This poem was first published in Cor Cordium in 1913 - his fourth book, mainly made up of love poems.
Awake! my lute, my lyre,
My harp, my muse, my song,
Show forth my flame, my fire,
My want, my woe, my wrong;
My hope, my trust, my will,
My moans, my sighs, my tears,
My name, my wit, my skill,
My joys, my doubts, my fears.
My mistress' smile and frown,
Her hand, her hair, her eyes,
My loved, my all, my own,
So fond, so fair, so wise;
So faint, so rich, so free,
So full, so deep, so pure;
So great, so good, is she!
So soft, so sweet, so sure.
Her form, her shape, her face,
Her comeliness, her gait,
Her charm, her gift, her grace,
Her perfectness, her state;
Her lips of rosy-peach,
Dew-baited, with desire,
Her tongue, her wit, her speech,
Her calm, her storm, her fire.
O broken lute! O lyre!
O harp! O muse! O song!
O burning flame of fire!
O heart, that suffers wrong!
O cruel, seeming kind!
O folly, wanting fear!
O love, for ever blind!
O false, without a tear!
Lyrical poetry takes its name from the Greek string instrument called a lyre, which was commonly used to accompany the performance of poetry in song. Since then, lyres became by association (metonymy) a byword for poetic inspiration. So we find it in Petrach's Sonnet 294, which ends with a reference to his lyre turning to tears on the death of the poet's beloved.
More relevant to the study of Alfred Williams is the poem by 16th century writer Thomas Wyatt called My Lute Awake! Both Alfred's and Wyatt's poems deal with the disappointment of rejected love, and both use the long established convention of appealing to their lute to awake and give voice to the joys or griefs of the poet. This refers back to former texts - the Biblical Psalm 57 being one which would have been readily known to both Alfred and Wyatt with its Awake up, my glory; awake, psaltery and harp. Like the rest of the 150 Psalms, it was originally meant to be sung, as indeed they were in the past - and are still today - as part of Christian worship.
Wyatt's and Alfred's lyrics would, likewise, have been composed with the intention of being set to music and performed.
There is a parallel between the two poems in terms of content. Both deal with the disappointment of an ended relationship, but Alfred's enumerates the many states of mind that Alfred, the man in love, experiences - from the goad of desire through to the pangs of guilt (my wrong, presumably confessing the one he caused?), from exultation and enthralment to frustration and hurt.
The two poems are, however, quite different from each other, formally speaking. The Elizabethan poet used a more elaborate stanza of five lines rhyming aabab (four stanzas of five lines, ie, 20 lines) with each stanza developing a thought in a full syntactic turn. By contrast, Alfred's poem is four stanzas (32 lines) of eight verses of simple ababcdcd rhyme.
The lines string an accumulation of short nominal phrases, reeling off for 25 lines, before they pull a third verb (O heart that suffers wrong!) after the first two imperatives appearing in the first and third lines: Awake (...), Show (...). It would be somewhat rushed to say that the absence of verbs makes for a static poemby default. In fact, this one in particular does have a form of implied narrative, developing a four-shot drama, as it were, through the basic phases of a story in flash scenes:
The fall in tone of the last stanza feels sharper after the sustained climb of the middle one. The first is a mixed bag of conflicting feelings, defining the near-chaotic state of the emotions and mind in the turmoil of romantic love. The focus is in the Me - not the us, not even the you.
- presentation - the poet's love case, his struggles and up and downs
- knot - the varying shades in his relationship with the lady, as hinted in her smile and frown, and her moral and psychological characterisation
- climax - a stepped-up study of her sensual appeal, suggesting a closer, more physically involved affair, though still riddled with difficulties pointed at by her storm
- resolution - the final rejection.
There are 22 repititions of the possessive my in those first eight lines, which are made more prominent by their position at the beginning of the very brief nominal phrases that make up most of the stanza. It reads rather like a teenage poem in the way it spins around the first person. In the seventh line, the poet expresses preocupation with demonstrating his own worthy name, wit and skills, and does so in the same exalted dramatic air as his passionate sentiments towards the object of his affections. That seems out of place and discolours the tone of the theme.
In the second stanza, the centre of attention becomes fixed on the beloved, with two my lines serving as mergers from the I, me, mine lane into the she, her, hers road. After the my-her-my road works, we follow the clear, accented signs of the anaphoric adverb, each carvanning with a descriptive adjective which so intensifies. This adjectival tandem queue lines 12 to 16 in triads, which is clearly the predominant pattern in the poem for the first three stanzas: a triad of triads.
