Saturday, December 31, 2016

What Does Auld Lang Syne Mean?

Most Americans know at least the opening line of Robert Burn's poem "Auld Lang Syne," set to a Scottish folk tune which is at once melancholy and joyous. It doesn't take a linguist to realize that "auld" is simply "old" in Burns' Scottish dialect. But beyond the initial question - "Should auld acquaintance be forgot / and never brought to mind?" - most Americans' knowledge of the lyrics gets rather fuzzy, to say nothing of additional Scottish oddities. 

Perhaps most puzzling are the title words themselves: auld lang syne?  I'm no expert, but I'm told that "lang" means "long" - no big surprise there - and "syne" means "since."  As sometimes occurs in Latin or certain English texts, the noun involved is omitted, but can be inferred: old [things] long since [gone].  Or, more poetically, we might translate it as something like "times long gone."

Below is the full text, with glosses on some of the other words likely to befuddle modern singers.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?


For auld lang syne, my jo [dear],
for auld lang syne,
we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely ye'll be [buy] your pint-stoup [cup]!
and surely I'll be [buy] mine!
And we'll tak' a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.


We twa [two] hae [have] run about the braes * [slopes],
and pou'd [picked] the gowans [daisies] fine;
But we've wander'd mony [many] a weary fit [foot],
sin' [since] auld lang syne.


We twa [two] hae [have] paidl'd [paddled] in the burn [stream],
frae [from] morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid [broad] hae [have] roar'd
sin' [since] auld lang syne.


And there's a hand, my trusty fiere [friend]!
and gie's [give me] a hand o' thine!
And we'll tak' a right gude-willie [goodwill] waught [draught],
for auld lang syne.


* You may know this term from the opening line of The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Godhead See

My favorite lines from any hymn come from "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing": Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity.

The King's College Chapel choir sings an excellent rendition of the hymn below (as does the St. Paul's Choir), but I think the hymn is best done with more gusto and strong instrumentation.  This is not simply a sweet song about a little baby; it is a triumphal anthem celebrating our encounter with the King of Kings.

St. John Chrysostom echoes - or, rather, anticipates - the lyrics written by Charles Wesley.  In his Christmas sermon, he nearly sings, "All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised."

St. John draws our attention to the wonder that, with the Incarnation, a small corner of creation holds the creator Himself: "Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of Justice....  The Ancient of Days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infant's bands." 

For us whose nature He took on, this is nothing short of astonishing.  "The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us He may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see."

If being created in the divine image did not already convey our inestimable dignity, the birth of Jesus now implies an even greater dignity.  "For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator."

In the same oratorical style seen in his Easter sermon, St. John rises to a crescendo: "Come, then, let us observe the Feast....  For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels. "

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Comics: A Great American Institution

I love comics. My newspaper, the Financial Times, is in other respects an admirable publication but, sadly, has no comics. From time to time my parents are kind enough to send me some they've saved.

I don't merely think comics are enjoyable - though they are. Rather, I think they're a great American institution, a cornerstone of the republic, even.

First, there is the shared experience. I associate reading the comics with eating breakfast, often with my father. The comics section is passed around, favorite strips are discussed. But even apart from the physical aspect, even if comics are read electronically, people can discuss their favorite characters and watch their adventures over the years.  And comics frequently comment on our shared experiences, from grocery shopping and office life, to dating and politics.

Second, there is the intellectual exercise. Comics may seem simple, but humor is notoriously difficult to explain. It is usually based on an understanding of the way things work, an understanding shared by the joke teller and the audience, and then some deviation from that usual pattern in some quirky way.

Children, having only recently discovered the order of things, often most enjoy deviations from that order. A man absentmindedly reading his newspaper goes to pick up his coffee cup and, without looking, picks up the salt shaker and pours salt into his mouth. Hilarious.

We don't generally deconstruct every comic we read, but I'm convinced that reading the comics strengths our eye for patterns, particularly within social dynamics.

Third, comics provide perspective. Even in trying times - and when are the times not trying? - it is useful to remember that we can still laugh, that things aren't so bad that we can't carry on. Comics help remind us that the cosmos is ultimately comedic, not tragic. If you haven't read the Bible lately, forgive me for dropping a spoiler: the story ends with a wedding, not a funeral. Comics are a small foreshadowing of that joy.

The strip above is the Pearls before Swine, by Stephan Pastis, from 28 November.