> Arnold Bax Ideala [SL]: Book Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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IDEALA: The Love Letters and Poems of Arnold BAX

edited by Colin Scott-Sutherland
Fand Music Press
The Barony, 16 Sandringham Road, Petersfield GU32 2AA. Tel/Fax: 01730 267341. www.fandmusic.com
published September 2001
ISBN 0-9535125-3-3
320pp hardback

AmazonUK £50.00


Most composers confine expression to music alone. A few have ventured further and turned their hand to autobiography, as Arnold Bax did, memorably, in Farewell, My Youth. Hardly any seem to have expressed their feelings in verse. Amongst British composers Cyril Scott and Ivor Gurney are two exceptions; a third is Arnold Bax. In 1979 a slim volume from Thames Publishing alerted Baxians to a considerable quantity of poetry from a composer whose symphonies and orchestral tone-poems are in themselves rich in poetry and musical imagery of Nature. The 50 poems contained in Dermot O’Byrne: Selected Poems of Arnold Bax, edited by Lewis Foreman, whetted one’s appetite for more.

Now in Ideala we have a comprehensive edition of Bax’s poems, edited by Colin Scott-Sutherland whose Arnold Bax (Dent 1973) was a pioneering study of the composer and his music. Spine, cover and title page give different names to this fascinating volume. The title page is more accurate in calling it ‘Poems and some early love letters’ rather than the cover’s ‘Love letters and Poems’ as this is an anthology of poems with the inclusion of a few letters, while the spine’s Ideala: Arnold Bax/Dermot O’Byrne points out the conflict of authorship. But be they by Arnold Bax or his alter ego Dermot O’Byrne, we have an absorbing collection of about 260 poems, mostly from the full flowering of Bax’s youth. (This publication is in fact an expansion of a smaller but similarly-titled volume of 168 pages privately printed in 1995.)

The poems have come from a number of sources, some published but mostly unpublished, and these sources constitute the seven main sections of this book. The first of these is a red leather-covered notebook containing 95 poems (including two prose poems) mostly written in 1905 and 1906, with several of them signed variously Dermid/Dermod/Dermot McDermott, a Surrey-born composer/poet in search of an Irish identity. Amongst them is the poem Ideala from which this collection takes its name. Ideala is also the name of a setting that Bax made in 1907 of an untitled poem by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. It tells of a boy who is trying in vain to capture on his flute a wonderful song that he has heard in the forest (the song was published as The Flute). As Colin Scott-Sutherland points out, ‘the idea of the pursuit of the beautiful and unattainable is felt throughout Bax’s music’- Fand’s song of immortal love in The Garden of Fand is an obvious instance. It is also a recurring theme in his poetry. The first two lines of the fourth stanza of Ideala run:

O, Ireland, take me to your heart,
And give me peace and liberty,

but the events of Easter 1916 were to make that unattainable. Too often, it seems, Bax lived in a dream-world. Even his women seemed to part-inhabit this dream-world as figures from mythology. He would describe an early love as being ‘like a naiad for beauty – a golden Roussalka with ice-blue eyes’; Harriet Cohen at first sight seemed ‘an elfin child . . . a small dryad face’, only later to become ‘a wonderful stray creature from the faery hills’; and Mary Gleaves, the love of his later years, was ‘my wild young naiad’. In 1931 he wrote to Mary: ‘Life as most people live it is frightfully boring, and it is only those who seem to bring the glamour and extasy of the dream-world of one’s imagination that matter’. Lines from the 1913 poem In a Backwater show his awareness of the fragility of dreams:

Between enchanted lawns we glide
On quiet world-forgotten streams.
This pale Naiad at my side
. . . . .
An hour’s faery prince am I
Born of noon-day idleness,
She a fragile fantasy
Woven of midsummer haze.
. . . . .
What was this water-dream of ours,
Beautiful foolishness or worse ?

