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The Metaphysicals

Works by metaphysical poets including Donne, Herbert and Anne Bradstreet with readings by Greta Scacchi and Christopher Eccleston. Music is by Walton, Bernstein and Tavener.

Works by 'metaphysical' poets, such as John Donne, George Herbert and Anne Bradstreet, read by Greta Scacchi and Christopher Eccleston. Music is by composers including Walton, Bernstein and Tavener

Some of the finest, most searching poetry of the seventeenth century came from a group of writers loosely known as 'the metaphysical poets'. Seeking to go beyond the literal meaning of words, to evoke feelings and conjure images hitherto unexplored, be they expressions of romantic love, religious devotion or awe of beauty.

1 hour, 15 minutes

Music Played

Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes

  • 00:00

    Benjamin Britten

    Serenade - Prologue

    Performer: James Gilchrist, Martin Owen, Scottish Ensemble, Clio Gould.
    • LinnCKD226.
    • Tr22.
  • Donne

    Death be not Proud, read by Greta Scacchi

  • 00:02

    Gustav Mahler

    Symphony No. 9 - 1st movement

    Performer: Chicago SO, Carlo Maria Giulini.
    • DG 4779320.
    • CD11 T1.
  • Vaughan

    To his Books, read by Christopher Eccleston

  • 00:10

    Michael Nyman

    The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover –- Book Depository

    Performer: Michael Nyman Band.
    • Virgin CDVE53.
    • Tr3.
  • Herbert

    Easter Wings, read by Greta Scacchi

  • 00:13

    Ralph Vaughan Williams

    The Lark Ascending

    Performer: Iona Brown, ASMF, Neville Marriner.
    • Decca 4786883.
    • CD26 T1.
  • Donne

    No Man is an Island, read by Christopher Eccleston

  • 00:16

    William Schuman

    Symphony no.5 – 2nd movement

    Performer: NYPO, Leonard Bernstein.
    • Sony SMK63163.
    • Tr4.
  • Vaughan

    The Evening Watch, read by Christopher Eccleston and Greta Scacchi

  • 00:24

    Benjamin Britten

    Serenade - Sonnet

    Performer: James Gilchrist, Martin Owen, Scottish Ensemble, Clio Gould.
    • LinnCKD226.
    • Tr28.
  • Herbert

    The Windows, read by Christopher Eccleston

  • 00:29

    William Walton

    Belshazzar’s Feast

    Performer: John Shirley‐Quirk.
    • EMI 7647232.
    • tr4.
  • Bradstreet

    The Four Monarchyes, read by Christopher Eccleston

  • 00:33

    William Walton

    Belshazzar’s Feast

    Performer: John Shirley-Quirk; LSO & Chorus, Andre Previn.
    • EMI 7647232.
    • tr5.
  • Bradstreet

    To my dear and loving Husband, read by Greta Scacchi

  • 00:43

    Richard Strauss

    Der Rosekkavalier - Trio

    Performer: Renee Fleming, Barbara Bonney, Susan Graham, Vienna PO, Christoph Eschenbach.
    • Decca 4663142.
    • Tr5.
  • Philips

    To my excellent Lucasia, read by Greta Scacchi

  • 00:47


    Symphony no.1 – 4th movement

    Performer: LSO, Colin Davis.
    • Decca 4256462.
    • CD1, Tr4.
  • Suckling

    I prithee send me back my heart, read by Christopher Eccleston

  • 00:49

    Leonard Bernstein

    Serenade – 2nd movement

    Performer: Gidon Kremer, Israel PO, Leonard Bernstein.
    • DG 4235832.
    • Tr2.
  • Vaughan

    The Shower, read by Greta Scacchi

  • 00:54

    Benjamin Britten

    Simple Symphony – 2nd movement

    Performer: ECO, Benjamin Britten.
    • Decca 4175092.
    • Tr3.
  • Traherne

    Wonder, read by Greta Scacchi

  • 01:00

    John Tavener

    The Lamb

    Performer: Westminster Abbey Choir, Martin Neary.
    • Sony SK66613.
    • Tr1.
  • Traherne

    The Salutation, read by Greta Scacchi

  • 01:06

    William Walton

    A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table -– Holy Thursday

    Performer: Felicity Lott, Graham Johnson.
    • Collins Classics 14932.
    • Tr17.
  • Marvell

    To his Coy Mistress, read by Christopher Eccleston

  • 01:12

    Benjamin Britten

    Serenade - Epilogue

    Performer: James Gilchrist, Martin Owen, Scottish Ensemble, Clio Gould.
    • LinnCKD226.
    • Tr29.

Producer Note

We take metaphysical conceit for granted these days: the use of extended, sometimes obscure analogy or metaphor for lyrical or devotional effect has long been a feature of poems, hymns and song lyrics.  It wasn’t always so: when a disparate, far-flung group of writers began spontaneously to experiment with these techniques, the results were controversial (Samuel Johnson felt they perhaps fell better on the eye than on the ear).

What it difficult to deny, especially with three hundred years’ hindsight, is the extra dimension these techniques brought to poetry both religious and secular: God’s greatness, the joy of romantic love, the perfection of nature, all allowed to brim with images and speculations  hitherto unimagined.  One of this afternoon’s readers, Christopher Eccleston, likens these poems to the rock lyrics of the day, such is the power and directness with which they speak.

Some of today’s poets and poems are well-known, if only in part.  John Donne holds that “no man is an island”, rather “a piece of the continent, a part of the main”: this hymn to collective responsibility and shared duty; pre-echoing Kennedy’s inaugural address, he urges us not to ask “for whom the bell tolls/It tolls for thee”.  His faith causing him to have no fear of earthly death, in another poem he proudly affirms: “Death, thou shalt die”.

Herbert’s Easter Wings not only likens praise of God to flying like a bird (“As larks, harmoniously”), the printed lines on the page are calculated to resemble the silhouette of a bird in flight.

Romance, successful or otherwise, is a common theme: Andrew Marvell writes To his coy mistress while John Suckling regretfully asks his paramour to “send me back my heart”, a heart broken but not defeated.  Anne Bradstreet and Katherine Philips are achingly beautiful on women’s love respectively marital and Sapphic.  Bradsteet’s very personal take on the fall of vulgar Belshazzar’s Babylon is framed by Walton’s technicolor Belshazzar’s Feast.

In line with the modernity of the seventeenth century texts, all the music this afternoon comes from the twentieth century.  Traherne’s Wonder and The Salutation celebrate the miracle of birth and childhood, echoed here by music by John Tavener and Walton (both setting Blake who may, in some ways, be said to be the godfather of the metaphysical poets).  Mahler tried to triumph over death, and his death-laden ninth symphony was a brave move for the superstitious composer.  Vaughan’s celebration of books, as valid now as when it was written, is here accompanied by Michael Nyman’s music for Peter Greenaway’s film The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover: the lovers’ library a focus for passion as much as for learning.

Few works capture the many moods of evening like Britten’s Serenade, heard here alongside Vaughan’s The Evening Watch.  There is also Tippett, looking back to an earlier musical age in his first symphony, American composer William Schuman’s heartbreaking slow movement from his fifth symphony, and love music from Leonard Bernstein’s Plato-inspired Serenade.


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