Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Notes on Recent Reading 10 [Voltaire, France, Dryden]

Philosophical Letters [Voltaire]

Why is Voltaire considered a philosopher? He seems clearly a littérateur whose comments on politics and religion are no more systematic than those of his friend Benjamin Franklin. The eighteenth century civic-minded French intellectuals who called themselves philosophes had indeed a preference for reason over mindless faith as well as curiosity about many fields but their thinking was loose and metaphorical, motivated more by a guiding sense of potential human decency than by a show of rigor or a pursuit of metaphysical truth.

What we call his Philosophical Letters was originally more accurately titled Letters concerning the English nation. Writing after a three-year exile following his imprisonment through a letter de cachet, Voltaire comments on a variety of English phenomena, often to the disadvantage of his native land.

He is most concerned with the progressive advance of the middle class against the aristocratic privileges of feudalism and the consequent progress of civil and religious liberties. The modern reader is struck with Voltaire’s praise of the London Stock Exchange as a place where “representatives of all the nations” gather “for the profit of mankind.”

He writes on inoculation, on Newton’s optics and physics and on Locke, celebrating the advance of science. To Voltaire such writers were assisting in the overdue demolition of superstition, contributing toward the development of a “natural philosophy.” (Of course, to Blake, “Newton's Particles of Light” were “sands upon the Red Sea shore,/ Where Israel's tents do shine so bright,” and Voltaire a mere “mocker.”)

Among the other pleasure of the volume are Voltaire’s wit, reminiscent of Mark Twain, in his characterization of Quakers who had his admiration in spite of their enthusiasm. It is more salutary to read his criticism of Shakespeare (indeed his preference for Addison’s Cato) than a dozen third-hand praises by less original critics.


Penguin Island [France]

Anatole France is certainly Voltaire’s literary and intellectual descendent. It is little wonder that France’s literary stock has declined since he received the Nobel prize in 1921. What the Swedish committee called his “nobility of style” and “true Gallic character” seemed to others to be heavy-handed thematic development ornamented only by dry wit and old-fashioned rhetorical turns. His rationality does not appeal to the modern infatuation with passion and the unconscious.

Penguin Island presents a parody history of France from prehistory to a collapse following anarchist assaults. is clever in ideas and turns of phrase. One finds satiric accounts of European history including figures resembling Charlemagne, Napoleon, and such a detailed account of a Dreyfus-like controversy that all but experts will go running for footnotes.


Annus Mirabilis [Dryden]

Sometimes I find that reading a poet for whom I feel I have little inclination is more productive than reading a settled favorite. Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis is fascinating simply for its implications about the role of poetry in the structure of culture. A verse account of striking recent news or a poetic tribute to a ruler and his generals would be unlikely in any country today yet was perfectly ordinary in the seventeenth century.

The specific appeal of Dryden’s work, though, is technical. The repeated rhythm of each quatrain as it sets up and delivers again and again becomes hypnotic as a tide on a shore, and his confident and clever diction eventually acquires an almost “swinging” dance-like quality.

Hymn to the Night II {Novalis}

Must morning always dawn?
Has earth’s power no end at all?
Unholy dealings consume the divine approach of the night!
Why can’t life’s most secret sacrifice burn eternal?
Light was
given its time,
but timeless and boundless is the realm of Night.
Sleep’s time will never end.
Blessed sleep! Don’t favor too seldom those dedicated to the night
in this diurnal labor.
Only the dim mistake you
knowing nothing of sleep but that shadow
with which you kindly cover us
in the gloaming of true night.
The golden flood of the grapes
they’ll never know,
nor the wonder of almond oil,
and the poppy’s brown juice.
The cannot know it’s you
who hover about the tender maiden’s breast
and make a heaven of her lap;
they never guess it’s you that steps to meet them,
opening heaven’s doors, from the oldest tales,
and with the key to the halls of the enlightened,
silently bearing endless secrets.

