Song, scandal, and a princess: We are not Sure of Sorrow (1898)

When I started this project, I would not have imagined Swinburne’s languid ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ from Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866) ever inspiring popular music, and certainly not the tone of this piece by Charles Paston-Cooper (1867-1941). Weary and somnambulant it is not, but celebrates the atheism of Swinburne’s words with the kind of triumphalism normally reserved for national religions. We are not Sure of Sorrow uses the poem’s last three stanzas, which contain some of Swinburne’s most famous lines (at least in terms of Victorian poetry), such as:

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea. (l. 81-88) [1]

Paston-Cooper’s setting is not quite as Swinburne understood his own poem. The song starts melodically, but quickly becomes bracing and jubilant, and at first I imagined that Paston-Cooper was merely using the popularity of Swinburne’s lyrics to sell the tune (which is partly the case, undoubtedly), but perhaps I now also see it as a sort of anti-hymn.

‘Hymn’ comes from the Latin hymnus, meaning ‘a song or ode in praise of gods’[2]. Even if Swinburne’s lyrics thank the ‘gods’, whatever they ‘may be’, the poem is not in praise of an eternal life to come, but in relief for the finality of death. ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ is a place of oblivion. Once the struggles of life have ended, it suggests, there will be no resurrection, in contrast to the Christian belief. Instead we will be freed from that ‘hope and fear’ and drift into a sea of forgetfulness and extinction.

In Poems and Ballads, First Series, ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ immediately follows a notorious poem called ‘Dolores’ and comes before ‘Hesperia’, another mythical garden poem. The three are linked, which Swinburne highlighted in his Notes on Poems and Reviews, published in October 1866. Poems and Ballads had been published earlier that year in July by Edward Moxon, but Moxon had since withdrawn the book because of abusive reviews and fears of prosecution for indecency. While many poems in the volume were censured, ‘Dolores’ (which contains images of castration, ecstatic blood lust and perhaps could be described – figuratively – as one long, repeated, circular sexual act), was particularly attacked, with the London Review calling it ‘depraved and morbid’ and (rather wonderfully, I think) ‘[the] mere deification of incontinence’.[3]

Published at the same time as Poems and Ballads was reissued by John Camden Hotten (who was known to publish the occasional piece of erotica), Swinburne’s Notes on Poems and Reviews makes a general defence of his poetry and clarifies some of its themes. He draws out the relationship between ‘Dolores’, ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ and ‘Hesperia’, which he says form a loose narrative progression, expressing a ‘transient state of spirit through which a man may be supposed to pass’. Between the ‘violent delights’ of ‘Dolores’ and where the ‘worship of desire has ceased’ in ‘Hesperia’ is ‘The Garden of Proserpine’, which is when, he says, ‘the spirit, without fear or hope of good things or evil, hungers and thirsts only after the perfect sleep’.[4]

As I say, Paston-Cooper’s We are not Sure of Sorrow is definitely not about sleep, and it might be said that its title is an understatement. It isn’t sure about sorrow at all. It’s rather emphatic in its atheism, and there is a certainty, vitality and a jubilation about this music which, as I say, makes it sound like an anti-hymn rather than a song to be sung after dinner.

Sir Charles Nauton Paston-Cooper (he inherited a baronetcy from his father in 1904) seems to have had a very colourful, even scandalous life, although details about it are scarce. In his early life he composed several successful songs, including another that uses Swinburne’s lyrics, A Leave-taking, which was performed at the Proms in 1902, then held at the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place. However, in 1894 he appears to have gained an undesirable kind of fame as a potential philanderer. Several newspapers report his somewhat leading role in a ‘theatrical divorce case’ between the actor-manager Charles Hawtrey (1858-1923) and his wife Madeline Hawtrey. The divorce courts, if one follows the chain of news stories across several publications, heard evidence that Madeline (who had petitioned divorce from her husband) was accused of ‘improper relations’ with Paston-Cooper (which she denied), ever since they had slept in adjacent rooms at a hotel in Cannes in the late 1880s. Given in striking detail by Reynolds’s Newspaper, the story travels from Cannes, back to London, and onto Monte Carlo, Paris and Venice, and even involves Madeline’s maid, Poole, who, it is said, ‘warned Mrs Hawtrey of her position in connection with her intimacy with Cooper’. [5] Although it was clearly one of the great scandals of the day, Madeline eventually won her divorce and, subsequently, Paston-Cooper looks to have transcended the dishonour, as in 1899 he married the Princess Tatiana Dolgorouky of Russia.

