Translating an English Limerick into Scots - Swinburne and Sawney Bean
Algernon Charles Swinburne
It started with a joke
Some of us, in our small community of poets, enjoy games, challenges, exercises. They help us flex the poetic muscle to keep it fit and in good shape for the Great Inspiration that will surely arrive in time. Recently, one such challenge was to render a well known English limerick into modern Scots. Easy, I thought, little dreaming down what depths of depravity this path was going to lead me. The limerick, which most will recognise, reads:
There was a young fellow called Dave
Who kept a dead whore in a cave
He said, "It's disgusting.
I know it needs dusting,
But think of the money I save".
Translation, even between such similar languages as English and Scots, is never a simple exercise of word substitution, especially when the integrity of a verse form must be preserved. So, a first, and superficial, effort might yield something along these lines:
There wis a wee fella caad Davie
Wha keepit a hoor in a cavie ...
And already we are encountering several problems. Though wee fella is good idiom, we have unjustifiably substituted size (wee) for age (young). Perhaps this doesn't matter. Davie is certainly a good substitution, being the preferred Scots diminutive of David. But the rhyme cavie is deeply suspect, locating the poem firmly in the North East, and in a very quaint corner of it too.
We also see that in correctly using the standard Scots past tense keepit we have had to drop dead (or rather, deid) for metrical reasons. As this detail is central to the narrative, we must correct the error. One possibility is:
Wha keepit deid hoors in a cavie
But the plural raises questions of its own. Are we depicting some grim Sawney Bean* scenario with corpses everywhere, or are we suggesting that, with some measure of fastidiousness, Davie would occasionally replace an old one with a new one? Neither option is particularly palatable, and here we should take a step back and do what we should have done from the outset - examine the sources.
Sawney Bean's cave is on Scotland's South Ayrshire coast. Some 500 years ago, Bean was the head of a family of cannibal outlaws and footpads who murdered innocent wayfarers for their flesh, under cover of darkness, dismembering, cooking and eating the victims in their cave.
My research turned up many versions of this limerick, mostly dating from late Victorian England. Versions are known to exist in the United States, but all appear to be of later date. Commentators have long wondered if the thematic material has any factual basis. In particular, is 'Dave' anyone real? One popular and recurring idea is that the limericks are inspired by the decadent poet Swinburne. Some have gone so far as to say that Swinburne is to be identified with 'Dave', and that the name was chosen as much for his protection as for the rhyming punch line.
Certainly, Swinburne cultivated his decadent image during his lifetime. Several of his poems deal with death, and beauty in death, and there is no doubt he had a fascination with morbidity. He even, on more than one occasion, declared himself an acolyte of the Marquis de Sade. However, he was well aware that decadence sells, and current academic opinion considers his decadence to have been, for the most part, playing to the gallery.
In spite of all this speculation, no-one has been able to pin a charge of genuine 'practical' necrophilia on him - until now!
My own research finally took me to the village of Tyndrum in Scotland's Rannoch Moor, now popular with tourists but in Victorian times surely as remote a spot as one could wish to find. It was here, in the local public library, that I made an astounding discovery - an inept but telling Clerihew, unpublished of course. An anonymous manuscript tucked into the flyleaf of a volume of Swinburne's 'Century of Roundels'. The Clerihew reads:
Charles Algernon Swinburne
took a cottage in Tyndrum
to be a necrophile
quietly for a while.
Tyndrum (correctly pronounced tyne drum, not tin drum) is a particularly poor rhyme for Swinburne, and the writer has also misordered the poet's forenames, but both of these details merely add veracity to the Clerihew. Though we cannot know who penned it, or why, who can doubt its ring of truth?
And now we understand there was no cave. A cottage in Tyndrum, in those days as secluded as anywhere in the Kingdom. Where better for a society poet to escape the limelight and the prurient eyes and indulge in a little practical research? All in the name of Art, of course.
Lest there be any doubt - this entire hub was a flight of fancy. Lies and damned lies from beginning to end. Swinburne's reputation is big enough to take it and besides, he would probably have enjoyed the attention. All rumours are good rumours. BUT:
- There is some truth in the Sawney Bean Legend.
- Swinburne was an aficionado of the Marquis de Sade
- Tyndrum is where the devil said goodnight.
Sleep well, and thanks for the read!
More by this Author
Pastiche is the name given to a poetic imitation. It is not quite the same as parody which tends to make fun of the original, also by copying but by hamming it up for comic or satirical effect. A true pastiche is...
From the writer of Tess and Jude, one would not expect a lot of jollity or gaiety, and indeed Hardy's poems tend to be sombre in tone, though often leavened with surprising metrical patterns borrowed from his local folk...
A quick, reliable way to make cider without specialist equipment, ingredients, or knowledge. An ideal summer drink.