Review of Broken Lights by Basil Ramsay Anderson, ed. Robert Alan Jamieson, pub. Northus Shetland Cl
This is the second in a series of reprints, Northus Shetland Classics, and, like the first, concerns an author who died too young. Anderson died in 1888 at 26, of TB, like several of his siblings. (He came of an ill-starred but talented family; his niece Willa married the poet Edwin Muir and became a well-known author in her own right.) Anderson’s family were part of the ‘Shetland exile’ community in Edinburgh, where his mother had removed after the death at sea of her husband. Another member of this expat community was the older Shetland writer Jessie Saxby, who had acted as a mentor to Anderson and who first edited and published this book after his death. It contains his poems, extracts from letters to his brother and a friend, and an introductory essay from Saxby including several tributes from others.
The letter extracts are fascinating, and moving because of the contrast between their lively, conversational style and what we know will shortly become of some people mentioned in them. Here, Basil’s younger brother Andrew, a teacher of engineering, has used his expertise to get a smoking chimney to “draw” properly:
“Andrew calculated what was the requisite current of air necessary to draw that smoke up that lum, and of course, when he had ascertained that, drew up the window the precise distance to allow this current access to the room. He then betook himself to the kitchen.”
Here he calculates when the room will be clear of smoke, “a problem in pure mathematics” and goes back in, where he is surprised to find a policeman and a fireman attending to a conflagration: “On examination he found that he had forgot an important factor in his calculations, viz: a blazing gas-bracket in close proximity to the inflammable window curtain”.
The humour with which this incident is related absolutely sparkles, and none the less brightly because the next time we hear of Andrew, in another letter about nine months later, he is so weak from TB that he cannot walk. He will die a few months before his older brother. The letter extracts are so appealing that one wishes Saxby had included more.
Basil’s obituary notice remarks that “he early manifested a talent for versification, and had his life been prolonged he would probably have taken a recognised place among our minor poets”. This is what one might call faint praise, but as far as the poems in standard English go, I think it is about right – the standard English poems are not worth noticing except as curiosities. Anderson effectively wrote in three dialects: standard English, Lowland Scots and Shetlandic. And like so many dialect writers of the 19th century, he had an exaggerated respect for standard English, seeming to think that when he wrote poems in it he must affect a “high style” and use poncy words like “welkin”, “brooklet” and “methinks”, none of which he would have dreamed of employing in everyday speech. Saxby suggests that this is because it was essentially a foreign language to him, but that will not do. His letters, give or take the odd dialect word consciously used, are in standard English and he expresses himself perfectly naturally in them. It is more to do with the pernicious idea that there was a Poetry Voice, which was somehow elevated above natural speech. In dialect, writers of the time seem to have been able to free themselves from this, and certainly Anderson writing dialect is a different poet.
He had however another problem, ironically connected with the technical facility Robert Alan Jamieson mentions in his introduction. Anderson does seem to have had a completely natural bent for scansion and rhyme: like Kipling, he could knock off a rhymed poem with consummate ease, and like Kipling, he allowed this facility to betray him into using far more rhyme than was wise or appropriate to his subject, so that even his most serious poems can fall into an appallingly jingly jog-trot. Technically speaking, he handles his complicated rhyme-schemes well, but they fatally dominate the work.
Again he generally avoids this in his Lowland and Shetlandic dialect poems, because he uses simpler and less obtrusive rhyme schemes. In “A Bonnie Face”, one of the very few poems where he sounds anything like Burns, he praises a pretty girl in terms that sound not only natural but rather more honest than many a poet’s:
There’s something in a bonnie face,
Though beauty be it’s a’
That makes a man forget a’ grace
An' steals his heart awa’.
There may be little sign o’ wit –
There may be nane ava!
But I can thole the want o’ it…
Admittedly, being a respectable Christian gentleman, he feels obliged to add a last verse stressing how much better it is if the girl does have wit and goodness as well as beauty. But one senses that this is tacked on out of a sense of duty; it is the preceding verses that come from the heart.
Among his Shetlandic dialect poems is his long masterpiece, “Auld Maunsie’s Crü”, which is the one that arguably lifts him beyond “minor” and certainly would have done, had he written more in that vein. A crü is a circular stone enclosure for growing vegetables, providing protection from wind and marauding sheep; they are found all over Shetland. This one is built by a crofter to grow kale. But right from the start, this unassuming structure begins to accrue a status beyond itself and its purpose. “Maunsie” is a common Shetland name, but it derives from “Magnus”, a name both of Norwegian kings and of the saint who made it popular in the islands. His crü is well-made, “an honest O”, which inevitably puts us in mind of the “round O” on which Shakespeare proposes to portray the round world. But this is an “honest” O, with a purpose in the real world, not a stage for fiction. And it becomes something other than a vegetable plot; for seamen out fishing it is a guide, “a tooer an’ landmark”, while landsmen use it as a clock, reckoning how far through the day they are when “da sun is by Auld Maunsie’s crü”. In winter its walls provide beasts with shelter from snow and wind; in summer with shade.
After Maunsie’s death, the neglected crü falls derelict, but perhaps more importantly it loses its name. Because superstition forbids the naming of a dead person, it first becomes “da crü o’ him ‘at’s noo awa’”, but later, as its origin begins to fade from memory, it is known “by da füle name o’ Ferry-ring”, a spurious legend of fairies replacing a genuine human story and directly reversing the way in which the “honest O” replaced the stage earlier in the poem.
Fortunately, Anderson chose a simple form for this, rhyming iambic tetrameters, which enhance rather than obscure its genuine power. Maunsie and his crü make a difference to the world while they are in it, but it is not a lasting difference. Everyone who ever met Anderson seems to testify to his strong religious belief, but it must have applied solely to the existence of another world, because the end of this poem does not strike me as remotely optimistic about our chances of being remembered in this one:
An' later folk had mair ta dü
Dan mind Auld Maunsie or his crü.
It is a pleasant thought that, because of this reprinting project, the poem of Auld Maunsie’s Crü, at least, may live longer than its author imagined.