Sunday, January 27, 2013

Townsend: Songs from the Poets 2

Robert Graves, whom I talked about in this post, is a figure that has long fascinated me. An officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in WWI, he was badly wounded in the Battle of the Somme and never fully recovered his health. The casualty rate among officers commanding in the trenches was 90%. After the war he pursued a degree at Oxford where he was close friends with fellow student T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia").

Graves is perhaps most famous for his autobiography Goodbye to All That, written on the occasion of his departure from England. For most of his life he lived in Majorca. He also wrote the hugely successful historical novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God which were made into an excellent BBC series. He wrote a widely read account of The Greek Myths and a controversial study of the myths of The White Goddess. He did many translations of classical texts for Penguin Books.

But Graves always regarded as his real vocation that of poet--everything else was just to pay the rent! Apart from his war poems, which he later omitted from his poetry collections, he scarcely participates in any of the 20th century literary trends. His poetry somehow stands outside of his own time. He strongly believed, as witnessed in the book The White Goddess that "true" or "pure" poetry is inextricably linked with the ancient cult-ritual of his proposed White Goddess and of her son. She is the muse for all poetry--all his poetry, at least!

One of the poems by Graves that I chose to set describes the sensation of encountering that muse or goddess as manifested in a woman and the feelings of inadequacy that emerge. Here is the text of the poem:

Your Private Way

Whether it was your way of walking
Or of laughing moved me,
At sight of you a song wavered
Ghostly on my lips;  I could not voice it,
Uncertain what the notes or key.

Be thankful I am no musician
Sweet Anonymity, to madden you
With your own private walking-laughing way
Imitated on a beggar's fiddle
Or blared across the square on All Fool's Day.

And here is my setting for voice and guitar. I have included images of Robert Graves and at the end, a sculpture of the White Goddess:

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