Christina Rossetti’s May

Here’s a piece using a Christina Rossetti poem “May,”  that’s both simple and spare and mysterious and broad. Early in this project I presented several of Rossetti’s poems, most of which were new to me, because her short, lyrical poems delighted me with their avoidance of the cruft her English Victorian contemporaries often fall into. Nothing’s universally wrong with elaborate poems, but to my tastes, sparer poems can offer us guidance to pay attention, real attention,  to what remains.

Here’s the text of her short poem. The stuff in curly brackets are variations I found in a short search through versions online.

I cannot tell you how it was; {,}
But this I know: it came to pass
Upon a bright and sunny {breezy} day
When May was young: ah, pleasant May!
As yet the poppies were not born
Between the blades of tender corn;
The last egg {eggs} had not hatched as yet,
Nor any bird forgone its mate.

I cannot tell you what it was; {,}
But this I know: it did but pass.
It passed away with sunny May,
Like {With} all sweet things it passed away,
And left me old, and cold, and grey.

These variations are from tiny to small. A semicolon or a comma? Can anyone make any difference from that? “Sunny” or “breezy?” I prefer sunny, breezy is more active, since this is a poem that works its magic by giving us a still moment, and then showing us it’s not. And if sunny, then “sunny” is nicely repeated in the 11th line, when this short poem begins to refrain with itself. “Egg” or “Eggs?” Close call there. Egg lets us see a singular egg (it’s usually easier to invoke a single thing vividly rather than a multitude), but “eggs” make the point that this is an entire reproductive process. “Like” or “With?” I like “like.” “With” followed by that “all” has a sense of this being an immediate entirety. “Like” allows us to hear the poet say some thing, part of an indefinite series of loss or leaving, has gone away. Again, the power of the singular. Do we know what that thing is? The poem decides not to tell us.* How does that choice rank against the power of the singular? If it’s not named it could be anything,  the ultimate multitude of possibilities. Here choices for singular things in this short poem become more important, because it then sets off this missing piece of information about what has gone away in contrast to the specific things named around it.

Wait, that’s not a springtime bird guarding its nest in the lilacs!


Do you notice one more variation in the poem’s structure? Hint: how many lines? One, two, three, four…Oh, 13 lines. This works like a sonnet, it even has a turn, a volta, after 8 lines, as in one highly common sonnet format; but the final section is 5, not 6 lines.

It’s too certain a variation not to think that Rossetti decided to make a little meta point that other poets or sonnet fanciers alone will catch. “Yeah, something’s gone and left—there’s no damn 14th line!”

I can’t tell you why the variations in the exact text of this poem. I presume that someone, or Rossetti herself, did a light revision before some level of republication. Which is the latest? Which did Rossetti herself prefer? My scholarship is such tonight that I simply don’t know.

But I did worse. Just today, after I had finished recording the performance that you’ll be able to hear below, I noticed I’d made an error, a variation myself. The copy of the text I was working from had dropped the 13th and final line.

I could simply redo the performance, but it’s become difficult to record acoustic instruments over the past year for this project. Though it blunts the meta-point of the 13-line sonnet, I tell myself there’s power in my unintentional change. “Left me old, and cold, and gray,” the 13th line I inadvertently left out, tells us more about that mysterious thing that has “passed away” with May. My slip-up retains some additional mystery.

The player gadget will appear below for some of you to hear my performance of Christina Rossetti’s trimmed-down sonnet, accidentally trimmed again. If you don’t see the player, you can use this highlighted hyperlink, which will open a new tab and play the song.


*Here’s another short write up about this poem, which summarizes some of the guesses about what has passed away. Some love gone sour is one guess, and what with the spring birth specifics in the first 8 lines, perhaps some opportunity to have a child would be another. My accidental deletion of the last line, with its emotional damage curtly listed, adds an element of “All things must pass” to the loss, the possibility of a more Buddhist outlook to a change that’s part of the illusion of possession.

A Mien to Move a Queen

Ready to go on a roundabout trip with today’s blog post? Keep your hands inside the car, we’re going somewhere back to here on another wild-mouse ride.

A couple of things the foot-square vinyl LPs of my youth afforded us: liner notes to help guide us in appreciation of the grooves within, and more commonly as The Sixties progressed, lyric sheets.

Not every record had those lyric sheets. Some artists opposed them on principle—Bob Dylan was one—though to a large degree the reason we got them was due to that hold-out, Mr. Dylan. Dylan revolutionized song lyrics. Before Bob Dylan, no one wrote songs with lyrics like he did.*  After Dylan, a lot of everyones tried their hand at it. In the 21st century when we hear or see lyrics that use an accretion of rapidly changing metaphors and a kaleidoscope of dark-cylinder mental outlooks, we no longer notice that they are Dylanesque. It’s just a mode that songwriters can draw from the common.

Would that have happened if Dylan hadn’t happened? Possibly. And plausibly, only similarly, but distinctly different. Would Richard Farina (sans motorcycle accident) or Leonard Cohen have won a Nobel prize for reshaping a word form?

One argument that it would have still happened was the psychedelic phase of pop music that followed Dylan’s revolution. There, later in The Sixties, opaque and strange lyrics got another push, one that was largely ascribed to intoxicating chemicals which produced visual sequalae and baroque mental turns. Now of course the intoxicated or drug altered poet was already a thing in literary poetry, and the sober cold-water-army songwriter was likely a minority long before “The Sixties.” But Dylan had punctured the membrane that separated those two crowds, and so we got the Canyons of Your Mind school of songwriting too.

Cold Water Army

19th century straight-edge punks on dihydrogen monoxide, usually also anti-slavery and pro-women’s rights too. Comes with a lyric sheet!

