6 JULY 1962, Page 21


Under the Bim, Under the Barn


SAYING what song the sirens sang is as hard as any of Donne's -hypothetical tasks. But it seems almost easy compared to the question Sir Maurice Bowra* asks himself and then sets about answering. He leads us back through airy millen- nia, far beyond the matching of the sirens on their mythological rocks, to the earliest detect- able traces of song, to the conditions which made it likely and .incubated its shaggy genesis. Those sounds, slow to emerge and long silent now, were the first harbingers of verse; and could we Miraculously tune in and equally miraculously understand them, or guess at their nature by analogy or deduction, we would possess most Precious knowledge of the impulse and inspira- tion which lead to poetry and the pristine work- ings of the human mind; knowledge, indeed, of urgent relevance to the world's entire poetic achievement, which, in its most elevated, sophis- ticated or recondite flowering, has been the author's lifelong study. This new aspect of his theme, which is no less than a bold and sustained assault on the primitive mysteries, gives special im- Portance to an absorbing and most unusual book. 'We must picture Sir Maurice pondering the first hints of primitive song—for, as he proves beyond reasonable doubt, where there is sym- pathetic magic, mimicry of wish-fulfilment, ritual and dancing, song always breaks forth —on the silent cave-walls of Altamira, Lascaux, opera and Niaux. We see him turn from the leggy cavorting bowmen, chasing their dream- bison, with his brow locked in conjecture, but not in despair. For the Late Stone Age doings p,,,,ainted in these scattered grottoes, and those of Russia and the Arctic Circle—indeed, wherever they emerge and however far apart—all display similar data, closely related resulting phenomena and subconscious cosmological inklings; related, not by descent from a common source, but by the response of primitive man everywhere, re- gardless of latitude, climate and date, to the Problem of survival. Invariably, too, up come the same rough-hewn metaphysics. What they all Possess in common is far more striking than their marginal variation or their wide stylistic differences. Broadly speaking, like yin evoked Like yang, and even more interestingly, like Jung. The same, moreover, is discernible today in those scattered and shrinking rock-pools of mankind ,,Which, by a random dispensation of history, still uve a late PaIxolithic life. One glance at the Paintings of the aborigines, the Veddas, the Eskimos, the Bushmen of Drakensberg, tells all.

Here lies the secret and the Open Sesame: to guess at their nature by analogy or deduction.

But in the new field which suddenly un- folds and the accompanying windfall of raw alaterial for study, the need for guesswork goes.

,14 For here we have not only the paintings but, care- 'lY recorded and classified, the songs them- selves, and, in nearly every case, the singers; the ...."atemporaries, in fact, in every way except the


'in and N icolsonSONG. 36s.) By C. M. Bowra. (Weiden- ,

not very relevant dislocation of fifteen or thirty thousand years. of the cave-artists of Aquitania and the Pyrenees.

There are a number of these Stone Age societies. The most apt for Sir Maurice's pur- pose are the Gabon and Ituri Pygmies, the Bush- men and Dama of South-West Africa, the Semang of the Malayan jungle, the Veddas of Ceylon, the Andaman islanders, the many aboriginal groups of Australia, the Eskimos of the Arctic and the Selk'nam and Yamana of Tierra de Fuego. Some of these are perilously close to that deadline of extinction over which the Tasmanians preceded them, with a helping hand from us, in 1877. They live by bunting, fishing and gathering, sometimes in as humble a form as the search for molluscs, termites, edible grubs, roots, fruit and cliff-scaling for honey- combs. There is no cultivation or domestication of animals except the keeping of dogs, which were already the familiars of mesolithic hunts- men. Dependent, to keep alive, on the seasonal shifts of their animal and vegetable prey, they are of no fixed abode. Their social unit, shelter- ing in an igloo or a but of leaves or skins, is the family. Some are so simple that, though they can keep a fire alight, they cannot kindle it. The taints of sophistication are slight and few. Here and there an iron arrowhead, obtained by barter, may replace the usual chipped stone; the Pygmies know how to buy iron and work it, but they are unable to smelt. The Semang have borrowed the blowpipe. (Perhaps the most un- sullied of all were the Kalang of Java, 'the most ape-like of men'; but they have gone the way of the Tasmanians.)

As in the cave-paintings, the search for food dominates all. Pictures of the quarry and a simulacrum of its chase and capture, make suc- cess more likely : a pantomime involving dancing, shouts, cries and, in time, song; at first, perhaps, on the evidence of some groups, songs emancipated from any need for meaning. For instance, when two of the crew of HMS Beagle landed in Tierra del Fuego, the Yamana greeted them by seizing their hands and forcing them to jump up and down with them, a few inches a skip, singing, joyfully and interminably,

Ha ma la ha ma la ha ma la ha ma la 0 la la la la la la la la.

