One of the odd things that can happen to a poem is for a single line to become remembered while the poem itself may fade out of fashion. Today’s poem, which is likely to be our final poem for this April’s American National Poetry Month was published in the middle of the 19th century by an Englishman who was away from his home country in Italy. So yes, this one goes out to my faithful British listeners — but, at least in my country, about all that remains of it is the poem’s opening two lines: “Oh to be in England/Now that April’s there.*”
I didn’t know what poem it came from before this month. I didn’t even know it was from a poem, or that Robert Browning wrote it. A poem like his wife’s Sonnet 43 “How Do I Love Thee? Let me count the ways.” may be similarly antique in age and language, but I recall, however hazily, something of the whole of that poem, it’s sense, and meaning.
Robert Browning, making the chin-beard somehow work for him.
So, what is this poem saying, what is it on about? It’s a poem very much of longing for one’s home. A romantic catalog of nature details from the English countryside is mentioned: birds, trees, flowers. I’m ignorant enough about such things that I can’t tell you the song or plumage of any of the birds (I even mispronounced the name of one of them in my performance), I know little of the exact trees, and only a bit more of the blossoms and flowers listed, but I think the poem survives this ignorance. The catalog is enough to demonstrate that there’s a specific spring, specific to place (and by now, perhaps to time), that Browning is missing.
There are three telling lines in the midst of this nature catalog. Early in the poem Browning says that if someone simply wakes in an English April morning, they are unaware. This is of course not universally true, some will awake to marvel at a Spring morning wherever their bed is, but Browning’s point is that some will not, and by implication that he himself often didn’t. Another telling line: in remembering the birdsong of the thrush** he says that the bird sings each song twice, seemingly to prove that the bird had fully absorbed and internalized the rapture of Spring, so that it can recall it at will. That opens the question of if Browning feels in his poem if he has been able to do the same, to recall what he is now separated from. Perhaps it’s more so than remembrance. It’s often said that nostalgia and memory increase the sense that what is gone was better and more intense than it was.
Which brings us to the third telling line, which is almost a throwaway in Browning’s version of his poem, but the one I’ve chosen to make a refrain that I think changes and reframes the poem: “In England now.”
Browning’s use of the line may have been largely a rhyming choice in the series of “bough,” “now,” “follows,” and “swallows” — but rhyme, like chance effects beloved by some Modernists, may cause the mind to go elsewhere or to bring out things it would not consciously choose. By making “In England now” a refrain, it sits beside and comments on nearly every part of Browning’s original poem. My intent is that this refrain will bring out different responses to different listeners, perhaps even different responses to a single listener as it reappears. To test that out, you can hear my performance with a player gadget if you see it below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab and play it.
**In other April poetry, we’ve just finished our serialized performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” which features a thrush singing in its concluding section performed and presented here earlier this month. Eliot’s thrush singing in the pine trees he wrote in his notes to “The Waste Land,” was from his personal memories of camping in Canada as a youth.
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.
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.
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.
*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.
There used to be a thing, back in the Seventies when “The Sixties” were being established as a retrospective era: “The Beatles or The Stones?” The idea was that this choice, which was supposed to be somehow exclusive, was an “opener,” a what’s your (astrological) sign query that would tell the questioner who you were—or at the least start a conversation.*
Among the smallish subset of 20th century young people who liked poetry in English and were inclined to the Romantic revolution launched by Wordsworth and Coleridge at the beginning of the 19th century, one could play a similar game: “Byron, Keats, or Shelley?”
Sarcastic Byron “Mad, bad and dangerous to know” was the bad boy. Shelley was the beautiful intellectual, the man whose genetic material you wanted to incorporate. And Keats was the misunderstood outsider, the garageman’s son who presumed words alone could elevate him.
English Romantic poetry’s boy band—choose your poster.
I was easily a Keats man in this forced choice. I’m not sure, but I think Parlando alternate voice and keyboardist Dave Moore was a Byron guy back then. Early supporter of this blog, Daze and Weekes, Shelley. There are no wrong choices there, and when it comes down to it, no necessarily exclusive choices there either.
