A Scottish Poet in Esperanto
(Text of an address given at St. Andrews University)
by William Auld
taken from the _British Esperantist_
My upbringing left me with two overriding concepts: on the one hand a love of things Scottish, and on the other a strong belief in the brotherhood of man. These have never seemed to me in any way contradictory. I would like first of all to enlarge briefly on these. I hope you noticed I said 'a love of things Scottish', and not 'a love of Scotland'. The concept of Scotland as an entity is both abstract and political, and too enthusiastically adopted can lead to highly undesirable consequences, such as an artificial and indoctrinated hatred of England that can manifest itself through such trivia as rejoicing when any team at all beats England on the football field. My own standpoint reflects that of Dr Zamenhof, the creator of the international language Esperanto, who in 1907, in the City of London Guildhall, defended true patriotism as 'part of that great worldwide love which builds, conserves and felicitates' against 'pseudo-patriotism, i.e. racial chauvinism, which is destructive of everything'. My love of things Scottish does not imply hatred of things that are not Scottish.
The brotherhood of man is not, today, as widely recognised as it once was. A widely accepted philosophical concept in the 19th century, after the first World War it was taken over by the proletariat under the influence of Karl Marx and the call for the workers of the world to unite, and most kinds of socialism accepted it in one form or another. One little known result of this was an upsurge in the use of Esperanto by working-class people and their intellectual comrades. Even the Soviet Union under Lenin encouraged the use of Esperanto, actually issuing the first postage stamps featuring the language and its creator, though Stalin quickly reversed the trend and ended by sending great numbers of esperantists to the Gulag, providing the Esperanto movement with even more martyrs. There were many thousands of these, including my own most admired Esperanto poet, Eugene Mikhalski, who was executed in 1937 for his Esperanto activities. For one thing, he was writing a kind of poetry which did not fit in with the party line, and he was forced to write an auto-criticism common at the time, in which he 'confessed his sins'. Unfortunately, this failed to save him.
The idea that people are the same the world over, are motivated by the same fundamental emotions and instincts, and that so-called cultural differences, real though they are, are largely superficial and superimposed finds little favour in today's increasingly national and chauvinistic societies. But it has always been fundamental in my own beliefs. And partially led to my early acceptance of Esperanto as something both natural and necessary.
I encountered the language at the age of twelve. On entering Secondary school I encountered foreign languages and became fascinated by the very concept of language. What, I asked myself, would it be like to think in a language other than my native English? As an adult I now believe that this interest partially resulted from having a grandmother who was bilingual in Gaelic and English and was able to switch from one to the other, and to translate from one to the other, effortlessly. So I found a language library in the cosmopolitan district Gorbals in Glasgow and began to browse and acquire a tiny smattering of a wide variety of languages. I was fascinated by the esoteric nature of Finnish and Polish and other 'outlandish' tongues; but naturally such undirected sampling took me no nearer my original goal. Besides, the very multiplicity of tongues was more than a little overwhelming: which other language could I hope to think in?
At that point I came across; through the Boy Scout movement, my first references to Esperanto. The Scout motto, Estu Preta, reminded me of Romanian which I liked, and both the appearance and (as far as I could judge) the sound of Esperanto were pleasant. Besides, was its aim not precisely what was needed to cross language barriers and enable all people to communicate with ease and without embarrassment? Just what I was looking for. So I obtained a textbook and all unwittingly set off on a road which would be a dominant influence on my entire life.
For the next ten years, however, the only use I made of Esperanto was in conjunction with my best friend, who also learned it, and in writing what I now know to be some abominably bad verse, etc. During the war I spent several years abroad, but it never occurred to me to seek contact with any local esperantists (though I now know them to have been there), and it was only in early 1947, when I returned to the UK to await demob, that I made up my mind to take it up seriously. I sent a subscription to the national association and contacted two Esperanto clubs in Glasgow where for the first time I spoke the language in normal social contexts. I discovered that Collet's Bookshop in Glasgow carried a large stock of books in Esperanto which I began to acquire and read. My best friend and I, reunited after our war service, decided to speak nothing but Esperanto between ourselves, and we both began to write seriously and study the same texts.
