The Art of Song Writing


Part 1 ; The Art of Phrasing 

Part 2 ; The Art of Making Sense

Part 3 ; The Art of Song Writing

Part 4 ; The Art of Reading Attentively

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Untill Death Us Do Part

or : the art of song writing

Heart, we will forget him,
You and I, tonight!
You must forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.

When you have done pray tell me,
Then I, my thoughts, will dim.
Haste! ‘lest while you’re lagging
I may remember him! 

Emily Dickinson

a bone chilling tale

In ‘A narrow Fellow’ looms a potentially deadly hazard, that tightens the breath of the narrator. Not to mention the ‘zero at the bone’. The image of death as it rose from the dotted lines on ‘Let down the bars’, must have that same effect to be in line with my interpretation. If not, at least one of us has it all wrong. But don’t worry, for the moment there is no need to reconsider findings that are out of this line. This because my interpretation is only reliable if and when another explorer arrives independently at the same point of view. With the emphasis on independently. In case you have followed the marked discovery route, the resulting consensus is in terms of science therefore not as convincing as it should be.

Meanwhile, there is no harm in putting your account of the story, whether it tightens the breath or not, to the test. To which purpose we have an excellent touchstone in the culmination of metaphors at the entrance to the discovery route :

if                                        Death    =   the unilateral lover
and                                    Death    =   the ‘Oh’ in ‘love’
then                                  Death    =   worse than Death

This sample of logic is the keystone of my interpretation. Refute it, and my interpretation is refuted. Yet, the only way to refute logic, is by better logic. If your gut feeling tells you to refute, then go with it – intuition is even in science a better guide than reason – but its reliability has at every point to be confirmed by hard evidence. Which in this case comes down on proving either that Death goes in this poem for mutual consent, or that Dickinson’s choice for ‘Oh’ instead of ‘O’ is not intended to turn Death into ‘Oh’s standard metaphor. You are welcome to place your well founded refutation on this page.

The first option seems unlikely, but proving the text consistent with a suicidal mood will be sufficient to do the trick. The second option needs to prove Dickinson clumsy in a punctuation that fits seamlessly in with a deliberate choice for ‘Oh’ instead of ‘O’. And that in more than one way. If this approach does not lead to a result that agrees with your intuition, there is always the possibility to declare both presumptions (the ‘if’ & ‘and’) correct, but the conclusion wrong. In which case you have to explain what makes the ‘Oh’ in unilateral love at least as good as the ‘Oh’ of mutual consent. Only if logic is to fail you on all three counts, there will be nothing for it but to accept the touchstone as reliable. Whether your intuition likes it or not. 

When reliable, this touchstone leads to a simple, single, and unquestionably correct interpretation of ‘Let down the bars’. If it doesn’t, your interpretation may deviate in some major respect from mine, as presented in the discovery route, without failing the test. In which case the proper procedure is to report the failure to have occurred, and on which line(s). In order not to spoil the experiment, or Dickinson’s poetry, this page will respond in general terms only. Allowing the deviation to prove itself by being repeated independently.

As long as this touchstone remains unchallenged, Literature Studies is in serious trouble. A simple, single, and unquestionably correct interpretation of even one isolated piece of poetry, is, after all, enough to prove all its methods and traditions of literary criticism good for the paper bin. And why being satisfied with just one isolated sample of poetry, if this touchstone can be applied on any poem with the word ‘death’ in it?

murder by suicide

Dido’s Lament by Nahum Tate (1652 – 1715) makes no exception. If only to produce the negative test result on metaphorical death that the context of the libretto for Purcell’s opera Dido & Aeneas predicts. But this lament appears to be surprisingly suggestive for a straightforward suicide note :


Thy hand Belinda, darkness shades me,
On thy Bosom let me rest,
More I would but Death invades me.
Death is now a Welcome Guest,
When I am laid in Earth, may my Wrongs create
No trouble in thy Breast.
Remember me, but ah! forget my Fate.


With drooping Wings ye Cupids come,
And scatter Roses on her Tomb.
Soft and Gentle as her Heart,
Keep here your Watch and never part.

Cupids Dance.

The ‘Oh’ that stands for metaphorical death may not be there, the ‘Ah’ in its stead cannot be told apart by its expression in Purcell’s music (‘Oh’ is melismatic by nature). And the metaphor of the Last Lover is evidently strong enough to charge Dido’s parting from Belinda with suggestion. The more because the dance of the cupids was to all likelihood performed by pupils of the girl’s school that hosted the opera’s original production. This while the roses that these cupids are scattering around can be seen as powerful symbols of metaphorical death. In such a setting Dido’s lament makes a worthy expression of a young lover’s death wish. At least as far as the original audience was concerned : unnatural rather than unilateral. One should almost forget that Dido kills herself because her heart is broken by Aeneas.

