Mind your language

Greenland and India

5 August 2017

9:00 AM

5 August 2017

9:00 AM

‘Remember what the fellow said — it’s not a bally bit of use every prospect pleasing if man is vile,’ Bertie Wooster remarked. (In this case, the man was Aunt Agatha’s second husband.) Now Bertram was quite widely, if not exactly, versed in the gems of English literature, and older readers will, like Wodehouse’s, recognise the most quotable line from Bishop Heber’s celebrated hymn, ‘From Greenland’s icy mountains’.

Language is not only vocabulary and syntax, but also shared references. Wodehouse’s joke works only if we share Bertie’s acquaintance with Heber’s lines. Heber had written them barely a century earlier, in a few minutes one night in 1819, as a hymn for his parson father to use the next morning. He was a clever man and agreeable, leaving an account of the once-a-century Mallard ritual enacted on the rooftops of All Souls College, Oxford, in 1800, but dying upon taking a bath as Bishop of Calcutta, aged 42.

So where did he find the pocket topography that opened his hymn: ‘From Greenland’s icy mountains, / From India’s coral strand’? It suddenly occurred to me that they came from The Beggar’s Opera. This had been staged 90 years earlier, in 1729, and was a smash hit. I have no evidence that Heber ever saw it; probably his Evangelical tendencies would be against that. But its songs had a life of their own, spread by ballad sheets and from mouth to ear.

It helped that many melodies in The Beggar’s Opera were already familiar. The 16th Air, a duet between Macheath and Polly, used the tune of ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’. ‘Were I laid on Greenland’s coast,’ begins Macheath, and Polly responds in the next stanza: ‘Were I sold on Indian soil.’

Of course, Greenland and India were commonplaces as cold and hot regions. Alexander Pope could think of nowhere more northerly than Greenland, apart from ‘Zembla, or the Lord knows where’. Camoëns’ now unread epic, The Lusiads, on the discovery of India, naturally had the ‘burning sun’ rise over its sea. But no pairing of Greenland and India was in 1819 more familiar than in The Beggar’s Opera. I bet that was Heber’s inspiration. If anyone knows better, let me know.

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