Rowan Williams career as a poet has taken place in parallel with his being an Anglican bishop and theologian (he was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012). But talking of his poetry, Rowan Williams has said that 'I dislike the idea of being a religious poet. I would prefer to be a poet for home religious things mattered intensely'. His poetry has been described as 'visionary yet earth-rooted' with a genius for embodying abstract ideas.
The subject of Winterreise: for Gillian Rose, 9 December 1995 is a journey which Williams made to go to the bedside of Gillian Rose, who was dying; a problematic and complex journey full of missed connections. The poem is structured in three, Morning, Afternoon and Evening, and around the harness of the journey itself Williams weaves recollections of events and ideas arising from the journey, and from his relationship with Gillian Rose.
I wrote the song Winter Journey having discovered Rowan Williams’ poem without knowing its background. Whilst recording my setting, with baritone Johnny Herford and pianist William Vann, we found ourselves often coming back to the allusions in the poetry, teasing out references and emotional contexts, and this led me to find out more.
Rowan Williams talked about the poem in a lecture he gave in 2009 which is published on the Archbishop of Canterbury website. In it he says:
'It's a poem in memory of a friend of mine, Gillian Rose, a great philosopher who died on the ninth of December, 1995. I was travelling to visit her in hospital that day and arrived to find that she'd died just a little while earlier and that to the considerable surprise of myself and many of her friends, she'd been baptised on her deathbed. A very passionate and articulate Jew, she had finally made a journey that puzzled, bewildered, offended some, but found herself at last at home in a place she'd never expected to be. And the poem, Winterreise for Gillian Rose, ninth of December, 1995 falls into three sections: morning, afternoon and night. Shaped by a train journey on a very foggy winter morning up through Gloucester in the Midlands towards Coventry, and an extremely disruptive journey back, sitting around in Swindon for what felt like an eternity because, thanks to the events of the day, I'd missed all the connections I'd planned.'
A.E. Housman: Beyond the love of comrades
A.E. Housman's most famous poems come from A Shropshire Lad, which was published in 1896. It steadily became well known, with the themes of the poems striking a chord with readers during World War One. Though he lived until 1936, Housman would publish only one further collection of poems.
Housman was by nature quiet and rather introverted, but at university in Oxford he formed a strong relationship with his room-mate, Moses Jackson, during the period 1877-1882. Jackson was the great love of Housman's life, though this was not reciprocated and Jackson would eventually put significant distance between himself and Housman. However, after leaving Oxford (where Housman failed to get a degree), Housman, Jackson and Jackson's younger brother Adalbert shared a flat. Adalbert died in 1896 and would be commemorated in a poem ‘A.J.J - When he's returned’ from More Poems (1936), a poem which is one of the ones chosen for my song cycle.
In the 1920s, Moses Jackson was dying in Canada and Housman decided to assemble his best unpublished poems into a book so that Jackson could read them. The result is Last Poems which Housman published in 1922. He did not anticipate publishing any more poems and seems to have felt he was written out, but after his death his brother Laurence published two further collections, More Poems (1936) and Additional Poems (1939).
In the introduction to Last Poems, Housman says:
‘I publish these poems, few though they are, because it is not likely that I shall ever be impelled to write much more. I can no longer expect to be revisited by the continuous excitement under which in the early months of 1895 I wrote the greater part of my first book, nor indeed could I well sustain it if it came; and it is best that what I have written should be printed while I am here to see it through the press and control its spelling and punctuation. About a quarter of this matter belongs to the April of the present year, but most of it to dates between 1895 and 1910.’
In the two books published after his death, the subject matter of the poems is more varied than A Shropshire Lad and the poems themselves more uneven. But what is also true is that the underlying homoeroticism of the poetry is a little more revealed. Housman was an emotionally withdrawn man, and his poetry reflects this, yet in these poems we get hints of something a little more than a love of comrades.
When reading some of these later poems it is difficult not to read auto-biographical elements into the them. Whilst ‘A.J.J – When he's returned’ is clearly referencing the death of Moses Jackson's younger brother Adalbert, the dignified restraint of the poem allows for a welter of other connections to be made.
The poem also links to a recurrent theme in Housman's work, the loss of youth in the war. Housman's poems for A Shropshire Lad were written under the influence of the Boer War, but poems such as 'The lads in their hundreds' came to be very telling during World War One, and many of Housman's later poems were written with this war in mind. The poem 'He looked at me' evokes these ideas with its memories of 'eyes I thought I was not like to find'.
Poems like the above clearly fit into the mould of the love of comrades, but some of the other poems go further. In 'He would not stay for me' we perhaps get an echo of Housman's continuing to hold a torch for Moses, whilst in 'Because I liked you better' you get a clear picture of the stiff relationship between Housman and Moses Jackson, a far cry from the lyrical imagining. This was a poem that Housman never published, though Laurence seems to have been happy for it to be published after his brother's death.
