Longfellow’s Harvest Moon

What value is mystery and strangeness to gratitude, to a sense of thanks? Let me try an experiment with you here.

American Thanksgiving still retains a degree of its nature as a harvest festival, and so when looking for a text to use today I came upon this one by highly unfashionable poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Looking at the poem on the page one can see why modern poetic esteem may have passed Mr. Longfellow by. It’s a sonnet, intricately rhymed (ABBAABBA CDECDE), an antique skill that we no longer appreciate as much. Its imagery is both pat and removed from most of our daily lives, a rural landscape at night before the coming of electric lights, where moonlight can illuminate reflective objects and cast discernable if low-contrast shadows. Harvest signs include loaded wagons (“wains” is the charming old word for wagons chosen perhaps for rhyming needs), bundled sheaves of grain after reaping by hand, the changing of the bird population, falling leaves. In summary, we have imagery that is largely meaningless or lacking impact to us today in our modern America. It looks like stuff that is, and justly is, filed away in dusty poetry collections.

Harvest Moon

An illustration for “The Harvest Moon” from an 1880 edition of Longfellow poems

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But what if we were to experiment a bit with Longfellow, and make him stranger and more mysterious? After all, this past rural world is now alien to most of us as some far-off land. And Longfellow, who we mistake as a rote poet here, has a subtle point to make, one that cultured British people might excavate and polish if this were a poem by Shelley or Keats, but which Americans may be to willing too overlook due to the old modes of Longfellow’s poetry.

In today’s performance of Longfellow’s “The Harvest Moon”  I attempt that act of mysteriousation. It started with breaking up the lines and underemphasizing the end-rhyme. This lets it act as an occult undercurrent, rather than a regular chime we know is coming. I sing the words as if this is new and not fully understood to the singer or listener. And as I often do here, I make the music I wrote and performed carry a lot of the load. The main harmony is carried by a 12-string acoustic guitar, which is playing primarily suspended chords, chords that remove the 3rd of the scale that makes a chord major or minor, and replaces that significant note instead with a not fully discordant but unexpected 2nd or 4th. The bass plays a busy but similarly unsettled melody line under this. And as a final signal that we are to regard this old American landscape with a time-tourists’ eye, and not as an old poem full of discarded conventions, I play a higher melody line and drone on a sitar,*  an instrument from another continent.

All that distancing effect is to force the listener to hear this poem as if it may have some meaning other than a decorative picture of a quaint and therefore meaningless scene. Longfellow outright begs us to do this in the text when he writes “All things are symbols.” This poem is late Longfellow, he’s nearly 70 when he wrote this, his America has passed through a horrible civil war, his life has passed through multiple family sorrows, and he is now an old man. The songbirds gone here are but counters perhaps, but his life of poetry is nearing its close. He’s spent his life helping establish that there can and should be an American poetry, that there can be American poets. We are them. Our grandparents and great-grandparents are the children asleep in those strange and now far-off curtained rooms. We are the piping quails, grounded birds gorging on the grain-seeds fallen to the under-shadows of the harvested sheaves.

Let us be grateful, let us be thankful, for those before us. Wrong and right they labored for us. Enslaved and wrongful masters they planted and harvested on lands that cannot forget the exiled feet of those before us. How strange, that it was exiles and the tempest-tossed that appropriated this place. Exiles creating exiles. There is a mystery in that.

The player gadget for my performance of “The Harvest Moon”  should be below. If you don’t see the player gadget, you can try to use this highlighted hyperlink to hear it instead.

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*If you visualize me sitting cross-legged on a damask pillow with incense wafting in paisley curlicues while plucking on that elaborate musical device, it may be good for the effect of the piece—but in the spirit of full disclosure I’m playing a MIDI guitar here which allows my plucking to be translated into the notes and sounds of that difficult to maintain and master South Asian instrument.

In German November, or What? Nietzsche was a poet?

