The Grameid by James Philip

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Written in 1691, this is “An heroic poem descriptive of the campaign of Viscount Dundee in 1689” … written in the style of the Aeneid! What I’ve just read is actually an 1888 translation thereof by Alexander D Murdoch: I’m afraid that I wimped out of trying to read it in the original Latin. Arma et vires cano, forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit … er, I can’t actually remember much else of the Aeneid in Latin. Never mind :-).

I’m not quite sure why anyone would want to take the Aeneid as a model for a heroic epic poem, purely because Aeneas is just such a prat. As heroes go, he’s not exactly up there with Hector, Leonidas et al, is he? Not to mention being a total love rat. For that matter, I don’t know why people had such a bee in their bonnets about the idea of being descended from the Trojans anyway. They might have been hard-working, but they can’t exactly have been over-endowed with brains. Seriously, how hard would it have been to see through the Trojan Horse trick? And why did no-one have the sense to listen to Cassandra?

Anyway, I appear to have got totally off the point now :-). Back to the Grameid. In terms of being a take-off of the Aeneid, which does include some absolutely glorious language despite the utter prattishness of its eponymous hero, it works brilliantly! “And now Phoebus, borne along in his chariot, by his steeds, seeks the upper sky, and Aurora has show forth the first rays of the coming day, and was casting a glow upon the glassy waves.” (i.e. – time to get up, folks.) This “plaided race of Grampian giants”. Dundee’s wife has just “suffered the pangs of Lupina” (i.e. given birth). Great stuff :-). I think the author/poet was a bit too keen to sound like Virgil, though: there were an awful lot of references to Trojans and Tyrians, which didn’t exactly fit in all that well with a battle fought not in Troy or Carthage but just outside Pitlochry. Still, it was wonderfully purple language!

So to what the author made of the Glorious Revolution and the 1689 Jacobite uprising. He started with quite an interesting take on things – that, instead of scrapping amongst themselves, any British (he did use the term “British”) would-be soldiers would have been better off going to Hungary to join in the fight against the Turks. In the 16th century, there was a lot of talk about how European states should be concentrating on fighting the Turks rather than each other, but, apart from the huge emergency which was the Siege of Vienna in 1683, that doesn’t seem to have been the case in the 17th; and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it commented on in connection with the Glorious Revolution before. Interesting.

The poem is called “The Grameid”, so the rather over-effusive praise of John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, “the light and glory of the north”, is only to be expected – especially as the poet clearly had it in for Presbyterians, and therefore presumably thoroughly approved of Graham’s campaigns against the Covenanters in the 1670s and 1680s as well as his support for James II. Sorry, James VII! However, the descriptions of the royals themselves are so overboard that you can’t do anything other than laugh at them! Charles I is a “martyr and hero”. William of Orange is “the Batavian tyrant” and “the impious robber of the North”. Poor Mary II is “a Tullia well mated with a Tarquin”. And, to cap it all, James II/VII himself is “greater than the greatest of his ancestors, valiant lord of the earth, god of the ocean”. Now, James admittedly gets a very raw deal from Whiggish, generally Protestant historians, but he was a libertine, useless at politics, ignored Acts of Parliament at will, and did a bunk when William invaded. “Greater than the greatest of his ancestors”?! Oh dear, LOL :-)!

The poet does say that James’ adherence to “the Reformed Faith” was “dubious”. Well, that’s one way of putting it! Maybe he (the poet, not James!) must have had problems getting his head round the idea of supporting a monarch who belonged to “the barbarous religion of Rome” (rather a strange way for a Jacobite supporter to put things!) and was trying to persuade himself that maybe James actually wasn’t all that Catholic after all. If so, what planet was he on?! A very Episcopalian one, anyway: he rants at length about the evils of Presbyterianism and “the foul Covenant”. Whilst I quite agree that both England and Scotland were much better off without the Solemn League and Covenant, the poet went even more overboard in criticising the Covenanters than he did in his descriptions of the Stuarts!

It’s hard to take this too seriously because it’s just so incredibly biased and so incredibly melodramatic, but it’s actually very entertaining in a weird sort of way! And, of course, Bonnie Dundee was killed at Killiecrankie, and, all being well, I shall be visiting there in a fortnight’s time, when I’m up in Pitlochry for a friend’s wedding. I’ve never been that far into Scotland before, and am rather excited about it :-).

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Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Oh dear. I’m sure that the poem’s very well-written, and the use of descriptive language is very impressive, but all that maudlin Victorian sentimentalism just did my head in!

This poem is, famously, set during the Great Upheaval/Great Expulsion, when British and New Englander forces deported the Acadian population from what’s now Nova Scotia and its surrounding areas, over concerns about their lack of loyalty to the British crown at a time (the Seven Years’ War) of war with France. Acadian, or Cajun, culture is now a very important part of the culture of southern Louisiana. It was a very shameful episode in the history of the British Empire and no-one’s denying that; but this poem just went way overboard!

For a kick-off, Acadia before the expulsions is portrayed as some sort of … well, Arcadia with an r. All these peaceful, upstanding “peasants” … it sounds like one of those awful early 20th century descriptions of Oberammergau which make it sound more like Shangri-La than Bavaria! Then we have Our Heroine trekking all over America, as you do, trying to find Our Hero, before she eventually locates him just in time for him to die in her arms. Most annoyingly, it portrays what’s now the USA as some sort of place of refuge, when in fact New England was just as much involved in the expulsions as Britain was and many of the Acadian refugees in the British North American colonies were treated appallingly. Also, the name “Evangeline” makes me think of someone in one of the Chalet School books complaining that it sounds like “vaseline”; but that, to be fair, isn’t really Longfellow’s fault :-).

What’s interesting is how very significantly this, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s even more sentimental Uncle Tom’s Cabin (appalling as the scourge of slavery was, that book makes me want to throw up!), have influenced history. This poem, written by someone who had no Acadian connections at all, changed both the whole view of the history of Eastern Canada and the way in which people who did have Acadian ancestry viewed both their history and their own culture. It’s got to be one of the most influential poems of all time. Yet, whilst I quite accept that this sort of thing was extremely popular at the time, from a 20th or 21st century viewpoint it’s what would be referred to in Girls’ Own literature as “sentimental bosh”. Fascinating!!