The Darkling Thrush

My teenaged son is proud of his mastery of modern youth slang and enjoys the idea that his parents and their generations will have no idea what such terms mean. This is of course part of the utility of language: it not only binds people together, it keeps them apart.*

No matter, new times and new experiences enjoy making fresh and untarnished words to describe them. Words must have their pleasures, even when we don’t quite understand everything someone is saying. Take Thomas Hardy, a man who wrote what may be one of the last poems written in the 19th Century, after he had spent 61 years in it. Published on or around New Year’s Eve in 1900, today’s piece is “The Darkling Thrush.”  In Hardy’s poem, as an old man looks at the changing of a year and century, we have the reverse of my son’s joy: old words from an old man.

Thomas Hardy Moustache wax abuser
Careful with the moustache wax Tom, you’ll put someone’s eye out!

 

“Darkling”, “coppice”, “spectre”, “bine-stems”, “lyres”, “outleant”, “illimited”—we meet the first one in the title, the second five words in, the third at ten words. Even if I was to quiz educated Americans, I doubt most could define the majority of these words, and I’m unsure how much better modern British residents would do.**

Coppicing is a European method of managing tree growth, in which mature trees are cut off to allow fresh shoots to continually propagate. Spectre is more known now as a trademark applied to laptops and James Bond bad-guys, but is an English word for a spirit or ghost. Bines are not vines to the knowledgeable horticulturist (bines twist their main stem around things to tangle and climb, vines use special parts of branches to hitch themselves up). Lyres are not supporters of disreputable political movements, but a stringed harp. Illimited is just another, rarer, form of the word unlimited, and I think Hardy may have chosen it because it starts with a sick word, ill, but also puns on illuminated. The titled adjective, darkling is a handy way to say it’s occurring in the dark. Although it’s a little-used word, like illimited, the sound of it brings to mind something else, the smallness of the title bird, as in duckling,  and darkling’s sound also lets us see dusk rather than deep night, when we can still see the winter thicket Hardy sets his poem in.

But outleant is the real mystery word. A short web search finds no online dictionary definitions, no examples of its use other than in Hardy’s poem. A simple deconstruction of the word’s parts would make it, inverted, saying “leaning out.” And that’s what it probably means. There’s textural evidence as it ties back to the poem’s second word, “leant upon the gate” to the coppice. Yet, did Hardy intend to infer two other close words in this word’s sound? Out-lent, a sense that the haunted and dreary winter scene of the poem is owned by the old, dying century and is lent out only to the present? Depending on pronunciation of the printed word’s “ea,” it could conceivably be pronounced out-lent (and Hardy does rhyme it with “lament.”) Does he also want us to hear a closeness to outlearnt, and that the old century’s corpus of belief has been superseded (by newer scientific discoveries?) That would be consistent with Hardy’s beliefs.

Perhaps this is my weakness as a reader, translator, performer and poet myself. If I sense an image is possible, I want to see it, hear it, perform it. Bare winter bines twisted around a copse of brush wood as a corpse leaning out of a coffin may be grisly, but it’s not to me a strong image.*** Even if it’s abstract, the second sense, that of this bare and haunted landscape being the cemetery plot owned by the old century of which we are only visiting seems stronger. For others, the sense that new knowledge has killed off the old beliefs (outlearnt) could be a choice. I can’t know that Hardy intended this ambiguity by choosing this unusual word outleant, but I, the reader, put it there.

The title calls attention to the central image, yet another messenger bird in British poetry, to go with the nightingales and skylarks of Keats and Shelley, poets of Hardy’s now dying century. I like that Hardy lets us see the bird, and it’s frail, gaunt, and -ling tiny, and that we can see feathers fluffed to best insulate its frame, which the wind is disputing.

So, there was Hardy, around New Year’s Eve, using his old and odd words at the end of an old century. For us, Hardy’s oncoming one (the 20th century) has now closed itself. Will things get better or worse in our new year? Something in us wants to foretell at every ending—yet even looking backwards, we have trouble making a simple better or worse judgement. Here, the battered bird, the darkling thrush, says better. Hardy says he knows he doesn’t know.