The next source, referred to as the First (typed) Collection, is of 81 poems, 54 of them typed, containing 38 new ones and beginning with a dedicatory poem to his brother Clifford that underlines the closeness between the two brothers:

These are my songs. In some quiet firelit nook
Shut out the world awhile and let my book
Lie for a little near your heart. Herein –
Among the tangled rhymes my soul has breathed
The music she has learned when shadow-wreathed
Desire went a-seeking in the night
Some flying embers of truth’s fire to win.

In 1909 a booklet containing 23 poems under the title of Seafoam and Firelight was issued in conjunction with the quarterly arts magazine Orpheus (that was largely Clifford’s undertaking). The publisher’s advertisement referred to Dermot O’Byrne (the pseudonym Bax had finally settled on) as ‘a young writer who, being a remarkable musician, carries his fine sense for melody into the region of poetry. His poems have mostly risen in response to the magical beauty of the boglands, mountains and seas of Ireland, or the strange romantic myths and legends connected with them.’ Ten of the poems were completely new, three had appeared in earlier issues of Orpheus, while the others came from either the red notebook or the first typed collection. In this section are also included five other poems that only appeared in Orpheus.

Another unpublished source is a second typed collection consisting of 84 poems, 65 of them new. Most of the verses date between 1909 and 1916, and it is in The Irish Mail (Paddington) Easter 1916 that Bax gives full expression to his reactions to the Irish uprising and his shattered dreams:

And in my soul the hot tears strove
For the sad cleavage of my love,
My wounded land and your dark head
Sundered till all this love is dead.

Next is a third typed collection of 25 poems, 8 of them new, amongst them A Summer Memory (that appears here as an Epilogue) that captures perfectly those feelings of youth and sexual awareness, and the cost of such experiences:

. . . . . . .
I can remember how the summer’s trance
Glorified every childish countenance
And how it fed in me delicious pain,
Can such a day and night return ?
. . . . . . .
        . . . while through my blood
Desire a live flame poured and a great stress
Of lovely pain and passionate bitterness.

In Farewell, My Youth Bax recalled his ‘first conscious apprehension of beauty’ while witnessing a glorious sunset. ‘And suddenly an ache of regret that this particular day of beauty should come to an end and nevermore return wrung my heart so cruelly that, unseen, I wept bitterly in my shadowy corner of the carriage.’ He concluded: ‘This tenderness of pain, half cruel, half sweet, is surely an essential quality of the never clearly defined "Romantic mood".’

Last, there are two further published sets of poems: A Dublin Ballad and other poems (1918) and Love Poems of a Musician (1923) that for some unexplained reason are not dealt with in chronological order in this new collection. These brought forward respectively 9 and 27 new poems, the earlier publication ultimately only having a private circulation because of the intervention of the censor through the sensitivity of its subject matter. Love Poems of a Musician included also several early poems. Bax sent a copy to ‘Æ’ (George Russell), writing in an accompanying letter: ‘I know I could find something more like peace and happiness if I lived in Ireland than in any other land, but the exigencies of one’s human relations are inescapable’. The volume was published anonymously and the inspiration of many of its poems was Harriet Cohen who, since 1914, had become the love of his life. She was ‘The Maiden with the Daffodil’, so called after she had attended a tea-party at RAM professor Frederick Corder’s home with a daffodil as her only decoration, resulting in an Idyll for piano of that name, dedicated to her and dated January 1915, and a similarly-titled poem dated October 1916.

In the late summer of 1917, although Bax was married, he and Harriet had spent a six-week holiday in Cornwall and from that holiday came at least two of the poems in Love Poems of a Musician: Tintagel Castle, a clear counterpart to the orchestral tone-poem Tintagel that was dedicated to Harriet (and shared with the poem references to the Tristan legend), and Illusion, that contains these telling lines: ‘Soon, I know, on city pavements / Spattered with mud and rain / We shall juggle with our wisdom . . .’

