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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Festival of Melody

Yesterday I ran across this entertaining bit of poetry by Will Carleton:" The Festival of Melody; Or, The Singing-School." It is long, but perhaps you will think it is worth it.

Mr. Abraham Bates was a tune-stricken man,
Built on an exclusively musical plan;
With a body and soul that with naught could commune,
Unless it might somehow be set to a tune.
His features, harmoniously solemn and grim,
Resembled a doleful old long-meter hymn;
His smile, half-obtrusively gentle and calm,
Suggested the livelier notes of a psalm;
And his form had a power the appearance to lend
Of an overgrown tuning-fork, set upon end.
They who his accomplishments fathomed, averred
That he knew every tune that he ever had heard;
And his wife had a secret we all helped her keep,
That he frequently snored a rough tune in his sleep.
When he walked through the fields, with an inward-turned ear,
And a general impression that no one was near,
He with forefinger stretched to its fullest command,
Would beat quadruple time on the palm of his hand
(So firmly his singing-school habits would cling),
With his "Down, left, right, up! down, left, right, up! Sing!"

What a monarch he was, to us tune-killing wights
When he stood in the school-house, on long Winter nights,
With a dignity born our young souls to o'erwhelm,
Proclaiming the laws of his musical realm!
The black-board behind him frowned fierce on our sight,
Its old forehead creased with five wrinkles of white,
On which he paraded his armies of notes,
And sent on a raid through our eyes to our throats;
From the scenes of which partly harmonious turmoils
They issued, head-first, with our breath as their spoils.
How (in his particular specialty) grand
He looked, as he tiptoed, with b√Ęton in hand,
And up, down, and up, in appropriate time,
Compelled us that slippery ladder to climb,
As he flourished his weapon, and marched to and fro,
With his "Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, sol, la, si, do!"

Nathaniel F. Jennings! how sadly you tried,
With your eyes a third closed, and your mouth opened wide,
To sport an acceptable voice, like the rest,
And cultivate powers that you never possessed!
They were just out of music, it used to be said,
When they drafted the plan of your square, shaggy head.
You fired at each note, as it were, in the dark,
As an amateur rifleman would at a mark;
And short of opinion, till after the shot,
Of whether you'd happen to hit it or not.
E'en then you didn't know, till your sharp eye was told
By the way that the master's would flatter or scold.
The latter more oft; for your chances, sad wight,
Were seven to be wrong against one to be right,
And ne'er was a tune so mellifluously choice,
You could not embitter the same, with your voice.
But though your grim head hadn't the shade of a tone,
Your heart had a musical style of its own;
And we all found it out, 'neath the forest-trees wild,
The last night we hunted for Davis's child.
"May as well give it up," said our leader: "No good;
We've hunted three days and three nights in this wood;
We may as well look at it just as it is:
He's eaten or starved, long enough before this."
And Davis spoke up: "It's a fact, boys; he's right";
But he leaned 'gainst a tree, looking death-like and white.
You exclaimed, when your eyes his mute agony met,
"I'll be blanked if I'll stand this! I'll hunt a week yet!"
Poor Davis crept round till he got by your side,
Caught hold of your hand like a baby, and cried,
A picture of grateful, incompetent woe—
('Twas rather dramatic, as incidents go;)
Then we all of us yelled, in a magnetized cry,
An absurd proposition to find him, or die.
It was only an hour and a quarter from then
Your wing-shout came skurrying o'er woodland and glen,
As if to go round the whole world it would strive,
"I've found the young blank, an' he's here an' alive!"
Your voice had, as usual, less music than might,
But you led a remarkable chorus that night;
An anthem of joy swelled from many a throat,
And you, as our chorister, gave the first note.
When your hand was near squeezed out of shape by your mates,
None shook it more warmly than Abraham Bates;
Who, suggesting (to you) an impossible thing,
Shouted, "Down, up! down, up! Sing!"

