30 December 2013

Poem of the Week 2014/1

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,
     And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar
     When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
     Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
     Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
     And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
     When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
     The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
     When I have crost the bar.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It isn't quite 2014 yet, but this is a poem about transition, so it will serve to carry us forward past the last few days of 2013.

As with Rich's Diving Into the Wreck, this is on its surface a poem about maritime activity, but even more clearly, barely a fraction of an inch below the surface, it is about something else; perhaps I should write Something Else, since clearly, in both poems, something deeply significant is implied. Sunset and evening star, twilight and evening bell, and the dark, and the farewells: these signal an end to an earthly life, and the poem explores a passage from one state of existence to another, or, more exactly, a return from one state of existence to a place of deeper origin. In the atmosphere created by these words, the use of bourne (meaning a region) in the first line of the fourth stanza will bring to our minds Hamlet's description of death, in his suicide soliloquy (Hamlet, Act III, scene 1, ll 56-89), as "The undiscovered country, from whose bourne / no traveler returns." The sea, throughout human history, has been a place of uncertain returns. Fathomless, vast, and mysterious (and how much more so in the nineteenth century, before the age of deep-sea exploration), the sea is an earthly equivalent of the universe, a vast region like a physical manifestation of our unanswerable metaphysical questions, surrounding us, sustaining us, reminding us of our ultimate insignificance but also connecting us with larger forces. There is no indication of a destined land for the speaker, when he finally embarks; he will simply be carried farther and farther out on the flood. The sea, the "boundless deep," is here seen as itself the destination, as "home," though an unknown one, and the waves returning back from the shores are described as "turn[ing] again home."

What is the bar that he must cross? I'm going to excerpt the Merriam-Webster definition, because I like the way it's phrased:

2:  something that obstructs or prevents passage, progress, or action: as
c :  a submerged or partly submerged bank (as of sand) along a shore or in a river often obstructing navigation

What I like about this definition, in the context of this poem, is that it emphasizes the obstructive implications of "bar," instead of just stating that it can be a submerged bank near a shore. The bar is a difficulty that must be overcome; clearly, these difficulties are much on the poet's mind: the bar is mentioned in the title, and in the last line, and much of this brief poem is taken up with a wish that the tides might be high enough for smooth sailing past it, smooth enough so that the waves seem asleep. This is one of the great Tennysonian themes, the pull of sleep and languor and semi-stupefied dreaminess against the need to move forward and take action – no wonder he admired Virgil, another melancholy singer of another imperial power.
I take it that the bar would moan when the tides are low enough for it to emerge, so the waves lap and splash against it, and the wind hits against it, making it difficult to navigate past it. In addition, the idea of moaning connects us to mourning and wailing, which, like "the sadness of farewell," the speaker is hoping to avoid, though he realizes he can do no more than urge – he uses a non-imperative may when expressing the wish that these things be avoided. This poem may at first appear very definite, but it is actually one of great uncertainty: no moaning of the bar, and smooth sailing, and no sad farewells, are all things he is wishing for, not necessarily things he can demand, or things that he will get. He doesn't know when he will embark. He doesn't even know where he's going – the flood "may bear him far" but the use once again of may indicates that he doesn't really know, and it's not something he controls. In fact he hasn't been in control at any point; there is a Pilot, an unnamed, mysterious guiding force, who has been in charge all along. In the context of the life transition suggested by the poem, the Pilot pretty clearly seems to be God, or a God substitute, and the ending may sound like a Victorian expression of solid faith, but we have seen by now how slippery may can be. Note that the speaker does not say he shall see, or he trusts he will see, or he knows he will see the Pilot – no, he merely and modestly hopes that he will see the Pilot – which leaves open the possibility that he will not see the Pilot face to face, or even that there is, in truth, no Pilot to be seen in any form. He can only hope. A frequent stereotype of the Victorians is that they are stodgy industrious optimists, but here the poet they took to their hearts is expressing the deep religious and philosophical uncertainties that tormented the age.

For the new year, here's hoping – I was going to add more, but what more do I need to add? Here's hoping.

A hat tip to Sibyl for suggesting this poem. I took this from Tennyson: A Selected Edition, edited by Christopher Ricks, though I think any selection of Tennyson's poems or of nineteenth-century English poetry would include it; immediately upon its publication in 1889 it was seen as a culmination of Tennyson's work, and he wanted it printed as the final poem in all collections of his work. He said he wrote it in about twenty minutes; sometimes these things crystallize deep down and spring forth suddenly like that.

23 December 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/52

Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas looked out,
     On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
     Deep, and crisp, and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night,
     Though the frost was cruel;
When a poor man came in sight,
     Gathering winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me,
     If thou know'st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he?
     Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence,
     Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
     By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,
     Bring me pine-logs hither;
Thou and I will see him dine,
     When we bear them thither."
Page and monarch, forth they went,
     Forth they went together;
Through the rude wind's wild lament
     And the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night is darker now,
     And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
     I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, good my page,
     Tread thou in them boldly;
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
     Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod,
     Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
     Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
     Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
     Shall yourselves find blessing.

J M Neale

We'll close out this year with this Christmas carol, which seems to be falling out of favor; I have piles of Christmas music CDs, and I'm not sure it's on any of them, and if asked to recite it last week I doubt I'd have made it much past the fifth line. There's an interesting Wikipedia entry on the song, which gathers many of the less flattering assessments. There seems to be some resentment that these mid-nineteenth century words were grafted onto an actual medieval tune, much as we now decry Victorian "improvements" on simple and rough-hewn old churches. But I find this an enjoyable example of the moral improvement school of poetry, and I'm always entranced by legends of the saints. The words remind me of pre-Raphaelite stained glass or tapestry; though there is a clear attempt to recreate a medieval style, it is even more clear that you're looking at nineteenth-century work.

