I could hardly call my younger self a political junkie, and I would never claim that I had a sophisticate’s understanding of poetry in elementary school. I tried, and tried again, as often as I could, to understand how poems worked their magic. Most of what we studied in the way of poetry were songs, and most of what I found difficult were the words, not the tunes. I remember that, one year, perhaps in second grade, we were studying the official songs of all branches of the military; when we got to the “Marines’ Hymn,” I was puzzled by the fact that it was a hymn, because even then I knew that hymns and killing usually didn’t mix. What puzzled me even more was the ending. It was fairly easy to understand until the last four lines, even easier than “The Caisson Song” (then the official Army pep song), which went something like this:
Over hill over dale we will hit the dusty trail As the caissons go rolling along. Up and down, in and out, Countermarch and right about, And our caissons go rolling along. For it’s hi-hi-hee in the Field Artillery, Shout out the number loud and strong. Till our final ride, It will always be our pride To keep those caissons a rolling along (Keep them rolling) Keep those caissons a rolling along.
That’s the earliest version, what Wikipedia calls “The Caisson Song,”[i] which we seem to have learned, although our version was hybridized with “U.S. Field Artillery,” the then-current version. But as far as I knew a caisson was “a watertight structure within which construction work is carried on,”[ii] something I had learned about in studying the building of London Bridge, and why it might be falling down. You needed truly watertight caissons to work on bridge pilings; why the Army would be rolling them along, I could not figure out (that was before the song was changed to “The Army Goes Rolling Along,” in 1956). But I tried; I always tried. The puzzle of the last part of the “Marines’ Hymn” (I know, I know; there was also “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which comforted rather than puzzled me because I heard “battle Him” in that title, and found it appropriate) was in these words:
If the Army and the Navy Ever look on Heaven’s scenes; They will find the streets are guarded By United States Marines.[iii]
Now I grew up a Mormon, so I didn’t think that there were streets in Heaven. In fact, I didn’t believe in Heaven per se, but in heavens — heavens galore! And because I grew up in Utah, they all promised to be well-irrigated mountain valleys, somewhat like Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld. So I deduced that what the Marines were singing about was this: if the Army and the Navy all died and went to heaven, not to worry; they could glance back down here and see that the Marines were guarding our streets. In other words, I didn’t understand sarcasm, nor the political environment in which it might flourish — and I certainly didn’t understand why you might find sarcasm in a hymn, even a “Battle Hymn.”
So why, being tone-deaf as a sprout, would I find myself in graduate school drawn to political and historical criticism of texts, where I had to understand both the setting and the text itself in terms of politics and history? Well, it probably has to do with those damn hymns: I found myself interested in long poems on religious themes, but I realized that I could never out-Milton Milton. If Mormonism were ever to have Shakespeares and Miltons of its own, I might be able to play some small part in that process by being a Mormon William Langland. And besides, his magnum opus, the great poem Piers Plowman, could serve me as a model for my attempt to write an alliterative masterpiece on Joseph Smith. Besides, Piers Plowman is a dream allegory, something like the Revelation of John of Patmos, and so I started studying it. I want to talk about the textual history, and the historical context, in my next post. Suffice it to say for now that Chaucer and Langland were near contemporaries, that, unlike the Canterbury Tales, Piers Plowman exists in a complete form, apparently in its author’s final revision, consciously shaped, and that it does not stint on the alliteration. This is how the poem[iv] starts (and it helps one hear it better if one reads it aloud):
In a somer sesoun, whanne softe was the sonne, I shop me in-to a shroud, as I a shep were; In abite as an ermyte, unholy of werkis, I went wyde in this world, wondris to here. But on a May morwenyng on Malverne hilles Me befell a ferly, of fairie me thoughte. I was wery for-wandrit and wente me to reste Undir a brood bank be a bourne side; And as I lay and lenide and lokide on the watris, I slomeride in a slepyng, it swighede so merye. Thanne gan I mete a merveillous swevene, That I was in a wildernesse, wiste I nevere where; Ac as I beheld in-to the est, on heigh to the sonne, I saigh a tour on a toft, trighely i-makid; A depe dale benethe, a dungeoun there inne, With depe dikes and derke, and dredful of sight. A fair feld ful of folk fand I there betwene, Of alle maner of men, the mene and the riche, Worching and wandringe, as the world askith. Summe putte hem to the plough, and pleighede ful selde, In settyng and sowing swonke ful harde That many of thise wastores with glotonye destroigheth. And summe putte hem to pride, aparailide hem there aftir, In cuntenaunce of clothing comen disgisid.
Consider Lehi’s dream, if you will, in the light of that vision: a high tower, a deep valley with a dungeon therein, and between the two, a fair field full of folk, all manner of men, the mean and the rich, working and wandering as the world asketh. The parallels are probably of interest only to Mormons like me, and the differences are relatively obvious on reflection, but the division into two main groups is still clear — the main difference being, it seems to me, the division into the mean, those who plow, swonking full hard, and the rich, those who waste, and whose pride is in fine apparel.
But hold on, I hear you say: isn’t that common in all ages and all societies — even ours? What’s so special here?
[i] “The Army Goes Rolling Along,” Wikipedia, accessed 23 May 2012.
[ii] The illustrated Heritage Dictionary and information book (Boston : Houghton Mifflin, c1977), with the dictionary part being a reprint of the American Heritage dictionary.
[iii] “Marines’ Hymn,” Wikipedia, accessed 23 May 2012.
[iv] In the version published as Piers the plowman : a critical edition of the A-version / edited, with introduction, notes and glossary by Thomas A. Knott and David C. Fowler. – Baltimore : the Johns Hopkins Press, c1952, p. 67.