Keats hasn’t played a lot here in the Parlando Project. I’ve expanded my interests much since my teenaged years, and I guess the English Romantics have fallen back into the pack of poetic schools as I moved on to other things. Coincidence can bring Keats back though.
Unheard music will Not Fade Away! John Keats and his “Chirping” Crickets.
Last weekend I hesitantly went to the newly reopened Minneapolis Institute of the Arts with my family. It was my wife’s idea, a way she hoped would be fairly safe in these Covid-19 times and still get us out of the house. She wanted to see a special exhibit on the immigrant experience. I thought I’d like to review their Chinese section.**
I may well write about the immigrant exhibit later, but the reason I wanted to do a bit of a wander in the Chinese wing was from my recent presentations of 8th century Tang dynasty poets here: Du Fu, Wang Wei, and Li Bai. As it turns out the holdings are a bit lacking in artifacts from that time. While this was a golden age for classical Chinese culture, that might not have carried over to the tastes or availabilities of objects to Western collectors.
But as I wandered the hall, I noticed something that had persisted in Chinese culture for centuries that I hadn’t encountered before. Beside a large, lacquered Chinese string instrument (the size of a pedal-steel guitar), there was a note that Chinese interest in music extended to modifying pet crickets vibrating wing edges with metallic powders and resins to increase the qualities of the cricket’s song. That grabbed this music-nerd’s interest! I started to examine other displays: there were cages and holders for pet crickets, tiny dishes in cricket-scale to feed them, and in one, two tiny wands, like fine detail paint brushes, only finer, the brush a single small hair. These, the note told us, were cricket ticklers designed to encourage the insects to start their music.***
Beatles or Stones? Qin, songbirds, or crickets? The sort of things that a Chinese scholar might have in China during the time of Keats.
I’d already been looking at Emma Lazarus’ summer sounds poem before this trip, with its pairing of cricket-chirp with far-off children’s laughter. And then I found this slight little sonnet by John Keats, another one with crickets. My favorite short Keats poem, “In the Drear-Nighted December” is a fine quasi-Buddhist meditation on suffering depicted as an appreciation of a frozen winter water-run. This one, “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket” doesn’t strike my heart as strongly, but it’s still charming in comparing warm days and winter. This one has almost a Midwestern tang to it. I could see James Whitcomb Riley or Paul Laurence Dunbar writing it. The humble man in nature noting the grasshopper’s**** song even in the hottest summer days, and the comparison of the like sound of a housebound cricket chirping behind a wood stove in darkest winter.
The player gadget to hear my performance of John Keats’ “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket” is below.
*Don’t ask a music-nerd like me this question. Yes, I understand the points it’s attempting to weigh, but I won’t be able to resist spilling out mini-improvised essays on The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Zombies, The Kinks and so on, and then I’ll interrogate the now exhausted and bored questioner about how these exotic British acts are viewed as “saving” us from Bobby Rydell et al, when Afro-American jazz and R&B artists—right on the other side of town in a lot of cases here in the U.S. —were doing vital work then that inspired these Brits. You can see I’m no fun at parties now, can’t you.
**Like some American museums that date from the late 19th century, Asian art was a significant part of the MiA collection. A significant number of wealthy collectors then were interested in the “exotic east.”
***There’s more I learned. Besides keeping them as pets and enjoying their music, cricket fights were a broad Chinese cultural thing as well, and because a full-formed cricket’s life span is but a few months even without visits to the Disabled List, an entire industry rose up in the capture of crickets for song and sport, with a hunting season in August and September gathering the most from the wild.
****Despite their somewhat similar appearance and sounds, the cricket makes its spiccato with its wing-edges, the grasshopper with its legs. I plucked a 12-string guitar and had double-basses provide some heavy late-summer air for this piece, but probably the most cricket-like sounds in the recording are from a marimba. The old saw says that if you take the number of cricket chirps in a quarter-hour and add 40 to it you’ll get the temperature in Fahrenheit. If so, this is a fairly cool bpm cricket.
Let’s launch the Parlando Project’s celebration of National Poetry Month with one more poem about march, about spring, and about joy. And oh, could I use some joy in this uncertain pandemic plagued spring! You too?