The beneficiary of Wenceslas' miracle is not actually the impoverished peasant, but the young page boy; the whole thing seems like an odd reflection of Victorian capitalism, in which the employee is benefited by following his benevolent master's instructions, ending up with an exhortation that the rich should do good to the poor because that ends up helping the rich. This seems like a weird but well-meant attempt to appeal to the selfishness and self-interest inherent in capitalism with the argument that ultimately benefiting others benefits the really important person – you. We still hear versions and variants of this argument today. It is left ambiguous in the song if the "blessing" referred to is in this world, as in this story, or in the next; our contemporary versions usually aim for something in the middle, as in if you help others you "have improved self-esteem" or you "feel good about yourself."

Saint Stephen is the first martyr (his death by stoning appears in The Acts of the Apostles), and the Feast of Stephen is December 26, which is the only thing in the song that makes this a specifically Christmastime story rather than just a wintertime tale. Saying the peasant lived "underneath the mountain" rather than at the foot of the mountain may be an attempt to sound elevated and archaic, but, as is often the case with such attempts, it sounds a bit ludicrous to us, as if the peasant were the Troll King.

I took this from Christmas Poems, edited by John Hollander and J D McClatchy in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poetry series.

16 December 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/51

The Maid-Servant at the Inn

"It's queer," she said; "I see the light
     As plain as I beheld it then,
All silver-like and calm and bright –
     We've not had stars like that again!

"And she was such a gentle thing
     To birth a baby in the cold.
The barn was dark and frightening –
     This new one's better than the old.

I mind my eyes were full of tears,
     For I was young, and quick distressed,
But she was less than me in years
     That held a son against her breast.

"I never saw a sweeter child –
     The little one, the darling one!
I mind I told her, when he smiled
     You'd know he was his mother's son.

"It's queer that I should see them so –
     The time they came to Bethlehem
Was more than thirty years ago;
     I've prayed that all is well with them."

Dorothy Parker

Here's a charming Christmas poem from what may seem like an unexpected source, but bittersweet is one of Parker's dominant modes. I love that she tells the familiar story through an unfamiliar voice; it's like one of those Brueghel canvases crowded with faces and action and off in one corner is Jesus preaching or walking to Calvary – speaking of which, the "more than thirty years ago" in the penultimate line is particularly poignant; traditionally, Jesus began his public ministry when he was thirty, and was killed three years later, so the ambiguity of time might mean Jesus is already dead, and his mother already grieving, by the time the maid-servant recounts this memory.

If you're attracted by the Christmas aspect of this poem, you can find it in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets collection of Christmas Poems, edited by John Hollander and JD McClatchy; if you are drawn to the Dorothy Parker aspect, you can also find this poem in The Portable Dorothy Parker. The very old copy I have is the one edited by Brendan Gill, so I've linked to that, though I see there's also a new collection edited by Marion Meade, but I'm not sure what's in that one.

09 December 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/50

Moon in the Bucket

Look out there
in the bucket
the rusty bucket
with water unclean

A luminous plate is floating –
the Moon, dancing to the gentle night wind
Look! all you who shout across the wall
with a million hates. Look at the dancing moon
It is peace unsoiled by the murk
and dirt of this bucket war.

Gabriel Okara

"This bucket war" – the bucket, like the wall and the hates shouted across it, is made by people; it is old, beat up, rusty so that the water is rendered useless, meaning the bucket itself is useless, though no one has thrown it out; it is a place of murk and dirt; it is constricted, yet it contains its own rebuke in the form of a reflection of the moon. That is what the bucket war is like. The moon is luminous, it is dancing, or rather its reflection is dancing as the gentle night wind ripples the water dirtied by the bucket. The water, the moon, and the night wind are from the natural world, interacting with yet so much larger than the rusty bucket and the war. Excluding the title, this brief poem has only 57 words, yet five of them are look, the artist's ultimate injunction: look at what is there, not what you think is there; look, observe, notice, pay attention.

Gabriel Okara is a twentieth-century Nigerian poet. I took this poem from The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry.

04 December 2013

fun stuff I may or may not get to: December 2013

The year draws to a close. In the rather brief list below I have mostly omitted holiday events; I'm not making any sort of point there, I too love Messiah, Nutcracker, Christmas Carol, tinsel and shiny fragile things; it's just that I have had even less time than usual the past month, and the best holiday performances are the ones you go see every year in your own beloved personal traditions, and you already know about those. (I'm sorry this is not one of the years when Cal Performances presents Mark Morris's The Hard Nut; it's become part of Christmas for me.) And I have the impression that there is less non-holiday stuff going on this year than usual, and more of it seems to be happening very early in the month. So enjoy whatever holiday doings are precious to you, and let's let this year slip softly away.

Philharmonia Baroque has been concentrating on one city each concert, and on 6-8 and 10 December it follows up its terrific visits to Naples and St Petersburg with London; Nicholas McGegan is joined by soprano Yulia Van Doren and tenor Thomas Cooley in John Stanley's Concerto in B minor, Op. 2, No. 2, William Croft's The Burial Service, and William Boyce's Solomon. I'm really loving how much of their repertory this season has been rare and offbeat. OK, they're also performing Handel's Messiah, which is neither rare nor offbeat, but there are reasons it is so beloved, and you can discover or rediscover them 14-15 December (in association with Cal Performances). Speaking of Cal Performances, they also are presenting the Kronos Quartet's 40th Birthday concert, with a host of special guests and music by Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Bryce Dessner, and George Crumb. That's 7 December in Zellerbach Hall.

Shotgun Players continues its tradition of alternative holiday programming with Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness, written by Anthony Neilson and directed by Beth Wilmurt, which promises us "a sensual Edwardian world." I'm getting a steampunk vibe off this but I might be completely wrong; I myself won't find out until early January, but you can check it out between 5 December and 12 January 2014 at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.

The Berkeley Symphony presents Brett Dean's Carlo for strings, sampler, and tape, inspired by the music of Carlo Gesualdo, along with cellist Peter Wyrick (a familiar face in the cello section of the San Francisco Symphony) playing Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 1 as well as the Brahms 2. Joana Carneiro conducts. That's 5 December at Zellerbach Hall on the Berkeley campus.

The Lacuna Arts Ensemble performs a cappella works by Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Hindemith, and Corigliano, along with Charpentier's Messe de minuit pour Noël accompanied by baroque instruments, on 15 December at 3:00 at St Luke's Episcopal Church (1755 Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco; the cross street is Clay).

