The Shadow on the Stone

Because they usually deal with brief moments in time, we sometimes think of lyric poetry as making do with simple thoughts, singular emotions felt distinctly. Today’s piece, English poet Thomas Hardy’s “The Shadow on the Stone”  shows us it can be otherwise.

I suppose one can say it’s a poem about grief, or you could say it’s another ghost story. If it’s a ghost story, it’s poised entirely between belief and disbelief in such afterlife visitations. If it’s a grief poem, and it is that I think, it points out that grief doesn’t mean simple, singular, feelings.

Let me summarize a few things that are biographically behind this poem, even though I think some of its ambiguity can be sensed, felt, and to a degree understood without them.

The poem’s author, Hardy, was married in his thirties* to another woman of the same age. There was something of a romance in their courtship story. She was beautiful, looked younger than her suitor, and loved to ride around the English countryside on horseback. She was a doted-on daughter from a well-borne family that had had some financial setbacks. Hardy was from a tradesman’s family and was not established successfully in a trade or as the controversial author of novels he would become. Not long into the marriage, the wife began to think of this as what would have been called then “a misalliance.” He was beneath her standing after all — and Hardy’s eventual emergence as a novelist of note if anything made her more estranged. She considered herself a writer, while others dismissed her work as all the while Hardy’s began to succeed.

Eventually she moved to the attic of their house, and their emotional separation was an open secret among their acquaintances. In 1912, after more than 35 years of marriage, most spent in estrangement from her husband, she died.**  In going through her attic quarters they was found a manuscript she had been writing. Some accounts give its name as Why I Hate My Husband  and others What I Think of My Husband.***

Emma and Thomas Hardy

For Emma, Forever Ago. Thomas Hardy and pre-ghost-wife wife Emma back in the 19th Century.

.

So, what happens in the moment of this poem, after her death, and after that life-history? Here’s a link to the poem’s text if you’d like to follow along. The poem’s speaker (I’ll just say “Hardy,” as Thomas Hardy was forthright about the subject of his grief poems) is working during the autumn in his garden and sees cast across a “Druid stone”**** a shadow shape which he says in his imagination brings to mind the shadow of his dead spouse when she would garden there. While he says this was “imagining” he’s not completely sure. Those aware of Hardy’s marriage history will hear a particular salience in the statement that the ghost of his dead wife is one “I long had learned to lack.” But this phenomenon, of intimates appearing in the imagination of the grieving is commonplace, and I can say in the experience of myself and my dead spouse, it’s not a simple wistful visitation. If one’s world has been turned upside down, you may not want it to spin some more, even backwards.

In the second stanza this “Is she really here, or my imagining” state is interrogated. Hardy speaks to whatever is behind him casting shadows, and says (perhaps just in case it’s a real, and maybe even a vengeful, ghost) “I’m sure you are standing behind me.” As if he’s conjured up a spirit and he’s letting them know he knows who/what they are, knows their name, and can query it.

The spirit doesn’t respond. I love the ambiguous skeptic’s final two lines here: “I would not turn my head to discover/That there was nothing in my belief.” Hardy wants to not face it  if the spirit is real, not an imagining, and we don’t even know if from fear or love.

Continuing in ambivalence, Hardy says next that he wanted to look  and disprove, a statement that he in action doesn’t do.*****   Instead he leaves the garden without seeking to disprove or confront the spirit or imagining he believes is representing his dead wife. Best as I can tell, the idiomatic expression “throwing shade” is of Afro-American origin. This Merriam Webster note says it was popularized on Ru Paul’s Drag Race  circa 2010, though I’m pretty sure I heard and used it before then. In my performance, I speak it in that meaning, even if Hardy didn’t mean it that way in his time. As in life, Hardy seems to say he must endure and miss his spouse, and so this ambivalence with a possible ghost resonates with his grief.

I mentioned performance above. I started composing here thinking about the Afro-American musical influences on the Velvet Underground, both in rhythm guitar figures and in Moe Tucker’s spare drum kit and approach. If I would have written the drums in this as a jazz-influenced piece, the high-hat would have marked the beat, but there’s no high-hat in this piece’s drum kit, though the tambourine playing does stand in for it somewhat. This didn’t turn out to be a Moe Tucker style drum part after all, but that’s where I started.

My original take had things ending on Hardy’s poem’s final word: “fade” — but overnight I decided it needed a reprise after that hung resolution, and while playing that I decided to riff on some other famous lyrical uses of the word “fade” as a trope of death and persistence. A player gadget is below for some to hear my performance, but if not, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear it.

.

*This is fairly late for a first marriage in the mid-19th century.

**She and Hardy were 72 in 1912. This is not one of those stories of the stricken young bride who died long before her time.

