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Ian Venables: At Malvern

A Pastoral or a Confessional Poem?

Rob Barnett in a review 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 music.

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.

John Addington 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 his career.

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.

John Addington 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 musical setting.

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 Soldanellas. (1870)

At Malvern 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”.

At Malvern

The 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.

Deep 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;

Pour 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;

The 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:-

And 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.

Certainly Symonds 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 hillside.

The reference 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 we die...”

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:-

“...and 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:-

“we’ll 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.

John Addington 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.”

At Malvern 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 ‘five flats’.  

[Fig.1] © 2009 Novello & Company Limited. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher

The accompaniment 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.

Bar 17



[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 second 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.

John France

July 2009 ©


With many thanks to Ian Venables for encouragement, advice and for arranging with Novello for use of the musical extracts.


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