Venables: At Malvern
Pastoral or a Confessional Poem?
Rob Barnett in
on MusicWeb International suggests that At Malvern
is “all moonlight and the lapping of cool waters.” On one
level this sums up the song’s mood, but it fails to intimate
the considerable emotional depth of the poem and its musical
setting. The liner note provided with the CD also down-plays
the true nature of this piece – it suggests that the poet
has “evoked the calm and serenity of Malvern in the 1860’s
where little could be heard, but the sounds of nature and
the distant bells of the famous priory”.
I believe that
this misses the point of the poem. What may seem to be a pastoral
idyll is in fact a cry from the heart of a poet who is suffering
from confusion, frustration and angst: it is played out against
the rural backdrop of the Malvern Hills. This dichotomy is
a sentiment that is well expressed by both the words and the
In order to gain
a deeper understanding of the poem it is necessary to consider
a few relevant background details of the life and to a very
limited extent, the times, of the writer and poet: this is
not the place for a full biography.
Symonds was born in Bristol on 5 October 1840. After a private
education there, he went to Harrow School. From a young age,
Symonds was considered to be delicate and typically did not
take an active part in the games and sports activities of
the school. Furthermore, he did not appear to be a particularly
promising student. In 1858 he went up to Balliol College Oxford.
He was to remain here as both a student and a tutor for some
time and settled into an academic routine. In 1862 he was
elected to an open fellowship at Magdalen. From that time
onwards he began to make his career as an academic and a writer,
as well as being an early campaigner for gay rights.
There are three
critical issues which affected his life at this time. Firstly,
the headmaster of Harrow, Charles Vaughan had an ‘affair’
with one of the boys. This had upset Symonds because it seemed
to go against his nascent idealisation of homosexual love.
In 1859 he revealed the gossip about Vaughan to a friend during
a discussion about ‘Arcadian Love’. This friend persuaded
Symonds to tell his father, Dr John Addington Symonds, who
subsequently insisted that Vaughan resign. Naturally, this
turn of events upset the young man, as he felt that he was
responsible for the headmaster’s disgrace and the ending of
Symonds then fell
in love with Willie Dyer who was a chorister at Bristol Cathedral.
He confessed this relationship to his father who rather surprisingly
was not condemnatory, but suggested that his son gradually
finish the affair. In the early ‘sixties, Symonds formed
an attachment to another chorister, Alfred Brooke: this time
he found it impossible to suppress his feelings. His health
deteriorated and he suffered from stress and nervous complaints.
The final issue
was the suggestion by a certain Dr. Spencer Wells, surgeon
to Queen Victoria’s household, that Symonds’s medical condition
was a result of his sexual repression and advised the young
man to take the ‘cure’ of marriage. He was wedded to Janet
Catherine North in early 1864, but did not attempt to change
his fundamental sexual orientation.
Symonds first came to Malvern with his sister Charlotte on
7 April 1862 on a reading holiday. This was a popular entertainment
with Victorian intellectuals and would probably have been
combined with a walking tour in the local countryside. He
was to visit Malvern on a number of occasions not least because
his future brother-in-law, T.H. Green lived there.
It is not clear
when the poem At Malvern was written. It could have
been in 1862 when Symonds would have been 22 years old or
it could have been around 1868, some four years after he had
been married. What is clear from a close reading of the text
is that at the time of writing, the poet was struggling with
his sexuality. There is a suppressed anguish throughout the
poem- even in its ‘descriptive’ lines. An appreciation of,
and sympathy with, this mood is an integral part of Ian Venables
The poem as set
by the composer was printed in New and Old: A Volume of
Verse which was published in 1880. The title in that book
was changed to On the Hill-Side and was included in
a section entitled ‘Lyrics of Life and Art’. Other titles
included To One in Heaven, Two Moods of the Mind
and Love in Dreams. However, Ian Venables explained
to me that the poem was first published with the title At
Malvern in a private pamphlet entitled Crocuses and
is a good example of a ‘Shakespearean’ sonnet- with a couple
of twists. The formal structure of the poem consists of fourteen
lines divided into three quatrains and a final couplet. The
metre of this poem is an ‘iambic pentameter’ which means that
there are typically ten syllables in each line with the even
numbered syllables receiving the accent. The sixth line is
the exception to this having eleven, although ‘murm’ring’
can be elided. Certainly, Symonds varies the scheme allowing
an accent to appear at the start of a line –for example, the
imperative “Hush! In the thicket still the breezes blow”.