Magnificat, The Whole Noyse, and the San Francisco Early Music Society join forces to present a Venetian Christmas, featuring works by Gabrieli and Monteverdi, 20 - 22 December in Palo Alto, Berkeley, and San Francisco.

02 December 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/49

Two poems by twentieth-century Polish poet Anna Swir:

The Greatest Love

She is sixty. She lives
the greatest love of her life.

She walks arm-in-arm with her dear one,
her hair streams in the wind.
Her dear one says:
"You have hair like pearls."

Her children say:
"Old fool."

Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan


I Am Running on the Beach

I am running on the beach.
People puzzled.
– A gray-haired hag and she runs.

I am running on the beach
with an insolent look.
People laugh.
– Grey-haired and insolent.
They like that.

Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

I should probably point out that juxtaposing these two poems is my idea, not the poet's and not the translators'. I liked that both deal with the same basic subject – an old woman finding pleasure in her current life – and end with such different reactions. The poet is clearly conscious of her audience and gives their reactions the last word in each poem. Yet you don't feel that the reaction in either case matters all that much to her; she is not abashed by her children who think she's an old fool, or encouraged to play up her insolence for the further amusement of the people on the beach. She is not only an active participant in her life, but a disinterested observer of it – was she always like this? or is this an effect of aging? (Most of her poems about flesh and eroticism were written when she was an old woman, according to Milosz's introduction to Talking to My Body, from which I took these poems.) In her short, concentrated poems, simple in language but not implication, she often writes of her body as if it were a long-time, much-loved pet: she is affectionately aware of all its moods and ways, yet there seems a gap, however slight, between her consciousness and it.

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.

18 November 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/47

I now have a slick and spiffy new computer, but I had no time this week and I'm still getting used to the new computer interface, so here's another brief bit of life wisdom from Sappho. Once again, this is from the Mary Barnard translation.

If you are squeamish

Don't prod the
beach rubble

Sappho, translated by Mary Barnard

11 November 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/46

My computer is still down, so here's a brief one for Veterans Day:

Leaving for the Front

Before I die I must just find this rhyme.
Be quiet, my friends, and do not waste my time.

We're marching off in company with death.
I only wish my girl would hold her breath.

There's nothing wrong with me. I'm glad to leave.
Now mother's crying too. There's no reprieve.

And now look how the sun's begun to set.
A nice mass-grave is all that I shall get.

Once more the good old sunset's glowing red.
In thirteen days I'll probably be dead.

Alfred Lichtenstein, translated from the German by Patrick Bridgewater.

7 August 1914: seven weeks later Lichtenstein was dead

This poem, including the note on when it was written and when the poet was killed, comes from The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, edited by Jon Silkin. Veterans Day of course began as Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I, the cataclysm that created the modern world.

04 November 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/45

I'm still trying to deal with my computer situation, so here is a fragment by Sappho to tide us over.

Must I remind you, Cleis,

That sounds of grief
are unbecoming in
a poet's household?

and that they are not
suitable in ours?

Wise words, which I will try to take to heart. The translation is by Mary Barnard. Cleis is Sappho's daughter (mentioned by name in Fragment 132).

02 November 2013

fun stuff I may or may not get to: November 2013

This entry was not quite ready to go when my computer gave out. I was going to put in an update on the BART situation, organize things a bit more, add in a few more entries and some pictures. . . Since these preview entries are my attempt to stay somewhat current (thoughts on actual performances can come whenever; it's all memory anyway once the curtain descends) I figure I should just go ahead and hit publish, since I am not sure when I'll be back to what passes for normal.

As usual there is a bewildering variety of performances of all types over at Cal Performances, from the Brandenburg Concertos to ballet to mariachi to things that sound kind of indescribable . . . other highlights for me are puppeteer Basil Twist's Dogugaeshi (6 - 10 November, with two performances on most of those days), the Joshua Redman Quartet (16 November), pianist Paul Lewis playing Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, and Mussorgsky (3 November), pianist Shai Wosner playing Widman and Schubert (24 November), and the Danish String Quartet playing Abrahamsen, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven (17 November). Check out the whole month here.

The big news at the San Francisco Symphony in November is Semyon Bychkov conducting Britten's War Requiem, with soloists Christine Brewer, James Gilchrist, and Roderick Williams. There are only two performances, 27 (that's the day before Thanksgiving, which is going to rule it out for some of us) and 30 November. I'd give the runner-up prize to Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Beethoven, Mozart, Copland, and Steven Mackey with soloist Jeremy Denk, 7 - 10 November. You can check out the particulars of that concert as well as the month's other offerings here.

For more Britten, Volti is offering one of his late choral works, Sacred and Profane, along with new works by Mark Winges, Forrest Pierce, and Sarah Kirkland Snider. That's 22 - 24 November, in a different location each day; check here for details. and if you attend the concert on the 22nd, you will be there on Britten's 100th birthday.

Philharmonia Baroque offers a program of early Russian rarities, conducted by Steven Fox, featuring Tanya Tomkins on cello and soprano Anna Dennis singing arias by Glinka arranged by Rimsky-Korsakov – and those are the most familiar composers on the program; the others are Berezovksy, Bortniansky, Facius, and Fomin. Sounds like a fun adventure! That's 15 - 17 and 19 November, in their usual various locations; check here for specifics.

At the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Blue Print new music series continues on 16 November with Lembit Beecher's And Then I Remember and Poulenc's Le Bal Masqué. Check here for their other offerings this month.

There's more new music at Old First Concerts: on Saturday, 9 November, the San Francisco Compoers Chamber Orchestra presents new works by Davide Verotta, Philip Freihofner, David Sprung, Scola Prosek, and Mark Alburger; check here for their description of the concert, written as a parody of the Communist Manifesto, which I have to say not only amused me but may compel me to go to this concert in solidarity with fellow new-music comrades. Another offering that looks interesting is the 17 November portrait-concert of Hyo-shin Na, featuring Shoko Hikage on koto, Thomas Schultz on piano, and Narae Kwon on kayageum.

