Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Auld and the Yaung

 Gilded youth see the New Year in (New York, 2012)

Events that occur but once a year–-birthdays and wedding anniversaries being the most notorious–-are probably occasions of what might be called necessary reflection.  For the better part of three decades, with occasional off years when we were living abroad, we have celebrated the advent of the New Year in the company of a group of long married couples who are also close personal friends. All the men were professional faculty colleagues at Princeton.  It was a kind of movable feast in slow motion, as we moved about from house to house.  There were originally five couples, with a sixth soon added, making a large dinner party of a dozen.
But as fast as the years move on, people often move faster yet. Soon enough our group experienced the inevitable mutations attendant upon increasing age and eminence.  One couple went off to inhabit the presidential mansion of a famous university in the South.  Another (I will call them “the musicians”) moved to exciting new positions in New York.  Then, shockingly soon as it seemed, people began retiring.  One couple went back to their New England roots in rural New Hampshire.  The university president has now taken up permanent residence on Martha’s Vineyard.   Another eminence went off to Harvard.  Of the original New Year Dinner Club couples only one other now remains in the area, and this particular year they were visiting a daughter in China.  Sic transit gloria mundi.  Things change, as Tennyson puts it, “lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”
Thus it was that on Saturday we went up to Greenwich Village to have dinner at the marvelous abode of our “musicians” in the company of three other of their musical friends.  It was a mellow evening, but it ended about ten forty-five when the seven of us arrived at the mellow decision that we were sufficiently venerable to waive any implicit requirement to stay up to hear the midnight roar from Times Square.  (It is, however, an interesting acoustical fact, personally experienced at the turn of the millennium, that the Times Square roar is heard loudly in southern Manhattan.)
New Year’s Eve should belong to the young, as one is quite sure that it does if one takes a train into the city in the early afternoon.  Many of the more forward-looking youth are already preemptively intoxicated by the time they get on at Metro Park.  Which makes it all the stranger that the evening’s canonical anthem is “Auld Lang Syne,”  a song that is not ethically singable by people under the age of fifty.  Concerning this song I know considerably more than I did a week ago, for we spent a couple of hours of our sober New Year’s Eve afternoon at the Morgan Library working up an appetite for our Darby-and-Joan dinner party.
Darby and Joan see the New Year in (anywhere, anytime)

Readers familiar with this delightful venue will know that there is on the ground floor, across from glass box elevators, a single exhibition room ideal for showcasing the carefully defined literary collections that are one of the library’s specialties.  Not too long ago they had a splendid display of Miltoniana, including the Charles Ryskamp Milton portrait.  The highly topical exhibit of the moment is “Robert Burns and ‘Auld Lang Syne’.”  The Morgan curators had laid it all out: original manuscript, autograph letters, contracts with publishers, musical settings—the whole lot.  So I am now prepared to announce as proven facts a number of suspicions I have long harbored concerning “Auld Lang Syne”, to wit:
1.                     Auld lang syne is a meaningful phrase in no known ancient or modern language or dialect, least of all the Northumbrian dialect of English known to the unlettered as “Scots”.  It shares the status of the imaginary “English” one frequently sees on the tee-shirts worn by teen-agers in Barcelona or Civitavecchia, the product of the resident linguists in Chinese sweatshops: “Baby Happy,” “Cool Frisk,” etc.
2.                     Burns was fibbing outrageously when he claimed to have transcribed the song as sung by some toothless old gaffer crooning on the heath amid the heather.  He obviously made the whole thing up.
3.                     “Auld lang syne” is a perfectly atrocious poem.  And…
4.                     “Auld lang syne” is therefore the perfect song to be sung by those who do not wish to remember having done so even so soon as twelve hours later.

 The Burns holograph currently on display at the Morgan Library

Particularly acute are the second and third verses.  However, since I know that there are more people—three, by actual scientific count--who know the second and third verses of the “Star-Spangled Banner” than there are of those who know the second and third verses of “Auld Lang Syne,” I take the liberty of supplying them for you.

 We twa hae rin about the braes,          
And pu'd the gowans fine; 
But we've wander'd monie a weary fit    
Sin' auld lang syne. 
We twa hae paidl't i' the burn,    
Frae mornin' sun till dine;  
But seas between us braid hae roar'd    
Sin' auld lang syne.   

With this I wish the happiest of possible new years to all my readers.  May your gowan-pulling be joyous and your burn-paddling moist.