Setting a really great poem

Last Wednesday (my birthday!), a friend of mine gave a brilliant and poignant talk on the sacred poetry of George Herbert.  To call it profound and beautiful would be an understatement.  The talk focused around three poems, so we heard a small survey of his work, and (with the help of my friend) got to dig deep into some of Herbert’s enigmatic verbage and introspection.  It was an odd mix of grad students from different departments, housemates, clergy, and professors.  Coupled with decadent desserts and tea served in fine china, it was altogether an awesome way to spend my birthday.

One of the many things that stirred my soul that evening was the idea of God’s upside-down economy.  A kind of economy where one need not pay with works and good deeds to earn God’s blessings and gifts, but receives them in grace simply for being God’s son or daughter.  The story of the prodigal son was discussed, as was this passage from Isaiah:

. . .you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. . .Why spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good, and delight yourself in rich food. –Isaiah 55:1-2

These two vignettes illustrate the fact that we are incapable of earning God’s favor, gifts, and ultimately, His love.  I won’t attempt to recreate the talk that my friend shared, and instead share one of the poems from the evening: Herbert’s “Love (III)”

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat

I got really excited when I saw this poem on the works discussed because I had sung a setting of this poem by John Tavener with my old church choir  (sorry no youtube recordings).  Though I didn’t care too much for the choral piece, I was puzzled by the poetry and was interested in the other poems of Herbert.  When my friend read the poem aloud during her talk, I realized that the words alone – without musical setting – were so much more powerful than the setting of them by Tavener.  I fell in love with the text in a way that the choral piece had never shown me.  The ambiguity of the speaker of each quotation (especially stanza 3 line 4) is troubling when we read it aloud, and I think that is Herbert’s intention.  Is “Love” telling the speaker that it will serve, or is the speaker requesting to serve “Love”?

In Taverner’s anthem, each stanza is broken into 3 sections, each with expanding vocal range and tonal complexity, starting from a simple unison for the first two lines, then dissonant 2nds and 3rds for lines 3 and 4, and concluding each stanza in a 4-part tonal style.  I think this expanding form works beautifully for the third stanza; beginning with shame, then reassurance, and the ultimately a direct command to sit and eat.  Mapping the same exact music to each verse of this poem, however, doesn’t accurately capture the meaning of each line.  In the second stanza the shame of the reader is illustrated in lines 3 and 4, for example.  Strophic text does not  necessarily call for strophic music.

Yet another setting of Love (III) is by Vaughn Williams.  I love Vaughn Williams’ tonal language, and he treats each stanza differently, complete with triumphant orchestration and unison choir.  Here’s a program note from a performance of the cycle i’m stealing from the internet:

Of the five settings, Love bade me welcome is perhaps the most enigmatic, reflecting both Herbert’s and Vaughan-Williams’ pre-occupations with the inner nature of Man.  The rapt stillness at its centre – the Act – at which point in the traditionally Edenic key of E, wordless voices intone the O Sacrum convivium, is one of the great moments in Vaughan-Williams

But is this glorious concert setting what Taverner had in mind when writing such an intimate poem as Love (III)?  does it accurately capture the inner dialogue between the speaker and the character of “Love”?  Does it adumbrate the question of who is speaking or serving? Does it have to?  I don’t mean to sound negative, but a poems value is not always elevated by the addition of music.  Many texts are brought to new light and given fresh understanding when set to music by a skilled composer, but poetry on its own can have a simple beauty that allows us to intensely focus on language.  Music can obscure or detract from its inherent beauty.  Kudos to Sir Vaughn Williams for setting them though…egads.

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