Song of the Wondering Aengus

William Butler Yeats, when he spoke admiringly about the ubiquity that songwriters like Rabindranath Tagore could achieve, had already made his forays into setting his poems to music. As a sometime playwright, and a founder of the Abbey Theater in Ireland, he was already familiar with the dimensions performers can bring to words. Around the turn to the 20th Century he began to forthrightly seek to combine his poetry with music. Working in collaboration with musicologist and luthier Arnold Dolmetsch and performer Florence Farr he had a psaltery (a stringed instrument like a lyre or small harp) constructed, and Farr (a fascinating figure in her own right) then performed Yeats poems with it.


Farr with the psaltery showing Joanna Newsom how to rock it

Yeats and Farr’s performance style was not a conventional art song setting of the poet’s words sung to a melody. Yeats explicitly rejected that (even though his words have often been set to melodies in the years since). Rather he thought the words were best chanted or intoned in a rhythmic and somewhat elongated speech.  Such performances are controversial then, and I would suppose they would be controversial now as well. George Bernard Shaw called Farr’s chanting “A nerve-destroying crooning,” but Ezra Pound and other early 20th century modernists took note, and they were influenced by these performances to add a more incantatory and musical element to their poetry.

Now let us break in our story for about half a century.

In the late 1950s an actor and folk singer Burl Ives recorded an album of Irish songs, and one of them was “The Wondering of Old Angus”, a Yeats poem sung to melody that Ives claimed he learned from Sara Allgood, another actor who had performed with the Abbey Theater group and would have likely known of the Farr performances. Around the same time, another folk singer, Will Holt began singing the Yeats poem to a very similar melody, using Yeats’ title “The Song of the Wandering Aengus.”  Then in 1962, Judy Collins, having learned the song from Holt, made it the title song of her album “Golden Apples of the Sun,”  which is where I first heard it.

No one seemed to know where the tune Ives, Holt, and Collins used came from. Those knowledgeable in traditional Irish tunes do not recognize it. Some credited Holt for it. However, early in the 21st Century a man named Bill Kennedy writing in the folk-song forum linked the tune to a transcription made by Dolmetsch accompanying a Yeats essay “Speaking to the Psaltery”  re-published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1907. The tune there of course was not meant to be sung, as Yeats discussed in this essay, but it is recognizably the one used by Ives, Holt, and Collins in their singing renditions.

So the tune may well be Yeats’ own, or perhaps it was composed by Farr or even Dolmetsch. Since the words are Yeats’, I’m going to call it, and make him the composer; and if so, that makes Yeats yet another singer-songwriter (along with Tagore and Dylan) to have won the Nobel prize.

But he didn’t sing it, nor did he intend the words to be sung. Since we at the Parlando project are working in something like the same vein, here’s a version, using more or less that tune, but chanted not sung as Yeats suggested. Instead of the psaltery, I used fretless electric bass, some bowed strings and Mellotron to elaborate the tune. To hear it, use the player below, though neither Bernard Shaw nor I will be responsible for any nerve destruction.


NOTE: I just noticed that I miss-typed “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” into “The Song of the Wondering Aengus” here. Oh my. This could be nerve destruction, or my hurry to get ready for a recording session this afternoon. Well, he is wondering after all!


Maiden with a Lamp

When it was announced that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature there was a substantial reaction asking if songs could be literature—no, that’s not right, I’m mischaracterizing much of the reaction I read as if it was an honest inquiry into this question. No, the reaction I read was more of a conclusion that songs could not be literature, and so this Nobel award to Bob Dylan was a break with tradition, a loosening of standards.

This is complex subject, one I’ll probably return to, as I have much to say on this; but missed in the hoopla and questioning was this fact:  Bob Dylan was the second singer/songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 1913 Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize, the committee citing:

“Because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.

In 1913 when the prize was given, Tagore had only one such work they could be talking about: “Gitanjali,”  a 1912 collection of his song lyrics that Tagore had translated himself from Bengali into English prose poems.

Gitanjali title page 1912

The title page of the original English edition


Tagore is a fascinating man and artist, with achievements in so many fields that you might think I’m making him up. He wrote every kind of literature, started a university, seriously pursued modern painting, and gave Gandhi the title “Mahatma.” But he was no dabbler at songwriting, having written over 2000 songs. He’s even the only composer to score a hat trick for national anthems, having written the national anthems of India, Bangladesh and Siri Lanka.  His songs are so pervasive in Bengali culture that his thousands of songs have become their own genre.

tagore with Gandhi

“Let me lay it on you Mohandas: it means ‘Great Soul.”  Also, there’s this girl in Detroit who I’m going to call the Queen of Soul.”

Poet William Butler Yeats wrote enviously in his introduction to Tagore’s “Gitanjali”  of the power of songs:

“These verses will not lie in little well-printed books upon ladies’ tables, who turn the pages with indolent hands that they may sigh over a life without meaning, which is yet all they can know of life, or be carried by students at the university to be laid aside when the work of life begins, but, as the generations pass, travelers will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon the rivers.”

