December 12, 2012

Bret Harte: Yet we can never agree

The California-based Golden Era was one of the main literary outlets of Bret Harte, who contributed over 100 original pieces to that journal in only a couple years. That journal had the honor of publishing Harte's first poem in dialect, "The Bailie o' Perth," which was included in the December 12, 1858 issue. Harte's dialect poems, meant to emulate the spoken vernacular of California gold miners, proved incredibly popular. His poems in this vein often held a comedic edge, as in the case of "Bailie of Perth" about a married couple who struggle to find something upon which they can agree:

Bailie o' Perth was a blithesome mon,
    And a blithesome mon was he,
And his gude wife lov'd him well and true,
    And the bailie he lov'd she;
Yet mickle or muckle the cause or kind,
    Whatever the pother be,
Be it simple sair or unco deep,
    The twain could never agree.

Syne spake the bailie with blithesome mind,
    Fair and soft spake he:
"Twal lang year hae we married been,
    Yet we can never agree.
Now, my ain sweet love, let us try for aye,
    Forever and aye to see
If for ain blest time in all our life,
    You and I can ever agree.

"Now listen to me: should it chance that ye
    Were paidlint in the lane,
Ye should meet a bonnie buxom lass,
    And a winsome laddie, twain,
Wha wad ye kiss, good dame?" he said,
    "Wha wad ye kiss?" said he;
"Wad ye kiss the bonnie buxom lass,
    Or the winsome gay laddie?"

"Hoot awa, mon! are ye ganging daft?
    Are ye ganging daft?" said she;
"Twal lang year hae we married been,
    And I have been true to ye;
Mon hae never my twa lips touched,
    Nae mon hae glinted at me."
"But wha wad ye kiss, good dame?" said he;
    "I wad kiss the lass," said she.

Out laughed the bailie with muckle glee,
    For a blithesome mon was he;
"Twal lang year hae we married been,
    And now for ainst we agree;
If ye met a lad and a buxom lass
    Down in the gowans fine,
To kiss the lass wad be your choice,
    And I ken it wad be mine!"

The humor here, of course, is that the husband gets his wife to promise she would never cheat on him, while admitting that he would cheat on her. Amid a period when literary realism was booming, all while local color pieces were circulating and showing the distinct flavor of different regions around the country, Bret Harte's realistic attempt at portraying California dialect was heavily criticized even as it became popular. Mark Twain, his associate and fellow sojourner in California, later complained that "no human being living or dead ever had experience of the dialect which he puts into his people's mouths." Harte eventually gave up on his attempts at portraying western America and moved to England.

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