***We may wonder just what the real deal was with their relationship, who was meaner or more dismissive to who — and well, the patriarchy and all that may have colored within the lines, as most accounts by men and women seem to paint Thomas Hardy as the aggrieved party in the marriage. Interesting matters — but for the purposes of presenting this poem, beside the point. Flip a few gendered words in the poem, and imagine it being written by a widow who thinks of her abusive or belittling husband after his death.

****I wondered about this peculiar detail. Was this a characteristic English garden decoration, like a birdbath or garden gnome statue? No. A large flattened top stone was found during construction which Hardy thought was an actual Druid stone, perhaps used as an ancient altar. More evidence that while Hardy was a skeptic, the realness of a supernatural “apparition” is meant to be in question — and this may also allude to some metaphoric bone and ash sacrifices the marriage brought to their lives.

*****In a short essay on this poem, Jeremy Axelrod sees an allusion to the story of Eurydice and Orpheus in the underworld. Hardy doesn’t usually use classical Greek allusions in the poems I’ve read, but even if unintended, well, “death of the author” and “archetypes.”

Reynardine

Are you familiar with the song “Reynardine?”  You might be. It’s been performed by many of the best performers in the modern folk revival: Anne Briggs, Fairport Convention, John Renbourn, June Tabor, Bert Jansch and others.*  Today as I extend our Halloween series, I’m going to introduce you to a version of the song you haven’t heard, a version that I’ll maintain uses more efficient and effective methods to convey an air of mystery. There’s supposition that this version may have been an indirect catalyst in the way the song you may know was presented, but this little-known version’s lyrics are so good that singers should consider using them in contemporary performances.

Where did I find this new version of “Reynardine?”   In the 1909 book of collected poetry by Irish poet Seosamh MacCathmhaoil (AKA Joseph Campbell) titled The Mountainy Singer.

I’ve spent a day or so in hurried research on this, even though long-time readers (or readers of our last post for that matter) will know that Joseph Campbell** has been of interest to me for a couple of years now. Here’s the shortest version of what I know that I can make.

Songs related to “Reynardine”  go back to the early 19th century in the British Isles and the U.S. Wikipedia gives us a representative early (1814) example, and this helpful page gives us a catalog of later 20th century versions. The older versions sometimes vary the name of the title character and contain no supernatural elements. The typical plot is a broadside ballad variation of what is still a staple romance-story trope: a woman meets an erotic stranger who she thinks may be disreputable and possibly stranger/dangerous — but who also may be wealthy or noble (Reynardine claims to have a castle in most versions.)  Over several verses there may be Victorian code-words like “kisses” and “fainting,” and the title man may leave the lady wondering where he’s run off to.

Skip forward to the early 20th century: in 1909 (the same year that Campbell as MacCathmhaoil publishes “The Mountainy Singer”)  a musicologist Herbert Hughes publishes the first volume in a series of successful song collections titled Irish Country Songs.  A great many songs that will be featured in Celtic and general folk-revival recordings, performances, and song anthologies are included in Hughes series of books.*** Hughes’ printed version of “Reynardine”  is shorter than most extant versions, a verse and a once-repeated refrain, and it’s even called a “Fragment of Ulster Ballad.” In a footnote at the bottom there is this note, unsupported by any of this song’s lyrics:

In the locality where I obtained this fragment Reynardine is known as the name of a faery that changes into the shape of a fox. -Ed.”

A century-old song, with many collected versions, and this is the first time that “Reynardine”  is said to have supernatural elements. Where did Hughes get this? I don’t have a direct link, but there is our version of “Reynardine,”  published in the same year by the Ulster-native Campbell who is not credited on Hughes’ score, though Campbell/ MacCathmhaoil is  credited in at least two other songs in Hughes’ Irish Country Songs.  The supposition is that Campbell is either “the locality” — or that Hughes and Campbell shared a traditional source which has left no extant song version that indicated to both of them that Reynardine is a supernatural creature.

Hughes' Irish Country Songs version of Reynardine

Footnotes! Pretty scary boys and girls! Herbert Hughes’ songbook presentation of Reynardine that likely changed how the song was viewed.

.

Did some of the later 20th century folk revival singers know of this footnote? Possibly. One highly influential revivalist A. L. Lloyd sang a version that included at times a remark that Reynardine had notable teeth which shined. In pre-dental-care England this detail may have been enough supernatural evidence. Furthermore, he wrote of the were-fox context in liner notes more than once 50-70 years ago which led other performers to explain the song that way, either as their own subtext or to audiences.

