National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 30 of 30

This month’s poetry journey ends with Britten and Auden and a piece (like several others this month) that “claimed” me years ago. I first heard Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecilia” to W. H. Auden’s text  in the late 80s, sung by a good amateur choir in DC. Britten’s sensitivity to words, capturing meaning and setting it in a way that deepens it and refracts it, is much discussed. But what caught me that night was that this piece of music also–for me at least–explained what the psychology of listening to music was like, and offered a philosophy of music, something I more or less thought impossible. A rara avis: words and music melded together into something truly new.

The poem has many turns of genius among its multiple “odes,” which is how the parts are organized, but it’s part II, the little fugue-like section that chases along, “I cannot grow/I have no shadow/to run away from” that I love best. To know that there is something other than striving, than growth through suffering, than Puritanism of any flavor, in fact, is to know a little what music is for.  “Dancing because you no longer need it for any deed.”

I also love “Wear your tribulation like a rose, like a rose, like a rose…”

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 6.02.15 AM
Auden (left) and Britten.

Thanks for spending this poetic April with me. Back to regular programming tomorrow of misc., mostly lit’ry bits and pieces, leavened with the occasional outcropping of nerdiness.

Hymn to St. Cecilia

Music by Benjamin Britten
Words by W. H. Auden

I
In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on
Poured forth her song in perfect calm:
And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.

Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited,
Moved to delight by the melody,
White as an orchid she rode quite naked
In an oyster shell on top of the sea;
At sounds so entrancing the angels dancing
Came out of their trance into time again,
And around the wicked in Hell’s abysses
The huge flame flickered and eased their pain.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

II
I cannot grow;
I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play.

I cannot err;
There is no creature
Whom I belong to,
Whom I could wrong.

I am defeat
When it knows it
Can now do nothing
By suffering.

All you lived through,
Dancing because you
No longer need it
For any deed.

I shall never be
Different. Love me.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

III
O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall,
O calm of spaces unafraid of weight,
Where Sorrow is herself, forgetting all
The gaucheness of her adolescent state,
Where Hope within the altogether strange
From every outworn image is released,
And Dread born whole and normal like a beast
Into a world of truths that never change:
Restore our fallen day; O re-arrange.

O dear white children casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,
Impetuous child with the tremendous brain,
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain,
Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,
Weep for the lives your wishes never led.

O cry created as the bow of sin
Is drawn across our trembling violin.

O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain.

O law drummed out by hearts against the still
Long winter of our intellectual will.

That what has been may never be again.

O flute that throbs with the thanksgiving breath
Of convalescents on the shores of death.

O bless the freedom that you never chose.

O trumpets that unguarded children blow
About the fortress of their inner foe.

O wear your tribulation like a rose.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

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