A New Philological Approach to Mrs. Walter Buchanan's Piggy*

by Jane Toskins


In his “Preface to an Uncollected Anthology,” Northrop Frye points out the “profoundly unhumanized isolation” (164) which is the hallmark of Canadian poetry through two centuries, and argues that in such a new country the imaginative harmony which is possible when “the works of man and of nature, the city and the garden of civilization” (164) creates a sense of nation and of integration—in Canada such a vision is extremely rare. Frye argues for the “strident shallowness of much Canadian life” (166) and suggests that engagement with that simple world leads Canadian poets to write in particular modes and forms. In particular, the most important shaping principle of the individual poem is that of metaphor, which is at its purest and most primitive in myth. Thus the student of Canadian literature, and Canadian poetry especially, must search for the mythopoeic qualities in that verse, must reach for the deeper levels of meaning accessible by way of poetic metaphor. In this paper I will argue that one of the more interesting new methods of approach to the mythopoeic qualities in Canadian poetry is that provided by New Philology, which I will attempt to demonstrate by applying this analysis to a specific early Canadian poem—one which on the face of it seems to contradict Frye’s notion of Canadian poetry as a literature of confrontation with the environment, of life without the garden and the city. At a deeper level, I postulate, the poem does in fact support Frye’s theory of the mythopoeic qualities of Canadian verse.That others have recognised this deeper valence is clear from the speed with which Piggy has achieved canonisation and from the quality of the papers which consider this extraordinary work.
     The New Philology is perhaps the most potentially rewarding of a series of modern approaches to the classics of English literature.1 In this light, Mrs. Walter Buchanan’s apparently modest opus, Piggy, is readily analysable as one of the classics of early twentieth-century verse, easily surpassing in its mythic stature and its incomparable simplicity of manner such better-known works as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and W.B. Yeats’ Vision. Piggy harks back to an earlier world, referring to arcane rituals and mystic events so deeply buried in the human psyche as almost to defy disinterment. However, New Philology holds the key to these mysterious rites, and with its aid the modern scholar can scale the heights of the hermeneutics of Mrs. Buchanan’s oeuvre, plumb the depths of the dialogical opposition enacted there between woman and pseudo-beast, and consider the ideological coruscations which careful attention to the semantic freight of even so apparently transparent a term as the title of the poem—Piggy—provides the semiotically and philologically attuned reader. This is a work whose apparent simplicity cries out for the assiduous and acerebral analysis which the editors have already brought to bear. With the similar tools of the New Philology, however, the text will yield up yet more richness for an interpretive community attuned to new philological approaches and transgressive readings. This paper hopes to begin the process of elucidating the codicological conundrum of Piggy, of revealing and unveiling the poem which is Piggy in a wholly new and illuminating light.
     In the first place, Mrs. Buchanan is clearly making use of a mythology so deeply hidden in the human psyche as not to have been recognised before or since, until now. The “Piggy” she refers to is not the domesticated beast, the barnyard animal hitherto supposed; rather, “Piggy” is the lost younger brother of Paris of Troy. The name is properly Peagic. Like his elder brother Brut (who is mentioned in l. 19 of Mrs. Buchanan’s opus), Peagic escaped from Troy before the final destruction and departed, not for London or Paris or Rome, but for a much more glorious destination—the greatest city of the Americas, Brasibras (which in the Mohawk means reduplicatively “City of Cities,” later corrupted by analogy to the Scottish-sounding “Breezy Brae”). There, most unfortunately, his name underwent i- mutation to the postulated form *Piegi, passed through what is clearly a version of late West Saxon shift of the long vowels “ie” to long “y” or “i”, and thereafter experienced shortening of the long vowel in a closed syllable. The weakening of the suffix “—ic” to “y” is analogous to that in “godlic”—“godly” and “mannfullic”—“manfully”. That Mrs. Buchanan intuitively recognised this connection between her home of Breezy Brae and the lost city of Troy seems incontrovertible. She certainly makes the significance of “Piggy/Peagic” clear in her poem, and signals the connection to Troy with her reference to “the Brute,” the mythical founder of Britain.2
