The cackling rooster reminds the farmer that it’s time to feed the chickens. Hungry sparrows try to snatch some grains from between the pecking hens, while a blackbird looks hungrily from a distance, but it doesn’t dare to come nearer. Soon It’s shot dead by a hunter, just for fun. The cows are driven from their stalls to take some air, look stupidly around and return to their barn. Boys are fighting with snowballs or slide with their nail-studded boots over ice. The night is approaching and they return home, many of them with their heads or noses broken, but they are soon comforted by their mothers with some bread. A white-haired man with a staff approaches the village. He is dressed decently and though bent with age, his posture shows some signs of former strength. He knocks on the door and the wife sends out her young son to check who’s out there. The boy puts out his hand and leads the old man inside. The man does not whine – he’s a vet and he only asks for a little help for the former soldier. He is soon seated in a comfortable chair and surrounded by children, the youngest of which climbs on his knee. The man first smiles, amused by the child’s prattle, but then remembers how he used to play like that with his own sons, who are now buried in distant lands “in honourable but untimely graves”, so presumably they were soldiers too. Some big tears roll down his cheeks. The farmer comes home from work, greets the man warmly, and invites him to share their dinnes and spend the night. After dinner everybody sits down in a circle but even in a moment of rest they are not idle: the wife sits at her spinning wheel while the husband is knitting a stocking or plaiting a rush basket for a future use for eggs or butter he’s going to sell at the market.
The farmer’s wife gets up and starts her day with bringing sticks from the shed and setting up the fire. This wakes the children up and their mother is busy with helping them to dress. Once they are dressed, they are off to their various amusements such as skating on the ice, checking the bird-trap, or simply gazing into the fire. Outside, the sun is rising and for a moment even manages to make the bleak winter landscape look cheerful before it hides behind a cloud. Wild birds also wake up and fly from the trees where they huddled together at night for warmth. Without singing, they look for food and when they can’t find any, they fly to the farm to peck at the window. A hungry hare runs off to his nest after a hasty meal of the farmer’s kale. The farmer takes a break and goes back home where his hungry children are already waiting for him (nobody has any breakfast before father gets home).They eat together, sometimes giving some morsels to the family cat or dog. After they are done, father says a prayer to thank God for that meal and goes to work again. Other houses in the village also resound with the noises of various occupations such as wool-carding, spinning, or the voices of the mistresses scolding their maidens. All breaks off for a moment when the shot of a hunter is heard: the girls run to the door to see who fired it, and even their mistresses, even while they are chiding them for interrupting their work, themselves rush to the door to have a look.
Joanna Baillie was a hugely popular playwright of the Georgian era, even though her plays were more successful as closet plays (i.e. read privately) than when produced on stage. But she was also a poet and “A Winter’s Day”, her poem in blank verse, is an example of that. Baillie believed in and practised simple language of poetry before Wordsworth turned it into his poetic programme, and this poem is an example of that. This is a description of a winter’s day on small farm in Scotland, whose tenant is a bit more than a common labourer, but hardly above the subsistence level. The day begins with the cock crowing, after which, considering his duty done, he goes back to sleep. The man rises from his sleep when he was dreaming about becoming wealthy and finds himself still quite poor. He goes first to check on his cattle and then goes to the barn to thresh some corn, which scares away a robin from his hiding place.
Did I write “To a Mouse” is Burns’s best-loved poem? Of course I was wrong, because it’s “Auld Lang Syne”. In reading this for the first time in my life, rather than listening to or singing it, it struck me that Burns seems to deploy his Scots to varying degrees and in “Auld Lang Syne” he really lays it on thick. The notes from the NAEL, as usual, are a bit patchy: they don’t explain, for instance, “my jo” from the refrain. I assume it’s “my friend”, since pretty much every singer replaced “my jo” with “my friend” in the lyrics, but who knows? It’s a rather melancholy celebration of friendship: they used to run around and pick daisies, but have wandered away, they used to paddle together in the stream, but now are separated by broad seas. But they still can meet over a drink for the sake of good old times.
You didn’t expect it, did you? But the version is very good, with a different tune than everyone knows, and it retains the original “my jo”.