All the above poems feature in my Four Songs to Texts by A.E. Housman, but the final Housman song takes a poem from Housman's final publication, Last Poems of 1922. This is one of lyrical regret for a life lived, one who has grown old and whose comrades have not returned. It is classic Housman, in Virginia Woolf's tart summary of the poet's work 'May, death, lads, Shropshire'.
Christina Rossetti was the youngest daughter of Gabriele Rossetti, a poet and a political exile from Abruzzo in Italy, and Frances Polidori, the sister of Lord Byron's friend and physician, John William Polidori. One of Christina’s elder brothers was the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whilst her other brother William and her sister Maria were both writers, and Christina dictated her first story to her mother before she had learned to write. When she was in her early teens her father became too ill to work, and with her mother and both her brothers working and her elder sister going as a live-in governess, Christina suffered from the resulting isolation and had a nervous breakdown and bouts of depression.
Both Christina and her mother were drawn to Anglo-Catholicism and religion was to remain important to Christina throughout her life. She began writing down and dating her poems from 1842, and started being published when she was 18. Her most famous collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems, appeared in 1862 when she was 31 and it received widespread critical praise. After Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death in 1861, Christina Rossetti was seen as the foremost English woman poet. Religious themes would continue to play a large role in her poetry.
Throughout her writing career her brother Dante Gabriel was important to Christina, she would write in 1888, ‘Perhaps the nearest approach to a method I can lay claim to was a distinct aim at conciseness; after a while I received a hint from my sister that my love of conciseness tended to make my writing obscure, and I then endeavoured to avoid obscurity as well as diffuseness. In poetics, my elder brother was my acute and most helpful critic.’
The poems chosen for Quickening form a thematic cycle in which the progress of the seasons Autumn, Winter and Spring is paralleled with the poet’s looking forward to death and then resurrection, with the final poem ‘The First Spring Day’ linking the two (‘So Spring must dawn again with warmth and bloom, / Or in this world, or in the world to come’).
Ivor Gurney: Severn and Somme
Ivor Gurney was born in Gloucester in 1890 and became a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral where was a pupil of Dr Herbert Brewer and met Herbert Howells, a life-long friend. A scholarship to the Royal College of Music enabled him to study with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who may have regarded him as talented but unteachable. Gurney's studies were interrupted by the war and Gurney enlisted as a private in the Gloucestershire Regiment. Gurney had a troubled war, he was wounded and there are suggestions that being gassed may have affected his mental health. Always suffering mood swings, and having had a breakdown in 1913, Gurney had another one in 1918 but apparently recovered. After being gassed, Ivor Gurney was sent to the Edinburgh War Hospital where he met and fell in love with the nurse Annie Drummond and though there is a suggestion that they became engaged, the relationship failed for reasons which are not known for certain.
He was discharged and seemed to return to health. After the war, he returned to the Royal College of Music and studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams. However, by 1922, Gurney’s mental health was again deteriorating and he spent the remaining 15 years of his life (he died in 1937) in mental institutions.
Gurney wrote both poetry and songs, writing hundreds of poems and three hundred songs, though he rarely set his own poetry. His first volume of poetry Severn and Somme was published in November 1917, at a time when Gurney was suffering both from the effects of being gassed and from the failure of his relationship with a nurse, Annie Drummond.
The poems deal with the twin axes of Gurney's life, the horror of the war and his love of his beloved Gloucestershire, often interleaving the two. He wrote to his friend Marion Scott, 'You cannot think how ghastly the battlefields look under a grey sky. Torn trees are the most terrible things I have ever seen. Absolute blight and curse is on the face of everything'. But he also continued to find inspiration from the Gloucestershire landscape where he had grown up.
His second book of poetry, War's Embers appeared in 1919 to mixed reviews. But it was only in 1954 that Edmund Blunden (at the urging of composer Gerald Finzi) assembled the first published collection of Gurney's poetry.
The four poems by Gurney which I have set are ‘Song’, ‘Requiem’, ‘To his love’ and ‘Song and Pain’. Ivor Gurney wrote ‘Song’ (‘My heart makes songs on lonely roads / to comfort me while you are away’) for Annie Drummond at the height of his relationship with her. ‘Requiem’ comes from this collection Severn and Somme, and here we are firmly in the realm of Somme:
Pour out your light, O stars, and do not hold
Your loveliest shining from earth's outworn shell -
Pure and cold your radiance, pure and cold
My dead friend's face as well.
With ‘To his love’ we continue in the realm of the Somme with Gurney re-creating the shock of the death of a comrade, interleaving references to the war with remembrances of happier times in Gloucestershire:
He's gone and all our plans
are useless indeed.
We'll walk no more on Cotswold
where the sheep feed
quietly and take no heed.
The final song in the group ‘Song and Pain’ returns to poems from Severn and Somme, with the final verse achieving a measure of transcendence:
Some day, I trust, God's purpose of pain for me
shall be complete,
And then to enter in the house of joy...
Prepare, my feet.
– Robert Hugill
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