Friday, December 12, 2008

"Thus Times Do Shift"

Robert Herrick was obsessed with the passing of time and the shifting of the seasons. Herrick was a Cavalier poet, a supporter of King Charles I who spent the years of the English Civil War awaiting the restoration of the monarchy and of his own fortunes. In the "Argument," or introductory poem, that opens his collection Hesperides (1648), Herrick wrote: "I sing of Times trans-shifting." An odd word, trans-shift, that only Herrick uses until the invention of the automobile. He uses it once more in a poem "On himselfe"::
Live by thy Muse thou shalt; when others die
Leaving no Fame to long Posterity:
When Monarchies trans-shifted are, and gone;
Here shall endure thy vast Dominion.
The Roman poet Horace was popular in the seventeenth century—Herrick himself was sometimes called "the English Horace"—and Herrick absorbed from Horace two of his most memorable poetic notions: this notion that poetry endures when all other things pass away (aere perennius), and the notion of taking full advantage of the opportunities of the passing day (carpe diem). This second theme is expressed most memorably in Herrick's poem "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time":
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying,
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.
The Victorian English poet Algernon Swinburne called Herrick "the greatest song writer ever born of English race." Or as a recent writer in Harper's expressed it: "Of the seventeenth century English poets, Herrick’s work has the closest inherent relationship to music. It is melodious, and most of his poems (excepting perhaps the more religiously themed ones) have the character of song about them." The poet himself rhymed his own name with "lyric."

For me, the highlight of Kate Rusby's wonderful new Christmas album, Sweet Bells, is her setting of Herrick's poem "Ceremonies for Candlemasse Eve." Rusby has a lovely knack for making the old seem new and the new seem old. The refrain of "Candlemas Eve" is quintessential Herrick:
Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.
Herrick's poem is about the shifting of the seasons, as the season of Christmas gives way to Candlemas, on the first of February—the traditional date for the removal of the Christmas decorations. The song is filled with the wistfulness of the season's passing, but also with a sense of timelessness. Rusby's voice is sweet and pure, and steeped in the fresh earthiness of her Yorkshire accent. The quality of the production and musicianship is professional, but Kate Rusby never strikes me as a professional entertainer, as a performer of folk music. Her voice is the voice of the folk, earthy and beautiful, breathing new life into her own traditions. "New things succeed, as former things grow old." But Kate Rusby makes former things new again.

Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve
Robert Herrick

DOWN with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the misletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box (for show).

The holly hitherto did sway ;
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter's eve appear.

Then youthful box which now hath grace
Your houses to renew ;
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside ;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift ; each thing his turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.


Sweet Bells
sells for $26.99 on Amazon.com, beginning on December 16, but is available for immediate download from iTunes for a standard $9.99.

1 comment:

Shan said...

Sounds lovely! I'll have to ask C. to download it from iTunes for us.

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