One can see how, once started, it might be difficult to stop; and the women still dance to the words:

ma-las-ta xai-na-sa ma-las-ta xai-na-ta.

which, repeated ad infinitum, are quite unbur- dened by sense. It remains their only kind of singing. Before dispelling a curse, a xon, or medicine-Man of the Selk'nam, intones for a long time wubwubwubwubwubwub; another xon, summoning a spirit, improvises with /o/o/o/o . . . hoiyoiyoiyoi . . yeiyeiyeiyei. Though mean- ingless, these rhythmic cries with their cumulative iteration express a mood for the listeners as clearly as willow-waly or derry-derry-down in more sophisticated verse; or, for that matter, tararaboomdeeay and vododeeodo. Perhaps we may discern, at the other end of the poetical scale, a survival of the same need for spirited but, in the logical-positive sense, only partly meaningful utterance in T. S. Eliot's words (which, indeed, seem obscurely apposite to the entire theme we are discussing):

Under the bim Under the barn

Under the bamboo tree.

Primitive song may have begun like this and the poor Fuegians, almost extinct now, have not moved on. But it is not so with the other groups. Articulacy, the yoking of sound to meaning, and its elaboration have been at work for a very long time. The author locates its stimuli and traces its development from pure sound to actual statement, on to repetition, parallelism and varia- tion and a mixture of both, to alliteration, inter- mittent and internal rhyme—both of them un- planned, but eagerly exploited when they crop up—to planning metre to fit music, the skilled use of onomatopeia, the emergence of the refrain and the marshalling into stanzas or couplets. A single verse of a long hunting song of the Pygmies, a solo which the rest of the company clinches with a refrain, carries us a long way from Cape Horn : On the weeping forest, under the wing of the evening, The night, all black, has gone to rest happy; In the sky the stars have fled trembling, Fireflies which shine vaguely and put out their lights; On high the moon is dark, its white light is put out.

The spirits are wandering.

Elephant-hunter, take up your bow! Elephant-hunter, take up your bow!

During his analysis of the composition, per- formance and method of primitive singers, and his scrutiny of their interpretation of nature and the human cycle, of imagination and myth and symbol, the author conducts us straight into their lives. It is an enthralling journey. We grasp the paramount status of the chase and of the super- natural apparatus that surrounds it, the evolu- tion of gods, spirits, ghosts, demons, ancestors and totems, the .velleities of religion, the often interchangeable roles of the shaman, the medi- cine-man, the singer, the xon. Attitudes to birth, childhood, puberty, nubility, marriage, old age and death run on strikingly similar lines among these groups and give rise to songs which can readily be compared. We know that there have been less backward societies which have failed to put two and two together in the cases of coition and birth, old age and death (e.g., the Caribs 300 years ago).. These primitives, how- ever, all seem abreast of these interdependences. Some of their love-songs, of which there are not a lot, are deeply touching and their dirges speak a language we can all understand.

Prayer for help in their various undertakings- frightened, cajoling, imperative, comminatory —usurps a large part of their repertoire; magic, incantation and exorcism scarcely less. The supernatural world is so real, familiar and omni- present, and so large a part in their lives is played by animals, birds, fishes, insects, trees, flowers, rivers and mountains that all these natural and supernatural elements mingle in song on equal and unquestioned terms with human beings. Sometimes they change places. Anthropo- morphosis infects animals, humans become zoomorphic. Shamans tell in song how they have ravened as tigers and plunged as cormorants. Like Excalibur and Durandal in European myths, weapons assume names and personalities.

But rather surprisingly, heroic poetry is rarer. Primitive peoples have all been involved in con- Picts over game and epic hunts have stuck in their memories and their songs; but avoidance of trouble, a Snark-like disappearance, has been their usual stratagem at the approach of strangers; an understandable one considering the short shrift they have received at the hands of white settlers and missionaries. Telling evidence of this reflex subsists in the songs of certain Australian aborigines driven from their coast habitat generations ago by white settlement. Hundreds of miles inland now in the dry khaki interior, they still sing of the lost ocean that none of them has ever seen or will see.

Nothing, the author warns us, could be far- ther from primitive songs, or from their forms of artistic expression, than art for art's sake. Every syllable is a means to an end; they want results: food, luck, health, supernatural back- ing, pardon. Words, especially rhythmic words, are implements to bring the unintelligible into one's power, to establish small areas of com- mand in dark disorder. Even when their songs

seem pure anodynes, they are tools for main- taining hope, without which the singers despair and die.

If Sir Maurice means that the extraordinary lines quoted on every page are to be read merely as illustrative points, his warning must fall on deaf cars. (Of course he does not.) They are all of them beautiful or extremely odd, a sort of Pitt-Rivers museum in verse. It is impossible, for a start, not to pause and marvel at the curious fauna, flora, gear, scenery and dramatis personee which crowd in on every side: icefloes, apes, flying foxes, bullroarers, boomerangs, blow- pipes, opossums, wallabies, kangaroos, termites, fieldmice, garlands, monitor-lizards, porcupines, badgers, harpoons, poisoned arrows, bamboo spears, lions. giraffes. caribous, dugongs, musk oxen, polar bears, whales, centipedes, snakes, thunder, string-bark trees, tomahawks, carved antlers, igloos, cabbage palms, chameleons, un- specified gallopers, skeletons with snapping teeth (Kra! Kra!). white forest ghosts, wreaths of tanyong flowers, yams, honeycombs, blubber, rainbows, clouds, ice-holes, waterfalls, ant- eaters, talking mynahs, kestrels, head-dresses of biossom, coolibahs, billabongs, catfish, prawns, frogs, lotuses, baboons, spinifex, falling - stars, earth voles and elephants.

