London In July

This is another time where I present a piece by a lesser-known writer, though one who seemed to be on her way to overcoming artistic and social obstacles in the 1880s. Amy Levy was something of a prodigy, publishing work in her teenage years, achieving admission to Cambridge (only the second person of Jewish heritage to do so), and then while in her 20s carving out a career in journalism, fiction, and poetry. A feminist*, she had made connections with the cadre of those that would soon be called “New Women,” and Oscar Wilde was impressed by her keen powers of social observation and sharp concise prose.** In quick succession she wrote and published two novels and two books of poetry that seemed well enough received.

Of course, she had obstacles, not just the universal ones of art, but the additional burdens of anti-Semitism, misogyny, and what appears to be a lesbian orientation, which only makes her achievement as she reached the age of 27 seem just that much more impressive.

Amy Levy

Amy Levy “Talkative, good-looking in a way, and full of the restlessness of the unhappy.”

 

At that point she had completed another novel, and in the summer of 1889 she was working on reviewing the proofs of her third book of poetry “A London Plane Tree.”  The poems, if not exactly avant-garde, were spare and modern enough that they wouldn’t sound outdated in the coming century.

A London Plane Tree

The front piece of the original 1889 edition of this book of Levy’s poems. Does anyone know what structure is pictured?

 

Today’s piece, “London In July,”  is from that collection. It’s a love poem, a common enough subject, and its language is plain and unshowy, but consider what is being described. It starts by saying that the poet thinks her senses are “cheating,” that they cannot be relied on to represent reality. “All the people” she sees in London (presumably men and  women) appear to her as having one person’s face.

The second stanza/verse hints at what face she’s seeing on everyone. It’s just a dirty-patina urban London summer day, but against this background, among the millions in the metropolis, she sees only what she must see: her beloved. She reminds us, her beloved is a London resident, she doesn’t leave for a country stay even in the heat of July.

In the third stanza, this situation has become a puzzle, a maze, and the size of the city a “waste,” as she only wishes to be were her beloved is.

And the city’s crowds, wearing the beloved’s face, are mocking the poet. Crying out to others in the crowd and market, yakking on about perhaps where they’d like to be rather than in the hot city this July: beside some rural stream, or at the seaside. The poet concludes: I’m not leaving, this city contains her. Hidden somewhere in its essence and hot summer, there is my beloved.

Perhaps the most striking thing, beyond the hallucinatory picture that is being painted here***, particularly to audiences in 1889, would be the same-sex desire that seems plainly part of this poem.**** That’s masked by having me perform it.

So how did audiences respond to that? How did Amy Levy deal with that response? Alas, that’s masked too. After completing her review of the proofs, but before the book was printed, she died by intentionally inhaling coal-gas in her room as the coroner judged it: “Under the influence of a disordered mind.”

I once again remind you that the first duty of an artist is to survive.

For a fairly simple musical concept I had trouble realizing the performance of this one. A pair of violas and three violins establish the cadence of the piece, playing unison lines in various registers, but then the electric bass plays a line that doesn’t consistently relate to the bowed strings key-center or root notes. I was trying for an unsettled rub between the bass and the strings. At one point I had an acoustic guitar part that tried to tie those two parts together, but I couldn’t execute it well enough, and conceptually I think it may work better to leave the contrast between the bass and strings unresolved. I’m past the point of deciding now, you decide. To hear it, click the player below. The text of the poem, is here.

 

 

 

*Her first major work was a poem presented in the voice of Xantippe, the wife of Socrates who appears there to have founded mansplaining alongside philosophy.

**Among her crew: Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl) and Beatrice Webb, a founder of the Fabian society and the London School of Economics. She met Thomas Hardy and during the summer of 1889 she met Yeats who wrote later that Amy Levy was “Talkative, good-looking in a way, and full of the restlessness of the unhappy.”

***Part of what drew me to “A London Plane Tree”  was a description of the poetry within as being an early example of Symbolist poetry in English. In terms of poetic language, I can’t quite see that yet, but some of the mood and sensibility in the pieces connects.