     Further, Mrs. Buchanan points out in the poem the extraordinary self-sacrifice of Peagic, and acknowledges the absolute necessity of his presence—and later his absence except in a purely nutritive capacity. Peagic is clearly an icon in Mrs. Buchanan’s pantheon. Remarkably, Mrs. Buchanan may be aware of an even more carefully guarded secret, one known only to Hera, queen of the gods of Olympus, and the unfortunate Patsy, a little-known Greek maid who suffered the fate of Leda, Europa—not to mention Electra, Danae, Aegina, Alcmene, Io, Semele, and even Ganymede—and perhaps many others. She never knew who the father of her child was, since he appeared to her only as a raging wild boar, and spoke only to roar the name of his offspring in her ear. However, Hera’s recently discovered autobiography3 indicates that she had Zeus followed whenever he transmuted himself into a bestial form, since she expected his conduct thereafter to be beastly and wanted to be apprised of it. She, therefore, was aware that, rather than Priam, the father of Peagic was Zeus himself.
     It seems hardly surprising, then, that the actions of Peagic in Canada were truly godlike. His willingness to die in order that his people might live stronger and more confident than ever before is the first recorded instance, and by far the most glorious example, of scapepigging. This practice, in which a god or god-invested being such as a king, metamorphoses into that most glorious of beings, the sacred pig, and is divided among his people, does, of course, have its more mundane analogues in such rituals as the now-misunderstood Hawaiian luau, and the “Entry of the Suckling Pig” standard in the medieval English feasts that all-too-often occur in English Departments throughout the world.4 Further, the supposed talking pig of Welsh legend is clearly nothing but a misreading of this transmogrification of god into pig for didactic and nutritional purposes. What Peagic did for Canada was, however, even more remarkable. In Christlike fashion, he transformed himself into an entire race of pigs, providing sustenance for a whole country for nearly two centuries.5 He was the progenitor of the great Canadian pig, known as the Prime Porker, and, to the most knowledgeable connoisseurs north of the 49th parallel, as the “Piggy”—a term which has hitherto been thought to have been imported from England. Mrs. Walter Buchanan, in her folklorically dense poem, is thus remembering an historical and mythological figure, one of the Trojan princes—and one of Olympian stature and girth—who sadly is not properly recognised as the most heroic and most generous of them all.6
     Mrs. Walter Buchanan in her poem avoids the Homeric simile and the suspended opening, a point perspicaciously made by the editors in their explanatory notes.7 However, W.J. Kouth wrongly argues, in an otherwise percipient article, that she does so in order to subvert these possibilities. Rather, she avoids the minor epic touches of style and tone in order to register a major epic chord in the invocation of an epic theme, complete with a ground bass reference to the character’s intrinsic connection to the land. In this poem Mrs. Buchanan has produced a tour de force of epic literature, avoiding and subverting the epic style in order to place her very carefully considered emphasis on the grandiose and grandiloquent theme of epic sacrifice. In the face of the accomplishment of both writer and god, we can but bow our heads in astonishment and acknowledgment of this self-sacrificial accomplishment.
     The implications of this analysis for the study of nineteenth-century poetry in Canada are, of course, very considerable. It has been suggested on occasion that Canadian works of this century partake of an Anglo-Saxon approach to their environment, sharing with the early medieval English a sense of the hostility of the world about them and an understanding of the need for firmness (some might say stubbornness), constant vigilance, and instant retaliation for each injury suffered. Others have argued that the colonial metaphor is the most useful for our study of Canadian society, providing as it does a way to figure the varying relationships of conquering peoples to the land and to its indigenous peoples. Still others have insisted, at times almost persuasively, that the Canadian poetic experience of the nineteenth century is unique, and must be studied solely on its own terms. The analysis in this paper reveals two things: that the civilization which provides perhaps the most unexpected and profoundly superficial parallels to—and apparently even sources for—one of the most intriguing of our early poets is none other than the most ancient Western culture of Greece. Secondly, this analysis points to the pivotal role of women in Canadian society—as vatic beings, as providers of life and limb, as recorders of the most ancient mythology so far posited for Canadian consumption, and as the beings invested with the great responsibility of preparing the pig for its slaughter, and even leading it to that profound, paralyzing and preternatural point in its existence.