I’ve chosen to use this poem, “Written In March,” by British poet William Wordsworth today. National Poetry Month is a U.S. thing—but that’s OK, because I’m going to make him an American for the day by combining his original English rural scene with some American music: the blues.
Lots of folks will think of ways to celebrate poetry this April. The Parlando Project has been doing our odd part for several years now.
This is not so wild a thought as you might think. While Wordsworth is not the kind of early 20th century Modernist that I often feature here, a century before them he helped make a statement for plainer speaking and broader subject matter in his landmark Preface to the Lyrical Ballads in 1801. He famously stated there that poetry is simply “Emotion recollected in tranquility.” Among the things that he and his fellow English Romantic movement poets looked to for influences were folk music and ballads.
American blues was created by the uncrowned Afro-American Modernists of the early 20th century. Since there was very little authentically American “serious music” in 1900, and what there was they weren’t exactly welcomed in it, they created a Modernist form of their own device. We could call it a folk music, but then Louis Armstrong was fairly sure “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.” Musically it used all kinds of things, some of it was from African nations their forebears had been abducted from, some of it was from native American soil, some of it was from other immigrants, some too may have been from indigenous Americans, and some of it had to have been the creation of their own minds, needs, and creativity. Musically it has many descendants, and its core is the greater part of what makes something musical distinctly recognized as American around the world.
That this form could be called “The Blues” was a problematic branding, because the term then and now can be confused with a long-existing synonym for sadness or depression. While there are sad and pitiful blues songs, the typical stance of a blues to trouble is to say that it’s wise to the situation, that even if the singer is beaten down by something, that they’re still here. And many Blues songs are also perfectly happy to be joyous, and that’s the mode I went for today.
So, I maintain that this is a reasonably natural combination. Wordsworth wants to tell us a rural tale of winter’s end arriving, of fields and livestock thriving, of an outdoors that welcomes us again with open arms. In this year’s troubled spring we may not have a full measure of spring’s blessings, but we are still given a portion. Let’s devour the portion we’re given all the more joyously even if the serving may be smaller this year.
I played acoustic slide guitar for this one, using a favorite guitar variety used by early American blues musicians: the resonator guitar invented by Slovakian immigrant John Dopyera. It’s essentially a big pie-plate-sized metal speaker cone driven by the strings of an otherwise more-or-less conventional guitar that houses it. The guitar is retuned to a non-standard tuning that many blues players called “Spanish” and some think may have been learned from Mexican laborers that crossed paths with the Afro-Americans in the southern U.S. I wear a ceramic tube on a finger of my fretting hand to stop the notes, and this sliding tube on top of the strings gives legato note transitions and microtones. Many players can use this slide guitar technique fluidly, giving the guitar a smooth legato note envelope as the only artifact of using the slide, but I also enjoy letting other possible artifacts stand out more, putting a mic near to the fretboard so I can hear the heavy slide strike against the strings or even slap the fretboard wood at times.
Join us over April’s National Poetry Month to see what else we can come up with to surprise you with. If you want to sample the range of different things we do immediately, our archives here have over 400 other examples of words (mostly poetry) combined with original music.
Frances Cornford is a 20th century poet that is close to unknown in the United States, despite achieving some degree of success in Britain. She’s sometimes classed there as a “Georgian poet,”* a grouping that like the Imagists produced several contemporary anthologies in that century’s teens and twenties.
It’s not a term used much in America, even in literary circles, as the 20th century Modernist revolution and American hegemony in general brought so many American voices to the first rank of English language writing. The closest to an American “Georgian Poet” might be Robert Frost, whose first book length collection was published while he was living in England and building a close connection with British writer Edward Thomas who was labeled a Georgian poet.
Georgian poets are often set in opposition to the Imagists and the Modernist movement in general, even though they shared the same times, events, and places with each other, and even though occasional friendships and other affinities might cross between the groups. As Modernism “won” the war after WWI and the crises of the Thirties and Forties, Georgian poets were often seen as too tied to old poetic formalism and nostalgia—and even more damningly, to not fully appreciate the absurdities and dangerous forces of the modern world.
