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Songlines

One Man's Luminous Ramble Between Angels and Animals

THE PEOPLE OF THE SEA By David Thomson; Counterpoint Press: 240 pp., $25

November 05, 2000|SEAMUS HEANEY | Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995. His essay is to be published as the introduction to a new edition of David Thomson's "The People of the Sea," forthcoming in November from Counterpoint Press

"It canna be true," says Osie, the Orkney crofter who appears in Chapter 7 of this memorable book, "but there was supposed to be a creature in the water for every one on land." And a moment later, insisting again "This canna be true," he tells the author a story about a stranger cow that came up from the sea and installed herself in a byre on the land. "And she had grand calves. But I forget, now, was it a seal or another cow came years after to the door o' the byre . . . and the cow went away to the sea again." And then comes the clinching cadence: "An old woman told me yon," said Osie. "Well, there was supposed to be cows and sheep and every animal there. But the seals were the people o' the sea."

In the presence of such alluring inventions and such a credible voice, there's hardly any need for commentary. Talk of the willing suspension of disbelief, of the salubrious effect of imaginative narrative, characterizations of the mental habits of pre-industrial societies, conjectures about how the sociological facts got displaced in earlier days into the parallel universe of the mythological--all this seems to lead in the wrong direction. David Thomson's book is luminously its own thing; it had its origins in one man's rambles round the Highlands and islands of Scotland and the west coast of Ireland, in search of stories and folklore surrounding the "selchie" or gray Atlantic seal. It was written at a great moment in the history of radio, during the 1940s and 1950s, when the BBC employed poets and writers to record and collect oral material and--most important--gave them permission to re-create it in a new artistic form. Consequently it survives not as a period piece but as a poetic achievement, one of those whose works written by "a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, imbued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind. . . ."

William Wordsworth's definition of a poet, which I have just quoted, seems an appropriate characterization of the man who wrote "The People of the Sea." Indeed, what kept coming to mind as I reread the book was Wordsworth's poem "The Solitary Reaper." One of the most haunting lyrics in the English language, this too was written after a tour in Scotland and is about the experience of listening to one of the local people express herself unforgettably in her native Gaelic. The sight of women working in the harvest fields must have been a common one at the time, but interestingly enough, the poet found his immediate inspiration in the manuscript of a book by his friend Thomas Wilkinson: "Passed by a Female who was reaping alone, she sung in Erse as she bended over her sickle, the sweetest human voice I ever heard. Her strains were tenderly melancholy, and felt delicious long after they were heard no more." Wordsworth's final stanza uses some of Wilkinson's exact words, but what was notation in the prose becomes incantation in the poem:

Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang

As if her song could have no ending;

I saw her singing at her work,

And o'er the sickle bending;

I listened, motionless and still;

And, as I mounted up the hill,

The music in my heart I bore,

Long after it was heard no more.

This famous stanza is like a spell that keeps time, in two senses: It keeps the metrical beat of the octosyllabic line, and it also manages to shift into the eternal present of song-time an incident that might otherwise have remained part of the accidental record. When Wordsworth's lines are repeated, the reader or listener reenters the prolonged trance that the first listener experienced; "the Maiden" still sings "as if her song could have no ending" because of the entrancing, prolonging power of the rhymes and cadences. The chance words of Thomas Wilkinson's "Tour of Scotland" have been magicked into the domain of the eternally recurrent, the once-upon-a-time world of story, where the strains of "no ending" and "still" and "more" echo and overflow above the brim of the usual.

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