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.

The Workman’s Dream

Well, here’s an odd choice for a new Parlando Project audio piece: today’s song has lyrics from British-American poet Edgar Guest. It’s likely that you either know who Edgar Guest is, or you don’t. And if you do, you may be older than me, which is a rapidly declining Internet demographic, as most providers refuse to offer service across the river Lethe.*

Famous American wit Dorothy Parker wanted to help you remember—sort of—Wikipedia reminds us that she once poetically needled him: “I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test than read a poem by Edgar Guest.” But now, folks may not remember Wasserman tests either. Wit has a short shelf-life I guess.

Edgar Guest was a public poet in a way that is unimaginable today. He had a newspaper column, a nationwide radio show; and ordinary, non-academic folks clipped and memorized his poetry in the first half of the 20th century. What did academic folks think of his poetry? Well, Parker nailed it.

Edgar Guest rocks the mic

Radio. It was a kind of wireless podcasting useful before YouTube.

 

His poetry is often folk-humor related, and his style isn’t always very elegant: doggerel. But unlike poets whose work is always with humorous intent, some Guest poems, like today’s, are meant to make a serious point, often in a sentimental way. While there’s no common objective criteria for “good poetry” it’s still safe to say that almost anyone who would have some criteria to evaluate poetry would agree that Guest wrote bad poetry—or at best, not very good poetry.

So, what am I doing, following up some posts featuring a poet like Yeats, who has both a popular audience and a rightful place as one of the most graceful lyric poets in the English language, with Edgar Guest?   Well, it’s my opinion that “bad poetry” or poetry that has intents and methods that are not in alignment with academic critical modes, may still have some value, some reason to exist. I don’t think this is a common belief, which is somewhat odd. While there are elements of theoretical snobbery in other arts, fans of serious novels may still like a quick plebian mystery series, cinephiles may enjoy an occasional piece of mass entertainment, jazz purists or avant garde composers may have surprisingly impure playlists—but serious poetry authorities tend to view not-great poetry as a Gresham’s law issue for their endangered art form.

I went looking for a Father’s Day text in the public domain and came upon this one. What struck me about it? Well, you and I may agree it’s sentimental, but it wears its working-class heart on its blue-color sleeve. Better Modernist poems have been written on this poem’s subject (Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”  for one)— but most of those are not available for my use today. And it’s not like poems about the world of work are all that common in Modernist lit. Instead, there are many poems about domestic life, lots about the human condition in general, erotic poems of love, visionary texts about the psychic borderlands, poems of scenic trips and museum pieces, poems about parenthood in its physical intimacy, and poems about economic and political injustice—but even the later are often absent the actual world and obligations of work.

Isn’t that odd? It’s as if poets are embarrassed to give evidence of their “day gigs.” Do we secretly expect that we are all still Lord Byron, with an inherited endowment? If we are any good should we be swinging from grant to grant, or have agents digging up the biggest returns as if we were rim protectors who can create our own shot while being a threat to sink the three from anywhere outside the arc? If we are serious, should we be beyond all that non-artistic, non-academic work?

Perhaps there are other reasons for this relative absence of the subject of ordinary work—and there are exceptions  in modern poetry—but even if we were to become one of those making a living with our pen or our mental flights alone, somewhere in our heritage we may have someone like the subject of Guest’s poem. I know I do. And from my age, from my era, I’ve even had the experience of being “the breadwinner” more than once in my life, the one working in a household and bringing in the outside income, while others do unpaid work.

This is no longer a gendered situation in our culture, but in my father’s generation this was the father’s prime job: the  job. Maybe for you this was another generation or even two generations back—we may have had forefathers. A lot of you had two parents doing “the job” (and yes, the unequal, unpaid woman’s work too) or one parent doing it all, or the most of the all.

That said, “It’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded.”**  This one goes out to those who didn’t get the service ribbons or the purple heart, who clocked in so we could write about time. In my case, they’re all gone now, but as Guest writes, I’ll sing “Out of this place of dirt and dust.”