In the same year, 1947, a new magazine, _Esperanto en Skotlando_, was founded (and still flourishes today). Inevitably I decided it was time to submit some work, and before long my first contribution appeared. For the record, it was a translation of Ernest Dowson's poem 'Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae'. This attracted the attention of a man who was already an established author and translator in Esperanto, and who immediately contacted me. He was astonished to discover my almost complete ignorance of the main traditions of Esperanto literature (my choice of reading had been very indiscriminate) and inundated me with volumes of original Esperanto poetry which truly opened my eyes to a very wonderful vista and I was completely captivated by the poems of such people as the Hungarians Kalocsay and Baghy, the Russians Hohlov and Mikhalski, the Frenchman - despite his name - Raymond Schwartz, and many others. They gave me models to follow and enthusiasm to experiment. I discovered that Esperanto is a rich and colourful language, and it reminded me of the English language at the time of Shakespeare - ripe for innovation and fresh metaphors. If it didn't yet have its own Shakespeare, it did have, linguistically speaking, its Chaucers and its Spensers.
It's worth mentioning that my mentor, Reto Rossetti, used Esperanto as a domestic language as well, for he and his wife Carol were accustomed to using it rather as many couples use Gaelic at home as well as English. As a result we seldom had to use English among ourselves, including my best friend, and we spent many days and weekends totally immersed in Esperanto culture.
What I am trying to do here, of course, is to show how one can only really acquire another tongue by living constantly in its ambience, and that is possible in the case of Esperanto - a fact which will come as a surprise to many people whose preconceived notions preclude this possibility. Throughout the world there are innumerable people who have followed very similar paths to Esperanto, and who are aware of sharing a common cultural background, which by definition is not nationally based.
We were all writing and having our work published in various Magazines around the world. So when in 1952 we were contacted by a publisher in the Canary Islands who was planning to produce a series of books in Esperanto we were in a position to offer him our combined collections, together with that of a fourth Scottish poet, Rev John Dinwoodie from Pittenweem, to be published in one volume under the title 'Kvaropo' (Four-in-one). This book's success - the edition was sold out within a year - earned us the title of 'the Scottish School' and confirmed at least my belief that there was a serious future in being an Esperanto writer.
Of course, Esperanto was by no means my only cultural ambience. As a student at Glasgow University I was studying English language and literature and also Scottish literature and history, and ultimately became very influenced by Ezra Pound's literary theories and, particularly, his Cantos. I wanted to produce a Cantos of my own. Scottish literature encouraged this idea, especially Sydney Goodsir Smith's 'Under the Eildon Tree' which is another kind of Cantos. I didn't want to imitate either of these works, but only to use the form for my own purposes.
As a matter of fact, it was in English that I produced a tentative first canto, and submitted it to the editors of a forthcoming collection of work by poets under thirty. It was quite a long time before I heard from them, in a letter expressing deep regret they hadn't been able to use it, partly because of trepidation about what their sponsors might think (the poem was by the standards of that time considered risque) and finally because of lack of space. They ended up saying that if that was the usual standard of my work I should never have any difficulty in getting it accepted.
Encouraging, but too late. In the interim I had definitely decided that Esperanto would be my language and had begun my Cantos, which were published in 1956 under the title 'La Infana Raso'. This translates as 'the infant race' -though my wife has always preferred an alternative, 'this mewling race' - and encapsulates my view of the world, in which the human race is still in its infancy but will hopefully mature in time. Simultaneously I was, incidentally, engaged in translating the first book of Byron's 'Don Juan', a task which honed my linguistic skills, and perhaps influenced the tone of some of my own work.
I think this is where I should say a few words about poetic motivation. One not infrequently comes across such comments as 'an acquired artificial language is not psychically suitable to the Creator, as inspirational poetry or literature has to flow from the psyche of its creator and is usually shaped there in the mother tongue of the writer'. This sounds impressive, but in the words of Cabell's 'Jurgen' it would be 'none the worse for an admixture of truth'. What holders of that view cannot envisage (because of their preconceived misconceptions about its very nature) is that Esperanto can be absorbed into one's psyche and take contextual root there. This is because Esperanto is not a foreign language in any real sense. A foreign language is the property, jealously cherished and nurtured, of its native speakers. When I attempt to speak French I am conscious of the whole implacable weight of French culture ranged against me. I know I'll never be able to absorb it all and be at home in French culture.
