Most composers confine expression to music alone. A
few have ventured further and turned their hand to autobiography, as
Arnold Bax did, memorably, in Farewell, My Youth. Hardly any
seem to have expressed their feelings in verse. Amongst British composers
Cyril Scott and Ivor Gurney are two exceptions; a third is Arnold Bax.
In 1979 a slim volume from Thames Publishing alerted Baxians to a considerable
quantity of poetry from a composer whose symphonies and orchestral tone-poems
are in themselves rich in poetry and musical imagery of Nature. The
50 poems contained in Dermot O’Byrne: Selected Poems of Arnold Bax,
edited by Lewis Foreman, whetted one’s appetite for more.
Now in Ideala we have a comprehensive edition
of Bax’s poems, edited by Colin Scott-Sutherland whose Arnold Bax
(Dent 1973) was a pioneering study of the composer and his music. Spine,
cover and title page give different names to this fascinating volume.
The title page is more accurate in calling it ‘Poems and some early
love letters’ rather than the cover’s ‘Love letters and Poems’ as this
is an anthology of poems with the inclusion of a few letters, while
the spine’s Ideala: Arnold Bax/Dermot O’Byrne points out the
conflict of authorship. But be they by Arnold Bax or his alter ego Dermot
O’Byrne, we have an absorbing collection of about 260 poems, mostly
from the full flowering of Bax’s youth. (This publication is in fact
an expansion of a smaller but similarly-titled volume of 168 pages privately
printed in 1995.)
The poems have come from a number of sources, some
published but mostly unpublished, and these sources constitute the seven
main sections of this book. The first of these is a red leather-covered
notebook containing 95 poems (including two prose poems) mostly written
in 1905 and 1906, with several of them signed variously Dermid/Dermod/Dermot
McDermott, a Surrey-born composer/poet in search of an Irish identity.
Amongst them is the poem Ideala from which this collection takes
its name. Ideala is also the name of a setting that Bax made
in 1907 of an untitled poem by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.
It tells of a boy who is trying in vain to capture on his flute a wonderful
song that he has heard in the forest (the song was published as The
Flute). As Colin Scott-Sutherland points out, ‘the idea of the pursuit
of the beautiful and unattainable is felt throughout Bax’s music’- Fand’s
song of immortal love in The Garden of Fand is an obvious instance.
It is also a recurring theme in his poetry. The first two lines of the
fourth stanza of Ideala run:
O, Ireland, take me to your heart,
And give me peace and liberty,
but the events of Easter 1916 were to make that unattainable.
Too often, it seems, Bax lived in a dream-world. Even his women seemed
to part-inhabit this dream-world as figures from mythology. He would
describe an early love as being ‘like a naiad for beauty – a golden
Roussalka with ice-blue eyes’; Harriet Cohen at first sight seemed ‘an
elfin child . . . a small dryad face’, only later to become ‘a wonderful
stray creature from the faery hills’; and Mary Gleaves, the love of
his later years, was ‘my wild young naiad’. In 1931 he wrote to Mary:
‘Life as most people live it is frightfully boring, and it is only those
who seem to bring the glamour and extasy of the dream-world of one’s
imagination that matter’. Lines from the 1913 poem In a Backwater
show his awareness of the fragility of dreams:
Between enchanted lawns we glide
On quiet world-forgotten streams.
This pale Naiad at my side
. . . . .
An hour’s faery prince am I
Born of noon-day idleness,
She a fragile fantasy
Woven of midsummer haze.
. . . . .
What was this water-dream of ours,
Beautiful foolishness or worse ?
The next source, referred to as the First (typed)
Collection, is of 81 poems, 54 of them typed, containing 38 new ones
and beginning with a dedicatory poem to his brother Clifford that underlines
the closeness between the two brothers:
These are my songs. In some quiet firelit
Shut out the world awhile and let my book
Lie for a little near your heart. Herein –
Among the tangled rhymes my soul has breathed
The music she has learned when shadow-wreathed
Desire went a-seeking in the night
Some flying embers of truth’s fire to win.