The Aesthete of Desire: Lancelot and Courtly Love



Many undergraduate students have the impression that theme is the heart of a work of literature in spite of the fact that thematics (the relation of the text’s implications to the reader’s lived experience) are only one aspect of the aesthetic text, the importance of which varies from primary to virtually absent. Students sometimes asked me with a bit of a groan why so many literary texts deal with death and suffering. My first response was to say that, whereas people required the aid of art to cope with such intolerable facts of existence as mortality, no such symbolic manipulation need assist the enjoyment of pleasure. “Some great American poetry,” I would add, “is contained in the lyrics of the blues, but there is no genre called ‘the happies.’ The prelapsarian garden had, presumably, no art because it had no conflict or pain.”

This answered the need for a makeshift pedagogical parry, but the truth, of course, is more complex. No matter what the level of verisimilitude, a text is always artifice whose implications have only a highly symbolic and mediated relation to notions of extra-textual reality. When I was teaching Bible as literature, a fundamentalist or two and occasionally an atheist as well would suggest that the most important issue about the stories of Scripture was their literal historicity. I would say what I would say of any text, that “truth” in that sense was irrelevant to our inquiry which focused instead impact, design, and significance. Far from cutting off meaning, I would say we sought what is “truer than true” in allowing the particular resources of aesthetic texts – metaphor and sound, for instance -- to function. An interest in mere facts: to what age a Homeric shield belongs or whether Dante’s poetic persona in Vita Nuova is autobiographical seems, not so much beside the point as reductive.

While few critics would inquire into whether the incidents of Don Quixote accurately represent events of Cervantes’ time, for over fifty years much discussion of medieval love poetry has centered on whether “courtly love” behavior as implied by the texts existed in the society contemporary with the poems. Numerous researchers have debated whether the courts of love really existed and whether compliments to courtly ladies were, in fact, meant to lead to sex. Such an approach implicitly accepts the mimetic view of literature, slighting the fact that all art is a symbolic construct whose representation of reality no more directly corresponds to reality than the word “pig” reflects a real animal. In spite of Dronke’s miniature anthology of similar earlier passages, [1] one often reads that the eleventh or twelfth century “invented” romantic love and, with it, a new relation between men and women.

The fact is that the critical concept of courtly love dates only from the Gaston Paris’ late nineteenth century use of it in a treatment of Chrétien’s Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart. This story is therefore a useful test case for an evaluation of the function of romantic love, so dominant a theme in Western literature for the last nine hundred years.
I will leave such questions as well as questions of origins and influences (though Arabic poetry, Mariolatry, and the Song of Songs surely played roles) to others and inquire simply into the meaning of that shape-shifting corpus of attitudes, rituals, and clichés identified as “courtly love.”

On the most fundamental level, reevaluation of the hypermasculinity of earlier heroic epic and romance and the elevation of women is part of the search to achieve completion, whether the other is figured by Plato’s Aristophanes as the primordial split of humans into male and female portions or by Jung as the anima/animus.

Chrétien explicitly identifies his erotic project with religious imagery and values. When Lancelot receives a lock of Guenevere’s hair, the poet says, “Never will the eye of man see anything receive such reverence.” Even the protection of the saints, the reader is told, could not be so efficacious. Observing her in bed”he bows in adoration, for no holy relic inspires him with such faith” King Bademagu’s use of Three Marys ointment, Borrowing from the Gospel of Nicodemus identifying Lancelot with Christ [see D. R. Owen in Arthurian Romance: Seven Essays] The wound on his hands and feet he receives just before his night with Guenevere recall the stigmata. Love, which had been conceived as a spiritual discipline by Plato and others, received churchly attention in the twelfth century from Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on the Song of Songs and the Victorine progress from love of the particular to universal love to divine love. [2]

Such transfers from the erotic to the spiritual generate implications toward both of their elements. The psychological truth of the primacy of eros among human impulses validates the use of the imagery of Ultimate Reality to convey its urgency and power, while devotional forms of worship may closely resemble romantic love.

Thus the reader must think not only of erotic masochism but of asceticism as well when Lancelot repeatedly says that suffering in the service of love is pleasure to him. For instance, while gashing his hands and feet passing over the Bridge of Swords he finds since “Love, who guides and leads him on, gives him complete comfort and relief, so that all his suffering is pleasant to him” [226] The central image of the whole narrative is similarly significant – for Lancelot it is “an honour” to do “whatever Love will, even to climb into a cart” [243] He consents with enthusiastic willingness to appear cowardly at the joust because she commands him.

