“Nursing her wrath to keep it warm”

I apologise for the lack of a post, or even a message, last week. This was due to various technical difficulties. The computer now has a new hard drive, so apparently it was not Windows that was to blame.

I was planning to post this week on Agatha Christie, but recent events have reminded me of an earlier inspiration from Robert Burns, and his only significant narrative poem, “Tam O’Shanter.”

Both comic and spooky, this rollicking yarn tells of the man who stays late at the pub, and on his way home spies on a party of witches and warlocks dancing in a state of underdress in church. Made too bold by drink, Tam calls out a compliment to the youngest witch, and is chased terrifyingly all the way home. As his horse Maggie crosses running water to safety, the witch tears off her tail, and Burns draws the moral for drunkards: “Think! Ye may buy the joys o’er dear: Remember Tam O’Shanter’s mare.”

However, it’s the beginning of the poem I want to focus on, and one line in particular. Merry husbands like Tam (and himself, Burns says) sit with their friends “getting fou and unco happy”, forgetting home “where sits our sulky sullen dame, Gathering her brows like gathering storm, Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.”

My minister in the 1970s and 80s, Rev William Henney (one-time Moderator of the Church of Scotland) would quote this line with great relish: “nursing her wrath to keep it warm”, in sermons about resentment and bitterness. And he was quite right. It’s a vividly expressed and challenging satire, because that is indeed what people do. When family members are home late, or neighbours are making a racket early on a Sunday morning, or politicians spout nonsense on television, we sit and seethe – we boil – we fume – all hot metaphors.

Then, afterwards, perhaps, we boil over, and the boiling over is more scalding and damaging to the relationship because our wrath has been “kept warm.”

As I say, I do agree with Bill Henney that we should beware of this, this unhealthy pawing over and over our resentment.

But also (“on the other hand”, as I love to say), Tam O’Shanter’s wife had a point. She couldn’t express her anger – which Burns half-seriously admits was justifiable – to Tam, because he wasn’t there.

What should she have done?

She could have a) nursed her wrath; b) forgiven him, set it aside, gone to bed, and greeted him with a cheery smile in the morning; or c) – what is c)?

Sometimes criticism needs to be expressed. Over the centuries thousands of wives in particular have had to sit at home while their husbands behaved badly outside, or indeed inside, sometimes much more badly than Tam. Nowadays we don’t accept that women (or children, or employees, or tenants) should just put up with anything, and forgive without a word.

“To love your enemies doesn’t mean being a doormat” – this is often said. Often, indeed, without reflecting that doormats are very useful things, and perhaps sometimes that’s exactly what we should be. But I think we can agree that a modern spouse is entitled, sometimes even required, to complain politely about bad treatment. And if the errant spouse isn’t there, this criticism has to wait, be held back, until (s)he is.

But it’s very difficult to “hold” that criticism for the next day (or whenever) without “nursing” it – to forgive while still keeping a mental note.

So many sermons on forgiveness concentrate on forgiving people who have injured us, or those we love, and there are many moving stories of people who’ve done just that.

By God’s grace it may be possible to forgive the man who murdered or gaslighted your son or daughter. But how do you go about forgiving the man, or woman, who is abusing or betraying or torturing your son or daughter now, today; and may do so again tomorrow?

(Of course sometimes, often, you may need to call the police. But that isn’t always possible or appropriate, especially in countries where the abuser is a government official.)

This wasn’t intended originally to be a political post, it really wasn’t, but in recent days it has become political. (There is some overlap with my previous post: https://www.penelopewallace.com/boris-johnson-jacob-rees-mogg-and-certain-others/).

How does one forgive politicians for lying, for undermining the constitution and actively trying to promote anger and illwill in the country and towards the House of Commons as an institution? For doing this now?

A prayer from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:

“O God, the Father of all mankind, we beseech Thee to inspire us with such love, truth and equity, that in all our dealings one with another we may show forth our brotherhood in Thee; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Malachi Malagowther

    30th August 2019 at 6:18 pm Reply

    I am not sure what your final point was meant to be but the close apposition of Tam O’Shanter and Boris Johnston does make you think about the similarities between them. I can well imagine Mr Johnston shouting out encouragement if he saw people having a wild party in an obsolete building on a Friday night after a drinking session with his bosom buddy Nigel Farage. Fortunately these days he presumably will get a police escort to protect him from hooligans on the way home. Presumably the witch in the cutty sark was a fervent Brexiteer. If she couldn’t bring herself to even cross running water then she certainly wouldn’t want anything to do with people over the channel. Presumably she would have had to travel to France on a sieve and that may have been even more uncomfortable than some of the dinghies that illegal immigrants are currently using.

