Certain periods in cultural history are fertile ground for Janus-faced figures that look back to the tradition they’ve inherited while facing forward with vision. Straddling the 17th century, Monteverdi (1567-1643) enlivened the Renaissance period behind him while ushering in the musical Baroque. Bach straddled the 18th century and Beethoven the 19th and both titans of “classical” music are exemplary Janus-faced visionaries.
Visionary and Victorian are not adjectives typically linked by association, but I would like to wed the two, using poetry and song. I have already mused on Thomas Hardy and his fiction and verse. It was Hardy’s subject, his critique of contemporary society, its foibles and hypocrisy, more than his style that makes him a visionary. Vision implies the courage to not only see but to say. A visionary may or may not be a prophet; a prophet is always visionary. As a post-Victorian seer named W. H. Auden put it in his anti-fascist poem, “September 1, 1939,”
All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie…
Alfred Edward Housman and Ralph Vaughan Williams may not be front-runners in the race for visionaries of their era, but they are joined as Janus-faced authors unafraid to tackle the Big Questions of life, regardless of how easily dismissed as traditional or conservative their works may be. Though they were not close in life, they are forever joined in art through RVW’s chamber music setting of 6 AEH poems entitled On Wenlock Edge. The masterpiece song cycle, for piano quintet and tenor, is one of the composer’s finest works, and a distillation of his studies with Ravel. It is redolent of a quintessentially English pastoral impressionism, at once particular and universal, a balanced synthesis and exemplary essay in its genre.
What Housman and Vaughan Williams both achieve, in poetry and music, respectively, is a series of exquisitely crafted landscapes that mirror the psyche as emotional inscapes, surveys of the heart and soul. The title poem of the song cycle describes a tempest, a snowstorm worthy of one of Turner’s sublime landscapes. Vaughan Williams proves his mettle as a composer of so-called program music, continuing a tradition in which “weather music,” from Monteverdi to Beethoven to Wagner to Debussy, functions both as pure visceral sound and as dramatic program.
One of many challenges facing the Janus-faced artist is the tension inherent in the dialectic. We recall the romantic aphorism beloved of Schlegel and Novalis that “without contraries is no progression.” The contrast between “modern” city life and “idyllic” country life is a central theme in Victorian England and across post-revolutionary Europe. Housman joins Hardy, and both follow Heinrich Heine in this progression. The authentic English voice of Vaughan Williams and Holst, following Elgar, juxtaposes tranquil pastoral beauty that is tinged with romantic melancholy in tension with the encroaching angst of the modern era.
The prescience of the visionary can only be evaluated in hindsight. If not the first, George Orwell was the most prominent member of his generation to recognize Housman’s foresight. The inexorable march of time, transient mortality, the loss of traditional faith, and the sheer contingency of life on earth are all themes central to modern thought articulated before the so-called “Great War.”
The unimaginable horrors of the First World War, which, as Adorno points out, “seems peaceful in comparison to its successor,” are perceptible as germs in the poetry of Hardy and Housman. Such seeds were sown earlier as the romantic era and the industrial revolution materialized in close proximity. Songs of Innocence and Experience is not only William Blake’s most famous poetry collection, it is the epitome of a dialectic that continues to challenge and inspire. Its synthesis is embodied in authentic experience that haunts us with its elusiveness.
After Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth, Hardy, Housman and Robert Louis Stevenson carry this essential crux, the nexus of intuition (innocence) and cognition (experience). The names of Stevenson’s major works alone attest to this. Innocence pervades A Child’s Garden of Verse and out-of-balance “experience” drives the Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. The dialectic is further explored in Treasure Island and Songs of Travel (the latter chosen by Vaughan Williams for his most famous set of solo songs).
Hardy’s poetry abounds with imagery contrasting the unspoiled innocence of nature and children with the studied and stunted experience of so-called grown-ups. “Wagtail and Baby,” “At the Railway station, Upway” (or, The Convict and Boy with the Violin), and “Before Life and After” are three such examples, each set to music by Benjamin Britten. No composer embodied the dialectic of innocence and experience more than Britten. It is a through-line in his life and is the central theme of his work. The rub of recovering innocence’s purity and wholeness in a world broken by experience colors the operas upon which his fame was established, and permeates his prolific body of choral and vocal music. His collection of Hardy settings, Winter Words is one of the finest examples of English poetry set to music. Each song is a character study or drama in miniature. The poet’s imagery is brought vividly to life in both the virtuosic tenor melodies and the Schubertian tone-painting accompaniments for the piano.
“Wagtail and Baby” describes a pastoral setting where a toddler watches a bird drinking while various creatures enter and disturb the landscape. Only when “a perfect gentlemen” appears does the bird fly away, causing the child to ponder.
A baby watched a ford, whereto
A wagtail came for drinking;
A blaring bull went wading through,
The wagtail showed no shrinking.
A stallion splashed his way across,
The birdie nearly sinking;
He gave his plumes a twitch and toss,
And held his own unblinking.
Next saw the baby round the spot
A mongrel slowly slinking;
The wagtail gazed, but faltered not
In dip and sip and prinking.
A perfect gentleman then neared;
The wagtail, in a winking,
With terror rose and disappeared;
The baby fell a-thinking.
Elsewhere I’ve written about Britten’s tour-de-force setting of Hardy’s “The Choirmaster’s Burial,” a scene in which innocence and experience are articulated vis-à-vis the artist and society. It is another through-line uniting the artistic genres and the artists who create in each of them. The images, metaphors and allegories that story the poems, paintings and songs of artists across the centuries attest to this passion for articulating the challenges of living an authentic life in a broken world. One of the 20th century’s greatest artists was George Braques, who “along with Juan Gris and Picasso, made up the holy trinity of cubism, in which the role of God the Father belonged wholly to Picasso and the role of the Son to the surprising and still misunderstood Juan Gris – who in a different production could easily have played a Cyclops – whereas fate reserved for Braque…the role of the Holy Spirit, which as we know is the most difficult of all and the one that gets the least applause from the audience” (Robert Bolaño, Between Parentheses).
Bolaño’s colorful description – visionary itself – is followed by excerpts from Braque’s Illustrated Notebooks, the ostensible subject of his essay. Braque observes, The artist is not misunderstood; he’s unrecognized. People exploit him without knowing it.
More than a grain of truth lives in that observation. What is even more dangerous for our collective health is misunderstanding or failing to recognize the artist’s subject, namely the search for meaning. Entertainment may be artistic. And it may be mere entertainment, “escape art” as Auden put it. “Parable art” teaches and enriches, it provokes the catharsis of emotion and connects us to the core of our being, our shared humanity, and the indomitable spirit that makes us human. Such authentic art may also be entertaining. Our mental and psychic capacities allow for complex experience. It is up to each of us to recognize, understand and embrace such complexity. It is up to each to choose the complicated truth over the simple lie, to live through the tension rather than escape from it. As the eminent conductor James Levine reminds his musicians in rehearsal, struggling to balance the competing demands of executing complex opera scores, “if it were easy, anyone could do it.” One of Sondheim’s songs repeats, “Art isn’t easy.” Life isn’t either. Which is why life and art have each other. Nearly home and about to be lost again at sea, Odysseus exclaims, “I will stay with it and endure and once the heaving sea has shaken my raft to pieces, then will I swim. What else can I do?”