Having escaped the burning ruins of Troy, this hero is to become a founding father of the Roman empire, and Carthage is to him just a temporary place of refuge. Even if he needs Dido’s enemies to remind him of his destiny.

Come away, fellow sailors, your anchors be weighing.
Time and tide will admit no delaying.
Take a bouzy short leave of your nymphs on the shore,
And silence their mourning
With vows of returning
But never intending to visit them more.

Act Three ; scene one

The massacre he survived, interestingly, was triggered by a certain Paris, who eloped with another man’s wedded wife. And Nahum Tate therefore knew exactly what he was doing, when he referred to the final scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.

In the famous tragedy’s original 1594 production (faithfully copied by the ‘corrupt’ Q1-edition), the flowers were apparently strewn by a boy soprano. This ‘cupid’ probably was thirteen year old Thomas Belte. 
Klaas Alberts : The Original Romeo & Juliet  a reconstruction of the play’s first night

Once again logic arrives at a simple, single, and irrefutably correct interpretation of a piece of poetry. Even if the touchstone proves its message slightly different from the one of Let down the Bars :

if                                        Death    =   better than              the unilateral lover
and                                    Death    =                                        the ‘Oh’ in ‘love’
then                                  Death    =   still                              worse than Death

Cutting short some increasingly intimate touches, the Last Lover appears, as far as the original audience was concerned, just in time to save Dido – or rather Belinda – from worse. Which softens the impact of her fate with the notion that even the darkest cloud has a silver lining. But dark clouds only feature in a tragedy, and under the fair blue sky of comedy fate can be merciless.

a fate worse than death

Next song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth-Night is introduced as a traditional. To be sung by women at their daily labour when the weather is bright. Three of these working women, however, can scare the living daylight out of even Zeus himself. These are the Moirai, or ‘spinsters’.

Moirai is the plural of Moira, the Trinity Goddess of Destiny
Klotho first the work begins,
Lachesis ever further spins,
Cuts Atropos the thread at last,
Your days, o mortal man, have passed.
translated from Gustav Schwab : Die Schönsten Sagen des Klassischen Altertums – The Finest Sagas of the Classical Age

And when they dally with ‘the innocence of love’, their song is bound to make real death look like a picnic. 

 Duke      : O fellow come, the song we had last night:
Marke it Cesario, it is old and plaine;
The Spinsters and the Knitters in the Sun,
And the free maides that weaue their thred with bones,
Do vse to chaunt it: it is silly sooth,
And dallies with the innocence of loue,
Like the old age.
 Clowne   : Are you ready Sir?
 Duke      : I prethee sing.  

In the oldest Greek mythology Moira is also known as Aphrodite. 


The Song.

Come away, come away death,
And in sad cypresse let me be laide.
Fye away, fie away breath,
I am slaine by a faire cruell maide:
My shrowd of white, stuck all with Ew, O prepare it.
My part of death no one so true did share it.

Not a flower, not a flower sweete
On my blacke coffin, let there be strewne:
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poore corpes, where my bones shall be throwne:
A thousand thousand sighes to saue, lay me ô where
Sad true louer neuer find my graue, to weepe there. 

In modernized spelling the third line, as a rule, is corrected to ‘fly away breath’. Which makes the line a sort of repetition of ‘come away death’. Just like the third line in the second stanza is a sort of repetion of its first one. Yet, ‘fie’ allows the use of ‘breath’ in its ancient meaning of ‘scent’ or ‘smell’. And that possibility alone is all the reaon one needs to dismiss the editor’s interference as an improvement that may have deleted the underlying message. 

This song is in outlines Dido’s Lament all over again. And the ‘if’ is accounted for. These outlines, however, justify a little adjustment to the touchstone.

if                                        Death    =   (better than)           the unilateral lover
and                                    Death    =                                        the ‘Oh’ in ‘love’
then                                  Death    =   (still)                          worse than Death

At this occasion Death comes too late to the rescue. If he comes at all. Which makes the opening identical to Let down the Bars. An observation that cannot fail to suggest a very similar story. And because of that story’s particular effect on its audience, a sharp listener may have heard the Duke to introduce this song as ‘a chilly truth’.

