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 wants 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.

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In the Time of the Breaking of Nations

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War One, let’s bring in a writer not primarily known as a “war poet,” Thomas Hardy. Hardy is one of those bridge-poets between the era of the romantic and sometimes sentimental Victorian poets and the Modernists. Though I’m told Hardy never felt at ease in London artistic circles (he was country-born, son of a stone-mason and largely educated through apprenticeships as an architect) his poetry was admired by some of the Modernists. Why might that be? While his language can sometimes seem antique to modern ears, it was his language, the language of a rural 19th century working class Englishman. And while he will write about sentimental subjects, he’ll balance that with a cold eye.

In the Time of the Breaking of Clods

The horse-drawn harrowing time of the Breaking of Nations. But what’s that woman doing behind the horse?

 

Hardy grew up in a rural, farming district, as I did, and it may have been natural for him to relate the violence of the Great War to that setting. And I love how he does it here with three spare quatrains: the boustrophedon horse-drawn disk or rake plow that is literally breaking the earth*, in contrast with the prophetic “Breaking of Nations” warning from Jeremiah used for the title. Then there’s smoke rising, not a razed town after an army has swept through it, “only” the burning of invasive weeds. And finally, a mysterious third stanza with a mysterious word: wight.

It’s an old word, one of those that came to English with the German Saxons centuries ago. Chaucer knew it, used it in The Canterbury Tales,  and as best as I can tell it meant a sort of unimposing person or creature. Sometime later, perhaps after Hardy learned the usage of the word and after this poem was written in 1915**, it’s taken on a supernatural connotation. It’s fairly easy to trace that back to J. R. R. Tolkien’s use of the word in The Fellowship of the Ring  written decades after Hardy’s poem. Tolkien was a scholar of the ancestor languages of modern English. Did he know of other usages of the word, or did he simply take a very old word and choose to use it for an undead-spirit slain in battle?

So, in this last stanza, what does Hardy mean by his whispering maid and “her wight.” A flirting young couple? Are they whispering merely to shield their romantic bantering from others? Or is it something weirder? Is this a young woman whose man is off to battle, or even one of the battle-dead? Or, as part of Hardy’s theme are they both immortal ever-returning spirits, whispering because you only barely sense them in our time-bound world?

I don’t have the detailed historical knowledge to know how depopulated the farming areas of England were by the need for soldiers during WWI. From Edward Thomas’ poem from last month, Gone, Gone Again I get the idea that the absence of farming men was noticeable. And it was at least enough of an issue that England formalized an effort to recruit and train women as replacement farm labor.

Womens Land Army

Not just whispering to her boyfriend. “There’s not enough labour at hand to cultivate sufficient land to keep people from starvation.” Recruitment ads for the Women’s Land Army in England during World War I.

 

Well, I just like it that this is blurred. Do the final two lines give us any clues? Why does Hardy say that “War’s annals will cloud into night?” In early drafts, Hardy wrote “fade,” and “cloud” seems a more peculiar choice. In the context of the 2nd stanza weed-burning, I’m thinking he’s saying they will disappear in a cloud of smoke. Also in context of the 2nd stanza, this would make such war records in some future as valueless as weeds, but smoke/cloud again reiterates that there’s something unsubstantial about the couple.

“In the Time of the Breaking of Nations”  demonstrates a lot of what I like about short lyric poetry. T. S. Eliot could write a Modernist masterpiece like “The Wasteland”  extending to the farthest lengths of lyric expression, 15,000 words—but a poem like this can touch a lot in its 63 words.

It may not be apparent due to the instrumentation used, but I might have been subconsciously inspired by Bob Dylan’s repeating chord progression used for his masterful three-short-stanza song “All Along the Watchtower,”   which is very much in the same mode as Hardy’s poem.

Here is my performance of Hardy’s poem. Use the player below.

 

 

*Note too, Hardy’s pun on “harrowing.” For another discussion of boustrophedon plowing and time, see this earlier post. Near the end of his life, while visiting a farming museum, my father wanted me and his grandson to know that he’d walked behind a horse-drawn plow.

**Though the poem was published in 1916 when Hardy was asked for submissions of poems to support the war effort, one biographer says it may date back to 1870.

An August Midnight

Today’s episode is something of a companion to our last one, what with moths appearing in each. Emily Dickinson’s sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson let the Book of Job fly in with her moth, and today Thomas Hardy’s open summer window lets in four bugs.

Our scene: a summer night, window open, a 19th Century lamp letting Hardy literally and literarily burn the midnight oil. The breeze and light brings on the bugs, and beside the moth we get a daddy-longlegs spider, a fly, and a dumbledore. Besides it making his rhyme, I think Hardy must have liked that charming name for his fourth bug, which is either a bumble bee or a beetle, though either will disappoint Harry Potter fans brought here by a search term.

Dumbledore Beetle and DOD Carcosa fuzz pedal

A dumbledore beetle and a DOD Carcosa fuzz pedal. They could be filed under “things you step on.”