He knows he doesn’t know is the realist’s version of hope.

Anyway, one of the joys of combining poetry with music is that you don’t have to take a test on the words to enjoy the piece. My pompatus of a performance of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”  is available with the player below.

 

 

 

*Right now he’s very generous in this however. He want’s me to know these words so I won’t be left out.

**Before looking them up, I knew spectre and lyres for sure and I was fairly sure about darkling as an adverb, then taken to adjective. I had ideas (some from context) on the others—and in the case of coppice, my ideas were wrong. My son knew spectre and lyres and defined darkling as “a creature of the night” for which I’ll give half-credit. In the case of bines, I told him I learned how bines were different from vines, and he told me “Sure they are! Vines are 7 second videos.” (That last was a joke on his part.) My wife, a fine word-smith, also got 2.5 (“Bines, it that like a wood-bine?” got half-credit as understanding was there, even if a good dictionary definition it wasn’t.)

***Saplings and bines and “sharp landscape” would indicate a skeletal image is intended, but bare bones are not particularly scary or intense compared to rot and decomposition, much less animated brains-hungry undead. Hardy doesn’t mean scary so much as long-dead I guess. Interestingly, Hardy had a direct graveyard experience to draw on here.

Advertisements

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)

Here’s a hopeful song written by a worried man during the great trauma of the American Civil War.

Those who’ve followed along on this blog in 2018 will know that I’ve performed several pieces with words written by that man, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’ve written about his once great fame and his steep fall from poetic fashion, but I’ve written little about his eventful personal life.

longfellows house in winter

Not all of what it seems: a picture postcard scene of Longfellow’s home during the Civil War.

 

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, there could be no doubt on which side Longfellow would be on. To the extent that Longfellow was political as a writer, he was resolutely against the institution of slavery. Longfellow was also philosophically a pacifist, but even before the war he was aware of the cost Abolitionist convictions could bring. His closest friend, Charles Sumner, a U. S. Senator and another Abolitionist, was sitting at his desk on the Senate floor in 1856 when three southern congressmen launched a planned assault on him. The leader of the crew beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a walking stick, while the other two held off any who rose to try to stop the assault, one brandishing a pistol to keep help at bay. Sumner was so badly injured from the attack he was unable to resume his Senate duties for three years after the attack.

By the spring of 1863, the Civil War over the maintenance of slavery was now two years old. No one knew how long it would continue or what the outcome would be, and once more someone close to Longfellow would feel its blows. Longfellow’s 17-year-old son Charley, who had firmly resolved his own feelings about the war, snuck out of the family home and made his way to Washington to join the Union army. In November of that year, his unit was reconnoitering around a Virginia location called New Hope Church. They found what they were looking for. A southern bullet ripped through Charley Longfellow’s torso sideways, just nicking his spine. Luck that, and luck that he was able to endure and survive a painful evacuation on a wagon and the woeful state of battlefield trauma care in his time. Over half-a-million fellow soldiers didn’t.

So, a month before Christmas, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was searching the maze of makeshift hospitals and camps in Washington until he found his wounded son. Son found, by Christmas the Longfellows could return home for further recuperation.

Today “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”*  if listened to casually may pass as just another carol, an obligatory musical evocation of some cheerful pealing on a winter’s holiday. But to the poet who wrote these words that Christmas, and to the nation torn apart, that he and his audience were part of, this was not merely another generalized Christmas card.

I wrote a couple of hundred words, meaning to put them here next, starting to say, preaching about, what Longfellow said in his poem—but Longfellow says what he needed to say pretty well and clear for an unfashionable poet. Maybe that “clear” thing is part of what is unfashionable, but despair shared and hope earnestly put forward is  a gift.

The player gadget below will let you hear “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)”  as I performed it. To sharpen Longfellow’s point, I trimmed back the number of stanzas in his original poem and then again from the shorter number of verses usually sung in the hymn that was made from it. I also reharmonized the chord changes a little. Guitarists wanting to play this themselves can use this shared link to see the details of the open tuning and chord voicings I used for this. The modified tuning, with the two lowest strings on the guitar tuned down even lower, makes this very easy to play.

