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. There are battles afoot and we are called to muster and charge into the fray. So, without more ado, podcast 22 makes the declaration: Comparisons are odious. Why? Hugh Mackay, a prominent Australian social commentator, makes the point, in a newspaper article from 2005, that to argue that only Aborigines have a genuine attachment to sacred sites as opposed to the inauthentic attachment of the Anglo-Celts to their footy grounds, war memorials and suburban plots is rubbish.
He argues that a sense of place is essential to everyone’s identity. Uluru is sacred to its custodians and to our shame, it is only recently that tourists with zero sensibility have been prevented from clambering over this sacred site. Gallipoli is, rightly, holy ground for generations of Aussies. Comparisons are odious is a saying which was in fairly common use at least five centuries ago, and not just in the English-speaking world. Cervantes, in Spain, is credited with its use at about the same time as John Donne in England. In his poem The Comparison, Donne presents us with two women: the first is the mistress of the poet, where beads of sweat are compared to pearl carcanets. (Such as the jewelled chokers found enhancing the slender necks of aristocratic and royal ladies of the time) The second is the mistress of another where, instead, Rank sweaty froth thy mistress’ brow defiles,/Like spermatic issue of ripe menstruous boils…
He continues in this vein for more than two dozen lines and concludes; Leave her, and I will leave comparing thus/She and comparisons are odious. This is not a man you would want to cross! But to uncover the origins of the saying, comparisons are odious, we will have to go back almost two hundred years before the Elizabethan Era to John Lydgate of Bury, a contemporary of Chaucer, who wrote a little-known but fascinating exploration of animals and their place in creation; in particular, their relationship to humankind.
The title of this obscure tome? The Debate of the Horse, Goose and Sheep. To the modern urbanised ear, this seems a slightly ridiculous title and so it did to mine until I began to explore it in more depth. I am indebted to Jeremy Withers of Iowa State University who wrote an engrossing commentary on the poem entitled The Ecology of Late Medieval Warfare in Lydgate’s The Debate of the Horse, Goose and Sheep. The subject of the debate is: which of these three animals was of most use to humans?
The Horse claims pre-eminence because it is an emblem of chivalry: who cannot but thrill to the image of a knight in shining armour mounted upon a stately steed and advancing under fluttering banners into honourable hand-to-hand combat. Reality was not so pleasant; war-horses and draft horses were killed in enormous numbers during the Hundred Years War. The Goose advanced its claim by reference to the supply of feathers to furnish the fletchings of the hundreds of thousands of arrows needed in the seemingly unending conflict. The Battle of Agincourt proved in bloody detail the effectiveness of the English and Welsh bowmen against the aristocratic, mounted French knights who thought they would have easy game that day.
The Sheep, whose position was put by a Ram because the former was so meek, counters the military utility of the others by playing the Jesus card (Lamb of God, wouldn’t you know) and claiming that peace is superior to war. The Horse vehemently asserts that wool, as a premier commodity of the time, fuelled the war efforts of various protagonists. The poet, among all the contenting arguments, reveals the very large impact of human society, and particularly, warfare on the bodies of huge numbers of animals in the late Medieval period.
In this fable, a lion and an eagle act as judges and declare each of the animals should be deemed equal. This is not an idealistic, modern-seeming concern with animal rights or welfare but rather an affirmation of the medieval concept of knowing your place and keeping to it. But, to conclude, I will shift the animal metaphor to that of a large herbivorous ape which has a fearsome reputation that is not at all in keeping with its gentle nature and which, alas, is approaching extinction and may live on only figuratively for future generations: the 800-pound gorilla in the room is, as always, Shakespeare.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/ Thou art more lovely and more temperate:/Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,/And summer’s lease hath all too short a date: The sound and sense of Sonnet 18 has, it seems to me, quasi-magical powers. In fourteen lines we have been left one of the most affecting accounts of mortality where the preservation of beauty in the golden amber of verse is effortlessly described in the lines, But thy eternal summer shall not fade… So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. He knew, didn’t he, that his lines would be read and revered long after he and the object of his admiration were dust. Listen, now to the song, Unhallowed Ground where I attempt a meagre essay along these lines. [insert song]
Greek philosophers, Zeno, Diogenes and Plato kick off our next letter but, nil desperandum, we spend more time on the wonderful novelist Carson McCullers and examine a seemingly gender-fluid Scottish poet who fooled W. B. Yeats for a while, as to his dual identity. We also carom off American luminaries Edward Hooper and Harper Lee before we sink into the capacious pocket offered by lines of poetry to conclude a podcast that features the only blues song out of 240 items on offer. So listen in and learn a little more about the strange land that is Quotidia.
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, studio. Approximately 48 Banter folk songs and instrumentals recorded live (“in the round”) with a ThinkPad laptop using the inbuilt mic.