‘Enough!’ my wife cried.
Recently I’ve been reading poetry while my wife breastfeeds. It means she can’t get away.
‘I’ve had enough poems about death. All the poems you read are about death. Don’t you have anything more cheerful?’
I could have taken the Woody Allen defence at this point:
Annie Hall: You only give me books with ‘death’ in the title.
Woody Allen: Well it’s an important issue!
Instead, I took her point. I’d read her an Andrew Motion poem which was set in a hospital, and before that ‘The Child on the Cliffs’ and ‘Rain’ by Edward Thomas. The latter because it was raining, and I remembered it being a nice poem about rain, and forgot it was also a bleak poem about death. Over the last few weeks, I have also been dipping into the poems of Cesar Vallejo, who is brilliant, and yet tends towards the subjects of despair, illness and, well, you know…
‘Okay, enough. I have just the thing.’
I got out my well-thumbed copy of Twelve Modern Scottish Poets (that, incidentally, I picked up for a quid a few years ago in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, and seems to be signed by the editor), I put on my best Scots accent, and read the following…
Day is Düne
Lully, lully, my ain wee dearie:
Lully, lully, my ain wee doo:
Sae far awa and peerieweerie
Is the hurlie o’ the world noo.
And a’ the noddin pows are wearie;
And a’ the fitterin feet come in:
Lully, lully my ain wee dearie,
The darg is owre and the day is düne.*
That did the trick. The bairn slept soundly, and my wife was satisfied with the poem. Meanwhile, as is often the case with Scots poetry, I began to wonder about some of the words.
Unlike his contemporary Hugh Macdiarmad, who used Scots dictionaries and old sources to enrich his own Scots tongue, William Souter uses Scots words that were still in use at the time he wrote the poem, in this case, comforting words of hearth and home – and the nursery.
Lully is not, I think, an exclusively Scottish word, but a sound something like ‘hush’, a word for soothing and comforting, ultimately related to ‘lull’ and ‘lullaby’. Souter has another poem that starts with a similar refrain ‘Luely luely’, – lovely, for a similar vocal effect, but an entirely different meaning. The whole of the short poem, in fact, describes this lull, the final, tired, quiet activities of a long weary day.
An English-speaking reader can get the sense of most of the words of the poem through their simple onomatopoeia, and their similarity to English words (not always the case with Scots). But there is one word that bears closer investigation ‘darg’: ‘The darg is owre and the day is düne.’ The Oxford Dictionary actually has this as a northern English word, though I’ve never heard it before, and though it looks obscure, it is actually a dialectical shortening of the phrase ‘a day’s work’. It survived into Australian and New Zealand English too, where it means, specifically the quota of work a labourer has to do in a day. It retains the older, wider meaning in this poem, however.
It may seem strange to our more leisured age, that, one would clamber into bed the moment one’s tasks for the day were done. I wonder if this reflects a harsher work ethic that lingered into the early and mid- twentieth century, or even the Calvinist ethics of Scotland in particular. Or maybe it’s not as serious as all that – since this is a mother singing a lullaby to her child, the idea is to finish off her darg for the day, so she can sneak downstairs for a wee dram, or some time with her guid man.
* Lully, lully, my own little dear:
Lully, lully, my own little dove:
So far away and teeny-weeny
Is the hurly-burly of the world now.
And all the droppin’ heads are weary;
And all the patterin’ feet come in:
Lully, lully, my own little dear,
The day’s work’s over, and the day is done.