Monday, November 25, 2013

Britten Notebooks III: Parables & Quartets

See below for more notes, quotes & miscellany on Benjamin Britten during this, his 100th birthday weekend.

Sunday | 24 November 2013 | Britten 100

Friends, remember! | Gold is tried in the fire | And the mettle of man | In the furnace of humiliation…
… God give us all | The strength to walk | Safe in the burning furnace | Of this murderous world.
– from The Burning Fiery Furnace (libretto by William Plomer)

Listened this morning to a vivid performance of The Burning Fiery Furnace from the Aldeburgh Festival by Mahogany Opera produced in Orford Church, the space for which the three Church Parables were planned and premiered. (Memory: this is where we saw a 2003 production of Lucretia, which generated interesting discussion and disagreement over the Christianization of the story vis-à-vis the ending. Both our Britten-Pears Programme directors, Michael Chance and Tim Carroll, felt strongly the anachronistic redemption of the ancient Roman tragedy “didn’t work.”) The Burning Fiery Furnace production certainly did work – it was so well-paced, balanced and characterized – you could imagine Nebuchadnezzar’s elaborate robes, the Babylonian “god of gold,” the stained-glass window behind which the Angel appears, etc, etc - just listening via online radio.

[N.B. Having long sat with these pieces and considered programming them, this morning was the first time I believed the right production could not only be pulled off locally, but would be both entertaining and moving. The instrumental march, for example, would be a sure hit when done with a band who embraces the drama (as they must). It would require particular care in casting and production planning, and would have to be strongly supported by the right church.]

Britten’s String Quartets – this Centenary year and weekend notwithstanding – are a neglected room in the mansion of his legacy, especially on the US side of the pond. This is our loss. His first quartet was commissioned by the same American patron (Elizabeth Coolidge) who sought new quartets from Bartok and Schoenberg. Composed while he was in the US in 1941, Britten’s String Quartet No. 1 in D, op. 25, won the young émigré a Gold Medal from the Library of Congress for service to Chamber Music. Its shimmering opening – a perilously difficult passage for the upper strings – reflect the “California Sun” where Britten and Pears were living at the time, according to the composer, David Matthews. The Andante third movement is an early example of Britten’s gift for masterfully sustained lyricism; a trait he shared with his musical heroes Mozart, Schubert and Mahler.

One of the reasons the Quartets (like much of his instrumental output) are lesser known is
a result of the large shadows cast by his operas and vocal works. String Quartet No. 2 in C, op. 36, comes from 1945, the same year as Peter Grimes, and the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell. Written after his Purcell inspired song-cycle, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, the 2nd Quartet is dedicated to Britten’s beloved Baroque forbear. The first of the quartet’s three movements was described by the scholar Hans Keller as Britten’s “most deliberate masterpiece.” The final movement, longer than the first two combined, is a Purcellian ground-bass “Chacony,” with 21 (!) variations.

Keller hoped Britten would continue to write chamber music, and string quartets in particular. He would have to wait 30 years for the realization of this wish, in what must be one of the most poignant examples of delayed gratification in classical music. What is remarkable is the consistency of not only inspiration, but style, voice and character.

Originally called a “Divertimento,” String Quartet No. 3 in G, op. 94, was completed in Venice in 1975. Though most Britten commentators cite the "arch form" of its 5-movements by linking the outer movements, I would call the form chiastic, and highlight the central, “Song,” movement as its crux. The opening movement is called “Duets,” and features aptly named textures between the voices. The final movement is subtitled “La Serenissima,” after Britten’s (and Pears’) favorite city; a place to which they repaired at crucial times in the composer’s career, and where he always was able to work with inspiration. In addition to assuming another Baroque form (“Passacaglia”) the 5th movement quotes from Death in Venice and mirrors the journey of the opera’s hero, Aschenbach. This was the final role Britten wrote for his muse and partner, Peter Pears. The central movement of his final quartet is a ravishing song without words. It is Britten’s "Adagietto" to Pears, as that of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was to Alma (and beloved by Britten long before Mahler was in vogue. See below for more on Mahler and Britten. On another note, Britten dedicated his Nocturne, op. 60 to Alma Mahler; their correspondence is mutually supportive and admiring).

Britten’s instrumental Schwanengesang is one of his most sublime achievements. Its rarified atmosphere is possessed ‘of a profound beauty more touching than anything else, radiant, wise, new, mysterious—overwhelming,’ according to none other than Pears himself.

