The whale swallowed Jonah. Can we swallow the whale?

The whale swallowed Jonah. Can we swallow the whale?

by Canon Jim Foley

To the Memory of Canon Eugene Mathews 1922-2010.


The inspiration behind this particular post, if I may describe it in such pretentious terms, can be traced to an encounter which took place sixty-five years ago on 27 September 1948 at midnight in the main railway station in Rome. It was then that I met Father Eugene Mathews for the first time, or rather, that he met me. With Frank Kelly I had been directed by the bishop of Motherwell, Edward Douglas, to make my way to Rome to take up my studies for the priesthood at the Scots College. Father Eugene had been a student there before the war and had returned after hostilities to take up the study of Canon Law as a post-graduate. He had, however, kindly agreed to meet students arriving at all hours of the day or night and to make sure that they reached their destination at 161 Via delle Quattro Fontane, safe and sound. Frank and I were his latest charges.

Canon Eugene Mathews

Canon Eugene Mathews

Eugene looked as if he had stepped out of a bandbox. He wore a highly-polished Roman hat but the hat was not half as highly-polished as was his face and, for that matter, the man himself. At a distance of some sixty-five years I can still see and hear the welcome he accorded to two bedraggled youths who had just spent three sleepless days and nights on a train. Added to our fatigue we were very apprehensive about what was waiting for us on arrival in the Eternal City. After such a fulsome welcome neither Frank nor I ever looked back. I felt moved to add this Preface to the essay that follows because I am indebted to Father Mathews, not only for his welcome to Rome but for introducing me to the Scots poetry of W.D.Cocker (1886-1970). Let me explain.Domestic concerts at which a student was free to parade his talents for the entertainment of his peers were a recurring feature of college life. There were those who were persuaded, not always with good reason, that they could play the piano or the violin or sing a few songs. On occasion we were even treated to a one-act play. On more formal occasions we entered into competition with the Royal Shakespeare Company and D’Oyly Cart. The Rector himself was known to give a sustained tremolo rendition of ‘The Crookit Bawbee’ or, alternatively, ‘the Auld Hoose’. One was barely distinguishable from the other. If pressed for an encore he would treat the company to all eight verses of ‘The Wee Cooper of Fife’ with its endearing, if unintelligible, refrain:

There was a wee cooper who lived in Fife,

Nickety, nackety, noo, noo, noo

And he has gotten a gentle wife

Hey Willie Wallacky, Hey John Dougall

Alane quo’ rushety, roo, roo, roo.

A feature of the Rector’s contribution was that it was always performed ‘a capella’ since no accompanist could be found in Europe who was versatile enough to keep a cool head and modulate from a major to a minor diatonic scale without warning.

The Vice-Rector had been singing ‘Caro mio ben’ (attributed to Giuseppe Giordani 1744-1798) till he and the community were blue in the face. The college Tutor reputedly played the violin and formed part of a group that was one violin short of a Quartet. He had the annoying habit of beating common time with his right foot and triple time with his left. While this added a certain syncopation to their performance, it tended to throw the other musicians off their guard.

As for Eugene, he recited monologues and the Scots poems of W.D.Cocker and did so in the vernacular in which they were originally written. As a Galloway man himself Eugene was perfectly at home with the idiom. I have included one of his favourites, the story of Jonah the Reluctant Prophet.  Perhaps a few words of introduction to the original prophecy will not go amiss and may well refresh the gentle reader’s memory and reveal just how well Cocker understood the message he retells with such good humour.

Jonah the Book

The Prophecy of Jonah has defied most attempts to classify it as a piece of literature. It appears to me to be more of an inspired Sea Shanty than a Prophecy The tale of somebody swallowed by a whale and later regurgitated in one piece is a bit much even for the most entrenched fundamentalist. It is harder for us to swallow the story of the whale than it was for the whale to swallow the prophet. This is hardly history as we know it. A prophet of the same name is mentioned once elsewhere in the Old Testament (2 Kings 14.25). He evidently took a dim view of foreigners and advised king Jeroboam II (783-743 BC) to tighten up the immigration laws and secure the border crossings. That made him the herald of the Berlin Wall, the Mandelbaum Gate, Derry’s Walls, the Jerusalem Wall, the Iron Curtain, the Bamboo Curtain, the Great Wall of China, the Shankil and the Falls Roads, Hadrian’s Wall and one or two enclaves much nearer home and too near the bone for comfort. This was enough to fire the imagination of a later scribe who, unlike the Jonah of 2 Kings, had respect for foreigners and thought they should be made welcome in Israel. He draws a disturbing caricature of a man of religion based on the few words attributed to Jonah in the Book of Kings.

