I just got an Amazon package with some books I’ve wanted for a long time (thanks, Prentiss!), including Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems (mentioned here). I already had his Collected Poems, Bunting’s own selection, but this adds forty pages of uncollected work, including such fine poems as his little elegy for Lorine Niedecker:
To abate what swells
use ice for scalpel.
It melts in its wound
and no one can tell
what the surgeon used.
Clear lymph, no scar,
no swathe from a cheek’s bloom.
But what I’m here to discuss is the last of the “Uncollected Odes”:
Yan tan tethera pethera pimp
nothing to waste but nothing to skimp.
Lambs and gimmers and wethers and ewes
what do you want with political views?
Keep the glass in your windows clear
where nothing whatever’s bitter but beer.
Catchy first line, no? Ponder it for a while and guess what it means; then go below the fold and I’ll tell you.
It’s the numbers from one to five in the old sheep-counting sequence of north England. It’s clearly from a Celtic source closely related to Welsh, in which the numbers are un, dau, tri, pedwar, pump; this page has a collection of twenty such sequences (and if you know of others, Mr. John Whitehead of Clitheroe would like to hear from you). There’s a discussion in this Crooked Timber thread, and Harrison Birtwistle wrote an opera called ” Yan Tan Tethera.”
Dentdale is the valley of the Dent in Cumbria in northwest England, just southwest of Bunting’s native Northumbria; Brigflatts (the Quaker meeting house where Bunting is buried, to be distinguished from Briggflatts the poem, with an extra g) is at its west end, just southwest of Sedbergh (with a silent g). A gimmer (with a hard g) is ‘a ewe between the first and second shearing.’