The Workmans Dream

In the Broadside tradition, here are my chords for the song version I composed. I played it with a capo at the 1st fret, so the recording is in F minor. My piano, vibraphone and cello parts are simple: fifths, octaves and roots.

The player to hear my performance of the song is below.

 

 

*They say it has something to do with dog attacks on their installers, three-headed dogs at that.

**Leonard Cohen. For six minutes of REM performing “First We Take Manhattan”  see this link.

We Wear the Mask

Today I present the other widely anthologized Paul Laurence Dunbar poem: “We Wear the Mask.”  I was going to put a “now” qualifier in front of “widely” above, but that made for an awkward sentence. I think it’s worth burning at least another sentence to note that.

In looking for some more Dunbar information, I found this story told by Professor Joanne Braxton. Braxton recounts that as recently as the 1980s when she was looking to teach Dunbar poems at her university, that Dunbar’s work was out of print and difficult to find. That’s not unusual. As Donald Hall fatalistically stated in one of his late essays: the majority of poets who receive prizes and ample publication in their time will be unread 20 years after their death. Braxton, who knew Dunbar’s poems from family and Afro-American tradition, eventually saw to publishing of the first collection of all of Dunbar’s verse.

I’m sure I have readers here for whom the 1980s is “a long time ago.” It’s all relative I suppose, but this change in availability speaks to the dynamism of “The Canon,” and which poets we’re exposed to in school or the culture at large. Braxton teaches by her example that we, each of us, shape The Canon,* particularly with poetry, which is in suspended animation on the page and lives only when we read aloud, chant, and sing it. It’s up to all of us to find those poets who split our skulls, open our caged chest bones, and let us animate the slumbering dreams.

Young Negro Poet Dunbar poster

No date is known for this poster, but Dunbar looks quite young here

 

Braxton** and others have written eloquently on the meaning of this Dunbar poem and about Dunbar’s pioneering code-switching project to write in dialect as well as mainstream 19th century poetic forms, so once more I’ll defer to others today in those matters.

On the poem itself, let me praise its word-music. There were occasional words that were hard for me to sing or set to music, but that’s likely my fault as a composer and certainly my fault as a singer. “We Wear the Mask” is almost too pretty for its subject, but then there’s a tradition (I associate it with Celtic folk musics) of setting the saddest stories to the most beautiful tunes. Last time, for Dunbar’s “Sympathy,”  I followed that idea for my music and the fiddle melody. Now, for my explicit music today, I decided to go in a more martial cadence and ambience. Art song (that traditional method of setting poetry to music) usually avoids that mood; but one of my influences, the English language 20th century Folk Music Revival is perfectly fine with that.

We Wear the Mask

Here’s the guitar chords. The piano and bass mostly just play the roots of the chords in today’s performance. That’s a nice thing about music: sometimes simple works just fine.

 

In the Broadside tradition, I’ve included my guitar chords with Dunbar’s lyrics for this one. I played it with a capo on the second fret, so the chords sound a full step higher than the chord forms indicated above. My performance can be heard with the player gadget that should appear below.

 

 

*This leads to complaints that change in The Canon is “watering down,” or subject to special pleading which somehow is self-evidently inferior to one or another objective aesthetic criterion. If there are indeed multiple criteria (objectively, that must be agreed to be so) how else must we decide among ourselves what has worth, but by a dynamic of discussion, debate, disagreement? And will such actions by human minds and hearts ever lead to a static situation? How can it, if for no other reason that we continue to create poetry, music and art. Hall says, correctly on the face of it, that most will be forgotten. But like those that charge, armed or not, against the redoubts, we must move forward even if only a few will reach and cross the wall.

**One fascinating bit in the link has Braxton sharing an account from Dunbar’s widow about a possible specific inspiration for Dunbar’s famous “Sympathy (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)”  poem.