Modern Poetry in Modern Music.
“In 1986, Sofia Gubaydulina read the Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot, an experience which she described as “shattering.” She composed a work inspired by the concerns of the poems which she called “an effortless bridge into music.”(c)
Many years ago, when my younger sister was accepted into a children’s School of Music, I felt very happy for her: studying to play a musical instrument looked so exciting for me, but I was already too big to start and too busy with my homework in my regular school. We did not have much choice of an instrument because a piano was too big for our apartment and too expensive. My parents liked a violin since it was small, but a violin was already popular and the only instrument left was the cello.
Nevertheless, I did not mind a new duty assigned to me as a big sister: walking my sister to school and carrying her heavy cello. I was expected to wait by the door of her class for her lesson to end and bring her and her instrument back home.
Our parents were working, and we were expected to do all of our homework by the time they would return from work. The difficult life of an older sibling! Envious in the deepest part of my heart, I became a good inspiration for my little sister who very often would lose her patience or simply became tired, but I would abuse my right to supervise her and made her start practicing over and over again.
As a result, I learned all the names of the composers and their famous pieces she learned during those first four years, especially the pieces she practiced more often while preparing for school concerts.
Eventually, she graduated from this children’s school of music with very good grades, and all of her instructors recommended further studies which she refused, preferring chemistry to music. Later though, she admitted that doing this extra work -practicing music everyday – taught her to become a very organized and disciplined person.
All these classical musical works she used to play stayed in my memory: every time I hear a cello playing it reminds me of these walks to school of music, a heavy instrument in my hand, the long afternoons in my childhood home when I was the only listener of my sister’s music.
The images in the two poems “Leda and the Swan” and “Leda” interpret the romance between a Swan and a girl named Leda described in a Greek myth. The poems both show a sexual encounter, but H.D. shows the power of the Swan can be alluring and not just intimidating. When William Butler Yeats begins his poem, it’s with violent action, “A sudden blow” setting the tone for the rest of the poem as aggressive and masculine. Leda is a weak victim of the Swan: she is described physically, with a focus on each part of her body. She is “staggering”(2) not walking, with “helpless breast”(4) and “loosening thighs”(6). Her body is trapped in the beak, the Swan “indifferent” to her feelings. The description of her fingers as “vague” and “terrified” in line 5 also shows how she is an ambiguous character not knowing what is happening to her. The poem is about the action, the bodies, and not the characterization of the girl. The reader doesn’t hear her thoughts or see her point of view. The poem is from the perspective of the swan. The animal power of the Swan is bigger than expected. A swan is a big bird, but to overpower a person would take supernatural strength. This Swan seems, rather than being a typical animal, to have a personality and majesty of Zeus. He has a “feathered glory”(6) and “great wings”(1) that show his massiveness. The poem is written like a Petrarchan sonnet in the first two stanzas but with a variation. The last two stanzas don’t fit the pattern. The third stanza has three lines, and the volta occurs in the 12th line where the girl’s perspective and thoughts are finally questioned.
In “Leda” by H.D. , the author is a woman. She is much more economical in her words, with short phrases instead of whole sentences on each line. She focuses more on the description of the beauty and character than on the action. The Swan seems like a romantic figure even in the description of his color. He is unusual, a “red swan”(3) with “red wings” (3) with a “purple down”(5) on his”soft breast”, a “darker beak”, and “coral feet”(7). This colorful description is exotic and beautiful, making the Swan seem attractive unlike the majestic and intimidating power of Yeats’ version. Although this Swan is still majestic (this quality is found in both poems) – “Kingly kiss, no regret”(17) also shows that the scene is of a romantic encounter: the gold day-lily / outspreads and rests / beneath soft fluttering/ of red swan wings /and the warm quivering /of the red swan’s breast.
The repetition of the adjective “slow” also emphasizes the less fearsome and more relaxed setting of H.D.’s poem. “Slow lifting of the tide” slow river ” slowly drifts” sets the easy tone.
“Leda and the Swan” is written by William Butler Yeats in a form of Petrarchan sonnet even though it looks like it has 15 lines. The 11th and 12th lines are in fact just two parts of one line separated by the author to visualize the volta, which returns readers from the future awaiting Leda back to her “Being so caught up,/So mastered by the brute blood of the air”.
The rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFGEFG. The first eight lines describe the process of rape. The intensity of rape is expressed in the form of a poem: the first quatrain is one long compound sentence where all the verbs describing Leda are used in a passive form such as “her thighs caressed/By the dark webs ”, “her nape caught in his bill”, “terrified vague fingers”- showing the aggressiveness of the Swan who is “Above the staggering girl” and who “holds her helpless breast upon his breast”. Leda is weak and unable to protest “A sudden blow” because everything is happening extremely fast “in that white rush”.
Again, Yeats uses the passive verbal form to describe Leda; there is no action or response from her part. Her body is “ laid” under Swan’s “feathered glory”.
The poem’s meter is iambic pentameter. Yeats uses alliteration “He holds her helpless breast”(4), “brute blood” (12).
This morning’s rain evoked in my memory the famous poem “Like city’s rain, my heart . . .”by the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine. Years ago, I read it in Russian. There are more than ten translations of this poem in the Russian language, and it is difficult to choose the best one since all of them are very beautiful and composed by talented poets. There is a Russian saying that goes something like: “The translator in prose is a slave, but the translator in poetry is a rival.
I was happy to find that this poem is also popular in English, and many different poets tried to find the right words in English to express the feelings and the images of Verlaine.
Here are two translations into English.
“The rain falls gently on the town…”
(Arthur Rimbaud )
Like city’s rain, my heart
Rains teardrops too. What now,
This languorous ache, this smart
That pierces, wounds my heart?
Gentle, the sound of rain
Pattering roof and ground!
Ah, for the heart in pain,
Sweet is the sound of rain!
Tears rain-but who knows why?-
And fill my heartsick heart.
No faithless lover’s lie? . . .
It mourns, and who knows why?
Translation by Johnathan Robin:
It rains in my heart
as on town and on mart,
pours down longings that start
to reign in my heart!
Oh soft ringing of rain
poured on earth, eave and pane, –
for poor heart feeling pain, –
oh the ringing of rain!
It rains without reason
in hurt heart fears have lease on.
What? – no season for treason?
Do I grieve without reason?
What most hurts me, I wait
‘Why’ not knowing, sad fate,
without love, without hate, …
On my heart lies deadweight!