All three of the Church Parables and String Quartets were part of the Britten 100 festivities from BBC Radio 3 and are available online for the next week.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Britten Notebooks: II (for his Centenary weekend)

Yesterday I posted several notebook entries here: quotes from other scholars
and some of my own writings, including some poems I hope to include in a portrait
poem of Britten. Inquiring minds can also check out a couple of links on the Opera Blog,
as Britten is on the air practically 24-7 this weekend on BBC and around the UK. Cheers!

Britten Notebooks, November 2013 (cont.)

Our job is to be useful, and to the living. – Britten
from John Culshaw’s Ben – A Tribute to Benjamin Britten (in DECCA: The Complete Works)
His was a complex character, and superficially full of contradictions. He was world-famous but he did not care for the trappings of fame. He was a marvelous pianist and conductor, yet he did not enjoy performing and the prospect of a concert performance sometimes made him literally sick. As he grew older, he seemed to harbour increasing doubts about his own works – doubts which were not shared by his colleagues or by the public…

A deceptive simplicity, an earthliness, lies behind all his music, just as it lies behind the music of his beloved Schubert

Britten 100 | BBC Radio 3 Features

“There was a sort of alchemy about Ben… it [the music] poured out of him” (Jenny Walker, on the “magical atmosphere” in The Death of St Narcissus and other works from the ‘70’s).

“Ben was less a conductor than a complete musician… Every voice [in the orchestra] was clear…he kept persisting…as if by sheer force of will…it had more to do with his personality…one had an attitude to his conducting that was completely different…an almost religious attitude… it was one degree higher [compared with other conductors] – Anita Wallfisch, on playing in the ECO with Britten for repertoire ranging from Bach, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Debussy, Shostakovich and Britten’s own works (i.e.: ’64 concert with Rostropovich – premiere of Haydn cello concerto with Britten’s cadenza’s, along with BB’s Cello Symphony).

Back to Kovnatskaya’s “Notes on a Theme from Peter Grimes.” (in On Mahler and Britten, see below)

This universe is but the discharge of passions | longs stored in the human heart. – Boris Pasternak

Mahler is the center where Britten and Shostakovich meet. “Russian Shostakovich studies devote no less an important place to the Shostakovich – Mahler digression than Britten scholars in England lend to the Britten-Mahler parallel.” (p. 177)

In “Kafka and his Precursors,” Borges wryly proves how a contemporary creator informs his interpreters’ understanding of the process of influence. Knowing the connection between Britten’s Death in Venice and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, I listen to the latter in another way. Mahler influences Britten. Mahler is Britten’s precursor. This, then is the context for another example from Russian poetry with which Kovnatskaya enriches her readers: “This is one of the mechanisms of ‘cultural memory’ about which Osip Mandelstam wrote in terms of genetic continuity:”

We are all, even without realizing it, carriers of an enormous embryological experience… the whole process of experience, which culminates in the memory’s triumphant effort, is amazingly similar to the process of growth…this all develops not of its own accord,but merely as a response to an invitation, as a reaching out in justification of all expectation.

Of the inexplicable force Das Lied had on him, Britten wrote, “I cannot understand it – it passes over me like a tidal wave – and that matters not a jot either, because it goes on for ever, even if it is never performed again – that final chord is printed on the atmosphere” (from 29 June 1937, in Britten: Letters from a Life, Vol. 1). Shostakovich thought it was both “the greatest thing of genius created in music,” and given “only one hour left to live,” he said he “should choose the finale of Das Lied von der Erde” (p. 183).

Kovnatskaya concludes:
Looking at these reflecting mirrors and prisms of Britten, Mahler and Shostakovich, many new details come into focus…Britten assimilated Shostakovich’s musical language in the style of Mahler, then Shostakovich’s late style betrays elements of Britten’s musical language, again through a Mahlerian prism. Without Mahler a comparative study of the music of Bitten and Shostakovich loses in dimension, depth and inherent meaning, since for both of them Mahler was the embodiment of eternal values, of that ‘blessed inheritance’ (Mandelstam), and of that soul-scorching sense of the modern world. (p. 184)

Postscript: Britten’s letter of 29 June 1937 to Henry Boys opens with this wry remark:
It is now well past midnight & society dictates that I should stop playing the Abschied.

Before he describes the “tidal wave” effect of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, the 23-year-old composer sounds more like a philosopher or poet:

It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness & pain: of strength & freedom. The beauty of disappointment & never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature, and everlasting beauty of monotony.

(Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, Vol. One 1923-39)

It may seem easy to dismiss such arm-chair aphorisms as the romantic musings typical of a young artist. Knowing Britten’s life and work, however, makes it difficult to read such observations as anything but prescient, if not prophetic. What might the “everlasting beauty of monotony” be besides the perfect essence of a single pure melody? Mahler’s Abschied closes with the soloist singing a descending two-note motive on the word, “ewig,” while the orchestra echoes and cushions the “eternal” essence the composer has depicted. An enormous sphere of sound – “the song of the earth” – has been reduced to a single note: a mono-tone. Britten’s texture of choice in his last decade could be seen as variations on this theme. His beloved Gamelan music, and the timeless chant-inspired textures of the late works aim for such an everlasting beauty, that, however rarified, simple and austere, is anything but monotonous.

(The Red House, Aldeburgh - where Britten and Pears lived from 1957)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Britten 100: Notebooks for his Centenary

Britten Notebooks November 2013

For I have a greater compass of both mirth and melancholy than another…
(from Jubilate Agno – C. Smart)

Centenary Week | 17.XI.13

In one sitting, reading a dozen of Britten’s Letters from a Life (in the sixth and final volume) one encounters separate references to a quartet of eminent artists who were living when this volume appeared just last year (2012). In the notes accompanying their appearances, I entered years of death for Hans Werner Henze, Colin Davis, Galina Vishnevskaya, and Jonathan Harvey. I am only on page 99 out of 700 + pages. The great novelist Doris Lessing died the very day (17.XI.13) I read those letters and wrote this note.

While listening to Shostakovich’s Mahlerian 4th symphony (did Britten know it? given its suppression during Stalin's terror, Britten may never have heard it), I turn a page in the Letters to one from 25 September 1966 he wrote his Russian colleague, wishing DSCH a happy 60th birthday, and “many more years of inspired creative activity” – DS would have 9; BB a mere 7 – “to give the world more of your splendid music.” The essence of bittersweet.

The Tallis Scholars celebrate their 40th anniversary and Peter Philips is the guest on the BBC 3 Early Music show this Sunday. Noted for their crystalline purity of sound, critics have found Philips and his ken “cold,” even “bloodless.” His response is perfect, and applies not only to the “straight-tone” approach to choral music, but perhaps also to the British temperament in general, and a composer like Britten in particular. “The cool surface hides a tremendous emotional charge. Once you understand that, well then you’re hooked.”

It could not have been lost on Britten the action of Billy Budd, as stated in the Prologue and Epilogue by Captain Vere – the role written for his partner and muse, Peter Pears – is set in 1797, the year of Franz Schubert's birth, one of his favorite composers. The composer he loved more than Beethoven or Brahms, one whom he ranked just under Mozart, one he interpreted with searing intensity and penetrating intimacy, whether with Pears or Fischer-Dieskau or Richter. [N.B. Listen again to his anecdote about meeting Schubert in a dream, and its blessed effect on the following days.]

Listening to the MET’s first broadcast of Billy Budd, from 1979 is notable enough. It also marked Pears’ last MET performance, and represented a “passing of the torch” between another pair of singers. The Budd in Britten’s classic DECCA recording, Peter Glossop, plays Vere’s Lieutenant, while the young baritone, Richard Sitwell sings the title role. At the MET’s most recent remount, its previous Budd, Dwayne Croft, sang the Lt, while its new Budd, Nathan Gunn, had been the Novice’s friend in Croft’s run as Britten’s martyred hero. Musically, the performance is dominated by Raymond Leppard’s incisively dramatic pacing of the sprawling score, and, for me at least, Pears’ remarkably ageless singing. Yes, his Vere is “an old man,” but at 69, he is a better Britten tenor than most others at any age. It's frustrating to this Britten fan that the MET is broadcasting Vickers' Peter Grimes three times this week, rather than Rolfe Johnson's &/or Langridge's, both of whom were renowned Britten tenors, whereas the great Canadian was known for his dramatic Verdi and Wagner roles (Britten infamously walked out of a performance of Grimes featuring Vickers).

In her excellent essay on a theme from Peter Grimes (in On Mahler and Britten), Ludmila Kovnatskaya quotes her fellow Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, on “the whole process of experience,” which Britten would have referred to as tradition.