Little Clarissa Smith! how you thrilled through us all,
When you made that young soul-sweetened voice rise and fall!
The whippoorwill's voice is sweet-spoken and true,
But not with a heart and a spirit like you;
The lark trails the music of earth through the skies,
But the flame of her song does not flash from her eyes!
Our girl prima-donna!—Your fame was not spread,
Nor by world-wide applauses your vanity fed;
But you star with a grand brilliant company, now:
The laurels of Heaven have encircled your brow.
'Twas a dreary procession you led on that day
When so still in the old-fashioned coffin you lay;
No delicate casket, grief-laden with care,
And trimmed with exotics expensive and rare,
Had ever more tears on its occupant shed
Than you, in your old-fashioned coffin of red.
'Twas strange how the unstudied wiles of your art
Had soothed and delighted the average heart;
How much of Heaven's glory had glittered and smiled
Through the cultureless voice of an innocent child.
You looked very pretty, and half saucy, there,
With natural flowers in your girlish-combed hair;
And a little old half-worn-out book on your breast,
Containing the hymns that you used to sing best.
The roughest old villain that lived in our town
Stood back from the grave, and, with head hanging down,
Was heard, in a reverent whisper, to say,
"Heaven needed that voice, and God took it away."
And Abraham Bates, who, 'twas general belief,
Had never before given rein to a grief,
Felt sorrow sweep over his heart like a storm,
When it came, as it were, in a musical form;
And choked down and sobbed, with eyes filled to the brim,
While attempting to lead in the funeral hymn.
And long when the sound of that sorrow had waned,
In his rough old heart-caverns its echo remained;
And audible tears to the surface would spring,
Of that "Down, left, up! down, left, up! Sing!"

Mrs. Caroline Dean, how you revelled in song!
There was no singing-school to which you didn't belong,
Save in some locality far away, so
That you and your meek little husband couldn't go.
What a method was yours, of appearing prepared
To make every tune in the note-book look scared!
Your voice was voluminous, rather than rich,
And not predistinguished for accurate pitch;
But you seemed every word to o'erpoweringly feel,
And humbled and drove away skill with your zeal.
The villain referred to above, on the day
That you and your larynx were safe stowed away,
Didn't make the remark he was credited with
At the time of the burial of Clarissa Smith,
But muttered, as low with himself he communed,
"I suppose she will do, when they get her retuned."
Though the strains of the choir sounded weak and afraid
Without your soprano's stentorian aid,
Mr. Abraham Bates, if I was not deceived,
Worked lighter in harness, and acted relieved;
And when the hymn stated you "lovely and mild,"
And "as summer breeze gentle," he very near smiled;
For those who had learned his biography, knew
He had rather encounter a tempest than you,
When he dared, with a placating, angular smile,
To venture a hint on your musical style.
You remember how promptly he wilted, among
The tropical rays of your scorn-blazing tongue;
For your talents you easily turned, when you chose,
From fancy-gemmed song into plain business prose.
You knew how to make him as miserably meek
As a tin-peddler's horse at the close of the week.
You knew how to make a most desperate thing
That "Down, left, right, up! Sing!"

Sweet hymn-tunes of old!—You had blood in your hearts,
That pulsed glowing life through your several parts:
From bass to soprano it surging]y climbed,
As grandly the chords of your melody chimed!
"Coronation," that brought royal splendors in view,
And solemn "Old Hundred," invariably new—
That golden sledge-hammer, of ponderous grace,
That drove every word like a wedge to its place;
"Balerma," of melody full to the brim,
And "Pleyel's" grandly plaintive melodious hymn;
With others, that memory's ear loves to greet,
Which, with different names, might have sounded less sweet.
Then with what a loud concatenation of sounds
We charged in our might on the glees and the rounds!
There was nothing, though polished, or harsh and unkempt,
That we had not courage enough to attempt;
And if tunes, when suggestion of murder arrives,
Were not gifted, like cats, with a number of lives,
There's many a living and healthy old strain,
We'd have sent long ago to repose with the slain.

O strong Winter nights! when all earth was aglow
With crystal stars dancing on meadows of snow;
When the blade of youth, hilted with pleasure's gold wreath,
Flashed out of its home like a sword from a sheath,
And advanced o'er the plains and the hill-tops, to dare
The quick-cutting edge of the frost-tempered air!
How through foaming drifts we careened to and fro,
And tossed the white waves with our ship of the snow,
Which fluttered far back, as we sailed swift along,
A streamer of rich elementary song!

O tall, queenly nights! to eternity's haze
You have followed your short little husbands of days;
But jeweled and braided with youth-freshened strains,
Your memory-ghosts walk the hills and the plains.
Not one of life's glittering subsequent nights,
With feverish pleasures and costly delights,
On treasure-fringed harbors and sail-whitened bays,
Not nights lit with fashion's cold, variable blaze,
Not when the gay opera's beauty-sown song
Plants passion's red flowers in the hearts of the throng;
No nights, dressed in splendor and carried with grace,
Old brave Winter nights, can e'er stand in your place;
Till the long one of death may perhaps bring us nigh
To the star-lighted singing-school held in the sky.

From Farm Festivals by Will Carleton, New York, N.Y: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1882, pp. 86-93

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