Labels are after all just sticky paper, but in reading poets like Frost and Thomas, I don’t see a pure division. Thomas and Frost’s outlook is just as Modernist as any, just as bleak and unsure of any easy consolation.** What they don’t share with many Modernists is a conviction that seemingly random assemblages of images with obscure rational connections are a useful and powerful tactic in expressing a reality.
Frances Cornford has a singularly interesting back story, one that (so far) I only know the outlines of. On her father’s side she’s the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, one of the founders of modern science. On her mother’s side, she’s descended from William Wordsworth, a great reformer of verse in English at the turn of the 19th century. She seems to be whip smart, but her poetry may have a deceptive surface. Just to glance at it on the page or rattle it off the tongue, some of it looks and sounds like light verse, the kind of thing that might speak of little foibles and humorous misapprehensions. But then there comes a line that seems out of place, almost a mistake. When I first presented her earlier this month, the “sticks out” line in that poem was “O fat white woman who nobody loves.” Even if we may read that line differently than she intended, I think this smart writer intended for us to be surprised and arrested by it.
Frock coats to black turtlenecks. Frances Cornford: roughly like being a descendent of Dylan and Steve Jobs today.
Today’s Cornford piece, “Missing,” is even shorter. Two lines in (but ¼ of the way in this very compressed poem!) we might think we are about to get a piece of humorous verse musing about “just where did I put that.”
Wham! “Dead soldiers or unposted letters…”
If this was a Dada or Surrealist collage we might be forewarned by stylistic expectations, not just that a war casualty is about to drop into our short poem, but that it would be joined with something as mundane and as overlooked as an unsent letter. Like Cornford’s “Fat white woman” line it risks seeming like bad poetry or an example of egregious insensitivity.
But of course, this was a woman who lived through both World Wars. She named one of her sons after Rupert Brooke, the doomed Georgian poet whom she knew, and who would die in WWI. And that son then was killed fighting on the side of the republic in the Spanish Civil War.
Taken inside, as small, strange poems can be, Cornford’s “Missing” may make you see differently, think differently. Also, these poems have made me think again about the value of risking “bad poetry.”
To hear my performance of “Missing,” use the player below. I liked the simplicity of the music today, just strumming guitar and voice, as I worked on a more complicated piece that you might soon hear. Maybe you’ll like it too.
*In 1910 the British king Edward died and King George V was crowned. He lived until 1936, so his reign was a handy shorthand for a group of British poets whose careers emerged just before WWI.
**The group of American women poets, sometimes given the label “Songbird Poets” (Teasdale, Millay, Wylie, and to some degree Taggard and Bogan) who are favorites here have some of the same position and problems with “High Modernism”.
Continuing on with lyric poetry, that short form of compressed immediacy, here’s a poem that seems to be better known in Britain that it is here: Frances Cornford’s “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train” first published in 1910.
I think it illustrates one of the things about good lyric poetry of the Imagist* type: it may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s always true. Almost immediately this poem was recognized as “wrong” by many (most?) readers. It could, and was, easily seen as unfeeling, or an expression of cruelty to the extent it has implied feeling. How the hell does the poet on the train know anything about that fat white lady in gloves? Early responses seemed to dislike the compression they read as glibness; more current readers see haughty fat-shaming.
Good lyric poetry of the Imagist type: it may be right or it may be wrong, but it’s always true.
I haven’t found anywhere where Cornford wrote about her intent with this poem. Given that she lived a long life and this poem became her best-known one, she must have said or written something, but lacking that I’m left to react to the text itself.
The objectionable is the poem’s third line. If the poem did not include it, I doubt any significant number of readers would dislike the poem. Let’s look again at that line: “O fat white woman whom nobody loves.”
If that was a social media post today, one can see the storm breaking rapidly. It sounds like it’s “kicking down” doesn’t it? Our graceless current President could easily tweet this line at someone who disapproved or challenged him, and regardless of one’s political stance, his demeaning meaning would be clear. But even in this short poem that stands alone with no testimony from its author, context may change how we read it.