The classic sonnet rhyme scheme is preserved throughout.
In many of Shakespeare’s
sonnets the purpose of the couplet is to draw together the
threads of the poem – to provide a conclusion. Often the second,
and sometimes the third quatrain would be used to introduce
a hiatus into the flow of the poem: to complicate the train
of thought. This is known as the ‘volta.’ Symonds provided
the ‘twist’ in the second quatrain. The key phrase here is
“Deep peace is in my soul”.
winds behind me in the thicket sigh,
The bees fly droning on laborious wing,
Pink cloudlets scarcely float across the sky,
September stillness broods o'er [everything] ev’rything.
peace is in my soul: I seem to hear
Catullus murmuring 'Let us live and love;
Suns rise and set and fill the rolling year
Which bears us deathward, therefore let us love;
forth the wine of kisses, let them flow,
And let us drink our fill before we die.'
Hush! in the thicket still the breezes blow;
Pink cloudlets sail across the [azure] sky;
bees warp lazily on laden wing;
Beauty and stillness brood o'er [everything] ev’rything.
The initial mood
of this poem is one of stillness, disturbed only by the sighing
of the wind in the thicket. I have noted that the original
title was On the Hillside and, although it is not certain
that this poem was written whilst Symonds was in Malvern it
would certainly give support to an image of the poet sitting
near the top of Midsummer Hill or Worcestershire Beacon. The
reader is reminded of William Langland and Piers Plowman:-
on a May morning on Malvern Hills,
There befell me as by magic a marvellous thing:
I was weary of wandering and went to rest
At the bottom of a broad bank by a brook's side,
And as I lay lazily looking in the water
I slipped into a slumber, it sounded so pleasant.
suggests that it was a lazy day, perhaps recalling Matthew
Arnold’s immortal phrase “All the live murmur of a summer’s
day”. After musing on this seeming paradise, with only a gentle
nod to the approaching autumn, the poet turns to review his
life and his potentially difficult situation. Most likely
this refers to his sexual orientation but it may have been
his sense of having been bullied or his illness. It could
have been all of these.
The poet appears
to resolve his problems by claiming that “Deep peace is in
my soul...” This is the heart of the poem. Yet, no matter
how often I read these lines, the words do not seem to ring
true. I believe that he is either being ironic or else he
is furiously willing himself to be at peace. The autumnal
reflection continues with an image of “Suns rise and set and
fill the rolling year/Which bears us deathward’ which suggest
darker thoughts and a mood that was not truly relaxed on the
to the great lyric poet Catullus and his poem ‘Come, Lesbia,
let us live and love’ surely clarifies the situation. “Therefore
let us love” becomes the essence of his solution. Symonds
wants to “…pour forth wine and kisses...” For a moment the
poet sits up, his mind clearing. It is his resolve to follow
the ancient bard’s advice- at least “to drink our fill before
After a plea to
the poet’s soul to “Hush”...or less prosaically to the noisy
day trippers around him, the original mood of the poem returns,
as if by magic. The listener is back with the poet on the
hillside. The poem ends with the statement that “beauty and
stillness brood o’er everything.” The equilibrium of body
and soul is restored, at least for a short space.