San Francisco Performances has Peter Wispelwey playing the complete Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello in two concerts on one marathon day, 9 November; they also have the Pacifica Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin playing Shostakovich, Ornstein, and Dvorak, 11 November; and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, 16 November. Check out those offerings and others here.

November at San Francisco Opera sees the final performance of its much-praised Falstaff, the continuation through 15 November of its less highly praised Flying Dutchman, and the opening of its final production of the fall season, The Barber of Seville, which opens 13 November and closes 1 December. There are two separate casts for the Rossini; Isabel Leonard is in one, and Alek Shrader in the other, and if they were both in one cast I would probably go see it, and possibly if I had more time and money I'd see each cast, but as it is . . . . that's just not my current reality. You can check its performance dates and casts here.

42nd Street Moon presents the Rodgers and Hart musical I Married an Angel, 30 October - 17 November.

Cutting Ball Theater continues its run of Sidewinders by Basil Kreimendahl, directed by M. Graham Smith, through 17 November. I have not seen it yet. They also have two interesting shows in their Sunday afternoon Hidden Classics Reading Series: The Natural Relations and Other Plays by nineteenth-century Brazilian playwright Qorpo Santo, translated by resident playwright Andrew Saito, on 3 November; and Antigone by Sophocles, directed by Paige Rogers, on 10 November.

Shotgun Players continue their run of Strangers, Babies, written by Linda McLean and directed by Jon Tracy, through 17 November. I haven't seen it yet. They have also announced their 2014 season (unlike most performing arts groups, they kind of follow the calendar year instead of the traditional September to June performance cycle). Check it out here – I've already subscribed. I have to say, I have seen the movie version of Our Town, with music by Aaron Copland, and I've seen Ned Rorem's operatic version, but I have never seen the original play on stage. Even after a lifetime of theater-going, there are still basics I've never come across. I often think about things like that when people complain about over-reliance on the warhorses of the repertory, even when I'm the one complaining.

Aurora Theater presents A Bright New Boise, written by Samuel D. Hunter and directed by Tom Ross, 8 November to 8 December.

Berkeley Rep presents Tristan & Yseult, adapted and directed by Emma Rice of Britain's Kneehigh Theater. The last show I saw at Berkeley Rep was actually a Kneehigh show, The Wild Bride, which I found disappointing, for reasons I explain here (short version: inventive staging, weak script), but I'm willing to give them another chance, which is pretty magnanimous of me. That's 22 November to 6 January 2014.

28 October 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/44

Here's one for Halloween week: Joan la Pucelle Invokes Her Devils

Alarum. Excursions. Enter Joan la Pucelle.

The Regent conquers, and the Frenchmen fly.
Now help, ye charming spells and periapts,
And ye choice spirits that admonish me
And give me signs of future accidents.
You speedy helpers, that are substitutes
Under the lordly monarch of the north,
Appear and aid me in this enterprise.
Enter Fiends.
This speedy and quick appearance argues proof
Of your accustomed diligence to me.
Now, ye familiar spirits, that are culled
Out of the powerful regions under earth,
Help me this once, that France may get the field.
They walk, and speak not.
O, hold me not with silence over-long!
Where I was wont to feed you with my blood,
I'll lop a member off and give it you
In earnest of a further benefit,
So you do condescend to help me now.
They hang their heads.
No hope to have redress? My body shall
Pay recompense, if you will grant my suit.
They shake their heads.
Cannot my body nor blood-sacrifice
Entreat you to your wonted furtherance?
Then take my soul; my body, soul, and all,
Before that England give the French the foil.
They depart.
See, they forsake me! Now the time is come
That France must vail her lofty plumèd crest
And let her head fall into England's lap.
My ancient incantations are too weak,
And hell too strong for me to buckle with.
Now, France, thy glory droopeth to the dust.

William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part One, Act V, scene iii, ll 1-29

Pucelle is French for virgin (there are many sly, flirty jokes by Joan and members of the French court indicating this title is just for show). Periapts in the second line means charms or amulets. The lordly monarch of the North is Satan; as noted last week, evil spirits were traditionally associated with the frozen wastelands of the globe's north. Buckle in the second-to-last line means struggle. Like most early Shakespeare, this is fairly direct, clear verse; he grew more complex, knotted, and vast as he grew older – not just in his poetry, but with his characters. Part of his enormous vitality as a playwright comes from his giving us more than the character really needs for his or her part in the story: there are odd lines that act as strange little flashes, illuminating a character's whole psyche. A famous example is Shylock's lament when he hears that his runaway daughter Jessica has traded a valuable ring for a pet monkey: "I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys." Leah is otherwise unmentioned, but presumably she is his now dead wife and the mother of the heedless runaway daughter; there's bizarre comedy in the "wilderness of monkeys" – comedy which endears the speaker to us – but also a depth of emotional attachment to his late wife that goes far beyond the stage stereotype of a miserly money-lending Jew – contrast this complexity with Marlowe's Barabas in The Jew of Malta, who is much more straightforward, though he does also have an energetic determination and a gleeful delight in his own villainy that are strangely appealing, much as Shakespeare's Richard III does.

Richard III, defeated in battle by Elizabeth I's grandfather, brings us to the political aspect of this play for its contemporary audience. Yes, what we have here is the English Renaissance/Tudor dynasty view of Joan of Arc, who had done so much to boot the English out of France about a hundred years earlier – in their minds, to accomplish that she obviously would have to be in league with Satan. Joan was basically their equivalent of a fanatical suicide bomber: driven by an alien faith to defend her homeland against what she saw as interlopers, who considered themselves not only well-intentioned but more capable and more honorable than the natives. I wouldn't really call Shakespeare's history plays propaganda – they're too complex and independent for that – but, not unreasonably, they do generally reflect the standard interpretation of his time, however subtly he undercuts some of the narratives (for example, I've always felt that Henry V, usually considered a celebratory pageant, has a questioning, satirical vein running through it). As a cultural and political antagonist, standing against their enlightened rule, Joan is linked in the eyes of a Tudor audience with the Satanic – quite directly linked, since she shows all the classic signifiers of witchdom: easy communion and bodily intimacy with evil spirits, a willingness to surrender her immortal soul for earthly aims, an ultimate defeat by the devils, who always win in the end against those who think they can bargain with them.

