Alec Finlay – A Posie

tryst twist entwine
twined, Roslin Glen, photograph Hanna Tuulikki, 2013
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Hovey
The Songs of Robert Burns, Serge Hovey & Jean Redpath

I first discovered Serge Hovey’s settings of the songs of Robert Burns, sung by the great Scottish folk-singer Jean Redpath, in the mid-1990s. They have been as much of an influence on the way I understand love as the poems of Robert Creeley or the pop songs of Paddy McAloon, particular phrases casting a flash of recognition over some half-understood aspect of the interplay of eros, romance, and sentiment.

love for love is the bargain with me

mine for hers, hers for mine

I’ve got six things on my mind, you’re no longer one of them

Although not as celebrated as some of Burns’s love songs, I have a fondness for ‘The Posie’. Hovey’s arrangement and Redpath’s interpretation plies a serpentine line between piano – played by Keith Jarrett – woodwind, and vocals, as if each flower were in turn being bound in.

word-drawing the posie
word-drawing (the posie), AF, 2012

The Posie

O luve will venture in where it daur na weel be seen,
O luve will venture in where wisdom ance has been;
But I will down yon river rove, amang the woods sae green,
And a’ to pu’ a posie to my ain dear May.

The primrose I will pu’, the firstling o’ the year;
And I will pu’ the pink, the emblem o’ my Dear,
For she is the pink o’ womankind, and blooms without a peer;
And a’ to be a posie to my ain dear May.

I’ll pu’ the budding rose when Phebus peeps in view,
For it’s like a baumy kiss o’ her sweet, bonie mou;
The hyacinth’s for constancy, wi’ it’s unchanging blue,
And a’ to be a posie to my ain dear May.

The lily it is pure, and the lily it is fair,
And in her lovely bosom I’ll place the lily there;
The daisy’s for simplicity and unaffected air,
And a’ to be a posy to my ain dear May.

The hawthorn I will pu’, wi’ its locks o’ siller grey,
Where like an aged man it stands at break o’ day;
But the songster’s nest within the bush I winna tak away;
And a’ to be a posie to my ain dear May.

The woodbine I will pu’ when the e’ening star is near,
And the diamond draps o’ dew shall be her een sae clear;
The violet’s for modesty which weel she fa’s to wear,
And a’ to be a posie to my ain dear May.

I’ll tie the posie round wi’ the silken band o’ luve,
And I’ll place it in her breast, and I’ll swear by a’ abuve,
That to my latest draught o’ life the band shall ne’er remove,
And this will be a posie to my ain dear May.
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Phebus reflects on the flitting waters of the Afton. Spartan hyacinth, Hyakinthos, blends together with May, the Scots hawthorn, which is bawmed to mark the Spring.

The lyric is one of Burns’s pastorals, an imitative reworking of found melodies and lyrics which he laughed off as so much ‘trash’.

The tenderness of the phrasing weaves a bower, a secluded shelter set apart, made for love, made from love.

word-drawing shelter-lover-bower-flowers
word-drawing (shelter-lover-bower-flowers), AF, 2013

The phrases are a set of signatures reciting traditional flower symbolism. This song is a spell, a work of lyb-lac, plant magic.

The posie welcomes us into the wild wood, infused with a potion of inherited meanings heightened by the sharp surprise of shaded feelings, love’s unreason, a blackbird calling at dusk.

Honeysuckle Tryst, crop
word-drawing (Honeysuckle Tryst), AF 2012

Charms are recipes. Sentiment is antique and, as MacAloon would have it, obsolete, as warships in the Baltic.

What poetry remembers is magic. Each flower was once an active element, whether its effect lay in the repetition of spoken syllables, or the biochemical properties of parts of a plant.

After our first walk through the wood we sat on some benches chatting. The first ideas for shared works emerged without any knots. After my bower came Stephen’s infusion, a blend of essential oils, for the bower, distilled from flowers that grow here.

word-drawing (bower-boudoir
word-drawing (bower-boudoir), AF, 2012

I wonder, which of the species named in ‘The Posie’ are present in Duke’s Wood? Which extracts would be effective? How would the blend smell?

Perhaps Alison would like to collect a posie on one of her walks, or scatter some seeds?

‘The sunset makes a fence out of the forest’. We need to find shelter from danger. Love dare not be seen, or named. Take the posie, strew the petals over the floor of the bower. The flowers that Burns scatters are for no ordinary lover: her name is given, May, the spirit of nature, Spring, Flora, Bride, Demeter, Anaitis, emblematized in the hawthorn, fair among flowers.

The hawthorn is traditionally known to bloom the smell of female.

The H of the Hawthorn is an arch, through which we bow down to enter.

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A first design for our bower then, two trees and their interlocking branches. In Duke’s Wood the way to the bower will begin from the entwined hawthorn.

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Hawthorn
hawthorn: Alexander Maris, 2009

Note

Burns explained the sources of ‘The Posie’, which was typical of his songs in being a reworking within the carrying stream of the folk tradition: ‘The Posie’ is my composition; the air was taken down from Mrs. Burns’s voice. It is well known in the West Country, but the old words are trash. By-the-bye, take a look at the tune again, and tell me if you do not think it is the original from which “Roslin Castle” is composed. The second part in particular, for the first two or three bars, is exactly the old air.’ Also, all too typically for Burns, another version of the song exists with the name of his own wife, Jean, rather than May, given as the beloved.

Alec Finlay
March 2013

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