Some of it was good, some of it bad—but then we might see lyric sheets to the wind like these:

Oh where are you now
Pussy willow that smiled on this leaf?
When I was alone
You promised the stone
From your heart….
Brandish her wand
With a feathery tongue


A mien to move a queen
Half child—half heroine
An Orleans in the eye
That puts its manner by
For humbler company
When none are near
Even a tear
Its frequent visitor


If you were a bird and lived very high
You leaned on the wind as the breeze came by
Say to the wind as it took you away
“That’s where I wanted to go today”


Bedouin tribes ascending
From the egg into the flower
Alpha information sending
States within the heaven shower
From disciples, the unending
Subtleties of river power

The chorus sings: “OK Boomer,” and you can ascribe all of these to chemical traces, wonder about their authors consequent mental damage, or coldly appreciate them as word music, but I’ll come at you from a minority report: the trip’s in your head, not in the drug. I gave up stuff you can smoke (mostly nicotine) around the time I passed the trustworthy border age of 30. I never spun the pill roulette wheel. Needles are for records or loose buttons.

Next stop for the psychedelic bus is some credit for those lyrics above. The first is from Syd Barrett’s post-Pink Floyd song “Dark Globe.”  The second is the beginning of an arresting if mysterious poem by Emily Dickinson. The third is by children’s writer, humorist, and WWI vet A. A. Milne quoted by songwriter Paul Kantner to begin the Jefferson Airplane’s “Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil.”  And the fourth is the start of “Slip Inside this House”  from the 13th Floor Elevators’ Tommy Hall and Roky Erickson.

A little day glo paint or patchouli and Emily Dickinson fits right in when she writes in this mode I think, even if she’s a century too soon, “The Eighteen-The-Sixties.” When I ran into that first stanza of her 1861 poem known by it’s first line “A Mien to Move a Queen”  earlier this month, I was immediately captured by its strange mystery, so much so that I worked out the music you hear today without even knowing that the poem was longer than that one stanza, and I was so entranced by it that the piece you hear today uses only the first and last parts of her poem because I think the middle parts break the mood that first stanza gave me. Want to see the entire poem? The link is here.

The omitted middle section seems playful to me—even as the British would say, twee, but I am of course editing a genius here. I still like my selection as I hope it adds some weight to the whimsey. What was Dickinson on about in this poem? Even living with it for a few days, I’m not entirely sure. The opening stanza is often read as connecting to Joan of Arc. Some read the poem as Emily reflecting on herself and constructing her own persona, and the middle section I omitted gives some evidence of that. Beside it’s general mysteriousness, there are to my mind two pieces of particular heightened sensitivity or even hallucinogenic imagery: the “Orleans in the Eye” line and the sensuous and heard quiet of the “Like Let of Snow” image.

So, we started with musty cardboard squares and moved through two steps of an era of wilder and wilder metaphors sung to music, and finished with Emily Dickinson, sewing 1861 fascicles by whale oil light while listening to Syd Barrett or A. A. Milne feedback on her record player long into the night. In between songs, the needle stops shimmying and she can hear the sound of snow moving across snow outside, filling, and not, summer’s empty room.

The player to hear my musical performance of a selection from Emily Dickinson’s “A Mien to Move a Queen”  is below. Thanks for reading and listening!



*Yes there are examples that made it into popular or semi-popular music pre-Dylan. Modernist poetry had already done all of these things earlier in the century, and  in addition, a big part of what Dylan used in creating his work were the un-acknowledged Modernists who created the Afro-American blues. None of that disproves the point that Bob Dylan showed that you could do that sort of thing in a proximate way that led to a revolution in the possibilities of song lyrics.

A Certain Slant of Light

The Parlando Project combines various words (usually poetry) with music as varied as I can make it. When I planned the Parlando Project I did not intend to post detailed examinations of the poems’ meanings.

After all, I thought, listening to music is a sensuous experience, and poetry, as it is musical speech, also has its impact when hearing it, independent of any final meaning one could extract from it. Of course, assuming the poetry is in one’s own language, it’s nearly impossible to escape meaning if one allows oneself to listen at all. Some words and phrases will mean something, even on first hearing, even with the most confusing and difficult poetry.

In the end, we may experience a difficult or elusive poem as if it was a set of flat-pack furniture, or a jigsaw puzzle, or as one of those plastic model kits that I bought and glued together in my youth. But in those cases, a wordless black and white sheet with numbers and pointed arrows inside the carton tells you this is to be assembled as a dresser or end table, and the puzzle or model kit has the beautiful color picture on the box top that tells you the pieces’ assembled meaning.

With a poem like Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a Certain Slant of Light”  there is no picture of it complete, there are no assembly instructions. If you try to put it together, you may feel there are pieces missing.

The pieces, though, are beautiful, even left unconnected, even if we don’t know what the whole is to be. Slanted light on a winter’s afternoon with a heft like music. Shadows holding their breath. Heavenly hurt without a scar.

The Emily DIckinson Internal Difference

See Emily play?

There’s no harm in going to the bottom of this post and using the player to hear my performance of “There’s A Certain Slant of Light”  without reading the rest of this. There will be no test. There’s no correct answer. You never need to put down your pencil and close your test booklet. Dickinson didn’t write about what she intended with this poem, and intelligent readers have differed in what they found there. Some found an end-table, others a fine art painting, others a plastic 1940 Ford sedan built one of three ways. Some listeners will just enjoy the pieces. There’s a little piano motif I play in it: A, B, C, E ascending and then back to A again. What does that mean? It’s an arpeggiated A minor (add 9) chord, or it’s just a series of notes that sound “meaningful” in sequence without knowing the harmony.

AMT 1940 Ford 3 in 1 model car kit

It could look like this after you put it together

Here’s that player to hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “A Certain Slant of Light.” No assembly required.