The deviations from the established designs are only the more conspicuous for it: amongst the triads, two-part lines slow down the speed for our attention to take its time; amongst the sustained anaphora (initial repetition of a word), the lines Show forth my flame, my fire and Dew-baited, with desire easily catch our eye, and ear.
At the same time, these two lines are set in strategic positions so that, within the body of the poem comprised by the first three stanzas, they mark the third line from the beginning and the third line from the end, in a careful mirror structure, with the second stanza starting with its own triadic symmetry.
No verbs and none but two adjectival elements (of rosy peach and dew-baited) create here the suggestion of an ecstatic trance mood, which is akin to mystical poetry (for instance seen in San Juan de la Cruz's Cántico espiritual), though admittedly, without the poetic sophistication of the latter.
The mention of her state rings a few alarm bells (like so rich in the previous stanza). Is this a clever parody or a not quite successful choice of noun? Maybe it's a tongue-in-cheek mockery of poems in that vein, which would explain the seventh line in the poem), or a rushed wording on the spur of the emotion? Alfred is reputed to have been a serious man, not one given to irony and sarcasm, so maybe the interpretation is a little far-fetched.
The fourth stanza serves as a contrast, both from the perspective of the arrangement mentioned and from the turn in content and tone. The structures are less predictable, which goes well with the expression of vexation and grievance. Although every line opens with the exclamation O as an anaphora, we find nouns introduced by prepositions and several verbs, though in non-personal form, serving an adjectival role, the same as the prepositional phrases, but adding emotional dynamism.
There is an added complexity in the stanza in the elliptic references we find: who's cruel, seeming kind? The immediate antecedent is heart - clearly the poet's, having suffered rejection.
It would accuse his own heart of cruelty on account of the pain that he suffers for its sake. That would tie in with the further accusation of folly, since the heart has sought trouble, treading into the dangerous territory of love.
The reference changes to love itself in the next line. So far so good, everything clear; but who is false and uncaring enough not shed a tear for the hurt caused? The syntax points to love as a reference, but rather than love as an outside, abstract entity, implicitly symbolised in the Greek figure of Eros (Cupid in the Roman version), the blind-folded young boy that served as a classical mythological representation of human sensual affections, it seems to point a direct accusatory finger to the lady lover herself.
This may not be the easiest poem for a modern reader to appreciate. I personally find the short sharp insistence of the exclamations wearing, and the clipped, heavily accented rhythm a constraint to expression, rather than an aid to take the message seriously.
And yet it is obvious that, in many ways, the style is intentional and not the fruit of casual neglect, as transpires from the determined avoidance of verbs. This verges on the impressionistic, which is very well in tune with the artistic trends of his time, but also, as we saw, evoking a previously tried and tested literary technique, specially linked to mystical writing and used to great effect; for instance by Gerard Manley Hopkins in his Pied Beauty, and later by the imagist poets - Ezra Pound among them - who were also finding inspiration in Oriental forms like the haiku.
Then Alfred being Alfred, there is no want of phonic games sown along the lines, most oviously aliterations. However, after considering those blips of expression mentioned, it just leaves me wondering how serious or how mature this piece is after all.
My Lute Awake!
By Thomas Wyatt
My lute awake! perform the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste,
And end that I have now begun;
For when this song is sung and past,
My lute be still, for I have done.
As to be heard where ear is none,
As lead to grave in marble stone,
My song may pierce her heart as soon;
Should we then sigh or sing or moan?
No, no, my lute, for I have done.
The rocks do not so cruelly
Repulse the waves continually,
As she my suit and affection;
So that I am past remedy,
Whereby my lute and I have done.
Proud of the spoil that thou hast got
Of simple hearts thorough Love's shot,
By whom, unkind, thou hast them won,
Think not he hath his bow forgot,
Although my lute and I have done.
Vengeance shall fall on thy disdain
That makest but game on earnest pain.
Think not alone under the sun
Unquit to cause thy lovers plain,
Although my lute and I have done.
Perchance thee lie withered and old
The winter nights that are so cold,
Plaining in vain unto the moon;
Thy wishes then dare not be told;
Care then who list, for I have done.
And then may chance thee to repent
The time that thou hast lost and spent
To cause thy lovers sigh and swoon;
Then shalt thou know beauty but lent,
And wish and want as I have done.
Now cease, my lute; this is the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste,
And ended is that we begun.
Now is this song both sung and past:
My lute be still, for I have done.
Introducing Cristina Newton
Alphabetical list of poems online