National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, 4/30

It’s a cliché to say that poets don’t make good novelists (and vice versa). If you paint Fabergé eggs for a living, using the slenderest of sable brushes, can you really cope with slopping paint on the side of a barn with a roller, which is what most novels read like, and possibly how they are written.

But that “most” leaves us a sizable escape hatch, and among the writers who walk through it comfortably is Thomas Hardy, to whom I came to first through a set of poems that I heard sung in arrangements by Benjamin Britten. (Like another Britten piece on poetry and music, it hit me like a thunderclap, and became “mine” in some ineffable but continuing way.) Here is one of the poems, and a link to a performance of the set.

cemetery-20005_1280Thomas Hardy: The Choirmaster’s Burial

He often would ask us
That, when he died,
After playing so many
To their last rest,
If out of us any
Should here abide,
And it would not task us,
We would with our lutes
Play over him
By his grave-brim
The psalm he liked best—
The one whose sense suits
“Mount Ephraim”—
And perhaps we should seem
To him, in Death’s dream,
Like the seraphim.

As soon as I knew
That his spirit was gone
I thought this his due,
And spoke, thereupon.
“I think,” said the vicar,
“A read service quicker
Than viols out-of-doors
In these frosts and hoars.
That old-fashioned way
Requires a fine day,
And it seems to me
It had better not be.”

Hence, that afternoon,
Though never knew he
That his wish could not be,
To get through it faster
They buried the master
Without any tune.

But ’twas said that, when
At the dead of next night
The vicar looked out,
There struck on his ken
Thronged roundabout,
Where the frost was graying
The headstoned grass,
A band all in white
Like the saints in church-glass,
Singing and playing
The ancient stave
By the choirmaster’s grave.

Such the tenor man told
When he had grown old.

Thomas Allen singing this song from Britten’s set, Winter Words

And as for Hardy’s novels, they have been one of the great rewards of a reading life. Like Beckett, it’s easy to take what he saying, but he’s not lying to you.



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