Elizabeth at Woodstock

I like to mix things up with this project, presenting Poetry’s Greatest Hits but also less-known poems and poets too. One oddity is that two of the most popular pieces here over the past four years have been by unknown poets known rather as heads of state: a teenage love poem by George Washington and a lament from Abraham Lincoln.

History is unavoidably entangled with literature, so I’m often pleased to present poems that are personal witnesses to history. Today’s piece uses three texts written by Queen Elizabeth I of England, or rather by a young princess who wasn’t queen at the time of their writing, but was instead a political prisoner.

As someone who grew up in the U.S. I didn’t have a good grasp of British history for most of my life. Over the years I’ve picked up bits and pieces, but one element that I discovered was the degree to which that the era surrounding the vigorous birth of English literature was a dangerous, violent, unstable political situation. And the woman who would give her name to that era, was not protected from those horrors.

The story is complex, here’s the best brief summary I can come up with. Europe had been in the throes of religious-affiliated warfare between Catholics and the Protestant wings of Christianity mixed in with the usual imperial cross-conflicts for some time. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII had moved England into the Protestant camp largely so that he could divorce his wife and marry the woman who would be Elizabeth’s mother. That new Queen eventually was executed as Henry VIII moved on through his infamous marital history. At Henry’s death, his young male child and heir Edward became king in name, but with an adult Protector running the country, but that protector’s brother sought to marry the teenage Elizabeth and take over. That plot failed, and the Protector’s brother was beheaded.

On the sickly Edward’s death at age 15, Elizabeth’s older half-sister Mary (daughter of Henry VIII’s first, divorced, queen) became ruler of England, and she switched the country back to the Catholic side. Every time the state religion changed, suppression of the other religion occurred, and plots from the outs faction against the new establishment were rife.

Elizabeth was, on paper, next in the line of succession at this point, but aligned with the Protestants. This barely protected her and made her a target at the same time. And in 1554 a Protestant plot that aimed to unseat Mary and put Elizabeth in her place was discovered. Elizabeth was now 21, some suspected her being a participant, not just a pawn being moved surreptitiously to the queen’s row on the chessboard, and once more executions will be going forward for the discovered plotters.

Elizabeth was taken to the Tower of London. Her imprisonment began, interrogation was in store, even torture and execution were possible.

After several months in the Tower, a compromise was reached between those who wished to rid Queen Mary of the plausible rival and those that thought it better to not martyr Elizabeth. She was shipped off to a disused old castle, Woodstock, away from the court and other plotters. It could be said she was now at a royal palace, not the Tower where traitors were imprisoned and executed. In reality, she was still imprisoned, kept in the half-ruined castle’s gatehouse under guard.

The story goes that today’s poem was written in charcoal on the interior wall of that gatehouse by the imprisoned princess. As a poem it’s also a political statement, a rather clever one at that. On its face it’s not addressed to those who’ve imprisoned her, rather it’s addressed to impersonal fortune, fate. Like a candidate sticking to the message, she’s not charging her Queen and half-sister with being behind this, but she is calling out injustice. She’s not issuing a call to overthrow the government, but only slyly praying in conclusion that a just God may send “to my foes all that they have thought.”

In today’s performance I’ve framed that poem written on a prison wall with two other shorter texts: a couplet titled “In Defiance of Fortune”  and an ending: three lines scratched into the glass of a window pane in the gatehouse by a diamond, an even starker statement by a political prisoner.

Musically, I’ve been thinking of The Byrds, and so it was time to break out the electric 12-string. I even thought of punning off the title of the half-ruined castle that Elizabeth was imprisoned at by referring to Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”  musically—but in the end there is only an echo of that song’s chord progression left in my music.

There are more stories in the swerving era of revolution and counter revolution, secret police and royal executions. Elizabeth’s eventual reign doesn’t end the religiously affiliated plots. After her death and a new Protestant king, one of the last serious Catholic-affiliated plots against the government ends when Guy Fawkes is found watching over some great store of gunpowder in a crypt under the parliament building. An English holiday is born, celebrated on November 5th: a burlesque of treason or revolution, suitable for children. Effigies are burned, there are taffy apples, and fireworks smell in loud colors.

