Blame Laurence Sterne …
My uncle Toby would never offer to answer this by any other kind of argument, than that of whistling half a dozen bars of Lillabullero.—–You must know it was the usual channel thro’ which his passions got vent, when anything shocked or surprised him;—-but especially when any thing, which he deem’d very absurd, was offer’d.
This from Chapter XXI of the Vol.I The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman written by Laurence Sterne and first published in 1760. The text continues:
As not one of our logical writers, nor any of the commentators upon them, that I remember, have thought proper to give a name to this particular species of argument,—I here take the liberty to do it myself [….]
Sterne then lists some of the more traditional species (ad Verecundiam – out of modesty or reverence for authority; ex Absurdo – dismissal by demonstrating the absurdity of an argument’s consequences; ex Fortiori – offering more conclusive proof than had hitherto been offered) and justifies his suggested amendments to what he calls “the TREASURY of the Ars Logica“:
I do therefore, by these presents, strictly order and command, That it be known and distinguished by the name and title of Argumentum Fistulatorium, and no other;—and that it rank hereafter with the Argumentum Baculinum, and the Argumentum ad Crumenam, and forever herafter be treated of in the same chapter.
Melvyn New’s apparatus of notes to the 1997 Penguin Classics edition – and an apparatus of notes was essential for me – have the first as “Argument of one who plays upon the pipe, ie in this instance, one who whistles.” New then adds: “This and the remainder of the terms are not traditional.” No shit, Sherlock – one is tempted to respond. The second argument is that of “the stick i.e. violence”, the third that “directed to the purse […] of one’s opponent”. Sterne continues relentlessly and with relish:
As for the the Argumentum Tripodium, which is never used but by the woman against the man; —and the Argumentum ad Rem, which contrariwise, is made use of by the man only against the woman […] let them […] be treated of in a place by themselves.
Which I’m not sure they ever are. New’s aforementioned notes describe these last two as “Argument addressed to the third leg” – hands up all who flashed ‘Jake the Peg’ – and “the thing”. “We are clearly,” says New, “in the realm of Shandean bawdy.” Yes, you did read that right; this was published in 1759 and is an undisputed Classic of English Literature. Maybe you can see already how this book can enchant and entertain.
It’s a postmodern novel written before modernism came into being, though scholars of the period will of course vehemently deny it is any such thing. It’s an ocean of a novel to swim in, and I daresay some will drown. In spite of the title, the book gives us very little of the life, and nothing of the opinions of the eponymous hero, who gets born only in Vol. IV. There are all sorts of things going on: a black page when Yorick dies, squiggly graphs to show the narrative path so far, blank pages for a chapter torn out, and, later, another upon which the reader is invited to inscribe his own description of a certain woman’s beauty. “All this is a serious reminder of the difference between literature and life,” write Anna Maria Battista and/or Giovanna Lauro in the preface to ‘Music in Tristram Shandy’, their contribution to a major web resource including the full text of the book,
“but it is first funny. Sterne belonged to an age which was increasingly tempted to look upon literature as an ultimate good, and he was writing in a form -the novel- which quite rightly thought that it was fitted to accomplish literary tasks in some ways more profound, more true and more complete than any literature that preceded it. The innovation and the value of Tristram Shandy, and it is a comically artistic value as well as a moral one, are that it reminds us what novelists may insist that we utterly forget […] Of course all this has a broadly comic effect – it allows Sterne to show off outrageously, and it makes his novel delightfully encyclopaedic […] Sterne’s greatness is not simply that he wrote a novel about writing a novel; his triumph is due to the fact that he gave as much of his genius to his invented world as to the theme of inventing it”
But I just love the idea of Uncle Toby and his habit of whistling Lillabullero whenever something particularly tries his temper or understanding, even though this response is hardly mine a lot of the time (obviously!) and I’m more on the side of Walter Shandy – Tristram’s father – in the debates (“True philosophy — but there is no treating the subject whilst my uncle is whistling Lillabullero“ – Vol.9 Ch17) , but then, as already noted, there isn’t actually much of the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy in the book either.
Then there’s the Tristrapoedia, a book which Tristram’s dad is writing for his son’s edification, a book for which the prologema takes up so much time that the content can never actually catch let alone keep up. I take this as being not a million miles away in relevance from the Kinks enterprise of mine own exhibited elsewhere on this site (so long as Ray keeps on writing). Anyway, here another example of Toby’s powers of reasoning:
‘Tis a pious account, cried my father, but not philosophical, — there is more religion in it than sound science. ‘Twas no inconsistent part of my uncle Toby’s character, —- that he feared God, and reverenced religion. —- So the moment my father finished his remark, — my uncle Toby fell a whistling Lillabullero, with more zeal (though more out of tune) than usual. —- (Vol.3, Chapter 41)
As for the actual song, Wikipedia, using the principle spelling of ‘Lillibullero’ gives a pretty full and fascinating picture of its history and lyrical variations. (Need I spell out I am not a member of the Northern Irish Orange fraternity?) There are links at the end of the entry to various renditions of the tune; beware – it can quickly take hold as an earworm.
Or there’s this, from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon:
Or this from Na Casadaigh‘s 1691 album: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjqR7OOPNmQ
Or even the mighty Bellowhead‘s version (from their Broadside album), wherein a tale is told set in Sussex (“There was an old farmer in Sussex did dwell … And he had an old wife, she gave him hell“; the devil takes her away but hell rejects her as being beyond the pale):
After long contemplation of what to call this blog – almost as important, after all, as the choosing of a band’s name – the discovery that not only was ‘Lilliburlero’ an important part of the identity of the BBC World Service, but that the poet William Empson played a part in its selection as such was the clincher, and confirmed this enterprise – these scrawlings – for me. It was played on the BBC Home Service programme ‘Into Battle’ in 1943, and at the same time it was chosen as the theme tune for our Chinese Service by the poet Empson), before being poached by the whole World Service (then the General Overseas Service) network. The current version, arranged by David Arnold and played by a string orchestra, was introduced in 2000 .
One of my abiding memories as a student will ever be Empson’s annual poetry reading, down in the basement of the Arts Tower – still standing – of the University of Sheffield. His white mandarin beard, the wizened twinkling glee with which he chanted his Auden piss-take, ‘Waiting for the end’. And what an opening line from his ‘Homage to the British Museum‘:
There is a supreme God in the ethnological section
But what, you might ask, of the tintinnabulation? It’s always been a favourite word, ever since I first heard the Phil Ochs song ‘The bells’ and I’ve always been a sucker for bells – the Kinks’ ‘Big Black Smoke’, for instance, is a brilliant use thereof. I’ve only recently discovered that the Ochs recording was actually a musical setting of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe. My mate Neil challenges even the possibility of a humanist bellringing because of the historical ecclesiastical association. The bells may well be hung in church towers but I obviously still beg to differ.
The picture at the top of each page is from 2003 and I wish I’d had a better camera back then. It’s from deep in the arboretum at Gelli Aur (Golden Grove) near Llandeilo, in Carmarthenshire, in Welsh Wales.
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