  • Penelope Wallace

    30th August 2019 at 8:08 pm Reply

    Love it, Malachi!

  • Stephen Sheridan

    2nd September 2019 at 11:44 am Reply

    Hi Penelope
    Apologies I have been off this forum for a while as my mother passed away at the start of August at the age of 96 and all my efforts have been taken up with the aftermath.

    Your post is well timed. Resentment is a feature of modern life in general aided by the anonymous aggression of social media.

    Both sides of the Brexit debate show anger and an inability to understand the motivations of the other side, often simply resorting to demonise the other side with labels. Politicians on both sides of the argument have shown mendacity and hypocrisy and when piled on the damage caused by the Blair/Brown years (illegal wars etc), so there will need to be a sea change as everyone is tired by this behaviour. There is no love lost between politicians on the apparent same side either – Boris and Cummings hate Farage and vice versa – on the Cummings side this is a matter of clear public record (Boris tends to just ignore people and not get dragged into slanging matches so much as he uses optimism as he methodology of appearing to rise above it all, so you won’t see him attach Farage directly as it brings the focus back to Farage).

    Just as the Remain side is angry about the pro-rogation manoeuvre, the Leave side went through the same feelings about May’s “Withdrawal Agreement” and her running down the clock to try to force it through.

    We must never lose sight of the fact that no matter how angry people may make us, they are still human beings and unless they committing acts of direct evil (and this where the debate comes in) then we need to treat them with respect. This has become clear to me more so after my mother’s death as she was a person of unflinching and sometimes difficult opinions, but in her last two years softened and showed much love to those around her.

  • Penelope Wallace

    2nd September 2019 at 5:41 pm Reply

    Welcome back, Stephen! I agree that the Iraq war (for which I don’t particularly blame Brown) and now the years of austerity have tainted people’s views of politicians, but surely for sheer dishonesty Boris is a new low. People are defending his decision to prorogue on the grounds that MPs are being troublesome/ignoring the people’s will etc – but that’s not the official reason he gave for doing it. So even his defenders don’t expect anyone to believe a word he says.

    • Stephen Sheridan

      2nd September 2019 at 11:46 pm Reply

      I am afraid that I do blame Brown – he had access to the same intelligence (or rather its absence) and played along with going to war in the interests of his personal power succession. I also blame him for the financial mismanagement and light touch regulation (remember him opening the Lehman Brothers offices in Canary Wharf not long before the Financial Crisis) which meant that the UK debt was blown open in the financial crisis and lead to austerity.
      As for Boris – yes of course his reasoning for the prorogation is dishonest, but is that any more dishonest than John Major’s prorogation in 1997 to avoid the cash for questions report coming out and being politically embarrassing or May’s mendacious remarks about red lines and her ignoring of her own manifesto or her reasoning for delaying votes on her Withdrawal Agreement or Corbyn’s remarks about not interfering in the anti-semitism investigations in the Labour Party? The list is endless. But all of this pales against the systemic lies of Blair over the Iraq War. I think that opened the floodgates and now obfuscation and mendacity are the daily bread of most politicians and it seems to penetrate all parties – I had an encounter with a LibDem MP once which showed what a vile liar he was – a couple of years later he left in disgrace after a police investigation into him sexually harassing a vulnerable constituent.
      Yes perhaps it was always so – it is just that now it is so much more blatant, because they are never held to account for their actions. Blair swans about the world being paid fortunes for advising tyrants, while families mourn their dead. In ancient Athens elected leaders were subject to potential exile or the death penalty for corrupt or incompetent behaviour in office. It didn’t stop those behaviours, but they did get to suffer then consequences of their actions. Imagine how circumspect politicians would become about going to war if their own children had to serve in the armed forces.
      Sorry that went into a bit of rant there – but it is annoying that in most of the jobs we normal people have, we could not get away with the behaviour which is now conventional in politics.

Post a Comment