Shakespeare's portrayal of Joan is not exactly rich in those generous extra lines that flesh out a character's whole world, but it is clear that she is motivated by a patriotic love of France; so this devotion to her native land must have made at least some in the audience wonder why she should be condemned for what is considered virtuous in the English. It's useful to remember that the borders between countries were much more fluid then than they are now, depending as they did on marriage alliances and dynastic succession as well as fighting; England's rule over parts of France isn't quite straightforward imperialism, and there really wasn't a single political/cultural entity called "France" that coincides with what we think of as "France" (Germany and Italy were also more a collection of occasionally quarrelsome states). In his own play on Joan, Shaw makes the point that she represents something new in the concept of nationhood. Anyway, Joan in Shakespeare's play is pretty clearly a whore and a witch, and once we get past the shock of seeing the beloved and fascinating Saint Joan portrayed that way (remember that she was not canonized until 1920, almost 500 years after her death, and this is a play written in the country she had fairly recently helped defeat), her character here is actually another of those strangely appealing Elizabethan villains, much more lively and clever than the stolid English with their dull concern with their honor. But my sympathies may say more about my own lack of honor and patriotic sentiment.

I felt slightly guilty posting this, since I've always been fascinated by Saint Joan. On my one trip to France, many years ago, I made a point of going up to Rouen, not just to see the Cathedral Monet painted over and over under different weather and lighting conditions for each canvas, but to see the remaining sites associated with Joan's imprisonment and death. There is only one squat stone tower remaining from the fortress where she was held prisoner. I spent a beautiful rainy afternoon wandering around in it, with the whole place to myself. So I had some hesitation here, but I wanted to post something seasonal other than the usual Weird Sisters from Macbeth, and Halloween, like Carnival, is a time of licensed transgression, so here she is, our saint consorting with their demons. I took this passage from the Signet Classic edition of Henry VI, Part One, but I'm going to expiate this post by mentioning some other works on Joan worth looking into: Shaw's great play Saint Joan, mentioned above; Dreyer's great film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Marina Warner's Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, which I liked a lot when I read it many years ago.

21 October 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/43

The Patient Witch

A lady called the Patient Witch
Lived near us long ago.
Our servants gave her off and on
A bit of coin or so,
To tell them what their dreams could mean,
And if their loves were true;
To study out their palms and say –
"A palace waits for you."
And then she always was polite,
And said, "How do you fare?
I hope your little girl is well,"
With a most pleasant air.
She mumbled much, we knew not what –
Each afternoon would wait
Beside the guide-post to the west
For some exalted fate.
She looked down every road as though
A stately coach was due,
To bear her home to somewhere else,
To folks she really knew.
"One evening," said a little boy,
The only one anigh,
"She told me pretty stories, and
She kissed my curls goodbye,
And turned into a swan and spread
Her white wings big and wide.
And flew and flew into the sky!
And I came home and cried."

Vachel Lindsay

I thought I'd head into the haunted weeks of late October with this strange and lovely poem by early twentieth-century American poet Vachel Lindsay. In some ways the title character is a traditional witch: a strange, mumbling, isolated old woman (this view is based on historical reality; see John Putnam Demos's Entertaining Satan). In other ways, she seems as much an oddity among witches as she is among her neighbors: for one thing, she's patient, rather than bad-tempered. She's polite, and has a pleasant air. Lindsay deftly sketches in the social setting: it's the (presumably less educated) servants who like to have their fortunes told; clearly there is no real palace waiting for them, but who knows what "a palace waits for you" might mean to a young servant? And they must be young, since they're asking about their loves and their futures. It's all harmless carnival fun. There's the air of a fairy tale about the whole thing; it happened "long ago" in a house with servants (the contemporary equivalent of the castles which she promises the servants after reading their palms). We hear about the "witch" only indirectly: from the servants, and later from a little boy. The somewhat archaic, childhood air is strengthened by Lindsay's use of traditional ballad meter (the steady 4-3-4-3 beat of the quatrains, with their regularly recurring rhymes).

Halfway through we switch from this scene of local color to something stranger. Right after hearing of the old woman's pleasant air, we hear she constantly mumbled, but no one really knows what she's saying – is it incoherent? unintelligible? are they just not listening closely enough? During actual witch-hunts, many real-life old women must have been done to death for their mysterious mumbling. Here it serves more to emphasize something solitary, isolated, not-understood about the old woman. The traditional region of witches is the cold North, for reasons that would probably take a Golden-Bough-sized volume to explain, but here she's waiting by a "guide-post to the west": a guide-post, as if she's seeking direction, and the west, associated with the forward movement of the sun, and so by implication with the future, but also with the setting of the sun, and so with night, darkness, silence, and death. A coach, stately or otherwise, would already have been an anachronism when this poem was written, so her awaiting one helps emphasize the old woman's dislocation from her surroundings. Then we have the poignant statement that her home is "somewhere else" – wherever that is, clearly it isn't where she is now, and no matter how much she is patronized by the servants, she is nowhere near "folks she really knew."

The only witness to her end is a little boy: is he the child of one of the servants? or the son of the people in the big house who speak of "our servants"? Is he the narrator, long ago, when he was a child? Is he just a boy who happened by? Is he old enough to distinguish fact from fairy tale? The narration of the witch's end by this uncertain story-teller takes on a dreamy distance because of our uncertainty about who this boy is and how accurate he is. Again, she is unlike traditional witches; she is affectionate rather than threatening to the child, entertaining him with pretty stories, and though she is linked to uncanny forces, they are less supernatural than Natural: there is no whiff of the sulfurous Satanic about her, or the black robes of the usual witch; instead, she turns into a white swan and flies away. Is this what she has been patiently awaiting? White is often associated with purity and innocence (not always in good ways; it can also imply cowardice, and inappropriate naivete). Swans are famously beautiful and graceful (I wonder if the shadow of Andersen's Ugly Duckling, who turned into a beautiful swan, went into this particular choice of bird?); they are also associated with death: according to legend, they sing only once in their lives, right before they die. Is her flight the child's version of her death? Or his vision of her rebirth? The odd misfit old woman, this strange resident stranger, redeems herself into something beautiful, magnificent, legendary. She flies away, free, and a lone little boy cries. How can those tears not alter the man he will become?