Though Lancelot delights in his love’s physical consummation, he is enough an aesthete of love, an athlete of love, to cultivate delectation of his self-abasement, since the more extreme it becomes, the greater a lover he must be. Just as the Christian celebrates the redemptive power of undeserved suffering, and the athlete recognizes the agony of the hardest workout as the route to the exhilaration of victory, the combat soldier may sometimes experience an extraordinary freedom in his suffering, the lover welcomes every difficulty.

By no means, however, that love is altogether spiritualized or fleshly desire at all discounted. When Lancelot does enjoy a night in bed with Guenevere, the experience passes beyond language. Only when he must leave, a “true martyr” with redoubled pain for his temporary satisfaction, can words again convey his love. It is as though his voice arrives only with suffering and vanishes or become inadequate at the point of union. As the poet discreetly says, “I shall keep silent, for it should not be told in a story.” [247] Desire, by definition, is unsatisfied.




1. In Peter Dronke, Medieval Latin and the Rise of the European Love-Lyric. Before Paris’ 1883 essay, the term amour courtois was attested only in a single use by Piere d’Alvernhe, though such terms as fin’amor and words like cortez’amors are common. For Paris Andreas is the theoretician and Lancelot the model. His scheme was accepted, notably by Lewis Freeman Mott (The System of Courtly Love) William George Dodd (“The System of Courtly Love”), and William Allen Nielson (Origins and Sources of the Courts of Love). The concept was altered and developed by Jeanroy (La poesie lyrique des troubadours) who excluded actual physicality and for whom the early troubadours were the model. C. S. Lewis (The Allegory of Love), Denis de Rougemont (who claimed it is Cathar in Love in the Western World) while for Denomy in The Heresy of Courtly Love, it is heretical but not Catharist. Valency In Praise of Love indicates a plurality of attitudes. A major alternative was outlined by D. W. Robertson in “Some Medieval Doctrines of Love” (reprinted in A Preface to Chaucer) and by E. Talbot Donaldson in “The Myth of Courtly Love” both of whom questioned the very concept and argued that Chretien and Andreas both opposed the patterns we call “courtly love.”

2. Among the best-known authors to conflate romantic and spiritual rhetorics were Mechthild von Magdeburg and John of the Cross. In more modern quasi-scientific writing, Jung’s The Psychology of the Unconscious treats the subjugation of the male lover’s ego in the ascending archetypes of Eve, Helen, Mary, and Sophia.

Immortality

At the age of ten, on a camping trip with my family, during a rainy night, I felt I glimpsed the abyss of eternity. The awe or dread or apprehension I felt then was in no way affected, as I recall, by the fact that I had been brought up in a Protestant Christian church and had heard about heaven and hell since infancy. The main line of Christian thought has always regarded the afterlife as the true life, succeeding the present “vale of tears.” It seemed to me, though, that people most commonly acted as though the Christian consolation were feeble indeed when confronted with loss. Centuries ago, Sir Thomas Browne noted the gap between Christians’ professed faith and their apparently more real convictions, observing that most, though “believing or knowing that truth, have lastingly denied it in their practice and conversation.” He notes that “were the happiness of the next world as closely apprehended as the felicities of this, it were a martyrdom to live.” [1]

It is undeniably true, all the same, that, since palaeolithic times when bodies were often buried facing eastward corpses and daubed with red ochre, people have generally sought to believe in life after death. Freed by the total lack of evidence for any such thing, people have constructed a belief in the survival of personality and, even more fanciful, in a realm in the heavens and another under the earth in every part of the globe throughout history. [2]

People’s uneasiness about mortality is expressed in many oral cultures by practices regarding the dead with a combination of veneration, what is called “ancestor worship,” and of anxious fear, expressed in many ceremonies for insuring that the dead (including prey animals) do not harm the living. These attitudes do not address the mortality of the living, approaching the dead rather as objects made suddenly foreign, requiring the development of other customs, sometimes logically incompatible, that allow people to continue living while knowing they themselves will die.

Grave goods indicate a belief in an afterlife similar to this world. In ancient China and Peru numerous retainers were sacrificed to accompany high-ranking deceased men. The extravagant, even neurotic, practices of Egypt indicate an anxious attempt to pursue the good life beyond the grave at least among those who could pay the bill.

