Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Siege of Belgrade

After naming this blog, many different examples of abecedaria keep popping into my head. Here is one bittersweet memory which attests to the power of the alphabet as an index and anchor for the wandering mind.

When I was 12 years old I helped to care for my grandfather who was showing the first symptoms of alzheimer's. He loved to sing old songs of dubious origin and, as is so common for our elders, recite poetry. Since even at that age I loved linguistic curiosities I wrote down one particular poem, the only one that he could still recite in its entirety.

It was called The Siege of Belgrade. He recited it to me line by line and I faithfully recorded it on a page of lined paper, which I have long since lost.
The Siege of Belgrade

An Austrian army, awfully arrayed,
Boldly by
battery besieged Belgrade.
Cossack commanders cannonading come,
Dealing destruction's devastating doom.
Every endeavor engineers essay,
For fame, for fortune fighting - furious fray!
Generals 'gainst generals grapple - gracious God!
How honors Heaven heroic hardihood!
Infuriate, indiscrminate in ill,
Kindred kill kinsmen, kinsmen kindred kill.
Labor low levels longest, lofiest lines;
Men march 'mid mounds, 'mid moles, ' mid murderous mines;
Now noxious, noisey numbers nothing, naught
Of outward obstacles, opposing ought;
Poor patriots, partly purchased, partly pressed,
Quite quaking, quickly "Quarter! Quarter!" quest.
Reason returns, religious right redounds,
Suwarrow stops such sanguinary sounds.
Truce to thee, Turkey! Triumph to thy train,
Unwise, unjust, unmerciful Ukraine!
Vanish vain victory! vanish, victory vain!
Why wish we warfare? Wherefore welcome were
Xerxes, Ximenes, Xanthus, Xavier?
Yield, yield, ye youths! ye yeomen, yield your yell!
Zeus', Zarpater's, Zoroaster's zeal,
Attracting all, arms against acts appeal!

by Alaric Alexander Watts (1797 - 1864)

When I made a mental comparison with this copy of the poem I found only two small differences. However, the line for J is omitted. Possibly it was permissible at the time to say the word God in a poem but perhaps not the name Jesus. If anyone knows the lost line I would be interested to hear it.

Could it be that the alphabet, with any tightly attached information, however trivial, is often one of the last memories of the alzheimer's victim? I am glad to say that it did provide a happy afternoon of communion for my grandfather and me.

I remember also this week my Greek teacher, Elizabeth Wilson, who has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the rhyme, I don't think that there is a missing line for "J". The lack of "J" is more likely to be a relic from the time when "I" and "J" were not considered to be separate letters. My 1785 edition of Thomas Dyche's wonderful "A Guide to the English Tongue" (first published 1709) gives three rather pedantic examples of alphabet poems, the one quoted below omits "I" and "X" (I guess "Xerxes", "Ximenes", "Xanthus", "Xavier" and the like did not fit in with the subject matter of the poem), and the other two omit both "J" and "U". Dyche himself vigourously asserted the distinctiveness of "I", "J", "U" and "V" as independent letters, but old habits die hard, and so even in the early 19th-century Watts may not have considered "J" to be a proper letter in its own right.

All Letters even at Head and Feet must stand.
Bear light your Pen, and keep a steady hand.
Carefully mind to mend in ev'ry Line.
Down Strokes are black, but upward Strokes are fine.
Enlarge your Writing, if it be too small.
Full in Proportion make your letters all.
Game not in School-Time, when you ought to write.
Hold in your Elbow; sit fair to the Light.
Join all your Letters by a fine Hair-Stroke.
Keep free from Blots your Piece and Writing-Book.
Learn the Command of Hand by frequent Use.
Much Practice doth to Penmanship conduce.
Never deny the lower Boys Assistance.
Observe from Word to Word an equal Distance.
Provide yourself of all Things necessary.
Quarrel not in the School, tho' others dare ye.
Rule your Lines straight, and make them very fine.
Set Stems of Letters fair above the Line.
The Tops above the Stems, the Tails below.
Use Pounce to Paper, if the Ink go thro'.
View well your Piece; compare how much you've mended.
Wipe clean your Pen, when all your Task is ended.
Your Spelling mind. Write each Word true and well.
Zealously strive your Fellows to excel.

3:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you. I knew J was late and commented on it here


but I didn't think of it having less status in the 19th century. Makes sense though.

However, I had also seen this copy of the poem
but the notes do add that j was probably not original.


12:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Bartleby's gives this as an original line.

"Just Jesus, instant innocence instill!"


9:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not familiar with Watt's poem, but the triple rhymes on I/J/K and T/U/V seem mighty suspicious, and may indicate that the "J" and "U" lines were later additions (the "J" line is especially suspicious as it aliterates on both "J" and "I"). If these lines are in fact authorial, then this special treatment of the "J" and "U" is very interesting.

Not that I don't believe everything on the internet, but I think we need to look at the "original" poem to get to the bottom of this.

2:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't believe it simply because it was on the internet but because of this added note on the Bartleby page.

"These lines having been incorrectly printed in a London publication, we have been favoured by the author with an authentic copy of them.—Wheeler’s Magazine, vol. i. p. 244. (Winchester, England, 1828.)"

It implies that this copy with the J line was directly from the author.


10:53 AM  
Blogger language said...

A terrible poem, but quite a feat! Incidentally, if anyone's wondering about "Suwarrow," it's an old anglicized form of Suvorov, the name of a famous Russian general who did not (as far as I know) besiege Belgrade but whose siege of Izmail (in Bessarabia, now Ukraine) Byron describes in Canto 7 of Don Juan (which is pronounced to rhyme with "true one"):

A town which did a famous siege endure,
And was beleaguer'd both by land and water
By Souvaroff, or Anglice Suwarrow,
Who loved blood as an alderman loves marrow.

Byron has some fun with Russian names:

The Russians now were ready to attack:
But oh, ye goddesses of war and glory!
How shall I spell the name of each Cossacque
Who were immortal, could one tell their story?
Alas! what to their memory can lack?
Achilles' self was not more grim and gory
Than thousands of this new and polish'd nation,
Whose names want nothing but - pronunciation.

Still I 'll record a few, if but to increase
Our euphony: there was Strongenoff, and Strokonoff,
Meknop, Serge Lwow, Arsniew of modern Greece,
And Tschitsshakoff, and Roguenoff, and Chokenoff,
And others of twelve consonants apiece;
And more might be found out, if I could poke enough
Into gazettes; but Fame (capricious strumpet),
It seems, has got an ear as well as trumpet,

And cannot tune those discords of narration,
Which may be names at Moscow, into rhyme;
Yet there were several worth commemoration,
As e'er was virgin of a nuptial chime;
Soft words, too, fitted for the peroration
Of Londonderry drawling against time,
Ending in 'ischskin,' 'ousckin,' 'iffskchy,' 'ouski:
Of whom we can insert but Rousamouski,

Scherematoff and Chrematoff, Koklophti,
Koclobski, Kourakin, and Mouskin Pouskin...

9:39 AM  

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