Thursday, 30 November 2006
The Unquiet Grave
Our latest poetry essay assignment is to compare a 16th/17th century poem with a 18th/19th century poem on a similar theme, and both must be from the Norton Anthology, or "The Big Bastard Book of Poetry," as it is affectionately known. I spent quite a large chunk of last night/this morning trawling through to find poems I wanted to use. I practically ended up reading the entire thing, which, no doubt, was the cunning plan. I didn't find anything for the essay, but what I did find, to my delight, were early poems which I know well as folk or Mediaeval songs. And they were versions I hadn't seen! One thing I really love about folk music (and I mean proper folk music, not Bob Dylan, though he's in the Norton too!) is that literally hundreds of singers will record the same song and it will be dramatically different each time.
The Norton has one of my favourite songs, "The Unquiet Grave," which I first heard recorded by Kate Rusby, with the loveliest piano accompaniment. As Kate says in her song book, it is such a delicate, passionate song. It was interesting to compare the versions. Kate's is:
How pleasant is the wind tonight
I feel some drops of rain
I never had but one true love
In greenwood he lies slain
I'll do so much for my true love
As any young girl may
I'll sit and mourn all on your grave
For twelve months and a day
The twelve months and a day being up
The ghost began to speak
Why sit you here and mourn for me
And you will not let me sleep
What do you want of me sweetheart
Oh what is it you crave
Just one kiss of your lily-white lips
And that is all I crave
Oh don't you see the fire sweetheart
The fire that burns so blue
Where my poor soul tormented is
All for the love of you
And if you weren't my own sweetheart
As I know you well to be
I'd rend you up in pieces small
As leaves upon a tree
Mourn not for me my dearest dear
Mourn not for me I crave
I must leave you and all the world
And turn into my grave
While the Norton has:
"The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain.
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.
"I'll do as much for my true-love
As any young man may;
I'll sit and mourn all at her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day."
The twelvemonth and a day being up,
The dead began to speak:
"Oh who sits weeping on my grave
And will not let me sleep?"
"'Tis I, my love, sits on your grave,
And will not let you sleep;
For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips,
And that is all I seek."
"You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
But my breath smells earthy strong;
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
Your time will not be long.
"'Tis down in yonder garden green,
Love, where we used to walk,
The finest flower that e'er was seen
Is withered to a stalk.
"The stalk is withered dry, my love,
So will our hearts decay;
So make yourself content, my love,
Till God calls you away."
I'm sure the Norton's version is much more "worthy" and closer to the original composition, but I must confess I don't like it as much. Kate possibly made the speaker female to suit a female voice, but, even without that, her version is much more feminine, more of a love song and, to me, sadder, in spite of the Norton's hammering home the tragedy. There's a morbidity to the Norton, right down to the corpse's "earthy strong" breath. It's less personal. I enjoy the romance of Kate's version, the lovers speaking from the heart, etc, just because I'm soppy. Long live soppy, I say.
Oh, and the attached version is Charles Vess' illustration. I like it very much, even if I don't agree that the girl sits on the grave until she's an old woman. Her lover wouldn't let her sit there that long, and what'd be the point if she was going to die herself soon anyway? Maybe it's showing how suffering has aged her. Still, she sounds young to me. It's a lovely picture, though, really beautiful.