 

What was Hardy writing when the bugs arrived? He doesn’t say, though of course to be meta, it should be this poem now shouldn’t it—but even if it was some other piece, the bugs interrupt it, marching over his just-penned wet ink and drawing his attention away to their antics. Susan Gilbert Dickinson called her moth “silly” and Hardy has his insects more or less performing a Three Stooges skit bumping into the glass of his artificial light.

Susan Gilbert Dickinson wanted to remind us of that harrowing Old Testament lesson that God can crush a human as easily as a bug. She wrote “Irony” and underlined it over the top of her poem’s manuscript. Hardy writes a slightly different conclusion. After watching his fab four beetles make a farce out of replacing the poet on top of his manuscript paper, he ends by declaring that those insects know more about nature than he does. I think that little insect play on his desk reminds him that he, like other poets, struggle to understand and portray nature.

Just as the last time I worked with Thomas Hardy poetry, the melody just flowed out effortlessly when I went to set his words. I quickly had the basic vocal and guitar track, and then added a couple of cello parts and an additional guitar melody that followed what I had so easily fallen into as I sang Hardy’s words.

That electric guitar melody line uses a DOD Carcosa fuzz pedal which I’ve been using a fair amount here lately. It’s a very flexible effects pedal, but I won’t interrupt this with any more guitar nerd material than that tonight. To hear my performance of Thomas Hardy’s “An August Midnight,”  use the player below.

My Childhood Home I See Again

Tomorrow is celebrated in the United States as Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday—or rather, it was in the past. In 1971, a uniform Monday holiday, often called President’s Day, centralized what had been in the past dual, separate, celebrations of Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s.

Washington (as poet Phillis Wheatley’s motto for him said) was first in war and first in peace, and we owe him a great debt for being the rare revolutionary leader that did not try to crown his success with dictatorship. But Lincoln’s achievements are every bit Washington’s equal; though his central achievement, a US government that no longer enforced chattel slavery throughout the country has in recent decades been somewhat obscured for complex reasons.

But here at the Parlando Project, where we combine music with words, Lincoln gets extra props for being as great a wordsmith as any US Chief Executive. While taking the various roads that lead to this piece I read his famous Gettysburg Address, or rather refreshed myself with the words in manuscript form, for as a child I had memorized it.

At this site it’s possible to trace the slight revisions that Lincoln applied draft by draft to polish this concise statement of dedication. And the same site linked to another site that let me read (for the first time) Edward Everett’s main speech at the same Gettysburg dedication.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of how the two speeches that day in 1863 contrasted. It’s no legend. Everett’s speech lasted over two hours. Lincoln’s could have fitted his into a linked series of five Tweets today, and it takes a couple of minutes to read. Go ahead, read as much of Everett’s speech as you can. It’s the kind of grand utterance that could have caused the 19th Century to invent TLDNR 140 years sooner.

So, Lincoln could fashion a memorable, resonant phrase and express complex things concisely. That’s the kind of literary talent that leads one to ask if he wrote poetry. He did, but as far as we know, there’s not very much of it. He wrote some occasional, short, light verse. His serious poetic works consist of an attributed poem with a narrator speaking of suicide, and a three-part poem recalling his hometown.

Abe Lincoln in 1847

Abe Lincoln in his mid-30s, 1847, around the time he wrote today’s words.

 

It’s from the first part of that later Lincoln poem that I created today’s piece, “My Childhood Home I See Again.”  It was published anonymously through the efforts of a friend of his in 1847. Lincoln was in his troubled 30s when his longer poems were written, and he seems to have been suffering from depression, the depth and length of which is subject of much discussion among historical scholars.

The parts I used from “My Childhood Home I See Again”  tell much the same story as English poet Thomas Hardy’s The Self Unseeing,”  but Lincoln’s poem is more melancholy, even if he tries to make some pretense of it being only wistful. By the final couplet, Lincoln’s own words put in him the situation of George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo.”   I suppose one could also compare Lincoln and Hardy’s poems to my own pieceHomeopathic Hometown.”

For today’s music I used an acoustic guitar and my semi-acoustic Jack Casady bass guitar for the main accompaniment. I try to stay away from instrument-geekery most of the time here, but that bass was actually designed by the musician, it’s not some “paint it a different color and slap on a decal” marketing gimmick. I love its sound, as you may be able to tell from the mix today. To hear too much (or just enough) bass guitar, and Lincoln’s sad words as I set them to music, use the player below.

 

 

The Self Unseeing

Today’s piece is our first proper piece by English poet Thomas Hardy. In America Hardy may be better known as a novelist, though he considered himself a poet first and last. When Hardy began writing poetry in the 19th Century, William Wordsworth was but a decade dead, and at the end of his career in 1928, T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”  was several years old. So, Hardy’s career starts at the tail-end of the English Romantic revolution, and proceeds through the Modernist Explosion of the early 20th Century.