To bring him strength, an aboriginal woman beats her child with a bustard's wing; the Djapu of Arnhemland look on death as a wind full of maggots; ancestresses weep on far-off windy mountain tops; Kantijia, an Aranda ancestor and a god of thunder, lightning and rain, mourns under many waters; the Pygmy Khrum travels along the Milky Way 'gathering stars as women gather locusts.' The Andamanese cranes from his canoe to fling his harpoon after the twirling manatee; the white bear rushes across the ice at Orpingalik the Eskimo, innumerable degrees below zero.. .

It is hard, as the theme sweeps on, not to form favourites. The condemned Fuegians excite pity, and one feels sympathy for the aborigines in their forlorn and dusty lairs: What is that? What is the cry? Flying-foxes suspended there in the tree, comrade; and gratitude to the Semang for their tropical Arcadia; and there is something engaging about the humility and innocence, laced with cunning, of the Veddas: Ha ha ha Ha ha I am the one whom the lynx derides.

It is hard to feel the same towards the Eskimos, as reflected in their songs, in spite of their ad- vanced poetic fluency; perhaps because their twilight world transmits a shiver, perhaps be- cause the directness of their stance towards the seal, though unfaultably Stone Age in senti- ment, strikes no answering spark.

When the broth-producer was going to rush up to me, Beneath me, I could feel nothing else, and

There was the big, blubbery seal on the ice I struck smartly with my harpoon.

It is the same with the musk-ox and the caribou. These men lick their lips as they stalk through the snow. How different from the Pygmies' ap- proach to the elephant! Admittedly, one song speaks of 'the meat which walks like a hill'; but he is not only a meal. He is a god, an ancestor, the lord of the forest, a destroyer and a protec- tor. This multiple apprehension of the divine,

Worthy of more evolved religions, surely hints at a flexible cast of mind.

Perhaps 1 feel this bias because they are the only one of these groups I have met. There they

were, close to the Congo's banks in the Ubangi- Shari, stamping and turning round a fire in the dark and liana-looped forest, their primeval arms and tackle leaning against the giant boles; a troop of tiny, cheerful Pahrolithics. They clapped and sang in time to the drums and the twangling notes of graduated metal prongs pro- jecting from wooden blocks, the 'equatorial piano.' Wrinkled and benign, they were a cap- tivating community. The forest had flowed over and befriended them. There was no conflict here; in fact, they lived in the trees, and their intelli- gent little faces were free of tension. (The difference from the delving and reaping Negroes who lived on the forest's edge was compelling. They seemed to be engaged in an unequal and never-ending boxing-match with the great ar- boreal bruisers that sheltered the Pygmies; forever reeling back with thick ears and flat- tened noses; huge, groggy, baffled and sad.)

There is a chance that Pygmy dances (and per- haps Pygmy songs?) are the oldest in existence. The young Pharaoh Pepi II captured one in the twenty-fourth century BC, and prized him for dancing 'the dances of the gods.' He was taken Prisoner in Yam, south of the Sudan, on the Way to Ruanda, where they still exist. Nor, per- haps, is their war with the cranes a mere Homeric Myth: their remote kinsmen, the Bushmen, still sing of the blue-crane, and pursue it eagerly. Perhaps those dancers by the Congo . . .

There are a number of these alluring byways, and I wish there were more; but they must be resisted here. Much of Sir Maurice's task must have been exclusion. In a world of shadows, sur- mise and folk-memory he is right to seize the established data of recorded song by the scruff and then grill, screen, compare and deduce re- morselessly A softer technique, swaying to the seductions of every coincidence and historical chance-shot, would end in a fog where every- thing can be everything else, beyond which nonsense might loom. The authofs scholarly rigour and controlled intuition gives us the re- verse: unprecedented insight—has this task been attempted before?—into the birth of primeval Poetry all over the world and the sources of its inspiration; and corollary surmises which are next door to facts—and how could they be More?—about the nature and thought of our earliest ancestors. It is an impressive achieve- Ment and one of lasting importance.

But, beside the main scope and findings, many lesser details fix themselves in the brain. Are they lodged there so firmly by the thought that this peculiar poetry must be akin to the metrical murmurings which our own earliest begetters accompanied on those bone flutes dug up in France? Or because some of the singers will soon be gone as irretrievably as the archt.topteryx and the pterodactyl which cast their slow shadows across the swamps and the giant mares'-tails of Prehistory? Long after the book's argument has been absorbed into the intellectual bloodstream, Unusual syllables linger and echo in the ear, scanned in imagination by claps and the dusty thump of calloused feet, by horns and twanging Pe, rcussion; or failing this, and more austerely, delivered in the author's measured tones:

• • . For the lynx is the one who is cunning.

Haggla haggla haggla Haggla haggla Heggle heggle heggle Heggli Heggli heggli heggli Hegli n!