Early in my life I learned some things about geography—by which I mean here where places such as cities and countries are and where border-lines are drawn—from unlikely sources: stamp collecting, an obsession with railway schedules, and popular songs and rhymes. Years later I’m still interested by the ways places appear in song and how the language of songs—and poetry—documents place.
Last summer I found myself in Budapest with my daughter. I had earned some extra money that year so we were taking a series of trains “to the end of Europe,” Istanbul, certainly one of the great border towns. In Budapest, on the city tour, from the castle in Buda I saw the beautiful river, the Danube, and into my head, unbidden, came a rhyme I had learned as a child—
Now a tomb rises up where the blue Danube flows,
And engraved there in characters clear
Is “Stranger, when passing, please pray for the soul
Of Abdul Abulbul Amir.”
A bit of appealing doggerel written in the 19th century by Percy French, “Abdul Abulbul Amir” commemorates the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 to 1878. In the rhyme two big galoots, the title character and a Russian named Ivan Skavinsky Skavar face off and do one another in. It was an oft-quoted story poem in my house and I got to love the language—its archness and its cataloging and its surprising rhymes.
They parried and thrust, they sidestepped and cussed,
Of blood they spilled a great part;
The philologist blokes, who seldom crack jokes,
Say that hash was first made on that spot.
At the castle the tour guides talked about Hungarian history, including the “difficult period” of Turkish occupation (the 16th and 17th centuries); my notes indicate that the tour guide referenced the Turks with “a shiver in the narration” and described the occupation as “a century-long stain.” We heard something similar a couple of days later on the city tour of Sofia. “Abdul Abulbul Amir,” of course, references later conflict, and in the 20th century popular versions have made use of Middle Eastern stereotypes, a case in point being a fairly infamous MGM cartoon. But there are many published versions—it has become a folk rhyme or toast—and they all open up on a landscape and history (and a continuing tension in Europe, judging from conversations I’ve had with Turks in Turkey and in the German-speaking world, and with white Britons in the U.K.) I’d encountered first in a popular ballad from another time.
(A similar moment of illumination occurred as I was crossing the Forth Road Bridge with a Scottish friend, a man named Mike. My wife—now my ex—and our daughter and I had been living in Edinburgh and that day my wife and I were traveling north out of the city toward what our new friend was calling “a proper day’s walk” in Sir Walter Scott country. Halfway across the bridge he pointed off to the east at a town on a little promontory—“That’s Aberdour,” he said. Aberdour. I began to recite and half a second later Mike joined me.
Haf owre, haf owre to Aberdour,
It’s fiftie fadom deip,
And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spence,
Wi the Scots lords at his feit.
Thus ends the ballad “Sir Patrick Spens,” a story poem with no author, in which the loyal sailor, Sir Patrick, called upon by the king to do an errand in inclement weather, sails to what he what he knows is certain death. The Norton anthology suggests that the ballad may be based on trips to and from Norway, “two voyages of thirteenth-century Scots noblemen to conduct their princesses to royal marriages.” Ebenezer Henderson, in Annals of Dunfermline and Vicinity: “It has been suggested by some critics that the strand here alluded to was the strand at Aberdour, in the Firth of Forth.” That’s the Aberdour I saw from the bridge. But Henderson continues: “We, with others, suspect that Sir Patrick was then residing in Montrose … and that the Aberdour brought into the ballad, if it means anything, refers to the Aberdour in Aberdeenshire.” I read the poem first at 14, when we studied the Child ballads in my English class; there are many versions.)
Authentic visits to the sites? Well, there was no Abdul Abulbul Amir and the Danube’s a long river and the Aberdour I saw that morning may not have been the Aberdour referenced by Anonymous. But such ballads, which come back to one at unexpected moments like “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” invite us to parse the geography—and the history—further, to come to terms and deeper though not definitive understandings of the region. The song’s not the answer, not the gloss on the geography, but a way in and further in.
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