This summer, amid the seasonal lower traffic volumes for The Parlando Project, I’ve been featuring some uncharacteristic pieces where Dave Moore or I have written the words as well as the music. But today we’ll return to the proper mix, using a text by English Victorian poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson.
I saw today’s text first over at Kenne Turner’s blog, where it was included as a short stand-alone lyric poem entitled “The Dragonfly” in the midst of a series of excellent photos of varieties of this creature. Here’s a link to that post which will also let you read the text I used. Other blogs have published the same text under this title, and I assumed it was a uncharacteristic very short nature poem by Tennyson. Let me thank Kenne for bringing this poem to my attention.
Long-time readers here will know I like concise poetry, and this one, so concentrated in its charged notice of this strange yet charismatic insect in a moment of transition captured my interest immediately. Earlier this month I performed “The Dragonfly” along with Dave playing keyboards, and you’ll be able to hear how it came out below. Sure, it is a Victorian poem, though not excessively so. Just a few words might need 21st century explanation. That “sapphire mail” is the insect’s chitin exoskeleton portrayed as if armor, not a blue envelope delivered by some postman. “Crofts” is something of a Britishism and means a humble field. The moment Tennyson seems to be describing is the ending of the years-long nymph stage of the dragonfly, as the mature winged insect splits open its old hard exoskeleton emerging a moist new winged creature. In checking on the zoology of this, I read that dragonflies spend the majority of their life as immature, wingless, nymphs before becoming the strange fascination that we see, and only then think: dragonfly.
I’ve mentioned infirmities and transformations a good deal this summer, and I thought this transformation more clearly ecstatic in nature, and that it would be a good break from the more gothic material I’ve been working on recently.
So there I was, I had this text, cloaked in language and poetic diction that said “Victorian,” but also prophetically Imagist in its concise approach. I had music to perform it with, and then a decent recording that brought it into existence.
Summer, time to fly thro crofts wet with dew, and not just more screen time.
Then today, I decided to see what else I could say about this poem when I present it here. It was then that I found that it may never have been intended as a short poem, but was instead part of a long, very philosophic poem by Alfred Tennyson called “The Two Voices.” Here’s a link to that text. When I say philosophic, that might sound a bit bloodless, but Tennyson’s own working title was “The Thoughts of a Suicide” — and no, that’s not a literary plot, like “The Lady of Shalott.” It appears* that “The Two Voices” is something of a less-favored and less fully-achieved early attempt at the matter that produced what is thought of as Tennyson’s masterpiece “In Memoriam AHH.” So, “The Dragonfly” a simple nature poem? No, nature isn’t simple, even if beautiful. The matter Tennyson was grappling with was the unexpected death of his friend, supporter, and literary compatriot, Arthur Hallam, at the age of 22.
It would be appropriate to insert your favored curse word here. I’m an old man. The death of folks I know, then knew, is a commonplace of age, and painful, though touched too by a strange partnering with an idea that death is closer to me — if only demographically at this moment. But young, brilliant, helpful, a man with whom, it is recalled, would fall and roll down in the grass with the similarly young Tennyson, overcome by paroxysms of laughter at some bit of passing humor — how can one express that kind of loss?
Imagism says that you can enclose that unexpected death of a vibrant and cherished youth inside a short poem, made up of a moment of exacting and clarifying observation; a poem that is furthermore modest in its emotional expression and that doesn’t say what something like that event feels — showing instead what one examines with our two, small, dark eyes, our meager allotment compared to the giant multitudes of eyes that make up most of the dragonflies’ head.
Can it do that? I don’t know. Interesting to try. I sensed only this mysterious/glorious transformation when I first read “The Dragonfly” excerpted from it’s longer setting in “The Two Voices.” I really did intend for it to be a bit of a break here, but I’m left with informing you of my honest experience of this poem as I do regularly in this Project.
For some, the player gadget will appear below to hear The LYL Band perform Tennyson’s “The Dragonfly.” Don’t see a player? Turns out a lot of ways to read this blog won’t show that, so I provide this highlighted hyperlink to open a new tab window and play it as well.
*Given that I’ve only seen Tennyson’s “The Two Voices” in its entirety this afternoon, I’m not able to tell you more about it other than what I’ve quickly gathered. Victorian poetry doesn’t generally attract my attention, even if most of the Modernists that do attract me grew up during the Victorian era, and, even in rebellion, would be impacted by it.