JOSEPH Farrell is spot on in his description of the ironic humour and sceptical eye of Belli and Garioch’s urban vernacular Edinburgh versions of the Italian’s Roman Sonnets.

In his own “Edinburgh Sonnets”, Garioch has something of the same spirit. His poem “Elegy” begins with reference to his elders in the teaching profession, when he arrived as a young teacher, an apprentice, so to speak, to these senior pontiffs:

They are lang deid, folk that I used to ken,

their firm-set lips aa mowdert and agley…

That older generation are dispassionately imagined,

their bodies, and the bits of their bodies, specifically their lips,

now mouldering and awry in

their graves.

Those “firm-set lips” give the clue: theirs was a world of self-righteousness, visible and inscrutable rectitude, an ethos of manners and rules, stiff and solemn, all now gone into the good Scots earth as depicted, “rotted and out-of-shape”.

That latter sense given in the word “agley” already evokes one of Burns’s proverbial phrases, with the “best-laid plans” getting twisted out of shape.

READ MORE: A look into the history of oats in Scotland and old family connections

With incomparably sly precision, Garioch undercuts these senior teachers’ self-importance.

He describes them: one was “beld-heidit, wi a kyte” (bald, with a pot-belly) and there was another who “sneerit…and sniftert in his spite” (sneered disdainfully, snidely sniffing through upturned nostrils in a spirit of unassailable superiority, like a bad critic).

Then comes the cutting judgement: “Weill, gin they arena deid, it’s time they were.”

Of Garioch’s translations of Belli, there is one poem that has stayed with me since I first read it that might be noted as complementary to the satiric, edged verses in which they excelled.

This is a poignant, forcefully unsentimental, emotionally potent sonnet about urban poverty, family love and helplessness.

The National: National Extra Scottish politics newsletter banner

Garioch’s version – it is entitled “The Puir Faimly” – needs little comment except to say that as Garioch and Belli both were sharp in their engagement with the hypocrisies of their political worlds, they were equally capable of maintaining a human sympathy and understanding of which so many politicians then as now, in Belli’s 19th century, Garioch’s 20th century and our own 21st century, seem utterly bereft.

This Robert Garioch’s translation of “La famija poverella”, Belli’s Roman Sonnet no 1677, dated Settembre 26, 1835.

The Puir Faimly

Wheesht nou, my darling bairnies, bide ye quaet:

yir faither’s comin suin, jist bide a wee.

Oh Virgin of the greitin, please help me,

Virgin of waymenting, ye that can dae’t.

My hairts, I wuss that ye cuid ken hou great

my luve is! Dinnae greit, or I sall dee.

He’ll bring us something hame wi him, you’ll see,

and we will get some breid, and ye will eat…

Whit’s that ye’re sayin, Joe? jist a wee while

my son, ye dinnae like the dark ava.

Whit can I dae fir ye, if there’s nae yle?

Puir Lalla, whit’s the maitter? Oh my bairn,

ye’re cauld? But dinnae staund agin the waa:

come and I’ll warm ye on yir mammie’s airm.