Words by A.E. Housman, tune and arrangement by David Harley, 2015. All rights reserved.
One of my Housman settings. However, this one isn’t from A Shropshire Lad. Every so often, a tune just pops into my head and demands to be written. Strange how often that’s happened when reading Housman… I don’t own a lute (and haven’t tried to play one in decades), so I used my classic. I do love the lute, though I long ago gave up trying to play anything by Dowland.
The poem was apparently written by a very young Housman (15) for a play, as a song to be sung by Lady Jane Grey while in prison awaiting execution. It somewhat resembles a lyric by Louisa McCartney Crawford (1790–1858) set to music by George Arthur Barker as part of a sequence of Songs of Mary Queen of Scots – The Captivity opens with the line ‘Breathe, breathe my Lute that melting strain My soul delights to hear’. Clearly there are parallels in the context of the two lyrics. There again, filtering thoughts about one’s l poems to or about one’s lute is almost de rigeur for poets: consider ‘My Lute Awake’ and ‘The Lover’s Lute cannot be blamed though it sing of his Lady’s Unkindness’ by Thomas Wyatt, and even ‘Thou Art My Lute’ by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. (However, I am not currently considering an ode to my Strat.)
Returning to Housman, the first verse also reminds me somewhat of Byron’s We’ll go no more a-roving.
Breathe, my lute, beneath my fingers
One regretful breath,
One lament for life that lingers
Round the doors of death.
For the frost has killed the rose,
And our summer dies in snows,
And our morning once for all
Gathers to the evenfall.
Hush, my lute, return to sleeping,
Sing no songs again.
For the reaper stays his reaping
On the darkened plain;
And the day has drained its cup,
And the twilight cometh up;
Song and sorrow all that are
Slumber at the even-star.