Sunday, April 25, 2010

Abandoned at the Well of Loneliness

You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me....

There was a time when songs were written to tell stories, and the poems written for them were called ballads, and before there were ballads in English, there were Scots ballads, and before that there were Irish ones, composed and sung in Gaelic.

The stories that ballads are often calamitous, recounting episodes of rape, murder, robbery, mayhem, warfare, anarchy, shipwreck, murder, despair, suicide, villainy, and every kind of psychopathic, or simply weird form of behavior imaginable--"There's nowt so queer as folk," as British folk-music genius Eliza McCarthy is fond of saying.

Nobody really knows when Donal Og was written, since it was done long before anybody started to pay attention to such things. It includes one of the oldest tropes in ballad literature, that of the "fallen" young woman abandoned by her lover, who more often than not is of noble station. Folk literature is seldom friendly to the Establishment, and for very credible reasons.

Lady Augusta Gregory's translation is beautifully composed, although Heaven knows how closely it matches the Gaelic original. Lady Gregory was a persistent champion of Irish culture at a time when Ireland was still part of the Empire, and her Wikipedia picture suggests that she was a force to be reckoned with, not only because she looks like a heavier version of Willie Nelson:

When I discovered Lady Gregory's translation of Donal Og (Young Donald), I thought immediately of  a Scots ballad usually called Lord Gregory, (or the Lass of Roch Royal, Child 76), about another flinty-breasted cad who took off like a bandit when the baby was born. The following is probably the oldest version, though most modern folksingers have settled on a different one.

O mirk, mirk is the midnight hour,
And loud the tempests roar,
A waefu' wand'rer seeks thy tow'r,
Lord Greg'ry ope thy door.

An exile frae her father's ha',
An a' for loving thee;
At least some pity on me shaw,
If love it may na be.

Lord Gregory, mind'st thou not the grove,
By bonnie Irvine-side,
Where first I own'd that virgin-love
I lang, lang had denied.

How often didst thou pledge and vow
Thou wouldst for aye be mine?
And my fond heart, itsel' sae true,
It ne'er mistrusted thine.

Hard is thy heart, Lord Gregory,
And flinty is thy breast:
Thou dart of heav'n, that flashest by,
O wilt thou give me rest!

Ye mustering thunders from above,
Your willing victim see!
But spare, and pardon my false love
His wrongs to heav'n and me.

Ha' = hall; dart of heav'n = lightning. Most of the Child versions agree that the unfortunate woman has come to Lord G.'s home and is refused entrance during a storm.

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