I was casting around for a poem for Thanksgiving week and not really coming up with anything that satisfied me, until I realized I had a long-standing tradition of listening to The Rake's Progress on Thanksgiving while I prepared dinner and a long-standing thought of posting Tom Rakewell's Act 1, Scene 2 aria; so here it is. The music is by Stravinsky and the brilliant libretto by W H Auden with Chester Kallman.
Ambitious and restless young Tom Rakewell, informed by a mysterious messenger, Nick Shadow, of a generous bequest from a hitherto unknown uncle, has left his sweetheart, Anne Trulove, back in the country as he goes to seek adventure and further fortune in glamorous London. Nick has brought him to Mother Goose's brothel, where the custom is for each newcomer to "sing you a song / in earnest of his desire to be initiated." (Mother Goose is not the famous nursery rhyme character, though the name does bring with it an aura of the fairy-tale and the fantastical; "goose" is old slang for a prostitute, used as such by Shakespeare.)
Tom's Aria ("Love, too frequently betrayed")
Love, too frequently betrayed
For some plausible desire
Or the world's enchanted fire,
Still thy traitor in his sleep
Renews the vow he did not keep,
He kneels before thy wounded shade.
Love, my sorrow and my shame,
Though thou daily be forgot,
Goddess, O forget me not!
Lest I perish, O be nigh
In my darkest hour that I
May call upon thy sacred name.
Chorus of Whores:
How sad a song,
But sadness charms.
How handsomely he cries!
Come, drown your sorrows in these arms.
Forget it in these eyes,
Upon these lips.
W H Auden & Chester Kallman, from The Rake's Progress
Like other poems I've posted here (the occasional Broadway song, everything by Sappho), this was intended to be experienced with its accompanying music. And if you know the opera, you can't help hearing the melody; as you read you will, as the music does, repeat Tom's anguished "O be nigh," and mentally hear whichever performer's "weeping, weeping" and "dying, dying" break your heart. But the words makes sense even if you've never heard a note of the opera, though the music enriches the experience; it also makes sense even if you've never read Auden's poetry, though familiarity with his poems on loving steadfastly despite lacking true love in return (which he felt described his relationship with Kallman) also expand the experience.
Even at this early stage in his "progress," Tom is torn by regrets, though he takes no steps to return to the true love whose worth he already contrasts with the frivolity and cynicism of London society (the "world's enchanted fire," which warms, burns, and consumes). His song is an anguished cry from his heart – yet it is also a self-conscious performance in the theater of the world; Nick introduces him to the assembled prostitutes, he performs, and the appreciative ladies are seduced by his appealing melancholy – his song must have echoed in many of their hearts, or what hearts they had left after the commerce of love – as well as by his youthful good looks.
"Shade" at the end of the first stanza is an interesting word: "He kneels before thy wounded shade." The obvious, technical answer to "why shade?" is "to rhyme with betrayed." But Auden at least was too great a poet for that convenience to be sufficient. A shade can be light diminished by obstructions, or a device to cause such diminution, or shelter from heat, or a trace or gradation of something, or a disembodied spirit: all these things are possible interpretations or aspects of Love. But can a shade in any of its senses really be "wounded"? Perhaps there is an implication that part of Tom's egotism is thinking that his betrayal of Love can harm its unsubstantial substance. Shade also links Love with the shadow world (perhaps with overtones of Jung's idea of the shadow as the necessary but hidden and denied part of one's personality), in particular with Nick Shadow, the devil of the piece. ("Old Nick" is an antique folk-term for the Devil.) It's clear as the plot unfolds that Nick is trying to capture and destroy Tom's soul, though I once attended a performance during which it took the gentleman next to me two and a half acts to figure out that Nick Shadow is the devil – I know this because he announced in the middle of the third act, "Oh! – he's the Devil!"
So why would the "sacred name" of the goddess of Love be linked to Nick Shadow? Perhaps Tom's trust in both has been misplaced. Like Goethe's Faust, Tom will be saved from damnation by selfless love (not his own). But in the opera's acerbic twist, Love's redemptive power is not all-mighty: though Tom does in fact call upon Love in his darkest hour, his reliance on this notoriously disruptive, irrational emotion leaves him vulnerable to Nick's parting curse: "Your sins, my foe, before I go / Give me some power to pain: / To reason blind shall be your mind, / Henceforth be you insane!" Tom's progress ends in Bedlam. He believes he is Adonis, the beloved of Venus. When the faithful Anne is brought to visit him by her steadfast father, he thinks she is Venus. She sings him a lullaby, as you would to a fretful child. He falls asleep, then he awakes, calling upon not Anne but Venus. But she has left – there is nothing more she can do for Tom. He dies, or falls back into a living death.
My tears for Mimi and Violetta dried up years ago, but I still weep for Tom Rakewell, and for Anne Trulove. There are many recordings of the piece; for sentimental reasons (it was the first recording of the opera I had, and for years the only one) I'll mention the Riccardo Chailly; if you prefer to see as well as hear your opera, there's a good DVD with the celebrated David Hockney sets.