25 November 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/48

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")

Tom Rakewell:
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,
Weeping, weeping,
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
Dying, dying,
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.


Unknown said...

I really should watch a performance because Tom has always seemed too in charge of his own fate to make me feel too sorry for him. Contrast this with Sweeney Todd, someone I think I could say I continue to weep for.
I appreciate being able to look so deeply at this piece and, especially your analysis of "shade." My first thought was about Nick Shadow, but that's because I couldn't think of any other possibility. So, thanks for some other possibilities.
My first thought when I read the first three lines of the "Chorus of Whores" was that they were just like the women who write to crazy convicted murderers. My second thought is that they are like 8th grade girls.
Looking forward to Thanksgiving.

Civic Center said...

I agree with V, and never felt sorry for Tom Rakewell either, not because he's in charge but because he's such a weak-spined twit from beginning to end. Billy Budd can get my waterworks going, along with Jenufa and her happy ending after two hours of sadness. Mimi's and Violetta's deaths always remind me of Oscar Wilde's famous quote about Dicken's Old Curiosity Shop, "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

Patrick J. Vaz said...

You two are a tough crowd. Tom does, to some extent, choose his own fate (guided by youth, foolishness, and bad companions), and he is a bit weak-spined, but . . . those are the reasons I cry for him. Anyway, choosing your own fate is an occupational hazard for tragic heroes; Macbeth considers the possibility that if Fate will have him King then Fate can take care of crowning him, but then he goes ahead and murders Duncan . . . no one told Lear that dividing his kingdom was a good idea . . . you get the picture.

Mike, You love to repeat Oscar's naughty quip so I have to ask if you've ever read The Old Curiosity Shop. In the context of its time, and in the context of that wild, strange, extravagant prose-poem of a book, Nell's death is shocking -- Dickens had left the possibility open of a happy ending, but he chose reality instead: the suffering of an unprotected, poor child finally did her in. It is also (let me emphasize this is in the context of its time and novel) comparatively understated, a quiet moment in a tumultuous book. There are those (I'm not necessarily disagreeing) who find an erotic element in the intensity of Dickens' emotion in such scenes, but when I recently re-read the book I was surprised at the eroticism in and surrounding her portrayal -- the Victorians had a different standard from ours about adolescent sexuality. The association of sex and death is nothing new anyway.

All this is why her death was so powerful, and became a byword for heart-breaking fiction for the Victorians. But tastes change, and it's why sophisticates of a later generation could play off the honest emotions of the earlier age. I can't fault Wilde for going for a good line, but it would have been more gracious in the author of The Happy Prince to remember that he too was writing in a style that would someday seem dated, at least in parts. These things happen. A few years ago I picked up Anne Sexton's The Death Notebooks and had to put it down after a few pages because I started laughing -- it just all seemed so narcissistic and overheated and humorless. But then more time goes by and we can get past what's dated and find it interesting and moving for different reasons -- I think that time has come for Little Nell.

(Speaking of laughing: V, loved the remark about the eighth-grade girls. LOLAHSI!)

Civic Center said...

Do I really have to read more Dickens? I respect him but do not love...

As for constantly repeating the Wilde Little Nell quip, I am guilty, you cruel witch, but it's a line that so perfectly distills how I feel about the way we are constantly supposed to be feeling about current sentimental tropes. Think Batkid and the godawful Make-a-Wish Foundation as a for instance. Public bathos has not changed all that much since 19th century England, and Dickens was one of its most skillful disseminators, so I'm not implying any historical superiority. Still, bunk is bunk, and I can't think of Tiny Tim without feeling ruthlessly manipulated.

Speaking of being ruthlessly manipulated, how was the War Requiem from inside the orchestra, so to speak?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Mike: OK, you don't have to read more Dickens, but you do have to sit through one more lecture: you seem to be implying that Dickens was calculating and manipulative -- he knew what would affect the public, but I think his effects were honestly come by, and very deliberately chosen for their political implications: he was giving a voice and a narrative to the "welfare queens" and "at-risk youth" of his time, forcing people to not only see but feel their humanity. Tiny Tim can strike us as bunk, because we've heard about him over and over, and seen him parodied over and over, and he's in a style that is going to strike us as maybe quaint and charming, but I'm sure you know, as do I, struggling office workers whose children have chronic conditions and who have to deal with an American society that would rather see them die, and "decrease the surplus population" -- and that's what Dickens was forcing people to pay attention to.