Not to be confused with a ‘Poem Of The Day’, the ‘Poem Of Today’ is meant to reflect the (often surprise) encounters that we have with poetry, either when we open a book or magazine, browse a blog, or else come across a poem in an unexpected place, medium (or media). It doesn’t have to happen everyday (which is suspiciously convenient, as I haven’t got the discipline to write about a new poem everyday!) and it doesn’t have to be something loved. The only requirement is that it lingers beyond the minutes that it takes to get from the first word to the last, so that today takes on a slightly new shape as a result.
With all that in mind, my first poem is brought to you via YouTube and the music of Vaughan Williams:
Williams’s ‘Five Mystical Songs’ (first performed in 1911 at the Three Choirs Festival) takes four poems by George Herbert and turns them into five beautiful choral pieces, each one different in tone and style from the last. The one that I’ve chosen here is ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’, which is inspired by one of Herbert’s most famous poems, Love (III):
Love (III), by George Herbert
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, 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 marred 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.
In the tentative, mournful, and loving song of the almost solitary baritone, Williams captures what it is that allows Herbert to continue to move a contemporary readership, even if now they might not always identify with his complex relationship with his God. The seconds of silence that frame the final couplet of the piece reflect the quiet dialectic that so often characterises Herbert’s work, and as the choir come in to wordlessly signal the moment of understanding and communion between the speaker and Love, the tension between solitude and companionship, and between faith and self-doubt are gracefully resolved.
The reason that this poem and piece of music come together as my Poem of Today is that they made a surprise appearance this morning. As my grandfather and I trawled through his 700+ collection of cassette tapes – all in the vain hope of coming to a decision over which ones to convert to CD – this recording made its way onto the tape player, and we got distracted. Abandoning the tapes, we spent the rest of the time reading Herbert aloud, deciding on our favourite lines (mine will always be ‘who made the eyes but I?’) and talking about how ‘Love’ feels timeless because it is concerned with a form of faith and doubt that transcends the religious as well as capturing it. My grandfather is an atheist (he won’t mind me telling you!), and had never read Herbert before today, yet he recognised the power of the poem as a piece of dialogue as well as a moving declaration of love in its own right.
What started off as a morning discussing cassette tapes and their digitalisation turned into something far more interesting, and I have Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Herbert to thank for that!