Similarly, my love of the Esperanto language in no way diminishes my love of English; and that is why it sets my teeth on edge to hear foreigners massacring my mother tongue as they inevitably do when using it. None of this applies to Esperanto which belongs to everyone, to novices as much as to people brought up to speak Esperanto from birth. There is no 'implacable weight' to overcome. I have sometimes said - in jest, I hasten to add - that Esperanto is my language because I chose it, while English was thrust upon me willy-nilly. But there's an element of truth in the jest.
There is no conflict between Esperanto and one's native language; the two may comfortably co-exist in a single psyche. This is because the languages have separate roles, to which they are perfectly adapted. English is not perfectly adapted for international use and performs that function with only limited success. You often hear the phrase 'English is spoken everywhere'. That quite simply is not true. This year my wife and I have spent six weeks living in four Italian towns, and visited others. Outside of tourist information offices we encountered no one willing or able to speak English except a couple of rather reluctant waiters. Fortunately, we had the help of local Esperantists. I'm left with the whimsical thought that English is spoken everywhere except where Bill Auld happens to end up; for we've had similar experiences in Greece, Bulgaria, Japan, Brazil and China, to name but a few.
The other difference between Esperanto and other languages is that it's artificial. This is frequently said derogatively, but that's because the word is usually misunderstood. What it means is that Esperanto is a work of art like a symphony or a painting, the creation of an artist of genius who was also, incidentally, a poet in every sense. And like every other great work of art it can be inspirational - which is one reason why it has inspired so many poets. In any case, after more than a century of widespread daily use - by radio stations, for example - its artificiality is no longer relevant.
Another popular misconception concerns the size of readership. People assume that the potential readership worldwide of English is so enormous, it inevitably follows that actual readership of a given author must greatly exceed that of any Esperanto author. But is that always the case? It is obviously true in the case of best-selling fiction. But is it true of poetry? Very few books of poetry in English are printed in more than a few hundred copies. The actual readership of most new English poets is certainly no greater than the actual readership of new Esperanto poets.
And the latter is guaranteed to be worldwide. It's very rewarding for me that when I travel I meet people who know my work. I have met a Romanian who knows one of my collections of lyrical poetry of heart. In Peking a Chinese made a speech of welcome in which he clearly demonstrated a close acquaintance with my entire oeuvre. My mail brings me letters of appreciation from all over, including such places as Outer Mongolia.
When Dr Zamenhof stood up at the first international Esperanto Congress and said: "...for the first time in human history we, members of very different peoples, stand one beside the other, not as competitors, but as brothers, who, not forcing one language on others, understand one another, do not suspect one another because of the darkness that divides; love one another and clasp hands, not in pretence, as members of different nations do, but sincerely, as one human being to another", he was saying something that should never be forgotten. That is the vision which has motivated the Esperanto movement and inspired its greatest poets. Quite a contrast to the European Union...
When, as early as 1906, the wife of the Russian Roman Frenkel was 'killed by an unknown hand', it was through a poem in Esperanto that he chose to mourn her, a phenomenon which can be endlessly exemplified throughout Esperanto's history. For language is inevitably an emotional matter, Esperanto no less than other tongues. And out of emotion grows all art first and foremost.
Also, all poets are by definition world-smiths whose creative medium is words. It is probably difficult for some people to conceive that Esperanto is no sterile code or unhappy jargon, but a language of great subtlety (when fully absorbed and used naturally, without reference to any other tongue) and innate suggestion. But it is. Contrary to widespread belief, Esperanto is no surrogate Indo-European language, but has its own unique structure. Zamenhof makes this clear in his First Book: "But because this kind of language construction is unfamiliar to the peoples of Europe; and it would be difficult for them to accustom themselves to it, I have totally accommodated the said dismemberment of the language to the spirit of the European languages, so that anyone who learns my language without reading this introduction (which is not necessary to the student) - won't even suppose that this language's construction is any different from that of his mother tongue".
Esperanto is in fact basically agglutinative. To cite just one example from very many that make Esperanto so subtle and exact, the fact that every root in the language may be used as a verb, noun, adjective or adverb provides a great flexibility of syntax and subtle semantics. It is an exciting medium for creative thought and poetic art.
All of which may make it clear why more than one patriotic Scotsman has chosen the international language as his or her medium of poetic self-expression.
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