Glisk of the Great

I saw him comin out the N.B. Grill,
creashy and winey, wi his famous voice
crackin some comic bawr to please three choice
notorious bailies, lauchan fit to kill.

Syne thae fowre crousie cronies clam intill
a muckle big municipal Rolls-Royce,
and disappeared, aye lauchan, wi a noise
that droont the traffic, towards the Calton Hill.

As they rade by, it seemed the sun was shinin
brichter nor usual roun thae cantie three
that wi thon weill-kent Heid-yin had been dinin.

Nou that’s the kinna thing I like to see;
tho ye and I look on and canna jyne in,
it gies our toon some tone, ye’ll aa agree.

This poem comes from Garioch’s Sixteen Edinburgh Sonnets. They anticipate Edwin Morgan’s Glasgow Sonnets in their evocation of straightforward situations given a classical twist and endowed with a unique insight into modern urban life. They also recall Robert Fergusson’s witty and satirical descriptions of Edinburgh during the 18th century.

Glisk of the Great is a simple enough poem, no deep philosophy here, no complicated workings through the nature of existence, no tortured grammar. In fact, it reads a bit like a joke, something you might hear a stand-up comedian drop into his routine. Of course, it’s not really all that funny – at most it raises a wry smile – it’s a poem after all, but its subject matter and the form Garioch chooses is a matter of some curiosity.

The first thing we notice is that it’s a sonnet. If we’d read it in 16 Edinburgh Sonnets, we’d have known that already. How do we know it’s a sonnet? Because it has 14 lines. One of the simplest rules in English literature is that any poem with 14 lines is a sonnet. If it has 14 lines and it’s not a sonnet, then the poet is trying to pull one over on you. The first part of a sonnet – the two 4 line verses – is called the octave; the second part is called the sestet. The way a sonnet works is that the octave presents a situation or a problem or puts forward an argument, and the sestet resolves it.

This one by Robert Garioch is not a sonnet like the ones we’re most familiar with in English: Shakespeare’s. Garioch’s splits his sonnet into verses – four in all: two of 4 lines each and two of three lines each. This is the Petrarchan sonnet, named after the original form invented by the Italian writer, philosopher and Humanist, Francesco Petrarca. Why did Garioch by-pass the Shakespearean sonnet form to go back to Petrarca? Since the Shakespearean sonnet is also known as the English sonnet, perhaps that’s answer enough: Garioch’s tradition is deeply Scottish. Or perhaps it’s got something to do with Garioch’s classical education and his interest in the Humanist philosophers and writers (like our own George Buchanan). Perhaps he’s drawing a line connecting himself with that tradition.

In a Petrarchan sonnet, the rhyme scheme of the octave is invariably: abbaabba. Which is fairly tricky since you have to find two sets of four rhyming end words. The sestet tends to vary: cdecde, cdccdc, or cdedce are typical examples. Garioch uses cdcdcd.

Shakespeare’s too have 14 lines, but they’re arranged differently. His achievement was to revolutionise the sonnet form and take it to a rare art by concentrating the resolution of the argument or proposition into a rhyming couplet in the final two lines. His rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef gg) was easier, but the task of summing up the whole poem – essentially condensing its meaning into two powerful, memorable final lines – is a tremendously difficult challenge.

In Glisk of the Great the octave presents us with a street scene. A group of men, enjoying themselves, spill out onto the street from a restaurant and pour themselves into a Rolls. They laugh, tell jokes, then ride off. The point of view is the poet’s “I” voice. The event doesn’t seem at all significant, we’re wondering why he bothered to write it down. Walk around the city often enough and you’ll see your fill of drunk men pretty quick. So what? we wonder.

But! We remember that the sonnet form develops the theme in the next section, the sestet. In the next three lines the group of men are now away in the distance and we are left with the poet and the traffic, watching them ride off. What do we see? The sun “shinin/ brichter nor usual” around the companions of the “weill-kent Heid-yin”. They are blessed, anointed in some way, touched by grace. Or just jammy.

In the last three lines all is made clear. He’s jealous – we’re all jealous – because we “canna jyne in”, we can only watch. It’s wealth as a spectator sport – a common enough pastime in Edinburgh. Garioch announces in a mordantly ironic voice that this behaviour – drunken, flagrantly excessive, noisy and uncouth – is what gives “our toun some tone” and he forces us to concur with the final words “ye’ll aa agree.”

One of the features of Scots that continues to attract modern writers to use the language is its pungent vocabulary. Admittedly, this does cause problems for modern readers who are not familiar with many of the words, requiring extensive glossaries alongside published poems. Of course the trouble arises because literary Scots is a kind of invention. Few people speak this language, and the only ones who write it these days are poets themselves – and even they, starting with Hugh MacDiarmid, have confess to spending many, many hours with the Scottish National Dictionary looking for the right word. But we’re glad they do – poets are our language’s custodians; they keep it alive by continuing to write in it.

Much of the humour of this poem comes from its use of vocabulary. What would we use in English for “weill-kent Heid-yin”? Famous boss? Luminary? Magnifico? None of these have the slyly derisory qualities of the chosen phrase. But more than individual words it is the Scots voice that makes the success of this poem, and much of Garioch’s work. It embodies the sense of suspicion we have of people who are our “betters”. We like to snipe at wealth, to knock authority – but at heart we’re mad with jealousy. We like that our cultural industry is booming, with theatres and the Festival and famous chefs – but we resent the kind of people who are most able to take advantage of these luxuries. If we rendered this poem into standard English the power of it would be diluted, the irony would be lost; it would become a meaningless diatribe. But written in our own language it holds all the subtleties and contradictions of our nature. This particular poem may be a trivial example, perhaps, but it helps us understand in a way what it means to have a distinct language and poetic tradition.