It may be due to the Celtic side of my ancestry, but I have always been quite taken by “otherworldly” music — music that sounds somehow related to the mythic unseen world of the ancient British Isles. Sometimes the connection is in the words of a song, sometimes only in the feeling the music creates.
Today I would like to share with you two such “otherworldly” songs.
If you saw the television series Merlin (Episode one), then you have already heard one of them. It is the remarkable “Witch’s Aria,” sung in the tale by Lady Helen of Mora — or rather by the witch that has stolen her outward form. In that guise, she sings a spell of dangerous enchantment over King Uther — Arthur’s father — and his court. Here is that segment:
And here is the performer Mary “Bewitch”(“x out” the ad). The blowing wind in the trees makes it quite visually effective , as though one sees the power of the rising spell.
The other “otherworldly” song I wish to share is an old favorite of mine. It is by that rather unique 1960s group called The Incredible String Band. Titled “The Circle is Unbroken,” it always made me think of people gathering for the mystic journey to the “Isles of the Blessed” — Tir-nan-og — the Undying Lands — so of course it gives one not only a Celtic but a rather Tolkienian feeling:
I only recently found that the melody is borrowed from a sad Irish Gaelic song –“Eanach Dhúin” (Anach Cuin). Here is a beautiful “low whistle” rendering:
Here is the origin story of the sad lament, and an Irish Gaelic rendering (subtitled):
I hope you find some pleasure in these strangely beautiful songs.
The three-line hokku is a very useful format for expressing Nature. But now and then, there are experiences that we may wish to extend slightly.
The following experience, for example, can be written in a longer or shorter form, with the difference here being only one word:
Morning: Standing intently In the sun-dappled stream — The blue heron.
Or it could be simply:
Standing intently In the sun-dappled stream — The blue heron.
The second version is a hokku, the first is not, though both have much the same spirit. The first just adds a specific time of day, which gives the verse a further layer or tone. We can writer either way of course, depending on individual preference and which version we think best conveys the sensory experience without becoming too “wordy.”
This morning I was reading through old summer poems in English — a rather disappointing experience, because most are so heavy-laden with personification that they fail to adequately express the season. It is refreshing to turn from them to the clarity and directness of hokku that present the experience of summer to us directly.
Nonetheless, here and there one finds works of Western poetry that “stick to the subject,” without a burdensome overlay of of personification and metaphor — among them, John Clare’s pleasant “Sonnet.” Its only ornamentation lies in the subjective use of “I love,” and “I like,” and in the use of simile:
I love to see the summer beaming forth And white wool sack clouds sailing to the north I love to see the wild flowers come again And mare blobs stain with gold the meadow drain And water lillies whiten on the floods Where reed clumps rustle like a wind shook wood Where from her hiding place the Moor Hen pushes And seeks her flag nest floating in bull rushes I like the willow leaning half way o’er The clear deep lake to stand upon its shore I love the hay grass when the flower head swings To summer winds and insects happy wings That sport about the meadow the bright day And see bright beetles in the clear lake play
It expresses Clare’s joy in seeing the shining light of summer. The scene he depicts seems to be set near the beginning of summer, which you will recall begins in May in the old calendar.
He speaks of white clouds floating in the blue sky as “white wool sack clouds sailing to the north” — reminiscent of the later words of Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem “Hurrahing in Harvest”:
what lovely behaviour /Of silk-sack clouds!
Only Clare — being more rustic — likens to wool rather than silk.
He then turns his eyes from sky to earth:
I love to see the wild flowers come again And mare blobs stain with gold the meadow drain
He joys in the warm-weather return of wild flowers, and looks to where golden flowers fill the ditch that drains water from the meadow. They are “mare blobs” in common speech — Caltha palustris — the marsh marigold.
Clare tells us that
water lillies whiten on the floods Where reed clumps rustle like a wind shook wood
By “floods” he means here simply “waters” (rivers, ponds, lakes); and on them the water lilies grow white. Here is Nymphaea alba, the white water lily native to Britain:
There, where the water lilies bloom, the clumps of tall reeds rustle “like a wind shook wood” — that is, like trees shaken by the wind.
from her hiding place the Moor Hen pushes And seeks her flag nest floating in bull rushes
The moor hen — Gallinula chloropus — pushes out of her hiding place among the reeds.
The nest the moor hen seeks is a “flag nest” that is, a nest made of the leaves of the common water flag, Iris pseudacorus:
The yellow water flag is also known as the “gladden,” which accounts for the “Gladden Fields” the marshlands where Isildur was slain in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and where the “One Ring” was lost in the river.
Clare likes to see
the willow leaning half way o’er The clear deep lake to stand upon its shore.
And he loves
the hay grass when the flower head swings To summer winds and insects happy wings That sport about the meadow the bright day
“Hay grass” is the grass left to grow tall and luxuriant so that it may be cut with the scythe and stored in the barns as hay for beasts. Clare likes to see the blossoms of wild flowers as they move to and fro in the tall grasses in the summer wind, and the insects flitting about in the sunshine.
And see bright beetles in the clear lake play
His gaze is drawn to the water beetles scuttling about in the bright water.
John Clare (1793-1864) was an English poet born of poor and illiterate country workers, and though he managed to get some of his work published and received a small annuity, it was never enough to support his family, so he also had to work as a farm laborer. The many difficulties of life eventually became too much for him, and he began to have mental problems and delusions that caused him to be placed in an asylum.
We do not know why this poem by Clare is not punctuated. It is known only from a copy transcribed by W. F. Knight, the steward at the asylum where John Clare spent over two decades of the latter part of his life.