There’s not much to say about the author of today’s words, as they are anonymous and somewhat older than I am—“I Saw a Peacock” dates to sometime before 1655. Somewhat like Emily Dickinson’s “May-Flower” poem, this poem is on the face of it a chronicle of wonders and mystery, but it can also be read as a puzzle. Here’s the text of it:
I Saw a Peacock, with a fiery tail,
I saw a Blazing Comet, drop down hail,
I saw a Cloud, with Ivy circled round,
I saw a sturdy Oak, creep on the ground,
I saw a Pismire, swallow up a Whale,
I saw a raging Sea, brim full of Ale,
I saw a Venice Glass, Sixteen foot deep,
I saw a well, full of mens’ tears that weep,
I saw their eyes, all in a flame of fire,
I saw a House, as big as the Moon and higher,
I saw the Sun, even in the midst of night,
I saw the man, that saw this wondrous sight.
The key to the puzzle is to read the lines starting at the middle and continuing to the middle of the next line. Read this way the things connected seem more commonplace and less mysterious. Given it’s age, there not a lot of out-dated words in it. A “pismire” is an ant.
A Venice glass, not actual size.
This is a fairly sophisticated play with the powers of enjambment in a line of poetry, where the stop of the line makes one pause and consider (if only for a moment) the thought contained within the line, even if the thought is not actually completed yet. But I’ve chosen (as I did with Dickinson’s “May-Flower”) to not perform it as just a riddle or exercise. Emily Dickinson’s poetry for her flower riddle was too mysterious and sensuous for me not to play to the mystery. Similarly, “I Saw a Peacock’s” surface of surreal combinations of the like/unlike is too strong to not go with that side of the Mobius strip.
Although I just ran into “I Saw a Peacock” this month, the poem has collected its fans over the centuries. I saw it at the Interesting Literature blog (which is, by the way). Writer Margaret Atwood once wrote that it was “The first poem I can remember that opened up the possibility of poetry for me.”
There is at least one other setting of this poem to music, a choral setting where the composer, Caroline Mallonee, uses a double choir to present both ways of reading the lines. That’s another artistic solution, different from my decision to present it “unsolved.”
My musical setting uses double instrumentation too. There’s a standard rock trio, albeit playing quietly (drum-set, electric bass, and electric guitar) and a quintet of double-bass, two cellos, violin and tuba.
You may have noticed I’ve been away from this blog for an interval of a few days as I work on another project this spring. I’ve noticed that folks are looking at the nearly 350 audio pieces we have here in our archives more and more, which is a great way to get your fix of music and words combining. To hear today’s piece, “I Saw a Peacock,” use the player gadget below.