Guy_Fawkes_arrested

Arrest, torture, head on a pike, then centuries as the but of holiday villainy. Only Alan Moore can save him now!

 

Of course it was deadly serious for Fawkes, ready to kill in defense of his oppressed religion, and deadly serious for the government, ready to execute him for such a plan. Someone—do we call them Fortuna or God—had a joke to tell us. As Fawkes was led up the execution platform, he tripped, fell off the platform, and broke his neck. History, like literature, has so many sad stories, some uplifting ones, and then again some jokes.

To hear Elizabeth’s prison poem performed, use the player below. Want to read the texts and a few other poems attributed to Elizabeth, they are available here.*

 

 

*I found out about these most directly Elizabethan poems over at the Interesting Literature blog. Highly recommended.

My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun

Last time we made some fun of Shakespeare’s honest love poem, his Sonnet 130, “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.”  Well today, let’s give it it’s due.

The fun was that if was a poem meant to attract or hold a lover, it’s, well, not complementary—but there’s no evidence internal to the poem or external to what little we know about its writing, that says that was its intent. It’s one of Shakespeare’s sonnets that was written to “the Dark Lady.” Great title that. We may feel put off if the meaning of a poem isn’t clear to us right away, but in love and biography, most of us love a mystery. Let’s examine that mystery a bit.

First bit of mystery: it’s not clear exactly how autobiographical the typical Elizabethan poet, such as Shakespeare, intended their poetry to be. The idea of art as a mode of direct self-expression has become increasingly more common in the past 200 years, but it wasn’t necessarily the mode of the 16th Century poet. Showing off one’s language skills and elaborate allegorical metaphors while speaking of popular and entertaining subjects scored points in the game then, and it was less about biography that rhymed.

Poets of that era liked to revisit the same subject over and over, because playing on the same topical court let them measure themselves against each other. And so it was when writing a series of sonnets about love troubles.

But no author can avoid the personal entirely. This has lead to the detective game to identify the “Dark Lady.”

A leading solution is Emilia Bassano Lanier. Like a lot of Elizabethans, a fascinating character of which only scattered but intriguing facts are known. She may have been Jewish, North African, or Italian. Family described as “black” in Elizabethan times. Had connections to the same theater and artistic world that Shakespeare did in London. Musical family. Her father helped Queen Elizabeth with her lute when she was a young girl. Emilia wrote the first book of poetry published by an Englishwoman, and she seems remarkably independent and kick-ass. She even makes it onto the lists of the people who “really wrote Shakespeare.”

Nicholas Hillard possible Emily_Bassano
This may be a portrait of Emilia Bassano Lanier

Shakespeare wouldn’t be the first writer to use a person they knew as a model for a literary character as an in-joke that his crowd would get, or just as a handy way to gather a matrix of characteristics. And yes, Shakespeare and Lanier might have been a thing.

It’s fairly clear that Sonnet 130 is another answer record/dis cut like our dueling shepherd poems from the same era. However biographical or invented, the poet is telling us that as far as his love is concerned, all the bullcrack about white skin, golden hair, and rosey cheeks doesn’t get his motor running. There is that breath “reeks” thing in his poem, but I’m not sure it was automatically funky in Shakespeare’s time. The word comes from the Middle English word for smoke or steam—so not necessarily stinky breath, just not literally like perfume.

Elsewhere in the “Dark Lady” sonnets Shakespeare praises “black beauty.” Was the Dark Lady Black in the modern sense of the term? I don’t know if we can say for sure. Sub-Saharan Africans were in England in those times, including a trumpeter who was part of Elizabeth’s father’s court.