Be aware of the danger of interpreting the song with a biassed mind. The bias itself seems reliable enough, but that is always the problem with a bias. 

The ‘and’ is not exactly in line, because the 1623 First Folio does not provide an ‘Oh’. Judged by context, the ‘O’ in the song’s fifth line might be one, but one better resists the temptation to correct accordingly, because it is the sole piece of evidence that the ‘ô’ in line eleven should not sound like a regular ‘O’. And that is the one that comes with ‘a thousand sighes’. It also is the one that is misplaced at the cost of its functionality : it should be moved forward by two positions if it is supposed to serve any linguistic purpose. And with three old spinsters prepared to vouch for the ‘than’, the touchstone seems once more the proper device to narrow the range of possible interpretations down to one. But, with the ‘and’ open to question, arguments to the contrary are welcome as comments on this page.

The same for reports of malfunction : the touchstone is designed to rule out far-fetched and complicated interpretations. If it fails to do a proper job, it is not suited for this particular song.

When accepted as useful, the touchstone is rather suggestive on words like ‘cypresse’, ‘greet’ and ‘shrowd of white’ when looking for substitutes. And be aware of the song’s context as well. When it comes to interpretation, the comedy that surrounds it can be expected to be as good a guide as the touchstone. The song’s introduction does in any case not quite agree with regarding it as a mere interlude : Twelfth-Night is one great dalliance with the innocence of love.

The standard Shakespearean comedy is ruled by Aphrodite. But in Twelfth-Night she habitually casts a shadow on the various love affairs that is shaped like Moira. The sudden urge of the Duke to kill Cesario in scene 5 ; 1 is just the tip of that icebergh : the play hides an equally strong motive for the Duke to lash out at Cesario’s predecessor in his favour (last seen alive in scene 1 ; 4). 

Alongside the exercise of reading attentively, the second method of interpretation, my old school’s ‘text explanation’, is useful as well. Finding the correct answers is usually not much of a problem, but finding the right questions is the real name of the game. The first one that springs to mind concerns the narrator : male or female?

answer : …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

The song is introduced by a Duke who identifies himself with the narrator. This because he is love-sick, and love poetry habitually defines the cruel lady as the cause of his malady. And of the suicidal mood that comes with unanswered love. He should have known better : Shakespeare deals in his ‘sugared’ sonnets with a lady whose proves most cruel in denying the narrator her favours after a first amazing night.

A cruelty that casts its shadow on the occasional play as well. As if reflecting Shakespeare’s personal experience with married life: 
Hamlet    : I’st a prologue, or a poesie for a ring?
Ophelia   : T’is short my Lord.
Hamlet    : As womens loue.

Apart from that mistake, the Duke identifies himself with a lament that he explicitly mentions to be a woman’s song. Its hired performer, however, is supposed to be a baritone. And this singer is with certainty a professional jester. In which capacity he makes his money by showing his audience a mirror. Because Cesario, the Duke’s companion, has as  little reason to identify himself with the narrator as the Duke himself, the mirror must be showing them the future. The next question therefore is : whose future?

answer : …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Both the Duke and Cesario will be engaged before the play is over, the mirror can therefore show either of them during the first wedded night. It also can show both of them in equal circumstances. Either as the narrator, or as seen from the narrator’s point of view. And it evidently is a future of unilateral love. Which may be a seamless fit with the Dickinson poem, but not with the setting of two lovers at their first wedded night. The mirror therefore shows a very strange future indeed. Strange enough even to dismiss it as impossible. But sometimes not even the strangest of foretellings is as strange as reality. And many a riddle concerning Shakespeare’s marriage would dissolve at the instant if this mirror actually shows its first night through the eyes of Anne Hathaway. Or even through Shakespeare’s own, in case the ‘Annam Whateley of Grafton’ who he was licenced to marry on 27 November 1682, is not the ‘Anne Hathwey of Stratford’ who he was legally bound to marry on the 28th

The names on the marriage licence from the 27th. seems to have been mixed up with that of a certain William Whateley of Crowle. Who features on a legal deed from the same day, and from the same clerk’s hand. The licence itself was for a marriage by a couple from Stratford at the parish church of Temple Grafton.
Ian Wilson : Shakespeare – the Evidence   pp. 56 – 57

The jester therefore knows his business, and the third question must be : whose point of view does he represent?

answer : …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Unless it answers both the opening questions correctly, your interpretation of the song is bound to be troubled with inconsistencies. The moment everything falls into place, however, the third answer can be trusted to come up even before asking the question. A convicing indication of being correct. But the real proof is in the context : your interpretation must be in line with the story that leads up to the mirror’s future. This may establish a serious problem, because Twelfth-Night has no story-line that covers the narrator’s dealings with a cruel lady. Not at its surface at least, where the fair lady is cruel by keeping her distance. In the case of Cesario and the Duke the play even rules those dealings out. And the same for their respective lovers. This, however, makes the song inconsistent with the context in which it is performed, and can’t be true. The final question therefore is : what does the play hide from view, that allows to identify either of them with the song ?

