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'A thing of beauty is a joy forever ...'
on 18 November 2009
OK, so you won't be hearing the opening line from Endymion here, but you will hear some of the most famous lines in English-language poetry in this 'celebration of the greatest poems and classical music, read by the finest voices of our time.' Including:
'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? ...'
'Oh, to be in England/ Now that April's there, ...'
'Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, ...'
'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. ...'
'If you can keep your head when all around you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, ...'
As it has been released this week, it is now possible to listen to this CD before reviewing it.
The actors involved in this recording have waived their royalties in favour of I CAN, the children's communication charity.
To many poetry lovers the sound of the poem is as essential to the meaning as the words on the page, and a collection of this kind, read by some of our best-loved actors is most welcome. Though some of us will be happy just to let these wonderful words and music wash over us, others may want to reflect and ponder the poet's words. If you are like me, you will also want the printed words in front of you (though they are not included in the accompanying booklet).
There is no explanation of how these poems were selected, though as can be seen, they include the familiar as well as a few perhaps lesser-known gems. The latter include Rock Me To Sleep, accompanied by a heavenly excerpt from Schubert's Rosamunde, and Emily Bronte's Come Walk With Me; and it's good to see included two poems from the sadly-missed Elizabeth Jennings. Many of the poems have appeared repeatedly in popular anthologies in recent years; for example, two-thirds of them were included in the BBC book (and audio collection) The Nation's Favourite Poems published in 1996.
The background music has been carefully selected for each particular poem, though perhaps it works better on some than others. There is an issue here. In some poetry collections where music has been included the results have not always been appreciated, and indeed, considered by some to be too intrusive, even distracting. Well, clearly that is a matter of personal choice. In this case the music is mostly well in the background.
The opening poem will be familiar not just from its origins, but also as Pete Seeger's 1960s popular folk song Turn! Turn! Turn! Kipling's portentous If remains a great favourite, though I had to smile at both the choice of reader in Martin Shaw, and the music by Verdi. Still, I do prefer this better-paced version to the one I have read by John Nettles.
To Autumn is read over a piece by Borodin by Ben Whishaw, who plays a fragile Keats in Jane Campion's new film Bright Star. Brian Cox impresses with his readings of Burns and The Lady Of Shalott (and I'm pleased to say we get the full version). The excerpts from Greig work well behind DH Lawrence's On The Balcony, and hauntingly with Byron's She Walks In Beauty. Similarly, Mahler's sweeping strings lift Yeats's He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven, and Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, yet is appropriately sombre behind Auden's Stop All The Clocks (or Funeral Blues). An elegant Nocturne excerpt from Chopin accompanies Silver, and Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending is most suitable for another perennial (though poignant) favourite Adlestrop, written hardly 18 months before Edward Thomas died in the trenches.
A plaintive cello piece backs this version of Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep, read movingly by one of our best-known character actors, Miriam Margolyes. This poem has become a popular favourite in recent years, At one time believed to have been written by a serviceman killed in Northern Ireland, it has been attributed to a Baltimore housewife Mary Elizabeth Frye, written in the Thirties over the grief of a friend unable to return to Nazi Germany. An excerpt from Beethoven's 7th Symphony is played behind the angry Dulce Et Decorum Est ('The old Lie: ...') sounding both dramatic and poignant. Wilfred Owen's lines resonate in the words of The Last Post, the magnificent poem written by the new laureate, the wonderful Carol Ann Duffy, to mark the funerals earlier this year of the last veterans of the Great War. 'If poetry could truly tell it backwards,/ then it would.' Ah, if only.
Well, there's no Housman, Eliot, Larkin or Hughes, to name but a few; nor Anon, another favourite of mine. But what we do have is a veritable treasure of words, music and voice to entertain, reassure, comfort and challenge as we look to the long winter nights ahead - and beyond.
As the late Clifford T. Ward once sang: 'I like the words they use, and I like the way they use them, ...'