Meeting of Henry VIII and King Francis 1 c1520 with John Blanke shown

Birth of the Crewel? Henry VIII and the king of France take in a WWF tag team match.
In the upper left of this tapestry, on trumpet, is John Blanke, also spelled Blak

Was Shakespeare “answering” one particular poem? One doesn’t have to look far for targets, but some point to a poem set to music by William Byrd “Of Gold All Burnished:”

Of gold all burnished, brighter than sunbeams,
Were those curled locks upon her noble head
Whose deep conceits my true deserving fled.
Wherefore mine eyes such store of tears outstreams.
Her eyes, fair stars ; her red, like damask rose ;
White, silver shine of moon on crystal stream ;
Her beauty perfect, whereon fancies dream.
Her lips are rubies ; teeth, of pearls two rows.
Her breath more sweet than perfect amber is ;
Her years in prime ; and nothing doth she want
That might draw gods from heaven to further bliss.
Of all things perfect this I most complain,
Her heart is rock, made all of adamant.
Gifts all delight, this last doth only pain.

The poem’s 9th line might be a mondegreen, as it makes sense if the last words aren’t “amber is,” but the perfume “ambergris.” Who wrote the words? That’s not stated in the book which published Byrd’s piece in 1589, but a modern musician and relative of Emilia has put forth the idea it’s a poem by Emilia Bassano Lanier, though I can’t access any cite for his evidence.

Maybe I should have tried to make a lute sound here for the music, but it’s 12-string guitar, bass, a small string section and just a bit of recorder back in the mix for Sonnet 130. To hear it, use the player.

Twelfth Night

As we near 170 audio pieces posted here, we now get our second set of Shakespeare’s words, but instead of one of his sonnets, here’s a short scene from one of his plays (Twelfth Night)  which, by his design, includes a song.

The play’s title indicates it was an occasional piece for an English holiday that takes place on the 12th day after Christmas. I read that the traditional English Twelfth Night partakes of various “floating” winter/winter solstice traditions, some dating back to Roman Saturnalia, with much party-play acting of role-reversals, selections of short-term random royalty, eating, drinking, and song.

Here in modern commercial America, the extending of Christmas is via a prelude, with ever extended shopping days before the holiday; but in the past, Christmas was instead broadened after the December 25th date, with the “Twelfth Night” being the end of the “12 Days of Christmas”—yes, those same 12 days the famous listing song counts off. Given the dreary length of winter in northern climes, the holiday season was sometimes extended even further to February 2nd, Candlemas.

And it was on Candlemas, 416 years ago that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night  was first performed. The play has a complex series of plots, but the one central to today’s audio piece is that of a young woman, Viola, who’s been shipwrecked in a foreign land, has taken to dressing as a man, Cesario; and while still disguised and cross-dressing, she has fallen in love with Orsino, an older Duke of the foreign land. Orsino is sad because he’s in love with Olivia, a local lady, who refuses his attentions. Only one thing keeps Orsino going in his melancholy: music.

As we enter into the play with today’s audio piece, the “meta” gets laid on thick. Orsino, though unlucky in love himself, seeks to give the “young man” Cesario advice in love. And Cesario (infatuated Viola in disguise as a young man) tolerates this mansplaining in hope that Orsino might someday see something in her/him. And in Shakespeare’s time the young woman passing as a young man would have been played by—well, a young man passing for a woman. To simplify things, I read both actors’ parts myself in the audio piece.

As the scene ends, Orsino asks for an “old song” to cheer him up.

The song Orsino requests “Come, Come Away Death”  is so dour I wonder if Shakespeare is making more comedy against the excess of melancholy and the foolish suffering of unrequited love. It’s a cheery little ditty about refused love causing or requiring death, and the spurned lover wishing only that his grave be unknown so that there’s no chance his unresponsive sweetie will ever hypocritically mourn there.

Representative lyrics: “On my black coffin, let there be strown./Not a friend, not a friend greet/My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.” If Judas Priest had recorded this, it certainly would have been brought up in the 1990’s trial where the heavy metal band was accused of driving listeners to suicide.