One may wonder whether any other musical works, like Tintagel, share common ground with the poems. There is a poem Nympholept that predates the orchestral work of the same name by just over two years, and the orchestral In Memoriam of Patrick Pearse, completed in short score in August 1916 only three months after Pearse’s execution (and not performed until 1998), clearly relates closely in mood at least to ‘In Memoriam My Friend Patrick H. Pearse’, a poem from A Dublin Ballad and Other Poems from which the censor excised several lines. However, there is surely an even closer link between the poem Amersham and the orchestral November Woods. The poem is dated October 1916 and the tone-poem was probably orchestrated in 1917. As Lewis Foreman tells us in his definitive biography of Bax, it was ‘an unhappy time for Bax. He was faced with making a choice between wife and children, and Harriet. He would meet Harriet at the Crown public house in Amersham from where she returned to London by train and while he was caught in a beech wood near to the station one stormy November day he conceived the idea of November Woods’. Bax and Harriet can easily be identified as the two going ‘like frightened children, silent, hand in hand, down the wet hill’ as ‘storm, a mad painter’s brush, swept sky and land’. The inn of dreams would be the Crown where they nestled together ‘under the black beams’ until they had to leave the warmth and comfort of the pub ‘to take the London train’ and once again face the storm, a storm that for Bax would be symbolic of his inner struggle. The three stanzas of Amersham correspond directly with the tri-partite division of November Woods. Other poems at that time, like Crisis and Darkness, reflected Bax’s troubled mind, and there may be some irony in the fact that an earlier poem, The Lost Ship, included in Love Poems of a Musician, was there re-titled Epithalamium (an epithalamium being a song or poem written in celebration of a marriage):

. . . . .
All, all my proud white birds are come back to me
Save one, the flag-ship of my argosy.
. . . . .
Ah, what dim land-fall lured you, what pool of strife,

Romance, that has foundered lost in the seas of life ?

The poems in this collected edition, often florid in language and dramatic and passionate in mood, reflect the various influences that had worked upon the young Arnold Bax: Keats and Shelley, Swinburne certainly, until the day in 1902 when he chanced upon W B Yeats and his dreams were set upon Eire. (All the poems post-date his discovery of Yeats, the earliest dated poems being from 1904.) George Russell (‘Æ’) and William Sharp (‘Fiona Macleod’) were two other Celtic influences. It is worth noting that Bax set four of his own poems to music.

As for the ‘early love letters’ of this anthology’s title, there are 13 from about 1904, signed Dermid and expressed, as Colin Scott-Sutherland rightly says, in somewhat extravagant terms to Isobel Hodgson, a singer at the Royal Academy of Music: ‘Sweetheart do come and visit me in my dreams tonight and let us go out into the languorous heat and dream and dream and dream of beauty and wonder unattainable in waking hours even in the spring twilight like this night and last night.’ Addressed to Eilidh, these letters also include two poems, brief music extracts and snatches of Gaelic, German and Norwegian. There are also four letters from only a few years later to Mary Field, a drama student at the RAM, whom he chooses to address as ‘Tortoise’.

One of the appendices includes seven poems found among Harriet Cohen’s papers which have only recently come into the public domain. Those papers also provide evidence of another of the several lovers Bax had at the Academy. But quite the most fascinating addition is a ‘Memoir of the Two Brothers’ written by Francis Colmer who was a home tutor to both Arnold and Clifford. This 24-page-long memoir, apparently written in the last five years of Colmer’s life (he died in 1967), provides considerable insight into the Bax family, especially the brothers’ parents, and the boys’ upbringing. Scott-Sutherland is curiously reticent about its origin; it is presumably differs from another memoir of Colmer’s that he cites on p.11 as having been written for the editor in 1963.

This splendid case-bound and gold-blocked volume is a pleasure to hold and an essential adjunct to Lewis Foreman’s biography of the composer. One is extremely grateful to Colin Scott-Sutherland and others who have supplied material to make this invaluable collection possible. But Arnold Bax’s - or Dermot O’Byrne’s - literary excursions were not confined to verse alone. Three collections of his short stories were published between 1912 and 1918, and there were also four completed plays. In his acknowledgments Scott-Sutherland suggests: ‘Surely now a collection of his short stories should follow ?’ Let us hope that the response to this collection will be sufficient to make this a certainty.

Stephen Lloyd

See also review by Rob Barnett

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