I took this poem from Poems Bewitched and Haunted, edited by the late John Hollander, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.

14 October 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/42

Once again, it's been a little gloomy here, so I thought I would switch things up. Our first number this week is from the musical Chicago. The Prison Matron, "Mama" Morton, informs the young ladies in her charge on Murderers Row how things work under her:

When You're Good to Mama

Ask any of the chickies in my pen;
They'll tell you I'm the biggest mother . . . hen;
I love them all and all of them love me,
Because the system works, the system called: rec-i-proc-i-ty.

Got a little motto, always sees me through:
When you're good to Mama, Mama's good to you!

There's a lot of favors I'm prepared to do;
You do one for Mama, she'll do one for you.

They say that life is tit for tat, and that's the way I live;
So I deserve a lot of tat for what I've got to give!

Don't you know that this hand washes that one too?
When you're good to Mama, Mama's good to you.

If you want my gravy, pepper my ragout;
Spice it up for Mama, she'll get hot for you.

When they pass that basket folks contribute to,
You put in for Mama, she'll put out for you;

The folks atop the ladder are the ones the world adores;
So boost me up my ladder, kid, and I'll boost you up yours;

Let's all stroke together, like a Princeton crew;
When you're strokin' Mama, Mama's strokin' you!

So what's the one conclusion I can bring this number to?
When you're good to Mama, Mama's good to you!

Fred Ebb (John Kander wrote the music)

It's all very reliant on double entendres, though some of the entrendres can seem pretty single when they're naked on the page. But basically this is what Shaw said about the bawdy badinage of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing: he found the substance of their quips dull, vulgar, and obvious, but the poetry and music of their phrasing elevated them to art. With songs like the ones I'm posting here, the wit is not so much in what they're saying, which is usually pretty obvious, as in the sense of swift, comical puns and flashing, unexpected twists of meaning. The music and the individual performer can really bring out such elements as the semi-buried pun on "tit" in the "tit for tat" lines, or the jokes about "getting hot" and "putting out" and "up yours." On the original Broadway cast album (from which I transcribed the lyrics), Mary McCarty has a very bawdy, red-hot-mama approach. Queen Latifah played Mama Morton in the 2002 film; she's interesting casting, since there's something inherently elegant and refined about Latifah that makes the song more sly than raunchy. Both performances work quite well. I find the line about the Princeton crew particularly hilarious. Maybe it's the contrast between the setting and the wholesome Frank Merriwell implications of "Princeton crew" (yes, I know Frank was a Yale man; in this context, same difference). An Ivy League crew team may seem like a high-falutin' reference to use in a Chicago prison, but actually it's a deft bit of scene-setting; collegiate sports were extremely popular in 1920s America, when the musical takes place.

Incidentally I've never seen the musical Chicago on stage, though I watched the movie recently. I have seen the 1927 silent version (Chicago) and the 1942 Ginger Rogers version (Roxie Hart) of the original, non-musical, play, so I'm familiar with the story. The big flaw with the movie version is Renee Zellweger's awful performance as Roxie (not sure if the blame belongs with her, director Rob Marshall, or both). In the other versions, Roxie may be a venal, shallow, mendacious, manipulative gold-digger (and a killer), but she's also brassy and funny and oddly likeable. Zellweger is self-pitying and mean-spirited and thinks she's a victim and basically she's just playing the wrong kind of stupid.

We had a song for Mama, so here's one for Daddy:

My Heart Belongs to Daddy

I used to fall in love with all
Those boys who maul refined ladies,
But now I tell each young gazelle
To go to Hell . . . I mean Hades!
For since I came to care for such a sweet millionaire:

While tearing off a game of golf,
I may make a play for the caddie,
But when I do, I don't follow through,
'Cause my heart belongs to Daddy.

If I invite a boy some night
To dine on my fine finnan haddie,
I just adore his asking for more,
But my heart belongs to Daddy.

Yes, my heart belongs to Daddy
So I simply couldn't be bad,
Yes, my heart belongs to Daddy,
So I want to warn you laddie,
Though I know you're perfectly swell,
That my heart belongs to Daddy
'Cause my Daddy, he treats it so well –
He treats it and treats it and then he repeats it,
Yes, Daddy, he treats it so well.

St Patrick's Day, although I may
Be seen wearing green with a Paddy,
I'm always sharp when playing the harp,
'Cause my heart belongs to Daddy.

Though other dames at football games
May long for a strong undergraddie,
I never dream of making the team
'Cause my heart belongs to Daddy.

Yes, my heart belongs to Daddy
So I simply couldn't be bad,
Yes, my heart belongs to Daddy,
So I want to warn you laddie,
Though I simply hate to be frank
That I can't be mean to Daddy,
'Cause my da-da-da-Daddy might spank –
In matters artistic, he's not modernistic,
So da-da-da-Daddy might spank.

Cole Porter

Mary Martin became a star for singing this, in a musical called Leave It to Me, in 1938. She famously and repeatedly claimed she had no idea at all what the song really meant when she first sang it, and my mother for one is calling shenanigans on that particular claim: if she, with her sheltered upbringing and convent schooling, knew right away what the song was about when she heard it, then how clueless would Martin have to be not to know? And indeed if she truly didn't know you have to wonder what she thought this barrage of clever rhymes actually meant.

"Harp" in the St Patrick's Day stanza puns on an old-fashioned slang term for an Irishman. I felt I should explain that, since I think it's not a term used much anymore, and the line always cracks me up. I suppose it's a bit of a pejorative term, but since it references Ireland's legendary bards, I, as a partial Irishman by ancestry, am not for one going to take much offense.

There are probably other version of these lyrics floating around but I transcribed these from the Bolcom and Morris performance on Night and Day: The Cole Porter Album, and their scholarly imprimatur is enough for me. It's odd now to remember that I was mildly surprised long ago to learn that Bolcom was a composer, as well as a performer of American popular song with his wife, mezzo Joan Morris.