Quite a lot, actually. And most of it is hiding in plain sight. Which, by the way, makes it rather difficult to spot. As Death demonstrates in his habit of being too close to be noticed. But seek and you will find. And in case you won’t, there is always the the option to place a comment to refute a seemingly unfounded claim.

Guided by Shakespeare’s intentions with the play, it was evident  for me where to look, and what to look for. But still ; at the first go, nothing. At the second go faint outlines only. And from the third go omward I couldn’t understand how on earth I had been that blind. The murder of Cesario’s predecessor as the Duke’s go-between, by the way, took me a plenty a year more to notice. Its trace is faint, and has been deleted from many a modern edition anyway. 

the german style of comedy

From an invisible murder to an invisible murderer is just a step. One that brings us to the moonlit countryside of Thuringia. Or more precise ; to the park of Tiefurt Palace at Weimar. There to hear star singer Corona Schröter, under the alders (Erlen) along the river Ilm, in the nightly prelude to her 1782 semi-opera Die Fischerin (The Fisherwoman):

Wer reit(e)t so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.

Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht? — 
Siehst Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht!
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron’ und Schweif? —
Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif. —

„Du liebes Kind, komm geh’ mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele, spiel ich mit dir, 
Manch bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand, 
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.“ —

Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leis(e) verspricht? —
Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind,
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind. —

„Willst feiner Knabe du mit mir gehn? 
Meine Töchter soll(e)n dich warten schön,
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn 
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.“ —

Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düster(e)n Ort? — 
Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh’ es genau: 
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau. —

„Ich liebe dich, mich reizt dein(e) schön(e) Gestalt,
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt!“ —
Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an,
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan. —

Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in den Armen das ächzend(e) Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh(e) und Not,
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)
after ‘Erlkönigs Tochter’ by Johann Gottfried von Herder

Thirty-two lines (the age of Goethe at the date of first performance) of word substitution to go. And this time there is no getting around. Unless you can read German, of course. Or find the translation in Wikipedia. But one better sticks to the basics, assisted by the guidance of this short synopsis :

At a late hour the father rides through the dark with his son in his protecting arm. He asks the boy why he covers his face in such fear. “But father, don’t you see the Elf King?” The father explains the appearance away as a wisp of fog. He then dismisses the voice that whispers in the boy’s ear as the gale playing with the fallen leaves. And when the son points at the dance of the elf’s daughters, the father assures him that a line of willows moving in the wind makes the same impression. At that very moment, aroused by the boy’s beauty, the elf makes his move, and his target suffers some short-lived agony. Horrified, the father rides on, now holding his moaning son with both arms. But when he arrives at his destination, it is for the boy too late. 

This summary covers all the recorded facts. Facts that allow to define the son’s age, as Goethe had it in mind, with pinpoint precision. But everything else is conjecture : the ballad perhaps suggests, but never confirms the boy to suffer a dangerously high running fever. Or the hallucinations that go with it. Whence father and son come, or where they go, is anybody’s guess (‘Hof’ leaves several options open), while the galloping horse is only present in the mind of the reader. And, of course, in the song’s piano accompaniment by Franz Schubert.

Having sung this overture on a more airily tune of her own, young miss Schröter introduces herself as Dorchen, a fisherman’s daughter who suffers as much from lack of manly appreciation as that boy had suffered from excess.

Corona Schröter set the words, under Goethe’s direct supervision, on music in the simple pattern of a traditional ballad. This evidence of his artistic preference may explain why Goethe returned, without comment, the dedication copy of Schubert’s masterpiece to sender. And why Carl Loewe’s attempt to perform his version in Goethe’s presence got nowhere : these were songs rather than ballads.

Life, apparently, isn’t fair. And to do something about it, she is now setting the stage for her death. Not for real, of course, but convincingly enough to make her father and her boyfriend search for her corpse : that will teach them (it is a comedy). And they will both pay her due attention when she has turned up again.