But here’s another mystery — and I’m saying, a useful one — why isn’t Campbell’s version of “Reynardine”  known and sung? Let’s look at it. The chords here are the ones I fingered, though I used Open G tuning and I formed the chords while capoing at the 3rd fret, so it sounds in the key of Bb. But the music “Reynardine” is sung to isn’t harmonically complicated (you could simplify the chords), and a better singer than I could better line out the attractive tune used by myself and most performers. ****

Reynardine Song

I made one change to Campbell’s masterfully compressed 1909 lyric. I use the more instantly recognizable, less antique word “lover” where Campbell had the easy to mishear “leman.”

.

Poets and lyricists: this is a marvel. No need of footnotes or spoken “this song is about…” intros. The supernatural element is subtly but clearly introduced. The refrained first stanza was as published by Hughes, and is commonly sung in modern versions. The second makes the bold move of changing a folk-song readymade where some damsel’s lips are found to be “red as wine” with an animalistic short-sharp-shock of Reynardine’s “eyes were red as wine.” The third stanza lets us know he can be a fox in form, subject to fox hunters with the brief but specific statements of the horn and hounds. Another subtle thing: Campbell repeats the “sun and dark” all-day-and-all-of-the-night lyrical motif to tell us this isn’t an ordinary fox hunt scheduled for seasonable days befitting rich people’s leisure, but a 24-hour emergency. The hunters know this fox isn’t normal. The refrained first verse reminds us that the lover may know that the were-fox can also take a human form, and make use of human defenses, such as castles, which the assiduous hunters do not.

As a page poem this has the vivid compression that Imagism preached. Compare the efficiency of this story-telling to “La Belle Dame sans Merci”  which has its sensuous pleasures, yes, but takes it’s time getting to the point. The two poems convey essentially the same tale, but Campbell can leave us with an equally mysterious effect using so few and aptly chosen words.

There’s a player below for some of you to hear my example of a performance of Joseph Campbell/ Seosamh MacCathmhaoil’s “Reynardine.”   Those who don’t see it can use this highlighted hyperlink instead.

Hopefully, I haven’t put any of you off with my own footnotes about this song’s unusual history and transformation. If you skipped to the end, here once more is my message today:

If you perform this sort of material, consider using Campbell’s lyrics instead of those you may have heard from other singers. They’re that good.”

.

*And more recently in a softly lovely version by Isobel Campbell, formerly of Belle and Sebastian.

**Obligatory statement: no, not the Power of Myth  guy. I suppose it could be worse, Campbell could have been named James Joyce or Sinead O’Connor, and confused us too.

***Besides “Reynardine,”  Vol. 1 includes another popular folk-revival song, erroneously considered to have wholly traditional lyrics: “She Moved Through the Fair”  which Hughes’ correctly credits lyrically to Irish poet Padraic Colum.

****I was somewhat working from a very rough memory of Bert Jansch’s version on his Rosemary Lane  LP. It’s a good thing I was rushing this and didn’t stop to listen to Jansch — his version is an acoustic guitar tour de force. If you’d like one performance to demonstrate why I, and many acoustic guitarists, revere his playing, that would be a good choice.

A Rustle of Feathers

As promised, here’s my “bird in the house” piece presented as a companion to Dave Moore’s episode from yesterday.

I wrote this about a decade ago. I was going through a bit of a rough spot in my life then, and just as the words place the narrator in the piece, I was alone in a house in the wintertime, acutely aware of the sounds in winter.  In that house, with no other human sounds but my own, I found myself thinking of my aged father, now widowed, living alone as well. In a somewhat morbid, gloomy mood I thought of unwitnessed death, of my father, or myself, dying alone.

Just as in the dream reported in Dave’s piece “The Bird Dream,” the trapped bird image came to me as I wrote the words for “A Rustle of Feathers.”

Odd that that trapped bird image occurred to both of us thinking of our aged parents. I don’t know if this is a common image or archetype, something that waits in our common human unconsciousness, waiting for a writer’s words to awaken. “A Rustle of Feathers,” with it’s aged narrator in an otherwise empty house acutely alert to sounds, shares a bit of the mise-en-scène of Robert Frost’s A Old Man’s Winters Night”  that was presented here earlier this month. Possibly I had read the Frost poem somewhere in my youth, but I don’t believe it was present in my unconscious as I wrote this; but shortly after I wrote “A Rustle of Feathers,” I did think that Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven”a poem widely known to Americans of my generation—might have been a subliminal influence.

The Raven and Poe

Yes, I am using a plucked feather as a pen—but it’s a goose’s quill—so get out of my house!

Musically I was thinking a bit of a Johnny Cash feel as I composed the music, but I’m not sure that much of that came through in the final result. The guitar sound is a lovely example of a Fender Telecaster using both it’s pickups.

Well the muses keep dancing, and they are hard to keep in our narrow field of vision. The piece got written, and now it’s here for you to listen to. Just click on the gadget that appears below to hear it.