As a person educated in the mid-20th century this is what I knew about Fredrich Nietzsche: he was a philosopher who was all the rage in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century and he had this thing about achieving a more perfected human condition. Oh, I knew one more thing about him, something that discouraged all other curiosity: the Nazis liked him, saw him as an intellectual forerunner of their decidedly non-intellectual movement.

I know only a little more than that now. In the past few years it’s become accepted knowledge that the Nazi connection was to a large degree accidental. Nietzsche’s sister was his literary executor,* and she was a Nazi fan-girl who did a great deal to forge that linkage; and since the Nazis were nationalists, the available idea that there was a notable German cultural figure whose contradictory writings could dab some intellectual cologne onto their bully-boy stink was useful.

I vaguely knew that one of my childhood heroes George Bernard Shaw had admired him, but I had no idea how many leftist and anarchist figures rated Nietzsche. Remember Gustav Landauer, the German Anarchist theorist and grandfather of the famous director and improv comic pioneer Mike Nichols, brutally killed in the post WWI revolutionary activity in Germany? He was said to be influenced by Nietzsche too.

But this fall, while reading a blog I follow,** I learned another thing: that Nietzsche was also a poet. Which shouldn’t be news to me I guess, but it had never occurred to me, even though as a philosopher Nietzsche seemed to be something of a human quote machine who could turn out memorable phrases. And today’s text, “In German November,”  was the example that introduced me to that fact.

November Sadness by  Heidi Randen

Ah sunflower! Weary of cold and $%*@! snow.

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I know only a little about German literary Romanticism, but what I know makes Nietzsche’s poem part of that tradition: worship of nature, doomed love—Damn! There’s even a prominent talking flower for Odin’s-sake! This can seem very twee in summary, but Nietzsche redeems it with his gift for language and characterization. Unlike other translations I’ve done here, this one’s poetic images and plot moved rather easily into English.

This is autumn: it — it just breaks your heart.”

After the poem establishes its “This is Autumn…” refrain by opening with it, the first full stanza has a graceful post-equinox image of a now lower sun against a mountain that would please Wang Wei. The poem’s second scene, set in a orchard with post-frost fruit starting to rot mixes sex and death tropes effectively. And then there’s that talking flower.

It takes some nerve to carry that scene off both as a writer and as a performer. I felt I had to push myself as a singer to portray the sunflower, and part of the reason I’ve started to put chord sheets up for some of my compositions here is to encourage better singers to improve on my attempts.

German November My Translation for song

Simple chords, but this one has opportunities for a singer.

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Because Nietzsche’s German moves fairly easily to English my translation doesn’t differ that much from the one in this link, which also provides you with the original German. One choice/change I made: I wanted to emphasize the existential angst of the sunflower and to strengthen an image—and so the original German: “in ihrem Auge glänzet dann/Erinnerung auf” gains a repeated word “memorial” reflected in the dying flower/eye. I also thought the implied pause in Nietzsche’s refrain: “This is autumn: it—just breaks your heart.” could be emphasized further by repeating the “it” for a stutter effect.

As I mentioned above, I went for it in this performance, and given my limits as a singer it may not be to everyone’s taste, but it was the best I could do given the more limited recording opportunities I have these days. The player gadget to hear it is below. Thanks for reading and listening in whatever November wherever you are.

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*Nietzsche died in 1900, late enough to give his ideas access to the early 20th century’s cultural ferment, but with the benefit that the proponent of those ideas wasn’t around to contradict the uses interpreters put them to.

**Byron’s Muse. I like to think I’ve outgrown youthful goth romanticism, which fits badly with my aged frame and less virginal connections to death, but Byron’s Muse sometimes reminds me that artistically there is still some attraction there.

O Let Me Be Alone Awhile

I’m going to take a walk around to get to a good small poem by Emily Bronte today. It won’t be a walk about the English moors, alas, but it’ll have to do in this otherwise wild and windy place we call the Internet.