07 October 2013

Pergolesi in Naples in Berkeley

Sunday was one of those unpleasantly hot days that smear through the occasional week here in the Bay Area. Fortunately it had cooled down by the time I arrived at First Congregational Church in Berkeley for the last concert in the first series of Philharmonia Baroque's new, thirty-third, season. Each concert this year concentrates on a particular city; last night it was Naples, with an emphasis on Pergolesi, though Handel also made an appearance, thanks to his stay in that musically influential city, as did Francesco Durante, Pergolesi's teacher. The centerpiece was in the second half, Pergolesi's famous Stabat Mater. Nicholas McGegan conducted.

The first half was framed by orchestral pieces, opening with the sinfonia from Pergolesi's opera L'Olimpiade, and closing with Durante's Concerto for Strings No. 2 in G minor. There were not actually all that many players up on the stage, but they produce an opulent, full sound. I enjoyed the coruscating elegancies of the baroque. There was a pause after the first piece, when a couple of latecomers were seated. The concert started at 7:30, but really would have been better off starting at 7:00, for the benefit of those of us who have not yet reached the bliss of retirement. Handel vocal selections came as the creamy filling between the orchestral numbers.

David Daniels and Carolyn Sampson were the soloists. Daniels is of course well known, the standard bearer and the standard for a generation of countertenors. He was in rich voice last night. But like the flighty lively crowds of Naples pleasure-seekers that McGegan invoked (at least in my mind) at the start of the concert, I was swept up by what was new to me, so with no disrespect intended to Daniels I'm going to go on about Sampson. If I've heard her before, it's been on recordings where I didn't really pay attention to the list of singers (which is not unusual for me; sorry, I'm generally more about composer and work). She was sensational, with a beautiful limpid soprano. She's an attractive blonde with a glam presence; she came out in a long dark red gown with black trim and a sparkling necklace. The dress was strapless and my first thought was, She looks great but I hope she puts a shawl on before the Stabat Mater, so I guess the Carmelite Sisters of Charity who taught in my grammar school did their work well. (To put you out of your suspense right now, she came out for the second half with a black bolero jacket over her dress, looking still stylish but also appropriate – well done!)

Daniels and Sampson sang two Handel duets, with a solo apiece in between. First was Io t'abbraccio from Rodelinda, followed by Daniels in Dove sei from the same opera; then Sampson sang Da tempeste from Giulio Cesare, followed by Caro/Bella from the same opera. It was all very satisfying but Sampson's solo turn was for me the highlight; she not only sang beautifully but she caught the character of Cleopatra perfectly; this was a woman for whom flirting was like breathing, with a pleasing teasing tone. The lively extravagance of her ornamentation in the repeats was quite seductive.

Obviously a different tone was called for after the intermission, with the lyrical passion of the Stabat Mater, the antique prayer meditating upon Mary's suffering at the foot of the cross. There was more program rustling for this part, which was unfortunate though expected. Oddly the program had the first stanza of the poem on the bottom of the same page that had the aria texts, though there was plenty of room to put the entire text with translation of the Stabat Mater on the next two pages, which would have reduced the rustling. Even better would be to use supertitles. The performance flowed swiftly, with fluid intensity. We were nearing the end ("Fac ut portem Christi mortem, / passionis fac me sortem / et plagas recolere" : "Grant that I may bear the death of Christ, / grant me the fate of His passion / and the remembrance of His wounds") when a fairly powerful earthquake jolted the building. A momentary look of panic spread across some faces but the performers carried on without a pause. On the whole, the evening was a sumptuous immersion in the warmth of the Italian baroque. The next city, to be explored 15 - 19 November, is an unusual and interesting choice for a baroque ensemble: St Petersburg. Check it out here, especially if you're one of those looking for new adventures in old music.

Poem of the Week 2013/41

Sonnet. On Being Cautioned against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, because it was Frequented by a Lunatic

Is there a solitary wretch who hies

   To the tall cliff, with starting pace or slow,
And, measuring, views with wild and hollow eyes
   Its distance from the waves that chide below;
Who, as the sea-born gale with frequent sighs
   Chills his cold bed upon the mountain turf,
With hoarse, half-uttered lamentations, lies
   Murmuring responses to the dashing surf?
In moody sadness, on the giddy brink,
   I see him more with envy than with fear;
He has no nice felicities that shrink
   From giant horrors; wildly wandering here,
He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know
The depth or the duration of his woe.

Charlotte Smith

This poem was published in England in 1797. The French Revolution had begun in 1789 with the destruction of the royal prison, the Bastille, and as the country across the channel slowly descended from talk of liberty and the Rights of Man into the murderous convulsions of the Reign of Terror (convulsions which ended around 1794, to be replaced by a slow crawl towards Napoleon's dictatorship and a new series of wars), both the inhabitants and the government of Great Britain were increasingly aware of the impoverished, the lowly, the struggling, the beggars and cripples, the miserable and crazy and usually invisible in their midst – aware of them not only as individuals deserving sympathy and understanding instead of ridicule and condemnation, but also deserving of dignity. There was also a growing and linked awareness that they were a potentially dangerous social force, an angry mob-in-the-making, like the ones in France that had killed the king. (Never mind that the British had killed their own king in 1649 and been ruled by their own dictator for a while; they had later reverted to monarchy, and times had changed.) A changing attitude towards the dispossessed led what we might call the possessed, particularly the government, to keep a watchful wary eye on those who seemed too interested in French ideas about liberty, equality, and fraternity. The world was looking much more unstable. It was a jittery time.

In 1798, the year after this poem was first published, Wordsworth and Coleridge published the first (anonymous) edition of Lyrical Ballads, a collection that not only concentrated on what we might these days call "the marginalized" as suitable subjects for poetry – no fine ladies and witty gentlemen, no gods, but only the humble, the poor, farmers, fishermen, "idiot" children, mumbling old women in crooked country lanes – but did so in language that was mostly radically stripped down, sounding much more colloquial than people expected when they picked up a book that called itself "poetry."

