Tha a’ chlosach air ragachadh
mar gun robh e a’ snàmh,
spliadh is ceann air an togail,
sùil is bian
a’ deàrrsadh mar umha.
Tionndaidhidh mi air falbh,
air mo nàrachadh ro mheatair de
dhòbhran fom sgrùdadh,
is am bàs air biast cho falbhach
Air ulbhaig, làrach fhuilteach
a chuinnlean; os a cionn,
sgeilp a’ stobadh a-mach
de riasg ’s de fhraoch
far an do thuit e
An comhair a chinn dha na creagan foidhe,
far an laigh e san dubhar mar chloich eile,
a shròn air a pronnadh, gaoisid na fhiaclan,
air a chùlaibh, a shaobhaidh, ùrail, gorm,
mun cuairt air sa bhruach, dàil-chuach is seòbhrach.
Sìnidh mo làmh gu grad thuige
’s mi a’ tuigsinn gun deach a nàdar
ceàrr air an drip an earraich,
gun rachadh an dòbhran mòrail
cuideachd air iomrall.
Translations of this Poem
Translator: Meg Bateman
Rigor-mortis curves the beast
as if in water,
flat head and webbed foot
raised, eyes gleaming,
pelt of bronze.
I turn away, embarrassed
by a metre of otter
laid out for my scrutiny,
by death’s exposure
of so fleet a creature.
On a boulder, the bloody
stamp of its nostrils;
above, a jutting ledge
of tangled fibrous root
where it must have fallen
Headlong to the rocks where it lies in shade
with staved in snout and stillness of stone,
white fur gripped between its teeth,
its lair behind, lush with liverwort,
a flicker of violets and primrose in the bank.
I reach out to it, shocked,
that in the bustle of spring,
instinct could fail it,
shocked that it too
could lose its footing.
About this poem
This poem was written as part of the Scottish Poetry Library’s Addressing the Bard project in 2009. Twelve contemporary poets were asked to select a poem by Robert Burns and respond to it. Meg Bateman chose ‘Poor Mailie’s Elegy‘.
Meg Bateman comments:
I chose to respond to ‘Poor Mailie’s Elegy’ with my poem ‘Dòbhran Marbh’ (Dead Otter). Burns’s poem is about the death of a sheep with which he had a special bond. She would run to him from half a mile away and accompany him all round the town. There is something of the mock elegy about this poem, with Burns exaggerating his sadness:
Our <em>Bardie’s</em> fate is at a close,
Past a’ r
and urging other poets to ‘join the melancholious croon’, but even so we sense how much he misses his ‘friend and neebor dear’. Anyone who has lost an animal, having grown used to its faithfulness, will understand why Burns wanted to commemorate her.
My poem ‘Dead Otter’ also expresses regret at the accidental death of an animal, but unlike Mailie, the otter is wild. Mailie has been strangled by a rope; my otter has fallen off a cliff. While Burns laments a loss of companionship, I lament a loss of life force; his poem is an elegy, mine, more of a word-picture. In both cases, there is a sense of kinship with the animal, a recognition that humans and animals are not so very different. ‘Dead Otter’ moves from my embarrassment at having the opportunity to examine a very shy animal at length to a sense of identification with the animal, as I realise that despite their instincts, animals, like myself, can make mistakes. To err is human, it is said, but here I discover that it is also animal.
Burns often expresses his compassion for animals, and it lets him recognise the animal in people, even among the most lofty of ladies. In his time, the church taught that man had been created separately from animals, which were created for our use. The sort of commonality Burns felt intuitively between all forms of life, between mice, sheep, trees, daisies, beggars and dukes, is increasingly borne out by modern science, which shows we are more, not less, like other forms of life. For example, speech used to be considered a uniquely human attribute, but now the gene responsible for speech has also been found, with small differences, in dolphins, whales, bats, mice and of course birds. We read how much genetic material we share with chimpanzees (98 per cent), fruit-flies (60 per cent), even bananas (50 per cent). In short, we know that all forms of life are interrelated. The shared genome of life is vastly poetic!
I have followed Burns in trying to express something of our affinity with animals. He does it in the infectiously cheerful Standard Habbie stanza form, which no doubt would have carried his friends gleefully through his recitation of the poem’s eight verses, with a mixture of regret for Mailie’s endearing ways, enjoyment of the rhythm and rhyme, and amusement at the most meek of animals getting such a heroic send-off. But I didn’t want to risk parodying Burns by mimicking his metre or wit. I needed a much quieter place to observe the dead otter and to understand my sudden rush of feeling for it.