In contrast, “Afton Water” is a relatively little-known poem, and even the very comprehensive Burns Companion does not include it. It’s a pastoral poem in which the poet addresses the stream of the title, asking it to flow gently so that it doesn’t awake “his Mary”. He also asks various local birds not to sing too loud. The remaining stanzas are the idyllic depictions of the shepherd’s life, roaming the banks of Afton with his sheep while his Mary throws daisies in the stream. The last stanza is the repetition of the first. In contrast to “Auld Lang Syne”, this song is written in what is practically literary English, with very few Scottish words.
Crabbe describes the unfruitful fields overgrown by weeds: even though mallows and poppies may look colourful, there are really just symptoms of how poor the land is. He compares the fields to a girl splendidly dressed, but who has been betrayed by a man and her face is sad. The local people look sullen and suspicious. Forget about Goldsmith’s swains engaging in sports after work: these people spend their evenings and nights helping smugglers. Crabbe compares himself to a swallow waiting on a beach for favourable wind: he also fled this place as soon as he had a chance, feeling sorry for those who had to stay and surely will be reduced to poverty, and when the sea erosion destroys their houses, to begging from people hardly less poor than themselves. But is life better in other, more fertile lands? Maybe it is, but only for the select rich few, while others, working for them, are like slaves working in gold mines, who cannot reap the full benefit of their labour. He also has no time for the idea that peasants are healthy: they are worn down by their work and those who are physically weaker, trying to keep up with the pace of the work and feeling ashamed to admit to their weakness, sicken and die sooner. And the idea that peasant food is simple but good is also ridiculous, as none of the pastoral poets would even touch the actual peasant fare. So all these “gentle souls, who dream of rural ease” should actually have a look not only at the peaceful outside, but at the miserable inside of a peasant cottage.
I have this tendency of thinking about many historical people as if they belonged only to one cultural era: if somebody was born in the age of powdered wigs, they surely should die before 1800 at the latest. But of course it’s not true, and some people’s lives span at least two periods: Lorenzo Da Ponte, who outlived Mozart and died as a professor of Italian in New York in 1838; George Cruikshank, who started as the author of scabrous political caricatures and ended up as a serious illustrator of Dickens and a militant tee-totaller; and George Crabbe, who started his poetic career in the age of Johnson and outlived many of the second-generation Romantic poets, such as Byron (who admired him).
George Crabbe was born in a poor family in Aldeburgh, on the southern shores of Britain. Aldeburgh used to be a thriving seaport in the 16th c., but by the time Crabbe was born, it was degraded to the status of a struggling fishing village because ships got too big for its bay. (It didn’t revive until the 19th c., when seaside tourism was invented.) So he justifiably felt he knew how to write about the village life from the viewpoint of its poorer inhabitants, not the imagination of a city dweller or pleasant memories of childhood spent in a rural vicarage. In The Village Crabbe drives a stake through the heart of pastoral poetry. Even though there are no shepherd poets nowadays, he claims, the poets still feel they can imitate Vergil and write the same old stuff about shepherds and nymphs, while they have no idea about life in the country. The only one who could write about such matters was Stephen Duck. And the reason why they all pick this subject it’s because it’s easy. Of course “fields and flocks have charms”, but mostly to the animals or their owners themselves, not so much to the sweating shepherds who have to work hard. So Crabbe is going to write about cottages “as Truth will paint it, and as bards will not.”
The poet depicts the inhabitants of Auburn leaving their village, casting one last look. He describes them by their familial roles: the father, leaving as the first of his family, the dutiful daughter following him, the wife crying and holding her babies, the husband trying to comfort her, although he himself is silently grieving. He returns to the motive of luxury as something unnatural: kingdoms fuelled by it are like over-fertilized plants, because they grow quickly, but they die as fast. In a scene parallel to the scene of villagers leaving England, he imagines various virtues sch as Loyalty, Piety and Love, emigrating from England too. In a somewhat self-centred move, he imagines among them also Poetry, the “source of all my bliss, and all my woe”, which is leaving England as well. He hopes that in the faraway countries, where she is going to settle, she is still going to teach man how corrupting and fleeting luxury is. In the last four lines, written by Dr Johnson, Trade is compared to a breakwater, swept away by a storm, while self-dependency is like the rocky shore, resisting the waves. Dr Johnson apparently didn’t realize that erosion is a thing.