But, after all, Twelfth Night  is a comedy. No spoilers here, but despite multiple love triangles and more disguises and misunderstandings, fate is kind to multiple sets of lovers, something we can all wish for lovers this upcoming year.

twelfth night by Walter Howell Deverell

Melancholy Duke Orsino bids Feste to Kick Out the Jams while Viola/Cesario ponders gender roles

Since Orsino in the play’s text asks for “Come, Come Away Death”  to be sung, we know it was indeed sung with music in Shakespeare’s time, and there are several extant settings of it. The ones I’ve heard are in the Elizabethan style, usually for a high, plaintive tenor—and even when Elvis Costello sang it, it was in that manner. I went counter to this, taking a more rock stance, allowing the singer to mix some anger into his self-pity. To hear that, use the player below.

The Parlando Project Winter 2017 Top 10 Part 3

Here we go, continuing our Top Ten countdown for the most popular audio pieces from the past Fall as counted by your likes and streaming listens. In the past two posts we’ve done numbers 10 through 5, so let’s move on to number 4.

One thing I enjoy about this project is that I can’t predict which pieces will get the most response, and in 4th place this past Fall we have my rendition of a excerpt from Gertrude Stein’s arch-Modernist “Tender Buttons.”  Not only was it popular last Fall, but it actually improved on its 8th place position from last Summer’s Top 10.

Stein’s experiments have to be seen as the forerunner of what came to be known decades later as “Language Poets”—poetry that reveled in the indeterminacy of our language, that exploited all the cracks and odd turns in our real everyday spoken syntax. This poetry can seem intimidating if one is pressed to extract a meaning immediately, but one value of the Parlando Project is that we’re free to perform the poetry with music and allow any straightforward meaning to take a back seat to the sound and flow of the words. And the poetry of “Language Poets” often gains some singular meanings when read aloud, because our everyday spoken syntax is nowhere near as clear as good written prose would be. We commonly understand meanings when words are  spoken from inflection and our groupings of words that no diagramed sentence can measure.

Musically, I doubled down on the Modernist tilt of Stein’s words by speaking them to my interpretation of the style of Don VanVliet who performed as “Captain Beefheart.” VanVliet took the vernacular freedom of Delta Blues music and expanded on it even further. His own lyrics, like his own music, like Gertrude Stein’s words, don’t seem to make sense at first, until you open up and let them in for awhile, until the off-center is normalized, and you begin to see the facets of the brilliant corners. That journey starts—maybe only starts—when you listen to this piece the first time.

 

At Number 3, we have another returning piece from last Summer, “On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli,”  based on my recasting of WWI poet Rupert Brooke’s late fragment, written down shortly before his death on the way to the front in Turkey. If the soldier’s death of Modernist instigator T. E. Hulme (whose “Trenches St. Eloi”  was earlier in our Top 10) cost him the opportunity to solidify his position as a founder of British Modernism, Brooke’s death gave him no chance to outgrow or adapt his 19th Century poetics to the new realities of warfare that WWI revealed to many others.  So, while maintaining my respect for Brooke’s experience as he wrote it down, I tightened and modernized his language and presentation to create the kind of poem Hulme, F. S. Flint, Ezra Pound, or Siegfried Sassoon would have written.

I tried to work the time-worn musical tactic of the slow build in my setting for this one. The final fuzzy musical strain in this is a conventional electric guitar played with an E-bow, a device that magnetically drives a string without plucking it, somewhat in imitation of what a real bow does on a bowed string instrument.

 

Robert Johnsons

One of these two guys cut a crossroads deal at midnight that let him use Shakespeare’s lyrics

 

At number 2 in our Top 10, we’re back to a piece that hasn’t made a Top 10 before. It just so happens that it’s another adaptation or free translation, this time by Elizabethan physician, poet, musician Thomas Campion. With “Let Us Live and Love”  Campion’s first stanza is a faithful enough translation of a poem by the Roman poet Catullus, but he then decided to develop his own path out of that beginning.

And so, by the second stanza Campion comes close to coining the Sixties’ slogan “Make Love not War” and he closes with a mighty invocation of love as the great illuminator of our darkness.

The Elizabethan age saw a flowering of lute player/composers. Many of them adapted the words of Elizabethan poets as well as writing and using their own poetry. One of Campion’s contemporaries was the great John Dowland, and another was a man named Robert Johnson. A perfectly common name, but a name that many people today associate with another singer/composer/stringed instrument player, the famous Delta bluesman.

