removing poetry

The authors of this sequence are George Herbert (1593-1633; SD), William Shakespeare (1564-1616; TWS & OMM), and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872- 1958; text & music). The composer’s responsibility for the text can not be mentioned without some explanation. Of course he put the words to music and released the pieces as a cycle, but his contribution to the wordsequence goes far beyond selecting the poems: he did not select them in full, to begin with. But RVW to delete lines from these poems, is no matter of reversing the author’s labour of adding them, but of completing their job. As one knows : in order to maintain quality standards, writing is mainly a matter of deleting.

And in the case of The Willow Song deleting lines ten to thirteen is the obvious thing to do; for dramatic effect – these lines come from the play ‘Othello’ – Shakespeare carefully dropped his standards towards the end. The meter, for instance, derails rather spectacularly in the second half of line nine and again in the first half of line eleven (which is printed a little further ahead in this article). Line nine is a natural conclusion to the first part, but from a storytellers point of view the remainder cannot be omitted. Therefore a song composed on the first nine lines only, is visibly incomplete. It is the merit of Ralph Vaughan Williams to have identified O Mistress Mine as the sequel’s natural substitution. As a result the original four lines are in the context of this cycle superfluous, and that is why he decided to delete them, not the difficulty to invent fitting music.

Sweet Day is also lacking four lines, and they are, again, superfluous: to people unfamiliar with the original it is impossible to notice that one of the quatrains is missing. The second one to be precise:

Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave
           And thou must die. 

In itself this is no bad poetry, but back in place the meter appears to derail in the first two lines as spectacular as in Willow. And this is only the least argument to regard this quatrain as all but matching the quality of the other ones: Vaughan Williams may have considered himself lucky that it contributes nothing significant to the poem – it is very difficult to invent a common melody on verses that differ so much in their meters – but it is not exactly a compliment to the author to prove a full quarter of his poem irrelevant: just try what happens if another quatrain is deleted instead.

Of course it would be an insult to his craftmanship to suggest that Vaughan Williams avoided a problem he was incapable to solve: in both this song’s concluding verses he deals in a superb way with the irregular meters of the first lines. A much better ground to remove this quatrain is presented in Part One, dealing with the way in which three stand alone pieces of music were combined to a cycle. The usefullness of Sweet Day as an introduction for The Willow Song depends on renaming it ‘Reduced Virtue’: Virtue being the title under which the unreduced poem was originally published.

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