We are not Sure of Sorrow, by Charles Paston-Cooper (London: Chappell & Co, 1898)


[1]The Garden of Proserpine’ has inspired two other songs that I know of, ‘A Prayer of Thanksgiving’ by Louise Llewellyn (1907) and ‘Somewhere Safe to Sea’ by William Harold Neidlinger (1920), and was given a full orchestral and choir treatment by Vaughan Williams in The Garden of Proserpine, which, although written in 1899, was not performed until 2010. It can be heard on Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Garden of Proserpine, In the Fen Country, Fen and Flood, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paul Daniel (Albion Records, 2011).

[2] Definition from the Oxford English Dictionary. Paston-Cooper had earlier published a setting of Ave Maria (Ducci & Co, 1893), and presumably the sentiments of this piece do not sit well with We are not Sure of Sorrow.

[3] Clyde K. Hyder, Swinburne: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 37.

[4] The Critical Heritage, pp. 53-55.

[5] Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 1 July, 1894. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times of 14 July, 1894, also carries interesting news of the case with court sketches, in an article entitled, ‘The Hawtrey Divorce Case’.

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Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain Conference, 2017

Glad to say that along with the other members of the Sounding Victorian consortium, I’m going to be talking about my research and the project at the Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain Conference at the University of Birmingham next week!

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‘East to West’ by Charles Villiers Stanford (1893)

By far the most complex recreation I’ve attempted, this is a section of a setting by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) of Swinburne’s ‘East to West’. The lyrics were commissioned by Stanford for the ‘Chicago World’s Fair’ or the ‘Chicago Columbian Exposition’ of 1893, but the piece was actually premiered at the Royal Albert Hall on 10 May of that year.[1] It appears that the music never made it to Chicago after its premier, only managing a further performance a bit nearer to home, in Cambridge, a month later.

As I say, this is just the first choral section (of a piano and four-part version, published by Augener & Co.), but hopefully it gives an idea of a piece that was very warmly received at its premier, with Stanford – a Cambridge and Royal College of Music professor and one of the greatest composers of the era – called to the platform by the audience for applause.[2]

It starts with a stately introduction, which the vocalists eventually join, before truly taking off at bar 41, and then turning wonderfully and swiftly melodic after bar 55. After a series of vocal exchanges reminiscent of ringing bells, this increasingly complex piece ends on a rather lovely piano section, though as this was supposed to blend into the next part of the ode, the video then ends rather abruptly.

Where the vocal parts share the words, I have only typed them out once. Where they break, I have given words to each line. It must be said that Swinburne’s lyrics are not exactly inspired, but then they were written to order for an event which perhaps, in turn, he didn’t find that inspiring. It is, however, yet another fine example of Swinburne’s work with the most important composers of the period.

London: Augener & Co, 1893.

[1] The Musical Times, ‘New Poem by Mr. Swinburne’, 1 February, 1893, p. 82.

[2] The Morning Post, ‘Royal Albert Hall’, 11 May 1893.

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Sounding Victorian

The School of English and Drama at Queen Mary, University of London, has published a blog post about this site and the consortium that it’s to become part of, Sounding Victorian. To read this post on AllthingsSED, please click the image below.


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‘The Hounds of Spring’

Muriel Elliot’s setting of Swinburne’s ‘When the Hounds of Spring’ from his Greek tragedy Atalanta in Calydon (1865), must have been hugely dramatic in performance, and not least at its premiere in the extraordinary venue of the Crystal Palace in 1906.

The beat hammers out the rhythm of Swinburne’s words with huge energy. The producer, Elise Fogerty (1865-1945), had long nurtured a desire to ‘recover what I should call the Dionysiac spirit of Greek Drama’, to ‘release a wild ecstasy’ and to give new life to the ‘glory that was Greece’. Combining this desire with her love of Swinburne (she had been in William Poël’s 1899 production of Swinburne’s Locrine) Fogerty researched ancient Greek choric dance and chant ‘from historical evidence’, and with her drama students, tried to perfect a ‘poetry of movement with poetry of sound’.[1]

The ‘wild ecstasy’ had to be focused of course, and her chorus of 15 women were drilled over many months: ‘The students spoke and shouted and reiterated the lines till the rhythms took fire and seemed to make a music of their own; and gradually Muriel composed the themes that expressed their meaning.’[2]

What is interesting about this quote is that the composition of Elliot’s music was an organic process. It was born out of the repetition of Swinburne’s words. The chorus, the actors in the named parts, and the composer worked together. They aimed at a unity of performance, it seems, where all the elements grew out from and were part of a whole.

