Friday, 2 November 2012

Inglorious Miltons

Sara Allgood as Maurya, photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1938
Maurya:  (raising her head and speaking as if she did not see the people around her) They're all gone now, and there isn't anything more the sea can do to me.... I'll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south, and you can hear the surf is in the east, and the surf is in the west, making a great stir with the two noises, and they hitting one on the other. I'll have no call now to be going down and getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain, and I won't care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening. '(To Nora)' Give me the Holy Water, Nora; there's a small sup still on the dresser.

Riders to the Sea by J M Synge, 1904

Unless they’re Irish peasants of the early 20th century, in which case we’ve been conditioned by John Synge and WB Yeats to expect them to speak in floods of natural wild Celtic poetry – we tend not to think of ordinary people – the-man-in-the-street – as likely to use particularly eloquent or colourful speech. And yet, why not?  Robert Burns was untaught, and so was John Clare, and many a mute inglorious Milton may, as Gray suggests, have gone to his quiet grave without being known by more than the handful of folk amongst whom he or she lived.  (In passing, there are so many Miltons among the villages near us here in Oxfordshire: Great Milton, Little Milton, Milton Park, etc., that one day I swear I'm going to create a couple of twinned villages called Mute Milton and Inglorious Milton, rather as Joan Aiken wrote about a village called Loose Chippings.)

But from such ordinary/extraordinary folk sprang the great poet Anon., without whom we would have no Border ballads, no Thomas the Rhymer or Tam Lin… no fairytales, no myths, no legends, no Bible, all of which were made up and told aloud by Mr and Mrs Anon long before they were written down and published in big, thick books.  It's unimaginable.  We’d have no proverbs, no skipping rhymes, no riddles, no jokes.  People are just naturals at using colourful speech: you really and truly do not have to learn to read or write in order to appreciate beauty and express yourself.

I was reminded of all this by a section in a rather lovely book called ‘Folklore on The American Land’ by Duncan Emrich, pub. Little, Brown & Company, 1972.  Here are some extracts.

An exuberant skipping rhyme from a school in Washington:

Salome was a dancer
She danced before the king
And every time she danced
She wiggled everything.
‘Stop,’ said the king,
‘You can’t do that in here.’
‘Baloney,’ said Salome,
And kicked the chandelier.

And another:

Grandma Moses sick in bed
Called the doctor and the doctor said
‘Grandma Moses, you ain’t sick,
All you need is a licorice stick.’

I gotta pain in my side, Oh Ah!
I gotta pain in my stomach, Oh Ah!
I gotta pain in my head,
Coz the baby said,
Roll-a-roll-a-peep! Roll-a-roll-a-peep!
Bump-te-wa-wa, bump-te-wa-wa,

Downtown baby on a roller coaster
Sweet, sweet baby on a roller coaster
Shimmy shimmy coco pop
Shimmy shimmy POP!
Shimmy shimmy coco pop
Shimmy shimmy POP!

Children make these things up!  Children!  And from the Ozarks (from the French ‘Aux Arks’ – Arks: shortened form for Arkansas), Emrich provides any number of proverbial phrases and ways of speech. 

Of a man who had been stung by yellowjackets: “He was actin’ like a windmill gone to the bad.”  (That's comedy!)

In Boone County, Arkansas, a barefoot young farmer to his sweetheart: “The days when I don’t git to see you are plumb squandered away and lost, like beads off’n a string.”  (That's a love poem...)

A fat little man with a square head and no neck worth mentioning: “He looks like a young jug with a cork in it.” (Worthy of Dickens!)

In Baxter County, Arkansas, a fellow professed dislike for the Robinson family: “Hell is so full of Robinsons that you can see their feet stickin’ out of the winders.”  (Wonderful comic hyperbole and makes his point.)

And perhaps my favourite: on a very hot day an old woman says: “Ain’t it awful?  I feel like hell ain’t a mile away and the fences all down.”

All of us are poets...

Picture credits
Jump rope: Wikimedia Commons   Author Iksnigo


  1. Hear, Hear! From my own family -
    A brod-fairced (broad-faced) fowl - an owl.
    'A laugh like a gleed under a door' - an irritating laugh sounding like a bit of burned coal trapped under a door and dragged across tiles.
    'Me belly thinks me throat's cut' - I'm very hungry.
    'He played Hamlet up.' He made such a fuss, he outdid Hamlet.
    My grandmother's favourite threat, as she brandished her bread-cutting knife at her unruly sons: 'I'll have the fats of your eyes on this!'

  2. 'The fats of your eyes'! Wonderful threat, Sue!

  3. Lovely post! My Nana used to say my daughter's hair was "as straight as a yard of pump water" and if someone was struggling she would say they had "a hard row to hoe." She was also fond of brandishing a sharp knife; she used to slice wasps in half as they flew!

  4. Juliet, I love that phrase of your Nana's! What a woman!