If this is a context to go by, it is evident what attentive reading (i.e. careful word substitution) is going to reveal. The question that matters therefore is : are there any ‘Oh’s?

classical tragedy 

While you check Goethe’s Erlkönig for clues, there are some points of interest to discuss. The first is the presence of an external narrator. A woman who tells a story in which she is not personally involved. And that in consequence is told from an outsider’s point of view. We haven’t seen that before. And because a poem in this class does not contain a syllable more than necessary, her two stanzas make her a vital part of her own words.

The more because Dorchen leaves seven syllables out, that feature in the 1815 Schubert song, which took its text from the newly published Goethe-edition. This difference accounts for seven of eight ‘e’s between brackets. The one from the printed editions that is ignored by both Schröter and Schubert, is the one in ‘düster(e) Ort’. This one happens to devide the text roughly on its golden section in both numbers of words (‘Vater’) and numbers of lines (‘wiegen und tanzen’). This golden section line is placed exactly on the golden section of the eight deleted ‘e’s. And if deleted itself, it rather amazingly places ‘Vater’ on the golden section between soll(en) and düster(en) as well. From which follows that the actual golden section of this sequence is on ‘singen’. Which makes sense in a ballad. 

We therefore have to take into account that Dorchen lives in a society where elves are as real as country life. As a result her opening line is not quite the neutral observation that it seems to be : what fool dares to brave the wild by night? A question of which the immediate answer spells disaster even before the story gets on its way : if the realm of elves is by night no place for adults, it is certainly no place for children. The second couplet of the opening stanza indeed points at some clear and present danger. As it should, because the night is a metaphor of death. Late autumn is another strong metaphor along the same line, because it announces the end to be near. A message that Goethe’s ballad audibly communicates in the gale induced whispers of fallen leaves. Meaning that the son’s fate is sealed by the time Dorchen has got halfway her narrative.

Unavoidable fate is a basic feature of classical tragedy. And when combined with dialogue, classical tragedy is staged as classical drama.

Classical tragedy traditionally is a story of a hero (or heroine) who experiences a reversal of fortune set in motion by the gods as a result of hubris.

We therefore check for the three unities, while checking for hero, hubris, and the hero’s classification.

Hubris is excess of self-esteem. Pride in most cases, but this time self-confidence is more likely.
Icarus class         : the hero(ine) whose hubris brings him-/herself down .  
Daedalus class   : the hero(ine) whose hubris brings somebody else down. 

And in consequence decide that this ballad has by definition to end with a non-metaphorical demise. This, of course, does not allow the presence of ‘Oh’s, but, on the other hand, the presence of supernatural beings is now recognized as obligate to provide for some punishing force to bring death. And when night and nature conspire to lay the boy low together, night’s and nature’s hidden people (i.e. elves) have their part to play. The boy therefore can’t be hallucinating. In consequence the ballad has to rule out that he does, if only to tell a consistent story. When it comes to that, Goethe is a craftsman who may cleverly suggest a fever in order to keep things ambiguous, but who never uses this fever to explain the Appearance away. Rather to the contrary, as those amongst you who did not skip the basic word substitution, must have noticed. Like you must have noticed the perfect playing with rhythm, and the equally perfect positioning of dialogue lines.

No, this does not mean that the rhythm itself is perfect. The setting by Loewe, for instance, moves at one point audibly out of step. And in order to preserve balance Dorchen has to adjust :
Der Vater dem grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in den Armen das ächzend’ Kind.
Confronted with the same problem, Schubert corrects Goethe’s slip-up by a later, and better considered, reaction :
Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind.

If you have noticed the anomaly as well, you even may decide that the ballad’s context as a prelude to Dorchen’s scheme proves significant after all. And elves are indeed rather ambiguous in the threat they constitute to mortals.

Thanks to Goethe’s clever wordplay, the ballad apparently features a boy who is not exactly in danger of life. Yet, the same boy falls at the same time victim to a classical tragedy. Which definitely rules out physical survival. The result of this survey may therefore be perceived as somewhat confusing. Yet, this is what an author refers to when talking about ‘writing in layers’ : the art of telling different stories by a single text. We already have noticed the feature in Come away, Death and Let down the Bars.  Which makes a score of three out of four poems that are linked by the word ‘death’. When it comes to writing in layers, this looks like a random selection. And seems to indicate a fairly common practise. The more because Dido’s lament, as the exception, is rather suggestive as well on the exact nature of her dying scene. At which observation the five discussed samples of poetry have prepared you sufficiently to deal with the nemesis of literary criticism :

the turn of the screw

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