My spouse and I have a worthwhile understanding that we are both a sort of introvert. Definitions vary between peoples and time, but one short definition of an introvert is that they are the people that gain strength and restoration from solitude rather than from gatherings of people. One can easily suspect that writers and their close allies, the readers, may be more likely introverts, but of course that’s not always so. That indispensable pioneer French Modernist Apollinaire*  was famously sociable within his element, a joyous bohemian boulevardier. Other writers, even while writing, seek out crowded places filled with voices and humanity to concentrate on their silent work. August Wilson, the great 20th century American dramatist, liked to write in cafes and coffee shops, places where other peoples’ voices were staging their own improvised plays.

But we can’t be sure that those two, or others like them, still aren’t introverts. My wife is good in typical social situations. I’m not. I’m so bad at social interactions that I’m sure I often leave a bad first, second, or last impression.**  Still, one thing that joins most introverts is that however well we perform the social whirl, it tires us out—and when we need to recharge it’s not a different self-selected group, even a group of friends or family, that we seek in order to recharge, instead it’s solitude.

So, I have a phrase that I use with my wife when she needs to recharge: “Oh, have a good time at your Introverts’ Support Group.” Which of course isn’t a group—it’s time alone.

I have a phrase that I use with my wife when she needs to recharge: “Oh, have a good time at your Introverts’ Support Group.” Which of course isn’t a group—it’s time alone.

This sort of time alone is particularly hard for non-wealthy women to find. In Bronte’s time a great deal of domestic and family labor was assumed to be their unquestionable duty, something that modern times and insufficient good intentions haven’t eliminated. I have some idea of the particular domestic duties of Emily Bronte admirer and like-named Emily, Emily Dickinson, but less of Bronte’s own family obligations, but I assume they were considerable.***

In our current Covid-19 age of shelter in place recommendations, the pressures of everyone at home may make more and more of us like unto residents of an isolated parsonage in the North of England like the Bronte’s. If so, today’s Emily Bronte poem, written it says in her collected poems on Sunday December 13th, 1840, may still speak to us. Arithmetic tells me Bronte would have been 22 when she wrote this. Here’s a link to the complete text in case you’d like to follow along.

Emily_Brontë_by_Patrick_Branwell_Brontë

Introvert Irony: the only image we have of Emily Bronte is a group portrait painted by her brother of her with her sisters.

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On publication this poem bore the title “Retirement,”  but I’ve chosen not to use it as I don’t think Bronte is using the word in the sense most of us use it today. I believe the sense she intends is more at a wish to retire (as one would “retire to bed”) to rest and refresh oneself after a day of labor.

Indeed, the scene she wishes for and describes may be staged in sleep and dreams—though if so, her dreams are outside, alone, and in God’s nature. My wife’s most favored respite spots are walking in parks, nature reserves, and around wild lake shores. For introverts like Emily Bronte, my wife, and I, a concertedly apprehended nature is the other that somehow comforts us.

When we last did an Emily Bronte poem as part of this project, it was her spooky poem “Spellbound”  in which the poem’s speaker seems to be suspended in the air figuratively or in imaginative actuality. Interestingly, in today’s joyous poem, the speaker speaks poetically of “wings,” and a wish to “quit this joyless sod,” and so is again in “mental flight” somewhere between heaven and earth. Just as if I wondered if A. E. Housman’s spell-caster’s poem and Bronte’s were in conversation, and if Emily Dickinson’s bird and hope poem was reacting to an Emily Bronte bird and hope poem, Bronte herself returns to an airborne state in today’s poem.

Wishing all the readers and listeners here the companionship and solitude they need and desire, and, and but, in the proper mixture!  The player gadget to hear my performance of Emily Bronte’s “O Let Me Be Alone Awhile”  is below.

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*102 years ago this month, Apollinaire died of the 1918 great influenza pandemic while still weakened from a wound he suffered in combat during the final days of WWI. The flu virus got him before he could see the end of that war, as noted in Tristan Tzara’s moving poem that I translated and presented here three years ago.

