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The Turmoil In Scotland, Expressed By Its Poets


Been an awful lot of punditry in speeches over the past few weeks in the U.K. as the Scottish independence referendum has unfolded - victory speeches, campaign speeches, concession speeches, resignation speeches. As they say in Scotland, oy, enough. Today we give the microphone to Scotland's poets. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from Edinburgh.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Exactly seven centuries ago, the English and Scottish armies fought the Battle of Bannockburn. It was a turning point in the first war of Scottish independence. The massive English army brought along a poet named Robert Baston to write a work celebrating the great English triumph.

But the outnumbered Scottish army defeated the English. Scotland captured the poet who wrote a work celebrating the unexpected triumph of Scotland. Exactly 700 years later, Professor Robert Crawford of the University of Saint Andrews recites the poem in the original Latin.

ROBERT CRAWFORD: (Latin spoken).

What that means is, as translated in the 21st-century by the Scottish poet Edward Morgan, what snatching and catching, what bruising and bristling, what grief, what war horns and warnings, what winding and worrying. No relief. It's really a poem of carnage.

SHAPIRO: And also a poem of Scottish nationalism. Professor Crawford is author of a book called "Bannockburns: Scottish Independence And The Literary Imagination." He says Scotland has a long, proud history of poets celebrating the idea of independence from England. There are also some Scottish poets who've celebrated the United Kingdom.

CRAWFORD: In the 18th century, there were many - the song "Rule, Britannia," for instance, which champions the idea of the United Kingdom, was written by a Scottish poet.

SHAPIRO: A man named James Thomson.


UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Rule, Britannia. Britannia rule the waves. Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.

SHAPIRO: Scotland has deep ties to its poets. One of the country's most important national celebrations is Burns Night, honoring the poet Robert Burns. Steps from the Scottish parliament, Edinburgh has a Scottish Poetry Library. Robyn Marsack is the director. She says the library's often asked to provide poems for weddings and funerals.

ROBYN MARSACK: Significant occasions require and heightened emotion require a language that's on the whole more formal and more memorable than our everyday conversation.

SHAPIRO: And she says this week's vote on Scottish independence is such an occasion - a moment that requires more eloquence than the words we speak every day. She reaches for a very short poem by an early 20th-century Scottish poet named Hugh MacDiarmid called "The Little White Rose."

MARSACK: (Reading) The rose of all the world is not for me. I want for my part only the little white rose of Scotland that smells sharp and sweet and breaks the heart.

SHAPIRO: I feel like the question I'm supposed to ask is, and what does that tell us about the moment we're in? But it speaks so directly to the moment we're in, I feel foolish even asking the question.

MARSACK: I think so. I mean, I think a lot of people's hearts were broken today. But that there's also a feeling that something has been unleashed that can't be held back now. It's out there.

SHAPIRO: Of course, poets are still living and working and writing. Just a few weeks ago, Edinburgh's poet laureate Christine de Luca wrote a piece called "The Morning After: Scotland, 19th of September, 2014." When she wrote it, she did not know what the outcome of the independence vote would be. It begins (reading) let none wake despondent. Here she is reading one of the stanzas.

CHRISTINE DE LUCA: (Reading) It's those unseen things that bind us, not flag or battle-weary turn or tartan. There are dragons to slay whatever happens - poverty, false pride, snobbery, sectarian schisms still hovering. But there's nothing broken that's not repairable.

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Edinburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.