* Canardian Literature 136 (Spring 1993): 101-12. [back]


  1. The clarion call of the New Philology was sounded by Marc Bloch in an article entitled, “The Medieval Text—‘Guigemar’—as a Provocation to the Discipline of Medieval Studies” in The New Medievalism. See also the introduction by Stephen Nichols, and the Articles by D.F. Hult and A. Leupin which complete the second section of the book, sub-titled “The New Philology”. This mode of study offers fascinating new vistas of analysis and interpretation of mediæval words and medieval culture. Once the etymological analysis of a word has been divorced from its historical context, which seems only reasonable since for many words the development of meaning through history provides only inconvenient details, the writer is free to reinterpret etymology in the bright light of personal preference, and to apply to the result only the test of plausibility. This is a breakthrough in the application of literary theory to medieval studies, and welcome is the opportunity to apply this knowledge in another field—one which perhaps has not yet recognised the manifest advantages of this method. [back]
  2. Here I must, I hope amicably, contest the editors’ reference to Julius Caesar in their note to line 19. Although I accept that on the face of it the reference to “Brute” is a negative one, I would argue that the author was here reaching for a much deeper meaning, and the deeper structure of the line shows, by way of the “scooting” after the pig done by the whole community (“We”) an anxiety to reach the creature (“cratur’”, the created being shaped by the gods for the salvation of these humans) which is better explained by worship of the elder brother of Peagic than by an attempt to chastise. Indeed, this would certainly not be the first work of literature to show such a deep-seated desire to achieve closeness by using the motif of chastisement or punishment. [back]
  3. Unfortunately, this work is currently accessible only in limited release to selected sympathetic readers, but it is soon to be available in a paperback edition. It is much to be recommended, showing as it does the way in which Hera successfully subverted almost every aspect of Zeus’ much-vaunted male power, controlling his exploits for nurturing purposes of her own. The origin of Peagic is a case in point. This work is a fascinating story of female power and potency. [back]
  4. See James Frazer’s seminal work on this subject, The Golden Boar, for more examples of this god-pig throughout world culture. Joseph Campbell’s The Hog with a Thousand Faces also supplies valuable, if out-dated, examples and arguments on this theme. [back]
  5. Compare, for instance, the similar devotion to his people expressed by Leto, son of Paul Atreides and ruler of the planet Arrakis and by extension the galaxy, who plunges to his death from a bridge and in dying transforms himself into millions of sandworms, who will produce both the environment and the spice essential to the continued prosperity and existence of Leto’s people (Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune (1981; New York: Ace Books, 1987), 414-20). It could be argued that Herbert, a late twentieth century writer of speculative fiction, has a breadth of vision and an understanding of mythology comparable to that of Mrs. Buchanan. [back]
  6. The sheer subtlety of Mrs. Buchanan’s art must be acknowledged here. Applying the standard approach of numerological analysis (assigning the value of 1 to A, 2 to B, and so forth) reveals that p-i-g-g-y adds up to that sublime sign of absolute unity, the number 64, which is 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2. Were Mrs. Buchanan to have made use of the older form of the name, p-e-a-g-i-c, the result would have been the unsatisfying number of 41. Her use of this kind of analysis is signalled by the number of lines in the poem 32, which is obviously 64 divided by 2. Not only subtlety, but also modesty—unwilling to pretend to full comprehension of the mysteries of the mysteries of Peagic, the poetess chose to represent her subject to the best of her ability, which she calculated as being half of his glory. (An epithet for Peagic which Mrs. Buchanan chooses not to use in this poem for her own reasons—which are incomprehensible, but only with respect to this one point—is b-o-s-s-h-o-g, which yields the mystical and powerful number of 77.) [back]
  7. The reader will note I have avoided here the pitfalls of close reading, an over-zealous approach which leads to a plethora of unconnected details. However, that Peagic’s sacrifice of his life is figured in the poem as that of “a friend that will last to the end” (1. 13) is clear. His sense of duty (1. 16) is evident in his willingness to bear the burden (1. 27) for the whole community. Indeed he is, as Mrs. Walter Buchanan so sapiently notes, “a gent”. [back]

Works Cited

Bailey, Susan, and D.M.R. Bentley. Introduction. Piggy. London, Ont.: Canardian Poetry P, 1991.

Brownlee, M.S., K. Brownlee, and S.G. Nichols, Ed. The New Medievalism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hog with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1949.

Frazer, James. The Golden Boar. London: Macswillan, 1890.

Frye, Northrop. “Preface to an Uncollected Anthology” The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Toronto: Anansi, 1971. 163-79.

Herbert, Frank. God Emperor of Dune. 1981; rpt. New York: Ace Books, 1987.