We are all, even without realizing it, carriers of an enormous embryological experience…
the whole process of experience, which culminates in the memory’s triumphant effort,
is amazingly similar to the process of growth

Some of my Adventures with Ben Britten

In one, I’m riding in the back of
his old red car while he and the
daughter of the composer who
wrote the music of the 7 spheres
discuss more practical matters.
“Happy listener,” I have never
been more. In another,
Peter Pears sings a
mysterious Nocturne in a
blue room high up in an
ancient tower. All three of us
are together inside a cabin
amidst snowy woods (though
I’d have to check my diary
to see what we discussed or
played or listened to). The
best one was the night I
asked him to appear and
he did, not just once but
repeatedly. The first time,
he had us all in stitches
as he made fun of himself,
“taking the piss” and turning
the tables by telling a story
of a joke another singer
played on Peter and him.
He was red as a poppy
by the time he finished
guffawing at how stuffy
he’d been back then – Ah,
Ben. But later, he and Peter
appeared for a 1986 revival
of Midsummer Night’s Dream
at a crowded outdoor festival. How
did we find ourselves there,
Britten looking fresh as he
did at its ’62 premiere, and
Pears, ageless as ever, no
sign of death imminent
for either one of them.

all art being | a form of violence | as a peony | is violence
(from “The Problem of Hands,” – L. Mathias)

Here the strong mallow strikes her slimy root | Here the dull night-shade hangs her deadly fruit
(from "Marsh Flowers" - G. Crabbe)


Ben loves HIS.
HIS stands for:

Hello, Isolating Sea.
Highly Irregular Stomach.
Help! I’m Sick.
Hate Intensifies Stupidity.
Heal. Icarus. Sun.
H Is Spirit
Hallelujah! Inspired Smart

Ben and Peter.

He Is Superior.
Hesitating. In Sequins?
Home. Ink. Shingle.
Hurt. Illness. Sorry.
Humiliating Internal Surprises.
Honey, I’m silly.
Here, It’s Safe.


Benjamin Britten writes a letter

O dear white children casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages…
O weep, child weep, O weep away the stain
Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,
Weep for the lives your wishes never led
(from “Hymn for St Cecilia's Day,” W.H. Auden)

Dear Cency:

Please forgive my being out of touch so long, my boy. You must have thought I’d forgotten you! Of course we’ve been terribly busy with concerts – you should hear Peter these days: he sings like an angel, a Greek hero, and the god of music himself! Our festival is now in its 66th year – can you believe it? I remember when you helped us start it. We could never have done it without your vision and indefatigable energy, your wide-eyed imagination and playful sense of adventure. Thank you, thank you, dearest & most cherished friend of those prelapsarian years. We have missed you more than we thought possible. We have neither seen nor heard of you for some time now. Where have you been? Whose dreams are you inspiring, and with whom are you toying? Which choir is blessed with your ever-pure treble, oh muse of the perilous heights? I can imagine your sweet, coy smile as you read this. Alas, time, old-age, sickness, and decay have well-acquainted us with your nemeses. I’m sure I did not get it right in my settings of Blake’s “Songs and Proverbs,” but the poet of the “Poison’d Tree” most certainly did. Only it is we who are now felled. How I hated to leave Peter. In the end, those we love matter most. Yet looking back, it seems I devoted my entire life to you, sweet boy: to finding you again – to healing the rift when you were taken from us. Or did we let you go? Whether searching for you in others – to my ultimate disappointment & their inevitable frustration – whether trying to recreate you through music or living vicariously through the children of our friends, I could only catch a glimpse of you, dearest Innocence; I could never touch you, never know you again. Perhaps you, too, were merely another ghost, a phantom from the irreparable past.
Will I ever see you again?
With much love,

Friday, 22 November 2013 | Britten’s 100th birthday | St Cecilia’s Day

Notes from Christopher Palmer's essay "Towards a Genealogy of Death in Venice."

He who once has looked on Beauty has lost himself irretrievably to Death. – from Platen’s Tristan

Death, beauty, love, eternity: these are language symbols for this at once platonic and intoxicatingly musical soul-miracle… - Thomas Mann on Platen

The “dangerous fascination” of the sea – Mann quoting Nietzsche –
the Sea, as symbol of the nothingness which is everythingness…


Fragment for Benjamin Britten

Aldeburgh beach! I can feel
the shingle, like loose
cobblestones underneath
my feet. I can hear
the sui generis sound
of the North Sea breaking
over the smooth-stone surface,
scraping away as it ebbs,
as if Thetis and her
Nereids were taking back
whatever remnants remain
from all the dead.