This spring as I read Tagore’s “Gitanjali,”  I hoped to find there on the page what is promised in Yeats’ introduction and what would normally be guaranteed by such acclaim. I failed at this. I couldn’t find it. The English of the prose translations seemed so archaic, the expression stilted, the voice vague. From accounts I’ve now read, this seems to be an acknowledged problem; and it appears that, for whatever reasons, Tagore purposely framed his translated work in an incomplete way. In the longer term, I will seek some of the newer translations. In the short term, I stood back and remembered something.

Song. These are songs.

Not only are they missing their music, but songs, like plays, are works for individual voices and talents to embody. Their creators are not claiming the real, complete thing exists on the page, that they are performing them mutely with ink on the white page. No, they expect, demand, that someone step in them, surmise their meaning, fill the blank white space with emotions, and speak them.

All art is like this really. Songs admit it. Songwriters generously say: I need you to fill these things, your humanity is better than any of my approximations.

So, today’s episode is the second of my attempts to bring something to a piece from Tagore’s “Gitanjali”  using his original prose translations, as that’s all I have for now.  With the last post here, “Light,”  I tried to meet Bengali music partway, but this time I’m staying firmly in the Western side, maybe even a bit on the Country and Western side. As I read this piece on the page I heard it as sounding like one of those weird Lee Hazelwood arrangements from a few decades ago, but since I was producing this myself, I had to sing the Nancy Sinatra part as well.
If you wonder about the floating light ceremony mentioned in the song I call “Maiden with a Lamp,”  it may be this one.

To hear me perform my vaguely C&W version of “Maiden with a Lamp,” use the player below.



What is lost when poetry is translated? Robert Frost thought it outright: “Poetry  is what is lost in translation.” Those who’ve read my notes here on the Parlando project know that I hold that poetry is words that want to sing. Those sound effects of the flowing sound of words, the call and response of rhyme, the beats of the dancing syllables—all that music can hardly be asked to make it past the visa-check at the translation station on languages’ borders.

In recent posts here I translated two poems from classical Chinese. As a non-Chinese speaker, I could not even hope to convey what musical effects the originals had.  To better see this as English speakers, let us look the other direction, and think about what Emily Dickinson’s “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” (featured in our last post) would lose if we were to translate it to classical Chinese.

Would Dickinson’s poetic music carry over? In English we have the movement of the common meter/ballad meter in her poem, a beat that is ingrained in those who sing common Christian hymns or know secular songs using this meter in the folk and popular music fields.  Since this is a common form in our culture, we are primed to move to this meter, and rich associations may arise from other times we have felt the same beat. All that is most likely lost in translation.

There’s a pun in the first line. The sun “rose” and is pink. Puns won’t likely make it across the border.

Dickinson rhymed her poem. Translators sometimes choose to create rhyming poems in their destination language, but adding this degree of difficulty to the task may cause other defects in translation as the rhyme is sought.

English sometimes has an advantage when one translates to and from it, because it is the language of a much-invaded island, which was then taken up by a polyglot country across the ocean. English as we know it today is full of words with Latin and Germanic origin, echoes of French, Spanish, German, and even more. Occasionally, puns or even rhymes can be saved when the foreign language has these connections. And metric rules for accents and syllables can be somewhat portable across the European range.

But what if we were to translate from English to classical Chinese? I’ll take an audacious shot at Dickinson’s first verse. The English gloss from the ideograms resulting might go like this:

Tell Sun Rise
Ribbon Sequence
Towers Wet Purple-Quartz
Squirrel Messengers
Hills Unpinned Hats
Birdsong Started
Soft Talk Inside
Sun Recognized

Well, there’s something still there isn’t there, even if we as English speakers see the losses. What remains is Dickinson’s attention to an ordinary event with extraordinary details. And there’s some musical structure remaining: parallelism, theme and variation that doesn’t rely on beats or syllables that can still peak through.

Today’s episode is an English translation from the original Bengali by its own author, Rabindranath Tagore. Despite having attended school in England, despite familiarity with English as a resident of a then colonial province of the British Empire, despite some rumored editorial assistance from renowned English language poet William Butler Yeats, and despite Tagore’s well-attested to genius, “Light”  was published in English in 1912 as a prose translation.


Some amateur violin player (left) meets up with Rabindranath Tagore (right)

Paradoxically this may be due to the original’s musicality. I’ll have more to say on Tagore next time, but for now just know that Tagore was a composer and songwriter, and that his songs are widely known and appreciated by millions of Bengali speakers.
So, to try to restore some of the impact originally present in this piece, I composed and played a rather dense musical accompaniment for Tagore’s translated words. I did this in ignorance of if Tagore had his own melody for this poem in Bengali. Besides animation and illumination of his English prose, I aimed to combine some of my appreciation his native region’s music and Western electric guitar based music. To hear Rabindranath Tagore’s “Light”  with my music and performance, use the player below.