****Other than a frankly lesbian reading (which seems supported by biographical info) the only other reading I can see would be an esoteric one, similar to those that see a level in “The Song of Solomon”  where the beloved is an incarnation of Israel or a state of union with the divine.

How Do I Love Thee

Here’s the plot of a story. It’s a difficult one to tell without it sounding like a romance novel—yet as best as history knows, it’s what happened.

There was this woman who grew up in a rich family whose wealth came from exploiting slave labor in colonial Jamaica. Shortly after she reaches adulthood the family fortunes take a severe blow as Britain outlaws slavery. The men of the family might think this the work of do-gooders with their onerous regulations ruining their business, but our woman aligns with the do-gooders, holding for the abolition of slavery and writing poems for that cause. In fact, she’s a very prolific writer, and has been writing since she was near Hilda Conklin’s age. In 1840 when William Wordsworth dies, she’s even considered a British poet laureate candidate. Well no, that didn’t happen. Woman and all I suppose.

Now let’s add some more difficulties for our heroine. She’s got a long-standing opiate addiction based on a hard to diagnose and painful chronic illness. And there’s some domestic tyranny to go with all this. Her father has forbidden his children from marrying.

That stipulation seems odd. There’s one theory, one that our heroine had some belief in: she may have been creole, that is, mixed-race.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning crop

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who believed she had “African blood”

 

None the less, as a woman of letters, her writing was free, and circulated widely. Her poetry found an admirer in another poet, Robert Browning, though he was at that point less successful than our heroine. They began to correspond and fell in love. Eventually there was a dramatic elopement. Her family condemned her and disowned her, but the love match seems to have sustained her for the rest of her life.

Other than her thought that she might have an African ancestor mixed in with the atrocity of slavery*, this story, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s story, was once very well-known.

As romantic as the Elizabeth Barrett Browning/Robert Browning story was considered in its day, I can’t help but think how a supermarket tabloid or Internet gossip site would treat this today. I can see the blurb:

“Unable to shake drugs, Liz escapes abusive home with stranger!”

 

Shortly after her marriage, she wrote a series of sonnets to the love of her life. In 1850 the love sonnets were published as Sonnets from the Portuguese**,  and today’s piece is the most well-known of them. Indeed, it’s likely the most loved Victorian love poem, and no matter the excess of old-fashioned sounding “Thees” in it, it’s still hanging around as one of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” as we approach Valentine’s Day.

Clasped_Hands_of_Robert_and_Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning_By Harriet Hosmer

Sculpture of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning’s clasped hands

 

Even if you feel too modern for it, or are concerned that the level of devotion expressed in it doesn’t seem consistent with a healthy independent self-image*** one should still be grateful for Elizabeth Barrett Browning, if only because she and the Bronte sisters were the chief models for Emily Dickinson.

To hear my performance of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee,”  use the player below.

 

 

 

*This theory is not universally accepted, and as far as I know was first suggested in 1995 by Julia Markus in her book Dared and Done  about the marriage. As I read of this, I was struck by the coincidence of having just presented Jean Toomer’s striking Modernist love poem, written by another writer with ambivalence about his mixed-race ancestry.

**The collection’s title was first chosen because there were Victorian-era worries that the book, with its somewhat scandalous subject of a woman expressing agency in love, might need to be presented as a translation of an anonymous foreign author. It also referred to Robert Browning’s pet name for Elizabeth, “My little Portuguese,” likely based on her darker coloration.

***By the way, I do not recommend footnotes for any of you who may send someone a Valentine-poem.

Ring Out Wild Bells

This guy was once famous. Not just writer-famous, but Beyoncé or Beatles famous. In England, and to a large degree in America, he was the face of, and the center of, Victorian poetry. And poetry in Victorian times, the written-down and printed in books kind, was still a force in mass culture.

tennyson

Once an empire’s most famous poet, now reduced to modeling a Slanket.

 

The town I grew up in was platted and settled around 1880, its success achieved by the industrious Swedish-American farmers around it and the railroad that went through it. The town was named Stratford, after Shakespeare’s birthplace, and so it was that the town’s main street, with it’s block of stores, was named Shakespeare Avenue. Shakespeare Avenue was met just north of the shops by the town’s central cross street, Tennyson Avenue.

