Nodding Off on Wedlock’s Bed

THE PORTION

By David Curzon

Published November 19, 2004, issue of November 19, 2004.
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This week’s portion contains Jacob’s dream and many other passages that have given rise to midrashim. One of these passages is Genesis 30:1:

And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and she said unto Jacob: ‘Give me children or else I die.’

Robert Burns (1759-1796) was inspired by this verse to elaborate on the conversation between Rachel and Jacob, and produced a midrashic poem, “The Patriarch,” to record his inspiration in 18th-century Scottish. The poem begins by describing the setting of the biblical incident:

As honest Jacob on a night,Wi’ his beloved beauty,Was duly laid on wedlock’s bed,And noddin’ at his duty:

The word “nodding” is particularly apt, conveying as it does both the physical action involved and an assessment of its quality.

The Oxford edition of Burns’s “Poems and Songs” places “The Patriarch” in a final section, under the heading, “Undated Poems and Dubia.” The Faber selection of Burns, on the other hand, annotates it “November 1786.” In Burns’s collection of “bawdy folksongs, ancient and modern,” titled “The Merry Muses of Caledonia” and published around 1800, the poem appears prefaced (in a modern edition) by a note from the 18th century that says:

The following is certainly the production of one of those licentious, ungodly (too- much-abounding in this our day) wretches who take it as a compliment to be called wicked, providing you allow them to be witty.

This sounds very much like a description Burns might have written of himself. But I digress.

“How lang,” she says, “ye fumblin’ wretch,Will ye be f—g at it?My eldest wean might die of age,Before that ye could get it.”

(The dash is in all editions I own. The third and fourth lines could be rendered into modern English as: My oldest child might expire of senescence before you could engender it.)

Rachel, having given vent to her frustration with an irrational outburst, continues with cold-blooded description:

“Ye pegh and grane, and groazle there,And mak an unco splutter,And I maun ly and thole you here,And fient a hair the better.”

(In English paraphrase, which probably conveys as little of the feeling as English paraphrases of analogous descriptions in Yiddish, “I must lie here and endure your puffing and groaning and grunting and uncouth spluttering, and fient a hair the better.” Burns had feminist inclinations.)

Then he, in wrath, put up his graith,“The deevil’s in the hizzie!I mowe you as I mowe the lave,And night and day I’m bisy.

(Although the Oxford and other editions give us “m—w” for the key verb in this stanza, I am following here the Faber edition, which spells it out. “The lave” means “the rest of them,” viz. Leah, Zilpah and Bilhah. As Burns understands, not without sympathy, Jacob was busy.)

The Patriarch, having established his credentials, responds to Rachel’s complaints by reminding her of the facts of the case:

“I’ve bairned the servant gypsies baith,For bye your titty Leah; [sister]Ye barren jad, ye put me mad,What mair can I do wi you.“There’s ne’er a mowe I’ve gi’en the lave,But ye ha’e got a dizzen;And d—n’d a ane ye’se get again,Although your c—t should gizzen.”

(In Burns’s understanding of the biblical text, on the evidence of these stanzas, the Patriarch Jacob was not a proto-feminist.)

Then Rachel calm, as ony lamb,She claps him on the waulies;Quo’ she, “ne’er fash a woman’s clash,In trowth ye mowe me braulies.”

(Rachel, as many a woman before and since, tells a white lie for the sake of The Relationship.)

“My dear ’tis true, for mony a mowe,I’m your ungratefu’ debtor,But ance again, I dinna ken,We’ll aiblens happen better.”

(Rachel, perhaps repenting of her white lie, or just trying not to stray too far from the hard truth, introduces the difficult term, “aiblens,” which means, and I blush when I think of her lack of faith in Jacob’s abilities, maybe.)

Then honest man! wi’ little wark,

He soon forgat his ire;

The patriarch, he coost the sark,

And up and till’t like fire.

(After he has Jacob cast off his shirt and get to work, Burns introduces a different verb metaphor than the one used in the previous stanzas for the dominant action of the poem, followed by a simile that doesn’t mix well with the verb, but this, in my opinion, does not really cause the attentive reader more than momentary confusion.)

As an old manuscript, presumably also written by Burns, put it: “Be it known, that … We have discovered a certain nefarious, abominable and wicked Song or Ballad, a copy whereof We have here inclosed [.] … GOD SAVE THE BARD.”

David Curzon is a contributing editor to the Forward.






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