On the other hand, in a number of early societies, the afterlife offered fewer amenities. The sheol of Hebrew scripture is a place of darkness conceived as under the earth at the greatest distance from Jehovah. There the rephaim or shades dwell feeble and emptied of individuality, rather like the “impetuous impotent dead” in Pound’s rendering of Homer.
A similar idea of the dead as etiolated spirits seems to have been current in early Germanic religion, though a differentiation eventually appears among Valhalla, Hel, and Niflhel.

Some traditions -- including Hindus, most Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Pythagoreans, certain Arctic peoples, and, according to Caesar and Alexander Cornelius Polyhistor, the Celts, -- prefer to imagine merit-based metempsychosis. (In this view, it may be that the rapidly growing human population, a source of concern to some, can only be the result of spiritual improvement among the great apes.) The theory of the transmigration of souls is attractive also to those who fancy a prior career as an Egyptian queen or a Tibetan lama.

The karmic rebirth system, of course, assures retributive justice, but, for those who expect only a single lifetime God’s justice is doled out in rewards and punishments in the legalistic afterlife of the Abrahamic religions, ancient Egypt, and Zoroastrianism. Some arbiter is imagined who rights all the wrongs that accumulate in life, rebalancing the books until they come out right like a moral accountant at the end of a karmic run.

All of these wish fulfillment fantasies are rather poignant representations of the human’s passionate attachment to life. The sense of impending dread associated with mortality is the necessary concomitant of the natural human delight in springtime regreening, strawberries, cream, and caresses (whether from a lover’s hand or from a late springtime zephyr). For some images like these are themselves sufficient to maintain a point of delight. Still, banishing all the mind’s apprehension about dissolution is a tricky maneuver indeed. While it reportedly has been done, most authorities in Asia and in Europe seem to agree that losing joy in life is an inevitable concomitant to losing fear of death whether the serene state be called apatheia, ataraxia, or Buddhist non-attachment.

Still, a number of thinkers have maintained that death must mean a total end from the point of view of the individual consciousness. One finds a positive assertion of the materialist view of death in Democritus whose words were remembered by Epictetus who simply declared that, “Why are ears of corn produced? Is it not that they may become dry? And do they not become dry that they may be reaped? . . . But this [would be] a curse upon ears of corn, never to be reaped. So we must know that in the case of men too it is a curse not to die, just the same as not to be ripened and not to be reaped. But since we must be reaped, and we also know that we are reaped, we are vexed at it; for we neither know what we are nor have we studied what belongs to man, as those who have studied horses know what belongs to horses.”

The materialist approach of the Epicureans implied this view, and it is explicit in Diogenes Laertius’ [3] report of Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines: “Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.” According to Lucretius [4] “Divorced from the body, the soul cannot have either eyes or nose or hands or tongue or ears, and therefore cannot possess either sentience or life.” Also, “Nature rebukes those who complain about death. Hell and its torments exist only in our life.” Certainly true in logical terms, such conclusions meet potent resistance from the psyche desperate to cling to life as the partial survey of alternatives I have already provided provides ample evidence.

The Stoics were less systematic in their beliefs about the afterlife but, To Epictetus, since death occurs independent of our will and we cannot influence it in any way, it is foolish to spend time considering it. To him it is absurd to wish to avoid death. [5] For Seneca the Younger [6] “No evil is great which is the last evil of all. Death arrives; it would be a thing to dread, if it could remain with you. But death must either not come at all, or else must come and pass away.”

A number of philosophers profess a similarly reasonable agnosticism concerning the afterlife, finding sufficient challenge in conducting one’s affairs while alive. In the Analects [7] Confucius makes his priority clear: “How can one know about death before he knows clearly about life?” When asked if the dead are aware of the ceremonies performed for them, he pointedly replied, “There is no present urgency about the point. Hereafter you will know it for yourself.” And in this he was surely correct.

