U Views Comp. Lit. Reading Freedom: Echo, Pomo, Eco-Criticism

Len Findlay


In this short paper, I try to engage with two main senses of the expression, “Reading Freedom”: first, the freedom to read; and second, the reading of freedom as an imaginative construct, philosopheme, democratic value, political poetics and ecological imperative. I will pursue this two-fold emphasis on freedom-to and freedom-as via the isolation and blending of “echo” and “pomo,” terms chosen to invoke the unflinchingly phonocentric comparativist work of Ted Chamberlin and Linda Hutcheon’s expansionary but anti-imperialist textualism as it plays out in irony, reflexivity, performativity and historiographic meta-nationalism … and, of course, vice versa because Ted and Linda are equally committed to textual bodies and embodied voices, communities of production as well as communities of interpretation, and therefore to poetics, politics and reading freedom. Indeed, their distinctiveness derives from a shared sense of what reading comparatively can and should do.

In pursuing this line into the remarkable and ongoing accomplishments of two fine scholars and wonderful friends, I will inevitably show myself up as closer to I Claudius than to I-Podius. But it may well be that all comparativists, no matter our maturity or techno-savvy, indeed all of us committed to this discipline, may in important senses still be in Weimar with Goethe, pondering the qualities and consequences of World Literature as elite and demotic expressions of contiguous nationhood and the globalizing bourgeoisie, and as expressive agents of conciliation or assimilation, Goethe’s Ausgleichsprozess or Nazi Gleichschaltung. Speaking of the latter, we may still be in Istanbul with Auerbach too, remembering and writing in the face of new menaces and familiar disfigurements of the human, looking to multilingual curators of mimesis and figura to contest and survive the singularities and instrumentalities of this hour, the historical shadows and abysses that attend even the most charismatic affirmation that Yes we can. Whatever the aptness of those iconic comp. lit. references I’ve just made, of one thing at least I am sure: we polyglot and astute Canadian exegetes are still semi-literate apprentices or willful philistines before the demiurgy and the dramaturgy of treaty federalism, despite the fact that Canada remains in indelible and amazingly generous ways Indian, Inuit and Métis country, as surely as Ojibwa waters – otherwise known as Taddle Creek – once ran under the Philosopher’s Walk at the University of Toronto and may do again one day. Meanwhile, in ‘our’ multi-lingual, multilateral Canada, the task for comparative literature is to nourish its canonical Eurocentric core while seeking an embrace with its internal and external peripheries, the ones it has inherited and the ones it has created, their shifting contents and fluctuating energies, not least because that double gesture of caring and consensuality requires the constant refiguring of the core-periphery distinction itself, a distinction in need of robust contextualising in relation to our incomparable planet earth – to the earth experienced as our home and, hence, as archive and originator of innumerable glyphs and echoes, spoors and rumours, including but by no means limited to those of humans.  

But is freedom readable at all these days in any way not authorized by free-market ideology and the toxic residues of Bush doctrine currently being reinvigorated in Harperland? Here is one such reading of freedom by an accomplished comparativist who read modern languages at Cambridge, fought in the Italian campaign in the Second World War with the 51st Highland division and the partisans of the Bandiera Rossa and was the first translator of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks into English. The comparativist in question is Hamish Henderson, and he also, and not at all coincidentally, founded the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, proudly carrying the banner of ‘the folk’ along the patrician corridors of the academy. The dissident example I adduce is a song called “The Freedom come-All-Ye,” with Henderson’s lyrics set to the pipe tune, The Bloody Fields of Flanders:


The Freedom Come-All-Ye

Roch the wind in the clear day’s dawin

Blaws the cloods heelster-gowdie ow’r the bay,

But there’s mair nor a roch wind blawin

Through the great glen o’ the warld the day.

It’s a thocht that will gar oor rottans

—A’ they rogues that gang gallus, fresh and gay—

Tak the road, and seek ither loanins

For their ill ploys, tae sport and play.


Nae mair will the bonnie callants

Mairch tae war when oor braggarts crousely craw,

Nor wee weans frae pit-heid and clachan

Mourn the ships sailin’ doon the Broomielaw.

Broken faimlies in lands we’ve herriet

Will curse Scotland the Brave nae mair, nae mair;

Black and white, ane til ither mairriet,

Make the vile barracks o’their maisters bare.


So come all ye at hame wi’ Freedom,

Never heed what the hoodies croak for doom.

In your hoose a’ the bairns o’ Adam

Can find breid, barley-bree and painted room.

When Maclean meet’s wi’s freens in Springburn

A’ the roses and geans will turn to bloom,

And a black boy frae yont Nyanga

Dings the fell gallows o’ the burghers doon.