What’s changed since 1910? “Fat” stands in a strange place in our culture currently. There are elements that regard it as somewhere between a sinful sign and a regrettable disease, but also strong elements that wish to make fat-shaming disreputable. Our general agreement, best as I can read it, is to allow “fat,” like curse words, as something we allow or forgive when we feel the subject it’s applied to has wronged us sufficiently, but not something we should throw around willy-nilly, particularly at strangers. But how damning and diminishing was “fat” in 1910?
Much less I think. First off, let’s look at the U.S. President in that year. A crude reading of the culture for sure, but William Howard Taft was, well, fat, and yet today few politicians are.** Female beauty standards too were curvier (though this was soon to change). Fat was, to the level of unexceptional cliché, associated then with wealth, and therefore wealth’s courtier, power. This once unquestioned association with wealth and power is partly responsible for how the fat person was treated comically, even later in the century. The lean, skinny person was the scrappy underdog, the fat person the one who ran things. Stan Laurel was put upon by the more officious Hardy. The Marxist critique of Margaret Dumont was to tear down the well-fed power structure of white women in gloves.
Moving on in Cornford’s problematic line: “white” is if anything more striking in its frank appearance in this short poem. Here I’m even more unsure of Cornford’s context and intent. “White” as a term for those not considered a person of color existed in 1910 certainly, and that’s how most of us will read Cornford’s line today. But a consciousness, without the context of other non-white people in the frame, of a white person calling out someone as “white” strikes me as so unusual in 1910*** that I wonder if we’re misreading her intent. Does she mean that she’s dressed in white? If she means, to us as we may experience the poem now, “a member of the favored and privileged racial caste,” we should take that into consideration regarding the effect of the poem more than most readers seem to. If she means “dressed in white,” which I think is more likely in the poem’s context, then she’s extending the “gloves” image as observing someone she imagines is not in touch with the earth. It’s probably taking too large a deterministic leap to think that she’s meaning to reference suffragettes with a singular woman in white. It’s a slightly lesser leap to consider dressed in white as a wedding gown undertone.****
And yes, let’s not miss the third word in this compound epithet: “woman.” Given that the author is a woman, and we presume the train-riding speaker of the poem looking out the window is a woman, we may have something like a peer to peer relationship between the observed subject and the observer.
In the few Frances Cornford poems I’ve read so far, there’s considerable female empathy exhibited. Why are we sure that the woman in the train is disgusted with or condemning the other woman? Does she feel superior or knowing in some way in the lyric moment (regardless if she’s right or wrong) that the white woman is missing something (love, an experience of nature)? Yes, I can see that. Is it a haughty superiority? I think that leans too much on the dismissive way we read “fat” and even “white.” As I read this poem over, I visualize looking out a train window, and the sense that comes to me is that one sees the woman outside through one’s own reflection in the glass we are looking through. I think, in the lyric moment, Cornford is imagining (and letting us know that it’s only that, imagining) a difference and a risk for herself, and for that other woman.
Dialectic: Frances Cornford at work. Frances Cornford without gloves.
There’s another mystery in the poem that I can’t decode completely: the gloves that refrain along with the absent loves. One reader jocularly suggested that the woman is hurrying on her way to a cricket match, and she’s wearing gloves because she’s a wicket keeper. Some, I think seriously, see gardening gloves. Others, formal-wear gloves. This is part of what I like about this poem: it’s plain-spoken, allusive, and elusive. That’s a hard combination to pull off. Along with its excellent musicality, that may be why it’s so well remembered in Britain—even by folks who are sure they dislike it.
Like Marlowe’s shepherd, this is a poem that calls out for an “answer record,” and humorist G. K. Chesterton’s retort “The Fat Lady Answers” is the most famous of several. I stand more with Cornford’s lyric than Chesterton’s busted triolet, but his point is worth remembering as we consider “other people’s stories.” And so I performed the two together today. At the time I recorded this performance I decided to read the female poet’s poem in a male voice and suggest a woman’s voice in the male Chesterton’s response. I was still buying into Chesterton’s objection more than I am now after living with the poem a bit longer.
