Dreeing the weird

Fujifilm x-t30, 50mm f/6.4 @1/1250 sec, handheld

In Siberia’s wastes
Are sands and rocks.
Nothing blooms of green or soft,
But the snowpeaks rise aloft
And the gaunt ice-blocks.

And the exile there
Is one with those;
They are part, and he is part,
For the sands are in his heart,
And the killing snows.

Therefore, in those wastes
None curse the Czar.
Each man’s tongue is cloven by
The North Blast, who heweth nigh
With sharp scymitar.

And such doom each drees,
Till, hunger-gnawn,
And cold-slain, he at length sinks there,
Yet scarce more a corpse than ere
His last breath was drawn.

“Siberia” final part, by James Clarence Mangan,

‘Dree’ is a Scots verb meaning ‘endure’, and the Old English (now archaic) meaning of ‘weird’ is ‘destiny’. I kid you not. To dree one’s weird means, to this day, to endure one’s destiny — that much has survived the onslaught of modernity. I dreed my weird long enough by staying away, and have finally reached my dear Siberia for a break. The two–summer travel ban, which we have all dreed without prior incarceration experience, requires the strength of a true rebel, such as the author of the above verses — hold this thought.

Incidentally, the poet was wrong, poor fella. The photo at the top of the page, which was taken the other day from the rooftop of a 14-storey university building here, is a sample of the boring spectacle that you contemplate when flying over most of the 13.1 mln km2 (5.1 mln sq mi) of Siberian territory in summer. Endless green. No sand. No gaunt ice-blocks. No ice-blocks of any kind, alas.

Of course there are places. (East Siberian Mountains in the far north are a case in point.) And seasons. And in the past there were prison camps there, a tragedy — that is all true. But few people outside Russia appreciate the mind-boggling vastness that hides behind the name Siberia, the vaguest of toponyms.

A Siberian friend, who works in the City of London, was once leaving the office early to catch a flight, when a coworker inquired about the route. Well, the friend said, it’s a long journey. First to Moscow and then it will take me a further eight hours to reach Khabarovsk, the final destination. Eight hours is a lot of time, the coworker sighed, wouldn’t you rather fly? I will, the friend replied, it takes eight hours to reach Khabarovsk from Moscow by air.

To be fair, the first two of them are en route to the Ural. Siberia lies beyond, and it can be girthed by a modern jet in mere six. But enough of this nonsense.

James Clarence Mangan was another master of English letters, also Irish (surprise!), but this time an ardent nationalist. A “hysteric nationalist” in the words of James Joyce, his admirer, while John Mitchel spoke of him as “an Irish papist rebel…a rebel politically, and a rebel intellectually and spiritually, a rebel with his whole heart and soul against the whole British spirit of the age”. The turn-of-the-century Irish literary scene is worth a closer look, and I can recommend Redmond O’Hanlon’s incisive article on Mangan in the Irish Times [Google it], from which the above quotations were taken.

However, my weak spot for form and metre aside, what prompted me to blog today was a weird (not fateful this time, just strange) parallel that the poem evokes. Mangan’s inspiration for “Siberia” came from reading an obscure German poem about Polish leaders sent to Siberia after the 1830 revolution. Mangan’s poem is an extended metaphor of Ireland’s Great Famine though, as evidenced by the last stanza and the year of writing, 1846. It was a famine that the English saw as a deserved punishment and did nothing to alleviate. Another ardent nationalist and rebel, Poland’s Frederic Chopin composed his famous Revolutionary Etude in 1831 also as a metaphor of oppression and rebellion. English or Russian oppression, of the Poles or of the Irish — it matters not. Oppression paradoxically makes art congeal into effervescent outpours of human spirit.

Something to contemplate over the weekend, wherever you are.

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