Echo and pomo alike can have a field day with this work, but interpretation proves to be an unfinishable business because it is our business, I’m glad to say. From its title onwards, this is a self-identifying song of mobilization, but no mere “mob” is being invoked or provoked here, though capitalism’s mobsters are singled out as rodents kitted out, as in financial districts across the world today, kitted out for swagger, pleasure and romanticized rapacity. Just as the pipe tune Henderson first heard on the beach at Anzio is a forward echo from Bonnie Glenshee and the infinitely regressing acoustic memory of his native Perthshire, so the vocality of justice blows through the singer’s personal pipes as he invokes the blustery bay of the Holy Loch and The Great Rift Valley in Africa, that “great glen” down whose length Harold Macmillan had just given that “wind of change” speech that sent the Boer “burghers” into apartheid denial, while de Beers executives contemplated capital flight and personal flight, much of British Imperial Africa went into seriously decolonizing mode, and Canada’s GG John Buchan’s beloved Scottish Unionist Party faced extinction. Now, if you’re reeling a bit at this barrage of allusions, this referential flood, relax … and welcome to echo and pomo! As I speak, as you reel and as the freedom song still echoes in multiple renditions across the world, at this very moment, too, all around us reel shadows of the indignant desert birds while market fundamentalism bids fair to bite the dust; moreover, it’s OK to reel when dealing with a Scottish internationalist text, and it’s even permissible to ask, like a Glasgow E.P.Thomson, “Far’s yer Louis Althusser noo?”

Still on the subject of airs and echoes that make you reel, with the pun on real intended, note that Henderson’s unsettling breeze changes to a subaltern’s curse in his second stanza and then to the croak of carrion crows in the third, all held together by the canny orality and textuality of a song written for an anti-nuclear March on the American Polaris submarine base at the mouth of the River Clyde, a river that is itself an overdetermined artery of mixed repute, linked to immigration and empire, Scottish workmanship and the Black Atlantic, Red Clydeside and capitulation to a new American empire and its need for bases across the world to assert the claims of intercontinental ballistics. The song echoes and re-echoes as a marching song, a memorable protest song that closes with a small but symbolically growing chorus of resolve. Its poetics require freedom of assembly and a sense of common purpose, while its textuality permits reprinting and performance wherever friends of a radical sort come together – even ones who formally style themselves as les amis du peuple.

This apparently unassuming song is a trenchant critique of modernity and of distorted versions of postmodernity. Moreover, the song’s effectiveness is not diminished but amplified by its allusive or intertextual links to the wind of freedom in Heine’s preface to Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen (1844), a work as beloved by Hamish Henderson as by Marx and Engels, or the reclaiming of the raven’s refrain of “Nevermore” from Poe’s most famous poem, the repetition of “Nae mair ... nae mair, nae mair” resituating enigma as political prophecy, personal quandary becoming a broader abolitionist purpose. This resolute reinflection is further strengthened by echoes of Blake’s “Little Black Boy” in the African man from Nyanga, a symbolic figure still infantilized within southern Africa’s plantation and mining economies but defiant and vengeful in the year of the Sharpeville massacre. In addition, the “vile barracks” gesture towards the Moncado Barracks unsuccessfully stormed in a cautionary prelude to the Cuban Revolution, while the gallows recoups the only-too-recent lynchings in the American South so as to insist (pace Foucault) on the persistence of public execution, state-sponsored and not in the punishment and intimidation of subject peoples. Climactically, the possessive construction in the song’s final line ties the bourgeois allegiance to private property to ownership of the paramilitary instruments of racial oppression. Resident white property owners and off-shore investors will soon be seeking the military – mercenary assistance of Executive Outcomes. Thus does a petit chanson raise the possibility of a nouveau récit that would be all the better for being grander – but only so long as it deals effectively with greed, racism, low-tech and high-tech linguistic and cognitive imperialism, resisting them through love, solidarity, self-determination and the abolition of capital punishment and nuclear weapons. And this burgeoning justice agenda is cast in the mixed, deliberately confused tenses and temporalities of poetic license and political desire.

There is an interplay of rooted and migratory locality here, a process facilitated by the contrast between generic masculinities – rogues, callants, the Judaeo-Christian, quasi-universal Adam, and the collectivity behind the black boy and before the auditors of this come-all-ye – and the less accessible reference in the last stanza to Maclean. The latter refers to John Maclean who was known as the “fighting dominie,” the orator and adult educator who was adopted in 1918 as Honorary President of the Petrograd Soviet and appointed Social Consul in Glasgow by Chicherin, Trotsky’s successor as Commissar for Foreign Affairs. In a unique tribute in the Scottish context to the power of vox populi, Maclean was released from imprisonment for sedition by popular demand and made a triumphant progress from Peterhead Prison back to Glasgow. The anachronous naming of Maclean here reminds Scots of their ignorance of their own history, even though in overwhelming numbers they can recite by heart the nauseating lyrics of “Scotland the Brave” (composed by journalist Cliff Hanley c. 1950). But this very specific naming also and more enablingly reminds non-Scots that they can substitute for Maclean and “his freens in Springburn” comparable dissidents from the margins of their own official histories no matter where those histories sit in First World hierarchies of what really mattered in the past and what really matters now.