In some particularities of locales and events, Hardy’s poetry can seem of the 19th Century; but his language, direct, colloquial, and unfusty, seems as modern as the 20th Century modernists. Indeed, modernists from Robert Frost to Phillip Larkin found much to admire in Hardy. Setting many of his poems in the rural areas of western England diffuses the placement of some Hardy poems on a timeline, as the more rapid pace of cosmopolitan change does not mark them as sharply.

The Hardy Tree

“Strap yourself to a tree with roots”
Gravestones moved by Thomas Hardy when progress impinged on a country graveyard.

 

Today’s Thomas Hardy piece is “The Self-Unseeing,”  published in 1901, right in the turning of those centuries that Hardy spans. This is another poem brought to my attention by the Interesting Literature  blog, and I cannot improve on the excellent analysis of the poem there.

In “The Self-Unseeing”  there’s a visit, in a mix of memory and reality, to a long-ago childhood house, a mental voyage many of us can do, assuming we can ride out the emotional waves. Given the fires, floods, earthquakes and winds of the past couple of months across our continent, some will be being taking this visit now wholly in memory.

Thomas_Hardy's_heart

Bury my heart in Stinsford.

 

So, that’s it for analysis of the poem this time, but we’ll offer some music to go along with it: strummed acoustic guitars and bass, and a vocal that’s a bit more to the “sing” side of our usual talk-singing.  To hear it, use the player that should appear below. If you like the variety of what we’re doing here, combining various words with various music, please help us by sharing links to here, hitting the like button, or otherwise letting folks know. Thanks!

 

Two Views of a Lunar Eclipse

We seem to be in a month of sky omens in the Midwest, with the Perseids meteor shower and a solar eclipse following one after the other. Perhaps because solar eclipses are rare, poems about them are rare too. I’m going to cheat then, and present two pieces about lunar  eclipses, a slightly more common event that occurs when the Earth comes between the Moon and the Sun, blocking the moon‘s reflected shine.

I’ll lead off with one written sometime in the 19th Century: Thomas Hardy’s sonnet “At the Lunar Eclipse.”   I remember the moon-trip photos, taken near the middle of the 20th Century, looking back at Earth, where for the first time, we could see our planet whole. Hardy reminds us, a hundred years before that, that we could see our whole Earth in a shadow play during the lunar eclipse.

Whole Earth Catalog

For the first time we could see the big blue marble
…also, composting toilets!

 
Optimists at the end of the 1960s thought these whole Earth pictures would help us understand our solitary yet majestic unity and common cause. Hardy, though he had only the Earth’s shadow during an eclipse to work with, is not so sure.

The LYL Band’s performance of this Hardy poem is a live recording from a few years back and it strains to reach “bootleg tape” recording quality, but still I hope it retains some vitality.  And since this Hardy poem is referenced in the next piece, I’m going to give this rougher recording an airing.
 
Though neither I or the Parlando Project had anything to do with it, if you’d like to hear a restrained and lovely simple solo voice and piano sung setting of the same Hardy poem, you can view it here. To hear the LYL Band performing our louder version of Hardy’s “At the Lunar Eclipse” use the player just below this.

My own lunar eclipse piece is set in our century, and in my Midwestern place. I start off by musing on the same planetary shadow play that Hardy wrote of, but wondering if we were our planet, might we make sport of our standing between the sun and moon, as we did as children when the film strip broke in class, or the slide tray of vacation photos needed to be changed, by making hand shadow puppets in the light. Then, as the blood moon eclipse neared totality, and the dark was dark, save for the streetlight at the end of the block and a houselight here and there left on, every hand up and down the street raised itself to the heavens, holding their lit smartphones, as they took pictures of the moon blocked by ourselves on our planet.

2015 Blood Moon Eclipse

A blood moon eclipse. “Can immense mortality but throw so small a shade?”

Unlike our last pairing, the perennial face off between Marlowe’s Shepherd and Raleigh’s Nymph’s reply, my poem “Lunar Eclipse – The Earth in Transit between the Moon and Sun”  isn’t really an “answer song” or a diss on Hardy. In a lot of ways I wanted more to simply update the scenery of Hardy’s poem. Oh, and that title is awkward, but enough listeners didn’t know the mechanics of a lunar eclipse, that we are in the middle on the earth blocking the Moon from the Sun.

What did I mean by the last line? Well, as I sometimes do, I wanted to mean several things. I wanted to say we thought we could capture this cosmic event that had stopped our routine in with the birthday pictures on our smartphone camera roll. I wanted to say, as Hardy did, that we are seeing the whole of our planet, the lives of all our neighborhoods, yet it is only one disk in the wide sky. I wanted to say that our present, particular lives: all our details, our family, our neighborhoods, our homes—though they are the way we experience living—are but one transit of life. Maybe I wanted to say something else that even I wasn’t sure how to say? If so, I wouldn’t know. Sometimes that happens in poems.

Again, we have the LYL Band performing this piece, but it has better recording quality. To hear it, use this player just below.