Monday, January 14, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            Begging your pardon, but I would like to tell a silly anecdote dating from just before Christmas.

My wife, a music teacher and sometime member of a choir, was going through various publications of carols, some familiar, some obscure, and trying them out on the piano to see which could contribute to the street performance of our three teenaged daughters, who planned to go busking.

I was engaged in my usual occupation at such times viz. idling around pointlessly and distracting her.

I picked up one of the books she had piled up. The Oxford Book of Carols, Oxford University Press, first published 1928, 24th impression 1961, edited by Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw.

At least the middle name commands respect,” I thought, as I began idly turning the pages looking for carols I liked.

I found Good King Wenceslas (Carol Number 136, pp. 270-271).

I hummed the tune and read all the words, penned by J.M.Neale in the 19th century. I was intrigued to see what all five stanzas actually said. Like you, I know only the first one by heart.

Then I looked at the footnote accompanying the carol. And I nearly fell to the floor with incredulous laughter.

Allow me to reproduce the footnote in full:

This rather confused narrative owes its popularity to the delightful tune, which is that of a Spring carol, ‘Tempus adest floridum’, No.99. Unfortunately Neale in 1853 substituted for the Spring carol this ‘Good King Wenceslas’, one of his less happy pieces, which E.Duncan goes so far as to call ‘doggerel’, and Bullen condemns as ‘poor and commonplace to the last degree’. The time has not yet come for a comprehensive book to discard it; but we reprint the tune in its proper setting (‘Spring has now unwrapped the flowers’) not without hope that, with the present wealth of carols for Christmas, ‘Good King Wenceslas’ may gradually pass into disuse, and the tune be restored to spring-time.”

The pompous fatuity of it!

Here’s one of the best-known and most-often-sung Christmas carols. And here are the editors of a book of carols telling us to throw it away and earnestly hoping it will fade from memory. I grant you that most carols (like most hymns) are not masterpieces of poetry. Some approach doggerel. But when you compare it with others in the field, Good King Wenceslas stands up quite well. To compound the editors’ ill judgment, when you turn to Carol No.99, Spring has now unwrapped the flowers, you find another note urging us to cast away Good King Wenceslas, but you also find a piece of doggerel (presumably translated from the Latin) infinitely worse than Good King Wenceslas.

Part of me hopes that the composer of Sinfonia Antartica wasn’t responsible for this particular farrago. But then part of me fears he might have been. Ralph Vaughan Williams was not a religious man, and once said he helped edit hymns, carols and church-music simply because he thought that, if they must go to church, it was good for people to be exposed to good music. There’s also the famous anecdote that, when asked if he had been to church one Sunday morning, he replied “No, I took a walk in the woods”. And when his na├»ve interlocutor said “Oh well, God can be worshipped there too”, he replied firmly “I wasn’t doing that either.”

So it’s quite possible that Williams would prefer a carol on the beauties of springtime to a carol on Christian charity.

My chief reflection, though, was on this whole matter of footnotes.
I know scholarly books require them absolutely, to give sources; compare arguments in the main text with arguments given elsewhere; and introduce side issues or related matters that simply would not be appropriate in the main text.

So far, so good.

But there is the phenomenon of the unnecessary or opinionated footnote, which serves no other purpose than to vent the author’s or editor’s prejudices, or to undermine something in the text. (A little bit like the illegitimate and patronising use of the sometimes-legitimate “sic”, which can be used to undermine quotations.) The footnote I’ve quoted gives some real information about the tune’s composition and authorship, but it should have stopped there. The rest is nonsense.

I also think of the phenomenon of the footnote intended solely to show off its author’s erudition or ingenuity in argument. I do not have it in front of me as I write, but I recall a section called “Unintentional Humour” from a book called Sense of Humour. It quoted examples of redundant footnotes. Prize went to an old edition of Shakespeare, which took half a page querying whether the line “Who keeps the gate there, ho!” was a question (in which case it would be punctuated “Who keeps the gate there? Ho!”) or whether it was a sort of phrasal noun i.e. “[He] who keeps the gate there, ho!”

The obvious riposte to which is, given that the meaning is quite clear either way, who cares?

I am not the first person to smirk or gasp at silly footnotes. In an Irish comic masterpiece, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, the story comes complete with ridiculous footnotes concerning the theories of an idiotic savant called De Selby. Once or twice they creep up the page and overwhelm the main text. “Flann O’Brien” (pen-name of Brian O’Nolan) was clearly ridiculing some of the conventions of supposedly scholarly footnotes.

I think he, too, would have laughed at the choice specimen in The Oxford Book of Carols.

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