In contrast to the focus and simplicity of that great “transmitter who invented nothing” but who supported all the traditional rituals, Zhuangzi is said to have banged on a pot and sang when his wife died saying, “It’s just like the procession of the four seasons” which, while doubtless true, would be insufficient solace for many. He displays, in fact, a more poignant sense of loss upon the passing of his disciple Huizi , lamenting that he no longer has one with whom to talk. One suspects an unsettled attitude even in the mind of this great sage, as he repeatedly faces death with questions: “How do I know that loving life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death I am not like a man who, having left home in his youth, has forgotten the way back?” “How do I know that the dead do not wonder why they ever longed for life?” Liezi asks a skull: Only you and I know that you have never died and you have never lived. Are you really unhappy? Am I really enjoying myself?” “Among the dead there are no rulers . . .subjects . . .chores. With nothing to do, our springs and autumns are as endless as heaven and earth. A king facing south on his throne could have no more happiness than this!” “The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death.” [8]

Contrary to many religious leaders, the Buddha always avoided pontificating on god and the afterlife, providing instead the most practical and pointed response to such interests. He asked whether, if one had been hit by a poisoned arrow, one would be wise to inquire into the arrow’s composition, dimensions, and design. His interlocutor replied, “Of course, I would have the arrow pulled out as quickly as possible.” And the Buddha concluded “That is wise, for the task before us is the solving of life's problems; until the problems are solved, these questions are of secondary importance.” [9] Though the Republic offers the myth of Er with an elaborate scenario leading to retributive justice and the Phaedo offers arguments for immortality, the Socrates of the Apology may be the wiser for claiming less: “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our own ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.” said no one knows if death ends the individual personality.

No one surely, can be satisfied with such consolation as Whitman reincarnation in the grass or Shakespeare’s immortality through words. With children and the persistence of DNA codes there is a more significant biological immortality of sorts, but the ego remains in its final cul de sac.

Unlikely though it seem, I find myself returning to the Christian apologist with whom I started. Sir Thomas Browne allowed himself sufficient latitude and honesty that he found himself attacked for heterodoxy and included in the Roman Catholics’ Index Librorum Prohibitorum, yet the same uncertainty may have been what gave him the sensitivity to offer even less credulous mortals a way out. His magnificent Hydrotaphia or Urne Buriall surveys burial customs and beliefs at length. Impressed by the ancients who could even choose death expecting mere dissolution, he concludes “Certainly such spirits as could contemn death, when they expected no better being after, would have scorned to live had they known any.” He goes on to conjure a spell of words: “What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling Questions, are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entred the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide solution. But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above Antiquarianism. Not to be resolved by man, nor easily perhaps by spirits, except we consult the Provinciall Guardians, or tutelary Observators” [10] It is difficult to leave off quoting, his lines are so liquid, but, though the personalities of those buried in urns are irrecoverable, the elegant meditations of the seventeenth century physician remain, and they bear directly on the facts of mortality as they show a sensitive intelligent consciousness exerted to its limit, fully human, fully alive in the face of approaching death, inquiring, composing, making aesthetic judgments just as though it really mattered, even as the clock ticks the sever-fewer seconds that remain. His energy and interest in the task of confronting the given terms of existence ignores the sensible remark of Lucretius: “We have nothing to fear in death, that one who no longer exists cannot become miserable, and that it makes not one speck of difference whether or not he has ever been born, once his mortal life has been snatched away...” Constrained to at least approximate Christian orthodoxy, with his style alone, Browne provides a workable model for many who find themselves constitutionally incapable of assenting to fairy tales, yet with a sense of beauty and wonder and of the exquisite potential of the mind intact though it last but only a day.


1. Chapter 4, Urne-Buriall.

2. David Lewis-Williams’ The Mind in the Cave does a good job of providing a materialist explanation.

3. Bk. 10.

4. Bk. 3. De rerum natura.

5. Bk. 2, Ch. 6 and Bk. 3, Ch. 6.

6. In Epistle IV.

7. XI, 11.

8. These are from Burton Watson’s readable version, on pages 113-117, 42-3 and 76. I have rewritten the names from Watson’s Wade-Giles.

9. This is found in the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta (The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya) which is part of the middle length discourses (Majjhima Nikaya), one of the five sections of the Sutta Pitaka.