There were two performances at the Crystal Palace in 1906 and two more at the Scala Theatre – now demolished, but sited behind Tottenham Court Road, near the British Museum. Fogerty had researched Greek movement at the museum, in an effort to bring ‘to life the still, carved beauty of Attic vase and frieze’.[3]

The production was revived in 1911 at the Lyceum Theatre, this time as a fund-raiser for the Women’s Local Government Association (WLGA). The minutes of the meetings for these performances – which are much concerned with the serving of tea and coffee – and their publicity materials survive at the London Metropolitan Archives. Kit Anstruther-Thomson (artist, sculptor, and former partner of the writer Vernon Lee) appears as one of the members for the WLGA.  The association, also called ‘The Society for Promoting Women as County Councillors’, was a network of liberals, suffragettes and others who wanted women to play a greater part in political life. It is interesting that Swinburne should be used in the aid of a feminist cause, but given the strong women in Atalanta – both Althaea and Atalanta herself – it seems entirely appropriate. The 1906 productions were fundraisers for The Waifs and Strays’ Society and the Bedford College Endowment Fund, which was a college dedicated to the education of women.[4]

The performances were well received. The Times on 8 June, 1906, said, ‘We look for poetry, and we find it; words that soar, that rush, that sting, that burn, a sustained eagle-flight in the eye of the sun, the perfect impassioned “form” that makes the search for “matter” mere pedantry. In seeing Atalanta in Calydon acted, we ask that beautiful figures shall give outline and solidity to our own imaginations of these people, and that beautiful voices shall make audible music of these magic words’.

The section of music presented here is from the beginning of Swinburne’s play, formed from four verses of the Chorus’s first chant, lines 65-96. The next section of music – I presume that the intervening words were spoken, though Fogerty reports that she had to cut text – starts on the Chorus’s line ‘Before the beginning of years’, at line 314.

It is not known what Swinburne thought of this production. Fogerty received a letter from his sister Isabel, which highlights that his deafness would have made it impossible for him to have enjoyed it fully, but that she was ‘so greatly moved by your most beautiful rendering of my dear brother’s poem’.[5]

In the 1906 production, Fogerty played Althaea, Elsie Thompson, Atalanta, Lewis Casson the Chief Huntsman, and Gerald Ames, Meleager. Elliot’s equally energetic overture to the play can be found here.

[1] Marion Cole, Fogie: The Life of Elsie Fogerty, CBE, (London: Peter Davies, 1967), pp. 34-35

[2] Fogie, p. 40

[3] Fogie, p. 34

[4] The Times, 27 February, 1906

[5] Fogie, p. 41

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My Love, Mine Own, 1880

While I appear to have broken my rule about only including music set to Swinburne lyrics, this really is a special case. The lyrics were clearly inspired by Swinburne, and – as I can find no clue as to where they have come from – I’m assuming that they’re by the composer himself, Francis Hueffer (a.k.a. Franz Hüffer, 1845-1889).

A close friend of Swinburne and William Michael Rossetti, Hueffer was The Times music critic from 1879, the editor of the New Quarterly Magazine, and wrote extensively on Wagner, including Richard Wagner and the Music of the Future (1874). He was one of the translators of Wagner’s libretti for the 1877 Wagner festival at the Royal Albert Hall, at which Wagner himself was present, and translated libretti for several other operas, including Verdi’s Otello. Hueffer also composed settings to poems, including Swinburne’s A Match.

Swinburne mentions Hueffer several times in his letters, as he married Catherine Madox Brown. Ford Madox Ford (the writer of Parade’s End and The Good Soldier, and many other works indeed), who was Francis and Catherine’s son, claims that Swinburne was his godfather. Given Swinburne’s antipathy to Christianity, this seems remarkably unlikely, but who am I to say otherwise?

Of the two pieces of Hueffer’s that I have listened to, this is by far the most successful. The other setting, that to A Match, is perhaps trying to be a little too Wagnerian for its own good and quickly overwhelms itself.

If anyone recognises where the lyrics come from – if they are not Hueffer’s – I would be delighted to know.

More Swinburne music shortly…

(Novello, Ewer & Co, 1880)

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Küss’ ich ihr Haar (1912)

This terrific adaption of Swinburne’s ‘Kissing Her Hair‘ is by Kurt Schindler (1882-1935). Dramatically different to the previous adaption of the poem I shared – the first-ever piece of music to be inspired by Swinburne’s verse – this beautifully textured song is wistful, reflective, and poignant, as if recalling and reliving love and passion and pain from some years hence. It twists and shifts through its various voices and ends in a very different mood to the emotions it started with. The German lyrics are by Schindler himself. I have found another version of this in A Major.

Schindler conducted opera seasons at Stuttgart and Berlin before heading to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

New York: Schirmer, 1912

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