Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Wayfarer in a Pub

Reader, what do you fret about?

I don't mean for yourself. I'm not talking about your final examinations, or your love life, or your bank balance. I mean, what social trends do you fret about? What are your worries for society?

Because I think most of us worry about society, and that our social philosophies can (to a great extent) be boiled down to our worries for society.

Now and again I seem to glimpse the world through the eyes of a progressive, and I realize that they actually fret about society collapsing into a racist, sexist, theocratic dystopia where secret police bundle "minorities" into vans and take them to concentration camps-- or some similarly lurid scenario.

This seems absurd to us. But then, I think such anxieties-- anxieties regarding social trends-- are very often irrational. In fact, I will willingly accept that my own anxieties regarding social trends are often irrational.

Here is one example, which may or may not be irrational.

For as long as I can remember, I have felt a very deep anxiety at the loss of what I might best term "folk culture". Perhaps I might also use the term oral culture. Or cultural memory.

In fact, it's very hard to come up with an appropriate term, because what exactly it is that I'm anxious about is hard to define-- though it seems very clear to me.

Perhaps a list of things towards which I feel protective, or nostalgic, might explain it:

Skipping chants. Ghost stories. Folk ballads. Street games. Parlour games. Card games. Local sayings. Riddles. The widespread use of literary and poetic and Scriptural quotations. Amateur dramatics. Shadow puppetry. Regional accents. Proverbs. Sing-a-longs. Stories around the campfire.

I think you probably understand what I mean now.

But it's very hard to know what collective term to give such things, or what to take as a defining characteristic, or even what they can be contrasted against.

I could try "oral culture", but this doesn't really cover it. Oral culture involves the transmission of culture orally. But take the example, for instance, of some kids improvising their own sport, using whatever equipment they have to hand. This would be an example of what I mean, but it can't be called oral culture.

Or take the example of somebody quoting a speech from Shakespeare, in an everyday context. This also fits, but it's not oral culture per se. It's written culture that happens to be expressed orally.

Sometimes I've defined this thing (whatever it is) against the mass media. I've defined it as everything which has been eroded, and continues to be eroded, by the radio, the television, the cinema, and the internet. The phrase "making your own entertainment" is often used in this context.

But that's not really it, either. Card games, for instance, are not really a case of people making their own entertainment-- there's not much imagination or creativity involved-- but they somehow seem to fit in this category. To me, at any rate.

And many of the media that existed before radio and television were pretty rubbishy. Music hall, for instance, seems to have been a tawdry form of entertainment, without much artistic or social merit. The same is true of a lot of print culture which preceded radio and television. "Penny dreadful" magazines were trashy by any standard, it would seem. (I've never actually read a penny dreadful, but I have looked through some popular magazines that predated radio and TV. Some of them were just as trashy and trivial.)

The wonderful website TV Tropes has an interesting page called New Media are Evil, which gives examples of the anxieties that greeted every new media as it came along, all through history.

As the page puts it: Almost every new medium of communication or expression that has appeared since the dawn of history has been accompanied by doomsayers and critics who have confidently predicted that it would bring about The End of the World as We Know It, by weakening the brain or polluting our precious bodily fluids.

The same thing has happened to basically every type of media in history, making this trope as old as mankind itself. Writing itself was hugely suspicious for example, as people feared that it would cripple the ability to memorise things, as this was now no longer needed, as everything could be written down.

Silly, right? And yet... I can't help feeling that there was considerable justification to even this anxiety, and that something is lost when a society passes from an oral to a written culture.

Something is obviously gained, too. In fact, most people who love books would agree that far more is gained by the spread of literacy than is lost. 

But...something is lost. Modernist literature, for instance, could never have arisen in an oral culture. Perhaps what is lost in oral culture is a kind of innocence. (My own theory is that all art becomes decadent the further it is removed from folk culture.)

Whenever a new cultural medium comes along, I would argue, something is lost as well as gained. And with some media, we might argue, more is lost than is gained.