**I have something of the novelist’s eye for how those interactions can go wrong, but the social klutziness to do it all wrong anyway.

***Wikipedia says she did “most of the cooking, ironing, and cleaning” for her family.

The Cenotaph

Remembrance of warfare is a complex thing. There are forces for forgetfulness and memorial fighting inside us regarding war, and the entropic forces of time passing put a thumb on the scale as years pass. This Wednesday was once Armistice Day, the day when, for a mere two decades or so, countries celebrated solely the end of “The War to End All Wars.” In America this date eventually became Veterans Day, a holiday to celebrate all those who served in the military, particularly during wars—whereas we already had a spring holiday, Memorial Day, established in the years after our Civil War, to decorate graves of the fallen and to remember their deaths.*

In Great Britain and other countries in the Commonwealth, November 11th continued as the Remembrance Day, and the deaths of WWII or other subsequent conflicts were incorporated, and the holiday remained unchanged, save for the erosions of time. It remains a solemn day. The Sunday nearest the 11th has royal celebrations in London centered around a memorial there, The Cenotaph,** and it’s still customary on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to pause for a couple of minutes of silence to remember those who died seeking to reach that Armistice Day. This results in an odd divide: Armistice Day was generally a festive, celebratory holiday in 20th century America with joyful parades celebrating surviving veterans.

But that is just the surface of the complexity of the remembrance of war, where the questions of the wisdom or justification for a particular war are adjacent to the undeniable sacrifice of the war’s dead. Those questions are left to the war’s survivors who, from some level of power or acquiescence, made those judgements. In America, so fraught are those two strands of thinking about wars, that we have come to strictly segregate these two issues, out of fear or concerns that to speak of the evils of wars is to speak evil of our dead countrymen, or that to speak of the folly of some wars would denigrate the last full sacrifice.

The_Cenotaph_the_Morning_of_the_Peace_Procession_by_Sir_William_Nicholson

This painting by William Nicholson shows the temporary London cenotaph that was put up for the first Remembrance Day in 1919. Note the flowers strewn at it’s base, and a woman adding to them in this portrayal by Nicholson and echoed in Mew’s poem.

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Today’s piece, “The Cenotaph,”   was written by a British poet, Charlotte Mew in time for the first anniversary of the Armistice, the first Remembrance Day, in 1919. Here’s a link to the full text if you’d like to follow along. It begins with nods to conventional rhetoric about the sorrow of those who lost loved ones, it voices sentimental tropes of the dead in “splendid sleep” and the grave as a bed. I was not sure how to perform those lines. Mew’s poem is complex, not just in syntax and some long lines and sentences that can trip up the breath. If one was to read it with only casual attention, more than three-fourths of it can seem a conventional Victorian poem of mourning—but read or listen to it all the way through!  It ends with a statement of anger so shocking that it should make you reconsider how you read the opening body of the poem. No spoilers here—it’s best to experience this by reading the poem or listening to my performance via the player gadget below.

In my performance I tried to subtly undercut some of those early phrases, but I’m not sure if I (or anyone) can successfully portray the totality of Mew’s poem. Musically I got to write a fanfare, something I hadn’t done before now, and then there’s a quieter, contrasting motif played at the end on a bassoon and two English horns.

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*In some ways the American Civil War experience was similar to the British WWI experience, as the levels of mass casualties Americans suffered in the mid 19th century conflict previewed the shocking casualties the British and Commonwealth soldiers suffered in WWI. America entered WWI late and suffered proportionally fewer deaths from the combat.

**The London Cenotaph in Whitehall, central to Remembrance Day activities in England, particularly since the advent of mass media, is not the only one. Many other cities erected their own versions. Cenotaph means “empty tomb” and the imposing markers were meant to be local sites for decorating and mourning the war dead that were largely buried near foreign battlefields as the logistical challenges of so many dead prevented them from being repatriated. Mew is not in fact describing the particular London Cenotaph in her poem, for when she wrote her poem it didn’t even exist yet, though it was planned and a temporary structure was in place by the first Remembrance Day in 1919. So like Keats’ “Grecian Urn”  it’s not a  cenotaph, but the concept of a great war memorial in the center of the marketplace that she grapples with.

