Opening “The Oxford Book of English Verse” (ed. Ricks), at random: “The Flowers of the Forest,” by Jean Elliot (Scottish; 1727-1805):
I’ve heard them lilting, at the ewe milking,
Lasses a’ lilting, before dawn of day;
But now they are moaning, on ilka green loaning; [loaning: open ground]
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede awae. [wede: cleared, taken out]
At bughts in the morning, nae blithe lads are scorning [bughts: pens]
Lasses are lonely, and dowie and wae [dowie and wae: glum and woeful]
Nae daffing, nae gabbing, but sighing and sabbing; [daffing: frolicking]
Ilk ane lifts her leglin, and hies her awae. [leglin: pail]
At har’st at the shearing, nae youths now are jearing; [har’st: harvest]
Bandsters are runkled, and lyart or gray; [Bandsters: they bind sheaves; lyart: hoary]
At fair, or at preaching, nae wooing, nae fleeching; [fleeing: cajoling]
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede awae.
At e’en in the gloaming, nae younkers are roaming,
‘Bout stacks, with the lasses at bogle to play; [bogle: goblins, scary game]
But ilk maid sits dreary, lamenting her deary–
The flowers of the forest are weded awae.
Dole and wae for the order, sent our lads to the border! [Dool: dole, sorrow]
The English, for ance, by guile wan the day;
The flowers of the forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The prime of our land are cauld in the clay.
We’ll hae nae mair lilting at the ewe milking;
Women and bairns are heartless and wae:
Sighing and moaning, on ilka green loaning—
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.
Notes on the poem:
An “ubi sunt” poem; “where have all the flowers gone?” But the poem does not turn on a question, but instead on an observation: the flowers are gone and away: the poem knows where they have gone.
We are invited to the thought that “the flowers of the forest” are not only the youth plowed down in battle, but also the ladies who no longer bloom as they once have, to the happiness of their dalliances, to the rites of the laborers. The second, third, and fourth stanzas open with an observation is what is lacking, then turn to what remains (the women, mourning), and then mourns in turn: but it mourns for the mourners, their loss of liveliness, as well as with them, for the loss of life.
The first line anticipates, obliquely, one of the most famous lines in twentieth-century verse: “I have met them at the close of day| Coming with vivid faces.” And, like Yeats’ poem, this is a poem of nation’s struggle, a poem that recognizes that “all is changed, changed utterly.”
In this poem about change, what does not change? The refrain, the acknowledgement of loss. But then this refrain does change: there are variations within the refrain, and also, on two occasions, deviations from it. First the deviations: “Each ane lifts her leglin, and hies her awae” and “The prime of our land are cauld in the clay.”
The first of these retains the word, “awae,” the pivot of the poem: a euphemism for death, but also an acknowledgment that where they have gone matters less than that they have gone; their having gone away to battle, their being gone away from life, their being away from the women, all amount to much the same. In this line, “Hies her awae,” the word turns with different torque, since it is split off from the one verb phrase, “weded away” and given to another “hies her awae.” Passive and active; non-reflexive and reflexive. The opportunity was there for the poem to look, after the word “sighing,” back to the flowers: to offer the expected refrain. Rather than flowers, the milkmaids, lifting their leglins (their pails); a suggestion that they do not only sigh for flowers having been cleared away, but that in their sighing, lifting leglin and turning home, the transformation they have undergone is also mourned in the refrain that the flowers have been “a’ wede awae.”
The second deviation compounds the suggestion: “The prime of our land are cauld in the clay.” The prime both are the flowers of youth, mowed down by the English soldiers; they are also something else, not the flowers (which, as I’ve said, stand also for the women, the spirit of the place, the joy of rural traditions no longer possible). The figure clashes violently with the refrain, and the flower symbol is undone in a moment of bare acknowledgment.
Whether or not in a verb phrase, “awae” is placeless: elsewhere, gone; “clay,” without placing the men (part of the tragedy is that their bodies are lost, perhaps), sets them in the matter, gives their physical, worldly situation as “weded awae” does not.
“Clay” is the only word that is given a full-visual rhyme, with “day.”
“Weded” for “a’ wede” when the maids lament. The poem runs: “The flowers of the forest are a’ wede awae”; in the fourth stanza, we are given: “the flowers of the forest are weded away.” I am not sure if there is a link between “weeding” and “weded” (more on the Scots/English puns in a bit), but the hint of “weeded” is stronger here. Without a Scottish ear, it is difficult to hear the difference between “are weded” and “are a’ wede”— with an English bias, but “are weded” has a stronger sense of past action attached to it. Maybe it is helpful to look elsewhere, to see how the poem shifts course at that direction. And it does: “weded”–with that passive strength of being acted upon–prompts, anticipates, or conforms to the stanza that follows, the account of the boys sent to fight, ordered, and killed. The poem is, after “weded,” about culpability as well as loss: about action, as well as absence.
“Away” for “awae”: the final word of the poem goes to the English, rather than the Scots, a token of defeat? (Another possibility: “awae” contains “wae,” meaning woe, as “away” does not: the poem ends by moving on from woe, from the “wae” with which “awae” rhymes). Among the battles in the poem, the battle between the languages. Something perhaps akin to an anti-pun in the word “weded” and “wede”: not only “weed” but are we to hear-and-not-hear or see-and-not-see “wed”? The flowers (be they the women or the men) unable to wed. The flowers of the forest not wedded away.
Another moment of interference the power of which derives from a clash rather than continuity of senses: “leglin” for “pail,” where English readers might hear a diminutive for “leg,” hearkening to Herrick’s maids. But it is not “lift legs and hie away”–it is “lift their pails and hie away,” the difference being that between work and play; though there is place for play in the poem, it is never separated from the rustic labor. “Loaning” is perhaps yet another: their moaning complaint cutting close to loan–where the men are not loaned, to be returned, but are disappeared forever.