For instance, I believe the introduction of television was cataclysmic to social and cultural life-- while, at the same time, I am fascinated by the history of television itself. (Peter Hitchens writes a brilliant and depressing chapter on television in his masterly book The Abolition of Britain.)

What about the internet? Well, it could be seen as an improvement, in that it is less passive than the media which dominated immediately before it-- television and radio. One might argue, as well, that it is a corrective to the homogenizing tendencies of TV and radio. Instead of millions of people watching the same show, you have millions of people writing their own blogs, participating in obscure internet forums, and pursuing the most arcane interests. That's a good thing...isn't it?

And yet, and yet....a young relative of my own admitted to me that he found it difficult to read books, since he was so unused to reading text without a light glowing behind it. I was touched and saddened by the admission.

So, although I cannot find an adequate term to describe the thing towards which I feel protective, I need to use some term. I will go with "folk culture".

Here are the characteristics of "folk culture", in this sense. These are tendencies rather than absolutes, and not all of them apply to every case:

1) It is non-technological, or minimally technological.
2) It is traditional.
3) It is national, regional, or local.
4) It is performed to small groups which are physically present, rather than to a mass audience across space and time.
5) It is participatory, rather than passive.
6) It is non-commercial.
7) It is improvized, rather than standardized.

I really do fret a lot about the loss of this "oral culture". I seem to encounter examples of this loss all the time-- although I am aware of the phenomenon of "confirmation bias", and realize my view may be excessively gloomy, that things might not be quite as bad as I fear

Be that as it may, I feel an obligation to protect and propagate "oral culture" in my own small way. This has led me to various efforts, but the effort I am going to write about in this blog post is my effort to memorize poetry.

I recently wrote an article on the decline of poetry for The Burkean. In this case, I am sure that the decline is a real decline, and not an imagined one-- and I give arguments for this in my piece.

So for a good many months now, I have been putting a corpus of poetry to memory. It's not the first time I've done something like this-- I've memorized quite a lot of poems in recent years, from the same motives-- but, inevitably, they have faded from my mind. I came to the realization that I had to keep them fresh, by constantly revisiting them.

In my teens, I had a great memory for poetry. I memorized poems without even trying. Since my twenties, however, it has required an effort. (The amount of effort depends on the poem-- in fact, I believe that the ease with which a poem sticks in one's memory is a good sign of its merit as a poem. Great poems almost brand themselves upon the memory.)

I started out simply memorizing poems I loved, and then I decided to start trying to memorize a poem (or passage from a poem) from every notable poet. My idea was that, one day, I would be able to say: "Name any poet and I'll recite a poem by him or her"

This is the list I have put to memory so far:

Death of an Irishwoman by Michael Hartnett 
Snow by Louis Macneice
The Fool by Patrick Pearse
Ulysses by Tennyson
The Burning of the Leaves by Laurence Binyon
“Our revels now are ended...” by William Shakespeare
"All the world’s a stage...” by William Shakespeare
To Helen by Edgar Allen Poe
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow...” by William Shakespeare.
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer by John Keats
“Ay, but to die…” by William Shakespeare
Lines Written on Westminster Bridge by William Wordsworth
The Wayfarer by Patrick Pearse
The Kraken by Lord Alfred Tennyson
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
A Birthday by Christina Rossetti
Heraclitus, by William Johnson Cory
The Owl by Lord Alfred Tennyson
The Planster’s Vision by John Betjeman
“No Longer Mourn for me When I am Dead…” by William Shakespeare
Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night by Dylan Thomas
“That Time of Year Thou Mayst in Me Behold” by William Shakespeare
“Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds” by William Shakespeare
“My Mistress Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun”, by William Shakespeare
“When I Consider How My Light is Spent” by John Milton
““Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth” by Arthur Hugh Clough
“The Burning Babe by Robert Southwell
Remember by Christina Rossetti
“Ring out, wild bells” by Lord Alfred Tennyson (from In Memoriam)
The Song of the Strange Ascetic by G.K. Chesterton
Forget Not Yet by Thomas Wyatt.
The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe
September 1913 by W.B. Yeats
The Workman’s Friend by Gem Casey (Flann O'Brien)
If by Rudyard Kipling
When I was One-and-Twenty by A.E. Housman
"Loveliest of trees, the cherry now..." by A.E. Housman
Annus Mirabilis by Philip Larkin
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll
An Irish Airman Foresees his Death by W.B. Yeats
How Do I Love Thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
"Yonder see the morning blink..." by A.E. Housman
"Under the wide and starry sky..." by Robert Louis Stevenson
"Into my heart an air that kills..." by A.E. Housman
Peace by Henry Vaughan
She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron
Acquainted with the Night by Robert Frost
John Anderson my Jo John by Robbie Burns
When He Who Adores Thee by Thomas Moore.
Golden Stockings by Oliver St. John Gogarty
Ringsend by Oliver St. John Gogarty
The Return by Thomas Traherne
Shakespeare by Matthew Arnold
Ode on a Snowflake by Francis Thompson
Adelstrop by Edward Thomas
Ozymandias by Percy Shelley
The Fisherman by W.B. Yeats
The World’s a Stage by Hilaire Belloc
“Among the crooked lanes..” by James Thomson.
“When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces...” by Charles Algernon Swinburne.

"The Raven" is the longest poem in this list, at one hundred and eight lines long. I'd actually memorized it before, some years ago, for the sole purpose of reciting it at a dinner party. (I switched the lights off and held a candle in my hand, as I recited it. The sense of drama was punctured somewhat when I tried to blow out the candle before the final "Nevermore", but struggled to do so). Then it faded from my memory. However, it was easier to memorize again, since I had memorized it before.

I decided "The Raven" would remain the longest poem in my repertoire, my "party piece". I actually recite it to myself, silently, every morning, to keep it fresh. It doesn't take that long.

I've noticed another benefit to having a body of poetry put to memory-- it's quite comforting. The mind (indeed, the world) can be a chaotic place-- having a refuge of structure and form is soothing.

I've had opportunities to recite the poems on my list, and here I come (finally) to the real subject of this meandering blog post.

There have been a lot of get-togethers in my extended family recently. Mostly (though not exclusively) these have been on the occasion of family deaths, including the death of my father.

More recently than that, my cousin passed away-- a relatively young man, in his early fifties.

Since Irish nationalism is deeply embedded in my extended family, there is a tradition of singing Irish folk ballads at get-togethers. My father himself had an apparently limitless fund of these. He would quite often toss off a verse of a ballad and then remark, casually: "I haven't even thought about that song in forty years."

Once, some years ago, my wife asked me to sing her a song. I realized I couldn't think of a single song I could sing her. When I told my father this, he said: "You should be ashamed of yourself." I agreed, and I was ashamed of myself.

So I felt a mixture of admiration and envy at my extended family, that they had such a wealth of patriotic (and other) ballads on the tips of their tongues.

However, at the recent get-togethers, I made a troubling discovery: they actually don't have them on the tips of their tongues. Not anymore.

Even the older ones-- men and women in their sixties or seventies, who had participated in innumerable sing-alongs over the years-- had trouble remembering the lyrics of most of the ballads they sung. They had to consult their smartphones for many or even most of the lyrics. As for the younger members-- those in their twenties and under-- they had no songs at all.

There was much lamenting of this fact. A member of my family who is very progressive, and frequently argues against my own social nostalgia, was particularly outspoken. She said: "Remember the days when we used to sing without any phones, actually remembering the words?" She was disdainful of anyone resorting to a smartphone-- although she had to do it herself, when joining in with some songs.

My father never learned how to send a text or navigate the internet. Perhaps that is why his memory for ballads never decayed. I think he was better off.