So rather than using Campion’s own tune, I chose to set Campion’s words to my own Blues tune with slide guitar and harmonica.

 

That leaves only Number 1 to go. What piece was the most liked and listened to here last Fall? Check back tomorrow to find out.

Let Us Live and Love

A while back here there were several episodes where we discussed songwriters as literary figures, using the springboard of Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan was the third songwriter to receive this award, preceded by William Butler Yeats and Rabindranath Tagore. But the Nobel prize is not really all that old, and the idea of the singer-songwriter is older. We know little about how the ancient Greeks performed their poetry, but accounts consistently say that it was accompanied by music, and in the case of at least Sappho of Lesbos, it’s specified that the lyricist played the lyre as well. Similarly in ancient Hebrew, David and his harp, or the west African griots and their Koras, and so on.

So, despite the idea that lyrics sung to music mark an inferior art, or that performing poetry to music is an affectation hardly to be endured, history says this was not always so. Of course, the way it’s done can please or not please, and it’s still possible that such performances are an obsolete form that we’ve now superseded with hugely popular and culturally significant poetry chapbooks and small press poetry collections—I kid! I kid!

Today’s piece is by just such a singer-songwriter, an Englishman born in 1567, Thomas Campion. He wrote his lyrics, wrote music for them, and was an accomplished lutenist, so the chances are that he was discovered by John Hammond and played the authentic Elizabethan blues music he misheard from 78 r.p.m. discs of Catullus. Well no, doubting Thomas, once more I Kyd.

Thomas Campion with Lute

Poetic Campions compose. Thomas Campion with his lute.
If he looks glum it’s because it’s two centuries until Martin Guitars is established, and 350 years until the Telecaster.

He did write lovely songs, in a style I can’t come up with a way to present. “Let Us Live and Love”  was one. You can hear it sung beautifully to his tune here. So instead of exploring my counter-tenor range, I’m going to go with a sort of loose skiffley blues in my performance.

I’m going to lean on my blues audacity hard here, because the poem is addressed to the singer’s lover, Lesbia. Beavis and Butthead style giggles are breaking out in the back, I can hear you.  Turns out Campion took the lover’s name and the idea for his first verse of his lyric from a Latin poem by classic Roman poet Catullus, before taking off on his own thoughts on the matter. Classics scholars explain this by saying the Sappho of Lesbos’ association in classical times was more at a widely experienced lover, not necessarily a lesbian one.

Catullus Comforting Lesbia over the Death of Her Pet Sparrow and Writing an Ode

OK, OK, forget the one about you might as well have sex with me.
How about this, we’re all going to die, just like that bird, and…

 

Another category “Let Me Live and Love”  could be put in would be a “Carpe Diem” poem, which is not the Department of Natural Resources limit on the number of bullheads you can catch, but is more Latin meaning: “seize the day,” which in the case of poems usually doesn’t mean seize the day for fishing. Instead, Carpe Diem poems usually offer this proposition: “We’re all going to die, so you might as well have sex with me.” Seriously. Poets have actually made that seem like a smooth line.

The twist Campion puts on Carpe Diem is to bend it around a bit. His song has it that you already love me, and that makes the idea that we’re all going to die bearable. That’s at least a little more flattering.

To hear my performance of Campion’s “Let Us Live and Love”  use the player below.

 

The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd

There’s a long tradition of “the answer record” in pop music, where another artist responds to a hit record with an opposing viewpoint. Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”  (our last post) received a similar diss from Sir Walter Raleigh with his “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,”  which is today’s. Who will folk-rock the mic harder? Feel free to re-listen to Marlowe’s inning before considering Raleigh’s reply, Marlowe’s player is just below:

As I mentioned last time, these poems with their shepherds and lovers, called Pastorals, were proudly artificial, and set in a completely stylized and relaxed world of affection and sufficiency. You may find any desire to dwell in this unreal world strange and old-fashioned, but perhaps we imagine now another kind of locus amoenus/“pleasant place” to dream of going to, to escape the world.