The Catullus reference
is critical. Symonds’s rendering of ‘vivamus mea Lesbia, atque
amemus’ is quite straightforward- ‘Let us live and love’ –naturally
omitting any reference to Lesbia. This is one of Gaius
Valerius Catullus’s great poems: it is the first
referring to his muse, who is usually regarded as being Clodia
Metelli, the wife of Quintus Metellus Celer, a statesman at
the time of Pompey. The CD sleeve note suggests that by quoting
this line, Symonds was quite simply signifying ‘living life
to the full.’ Now, obviously there is something in this view,
however I believe that there is more significance to this
allusion than some kind of hedonistic desire to fill life
with pleasure. I believe that the poet asks the reader to
recall the rest of Catullus’s poem, especially the two lines
following the quotation:-
value at one farthing
all the talk of crabbed old men!”
F.W. Cornish Loeb Classical Library No.6 p. 7
The final part
of Catullus’s poem dwells on the transience of life and the
need to fit in thousands of kisses. However there is a twist
at the end of the Latin poem. The poet suggests that after
all these kisses:-
wipe them out, lest we know,
Or lest anyone evil can envy,
When they know how many kisses there were.”
There is a twofold
suggestion that what is troubling the Roman poet is a) being
found out and b) possibly less problematic, of salving his
own conscience. For Catullus, the discovery of his love for
Clodia would probably have meant his death or his exile.
For Symonds the discovery and advertisement of his homosexuality
could have meant disgrace and the closure of career paths.
This is not the place to discuss the Victorian understanding
of ‘gayness’ but it is fair to say that Symonds would have
felt a considerable sense of alienation and tension living
in a society that saw homosexuality as a disease that may
or may not be ‘curable’. It is in this context that ‘Deep
peace’ would have struggled to enter his soul at that time.
Symonds chose the path of following his heart and campaigning
for gay liberation in Britain. He was to later write the first
modern history of male homosexuality.
I asked Ian Venables
why he chose to set this poem. His answer was two-fold. First,
and perhaps most significantly, he has devoted a considerable
effort to the rediscovery of the life and works of Symonds.
Graham J. Lloyd has written that this interest has become
one of the turning points in Venables career. He has assembled
a collection of his writings and has begun to catalogue the
poetry: some seven hundred poems exist in print or manuscript.
It was during this research that Venables discovered At
Malvern. But an additional impetus was the composer’s
love of the Malverns in particular, and the Worcestershire
countryside in general. And finally there were the considerable
literary and musical associations connected with this landscape.
One thinks of William Langland, Edward Elgar and A.E. Housman.
The poem has a considerable sense of place and history. It
is easy to think of Caractacus and then back through the ages
to Ancient Rome and the poet Catullus. The atmosphere of the
poem evokes a kind of Arthur Machen-ian slippery time.
The song is dedicated
to Marjorie Chater-Hughes. This lady, a personal friend of
the composer, was a notable ballet teacher in Malvern. She
established a ballet school there and was highly regarded
by her former pupils. She died on 6 January 2006 at the great
age of 99.
Ian Venables has
approached this difficult text with both sensitivity and technical
skill. As suggested above, the subject matter of the poem
is almost certainly a reaction to the tensions that the poet
felt about his sexuality. Yet there is much pastoral imagery
here that celebrates the beauty of the countryside and the
joy of being alive in that landscape. Any setting of a sonnet
is bound to be problematic. V.C. Clinton-Baddeley, in an essay
printed in Words for Music (CUP 1941 p.19) implies
that it is virtually impossible to set Shakespeare’s (and
by extensions anyone else’s) sonnets to music. Brian Blyth
Daubney in a British Music Society booklet about the songs
of Benjamin Burrows elaborates on this point. He suggests
that the composer will struggle with the rigid fourteen iambic
pentameters, and believes that these must “be subjected to
an infinite variety of approaches to achieve freedom from
musical monotony.” He further notes that “only when there
is a clear end of sentence or specific change of idea can
one justify an interruption of the words, and even then, some
relevant musical link must allow the poets line of thought
to be sustained.”