In 1909 a booklet containing 23 poems under the title
of Seafoam and Firelight was issued in conjunction with the quarterly
arts magazine Orpheus (that was largely Clifford’s undertaking).
The publisher’s advertisement referred to Dermot O’Byrne (the pseudonym
Bax had finally settled on) as ‘a young writer who, being a remarkable
musician, carries his fine sense for melody into the region of poetry.
His poems have mostly risen in response to the magical beauty of the
boglands, mountains and seas of Ireland, or the strange romantic myths
and legends connected with them.’ Ten of the poems were completely new,
three had appeared in earlier issues of Orpheus, while the others
came from either the red notebook or the first typed collection. In
this section are also included five other poems that only appeared in
Another unpublished source is a second typed collection
consisting of 84 poems, 65 of them new. Most of the verses date between
1909 and 1916, and it is in The Irish Mail (Paddington) Easter 1916
that Bax gives full expression to his reactions to the Irish uprising
and his shattered dreams:
And in my soul the hot tears strove
For the sad cleavage of my love,
My wounded land and your dark head
Sundered till all this love is dead.
Next is a third typed collection of 25 poems, 8
of them new, amongst them A Summer Memory (that appears here
as an Epilogue) that captures perfectly those feelings of youth
and sexual awareness, and the cost of such experiences:
. . . . . . .
I can remember how the summer’s trance
Glorified every childish countenance
And how it fed in me delicious pain,
Can such a day and night return ?
. . . . . . .
. . . while through
Desire a live flame poured and a great stress
Of lovely pain and passionate bitterness.
In Farewell, My Youth Bax recalled his ‘first
conscious apprehension of beauty’ while witnessing a glorious sunset.
‘And suddenly an ache of regret that this particular day of beauty should
come to an end and nevermore return wrung my heart so cruelly that,
unseen, I wept bitterly in my shadowy corner of the carriage.’ He concluded:
‘This tenderness of pain, half cruel, half sweet, is surely an essential
quality of the never clearly defined "Romantic mood".’
Last, there are two further published sets of poems:
A Dublin Ballad and other poems (1918) and Love Poems of a
Musician (1923) that for some unexplained reason are not dealt with
in chronological order in this new collection. These brought forward
respectively 9 and 27 new poems, the earlier publication ultimately
only having a private circulation because of the intervention of the
censor through the sensitivity of its subject matter. Love Poems
of a Musician included also several early poems. Bax sent a copy
to ‘Æ’ (George Russell), writing in an accompanying letter: ‘I
know I could find something more like peace and happiness if I lived
in Ireland than in any other land, but the exigencies of one’s human
relations are inescapable’. The volume was published anonymously and
the inspiration of many of its poems was Harriet Cohen who, since 1914,
had become the love of his life. She was ‘The Maiden with the Daffodil’,
so called after she had attended a tea-party at RAM professor Frederick
Corder’s home with a daffodil as her only decoration, resulting in an
Idyll for piano of that name, dedicated to her and dated January 1915,
and a similarly-titled poem dated October 1916.
In the late summer of 1917, although Bax was married,
he and Harriet had spent a six-week holiday in Cornwall and from that
holiday came at least two of the poems in Love Poems of a Musician:
Tintagel Castle, a clear counterpart to the orchestral tone-poem
Tintagel that was dedicated to Harriet (and shared with the poem
references to the Tristan legend), and Illusion, that contains
these telling lines: ‘Soon, I know, on city pavements / Spattered with
mud and rain / We shall juggle with our wisdom . . .’
One may wonder whether any other musical works, like
Tintagel, share common ground with the poems. There is a poem
Nympholept that predates the orchestral work of the same name
by just over two years, and the orchestral In Memoriam of Patrick
Pearse, completed in short score in August 1916 only three months
after Pearse’s execution (and not performed until 1998), clearly relates
closely in mood at least to ‘In Memoriam My Friend Patrick H. Pearse’,
a poem from A Dublin Ballad and Other Poems from which the censor
excised several lines. However, there is surely an even closer link
between the poem Amersham and the orchestral November Woods.