 

 

 

*When Longfellow’s poem was published the next year it was titled “Christmas Bells,”  but it’s now best known through the hymn/Christmas carol set to music by John Baptiste Calkin.

Dream Big

There’s an old joke that goes like this:

Alarmed Customer: What’s a fly doing in my soup?

Waiter: I believe that’s the backstroke sir.

Part of the humor here derives from the order brought to the chaotic event of an insect in the diner’s food. The waiter is able to observe the fly and classify its actions from an altogether different perspective. And the rest of the humor comes from the waiter willfully, or otherwise, misunderstanding the customer’s complaint as a mooted question.

Rhythm, a primary component of music and poetry, shares that ability to reshape chaos. The day after I saw the Emily Dickinson film biography “A Quiet Passion”  I returned to the same theater complex to see Chasing the Trane,” a documentary about musician John Coltrane, a man whose work and life story has carried me across many a low place. You could predict most of the talking heads (what director Warren Beatty once called, perceptively, “witnesses” in his John Reed biopic “Reds”)  that appeared in the Coltrane film. Coltrane’s children talk about their parents. Winton Marsalis and Cornell West are obligatory we suppose. A pair of Coltrane biographers chip in their perspective. The surviving members of Coltrane’s great combos, Reggie Workman and McCoy Tyner, talk briefly. Sonny Rollins, Coltrane’s great contemporary, and Benny Golson, a musician who first knew John Coltrane as a fellow teenager in Philadelphia, are especially insightful.

And then John Densmore, the drummer from the 60’s rock group The Doors speaks. OK, I can hear a few saying “What’s he doing in a John Coltrane biography?”

The answer is: swimming in the rhythm of Elvin Jones (the great drummer of Coltrane’s greatest hand). Like the original Homer who wrote our fly in the soup joke, Elvin Jones could converse with whatever new melody, whatever mistaken-for-mere-chaos invention, that John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy could invoke. Densmore watched him do that on the bandstand closely, and then applied what he learned when he later was called to add order to the Dionysian deconstructions of The Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison, a man who had the touch of a poet quickly smothered by drink, drugs, and uncharted celebrity.

Densmore’s part in the film is to add to the thought that John Coltrane lived as if  he could converse with the universe and approach its Creator with what he had heard from it. Densmore’s addition: but it’s the drummer that is the witness that this is happening now, in the time we are all beating. Coltrane may swim out in the tide of the cosmos, but Elvin Jones knows what stroke he’s swimming.

John Coltrane and Elvin Jones

Elvin Jones and John Coltrane: a conversation with infinity and time

 

I call today’s audio piece “Dream Big!”  June is the month of graduations and their obligatory talking heads delivering commencement addresses, most of them deputizing themselves as present-day Ralph Waldo Emersons with mature advice for the audience. However, “Dream Big!”  doesn’t present the tale from some sundry gray eminence—instead it has some words from a young man, the British musician Kiran Leonard, who asks us to look at the dream of Herman Sörgel.

Kiran Leonard

Kiran Leonard: quiet is the opposite of thoughtful

Kiran Leonard’s music takes several forms and may still be forming, but his words that I adapted for use with my music in “Dream Big” were taken not from a song, but from a short statement broadcast by the BBC. In it, Leonard uses Sörgel to encourage us to take on creative projects we think are beyond us. Good advice for young people—but I also took it as good advice for this old man as I started the Parlando Project in 2016, and needed to contact some hopeful audacity. And now, this week, as I am readying this post, I need John Coltrane and Herman Sörgel, Emerson and Kiran Leonard levels of such hope as I mourn the needless death of a young man and our pretentions that we can do nothing about it.

To hear more of Kiran Leonard’s music you can see this live set from last year here, or view the promotional videos for songs from recent albums here and here, or read this interview/introduction/review. To hear my performance of “Dream Big!”  use the player below.