is a well structured song that certainly fulfils Daubney’s
criteria. The mood of the Venables setting is basically divided
into two major contrasting elements. Firstly there is the
meditation on the rural paradise seen from the Malverns and
secondly the struggle with the poet’s sexuality. This is presented
as a tripartite song that is some 53 bars long. The first
and final sections are written in common time and the middle
16 bars use a 4/8 time signature. There is no key signature
for this song – but there is an 'A major' feel about much
of the work. However, at the climax the song modulates to
[Fig.1] © 2009
Novello & Company Limited. Reproduced with the permission
of the publisher
to At Malvern is as important as the vocal line and
sets the mood of the song at the outset. The work opens with
the main piano figure [Fig.1]. This murmuring sound, which
is surely meant to reinforce the idea a perfect summer’s day,
is repeated almost identically ten times. There are only two
subtle changes here – here the B ♮
changes to a C. and the C# changes to a C♮.
These are important structural alterations.
It makes the music sound just that little bit unsettled: the
mood of ‘calm and serenity’ is disturbed.
[Fig.2] © 2009
Novello & Company Limited. Reproduced with the permission
of the publisher
The soloist virtually
creeps into this mood with a declaration that “The winds behind
me in the thicket sigh...” The composer’s use of long notes
– three or four beats for the accented words ‘winds’ ‘me’
‘thicket’ and ‘bees’ - lends to the lugubrious atmosphere
of this opening section. Yet the melody begins to become a
little more rhythmically complex once the ‘pink cloudlets
scarcely float across the sky’. At this point the vocal line
owes much to the melodic shape of the accompaniment or vice
versa. There is a considerable use of canon between the two
parts with the piano usually following a single beat behind
the tenor. Just before the second quatrain begins the accompaniment
clearly sounds the tolling ‘bell’ for the first time.
[Fig. 3] ©
2009 Novello & Company Limited. Reproduced with the permission
of the publisher
A major hiatus
occurs at the end of the 17th bar.
A descending phrase, insists
that ‘Deep peace is in my soul.’ It is a decorated E major
triad that ends quietly with a change into 4/8 time. The
quatrain is certainly the most involved part of this song.
The variety in the accompaniment is considerable, utilising
a series of chords including parallel thirds and fifths and
an attenuated form of the initial Fig. 1 motive. The climax
of the piece comes at the declamation of the words “Therefore
let us love” which finishes on a high F♮.
The vocal line then slowly collapses towards the sentiment
of “Pour forth the wine of kisses, let them flow, And let
us drink our fill before we die”.
A major consideration
with this section is the musical ‘word painting’: this occurs
at three important words –‘love’ ‘deathward,’ and ‘kisses’.
It is surely not a coincidence that the highest point of the
melodic phrase and the song is on the word ‘love’ with all
its power and positivity. The melodic step of a perfect fifth
on ‘downward’ and the uncomfortable dissonance supporting
it emphasises the decline to the abyss. Finally, the complex
and sensuous harmony accompanying the word ‘kisses’ lends
a sense of delicious eroticism to the moment. The composer
tells me that they all occur “quite unconsciously”.
There is a short
pause before the opening accompaniment figure returns, but
this time it is decorated with bell-like bare fifths and fourth
chords. This mood continues to the end of the song when the
poet and composer re-establish the original ‘dreamy’ mood
of the opening. However the bells cease, only to be replaced
by imitation towards the final bars. The two bar coda nods
to the start of the middle section before the work closes
with a pianissimo chord in the higher register in the piano.
The tolling bell can be heard for one last time.
At present there
is only one recording of this song available. It is on a CD
called The Songs of Ian Venables sung by the tenor Kevin McLean-Mair
and accompanied by Graham Lloyd. It is released on ENIGMA
Digital ED 10045.
July 2009 ©
thanks to Ian Venables for encouragement, advice and for arranging
with Novello for use of the musical extracts.