Mew’s 1919 poem appears to be the first WWI poem to discuss the Cenotaph concept. I’ve yet to find the text of a 1920 poem by pacifist veteran Max Plowman written after the monument was completed, and there is this remarkable 1922 poem by Ursula Roberts, also called “The Cenotaph”  that seems to echo Frances Cornford’s non-war-related “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train”  from 1910.

O honey-bees, come build in the empty house of the stare

I have my partisan convictions, you may have them too. And yes, our particular governmental and economic  institutions are imperfect instruments. Natural forces only partially in our control and as small as a virus and as large as a changing atmosphere are still arrayed against not just our nation, but our planet. Proud racial and ethnic caste systems divide our forces against these things.

How to be humble and not loose heart? How to rejoice if there are things to do? Well, I believe that without joy we cannot achieve any needed changes or maintain any necessary things—but there’s much I don’t know, and as with all the things I think or say, my beliefs and actions are less important than yours, particularly if you are younger than I am. Laugh at all that clap-trap about named generations with variant but supposedly sharp an defended borders and a fixed list of characteristics like some crummy astrological sign summary. You are, or you need to be, The Greatest Generation.

White House and the US Capitol

William Butler Yeats said about his country a century ago: O honey-bees/Come build in the empty house of the stare.
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I hope to have new audio pieces with posts  in the next week, and there are lots of them already posted here. Here’s one of those older pieces you may not have heard yet, featuring the words, voice, and keyboard playing of Dave Moore titled “No Common Ground.”  The player gadget to hear it is below.

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As we wait….

A momentous week in the United States as election results are counted, and I’m frankly distracted from my normal creative routine. But as we wait, I can offer this piece by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that I presented as part of a celebration of American Independence Day last July.

Longfellow House and remains of trolley tracks

Mixed metaphors: ships and trains. Minneapolis has a replica of Longfellow’s famous house, if you look closely outside it, you can find remnants of trolley tracks that now start and finish under the earth.

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As we noted back then,  Longfellow’s 19th century American poem was sent by Franklin Roosevelt to Winston Churchill during the darkened days of WWII in the middle of the 20th. Maybe it speaks to Longfellow’s country here in our 21st century. The player to hear my performance of Longfellow’s “Sail On, Oh Ship of State”   is below.

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Election Day

I recall being on the shores of Lake Superior, North America’s great internal sea, on the morning of the last U. S. Presidential election, a day very early in the run of this Project. The lake and wind were calm, and I was out alone at dawn at a place where you could hear the water-lapped gravel stones at one part of the shore clinking against others.

I arose this morning at dawn in my diverse urban neighborhood and rode and old bicycle down to a low creek near the border of the city. That waterway is running low, exposing the ragged banks it used to wear. On the way back I picked up a take-out breakfast and rode past my voting place where I saw some of my fellow citizens entering and exiting to do what I had already done a few weeks ago.

I am ill at ease for my country, my family, and myself, something that accelerated throughout this year. I’ve read all the information, added to it all my speculations, but I have no source or way of knowing if that helps. It seems likely that my country’s fate will be decided in varied places across a continent, by a group of people I don’t know, by rank strangers like and unlike me.

We call that system democracy. Our republic filters and strains that democracy, weighs us unequally. There are days that call to mind diverted poet Winston Churchill’s famous line “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time….” and other days were my mind’s ear hears singing poet Leonard Cohen*  intoning that “Democracy is coming (slight, sly, pause…) to the U.S.A.

Our Books

Books and votes and viruses and a world that weighs them with a right thumb in your eye and a left thumb on the scales. And you? Close your fist to protest. Open your fist to read, to vote, to grasp each others hand.

