In the last hour of 2019 I was sitting on the couch with my son as we exchanged video clips we thought each other should see. I mentioned that Neil Innes had just died, that he was part of the Monty Python circle, and that before Python he had founded a musical group that helped inspire the Pythons called the Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band.
“I think I’ve heard of the Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band.”
“Search for ‘Canyons of Your Mind’” I suggested. Sure enough, the magic of Internet searching brought up a video. “This is the most Sixties song ever” I promised.
Here’s the clip we watched.
Farcical fascicles found “In the wardrobe of my soul, in the section labeled shirts.”
I wasn’t sure if I needed to provide context for it. As the performance shows they’re sending up every bit of performative anguish over absent love as well as the worship of musicians offering it. And the lyrics? They should have mortally wounded a certain kind of Sixties metaphor that was supposed to transcend our mundane world. In the middle of it Neil Innes plays a guitar solo that was likewise a pig cupid’s dart to the heart of every guitar hero moment. Anyone got the tab for that?
Son was not impressed. He had just shown me a Franz Ferdinand video chock-full of early 20th century Dada and Constructivist art moves: Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, Alexander Rodchenko visual riffs. In contrast, the Bonzo’s Dada lacked the same danceable drive and sleek black stage dress of the smart and sharp 21st century Glaswegian rock band.
Oh well. I hadn’t seen the Franz Ferdinand videos he showed me and I was glad I saw them. They made me think how we are still working out the Modernist revolution as we enter another decade that will be called “The Twenties.”
Early in the last week, I watched an episode of Apple TV+ Dickinson with my wife. In it Emily was crushing on Benjamin Newton over their mutual admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Dirge,” “The one where he’s on a plain with all those ghosts” as TV’s Emily has it.
That made we want to go back and check out Emerson’s “Dirge.” What might Dickinson have seen in it?
It is 19th century Goth, right full of death and lonely love for the dead. Emerson had suffered at least as much as his early 19th century peers in terms of early deaths in his circle, and his poem is quite similar to a poem Abraham Lincoln wrote around the same time that we’ve featured here. One of Emerson’s charms as an essayist was that his mind might take him anywhere while writing one, and the reader is afterward taken along for the ride. This one-thing-after-another move can also work in poetry, but when Emerson the poet does it, it generally doesn’t work for me. “Dirge” suffers for that.
Here’s the text of “Dirge” as Emerson published it. The TV show’s Dickinson latched right onto that arresting image, a rural plain full of ghosts, but Emerson buries the lede, putting another stanza before it. That stanza isn’t entirely bad, indeed its abandoned field with scanty corn could have conceivably informed Dickinson’s “Summer’s empty room” in her later poem we featured this December. I tried performing the poem in its entirety, but it was running nearly 8 minutes (longer than I like to use here) and so I then decided to cut to length by removing those stanzas that were Emersonian digressions. I’m not sure that’s the right way to go, though I think the listener might prefer my more single-threaded version. In some of the excised stanzas, Emerson made the poem’s setting distinctly his Concord hometown; and the mourned, missing folks: his siblings who died young. Specificity also works in poetry, but I’m not sure it strengthens this poem.
One more thing before I offer you a chance to hear my resulting performance. An 1850s Emily Dickinson would have been reading this kind of gothic romanticism in its moment. The element, performative or not, of contemporary personal emotion in poems was part of the change of 19th century Romanticism. Her models: Emerson, Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and others used that mode. Even Whitman made common use of it. Here’s something I find striking: Dickinson generally didn’t. Her poems make little use of sentimentality. She will use emotional words in her poems rather than images meant to invoke feelings in the 20th century Imagist manner, but those emotional terms often seem examined, observed, set to the side.
I asked my son if what put him off the Bonzos was that they were desecrating his musical religion. *
“No, you could have just picked a better one.”
Acoustic guitar and a mix of synthesizer sounds for today’s musical performance of Emerson’s “Dirge.” The player gadget to hear it is below. Don’t see it? Then this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*Pedantically one could draw a fairly direct line from the Bonzos to early Roxy Music to “Anarchy in the UK.” But no more footnotes today! If I’m going to excise Emerson’s digressions, why should I give myself license?