I’ve been reading The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume 1 in stealth because I wasn’t sure I wanted to declare it A Project. But I have gotten passed the metaphysical poets and am rounding the 18th century so I think it’s a done, if not finished, deal. I was completely sucked in by Chaucer. After reading all the selections I listened to a CD of Trevor Eaton, known in England as “the Chaucer man” reading The Canterbury Tales in Middle English and got to where I could actually follow the story.
After Chaucer I enjoyed Piers Plowman and the scraps of extant Middle English lyrics in the Norton. I’ve tried to interest the OK Chorale in singing “Sumer is ycomen in, Loude sing cuckoo!” several times but it hasn’t taken. Maybe I should leave the y off of ycomen. Not everyone thinks that’s charming.
“The Corpus Christi Carol” is a very strange text put to haunting notes by Benjamin Britten in the last century. I wanted to work on it once but when I sang it for my then voice teacher, her only comment was “Oh God, no. You don’t need this lully lullay falcon hath borne my make stuff.” Listen to Jeff Buckley sing it with suitable eeriness hear.
I wanted to re-kindle my old, long-time love for Sir Philip Sidney. Alas, the romantic figure of a poet dying at age 32 on the battlefield after offering his water to a comrade was more captivating to me as a 19 year old than it is now at 59. I re-read Apologia for Poetry and was amazed that my ardor for Sidney had once caused me to devour this treatise as though it were love poetry.
I still like Sidney’s sonnets. I had memorized several when I was at Whitman College, and can still recite them with only a few peeks at the text. Just as I have quoted John Donne at the sun all these years (“Busy old fool, unruly sun”), I have often spoken Sidney’s words to the moon:
“With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies!
How silently, and with how wan a face!”
Another of Sidney’s sonnets begins like this:
“Come sleep! O sleep, the certain knot of peace,
The baiting place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
Th’ indifferent judge between the high and low.”
There in my college text is graffiti by the red-headed Kurt making the first line read like this:
“Come sleep with me, Elena. The certain knot of my stomach. . .”
Moving on: I still loathe Thomas More as much as I ever did. I have never been able to enter the world of Edmund Spenser, but I don’t have anything against him personally. I re-read with pleasure the sonnets of Shakespeare, Henry IV Part I and King Lear. I found more sonnets, ones by Michael Drayton, that I had memorized in college.
And finally in a section of anonymous lyrics are the texts of two songs I love. “The Silver Swan” set to music by Orlando Gibbons, I have sung as a solo and I once made the OK Chorale sing it as a choral piece. The objections were by turn that it was too morose and that it didn’t make sense.
The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approached unlocked her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last and sang no more:
“Farewell, all joys; Oh death come close my eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”
“Weep You No More, Sad Fountains,” from John Dowland’s Third Book of Songs or Airs, is another beautiful solo piece. Nina (rhymes with Dinah) and I worked on it together and had many discussions about whether it was about sleep, loss, or death or all three. The music has varying time signatures which gives the sense of someone sobbing while she sings.
Weep you no more, sad fountains;
What need you flow so fast?
Look how the snowy mountains
Heaven’s sun doth gently waste.
But my sun’s heavenly eyes
View not your weeping,
That now lies sleeping
Softly, now softly lies
Which brings me to what I thought I would be writing about when I first started this post: Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.
‘Til next time.
Meanwhile, I am curious what my fellow English majors everywhere liked and memorized from our days on campus.