When instructed by God to call to penance the citizens of the great pagan city of Nineveh, Jonah caught the first available boat for Tarshish which lay in the opposite direction. He paid for a first-class berth and kept his head down.

A mighty storm soon put a different complexion on events. Short of splicing the main brace, the entire crew set about the classic procedures to save the ship. They even prayed, each to his own god. Meantime Jonah lay below sound asleep and had to be told by the captain to give himself a shake, get out of his hammock and start saying his prayers. The captain clearly already suspected that Jonah had brought this calamity on them and demanded to know who on earth he was. ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the one true god’. What a nerve! The sailors had tried everything. They had jettisoned their cargo. Prayer was getting them nowhere so they got the dice out and cast lots to see who could be to blame. Of course, it turned out to be Jonah. Jonah explained that they had no choice but throw him overboard too. These decent matelots shrank from such a drastic remedy and tried harder than ever to save their ship and all on board. In the end they reluctantly agreed to toss him overboard – but not before they had said a last prayer for forgiveness for what they were about to do! The storm ceased on cue. As Jonah began to sink a whale swallowed him alive.

The rest is history, or is it? Thrown up on the shore, Jonah laments his fate as the sun beats down on his baldy head. Yet things began to pick up again when a castor-oil plant grows up and shades him from the heat of the day and all is well, but not for long. A nasty worm chews up the plant and Jonah is back where he started.

Notwithstanding his dreadful predicament, Jonah is able to break into a lament in finely balanced Hebrew poetry that would have done credit to King David. This prayerful song carries our minds far beyond the limitations of the story of a shipwreck into the realms of death and resurrection. In his experience he recognises how far he has fallen from grace, swallowed up in the depths of an ocean from which there seems no escape and from the deeper ocean of his own pride. Yet, throughout, there is never any doubt that his God will raise him to life again. It is a lament but a lament which is not entirely devoid of hope and which ends with an unshaken profession of faith: Salvation belongs to the Lord (Chapter 2).

Our story ends with a man of God, a prophet no less, more concerned about his potted plant and his baldy head than about the fate of the 120,000 citizens of the city of Niniveh. To these you can add the animals who had shared the sackcloth and ashes of the citizens!

This may well be an allegory but nobody can persuade me that Jonah never existed!

Jonah the Poem

W.D.Cocker (1882-1970) was almost contemporary with Trilussa (1871-1950) whom we have met in previous Posts. Their ‘floreats’ almost coincide, namely, the period of thirty years that separate two world wars. They have much else in common. The chosen career of each was in journalism a choice that made them sensitive to the social, political, and religious world in which they lived. Each had a powerful sense of humour, often born of adversity. Trilussa was more of an iconoclast than Cocker although the latter could also dismantle the establishment in a few lines, as he does in the poem before us. Both wrote of set purpose in the vernacular, Trilussa in Romanesque, a local Roman dialect, Cocker in Braid Scots, which, in his case, took its inspiration from Galloway in south western Scotland.

Although Cocker was as versatile as Trilussa in his choice of subjects, Cocker probably has the edge on him in his often hilariously funny versions of Biblical stories. Yet the humour of his choice of subjects, couched in evocative words and phrases in his native vernacular, so often adds up to a powerful interpretation of the biblical passages he parodies. Those of us educated in areas of Scotland where Braid Scots is little used will, at first, find Cocker’s poems difficult to read. To an extent his writing was pioneering in so far as he contributed to promoting the beauty and attraction as well as the versatility of his native vernacular. My homage to Father Eugene Mathews is printed below, accompanied by a simple glossary of less familiar terms.

Jonah by W.D. Cocker

(Copyright kindly granted by the publishers

Brown, Son & Ferguson Glasgow)

Lang syne a ship ance sailed the seas                         Once upon a time

An’ skelped alang afore the breeze                             sped along

The prophet Jona was on board,

Whaur he had gane to jink the Lord                        Whither he had gone to escape the Lord

Wha’d sent him on a journey lang.                             who had / long

He was baith feart and sweert to gang,                both afraid and swore to go

But faith! the Lord’s no easy jooket,                           evaded

An’ Jonah for his wrath was bookit.                      his sin was charged

A furious storm cam’ fell and fast,                           fierce and sudden

The ship fair birled in the blast.                                  spun around

Bang went the sails like paper pokes,                         bags

Doon wi’ stramash cam’ spars an’ blocks.              with a clatter

Crack went the masts like twigs o’ willow,

Clear ower the deck green rushed the billow.