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I know some come to this blog to find something other than politics and self-assertion, and others as a break or supplement to earnest efforts at those things. Readership and listening stats here have never been higher, even as many of you have no-doubt been as troubled as I have been this year, so I feel the call to leave you with something today. I have picked a text from a writer that I often turn to in troubles: Carl Sandburg. When I first presented this audio piece, I said that Sandburg had seen every evil and injustice I had seen, would not deny what he had seen, but still retained an embrace of humanity. So, I’ll give you a selection again from his “The People, the Mob”  for this election day. The player gadget should appear below.

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*That Cohen died on the eve of that last U. S. Presidential election still seems like an epitaphic metaphor.

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The Listeners

I have one more audio piece for our Halloween celebration, this one using a mysterious poem by Walter de la Mare. The way it goes about being scary is unusual—weird even.

After you read or hear it today, how would you describe what’s frightening about it to someone else who doesn’t know this poem, “The Listeners?”   Would you find that a hard task? Our previous two Halloween pieces have easy anchors to something describably frightening. Even though those two are short poems, you could point out their fright potential just as one could blurb a Stephen King novel or a horror genre film. Bronte’s “Spellbound”  has its character held unable to move as cold night approaches. While it’s not “spelled out” (and there’s a jump scare for you: boo! language play!) it is implied that this immobile state has the character suspended in the air. And Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing”  has poisons and weapons drawn and multiple deaths assured.

OK, now watch a movie in your mind of de la Mare’s “The Listeners”  with the sound off. A man rides up to a somewhat elaborate house in a woods at night. Close up: you see his hand knocks on the door. And he knocks again. And one more time—oh the heavy suspense—he knocks a third time. No one comes to the door. Back to wide shot: he rides off. Gripping! I was on the edge of my seat! Goosebumps!

Now of course suspense, fright, that sense of out-of-joint weirdness are all subjective feelings inside an audience. Nothing is assured to be delivered by any artist or writer’s work, no more than all readers will find something sexy, delicious, or beautiful. But almost nothing happens here, and that little is not unusual, at least in the days when the horse was unremarkable transportation, back before we Zoomed or IM’ed our associates instead of riding over to them.

But if you listen to “The Listeners”  (hey, is that title a clue?) you may get that ghost story jolt that de la Mare intended. After enjoying this as a poem (full text here) or in my song version, let’s look at some details of how de la Mare casts his spell.

First off, the poem is full of assertions of silence. For something that’s not a there, there—it won’t shut up about it. Helping us endure the author pointing and asking us to notice that, some of the descriptions of silence are quite nice I think, particularly the last one: “The silence surged softly backward.” And oddly, to enforce our sense of the silence, sound effects are used in a couple of places to richen the silence. We can hear the mouth of the horse grazing early in the poem as his rider goes to the door. And as the rider mounts up to leave, we can hear the sound of the leather stirrup strap stretching as his sole meets the stirrup and then the differing sound of the horse’s shoed hooves when they strike a rock in the forest trail away from the house. What we hear enforces the feeling of silence.

Dialog (strictly speaking, monologue) is used sparingly, but it finally tells with the rider’s final utterance. This is no chance encounter, though the rider is called “The Traveller” he’s not a curious passerby or a man looking for a cup of oats for his empty-tank horse. That this is an unexplained appointment is a wonderful choice! Like the silence it can let us fill it with detail.

I just got done exchanging new work this month with a small group of poets that have been doing this for decades. I’m sure many of my responses were suggestions to clear something up or to expand something the poem seems to start but doesn’t finish. And the same was likely said about my work. I thought my advice was valid when I gave it, if only from an example reader, but “The Listeners”  points out there’s no law that a poem needs to answer every expectation—maybe instead there’s a statute that says that at least in a small yet significant way it needs to surprise or even confound expectation.

And yes, that title: “The Listeners”  really helps here. The rider knows they’re there somehow, just not in the state or mood to answer. Like the silence, their nonappearance is silhouetted with outlines of absence.