Anyway, Cornford’s triolet is so damn catchy that I wanted to keep it to the hook today—mostly drums and bass for the music—but I added a little of my naïve electric piano working off an odd inverted-voicing CMaj13 chord. One of my shortest audio pieces gets this long post. Go figure.
*AFAIK, no one considers Cornford an Imagist, and this poem was written and published before other pioneering Imagist train poems like Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” or Sandburg’s “Limited.” But in its straightforward immediate language, specific color imagery, compression, and avoidance of sentimental emotional language, it follows the intent of those later free-verse Imagist poems.
**King Edward the VII doesn’t look svelte either, nor Queen Victoria in her later years. Of course, “Who made you king of the Britons?” and all that, but this still speaks to how excess weight was viewed in 1910 as representative of wealth and power.
***I don’t know much about Cornford’s political and social beliefs. She had one son who was a dedicated Marxist of the Karl branch, but what she thought herself about racial questions, I don’t know.
****If it was explicitly a wedding gown, it’d be a different poem, but you can re-read or relisten to the poem and imagine that at your own option. Another possibility would be that the woman is white because she’s a ghost. Again, overdetermining the poem. I’d still like to know what Cornford’s intent was, but even if it was a bit of light verse that got away from her, one of the joys of lyric poetry is that undercurrents can be waiting for the next time you read, hear, speak, or perform it.
Here’s a follow-up note on another alternative reading of this poem. In the time since I wrote this post I sometimes wonder if the woman in white we ostensibly see through the train window is actually the poet, Cornford, looking at her own reflection in the glass which would then seem to be sweeping through the countryside. In photos I’ve seen, Cornford appears quite thin, and even given cultural differences in body image that I talk about above, I wonder (with no evidence) if Cornford may have suffered from anorexia.
One of the particulars of childhood is that one can experience extraordinary things as usual. In the years of my childhood, protestant Christian church services always included the singing of several hymns by the congregation at large. I suspect this may be less common today. I believe larger churches now often feature talented musicians and singers performing more of the musical parts of the service, which makes the worship more like conventional entertainment. In many of the rural churches of my youth, even organizing a church choir for a single number might strain the resources of the smaller congregations. So instead, we held the hymns in our own breaths and wavering pitches.
The singing of such hymns, many from the 19th century, was part of my musical initiation. The melodies were various, some taken from traditional airs, others adapted from famous classical composers. The words? There was that ordinary/strange part. Hymn writers were often the philosophical sort, and their lyrics would drop esoteric theological terms and judgements as austere as their hopes were sure. It wasn’t just the children that would be asked to fill their lungs and sing these arcane terms, they were also not the common language of the farmers and tradesmen who filled the pews.
Often the minister leading the congregation would skip the more difficult verses, but I, enamored of words, would read them anyway and wonder at their celestial descriptions. This experience may have primed me for a later-life appreciation for Emily Dickinson, who sometimes used the common hymn meter for her own original and less than orthodox hymnal.
Well, that’s a long digression before bringing forth the author of the text I use today: Christina Rossetti. Rosetti often wrote short devotional poems, and while I don’t know if she intended them from the start as hymn lyrics, some were straightaway used for same. Her poem “Love Came Down at Christmas” is one example. It’s sung to several melodies, one of which is a traditional Irish tune which I used as a basis for my setting.
Rossetti as a poet is not often drawn to extravagant verse (unlike many of her Victorian contemporaries), and the text of her poem is quite short: 12 lines, 63 words. While not in an exact form like a triolet, rondel or the like, it makes significant use of repetition: 11 of those words are uses of the word “love,” and its relative “lovely” could make that count 12. The poem has only one rhyme, which sometimes just repeats its word rather than true rhyme: divine, sign, mine.
So, a simple structure, the kind of thing that is ideal for singing. None the less, it’s been altered in most performances I’ve sampled. The line “Love to God and all men” has sometimes been changed to inclusive language (“all of us”). The other common alteration is to drop the second verse. That’s odd, it’s not like this is a 48-verse ballad or something. I suspect that dropped verse is excluded because it uses those dodgey theological words.
Here’s Rossetti’s original second verse:
Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Many would be in the philosophic weeds there. The belief that sweet baby Jesus is an incarnation of the divine Godhead is orthodox Christianity, but it comes off kind of Hindu expressed so. And the last line is a bit awkward in sing-ability and sense.
