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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The Night Is Freezing Fast

One peculiarity in the process of producing these pieces is that I plan sometimes based on odd intuitions. So, as I was looking forward to another session with LYL Band keyboard player Dave Moore late this fall I made a snap decision.

I had earlier noted this turn-of-December poem by A. E. Housman and made a note that it would be a good way to transition from the autumn to winter season here. That’s planning.

Then intuition stopped by.

Is intuition the Manic Pixie Dream Girl or Disreputable Boy Friend of an artist’s mind? I don’t know, but intuition was suggesting that for music I could combine Housman’s words with Motörhead. Somehow it’s hard for me to visualize the graceful classical muses dancing about me with their lyres and lutes suggesting this sort of thing.

Minerva and the Nine Muses by Hendrick van Balen

Yes Dave, I’ve been working with cellos, violins and acoustic guitars a lot this fall. But the muses are suggesting: Lemmy!

 

 

I had less than a day to add more “plan” to this intuition. I listened to some Motörhead to refresh myself on them, and quickly settled on their name-sake song “Motorhead”  as a rough template for what I’d try to do with Dave the next day. Taking the Housman poem text, I added some refrains* to bring out more song-like qualities, and to closer match the text of Lemmy’s “Motorhead”  song.

Motörhead performs “Motorhead” for a group of people who seem to be waiting for the 12-step group meeting to start

 

 

Dave arrived and we did a quick pass through with the original lyrics to get the sense of the musical donor for this dodgy operation. I dropped a chord or two of this already simple song form, and then we were on to attempting “The Night is Freezing Fast.”

This week I listened to what we put down that day.

Dave acquitted himself admirably, as he often does, with this spontaneity. And the take you’ll hear below also has my original guitar playing from the session. But there was one substantial fault to it: all the tempo I could push myself to that day was still too slow for Motorhead.

Honoring intuition with plan, I none-the-less pressed on completing “The Night is Freezing Fast.”  I added bass guitar to the track, guitar under the guitar solo (it wasn’t manic enough to stand without a second guitar) and recorded a final vocal.

What you can hear with the player below is an imperfect mixture of plan and intuition. Considering it now I think the intuition was even better than I hoped. The overall plot of Housman’s poem is a little gem: the onset of cold winter recalls to the poem’s speaker the otherwise un-explained Dick who hated the cold—and then a mere one additional verse comes which by sideways description tells us that Dick is dead and buried.

I’m not familiar with English idiom of Housman’s time and place, but one line in his text “prompt hand, and headpiece clever” is colorfully awkward to me, but in the context of the poem I read a stalwart and resourceful friend or workman being described.

Lemmy’s lyrics had a strong fatalistic tendency that meshes well here. The lines I added that were meant to echo “Motorhead’s”  structure added an extra element to Housman’s spare poem, bringing out an undercurrent that’s there but easily missed. Housman says the dead friend has become the “turning globe:” he’s now part of the eternal seasons. The sea change (or ice change) that’s occurred implies that he’s become December, the always returning season of fresh death. In the run out after the verses I started interjecting some cries in the manner of John Lee Hooker.**  Melding Lemmy and Housman was intuition’s idea, and a good one.

My planning and execution were, I think, less successful. On the other hand, it’s the best Housman/Lemmy mashup you’ll likely hear today (or most other days). Housman’s original text is here. Lemmy’s lyrics to “Motorhead”  are here, suitable for your next book club or 12-step meeting. The player to hear the LYL Band performance of “The Night Is Freezing Fast”  is below.

 

 

 

 

*Refrains, choruses, hooks—these sorts of things tend to make page-words more song-like. In this project I’m helped by having a liking for songs and other musical expressions with words that don’t use those structures, but in this case I thought they’d also help intensify some elements in Housman’s poem, and in this setting, intensity is a requirement.

**Specifically, I was recalling Hooker’s “I’m Goin’ Upstairs,”  which ends with a magnificent and mysterious verse and an upper register ululation that chills me every time I hear it. Here are Hooker’s lyrics and the most-well-known recording.