That’s a remarkable piece of trivia isn’t it? Think of how many suburbs and housing developments were similarly planned and platted in the centuries since in the United States. How many of them had main streets named for contemporary poets? Milton and Byron had their streets along with Shakespeare in Strafford, but even Byron was 50 years dead; but here was Tennyson, a man still in his career across half a continent and one ocean away, and here this proud avenue in a farming town was written down to bear his name.

The problem with being a big-thing Victorian, as Tennyson was, is that our Modernists came after them. Came after them in time and eventually, opposition. Even though you can see the influences of the Victorians on the early work of some Modernists, you can also see the things they came to reject in search of an art for their own time. In those scattered small settlements where page poetry is still read or studied, we are now more likely to be reading Hopkins or Hardy for the English, or Dickinson or Whitman for Americans, or hinge figures like Yeats who spanned the eras, than Alfred Lord Tennyson, the once leading poet of his age.

Besides the street in my tiny town, Tennyson lives on in a handful of phrases from his poems that have become commonplace mottos such as “It’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”words well-enough known even as their author’s fame and esteem has faded, that many people think they must be Shakespeare’s.

Today’s words come from another section in the same long poem or collection that premiered the “loved and lost” phrase, Tennyson’s broad meditation on loss and perseverance “In Memoriam A.H.H.”  If we’ve forgotten Tennyson, this makes it possible for him to be new again, and this is a piece, as I recast it, that seems very appropriate for our age—even for this year. The New Year’s bells ring in a new year, but they also chase away the devils of the old one.

So, enjoy the music I wrote and recorded for “Ring Out Wild Bells”,  but you may be surprised at how well Tennyson’s sentiments fit as you sing along with them while 2017 ends. The player for the audio piece is right below this.

 

 

In the Bleak Midwinter

Tomorrow is Christmas, a holiday that in the English-speaking world owes a lot to the English Victorians in conception, which gives me an excuse to present once again the words of the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, this time in the guise of her popular and explicitly Christian-religious Christmas song “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Burne-Jones' Nativity

“You could have brought a casserole.” Victorian painter Edward Burne-Jones’ nativity.
Is it just me, or is Mary looking a little non-plussed by all the visitors?

 

The song used for Rossetti’s words seems to be attributed to Gustav Holst, a composer who is best known to me for his orchestral suite “The Planets,”  which has been admired or borrowed from by both Frank Zappa and King Crimson. In my rush to complete this today I can’t say that I’ve done as much justice to his tune, though I used a rough approximation of it.

The tune is quite pretty, and it makes it a fine solo for any good singer, which therefore makes it a challenge for me, so I’ve resorted to my usual parlando. On the other hand, a great many versions of this song in hymn books and elsewhere seem to have modified Christina Rossetti’s words, changing terms and phrases, even dropping some stanzas, where I’ve been faithful to them. I don’t have my usual time today to research why this would be. The meter of her original text is slightly irregular, and so it may have been modified for better singability or for audience reasons.

Botticelli's Mystic Nativity

Botticelli’s “Mystic Nativity.” Painted before the career of Raphael
So literally, a first-order “Pre-Raphaelite”

 

Rossetti’s approach makes use of her characteristic modesty in approaching religious subjects, with some lovely lines in the first verse picturing our northern Midwinter, and then going on to describe the stable setting, and the supernatural surrounding sentimental maternity and spiritual imminence.

Musically, I tried to compensate for my speaking the words by unleashing my bass playing. Like some gifts you may get this Christmas, it may not be the right size or color—but it was given in a good spirit at least.

To un-wrap it, 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!

 

From Sunset to Star Rise

Today was the Autumn Equinox, which some use to mark the beginning Fall. Where I live it was very hot and muggy, hardly autumn-like at all, and even the reasonable breeze could not budge the heat. I went bicycling with my son, promising him ice-cream, which he accepted as adequate exchange, and picked up cold sandwiches for our supper, but in-between I worked on the setting for this piece, yet another by Christina Rossetti.

