Going round in circles

I woke up yesterday morning with this Schumann song in my head:

I’d known Hugo Wolf’s setting of Mörike’s text since my teens, but had only discovered Schumann’s during a compare-and-contrast exercise in my final year at Oxford. (Thank you, John Warrack – your seminar was the undisputed highlight of my time there.) I’d been reminded of it at a discussion at Lake District Summer Music earlier this month, where the panellists were considering how different settings can bring out different facets of a poem – even facets that aren’t obvious in the words themselves. And then yesterday morning… well, there it was.

For me, the power of Schumann’s setting is the way the music accentuates the trapped, hopeless situaton the singer finds herself in. Listen to the rising and falling motif of the third and fourth lines (0:30-0:47) which reappears throughout the song. Listen too to the way the vocal line begins in the upper register, but is quickly and repeatedly dragged down to a lower register by that motif, despite a brave attempt to escape into the upper reaches with the flying sparks of the fire.

This song doesn’t offer its singer anything in the way of hope or escape, but it does offer her one thing: companionship. Sometimes that’s all we can cope with – not encouragement, not a well-meaning comment that things will get better, and God knows not a pep talk or a Bible verse – but just quiet, patient companionship. (Curiously enough I was listening to a podcast just last week which said exactly the same thing.)

It is music that understands the emotion, and can serve as a holder and a carrier for it, without trying to fix it artificially or prematurely. It understands the dull, repetitive, numbing thud of loss and isolation. And it shows some respect for it; it gives the girl a little dignity in her grief, honours her for it (“You have collected all my tears in your bottle…”), without trying to push it towards something it is not yet ready to be. (There is little if any harmonic progression in this song.)

Perhaps I was particularly sensitive to this aspect of Das Verlassene Mägdlein this morning, having just encountered the poetry of Robyn Bolam. Her poem Mnemonic (which she acknowledges owes a debt to Neruda’s Tonight I can write the saddest lines – and which, though it stands magnificently on its own, is crying out to be set to music), from her most recent collection New Wings, has a similar repetitive quality, perhaps even more nuanced than Schumann’s:

So many nights I could not rest
because I loved him, and sometimes he loved me too.
Then he loved her, and sometimes he loved me too.
I could not rest because I loved him
so many nights…

Bolam captures with painful accuracy the way that we can latch onto a word or phrase which defines our sentiment, which recycles itself through the mind in endless permutations, colouring every facet of our experience. The permutations of “because I loved him, and sometimes he loved me too”, with their remorseless shifting logic, punctuate not only the first stanza but the whole poem, presenting with awful clarity the dichotomy of emotion and fact which defines the poet’s present experience.

(The constant presence of these phrases, defining the narrator’s thought process and exerting structural pressure on every other word in the poem, remind me of the scene in Britten’s Billy Budd where the ship’s officers are considering their verdict on Budd after he has killed the master-at-arms. Their deliberations are punctuated by a three-chord sequence to the words “We’ve no choice”, the chords rotating through every possible combination (2:00:00 to 2:03:00 here) like a constantly tolling bell in their thought, before finally settling on the tonic when they deliver the inevitable guilty verdict. There is no mercy for the officers here.)

Like the permutations of “because I loved him, and sometimes he loved me too”, the words rest, touch, remember and reject punctuate nearly every stanza of Mnemonic – emotionally charged words which carry a different nuance at each usage. Bolam uses a surprisingly small vocabulary to carry such a huge emotion – an unerring reflection of the way we process pain. There is no obvious happy ending for the narrator of Mnemonic, but unlike Das verlassene Mägdlein, her cycles of thought do eventually bring her to a new equilibrium – one which cannot compensate for her loss, cannot make sense of it, but provides a new structure for it.

And as with Das verlassene Mägdlein, that is all we should be looking for at first. The Victorians understood the need for mourning; the modern world, desensitised, has forgotten how to grieve. It is through music and poetry such as this that we can start to remember how.

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