As oral and textual address, poetic power aligns itself with redress. And the speech of the people of the territory, in its parochial brogue and canny intertextuality, creates an excess, a “thocht” with clout and consequences for the British Empire and the world. The term “hame” is both emphatically territorial and already global, thanks to empire’s unprecedented reach. This is what marginality can do for you – or to you – within or between or across languages via the scandalous immediacy and elusiveness of echo, whose iterations may diminish acoustically whilst strengthening internally; and also via the incurable polysemia of texts which endlessly disappoint and frustrate those in search of enduring orthodoxies or ready alibis or even the one convenient Bushian meaning of “freedom itself.” This is how languages and literatures, whether sung or spoken or read, enable the logic of the supplement to join with the logic of the implement to work for just readings and reading for justice. And this is one of the reasons why comp. lit. matters.    

What I’ve said so far about “The Freedom Come-All-Ye,” densely incomplete and comparativist in several registers as it is, can and should include ecology, the site of the great translation where culture translates nature into what it thinks are its own terms. Henderson’s song takes its cue from a wind whose activity is at first fiercely, dialectically localized by the compound epithet, “heelster-gowdie.” However, the symbolic overtones of dawn facilitate a shift from the movement of air to the movement of consciousness and its ability to achieve change, a transformation that requires renunciation of Scotland’s role as the empire’s military muscle but also as its economic brains. The ongoing challenge of the latter has recently been clarified, yet again, by yet another of Scotland’s cosmopolitan own, the redoubtable Niall Ferguson who opines in The Ascent of Money, one of his books (also a blockbuster TV series): “Planet Finance is beginning to dwarf Planet Earth. And Planet Finance seems to spin faster too” (4). Unlike Ferguson, I would take “spin” here to denote not only the deterritorializing speed of fast capital in all its cyber-insouciance, but also the insuperably Anglophone spinning of commentary and justification whose rapidity, pervasiveness and hegemonic force threaten to annihilate memory and trivialize history, and to manage comparisons so as to reinscribe an economic disorder that may use its casino and crony strains to doom us all, with the poor and vulnerableof course leading the way, and the planet kicking in increasingly too in all those localities and geo-systems where it has had enough.

In face of this brew of arrogance and injustice one of the things we need is a public humanities surge that is historical, anticolonial, multilingual and green. And, at the heart of this surge, I would mobilize comparative literature as I have tried to prescribe and practice it here: as an invaluable translator of national and cross-cultural understandings of the nature / culture nexus, and those linguistic and literary mediations of the natural world that demonstrate there’s no such thing as a stupid language and that every case of “linguicide” represents a catastrophic loss to knowledge and to the powers of responsible stewardship.  

Poetic composition of place, for example, helps create conditions for “annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade” as Andrew Marvell said – and that’s a thought that might well help keep at bay those forms of annihilation to which Hamish Henderson refers. So, as humanists, comparativists and engaged citizens, we need to be seen and heard in the civic and the cyber-agora, insisting ‘Come back to us our languages; come back to us also those language that are not ours but are still someone’s mother tongue.’ The stellar careers of Linda Hutcheon and Ted Chamberlin form a distinctively Canadian story of rigour and redress, eminence and openness, celebrating the act of reading and the duties and pleasures of the text but understanding textuality and performativity broadly and subtly enough to connect interpretative freedoms to questions of cultural and political and now ecological justice. So let’s follow their examples as best we can, in our own tongues and idioms, from our own vantages, but sharing a common commitment to the freedom to read and the need to endlessly read and re-read freedom.


So come all ye at hame wi’freedom;

Never heed what the hoodies croak for doom;

In learnin’s hoose a’ the bairns o’Adam

Will find bried, barley bree, n’ reading room.

When Shawn Atleo meets wi’ his freens at spring run,

And wild rose and wolf willow gang tae bloom,

And Alanis filming yont Oka

Dings the white fictions o’ the burghers doon.  


Works Cited


Ferguson, Niall. The Ascent of Money. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.




L. M. Findlay, M.A. D.Phil. D.Litt. F.R.S.C. is Professor of English and Director, Humanities Research Unit / Department of English at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. 



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