The poem is dated October 1916 and the tone-poem was probably orchestrated
in 1917. As Lewis Foreman tells us in his definitive biography of Bax,
it was ‘an unhappy time for Bax. He was faced with making a choice between
wife and children, and Harriet. He would meet Harriet at the Crown public
house in Amersham from where she returned to London by train and while
he was caught in a beech wood near to the station one stormy November
day he conceived the idea of November Woods’. Bax and
Harriet can easily be identified as the two going ‘like frightened children,
silent, hand in hand, down the wet hill’ as ‘storm, a mad painter’s
brush, swept sky and land’. The inn of dreams would be the Crown where
they nestled together ‘under the black beams’ until they had to leave
the warmth and comfort of the pub ‘to take the London train’ and once
again face the storm, a storm that for Bax would be symbolic of his
inner struggle. The three stanzas of Amersham correspond directly
with the tri-partite division of November Woods. Other poems
at that time, like Crisis and Darkness, reflected Bax’s
troubled mind, and there may be some irony in the fact that an earlier
poem, The Lost Ship, included in Love Poems of a Musician,
was there re-titled Epithalamium (an epithalamium being a song
or poem written in celebration of a marriage):
. . . . .
All, all my proud white birds are come back to me
Save one, the flag-ship of my argosy.
. . . . .
Ah, what dim land-fall lured you, what pool of strife,
Romance, that has foundered lost in the
seas of life ?
The poems in this collected edition, often florid in
language and dramatic and passionate in mood, reflect the various influences
that had worked upon the young Arnold Bax: Keats and Shelley, Swinburne
certainly, until the day in 1902 when he chanced upon W B Yeats and
his dreams were set upon Eire. (All the poems post-date his discovery
of Yeats, the earliest dated poems being from 1904.) George Russell
(‘Æ’) and William Sharp (‘Fiona Macleod’) were two other Celtic
influences. It is worth noting that Bax set four of his own poems to
As for the ‘early love letters’ of this anthology’s
title, there are 13 from about 1904, signed Dermid and expressed, as
Colin Scott-Sutherland rightly says, in somewhat extravagant terms to
Isobel Hodgson, a singer at the Royal Academy of Music: ‘Sweetheart
do come and visit me in my dreams tonight and let us go out into the
languorous heat and dream and dream and dream of beauty and wonder unattainable
in waking hours even in the spring twilight like this night and last
night.’ Addressed to Eilidh, these letters also include two poems, brief
music extracts and snatches of Gaelic, German and Norwegian. There are
also four letters from only a few years later to Mary Field, a drama
student at the RAM, whom he chooses to address as ‘Tortoise’.
One of the appendices includes seven poems found among
Harriet Cohen’s papers which have only recently come into the public
domain. Those papers also provide evidence of another of the several
lovers Bax had at the Academy. But quite the most fascinating addition
is a ‘Memoir of the Two Brothers’ written by Francis Colmer who was
a home tutor to both Arnold and Clifford. This 24-page-long memoir,
apparently written in the last five years of Colmer’s life (he died
in 1967), provides considerable insight into the Bax family, especially
the brothers’ parents, and the boys’ upbringing. Scott-Sutherland is
curiously reticent about its origin; it is presumably differs from another
memoir of Colmer’s that he cites on p.11 as having been written for
the editor in 1963.
This splendid case-bound and gold-blocked volume is
a pleasure to hold and an essential adjunct to Lewis Foreman’s biography
of the composer. One is extremely grateful to Colin Scott-Sutherland
and others who have supplied material to make this invaluable collection
possible. But Arnold Bax’s - or Dermot O’Byrne’s - literary excursions
were not confined to verse alone. Three collections of his short stories
were published between 1912 and 1918, and there were also four completed
plays. In his acknowledgments Scott-Sutherland suggests: ‘Surely now
a collection of his short stories should follow ?’ Let us hope that
the response to this collection will be sufficient to make this a certainty.
review by Rob Barnett