I wasn’t intending to return to Rossetti so soon, and I’m not sure how I ran into this poem, but it meshes so well with some others I featured here this month about summer and attitudes to love. I just couldn’t deny it.

Going beyond the last Rossetti poem of longing we featured here, or William Carlos Williams with his observation of nature’s dispassionate summer, or Edna St. Vincent Millay’s notice of a missing summer muse of comfort in herself, this one is more distressed. The speaker is depressed and is showing her friends away—it’s a fairly pure piece of Victorian melancholia. Will her friends notice she’s not keeping her garden up and bring her round some tea and biscuits? One hopes so.

Christina Rossetti charcol

Christina Rossetti: sadness that none-the-less sings in a lovely way

I know little of Christina Rossetti’s life, if she suffered from depression, or if this reflects a more temporary mood; but in whatever case, she fashioned a finely crafted lyric to present the experience. I find this sort of thing often in English poetry, sadness that none-the-less sings in a lovely way. Here is America we grew up some Blues, and we tend more to bargain with despair, or call it names and begin to insult its absurdity.

The title is a bit of puzzle to me, though. “From Sunset to Star Rise”  has something of a “It’ll get better” connotation. Was she trying to remind herself of some wisdom that could come from this, or that there is some mystery yet to work out?

Musically I wrote this on acoustic guitar and the full arrangement retains the acoustic guitar part with some disconsolate drums and slowly building synth parts. To hear it, use the player gadget below.

Somewhere or Other

Today’s audio piece is another by Christina Rossetti, connected through family with the Victorian art and literary movement that called itself the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In their painting and artwork, the Pre-Raphaelites often appeal to me. The paintings sometimes have a stunning, oversaturated palette; and they are fond of symbolic and esoteric subjects which fill the paintings with interesting details.

John Melhuish Strudwick  When Apples Were Golden and Songs Were Sweet

Eb Bb , Ab Eb , then Fm Fsus4 Fm, and Ab Eb Ebsus4 Eb—flat keys are murder
on guitar, just so Frank can play simple black key stuff on keyboards

Many associated with the PRB wrote poetry as well, but when I’ve gone looking for pieces I can present as part of the Parlando Project, the brothers in the brotherhood just didn’t do much for me. Surprisingly, the poet who did was Christina Rossetti.  I don’t recall if she was even included in the “New Criticism” curated English literature anthologies of my school-age youth. She isn’t a poet with a lot of flash and filigree. A poem like today’s has not a single arresting image, and its language is simple too.  Using the criteria of the Modernists who came to dominate the assessment of poetry in the 20th Century, this poem should have nothing to recommend it.

So, what does it have or do, why did I bother to write some music for it and perform it for you?   Well, first it has a refreshing modesty of expression. This is a song of longing from first to last, a universal human experience. And the subject of the longing, is it for an earthly partner, the age-old “when will the right one come along” wish? Or is it for an otherworldly, completing partner, a presence beyond the moon and stars? Despite Rossetti’s homey words, it could be either, and the alteration of “near or far” with “far or near” in the 2nd and 3rd verses encourages us to see it both ways.

If one must choose which supposition, I lean to the spiritual object, and if so, the image, such as it is, if off-screen here: earthly love may stand for the longing for religious meaning and connection. The last couplet, the dying leaves falling on “turf grown green” is strangely incoherent, and it reminds me of some of images or rebirth and salvation in British folklore, leading me that way.

But if could also be a song of simple earthly longing for a suitable partner. Adding music to Rossetti’s “Something or Other”  both adds decoration to the simple words and allows the listener to relax in that ambiguity without a need for an immediate conclusion.

John Melhuish Strudwick - Saint Cecilia

See, E flat is so easy on piano, even saints can play it.
Both of today’s paintings are by  Pre-Raphaelite John Melhuish Strudwick

 

Today’s music for Rossetti’s poem combines acoustic guitar with some cello and strings integrated with a couple of piano parts in the background. It’s another short one, so go ahead and use  the player below to listen to it.