Monday, May 14, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Very well, I admit it.

This week I am not going to reflect or tease your brain with original thoughts. I’m going to wimp out and leave you to read two poems which I happen to enjoy. You see, for one week I have already written all I feel like saying about nature and nature-worship.

Allow me to explain the circumstances in which I enjoy these two poems.

The first is poor melancholy-mad William Collins’ Ode to Evening from the mid-18th century. When the evening is calm and only lightly-clouded; and the sun is going down and has reached the stage of giving off that cello-mellow old-gold-almost-orange light; and should I not be too busy; and should I feel in the mood for doing so; then I go over to the appropriate shelf and take down my collected Collins and march into the conservatory overlooking well-wooded suburbia and read the Ode to Evening out loud. Why? Because it’s like a hymn of gratefulness to the dying day. I’m not quite decided yet whether I prefer it to Gray’s similarly pensive Elegy in a Country Churchyard. Yes, I know it has all the limitations of Augustan vocabulary against which the Romantics rebelled. Yes, I know it has that 18th century habit of apostrophising abstractions. But I can’t help it. I like it. So there.

The second poem, Ben Jonson’s early 17th century song from Cynthia’s Revels, was written to be performed to music, so it is literally a song. I first experienced it as a song, hearing it set to music in Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. It is the bounce and bubble of Britten’s music that I hear when I read it. Anyway, it’s a mock-pagan hymn to the full moon; and when a full moon is rising, and its size is inflated by the famous “moon illusion” as it clears the horizon; and should I have the time and be in the mood; then I go to the appropriate shelf and pull out Maurice Hussey’s anthology Jonson and the Cavaliers (which lists the song as Hymn to Diana) and go to the conservatory and read it out loud. What fustian it is. But I can’t help it. I like it. So there.

It’s up to you to decide if either is really a “nature poem”. Enjoy.

Williams Collins
If aught of oaten stop or pastoral song
May hope, chaste Eve, to soothe thy modest ear,
Like thy own solemn springs,
Thy springs, and dying gales,
O nymph reserved, while now the bright-haired sun
Sits in yon western tent, whose cloudy skirts,
With brede ethereal wove,
O'erhang his wavy bed:

Now air is hushed, save where the weak-eyed bat
With short shrill shriek flits by on leathern wing,
Or where the beetle winds
His small but sullen horn,
As oft he rises 'midst the twilight path,
Against the pilgrim borne in heedless hum:
Now teach me, maid composed,
To breathe some softened strain,
Whose numbers stealing through thy dark'ning vale
May not unseemly with its stillness suit,
As, musing slow, I hail
Thy genial loved return!

For when thy folding-star arising shows
His paly circlet, at his warning lamp
The fragrant hours, and elves
Who slept in buds the day,
And many a nymph who wreathes her brows with sedge
And sheds the fresh'ning dew, and lovelier still,
The pensive pleasures sweet
Prepare thy shadowy car.

Then let me rove some wild and heathy scene,
Or find some ruin 'midst its dreary dells,
Whose walls more awful nod
By thy religious gleams.
Or if chill blust'ring winds or driving rain
Prevent my willing feet, be mine the hut
That from the mountain's side
Views wilds and swelling floods
And hamlets brown and dim-discovered spires,
And hears their simple bell, and marks o'er all
Thy dewy fingers draw
The gradual dusky veil.

While Spring shall pour his showers, as oft he wont,
And bathe thy breathing tresses, meekest Eve;
While Summer loves to sport
Beneath thy lingering light;
While sallow Autumn fills thy lap with leaves;
Or Winter, yelling through the troublous air,
Affrights thy shrinking train
And rudely rends thy robes;
So long, regardful of thy quiet rule,
Shall fancy, friendship, science, smiling peace,
Thy gentlest influence own,
And love thy favourite name!

Song from the masque “CYNTHIA’S REVELS”

Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,
Now the sun is laid to sleep,
Seated in thy silver chair
State in wonted manner keep:
         Hesperus entreats thy light,
         Goddess excellently bright.

Earth, let not thy envious shade
Dare itself to interpose;
Cynthia's shining orb was made
Heaven to clear when day did close:
         Bless us then with wished sight,
         Goddess excellently bright.

Lay thy bow of pearl apart
And thy crystal-shining quiver;
Give unto the flying hart
Space to breathe, how short soever:
         Thou that mak'st a day of night,
         Goddess excellently bright.


  1. Like you I always hear Benjamin Britten's setting whenever I read Ben Jonson's song from the masque "Cynthia's Revels". Indeed Dritten's work "introduced" me to the poem. Personally, I feel the best recording that particular work remains with the tenor the late Peter Pears and the French horn player the late Denis Brain.
    The work also "introduced" me to the anonymous, little-known dirge "This Aye Night". The whole work is settings of poems with a nocturne theme.
    Britten always managed to do exquisite settings of worthy or interesting poems.
    By contrast the earlier composer Elgar, such as in "Sea Songs" did some good musical settings but usually of mediocre Georgian poets.
    Setting of poetry to music is a fascinating subject worth study on its own.

    1. I had thought of writing a blog on settings of poems by composers. My basic contention would be that the best poetry (too filled with verbal meaning to comfortably be turned into sung lyrics) often makes for mediocre songs, while mediocre poetry (less dense with meaning) can make good songs. Actually, nearly all the poets Elgar set in his "Sea Pictures" are Victorian rather than Georgian and are indeed mediocre, but it still is magnificent when the likes of Janet Baker sing it.
      Obviously the Brain-Pears recording of Britten's "Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings" is the definitive version, partly because they were the performers for whom it was composed. But i have heard a credtable live performance with NZ performers once, as too with "Sea Pictures".
      I understand the Germans regard the poetry Schubert set as "Die Schone Mullerin" as pretty footling stuff - but they make great songs.

  2. I think it's clear that both are nature poems. As just one shared example: through "winter, yelling through the troublous air" and earth's "envious shade," these aspects of nature are personified - both Collins and Jonson effortlessly bridging the perceived gap between the objective world and our subjective experience of it. Given their largely pre-materialist world view this must have been a lot easier for them, compared to us schooled in the separation of self and outside world and the reduced access to nature in artificial urban environments. I'm not saying that we can't appreciate the depth of the poets' immersion, just that nature seems more natural to them.