10. Ch. 5

Foggy Dew as Symbol



To some, the idea of literary excellence is obsolete. Over fifty years ago Northrup Frye ridiculed “odious comparisons,” noting “We begin to suspect that the literary value-judgments are projections of social ones.” [1] From a political perspective opposite to Frye’s, advocates of cultural studies have sought to reduce the text to an exhibit like an object in nature. Yet still today one may encounter the old attitude that folk music is simple, a kind of lowest common denominator in contrast to the sophistication of high art or, on the other hand, the less common notion that the collective unconscious operates like an oracle, transmitting Truth mysteriously.

In fact any attempt to remove value from literary analysis flies in the face of every reader’s experience. One enjoys and admires some work more than others, and accounting for this subjective conclusion has long underlay criticism. Yet the fact remains that no critic has adequately rationalized the assignment of value. The old English song “Foggy Dew” is a “good” one if its popularity for centuries is any evidence. Variants have been collected across Britain as well as in Canada and the United States, and in recent times the song has often been recorded in both symphonic and folk versions. [2]

The image of the “foggy dew” binds the song and, like a title, provides a formula for its essence. Yet critics have often expressed either uncertainty about the meaning of the image or have advanced one of a surprisingly wide range of interpretations. In the realistic reading of the narrative the dew seems simply a humorously transparent excuse, a jocular euphemism, for the singer’s true motive. Here the foggy dew plays a role similar to the weather in Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” [3]

Within the text, though, a more complex progression is discernable. In the version used by Benjamin Britten [4] the initial reference is an exculpatory gesture with a bit of nervous iteration “And the only, only thing that I did that was wrong.” The second is more disturbing. The speaker seizes the woman, hauls her into bed and covers her head. The flimsiness of the pretext is clear, the impetuous action all the more aggressive in light of the woman’s apparent helplessness (What shall I do?) Then at last the image appears in a warm nostalgic glow as the son in his shop reminds him of his erotic joy of the past. Here the reference to “many, many” encounters highlights the artificiality of the already shameless use of “foggy dew” simply to indicate a sexual experience. One sees depicted the ordinary course of a sexual episode: first irresistible desire, then a push for mastery, followed by pleased reflection.

In the composite of American versions by James Reeves [5], very much the same series series may be traced, from the delicately stated “I thought it my time to roll her in my arms” through a hint of coercion, this time on the woman’s part (“I’m resolved to stay with you”), to an apparently happy marriage with a large family in prospect. Reeves comments on the meaning of the title image and decides that it implies “protracted virginity.” Noting that “fogge” could be used “for coarse, rank grass of the kind that grows in marshes and bogs where the atmosphere would be damp and misty,” he concludes that this untrimmed vegetation corresponds to “protracted virginity” (as mowing might mean sex).[6] He collects references in which to him dew implies chastity, beginning with its repeated use in “I sing of a maiden that is makeles.”


He cam also stille
Ther His moder was,
As dew in Aprille
That falleth on the gras.


Apart from the fact that reading both “fog” and “dew” as meaning virginity would make the title a reduplication, the verse clearly associates Mary not with the dew but with the grass (in the subsequent verses with a flower and with a springtime “spray”) It is the male lover, the divine Christ, who, as in a host of Biblical passages (such as Gideon’s fleece) is represented by the fructifying dew. The church fathers do not mention the obvious association of dew with semen. [7]
The fact remains, whatever associations one infers for the foggy dew, that its use is not strictly consistent any interpretation. For all the sexual innuendo the first occurrence of the term in Britten version says that when the speaker was with his beloved he did not think of the foggy dew. A version collected in Newfoundland concludes “We'd both give up to sow no more but think on the foggy dew,” implying that the thought of the dew has displaced sexual activity. [8] On the other hand, Sharp heard one version that makes the most direct sexual meaning explicit:

And ev-er-y time she cocks her leg,
I thinks of the fo–o–ggy de-ew.

In one of the early broadside variants the dew is realistic, simply the ground on which the two make love: “And many a night I roll’d her in my arms,/All over the Foggy dew.” [9] Another more or less rationalized version has the lover conspire with a friend to impersonate a demon and drive the woman into his room. Reeves quotes a version from Sharp in which men’s affection is said to resemble the foggy dew in its evanescence, saying that this “eliminates the essential spirit of the song.”
Some researchers have sought to discover the meaning of the foggy dew through Celtic vocabulary and pre-Christian belief. A 1689 broadside and a number of American versions substitute “bugaboo” (or Boglemaroo, Boglebo, etc) for “foggy dew” suggest
that the supernatural aids the seduction, while in Britten’s version, in which the man is left with a son but no lover, might imply that she was herself a spirit.