(July 2013)

Friday, August 30, 2013

Experimenting with Infinity: Seamus Heaney (April 13, 1939- August 30, 2013)

Amy read a poem our friend Ricky shared online this morning by the eminent Irish poet Seamus Heaney:


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

We were both shocked to learn another one of the world's great artists had died. The Academy of American poets website is an excellent source for poets and poetry, so I was surprised to find only one of his poems there. I expect another Heaney verse or two may be added in the coming days, and that the poem-of-the-day in my inbox soon will be one of his, with the almost tacit announcement of his death (...born April 13, 1939, and died August 30, 2013).

Yet how much has Heaney left us: his collected poems is one of the great achievements in poetry since the second world war, he is regarded as the greatest Irish poet since W.B. Yeats, and his translation of Beowulf has become the new standard for the seminal Old English epic. My single favorite poetry anthology is one he edited with Ted Hughes. The Rattle Bag is arranged, not by subject, region, nor chronology, but alphabetically by title. Unlike its dry academic cousins (the kind from which Robin Williams instructs his students to rip the prefaces in "Dead Poets Society") The Rattle Bag's simple arrangement gives it a concentrated spontaneity and packs it with poetry's unique powers of compression, image, wordplay, and musical language.

Here's A Kite for Aibhin.

The website (not as authoritative as the Poets site above) has several of his popular poems, among them, "From Lightenings," from which this brief tribute takes it title. Here's that section, itself a tribute to Thomas Hardy.

from "From Lightenings"
Once, as a child, out in a field of sheep,
Thomas Hardy pretended to be dead
And lay down flat among their dainty shins.

In that sniffed-at, bleated-into, grassy space
He experimented with infinity.
His small cool brow was like an anvil waiting

For sky to make it sing the perfect pitch
Of his dumb being, and that stir he caused
In the fleece-hustle was the original

Of a ripple that would travel eighty years
Outward from there, to be the same ripple
Inside him at its last circumference.

One of his earliest poems, "Digging," finds the poet bent over his writing desk, where his "squat pen rests; snug as a gun." This startling image - so unexpected - is one of Heaney's gifts. It demonstrates the unsettling power of language. Yet there is a sensuality in his language that is always elemental: we can feel and smell and taste and touch the earth.

Outside the poet's window, "a clean rasping sound | When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:| My father, digging. I look down | Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds| Bends low,..." Heaney is in tune with the seasons of the year and of humankind. "Digging" juxtaposes the poet with his father and grandfather, men who till the soil, "digging" and getting their hands dirty with things other than ink. Here's how he concludes this "ars poetica" from his groundbreaking 1966 collection.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

Lucky for us he "experimented with infinity" during a half-century of writing poetry we can continue to share.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Summer with the BBC Proms

Fellow Music-Lovers and Colleagues (in need of musical refreshment):

The BBC Proms is here again. If I finish this quick post in time,
you should be able to click a link and listen live to the second half
of today's "programme" featuring the BBC Philharmonic in
British orchestral works (by Elgar, Bantock, and Walton). Because
the Proms is nothing if not "all in," the meaty program also concludes
with the launch of one of their many focuses (or "themes") for each particular
season. Tchaikovsky's so-called "Fate Symphony," the 4th, kicks of a survey of
each of the Russian Master's 6 symphonies.

The Proms is the greatest music festival in the world in size and scope -
and many non-Brits would agree - and content.

Click this link to listen live everyday until Sept 7.

(Sir Henry Wood, British conductor and champion of his colleagues,
Elgar, Parry, Bantock, Stanford, et al.
He founded the the Proms in 1895)

Here's a sampling of the guest soloists, orchestras and the requisite anniversary celebrations:

Britten and Lutoslawski - 100th birthday, featuring major surveys of each composer

Verdi and Wagner - Bicentennial, featuring the Four Sacred Pieces, a first-ever Proms Single Season Complete Ring Cycle, as well as Tristan and Parsifal.

Celebration of Polish Music (and always a celebration of British music!)

World Premieres by over a dozen contemporary composers
(of all styles, shapes and sizes)

Pappano & S. Cecilia Roma;
Barenboim & Staats. Berlin;
Bamberg SO & Mahler 5;
Henze & Tippett w/Knussen;
Jansons & Mahler 2;
Midsummer Marriage;
Shostakovich 5, 6, 10, Piano cto. n. 2;
Verdi overtures w/Sinf. d. Milano;
VPO & Maazel & Bruckner 8
(also Bruckner 4: Oslo/Petrenko, & 7: Salonen)

The view of the Royal Albert Hall from behind the Bust of Sir Henry.
He is atop the organ, overlooking the orchestra.
The middle-ground (shaped like a half-sun on the horizon)
is where the "Prommers" stand for each concert.

