Edward Thomas’ October

Moving from 17th century Welsh poet Henry Vaughn we’ll jump forward to a favorite of this blog: 20th century Welsh poet Edward Thomas. Thomas is less well-known in the U.S. than he is in the U.K., perhaps because he’s sometimes classed as a “Georgian poet,” a loose classification given to early 20th century British poets who weren’t Modernists.

As far as America was concerned, not being a Modernist wasn’t a good thing as the 20th century continued, particularly given that two Americans (Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot) were instrumental in the Modernist revolution in English-language poetry. Georgian poets were soon seen as those that hadn’t gotten the news about what sort of topics, outlooks, and word-music was appropriate for the new century. Societal and cultural failures were prime topics, skepticism and a multivalent posture toward agreed-upon premises were expected, and the tight starched collar of strict accentual-syllabic verse music was loosened.

Thomas’ other problem was that he was killed during WWI, and wasn’t published to any degree until after that war was over. In Great Britain, those war poets who held to the pre-war verse forms were given some license because of their service and sacrifice. In the U. S., this was largely a non-factor.

But of course, what kind of word-music a poet uses has little to do with his subjects or outlook. Thomas, like his American friend Robert Frost, was roughly as Modernist as any of his contemporaries, he just didn’t sound like one if you muffled his words so that only the sound and rhythms remained. Like Frost, he never developed a Cubist or Dadaist kaleidoscopic vision, but within the monocular vision by which they squinted at modern problems, their analysis was fully of the new century.

Edward Thomas The Night Tripper

Sun,  Moon, and Herbs; scabious and tormentil, Edward Thomas knows ‘em!

 

Case in point: today’s piece, Thomas’ autumn poem “October.”  The subject of “October”  is depression. Thomas gives it an old name “melancholy,” but depression and existential isolation is its matter. Many of Thomas’ other poems (including most of those we’ve featured here) have him focusing on the decision whether he as an over-draft-age man would volunteer to serve in WWI, a war whose cause he didn’t really believe in. In the end he decided that he would not exempt himself from the human suffering of the war.*  But in those poems, like this one, the other marker that lets one know that we are in an Edward Thomas poem is an almost encyclopedic knowledge of nature. “October”  shows this: the fall plants are specifically named, and the names he chooses for two of them: scabious and tormentil, specifically reference their palliative properties.** And so from the start “October”  features a prime Modernist tactic: the use of specific things to surround the actual, ineffable, topic of the poem. The October day described is altogether pleasant. He remarks it could just as well be spring, and the late fall flowers of the harebell are just as beautiful as the early spring flowers of the snowdrop.

He even muses that at some future time he may be able to see his depression clearly as a finished, or at least understood, thing. Notice: there’s close to nothing in this poem (other than that single “melancholy” that comes in the penultimate line, or that say-what’s-not, not what-is “I might as happy be” statement) that tries to say “I’m depressed and can’t presently find my way out of this mood, to decide my life.” He doesn’t even say “And now it’s fall, and I’ve got a damn winter to live through.” Instead, in “October”  Thomas leaves us in a Buddhist or Taoist moment, able to see the beauty and the sadness, equal reflections of each other. His opening couplet seems to me like it could be a poem by Du Fu or Li Bai, not the poem of an early 20th century Brit, and so I refrain those lines at the end of today’s performance.***

Elsewise in my performance I worked with the new orchestral virtual instruments which have given me more usable staccato articulations, which I’ve put in service of my simple “punk rock orchestration.” My finger strength has returned to a level that I felt comfortable playing the featured fretless bass motif for this.

The full text of Thomas’ poem his here. The player to hear my performance is below.

 

 

 

 

*Thomas’ outlook, his feeling that personal decisions even in the face of doubt and lack of information were critical, were gently chided by Robert Frost in Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken.”  Frost was the stoic, Thomas the existentialist.

**Henry Vaughn, the practicing physician, was more overt about the pharmacology metaphors in his poem about “Affliction,”  but think of Thomas as an herb-doctor as he assembles the formulary of his nature scene here.

***Has anyone tried to translate Edward Thomas into Chinese? Although “October”  is written in English blank verse, so much of it seems like it would sit naturally as a poem in the classical Chinese manner.

Affliction

A dense occurrence of American political events has not quite stopped my reading of poetry and creation of music to combine with it, though there were hours this week when I could not help but wonder and rage at the sachems and attendents readings of the body politic and it’s befuddled head man.

Luckily, on days like these, one can reach into the corpus of poetry, and within little time find something someone wrote years ago that rings with the current day, like an old bell calling us for a current ceremony.

And it’s so that I came upon this poem written around 1650 by Welsh poet, physician, and mystic Henry Vaughn. It was written during the aftermath of the British Civil War (Vaughn’s family was on the Royalist/Anglican side, which had lost). When Vaughn writes of affliction, it’s from an intimate and substantial experience. Biographers tell us he was recently widowed, his family disinherited, his religion suppressed, and that he may have been suffering from some kind of illness as well. And of course, his country was broken, in ways that civil war and its divides make manifest.

This makes “Affliction”  an unusual poem, because it revels in this level of distress, makes of it a necessary part of his and his country’s spiritual maturation. Read with some attention to what I believe is Vaughn’s passion, I can compare it to the hymn “As an Eagle Stirreth in Her Nest”  based on a text from Deuteronomy chapter 32, “The Song of Moses,”  a text and hymn that have inspired many sermons given in Afro-American Christian churches, which also know, oh yes, something of affliction.*

Vaughn doesn’t use the Deuteronomy text, but he gets in his own licks here: “Crosses are but curbs/To check the mule, unruly man” for example. And “Kingdoms too have their physic, and for steel/Exchange their peace and furs.**”

silex cover

The Latin title of the book where this poem first appeared means “The Fiery Flint,” and the engraving shows the image it’s to portray: fire sparked from a heart of stone. And you in the back row who’ve just read the subtitle: stop snickering and read the later definition in the dictionary: “A short, sudden emotional utterance.”

 

Henry Vaughn has never been a big deal in English literature. Much of what I read checking on him goes on at length about Vaughn being Oasis to George Herbert’s Beatles. He gained a little given the interest on the Metaphysical poets engendered by the New Criticism guys like T. S. Eliot in the 20th century. One fan, who I wouldn’t have suspected: famed SF writer Phillip K. Dick.

Given the amount of time I wasted this week following our modern afflictions, I rushed this piece a bit, using a simple and repetitive bass and drum part I set up quickly,***  a “let’s give it a go” recording of the vocal, and a “live” one-pass guitar part: “Like strings stretch ev’ry part/Making the whole most musical” said Vaughn.

The text of “Affliction”  is here if you’d like to read along, and my performance of it is available with the player below. Will listening to it help one wax metaphysical within our current struggles? Felt good to me to do this one anyway.

 

 

 

 

*One preacher who famously delivered variations on this text was Aretha Franklin’s father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, who had a popular recorded version on Chess Records in 1953, which would make him a label-mate of Harmonica Frank from last time.  Please don’t be disappointed if I don’t rise to Franklin’s level of transfixing declamation here.

** Physic is used as a medical metaphor in the poem, and of course, Vaughn later practiced as a physician. In the medical theories of the day, a cathartic drug, a physic, was often used to rebalance or reboot the humours of an ill human. Steel here stands for armor and swords, that is: warfare.