Numerous writers have pursued the decoding of this image, yet it seems clear that so single reading works. The fact is that the foggy dew is a symbol in the sense of an image whose strength derives in part from its indeterminacy. The fundamental connotation of foggy dew with fertility and mystery are exploited in most uses of the term, but it is never limited. The complex relationships between the man and the woman, between the man and the environment, and the cosmos (represented by the supernatural beings) are suggested but not determined by the image. It is carefully balanced to be attractive (fertile, sexual) and disagreeable (cold, associated with illness and danger). The very ambiguity of the dew replicates the ambivalence of each of the relationships evoked. Thus, if the woman is at once a beautiful love object and a frightening menace, so likewise is the man. If life appears unpredictable and hazardous it is also satisfying and seductive. The world is full of invitation and threat. The very fact that such propositions could be multiplied nearly without end signifies not the incoherence of the poem, but its precise correspondence to our experience of daily reality. More highly determined images will necessarily lose a good deal of the accuracy and emotional charge of this “vague” one.

The same sort of vagueness was consciously prescribed by the Symbolist poet. Jean Moréas’ Symbolist Manifesto, while calling Zola’s Naturalism “ puerile,” goes on to say, “Symbolist poetry tries to house the Idea in a meaningful form not its own end, but subject to the Idea. The latter in its turn will never appear without the sumptuous clothing of analogy; for the essential character of Symbolist art consists in never going so far as to conceive of the Idea in itself. So this art will never show details of nature, actions of humans, concrete phenomena: for they are only the appearances destined to represent to the senses their esoteric affinities with primordial Ideas.”

Among folklore scholars, M. J. C. Hodgart is almost unique in his recognition of this technique. “However much of the force of ballad imagery comes from our apprehension of its meaning, a great deal nevertheless comes from the very fact that the meaning is not clearly understood at all” [10]



1. Anatomy of Criticism, Polemical Introduction.

2. Benjamin Britten set it to music and Burl Ives made a pop tune of it. This song is not to be confused with two other songs of the same name: the quite different overblown Irish song with its unlikely happy ending Oh, a wan cloud was drawn o'er the dim weeping dawn nor the later Nationalist anthem commemorating the Easter Rising As down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I.

3. The song was recorded by many, including Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, Armstrong and Velma Middleton, Pearl Bailey and Hot Lips Paige all in 1949.

4. When I was a bachelor, I liv'd all alone
I worked at the weaver's trade
And the only, only thing that I ever did wrong
was to woo a fair young maid.
I wooed her in the wintertime
And in the summer, too
And the only, only thing that I did that was wrong
Was to keep her from the foggy, foggy dew.

One night she came to my bedside
When I was fast asleep.
She laid her head upon my bed
And she began to weep.
She sighed, she cried, she damn near died
She said what shall I do?
So I hauled her into bed and covered up her head
Just to keep her from the foggy foggy dew.

So, I am a bachelor, I live with my son
and we work at the weaver's trade.
And every single time that I look into his eyes
He reminds me of that fair young maid.
He reminds me of the wintertime
And of the summer, too,
And of the many, many times that I held her in my arms
Just to keep her from the foggy, foggy, dew

5. The Idiom of the People.

6. Surely it is more natural to associate such growth with public hair, particularly when presented in conjunction with the dew’s moisture.

7. Consistent with Psalm 72, 6 and Isaiah XLV. 8. See also useful material from Peter of Celle and Honorius Augustodunensis in Michael Steffes’ “‘As dewe in Aprylle’: ‘I syng of a mayden’ and the liturgy” Medium Aevum spring 2002.

8. Published in Kenneth Peacock, Songs Of The Newfoundland Outports, Volume 2, pp. 518-519.

9. From the National Library of Scotland, viewable at http://digital.nls.uk/english-ballads/pageturner.cfm?id=74896969.

10. The Ballads, p. 37.