Christian_Wilhelm_Ernst_Dietrich_-_A_pastoral_landscape_with_Diana_and_her_Nymphs,_1754

“Then he was all about rural handicrafts all of sudden. Was he even interested in me?”
“Well, it’s not like taking care of sheep is that hard. A child with a tambourine can do it!”

 
Raleigh’s “The Lie”  has already demonstrated here that Raleigh had no patience with romanticism. So, he’s primed to take on “The Passionate Shepherd,”  but he also notices another weakness in Marlowe’s argument: the Shepherd promises pleasures, presumably mutual pleasures to his lover, but he isn’t stopping there. He’s going to demonstrate his commitment by throwing an entire Etsy shop at her: beds of roses, caps, vests and belts made from woven wildflowers, wool dresses and wool lined slippers. And bling! Gold buckles, coral and amber buttons.

So, Raleigh composing the nymph’s reply has three arguments to make. All those hand-made crafts on offer? Doesn’t move me Shep. Outdoor animal husbandry? Not as romantic as you make it out to be in May, and those wool slippers better be warm if I’m going to be traipsing after some sheep come January. Lastly Shep, you’re all hot and bothered about me now, but just how lasting is all that? I appreciate the offer, but let’s just say I’m keeping the wool lined slippers and you can go try your line on some other nymph?

Wool Lined Slipper

I’m not even sure what a kirtle is, but I understand cold feet at night

Musically, this is another piece inspired by a 1960s folk-rock sound. I was thinking specifically about the musical style of Fred Neil’s Capitol records as I arranged this. I used a minor key chord progression somewhat related to the major key one I used for “The Passionate Shepherd,” and once again I sung this one. Raleigh, if downbeat, is just as lyrical as Marlowe in his answer. Marlowe has pretty lines like “By shallow rivers to whose falls/Melodious birds sing madrigals,” but Raleigh has “The flowers do fade, and wanton fields/To wayward winter reckoning yields.” So, use the player just below to hear Sir Walter Raleigh’s response in song.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

Let us leave the Modernists for a moment, for a trip to an imaginary land, a locus amoenus, a pleasant place, within whose bounds certain things hold true: love brings simple riches and complex pleasures ignorant of inconstant affection, and where the cares and complexities of cosmopolitan life, brutal prejudice, and other social constructions fade away.

Such a place can have many names. To the Surrealists it was the unfettered confusion of certain dreams. To the west coast optimists of the Sixties and their cross-Atlantic vibrationalists, it was a new Eden of decorated affection and open-mindedness. To a resident of fetid Elizabethan London, it was the pastoral, a demi-countryside where love was free and the rent non-existent. Shepherds, Pan and Panopticon, willed willing partners to their bowers. It seems like a nice place to visit—and in the mind, even more so.

Christopher Marlowe must have written this pastoral love poem sometime before he died in 1593 (baring any occult forces of the Twilight variety, or the posthumous inspirations that allow Oxfordians to confound Shakespeare’s later plays) but it wasn’t published until a few years after his death. It’s a full-throated exhortation in the pastoral style—with a slippery set of gold-buckled feet at the bottom of its argument as we’ll soon see, though that may not matter. Not only is it lovely sounding, even read flat on the page, the whole point of the imaginary pastoral world and the locus amoenus is that it isn’t real, that it’s the place we want to lie in and be lied to sweetly, within.

Marlowe and Peel

“And we will all the pleasures prove.”  The 19 year old Marlowe and the 29 year old Peel.

 

In the spirit of all this, today’s audio piece is one of the few Parlando Project selections where I sing, as you can’t really declaim “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.”   Musically, I chose to use some of the production techniques popular among dreaming optimists in the Sixties, where John Peel’s Perfumed Garden  would be another locus amoenus, another imaginary place, where, in fetid times, we might want to go. This week, 50 years ago, John Peel performed his final  broadcast of that accidental and influential radio show.

To hear Marlowe’s“The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”  performed as if it was a cut being played on the Perfumed Garden, use the player that should appear below.