate’s tangled way
brought me, a young, well-horned (clever), shy and bashful
newly-hatched teacher into their den
One told me it was time I learnt how to write –
cursive, he meant – and saw about my hair:
I remember him, bald, with a paunch.
The other sneered now and again – I couldn’t square
my savings account – and scoffed in spite.
Well, if they’re not dead, it’s time they were.
(P.S This is an edited version of a post I wrote a year and a half ago, for another WordPress blog. Sepetember is a busy time of year for me too! But original blog posts are on their way.)