Of Lime Trees, Eels, and Lord Randal

K. Silem Mohammad at {LIME TREE} has initiated an ambitious blogging project — to comment on all one hundred of poems included in the 100 Best-Loved Poems, a Dover paperback edited by Philip Smith. While I admire and envy the ambition, I’m afraid that I will not (though plenty tempted) join this journey. I have never read an anthology of poems in which, for good and bad reasons, at least a handful of the included poems left me absolutely unimpressed. Or speechless … I’ll let the reader put a positive spin on that, if they so chose. That will not stop me, however, from chiming in now and then.

For example, let’s look at the first entry, which both introduces the project and comments on the ballad “Lord Randal”. Mohammad does an excellent job of showing the students enrolled in a creative writing class (presumably some of the readers of {LIME TREE}) how to enjoy a poem that may have been written, originally, as a song to be sung. The professor also does the students a favor by indicating that the poor sap Lord Randal was poisoned by something he ate — many students miss this fact. Mohammad, however, suggests that the eels are to blame: “the prospect of eating anything called “eels boil’d in broo'” ought to raise a red flag vis-à-vis poisoning”.

Is this true? Undoubtedly the thought of eating eels makes many contemporary, American stomachs turn, but did the author of “Lord Randal” regard the fish with similar suspicion? I don’t think so. Although less common these days, eel is still eaten and digested by English speaking pallets. In fact, in London, jellied eels are today part rite-of-passage and part delicacy. I doubt that Lord Randal’s mom was too worried that he had eaten eel — she probably served eels boiled in broth several times every year … or, at least, whenever he happened to bring them home.

So, what is it, in the Dover edition of the poem, which suggests that Lord Randal was poisoned by his “true-love”? Surely not the eels … it could have been rabbit boiled in broth or potatoes boiled in broth … and still, I believe, the suggestion that his dish had done him in would remain. Why? Because his mother doubts his report and repeats the question: “Where gat ye your dinner … my son?” Of course, there’s the dead dogs too.

Having said that, I should note two things: first (in my favor), other versions of the poem include stanzas which elaborate on the nature of his meal. These suggest that he has eaten what he thought was an eel, but what his mother would have told him was a newt or some kind of poisonous salamander or snake; second (in Mohammad’s favor) eel blood does contain a toxin. A powerful toxin (ichthyotoxin) which, when injected directly in the blood stream, as was demonstrated with dogs, proved to be deadly in even minuscule amounts. (That’s one of an endless list of examples of beneficial, but ghastly research. In this case the ethically suspect experimentation contributed to Charles Richet’s Nobel prize for his work on anaphylaxis — work that has saved many human lives.) This toxin, however, would have been destroyed when “boil’d in broo”. At any rate, this toxin was discovered centuries after the poem was written and, although it may contribute to our contemporary worries about eating the strange, snake-like fish, it wouldn’t have been know to Lord Randal, to Lord Randal’s “true-love”, to his mother, or to the first “beefy bards” that sang his sad song. (April 22, 2008)

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