The Listeners Turn2

She Don’t Care About Time. Walter de la Mare’s writing had an affinity for the weird, so David Crosby’s anachronistic cape seems fitting.

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I went with one of my favorite rock music sounds today, the 12-string electric guitar, an instrument made indispensable for a short time in my youth by The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. The 12-string electric is an unusual instrument today, as rare to see in a guitar store as a horseman is on the road now. I bought mine a couple of decades ago because I love the sound McGuinn and his engineers developed for it, which I exploit today. The player to hear my presentation of Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners”  is below. Thanks for being one of the Parlando Project’s listeners.

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Her Strong Enchantments Failing

Here’s another Halloween short poem with a supernatural spell and struggle in it, this time by British poet A. E. Housman. I found it spookily similar to Emily Bronte’s short poem from last time—but while Bronte’s poem wrung its fear from being frozen, this one is more hot-blooded.

Housman retains a degree of non-academic popularity in England but is less well known here in the United States. Academics on both sides of the Atlantic soured on his poetry during the 20th century as it didn’t hew to the Modernist ways of expression, because they viewed much of his verse as sentimental, not complex and allusive, and he often dealt with humble English characters. He’s not alone in that fate, but it’s somewhat ironic in that Housman was himself a formidable scholar, specializing in classical Latin poetry.

I found Housman’s language in “Her Strong Enchantments Failing”  as brisk and unemotional as an epigraph, despite its fantastic element. It would be easy to present as a pulp tale that starts with a statement about a failing spellcaster that by the fourth line has a knife at her neck. It moves as fast as any hardboiled fiction. Here’s a link to the text if you’d like to check it out.

The final two stanzas give us the summary, the box score, of a battle between the spellcaster and the knife-wielder. There’s no rigmarole of dice throws, just the final inning laid out as the poem ends with each character left a mystery.

All we know of the spellcaster, she with the weakened spell, is that she’s viewed as some kind of evil principal portrayed as at ease with killing. We’re told less about the other character, only that he’s young and a man, and that he’s got the upper hand holding the blade.

…this poem and Emily Bronte’s ‘Spellbound’  from last time have strange correspondences…”

Housman seems to be taking the young man’s side in the tale. His opponent is called the “Queen of air and darkness” here. I said this poem and Emily Bronte’s “Spellbound”  from last time have strange correspondences, perhaps only coincidental—but in Bronte’s “Spellbound”  the subject is held, apparently suspended, frozen in the darkening air. If we jam the poems together, our knife holding young man is a spellcaster too, and as today’s episode opens with a “previously on the Parlando Project…” connection, he was able to freeze our Queen, destroy her fearful towers and vials of poison. Bronte’s “Spellbound”  character isn’t described, but perhaps she shares Emily Bronte’s gender, and we sympathize and shiver with her for the length of Bronte’s poem. Bronte says the spell that binds her character is from a tyrant.

A E Housman

A. E. Housman, humble classics scholar, thinking how he could beat Emily Bronte in a fantasy boss fight

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There’s nothing that says the young man who is ready to kill an evil spellcasting Queen in Housman’s poem is not themselves a spellcaster and maybe not a humble freedom fighter either. After all, to slightly alter the old saw, who wants to bring a knife to a spellcasting fight? In my performance I couldn’t help but start to sympathize with this doomed formerly formidable Queen, even it she’s evil, or said to be so.

Well, that’s two good weird-tales poems now in our celebration of Halloween. The player to hear A. E. Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing”  is below. There may be time to do a third Halloween tale yet this month. Check back to see.

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Emily Bronte’s Spellbound

Let’s begin our celebration of Halloween here at the Parlando Project with a setting of a short poem by Emily Bronte that starts “The night is darkening round me.” What a marvelous short poem it is too.

