Songs from an Inland Sea: “On Wenlock Edge”

This week’s Word Press writing challenge, with its musical theme, has set off a whole host of notions. In fact this may just be the post where all the strands of my  ‘writer on the edge’ blog come together. This, though, is only a proposition and by no means a promise.  One thing I can promise:  there is some very fine music at the end. And for those of you who do not know the  English composers Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)  and George Butterworth (1885-1916), then please consider this an early solstice gift. And if by chance you do not care for it, or indeed anyway, by all means pass it on.

So to return to the notions.  Those of you who  have read my past posts will probably know that I live on the edge of  Wenlock Edge, a twenty-mile limestone scarp that bisects the county of Shropshire from the River Severn above the Ironbridge Gorge, to Craven Arms on the borderland with Wales. Aeons ago this now wooded, much quarried ridge was once a shallow tropical sea lying somewhere off East Africa. Today, and especially now through bare wintery trees, you can look out from its summit and scan a great panorama – the farm fields, villages and hills of Shropshire.

View towards Eaton Manor & Wenlock Edge

Looking up to Wenlock Edge. Photo: Eaton Manor

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As I’ve said in other posts, there is a lot of history in this place – over 400 million years’ worth. Too much to embrace. But in the recent past (geologically speaking), you might have looked out from the easterly end of the Edge onto the smog-laden valley of Coalbrookdale as the Quaker ironmasters stoked their blast furnaces and helped fuel an industrial revolution. Travel back a further 1500 years and to the north you would have gazed on the impressive public buildings and sprawling settlement of the Roman city of Viroconium. Or in earlier times still you might have witnessed the building of the great Iron Age hill forts on the Wrekin and in Mogg Forest, or perhaps glimpsed some Bronze Age smiths plying the ancient ridge-top trackway en route for Wales.

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The Edge, then, is full of spirits, and  it is not surprising that it has long inspired artists, writers and composers. And so we come to the music, or rather, we come first to the work that inspired the music – A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.  This collection of sixty three poems has been described as a gift for composers. The poems are written in the style of traditional ballads. And if at first they seem too obvious in their rhyme and rhythm, then look again. These are songs of loss and fleetingness – lost youth, lost love, the soldier’s death. That they are set against some scene of suggested rural perfection only heightens their poignancy. The work, too, somehow anticipated the bleak waste of the Great War, and so it was that, when the time came,  A Shropshire Lad went with many a soldier into the trenches.

Housman’s  sense of melancholy and loss stem from his own life: his mother died when he was twelve, his brother Herbert was killed serving in the Boer War, and his deep love for another man was unrequited. Nor did his work A Shropshire Lad have a very good start. Although it has remained in print since publication in 1896, in the beginning Housman could not find a publisher and had to pay to have the first five hundred copies printed. At first, too, there was a lukewarm reception. But within a few years, and much to the writer’s surprise,  its popularity suddenly grew. This in part was due to the fact that several composers seized on some of the poems and set them to music.

In 1909 came Vaughan Williams’ song cycle On Wenlock Edge. The work’s title is taken from the opening line of poem XXXI: On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble. You can hear the storm-driven trees in the opening of the first video clip where English tenor, Ian Bostridge goes on to talk about his recording of the work with Bernard Haitink.  You also see him in rehearsal singing one of the most moving poems. It is written in the voice of a ghostly young ploughman returning home to see how his girl is faring. Here are the first two stanzas.

XXVII

“Is my team ploughing,

That I was used to drive

And hear the harness jingle

When I was man alive?”

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Ay, the horses trample,

The harness jingles now;

No change though you lie under

The land you used to plough.

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The entire Vaughan Williams song cycle sung by Anthony Rolfe Johnson is performed in the third video below. Other composers inspired by the poems include Samuel Barber and Ivor Gurney (The Western Playland and Ludlow and Teme). I could not find clips of these works but I did find George Butterworth, who was a friend of Vaughan Williams. He set eleven of the poems to music including Is my team ploughing. He also composed the orchestral rhapsody A Shropshire Lad. It is yearning, elegiac piece, performed in the second video and accompanied by Shropshire scenes. Butterworth himself was killed on the Somme in 1916, his composer’s career barely begun.

So,  you may ask, how does this all fit with ‘Tish Farrell – writer on the edge’? Well I suppose it comes down to this. As a fiction writer, or indeed a blogger, my focus is ever on the evocation of place (both through time and space) and how it resonates through the lives of the people and events I write about. And so I love the fact that the place where I live and have known most of my life has inspired so much creative work. And, indeed, continues to do so. In fact, I’m planning to feature more of it on this blog – the artists of the Edge. I am, anyway, fascinated by the process by which, in wonderful synergy, one person’s work inspires another’s creative response, thus building into a  body of cross-referencing works. See what good things we can make when we listen in good faith to each other.

Wenlock Edge of course has its own music. I hear it most when I’m working on my allotment – the windrush in the woods, the mewing buzzards, the calls of rooks and jackdaws, and through it the chiming of the church clock. I screen out the traffic sounds of course. So here we have it: the rural idyll that never was, the music of Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth evoking the peculiarly human need to long for something we cannot have, and finally Housman’s  own words from poem XL:

   Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

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And now, courtesy of Gutenberg Press, here is your copy of  A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.

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Frizz’s S-Challenge

Weekly Writing Challenge: Moved by Music

© 2013 Tish Farrell

14 thoughts on “Songs from an Inland Sea: “On Wenlock Edge”

  1. Thank you for this introduction to Houseman’s poetry, and yes… I can well understand your attitude… your reaching for the spirits of the place you live in and love…

  2. What a great piece of writing Tish. Such a comprehensive overview of the energy of your home. I love it’s name – The Edge. The intense creative energy comes across in both the name and your writing. The second Housman poem is simply wonderful. The line ‘those blue remembered hills’ transported me to blue remembered hills of my own on the other side of the world.

    1. Thank you, Suzanne. Yes ‘the blue remembered hills’. Dennis Potter wrote a very edgy play with that title. It’s a phrase that sticks. At the far end of the Edge in Craven Arms we have a quirky museum in an old chapel called the Land of Lost Content – it’s full of domestic and shop window stuff from Victorian times onwards – no labels – thus creating a double meaning for the phrase. People go there and say ‘oh we used to have one of those’, ‘do you remember that?’ And so Housman has become a sort of touchstone – perhaps in rather unexpected ways. He wasn’t even a Shropshire man which adds another odd dimension.

      1. What an amazing name for a museum. It sounds like the area you live in is bursting with creative stimulation and inspiration.

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