Day Twelve {Song}

The frontiers between sense and spirit are the Devil's hunting-grounds.
Coventry Patmore

I am put at something of a disadvantage by reason of my own personality regarding today's topic. However I may come across to people in general, I simply don't listen to a great many songs, though I listen to songs frequently. I am a determined creature of habit and refresh my collection very infrequently.

day twelve: a song about books or writing

So, you see, this puts me at a disadvantage. I don't know if I know any songs about books or writing. Perhaps I do and they merely escape me, but I can fudge the question and say that I know books that are song - or, rather, a sort of poetry, which was much the same thing long ago. And I am very much a person of long ago. So, if you don't mind, indulge me, and I will dig up books that are song (or poetry), and perhaps a strain or two that particularly impacts my books and my writing.


You weren't getting off without it. I have two or three translations of it, each with its own introduction and explanation of the poetry I am about to read. My favourite by virtue of longer acquaintance is Burton Raffel's copy; in the explanations, he not only talks about Beowulf as a poem, but Scandinavian poetry as a whole, about the importance of it, about the skill which men had in making it which we have now completely lost.

...And sometimes a proud old soldier
Who had heard songs of the ancient heroes
And could sing them all through, story after story,
Would weave a net of words for Beowulf's
Victory, tying the knot of his verses
Smoothly, swiftly, into place with a poet's
Quick skill, singing his new song aloud
While he shaped it, and the old songs as well...

Beowulf is nothing short of magnificent, and please remember that I am nothing but an uneducated lunatic: the poem really does contain all this beauty for the average reader. It is splendid, it is sad, it is powerful, it is hopeful, it is good. There is in it not only the strength of a people who, like Innocent Smith, were alive on their own two legs - there is also a profound understanding of and faith in God. Beowulf does not contain, as you might suspect, a kind of simple, primeval faith. The creeds contained, while not the main thrust of the poem, are nevertheless potent, steadfast, God-fearing, and perhaps in their mingled grimness and hope rather better than what we cultivate today.

Something Told the Wild Geese
Rachel Field

Something told the wild geese
It was time to go.
Though the fields lay golden
Something whispered - "Snow."
Leaves were green and stirring,
Berries, luster-glossed,
But beneath warm feathers
Something cautioned - "Frost."
All the sagging orchards
Steamed with amber spice,
But each breast stiffened
At remembered ice.
Something told the wild geese
It was time to fly -
Summer sun was on their wings,
Winter in their cry.

We Who Were Born

We who were born in country places
Far from cities and shifting faces,
We have a birthright no man can sell,
And a secret joy no man can tell.
For we are kindred to lordly things:
The wild duck's flight and the white owl's wings,
The pike and salmon, the bull and the horse,
The curlew's cry and the smell of gorse.
Pride of trees, swiftness of streams,
Magic of frost have shaped our dreams.
No baser vision their spirit fills
Who walk by right on the naked hills.

The two poems above, stumbled across in my youth, have continued to haunt me with their wild beauty. I have always ached at the sound of the geese overhead, and never known why; I have always ached at pastoral scenes, and never known why. I conjure up some childhood images of walking down the unpaved lane of my grandmother's house in the cool of an autumn morning, with the cornfields and the woods full of mists and sunlight and shadow and the yelp of a fox-kit, and there is something Janus-like in the notion. Those were happy days of childhood, and childhood is gone. But everything, the aching after the geese, the somehow distant-seeming image of the fields, seem to be straining ahead for something. I'm waiting for the geese to come home for good, and for the fields to be sunlit forever.

Sea Fever
John Masefield

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

This poem is a favourite of Abigail's and mine. It, too, aches as the sound of the geese overhead aches. But it is a nomadic sort of aching, a longing to be off looking for something: the Viking-longing to follow the whale-road, very likely, though I throw myself farther back than "a tall ship" when I say so. But it is not at all difficult for me to imagine that grey dawn in which the wind is suddenly blowing fitfully from the south-east and there is no warmth but a promise of warmth in the air, and spring is coming and the gulls are flying, and you know in your heart it is the viking season once more, and to run away the sea-spray under your prow.

John Milton

Is it true, O Christ in Heaven, that the highest suffer most?
That the strongest wander furthest and most hopelessly are lost?
That the mark of rank in nature is capacity for pain?
That the anguish of the singer makes the sweetness of the strain?

I suppose it is rather evident that I like a kind of bitter-sweetness in my songs and poetry, and no doubt there is a kind of bitter-sweetness to be found, consequently, in my writing. And perhaps that is as it should be.

6 ripostes:

  1. I say, in your last Day post you said that your 'favorite' female author was Rosemary Suttcliff, and you also like Beowulf, so I was wondering if you've ever read Rosemary's sort of translation of the epic, Dragon Slayer? Its smaller and little mentioned compared to some of her other works, so I though perhaps I should mention it to you in case you haven't read it :)


  2. I was going to write something long, but I find the words come too hard.

    Put simply, 'tis this: Your country-born birthright is larger than you'll ever know.

  3. Hm! Contrary to popular opinion, I do not own a copy of every Rosemary Sutcliff book. It is amusing that you should ask, Gwyn. My friend Anna and I were just discussing Sutcliff's Dragonslayer. I have heard of it, but I haven't read it. Having read the real thing, I have somewhat mixed views on going back and reading a retelling. I am sure that it is quite good - I have read her Beowulf-influenced work The Shield Ring, and that is nothing short of potent. But I am still a little recalcitrant toward reading a retelling when I am already in love with the real thing.

    You are enigmatic, Sarah. I am not sure what to make of it. But then, I am never sure what to make of me.

  4. My experience has been the opposite of yours; with a few exceptions, I can never really get into poetry - unless it's set to music. I could ramble on endlessly about how songs affect me, but instead I'll just provide a few selections that fit the topic above, which you might enjoy.

    Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying - Belle & Sebastian. A song about the many uses and powers of the written word.

    Desolation Row - Bob Dylan. Not about books per se but the abundance of literary references warrants its inclusion.

    Rime of the Ancient Mariner - Iron Maiden. EPIC!

    White Blank Page - Mumford & Sons. Look, they're even in a book store!

    Song for Myla Goldberg - The Decemberists. But then all their songs are literary, in their own fashion.

    I Hung My Harp Upon the Willows - The Trash Can Sinatras. The story of Robbie Burns (for Tim).

    Cemetary Gates - The Smiths. My favorite of the bunch, and the most apropos. Nobody says it like Morrissey (except, long ago, Wilde).

  5. Perhaps when I e-mail you those photos I'll manage a longer explanation. :-)

  6. I awarded you over at Eat...Sleep...Write. I know you have recieved this award already, so don't feel compelled to post about it again.