The gifts are nice, but the Airbnb review Joseph’s writing will still be scathing.
Still, dropping it obscures the point Rossetti chose to make: that the incarnate Godhead is not something that we can invariably grasp. Use of three-kings astrology and wandering stars is not reliable after all. As the second verse makes way for the third, she chooses and old standby from folk-ballads for her compressed song: the love-token. In songs like “John Riley” long-separated lovers know each other by some special device they have exchanged, and in this case, love itself is the token. We will know the Godhead, and not some counterfeit, is present by love’s presence.
I took the liberty of revising Rossetti’s second verse rather than dropping it. Here’s how I rendered it:
If we seek the Godhead
Love incarnate, love divine;
Where to find our Jesus,
What would be his sacred sign?
I also took liberties with the music. All the repetition with the words often resolving down to the same made me think of musics based on similar relationships to departing and returning rather than a harmonic progression that goes onward. That and the second verse called for me to pull out the tambura and sitar,* and to play guitar and organ in a manner that would match them. The piece would benefit if a better singer in that tradition sang it than myself—but then, there may be a benefit to singing the hymns even if one isn’t the best singer in the congregation.
Choices like this as I pursue this project to introduce different words and music to each other is my adult way to make the extraordinary usual. The player to hear my performance of Christina Rossetti’s poem is below.
*Though I once played a copy of the Coral “Electric Sitar,” I no longer use that approximation of the real sitar. Instead I use my MIDI guitar to play sitar and tambura “virtual instruments” where the guitar (or keyboard) can trigger the sound of each note in the instrument’s range as one plays, using a variety of realistic timbres from the real thing.
We’ve reached the top of our seasonal top 10 covering the pieces you most liked and listened to over the past three months, but before I reveal the top piece, let me cover one other area.
I know from growth in the audience that some of you are new to the Parlando Project. Because of that, every so often I should explain what this project does. We take words, mostly poetry, mostly other peoples’ words, not our own, and combine them with music we write and perform ourselves. Sometimes we sing the words, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we split the difference somehow.
By intent the poetry we use and the music we create for it varies. Most texts are used under public domain rules.* What kind of music do we use? I try to make it a whole lot of different. I’ve never been able to answer the simple-sounding question “What kind of music do you like?” because the idea of liking one kind of music is just not in me. So be aware that you may run into music here that you don’t care for, either because of our limitations as musicians or your own tastes and expectations—and that may happen right after a piece you liked. The same applies to the words we use. There are over 400 examples of what we do here in our archives, so you can move on and look at another one anytime. If you wonder if we’ve presented a poem or author, search here and see.
OK, so who sits atop our Autumn 2019 hit parade? William Shakespeare that’s who. That’s no surprise considering that it’s his Sonnet 73 which begins “That time of year thou mayest in me behold” (but which I’ve always thought of as “Bare Ruined Choirs” for its most famous image)—one of the longest-famed “autumn of one’s years” poems in English.
Let England Shake-Speares. The title page of the first printing.
I wrote at some length about my experience of the poem in my original post here, but I’ll reiterate only one point: even though this poem resonates with many older people and older lovers in particular, it was written by a man in his early 30s. Consider all the exegesis of Shakespeare’s sonnets that seek to tweeze out his sexuality, incidents to fill out his biography, or the identity of the fair youth, the dark lady, or “who really wrote Shakespeare,” and consider that they were written after all by an actor and a famously prolific creator of opposite and varied characters. I too want to invest those sonnets with his experience, to believe that this great artist is letting me see his heart. How much is intentionally or unintentionally “real,” and how much is a good illusion? We may never know, but we have the art none-the-less.
Here’s the player to hear my performance of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 “Bare Ruined Choirs.” And a sincere thank you for listening and reading this fall. I hope that some of the pieces we’ve presented have pleased you and illuminated some matter or another.
*This means that the poetry is usually from before 1924. I happen to like (and have grown to like even more via this project) a good deal of early 20th century Modernist poetry, but we’ll jump around to older stuff than that too. While we’ve done many of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” over the years, I’ll use lesser-known poets and poems when they strike me as interesting.
