The Monthly Editorial Blog By Schlafly Beer Co-Founder Tom Schlafly
Long before President Barack Obama assured Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would be a lot more flexible with Russia after his 2012 election; and long before Donald Trump told the American public that he could get along very well with Russian President Vladimir Putin; and long before Putin returned the favor by praising The Donald as “bright and talented,” Russian leaders were already looking westward to the English-speaking world. As alert readers (ARs) know from this column and elsewhere, back in the 18th century the Russian Empress Catherine The Great was a big fan of imperial stout brewed for her in London. These ARs may not, however, be aware of another important impact the British Isles had on Russia, specifically on Russian poetry.
The story begins a half-millennium before the reign of Catherine, in the 13th century in the village of Earlston, Scotland, the home of a renowned poet named Thomas of Erceldoune, aka Thomas the Rhymer. With the aid of a faerie queen Thomas was able to predict occurrences ranging from the deaths of kings to the union of Scotland and England. One of his descendants, a soldier of fortune named George Learmonth, found his way to Russia in the early 17th century and changed his name to Lermontov. Two centuries later, while Russia and most of the rest of Europe were celebrating the defeat of Napoleon, Mikhail Lermontov (a direct descendant of George) was born in Moscow. Mikhail was a contemporary of Aleksandr Pushkin and is regarded by many scholars as Russia’s second greatest poet of all time right behind Pushkin. Coincidentally, both Pushkin and Lermontov were killed in duels (in 1837 and 1841, respectively). Despite never having visited Scotland, Lermontov was very proud of his Scottish heritage, particularly his ancestor Thomas the Rhymer. This pride has now been reciprocated in Earlston, where a bronze bust of him was unveiled two centuries after his birth.
Because much of this column is devoted to poetry, it’s probably appropriate at this point to issue a trigger warning. According to Columbia University’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board, such warnings are de rigueur because the texts of the Western Canon, i.e. the books I had to read in school, are “wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression that are difficult to read and discuss.” Noting that the text that triggered this particular demand for trigger warnings was Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I have to agree.
As a high school student a half-century ago, I definitely found anything written by Ovid “difficult to read and discuss.” In all candor I should add that I had a lot more difficulty with Ovid’s syntax than with his content. Ditto for lots of other Roman authors whose works I struggled to understand. In all those years of taking Latin, I only recall a handful of instances of what might be regarded as a trigger warnings, all of them involving poems by Catullus. Our editions of these poems included asterisks where especially ribald passages had been deleted. These asterisks served as a helpful guide when we consulted the unexpurgated edition in the school library to find the verses that had been deemed unsuitable for schoolboys. These quasi-trigger warnings enabled my classmates and me learn to naughty Latin words and phrases that we could not have found in any dictionary.
We were also able to find some pretty salacious passages in the Bible, though the language wasn’t quite as graphic as that of Catullus. Presumably the hyper alert members of Columbia’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board, whose alertness undoubtedly exceeds mine and perhaps that of some ARs, would also find fault with much of the Old Testament, not just with pagans like Ovid and Catullus. Even though the Book of Samuel—with its stories of David, Uriah, Bathsheba, Tamar, Amnon and Absalom— might be taught in Sunday schools all across America, it would not be appropriate for the delicate sensibilities of hyper-alert students at highly selective universities.
Among the poets I studied without trigger warnings in high school and college was Robert Burns, whose birthday is celebrated annually at The Schlafly Tap Room. While some of his verses were as racy as those of Catullus, most of his body of work strikes me as pretty wholesome. I find it hard to believe that micro-aggressions are lurking in the words of “Auld Lang Syne” or “Address to the Haggis.” But, who knows? Perhaps these classics do in fact contain something “difficult to read and discuss” that I’m not alert enough to discern.
Burns’s lifestyle, on the other hand, was another story. As has been discussed in this space in the past, his promiscuity rivaled that of some rock stars. Rod Stewart, for example, has several things in common with Burns, including a January birthday (1-10-1945), Scottish ancestry and a seemingly insatiable sexual appetite. With little formal education, Rod has managed to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars by singing songs that would probably require more trigger warnings than Ovid’s poetry. He celebrated both the romance between an older woman and a young schoolboy (“Maggie May”) and one between an older man and a young schoolgirl (“Hot Legs”). He’s now nearly twice as old as Robert Burns was when he died and happily unrepentant about the way he’s lived.
I note for the record that I’m nearly four years younger than Rod Stewart. In other words, if he can still get up on stage, so can I. Once again I plan to recite a poetic salute to the ghost of Robert Burns at The Tap Room on January 25th. On that point, a trigger warning is in order. It’s very possible that some people will find it difficult to listen to my verses for reasons I’m not alert enough to figure out. It’s even more possible that some will be offended by my wearing a kilt and showing off what are decidedly not “hot legs.” If you happen to be among those who are offended, forgive me. I’m simply channeling Thomas the Rhymer.