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.
Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes
Death be not Proud, read by Greta Scacchi
To his Books, read by Christopher Eccleston
Easter Wings, read by Greta Scacchi
No Man is an Island, read by Christopher Eccleston
The Evening Watch, read by Christopher Eccleston and Greta Scacchi
The Windows, read by Christopher Eccleston
The Four Monarchyes, read by Christopher Eccleston
To my dear and loving Husband, read by Greta Scacchi
To my excellent Lucasia, read by Greta Scacchi
I prithee send me back my heart, read by Christopher Eccleston
The Shower, read by Greta Scacchi
Wonder, read by Greta Scacchi
The Salutation, read by Greta Scacchi
To his Coy Mistress, read by Christopher Eccleston
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.