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.
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.
It’s said about significant musicians that a careful listener can tell who’s playing just from their sound. The word-music of poets could be a similar tell, but in the case of poetry we have other kinds of data: subjects, characteristic outlooks, and the kind of imagery they choose to use—and those things often overwhelm the distinctions in the sound of a poet’s poem.
But even 130 years after his death, British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sounds like no other. The piece I’m going to present today is one of his best known poems: “Pied Beauty,” and he intended it as a rhymed metrical poem, but Hopkins’ conception of meter and phrasing is so unlike other English poets that it might sound like a piece of free verse.
If Hopkins doesn’t sound like other poetry in English, he does have some similarities to Old English and ancient Welsh poetry, two languages he had some familiarity with. In place of the traditional musical phrases that his Victorian contemporaries might use, flowing lines in regularly stressed feet, Hopkins substitutes shorter, broken and paused phrases and a great deal of word sound echoing beyond just conventional end-rhyme.
Reading Hopkins in the pre-Modernist era at the end of WWI must have been like hearing Thelonious Monk play piano just after WWII. It doesn’t sound “right,” it breaks, or more correctly ignores, rules of how things are supposed to sound. Yes, the phrasing is instantly felt as rhythmic, but that’s no anchor, because the rhythm is part of what’s “wrong.” But also like Monk, to more than a few listeners, it can be arresting, even on first listen. You don’t have to understand the structure, or know how it works differently—that’s not a simple task by the way—to hear something that grabs your attention. You may dig it; but even though we humans are natural imitating machines, you may still not be able to do it.
And so, like Monk, Hopkins doesn’t have as many imitators as he has admirers of his achievement, even today.
His music still sounds more modern than most—both of ‘em.
An additional barrier to Hopkins is that his subject matter, though explicitly Christian religious, is also often harrowing. British poets have long explored unrelieved melancholy, but Hopkins doesn’t want to read Job, or understand Job theologically, he wants (or can’t escape) to be Job.*
Which makes “Pied Beauty” a good introduction to Hopkins word-music, because while it’s making a subtle theological point, this is not a particularly sad, tragic, or even solemn poem. Did Hopkins interject “Who knows how?” mostly to make his rhyme on the 8th line? I don’t know, but I can’t read that phrase and this poem without a little of the feeling of “Ain’t that funny? Unchanging, pure monotheist deity, and yet maker of a world of mixed and changing things.”
Musically, I’m not Thelonious Monk, nor was meant to be—am an attendant lord, one that will do. Still I musically sought to put a certain angle on my usual chords and cadences. Old-time Chicago jazz guy Eddie Condon said the modernist jazz composers flatted their fifths, while his crew just drank them. If so, I caucus with the modernists. Harmony has laws and customs, but the anarchists have melodies.** The full text of Hopkins’s poem is here. My musical presentation of it is available with the player gadget below.
*Just because he’s so distinctive in his sound and phrasing, we don’t need to overlook the imagery in Hopkins’ poem. Skies like cows? That’s proto-Surrealist, “old bossy in the skies with diamonds” stuff. I have to confess that my eyes once read “brinded cow” as a more conventional if workmanlike “bridled cow.” Brinded means patched patterns as on cows’ hides, it’s an archaic Middle English word, in keeping with Hopkins’ love for the sound of the poetry of the ancestors of modern English. See also firecoal colored tree nuts and painted fish.
**Well this is true at least for me. When I’m not working in drone or heavily home-chord centered structures, I will construct chords and chord progressions based on others’ ideas, or the mathematical commonplaces, testing the results for interest. But for melody, I usually don’t choose to follow rules or commonplaces, and when I find myself approaching those things, I may start to subvert them immediately. Yes, there are pleasures in knowing exactly what note comes next—must come next—but there’s too little music out there that mines disputing that expectation.
I awoke this morning to read that Ginger Baker died, a prime musical iconoclast if there ever was one. I’d read the earlier notes that he was gravely ill and I think I may have tried to imitate some of his playing (those tom rolls…) with the drum track on this.