The Curlew and the Abbey (again)

What follows is the first couple paragraphs of an essay that should appear shortly in Irish Studies in Britain, ed. Brian Griffin and Ellen McWilliams, from Cambridge Scholars Press. This is by way of a taster, and because it was requested. I’ll put up the whole thing as soon as publication is imminent.

It is generally assumed W.B. Yeats hated music. Not so: the evidence of his poetry, and of a life spent bringing poetry to music, is that it fascinated him. This left him, however, with pronounced convictions about how poetry and music should be combined. When it came to new musical settings of his work, therefore, any composer was on dangerous ground. Just such a composer was Peter Warlock, born in London as Philip Heseltine in 1894. A prodigiously gifted and iconoclastic musician, his suicide in 1930 robbed the world of some fine music, most especially in the field of solo songs. He was a composer, always, who worked most fruitfully in combination with words. As the words he set were more Yeats’s than any other poet’s, we can envisage the two on collision course; yet, as we shall see, Warlock’s ideas about music and careful attention to verbal nuance left him closer to Yeats than perhaps even the poet realized.[i]

A fitting terminus of this enquiry is The Curlew (1924), a song-cycle fashioned separately by these two artists, English composer and Irish poet. The arms-length collaboration was not a happy one: an argument arose that was ended only at Warlock’s death, whereupon, as Yeats put it: “one’s quarrels stop at the grave”.[ii] The trouble began when Yeats, without hearing Warlock’s settings of four of his early poems, took advice from a woman of conservative tastes acting as his musical agent that he should refuse permission for publication, and Warlock began to write inflammatory letters to what he called this “musical censor”, to the poet himself, and (in an act Yeats found unforgivable) publicly to the Musical Times. The explosive missives climaxed with Warlock promising legal action and threatening to pirate his words. Successfully performed in its final version in 1923 The Curlew won a Carnegie Trust award, and the poet’s publishers Macmillan hastily sanctioned its publication the following year. Warlock, however, would never set any of Yeats’s poems again. The story is old territory, but it makes such good reading it has obscured serious analysis of the convergence in ideas and temperaments The Curlew represents. In their interests and aesthetic principles the two men were strikingly similar: we only have to look at their stated artistic credos to find astonishing overlap. No wonder their artistic output betrays such affinity. What follows is a detailed examination of this convergence in art and aesthetic, which might then begin to explain several things: why, for instance, The Curlew is still easily the best setting of Yeats’s poetry; how it generates such fluid incarnations of national and personal identity in careful condensations of landscape, symbolism, and sound; and why even as an old man, all quarrels past, Yeats could never bring himself to approve it. It was not, as might be assumed, that Warlock simply conducted an anglicization of something intrinsically Irish, but rather that his music, most think successfully, irrevocably makes audible the imaginative landscape of Yeats’s poems.


[i]. Warlock set at least nine poems of Yeats’s: and after some student settings, now lost, he composed “The Everlasting Voices” (Winter 1915), “The Heart of the Woman” (? 1916), “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” (July 1919), and four songs for The Curlew (1924) “He reproves the Curlew” (? 1915-1918), “The Lover Mourns for the Loss of Love” (?1915-6, rev 1920), “The Withering of the Boughs” (June 1922), “He Hears the Cry of the Sedge” (?1920) (see Tomlinson).

[ii]. Yeats’s own brief account appears in a letter to Ethel Mannin of 6 January 1936 (Yeats 1954, 847): “Years ago he and I fell out because of his rudeness to a harmless, well-bred woman who acted as a kind of musical agent to me. I hardly knew her but felt I had to protect her. The result was that very regretfully, for I knew his music was good, I forbade him to use my words in future and he was of course enraged. He threatened to pirate my words and I called in the Society of Authors. One thing led to another. I rather think he left unpublished music to words of mine which I would of course gladly see published – one’s quarrels stop at the grave.”

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~ by thebicyclops on November 1, 2010.

One Response to “The Curlew and the Abbey (again)”

  1. […] and containing a good variety of essays historical and literary, including one of mine called ‘The Curlew and the Abbey: Peter Warlock and W.B.Yeats’. On sale […]

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