Letters From Quotidia Episode 9 The Self-Unseeing

Quentin Bega
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Welcome to Letters From Quotidia – a podcast by Quentin Bega for lovers of music, poetry, and the Crack- that most Irish of nouns which may encompass, news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation. Quotidia is that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary. Poetry is never far from the Gaelic imagination, and in podcast number nine, The Self-Unseeing, we’ll have a look at two short poems, one by English poet, Thomas Hardy and  the other by American poet, Carl Sandburg

Back in the 1980s, I was teaching at a grammar school in Northern Ireland. The novels of Thomas Hardy were on the curriculum for O and A Levels as they had been when I was at school in the sixties. I was teaching the novels as opposed to learning about them from a teacher droning at the front of the room. Now I was the droner. In a poll, taken in London at the time, Hardy emerged as the most popular author among senior students. I have a high regard for his novels but a higher regard for his poetry, which covers a wide range of forms and subjects. There can be little argument that he is among the greatest of the English poets of the 20th Century because of his adventurous and insightful exploration of what it is to be human.

His poems about his first wife, Emma, were written after her death and an awkward estrangement of twenty long years. They are searing in their remorse and filled with regret and remembered love. Although Hardy could, and did, write about the larger themes such as war, belief, the impact of technology, social constraints and class- it is when he examines the minutiae of family life and personal relationships that he comes into his own.

His poem, The Self-Unseeing, deals with his remembrance of his mother and father and a scene from his boyhood when he was truly happy: Here is the ancient floor, /Footworn and hollowed and thin, /Here was the former door/Where the dead feet walked in. //She sat here in her chair,/Smiling into the fire;/ He who played stood there, /Bowing it higher and higher.//Childlike, I danced in a dream; / Blessings emblazoned that day; / Everything glowed with a gleam; /Yet we were looking away!

It is only after the event that we can truly appreciate how happy we were. Hence the human predilection for rose-tinted glasses, sentimentality and nostalgia. But Hardy avoids the mawkish and the maudlin when he deals with these matters, and this, I suppose, is what makes him a great artist. Aristotle explored in some detail the question of what it means to lead a fulfilled life. He rejects the pursuit of a life of sensual gratification and, also, the pursuit of a life solely concerned with honour. He concludes that Eudaimonia or Happiness satisfies his criteria for the best life.

But unpacking this term in prose would burst the constraints of this podcast- not to mention my aching head! I turn, instead, to Carl Sandburg, a 20th Century American poet, for his mischievous take on this question which he sets out  in his poem entitled, Happiness I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me what is happiness./And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men./They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though I was trying to fool with them/And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the Desplaines river/And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and children and a keg of beer and an accordion.

This poem strongly resonates with me because it reflects an annual pre-Covid gathering where our family joins family groups of friends and relations for a fish barbecue at a local park. Several generations spend the day celebrating…what? Being alive and in Australia, remembering our culture and those who are absent through geographic separation, work commitments or death.

Shortly before my father died, thirty years ago, I was living and working in Ballymena, which is a market town in Northern Ireland. It was late December, just before Christmas, and it was dark and cold. My sister Mary and her husband, John with their two children, Krista and Monika, had driven across Europe from Munich to visit. The fire was blazing and all the Yuletide decorations were on display. With Mum and Dad, there were ten of us and, at one point in the evening, a guitar was produced and we sang Christmas carols. Then, John taught my kids the verse of Silent Night in German and we listened, entranced, as the four kids sang that sublime song using the original words.

At this time, 100 years ago on the Western Front, all went quiet when the strains of this carol drifted across no man’s land and the fighting men on both sides declared a truce and for one day, a minor miracle. This was against the wishes of the superior officers on the British side. On the German side, a young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, was also an opponent of the truce. His name: Adolf Hitler. But on that section of those vast killing fields, peace reigned for a short while. However, this being the world we live in, the fighting resumed and we can only mourn the loss of so many lives on both sides of the conflict. That night in Ballymena, I recall clearly. In the unmistakeable, idiosyncratic diction of Thomas Hardy’s poem, The Self-Unseeing, blessings emblazoned that day. But I, too, was looking away. [insert song The Self-Unseeing] The next podcast rises to double digits and introduces the listener to sales and celebrations and the sublime Immortality Ode

Credits: All written text, song lyrics and music (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.

Technical Stuff: Microphone- (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter

Microphone (for many of the songs) Shure SM58

For recording and mixing down 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used

Music accompaniment and composition software– Band-in-a-Box and RealBand 2020 as well as- for some 20 of the songs of year 2000 vintage- I used a Blue Mountains, NSW, studioApproximately 48 Banter folk songs and instrumentals recorded live (“in the round”) with a ThinkPad laptop using the inbuilt mic.

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