Halloween here in the northland of Minnesota is in some years an early winter holiday, and this late year’s late October seems one of those. I’ve awakened to temperatures in the teens Fahrenheit already this month, snow and ice are on the ground, and of course it’s already twilight at 6 pm. So, given that the speaker in Bronte’s poem is enchanted by a spell, it’s easy to see this from my landscape as a Halloween poem, but if you are farther south you can consider it a Winter Solstice one. And if you live in the tropics? Well, I do promise “Other People’s Stories” here.

My wife and I live by the Norwegian proverb about there being no bad weather, only bad clothes. Our love gifts tend not to be lingerie or sharp dress duds, but things like merino wool and handlebar pogies*.  We each try to keep up outdoor activities in the winter, and as long as you are active, such clothing works well.

But Bronte opens up in a different situation. It’s night. It’s cold. It’s windy. And our poem’s speaker has been spellbound out in it. They can’t leave. The poem, short as it is, tolls a refrain over and over, the speaker “cannot go.”

spellbound

I played this with the eerie, hook-like appendage guitarists call “a capo,” so it sounds in Bb in the recording.

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And the second stanza says the weather is getting, what? Worse! There’s already heavy snow on the tree branches. Where is the speaker bound in this spell in the foreboding night with a further storm coming on?

Not even hunkered down in a sheltered area or behind a windbreak. They are frozen (not soon to be a metaphoric word!) somewhere between the sky’s clouds and the winter, snow-covered wastes below. When I read this poem, I pictured the spellbound speaker held supernaturally some distance in the air (makes it easier to view the snow-load on those tree branches), but if you are less fantastic you could view them on a ridge or hillside and able to view lowland areas below, but still more than minimally exposed to the weather. I’ve even read a reading where the writer thought that Bronte had placed the speaker in Purgatory, and the clouds are heaven and the lower wastes hell. Well, Emily Bronte was a PK** and all, so that’s not impossible, but I’ll still take the picture with what Bronte gives us, stark as it is—and in its moment, without any route to salvation.***

Other close readers note the subtle change in the last “cannot go” refrain. The speaker says “I will not…go” the last time, not “I cannot…go.” Do they want to be in this predicament? Is there a kinky love bond with the tyrant who has them trapped in the spell? Plausible reading. My sensibility hears this “will” as a final realization that there’s no way out from the spell, that the speaker is not just temporarily trapped and cannot go, but they will be so in any future they can see.

So, a Halloween-scary poem. Back in the “real world” that we hope is safe enough to tell each other scary stories, we can reflect how this trope of being in a situation of oncoming dread and not being able to move is a common bad dream. Or if you, or someone you know, suffers from S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) you may find the winter darkness brings on a torpor that’s hard to break out of.

A simple setting for today’s piece: guitar, bass, and piano. The weather’s too cold and dark to drag an orchestra outside I guess. I plan to be back with more Halloween spells this week, time allowing, so check follow, or check back. The player gadget to hear my performance of Emily Bronte’s “Spellbound”  also known as “The Night is Darkening Around Me”  is below.

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*Pogies are neoprene hoods that allow one to operate bicycle controls inside their wind and warm shelter while wearing only normal gloves rather than bulky insulated mittens. They are the only solution that really works for subzero F. cold on bikes.

**PK means “Preachers Kid.” A class that Parlando Project alternate voices Dave Moore and my wife share with me. One thing this experience usually leads to is a youthful exposure to a lot of sermons. “Heaven and Hell” may not just be someone’s favorite Black Sabbath LP—or it may be, but one has yet another context for that.

***In its short, stark, three stanza format that could repeat in any order, and it’s no way out of here situation, this poem is sort of Emily Bronte’s “All Along the Watchtower.”  Except, Emily’s speaker has no one to talk this doom over with. A like-named Emily, Emily Dickinson, would appreciate the solitary nature of this kind of Bronte poetry. Earlier in this blog we discussed that Dickinson’s “Hope” in her famous “Hope’ is a thing with feathers”  poem may have been quoting Emily Bronte.