Friday 30 October 2009

Hallow e'en.

Halloween, the eve of All Hallows.

When I was a kid, we carved lanterns. Not so often from pumpkins, they're an american import. Traditionally, they'd be carved in england from root crops, like turnips. And by strange coincidence, as country-living kids, we'd get turnips. or swedes. And we'd stick a candle inside, and tie a string handle, and go out, fearfully, into the dark. We'd have been primed with stories of witches flying on their broomsticks, with their black-cat familiars, we knew this was the night when the souls of the damned roamed abroad.

You could blacken your face with soot, and go sing at neighbour's doors. For on this night it was unwise to turn a stranger away without a gift to appease what might be an angry spirit. Country people used to make "soul-cake", and kids would get gifts of cake, and a drink.

A soul cake, a soul cake,
Please, good missus, a soul cake,
An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
A soul cake, a soul cake,
Please, good missus, a soul cake,
One for Peter, two for Paul,
And three for Him that made us all.
God bless the master of this house
And the mistress also,
And all the little children
That round your table grow;
The cattle in your stable,
The dogs at your front door,
And all that dwell within your gates
We’ll wish you ten times more.
A soul cake, a soul cake…
Go down into the cellar
And see what you can find;
If the barrels are not empty
We’ll hope that you’ll be kind;
We’ll hope that you’ll be kind
With your apple and your pear,
And we’ll come no more a-soulin’
Till all-soul's time next year.
A soul cake, a soul cake…
The streets are very dirty,
Me shoes are very thin,
I have a little pocket
To put a penny in;
If you haven’t got a penny
A ha’penny will do;
If you haven’t got a ha’penny
God bless you.
A soul cake, a soul cake…

Tomorrow would be All Saints Day, All Hallows, but this day, All Hallows Eve, was also known as all souls. The restless souls, freed from the dark enclosure of the grave, would roam, seeking home and hearth.

The origin of all this? the pagan festival of Samhain.
The end of warm days and light, the onset of the dark, and the cold claws of winter.
Our ancestors built bonfires this night, sought to appease the spirits, pray for survival through the winter. Burnt offerings. And perhaps the forgiveness of the spirits of slaughtered adversaries. That turnip lantern, that grinning pumpkin, is a nod to the days when the lanterns were skulls.
Hallow e'en lanters were not always friendly cheerful toys, they were once somewhat more sinister.

In America, (originating in central america, not the U.S.), was the pumpkin. Easier to carve, a friendly orange colour, it became the skull of choice, and here in Britain, it's also taken over.
As has commercialisation. We carved our own, and had dripping wax and stubby candles. Now you can get a nice clean plastic pumpkin, with battery operated lighting, and a push-button for a sound-chip to make it cackle or moan.
Our kids get ready-to-wear costumes. All the characters of horror movies from the Mummy to Dracula will be out and about. They're not staring fearfully into the shadows beyond their lantern's light, as we were, no, they're toting their loot-buckets, and effectively, begging, door-to door.
I loathe trick-or-treat. It's a relatively recent import, heavily promoted by retailers.
Kids know nothing of Samhain. They don't think of how pervasive the dark used to be, how can they? Their world has streetlights everywhere.
Nor of the real fears our ancestors had of the spirit world.

Happy Samhain.

All Souls’ Night

William Butler Yeats

Epilogue to “A Vision’

Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell
And may a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls’ Night,
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost’s right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.

I need some mind that, if the cannon sound
From every quarter of the world, can stay
Wound in mind’s pondering
As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound;
Because I have a marvellous thing to say,
A certain marvellous thing
None but the living mock,
Though not for sober ear;
It may be all that hear
Should laugh and weep an hour upon the clock.

Horton’s the first I call. He loved strange thought
And knew that sweet extremity of pride
That’s called platonic love,
And that to such a pitch of passion wrought
Nothing could bring him, when his lady died,
Anodyne for his love.
Words were but wasted breath;
One dear hope had he:
The inclemency
Of that or the next winter would be death.

Two thoughts were so mixed up I could not tell
Whether of her or God he thought the most,
But think that his mind’s eye,
When upward turned, on one sole image fell;
And that a slight companionable ghost,
Wild with divinity,
Had so lit up the whole
Immense miraculous house
The Bible promised us,
It seemed a gold-fish swimming in a bowl.

On Florence Emery I call the next,
Who finding the first wrinkles on a face
Admired and beautiful,
And knowing that the future would be vexed
With ‘minished beauty, multiplied commonplace,
preferred to teach a school
Away from neighbour or friend,
Among dark skins, and there
permit foul years to wear
Hidden from eyesight to the unnoticed end.

Before that end much had she ravelled out
From a discourse in figurative speech
By some learned Indian
On the soul’s journey. How it is whirled about,
Wherever the orbit of the moon can reach,
Until it plunge into the sun;
And there, free and yet fast,
Being both Chance and Choice,
Forget its broken toys
And sink into its own delight at last.

And I call up MacGregor from the grave,
For in my first hard springtime we were friends.
Although of late estranged.
I thought him half a lunatic, half knave,
And told him so, but friendship never ends;
And what if mind seem changed,
And it seem changed with the mind,
When thoughts rise up unbid
On generous things that he did
And I grow half contented to be blind!

He had much industry at setting out,
Much boisterous courage, before loneliness
Had driven him crazed;
For meditations upon unknown thought
Make human intercourse grow less and less;
They are neither paid nor praised.
but he d object to the host,
The glass because my glass;
A ghost-lover he was
And may have grown more arrogant being a ghost.

But names are nothing. What matter who it be,
So that his elements have grown so fine
The fume of muscatel
Can give his sharpened palate ecstasy
No living man can drink from the whole wine.
I have mummy truths to tell
Whereat the living mock,
Though not for sober ear,
For maybe all that hear
Should laugh and weep an hour upon the clock.

Such thought—such thought have I that hold it tight
Till meditation master all its parts,
Nothing can stay my glance
Until that glance run in the world’s despite
To where the damned have howled away their hearts,
And where the blessed dance;
Such thought, that in it bound
I need no other thing,
Wound in mind’s wandering
As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.

Oxford, Autumn 1920