If you ever are in London between mid-July and early September,
be sure to join the "queue" that day and get your SRO ticket
for whatever is on the docket.


P.S. Two things: the concerts which start at 19:30 GMT translate to 2:30 p.m. EST;
and if you listen to a symphony or multi-movement work, don't be surprised to hear
applause: the Proms audience is among the most revered in the world for their
one-of-a-kind attentiveness, openness to new and unfamiliar works,
and their infectious enthusiasm whenever they decide to applaud or clap
for an encore. Enjoy!

Monday, May 13, 2013

In memoriam: JCW (1 April 2001 - 13 May 2013)

Even the affection of his canine brother, Boulez could not prolong our cat Jeoffry's life,
for he died in his sleep sometime early this morning, a few hours after I took that picture
of our two black-and-white boys on the bed.

Here is the poem (most famously used by Benjamin Britten in his cantata, Rejoice in the Lamb)
from whence Jeoffry took his name, and quite a few of his traits. From the time he was a few weeks old when we first adopted each other in August 2001 to this very morning, he was my first feline best friend, and was beloved by virtually everyone who met him. And to everyone who ever looked in on him during my frequent travels these past years: thank you, thank you, thank you. I know you know how much he is already missed.

(Here he is during his last season in Norfolk, 2010)

from Jubilate Agno
Christopher Smart (1722-1771)

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord's poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually--Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

I just encountered a fabulous poem by the contemporary New York poet, Edward Hirsch. It's called "Wild Gratitude" and it's a meditation on Smart's poem, the poet's cat, and more. You can read it online and hear the poet read it on the Poets page.

Joeffry's first sister, Lucina, also shared her name with a beloved poetical cat. Auden's poem
to his beloved kitten was set by another favorite composer of ours, Hans Werner Henze

Here's that poem, following a picture of Jeoffry and Luci in Norfolk, 2008.

In Memoriam, L.K.A; 1950-1952

At peace under this mandarin, sleep, Lucina
Blue-eyed queen of white cats
For you the Ischian wave
Shall weep
When we who now miss you
Are American dust
And steep Epomeo in peace and war
Augustly a grave-watch keep.

(W.H. Auden)

In one of life's many unpredictable twists, Luci died just after I left for the airport and another gig. Amy has been away much of this Spring, and J died just one week before her return. We'll read Christopher Smart together while we scatter Jeoffry's ashes across our new garden, outside a house which has never felt emptier.

For further reading on poems about cats, pets, grief (and every other occasion) see the Poets page for Thomas Gray's "Ode on the death of a favorite cat" and links to similar poems.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Pirate Dreams: Original Poetry after The Pirates of Penzance

Pirate Dreams

Dreams of dancing police
in a game of
chance or music for
changes – what was it?
Nevermind the weather let’s
talk about the daisies
or binomial theorem if
you’re teeming with a
lot of news practice
squaring the hypotenuse General
as the sorties scour
the commissariat and the
Pirate King loots the
shore with a centre-
bit another orphan boy
empty-handed hail poetry

Pirates and police – oh my!
Please no more encores


Dotted with daisies
talking about the weather

binomial theorem


III. A portrait of Isabel’s mermaids

… a carved stone-portal entrance / to a forbidden sea-temple;
they called the creature… / …a Siren, / a maid-of-the-sea, a mermaid,
Some said, this mermaid sang / and that a Siren-song was fatal

Isabel, aka Tall Stanley, likes
“mermaids and eating” or so
the local newspaper reported.
She thinks of them as
fellow humans, we aver
from her dialogue with
Kate and Edith (Spunky
and Short Stanley, respectfully).
“It’s the very place for mermaids!”
she gleefully exclaims
through a mouth full of cake.

What does Isabel – o la
belle! Mademoiselle! Veuve
la belle – La Belle Dam
What do you dream
you’ll find five fathoms deep?
Do you fancy some
Pre-Raphaelite vision
like Cowper’s portrait
of Keats’ La Belle
Dame Sans Merci
The dangerous nymph,
the “lady in the meads,
full beautiful – a faery’s child
Her hair was long, her foot was light
And her eyes were wild.”

Oh! What a lady
she must have been,
right, Isabel? What
mermaids wait at
the bottom of your dark
wishing-well? You’re
as mysterious as they are.
Dare I write another


[Here the poem breaks off]

Cowper: La Belle Dame Sans Merci (The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy)