Tuesday, 12 July 2011

A wry glance


This arrived a couple of weeks ago...

----- Original Message -----
From: D
To: C
Sent: Monday, June 27, 2011 5:14 PM
Subject: What is Scotsman's image of "comin' through the rye?"

Hi C,

How are you? We hope you are enjoying your summer so far. You will probably chuckle when you read what I am concerned about. I thought of you recently when G. read Salinger’s “Catcher in The Rye.” I have heard enough about the novel since it first came out that I feel like I read it, but I know I didn’t. While we talked about the novel and its title, I realized that I did not really know what Burns’s line means, “When a body meets a body comin’ through the rye.” Because I grew up in a part of the country where there are many descendants of Scottish immigrants from both Ulster and Scotland itself, I heard the song already as a little child. As a child I imagined the rye stalks being taller than people. I imagined that a person would wade through the rye not being able to see where he was going and occasionally run into another person who also happened to be wading through. I have never seen a rye field, but G. has seen them in Germany. She says the rye is typically about 25 or 30 inches tall or so. Any now my question. When a Scotsman in Scotland reads Burns’s line, what image does he have of people coming through the rye? It seems that if people simply walked across a rye field, the farmer would do something to stop them from damaging his crop. Or are there big rye areas with numerous rye fields separated by paths? Or did Burns mean something metaphorical or allegorical?

Cheers, D

I got round to replying this morning. It took me fully from 9.15 to 1pm to put this together...

Hello D,
Thank you so much for this, and sorry to have taken so long to reply. The question you pose is quite complicated and I can't do more than offer a few observations. In the early 1780s Robert Burns wrote his own version of a south of Scotland folksong, of which there existed many variants, which was so well-known at the time that eventually it became, duly bowdlerised, a children's song. The original, as published in The Merry Muses of Caledonia in 1800 (although in existence for many years before that), was downright bawdy. Burns may have had a hand in editing and even adding to it:

O gin a body meet a body
Comin thro the rye:
Gin a body f*ck a body,
Need a body cry.

Chorus:
Comin thro the rye, my jo,
An comin thro the rye;
She fand a staun o' staunin graith,
Comin thro the rye

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro the glen:
Gin a body f*ck a body
Need the warld ken.

(Chorus)

And so on for another three uninspiring verses...

Pause for glossary: Gin (hard G, as in 'begin') = if, should: a body = someone: jo = darling, love: fand = found: staun = something upright: staunin [play on words] = standing/astonishing: graith = growth: warld = world, everyone: ken = know:

Burns used the above as the basis for a much more subtly suggestive poem of his own:

O, Jenny's a' weet, poor body,
Jenny's seldom dry:
She draigl't a' her petticoatie,
Comin thro' the rye!

Chorus:
Comin thro' the rye, poor body,
Comin thro' the rye,
She draigl't a' her petticoatie,
Comin thro' the rye!

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?


(chorus)

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need the warld ken?

(chorus)

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the grain;
Gin a body kiss a body,
The thing's a body's ain.

(chorus)

Ev'ry Lassie has her laddie,
Nane, they say, have I,
Yet all the lads they smile on me,
When comin' thro' the rye.

Glossary: a' = all: weet = wet: draigl't = (be)draggled: ain = own; [the line means 'it's no one else's business']: nane = none. Warld is pronounced in two syllables, 'wah' and 'rlld'.

So there's a strong sense of an earthy sexuality in both the original folksong and Burn's version of it. Jenny is the village tart, or at least generous with her favours. The tune to the original, incidentally, is pentatonic, suggesting great antiquity.

Both versions also evoke secrecy and concealment with 'rye' and 'glen', both enclosed places away from prying eyes. In Burns' time and for long after rye and other cereals ('rye' is clearly more convenient for rhyme than 'oats' or 'barley') were grown with stems 5' to 6' high. Moreover, the contemporary method of ploughing (called 'rig and furrow') left much wider passages between the stands of cereal, sown haphazard by broadcasting rather than in neat rows, as via a modern seed drill. A field of cereal was thus a good place to hide in, and the likelihood of trampling much less than we would expect nowadays. Your childhood imagination was, maybe unwittingly, 100% accurate. The stalks were chopped and used as winter animal feed. (Waterloo was fought in mid-June: Wellington's troops used the concealment offered by long-stemmed cereals, almost ready to harvest, to great effect.) 'Glen', also good for rhyme, means 'valley', usually a narrow one. 'Strath' would be used for a wide valley. Where there's a valley, there's water, and consequently trees and bushes offering concealment, in addition to the enclosing hill- or mountainsides. There may be further sexual overtones here.

I'm not certain that J. D. Salinger was aware of any of this in 'The Catcher in the Rye', although I think he probably guessed at the implications and overtones of the poem(s), even if Holden Caulfield 'misheard' it, and saw how applicable the image was to his novel.

I hope this helps.

[...]
Christopher

Thank you for reading this far, if you have. Please don't feel the need to include the word 'draigl't' in any comments you might be kind enough to make.

13 comments:

Z said...

That reminds me of a passage in a book of Adrian Bell's, where he describes (with all due delicacy) making love to his girlfriend in a field of corn and the farmer he worked for complaining about the flattened area at harvest time.

Christopher said...

Maybe the search for non-tickly patches explains those curious crop circles?

Rog said...

Well wheat a man!

I suppose you could have summarised this reply by serial cropping as it's in danger of becoming a bit draigl't.

Dave said...

I knew Rog would come up with a corny reply.

Christopher said...

He usually manages to rice to the occasion, Dave.

Tim said...

There was an amaizeing picture of a crop circle of Harry Potter in today's Guardian.

Martin H. said...

I had 'The Catcher in the Rye' on my bookshelf for years and never read it. Now I think it's probably best left unread.

Christopher said...

I could never eat haripotta bread, Tim. Gave me sore gums.

(A mysterious hand with TSAE EVAD tattooed on the knuckles made me write this.)

Martin H. What a pleasure. Thank you for dropping in. I think you may well be right. It wouldn't do to re-examine all that 50s angst.

dinahmow said...

I canna improve on't, she said rye-ly.
(Awa the noo for a jeely piece}

Vicus Scurra said...

Thank you again for this quite unnecessary journey into improving my command of trivia. I shall avoid eating cereal from now on, for similar reasons that Mr Fields eschewed water.
I shall also continue to avoid Scottish verse, for the most part; I share the perspective of the Duke of Dunstable who was offended by the thought that a poet could get away with rhyming "again" with "Lomond". Although I must confess that I am moved by the beauty of the words of Jimmy McNulty.

Christopher said...

MIT: Is it true that you sometimes hoot like a mon?

Vicus: Yes, rhyming 'again' with 'Lomond' argues a rare skill, only equalled by rhyming 'braes' with 'afore ye'. The rhyme scheme of the poem (pron. 'poyem' in Scotland) is therefore A B C D E F G H. It is for my betters to decide whether this indicates an unsuspected generosity or confirmation of proverbial thrift.

letouttoplay said...

So is petticoatie a plural form or does it mean a little petticoat? I was just thinking that the first would make for a more comfortable tryst while the second makes the whole thing sound a bit prickly and scratchy.

Christopher said...

It all sounds a bit seedy, especially at harvest time, Mig.