Saturday, July 28, 2007

In the Land of the Mountains

I’m looking out of the window of Fron Dderw at a beautiful view of Bala in North Wales, surrounded by mountains. When I tell people the route we take from Leeds to Tenby, which is M62 to Manchester, then Mold – Bala – Aberystwyth – Cardigan – Tenby – through the mountains of North Wales and then down the coast – they often smile gently and say oh no, goodness me, that must take forever, why don’t you go on the motorways?

Well, we tried it once. It was about three-quarters of an hour faster, and really hideous. What’s more, if we’d have gone that way last weekend, we’d never have got there at all because of the floods.

But this way is beautiful – vast mountains, pretty villages. I invariably find myself singing that old song Cader Idris, which is better known in English as “O Give Me a Cot in the Land of the Mountains.”

“But why,” I asked, aged about twelve, when we were all singing it in a music lesson once, “would anyone want a cot in the land of the mountains? Unless the song’s supposed to be sung by a baby.”

The music teacher gave me one of those You Are Really Thick looks.

“Because cot, dear, in this song, is an abbreviation of cottage. I should have thought it was obvious.”

Well, no, it’s not obvious,a actually. Because I put it to you, m’lud, that this song is the ONLY PLACE EVER where “cot” is an abbreviation of “cottage”. Have you ever heard anyone say “We’ve been staying in a cot in Cumbria for our holidays” or “There are lots of thatched cots in Suffolk”? No, you haven’t, for nobody ever does and nobody ever did.

No, Cot as a shortened version of Cottage is just Bad Poetry Language. For Bad Poetry has a language all of its own: it is put there to give you a quick clue that the poem is going to be crap and you should stop reading now.

I haven’t time to explain it all here – in fact there’s probably a whole Christmas book in there somewhere – but here are just a couple of hints.

Any poem containing the word “did” in an odd place is going to be rubbish – “the birds did sing” is the kind of line I mean.

Any poem less than a hundred years old containing the words “thee” or “thou” (a few careful exceptions may exist in the Yorkshire dialect)

Any poem where lines start with “O” or where you get ridiculous abbreviations of words, eg “cot” for “cottage” – ah, yes, back to Cader Idris.

But “the land of the mountains” is an instantly evocative line, so the writer managed to pull it back a bit after a truly dreadful start. And the tune’s good too.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, how's about -

Take a tender little cot, quite a miniature affair, hung about with trellised vine.
Furnish it upon the spot with the treasures rich and rare I've endeavoured to define.

It's W.S.Gilbert, by the way, verse 2 of "Take a pair of sparking eyes" from The Gondoliers. OK, so it's a lyric, not a poem.


12:30 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just another interesting fact to add to the debate (does this count as a debate yet?)- there's a war cemetery in Belgium called Tyne Cot, the name apparently coming from the common name of Tyneside workers cottages:

9:22 am  
Blogger Daphne said...

Well, that's two cots more than I knew about! Thank you! I think old Gilbert is doing the same false-abbreviation thing as in Cader Idris, though, just to make his line scan. Even so, I'm amazed to learn of it. Tyne Cot is good, I'm prepared to believe in that one. Excellent.

10:47 pm  

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