Words and music

I’ve been reading back through one of my favorite devotional texts, To the Gods of Hellas: Lyrics of the Greek Games at Barnard College, edited by Helen Erskine and originally published by the Columbia University Press in 1930 (and now republished by Kessinger, see the link above). As is true with all anthologies, the quality is a bit uneven, but overall the writing is good and the enthusiasm – and occasionally disarming naïveté of most of the writers goes a long way to compensating for whatever deficiencies one might find. (The Greek Games themselves were a fascinating phenomenon, incidentally, and well worth Googling.)

In the spirit of National Poetry Month I wanted to share a couple of my favorite passages. The first poem is used as a sort of introduction to the collection, and as far as I’m concerned the opening lines could stand as an informal introduction to the entire pagan revival.

The Spirit of Greek Games
Isabel Williams, class of 1926

Who says the ancient gods have passed away?
We feel their presence, as men felt of old.
How should they die? Here all their spirits live –
Wisdom and music, beauty, joyous youth,
Springtide and harvest – all their gifts to man.

Sadly, in the interest of space I can’t post all my favorite bits, but I do want to share a couple more. I have used this hymn to Demeter in group ritual, set to a medieval French carol tune; again, I am sharing just the beginning.

Invocation and Libation to Demeter
Grace Goodale, class of 1899

Goddess thou of hope and harvest,
Strong Earth-Mother, patient, wise,
Graciously vouchsafe thy presence,
Hither come in kindly guise;
Hearken, O Demeter, hearken,
As to thee our hymns arise!
Hearken, O Demeter, hearken,
As to thee our hymns arise!

The last poem for today I will post in its entirety; I recently wrote a tune to accompany it (I’ll call it a “setting” if and when I add a harmony line and chord structure. :) The music can be heard here.

The phrasing is not great in the recording because I had to settle for typing it out on the computer keyboard using a free online piano and capturing the result with Audacity – but it gives the general idea. I’ve been singing it very legato, at about 63.

Dirge (A Lover’s Prayer to Hermes)
Jane Hillyer, class of 1929

The wind has drawn its fingers through the trees,
And rippled running whispers on its breath…
But god of roadways leading down to death,
O what have she and I to do with these?

The tender leaves will bring no song to me –
For she will never lift her eyes again
Beneath the clouds and shiver of the rain
To watch the myrtle bloom in Thessaly.

My pulses will forget to greet the red
Of sunrise, or the drops of laughing wine –
For hands that trembled yesterday in mine
Stretch blindly out among the voiceless dead.

I showed her where the rich, blue oceans press,
And how the breakers of the tide begin –
O Hermes, be to her as I have been
And guide her in the strange first loneliness.


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