I’ve already talked here about doing translations from other languages into English and how it can be a strikingly intimate way to get next to another poet’s creative choices. Performance, or even attentive reading, can also bring on this effect.
Let’s take Shakespeare as a mere lyricist today. Of course, he’s a big deal for our English language, a writer from the days when it was beginning to resemble the one we speak today. For many he’s the writer of plays, with characters of which generations of actors measure themselves by the facets they cut from them. For others he’s the writer of sonnets, many of which work by complex arguments and compressed thought, making them memorable from line to line, even if it’s hard to grasp the entirety of even one of them. But occasionally* within the plays he becomes a lyric poet in one or both of the senses of the word: a writer giving us a complex emotional matrix of someone’s experience in a moment of time, and as a writer who expects his words to be sung to music.
Songs meant to be performed inside other, larger works can be problematic. They may refer to particular characters and situations, which when the song is presented separately, become unfootnoted puzzlements. This song doesn’t have much of a problem there. “Fear No More” is sung as a funeral song in the play Cymbeline, but it’s self-evidently that—a situation that is universal, just as the song admits.
So, as I do my task with this project, figuring out what sort of music to write and effect to try to present in performance, I need to read attentively. Though I have done this hundreds of times during the Parlando Project, I often find that no number of silent readings finds what route to take. This may be me, my wandering attention and self-centeredness, but for this one (as with many others I’ve presented here) the subtilties started to emerge as I come to grips with performing it.
On the surface one could say this song is making an argument: they’re dead—but you know life is suffering, so they are no longer suffering. It doesn’t take long to notice that surface is transparent and there are other things to see through this.
First off, many things here are bittersweet. The opening line, for a Minnesotan** “…the heat of the sun” isn’t something we fear or are even displeased by, even during an extraordinary hot spell. “Golden lads and girls” also, not exactly earthly suffering, and we’re given their end with the joke that they’ll come to dust like the occupationally dusty chimney-sweep. Yes, wages, clothing, eating, learning, loving (all referenced here) can have their struggles, their bad as well as good days, but on the whole we don’t wish to dispense with them.
As the lyric proceeds, Shakespeare slides into darker and darker territory though. Those that assume to be our social superiors are going to have opinions on us, and in some cases our rulers will be tyrants. We may be slandered and censured (apparently this could be done before Twitter). And given some storms in the upper Midwest this August, I’m reminded that summer lightning and thunder are not mere theatrical sturm and drang, but can be the light and sound tech-crew of destructive forces.
And the final stanza moves darker yet. Exorcists, vampires, zombies, and vengeful ghosts—but wait: these are all dangers to/from the dead. So, the whole argument of “At least they are now resting” is completely undercut. And it’s here that I started to notice that the singer who’s tasked with merging with the poet’s work is outlining an inconsistent but vivid life that’s not without agency. This vividness argues against its inconsequentiality.
Oscar Williams’ poetry anthologies surprised the mid-century publishing world selling quite well. These two thick yet inexpensive books were part the paperback library of my youth. Maybe it was the titles: “Master” and “Immortal” would be catnip words to an inconsequential young writer. Williams was an ad-man besides being a poet and editor, so this may have been no accident.
Shakespeare’s songs attract composers, and this one has been made into lovely art song, but I like to roughen them up a bit, and do so here with this acoustic guitar and voice setting. The player gadget to hear my performance is below. But before I go, I want to tip the hat to the Stuff Jeff Reads blog which recently reminded me of this beautiful and enigmatic lyric. And it turns out he and I both read it first thanks to the same anthologist, Oscar Williams, who issued some surprisingly great-selling mid-20th century paperback poetry anthologies.
*Besides being a dramatist, he’s also an entrepreneurial content provider for a new form that needs to please nobles who might get their heads chopped off—and then too, folks who couldn’t get good seats for the bear baiting and so had to make do with a play. Given that Elizabethan song had many clever lyricists, it’s not sure if Shakespeare wrote all the songs in his plays. We also don’t know the music composers, or their tunes for the most part. This particular lyric seems “Shakespearean” however.
**And likely too for an Englishperson, with a temperate-climate, but one that’s not too-often sunny. Winter’s “rages” aren’t without joy in Shakespeare either, like this song from another play.