One of the fascinating things to me about this particular sonnet is how it joins two eras; it still uses the elevated, slightly formal diction of the eighteenth century, but presages the coming Romantic movement in literature, with its interest in wandering, melancholy, alienation, and insanity: a wild subject held fast in a traditional form. I've sketched broadly some of the political, social, and artistic currents informing the time, but of course there's more than that going on; this also seems like an intensely personal poem, with an unusual approach to an unusual subject. The biographical headnote for Smith in my source for this poem (Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, edited by Roger Lonsdale) states that one reason for her "considerable reputation" was "an intense but mysterious melancholy. . . ." and this quality is much in evidence in her other poems in the collection.

In addition to inner alienation, and the unavoidable social currents that form the figurative air we breathe and shape the thoughts we think, there might be other literary influences: this is just a feeling of mine, but this sonnet – with its cold winds blasting the beetling cliff, the dangerous waves far below, its wandering hollow-eyed lunatic, and particularly its deeper consideration of whether insanity is not perhaps the appropriate response to our existence – reminds me of King Lear, particularly the scenes in which Edgar, disguised as the mad Poor Tom, guides his newly blinded father Gloucester to the cliffs of Dover.

The sonnet is of the type usually described as Italian or Spenserian, meaning it consists of an octave and a sestet in iambic pentameter (as opposed to the English or Shakespearean form, consisting of three quatrains and a concluding couplet, again in iambic pentameter). The octave is taken up with a vivid description of the lunatic and his setting; they seem inextricably linked and mixed, the waves and winds sighing and chiding as if they had human voices, the lunatic responding in incoherent murmurs (like the waves of the sea) and hoarse, inarticulate cries. He seems oddly more connected to the natural world than any rational person would be (a reminder that lunatics were also known as "naturals" in an earlier era). He is a "solitary wretch" but the headlands also seem solitary and, to sophisticated urban eyes, wretched: isolated from humans, stripped down to essentials. The description is so detailed that we can feel that the poet's imagination has been drawn in an empathetic way to the wandering madman (and bear in mind that earlier in that century it had been common practice to go to madhouses to laugh at or moralize upon the behaviors of the insane).

The opening line of the sestet ("In moody sadness, on the giddy brink") is where the poem really turns; after the first eight lines, we would initially assume that Smith is continuing her description of the lunatic, but the next line begins with (and so the preceding line must modify) I. And it is only then that we realize that she is now describing not the lunatic but herself; her grammar shapes our understanding, linking her with the lunatic she had been warned against. She then makes the startling, offbeat announcement that she envies rather than fears this wretched outcast, for two somewhat contradictory reasons. First: he is released from social conventions (the "nice felicities") and free to experience the "giant horrors" of life, instead of shrinking from them as in polite, conventional, rational society. These horrors might be the existential terrors that visit us in dark and half-dreaming states, or perhaps the sort of political paranoia and persecution that had seized France and was threatening England. But then she also says she envies him because his lunacy prevents him from understanding "the depth or the duration of his woe": reason is seen not as the ultimate human blessing, as in the Enlightenment, but instead is described as a curse; at least the lunatic, "uncursed by reason," is better off than the poet, since he seems not to know "the depth or the duration of his woe."

30 September 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/40

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, late flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
   Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

John Keats

As we head into October this seemed like an obvious choice; I guess I could try to be clever and come up with something else, but sometimes something is the obvious choice because it's the best choice. When I was young most of the poetry I read was dramatic or epic; I came fairly late to lyric, which I think is maybe not usual, but this ode has been a favorite of mine since I first read it: it's so vivid, so intensely pictorial, and surprisingly action-packed for a poem that spends so much time on ripening harvests. Instead of describing apples as abundant or hazelnuts as plump, Keats gives us verbs: the apples are so plentiful they bend their boughs, the gourds swell, the nutmeats plump up; even flowers, usually linked with spring, are profuse: budding "more, and still more." The busy bees think the warm days will stretch out forever.

The poet addresses autumn directly, and intimately ("thou" and "thy" sound formal to us only because they are archaic, but they are actually the English equivalent of the intimate/singular "you"). Even when Autumn is just sitting, she (or he – nothing in the poem specifies Autumn's gender, though the abundant seasons are usually personified as women, while only sparse Winter is usually seen as a man, generally an old and cold man) is active, in ways appropriate to the season: Autumn's hair is lifted softly and "winnowed," a metaphor which reminds us that this is the time of year when the reapers winnow the harvested grains to remove the chaff; or Autumn is like a gleaner, carrying off the last bits of grain in a basket balanced on her head; or Autumn is watching those bough-bending apples being pressed into cider. This is a very rural poem; autumn in London would look very different.

The gleaning and pressing and winnowing remind us that although Autumn may provide a superabundance of deliciousness, the on-coming months will take them away, making it necessary to store what generous Autumn provides. Winter is not mentioned directly, but there are hints throughout of what's coming: we are conscious, even if the bees aren't, that the warm days won't stretch out forever. Death is here, though it is not presented as grim or violent: the day's dying is "soft"; the diminutive gnats mourn in a humming chorus among the willows ("sallows"; the willow is traditionally associated with sorrow, particularly sorrowful love); the wind, which is light like a breeze, lives or, perhaps, dies. None of this seems tragic or unexpected, but rather gentle and inevitable.

You might expect the end of a poem about Autumn to segue into Winter, but in the third stanza Keats explicitly invokes Spring instead. Balancing all the death references in this stanza, which I mentioned above, there are reminders of birth and spring: without directly saying "born" Keats puts the word into our minds twice in the space of three lines with borne and bourne. Instead of sheep, Keats describes "full-grown lambs," an amusingly odd phrase that links their springtime youth with their autumnal maturity. Birds associated with spring and summer, robins and swallows, are still here, and still making music; Autumn and Spring are linked by their music. After all the action earlier, we close out gently, with solitary whistling, and a wheeling flock twittering up above. Death is not excluded from this scene, or felt as an intruder, but woven in gently, almost as an interlude in the on-going cycle of birth and rebirth.

I took this from the Penguin Classics edition of The Complete Poems of John Keats.