Tits! said the captain what’s gaen wrang?             Good Lord! / gone wrong

Here’s a bit job will keep us thrang                        fine task / busy

A’ haun’s on  deck! Haud fast the tiller!             All hands on deck /hold fast

Anither sea like that would fill her.

Keep her neb tilt’t! Sned lowse the graith!       her nose up / trim the rigging

Pit up a prayer, some man o’ faith!                            Put up

The Crew a’ loupit to obey,                                         all rushed

An’ Jonah was detailed to pray.

(The prophet looked a thowless chiel)                   a feckless soul

Wha could dae nocht but prayin’ weel.)               Who/do nothing/well

Sae, grippin’ fast the airn stanchions,                  So/iron stanchions

He mantled prayers wi’ guilty conscience.             garbled

Then did the sea richt gurly rise,                            right gurgling

The ship whiles sklimp the very skies,                 at times scraped

Dived frae the tap o’ towerin’ bens,                        top/mountains

Deep into fearsome howes o’ glens.                    hollows of glens

Sic waves, sic win’ sic wild commotion,               such/such wind

The Lord’s fell curse was on the ocean.               dire curse

The captain said:Losh! Jonah mannie,              Good Lord!/man

There’s some yin on this brig no’ canny.            one/uncanny

Puir Jonah boded some dreid fate,                      poor/dread

An’ cried: “I’ll wager it’s the mate.”

The skipper coudna thole a clype;                   couldn’t stand an informer

He garred the bo’sun soond his pipe.            instructed the boatswain sound

The crew, gey dowf, cam’ roon’ aboot:              very weary/gathered round

“Whase wyte it is we’ll sune fin’ oot.”           whose fault/soon find out

An there on that unchancy brig                          ill-fated boat

He counted them like weans at tig;                children at play

“A-zeenty-teenty-figgity-fell.”                                 a popular children’s rhyme

When Jonah heard that warlock’s spell          witch’s spell

The cauld sweet gathered on his broo,           cold sweat/brow

Nae doonricht lee could save him noo.          No downright lie/now

He cried: “I’ve sinned against the Lord

Ye’ll ha’e to heeze me clean ower board!        You will have to heave me/overboard

They took his word for’t,weel content,                 well content

Splash, ower his wilkies, in he went.                   head over heels

He sank, he rose wi’ feckless splatter,                helpless splash

A deid caulm smoored the angry watter.          a dead calm smothered

The crew keeked ower to watch him sprachle, peeped over/struggle along

A michty whale near haun, did wachle.            mighty/near hand/

Soomin’ his best, speered pechin’ Jonah:        swimming/enquired breathless

Hoo faur is’t, think ye, to Iona?”                           how far

Sma’ hope! The whale wi’ muckle gab               small/mighty mouth

Jist ganted at him an’ made grab.                      just gaped/and seized him

Three days an’ nichts in that whale’s belly,        and nights

A ludgin’ dowie, dark an’ smelly,                       bleak lodging

Puir Jonah grat, an’ rued his fibs,                      wept and regretted

An’ dirled on the fish’s ribs.                                 hammered

But though he was a waefu’ chappie                  woeful chap

the big fish tae was faur frae happy;                 far from

Frae Jonah’s dunts it gat nae ease,                     got no

Its wame felt like a bike o’ bees.                        belly/swarm

It groaned like some volcanic mountain,

It spouted heich as ony fountain.                       high

At prophets an’ sich like, nae wunnder,       such/no wonder

It took an everlastin’ skunner                            revulsion

Wi’ mony a bock an’ mony a hoast               many a belch/splutter

It ploutered roon alang the coast,                 splashed around

Till, dootless at the Lord’s command,            doubtless

It spewed the prophet on dry land.                 threw up

We’re no tel’t whaur it set him doon,           not told where

At Gourock, Rothesay or Dunoon,

But aye in future Jonah kent                          always/knew

To gang the errands he was sent.                     go

In Memoriam:   Canon Eugene Mathews


(Click here to read his obituary)

Eugene Mathews

*Cover image from the Carrow Psalter, ‘Jonah is thrown overboard’ (custody of Walter’s Art Museum)

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