As is usual in such occasions, each member of the party was implored to sing a song. When my turn came, I suggested I would recite a poem instead. (I "haven't a note in my head", as the saying goes-- and I had already been building up my repertoire.) I recited "The Wayfarer" by Patrick Pearse. Pearse was the leader of the 1916 Rising against British rule in Ireland, so it fit the patriotic mood of the evening, although it is not obviously nationalistic:

The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun,
Or some green hill where shadows drifted by
Some quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown
And soon would reap; near to the gate of Heaven;
Or children with bare feet upon the sands
Of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets
Of little towns in Connacht,
Things young and happy.
And then my heart hath told me:
These will pass,
Will pass and change, will die and be no more,
Things bright and green, things young and happy;
And I have gone upon my way

I was nervous I would forget some words, or stumble over them, but I didn't. I recited it slowly, and gained in confidence as I went along. To my great surprise, the pub went silent, and lots of people beyond my own party were listening. There was even a round of applause from people I didn't know. It gave me a thrill.

Afterwards, we adjourned to a house until the early hours of the morning, and I recited some more poems: "Death of an Irishwoman" by Michael Hartnett, "The Burning of the Leaves" by Laurence Binyon, and "The Fool", which is another poem by Patrick Pearse.

I even joined in the communal singing this time, although I also had to look at lyrics on a smartphone.

I've stopped memorizing poetry now-- I'm intensifying my efforts to improve my grasp of the Irish language instead, having decided that the Irish language is even more important than poetry. That gives me plenty of scope for memorization. However, I'm still keeping my repertoire of poems fresh in my mind. I carry the list in a notebook, and mentally recite a few every day.

Am I alone in my concerns for "oral culture"? Do other people fret about this? I don't know. I wonder. Even finding words for these concerns, finding terms for what I am talking about, has been difficult. And yet, I would like to think I am not alone.


  1. Wouldn´t want to state much personal matters to this. The 7 point list on folk culture is entirely accurate with not a slightest shadow of doubt. We had some elements of such simple and in hindsight incredibly nice entertainments in my youth too and it is a sorrow to know how even memories seem to make them sorely missed in the more sterile mind fields today. Could write a similar list on cherished popular (often country) song lyrics but alas not manage remembering any single poem, despite being overwhelmed by simply discover poetry at all as first hand in just recent years. What you wrote in the passage quoted about your beloved father, whom I some time would wish to have a privilege to meet (in heaven, that would be! if not, more harshly, in purgatory...) and salute with admiration, is like the day and night of a strong contrast between a father and son: "My father never learned how to send a text or navigate the internet. Perhaps that is why his memory for ballads never decayed. I think he was better off." He must have been, practically, better off in the major!

    1. Well, if you can remember song lyrics, that's good in itself. I struggle to remember song lyrics.

      Yes, it's a real shame you will not meet my father in this life! Thanks for the kind words about him. And the funny thing is, although he never used text or the internet, he watched television A LOT. Mostly because he was a news and current affairs addict.

      I'm glad you liked the seven point list, I was proud of that. And "sterile mind fields" is a wonderful phrase!

    2. Thomas, I accidentally deleted your comment!! But here it is copied and pasted:

      "To be more precise I must hasten to add that it does not mean any ability to recite them entirely. Should be more accurate to have written "many phrases in song lyrics". (For some reason I cannot remember any phrases at all from Richard Hannay´s old evergreen ballad All Those People On My Mind, though it may well be better left forgotten!)

      Brains has got damaged not only by far too much screen time but also by every other sins rampant in the "new" World Order, is a basic guess."

  2. One of those posts for which this blog is, or should be renowned. No, you are not alone in your concerns: I share the same anxiety about the loss of precious and unique things, of detail and ornament and lore, of things handed on. In families, in streets, in valleys — these things have always been lost, but now I am not sure what is replacing them.

    Congratulations on having learnt so many poems, and especially for holding the pub silent, which sounds like a special moment!

    1. Thank you! Yes, this is the kind of post close to my heart! And it was a special moment. I bet you have quite a repertoire yourself!

    2. Shamefully small, I'm afraid. But this is galvanising me to put that right!

    3. By the way, I loved this: "These things have always been lost, but now I am not sure what is replacing them." Exactly!