Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Poet (a Fraud) and his Instrument

Our reader from Malta, "D", commented on The Poet's most recent post, wondering what the heck any of it meant.  The Poet apparently read D's comment and has sent me this is reply ...

It's no wonder your readers don't understand me.  I'm not a Poet, I'm a fraud.  
I write of strumming my instrument, writing my poems, singing my songs.  And I write of my women - my Lady, my Princess, my wife.  
But I'm really a middle-aged office worker from Indiana who thinks too much about getting out of my cubicle and making it with someone half my age.  
And I can't even play my instrument.  Nor can I write good poems.
But I can read them.  And here, courtesy of Mr. Chesterton, is one of the best.  It gives courage to fakers and frauds everywhere.  Because, after all, our instrument is not the thing we carry with us and try to strum, and our songs are not really sung to young ladies.  
Perhaps the poem may explain ...

 "Other loves may sink and settle, other loves may loose and slack,
But I wander like a minstrel with a harp upon my back,
Though the harp be on my bosom, though I finger and I fret,
Still, my hope is all before me; for I cannot play it yet.

In your strings is hid a music that no hand hath e'er let fall,
In your soul is sealed a pleasure that you have not known at all;
Pleasure subtle as your spirit, strange and slender as your frame,
Fiercer than the pain that folds you, softer than your sorrow's name.

Not as mine, my soul's anointed, not as mine the rude and light
Easy mirth of many faces, swaggering pride of song and fight;
Something stranger, something sweeter, something waiting you afar,
Secret as your stricken senses, magic as your sorrows are.

But on this, God's harp supernal, stretched but to be stricken once,
Hoary time is a beginner, Life a bungler, Death a dunce.
But I will not fear to match them - no by God, I will not fear,
I will learn you, I will play you and the stars stand still to hear." 

- G. K. Chesterton, The Strange Music


So ends the poem and so concludes The Poet.


Let me take this opportunity to unpack "The Strange Music", since nobody much speaks the language of poetry any more.

The narrator of Chesterton's poem is a wandering minstrel, but a minstrel who cannot play his instrument.  The instrument is a harp, which the last stanza tells us is "God's harp supernal", a harp "stretched but to be stricken once."  But neither time, nor life nor death can play this instrument well.

Indeed, in this mysterious instrument is hidden "a music that no hand hath e'er let fall", a music that is like the four lost chords for which all poets seek, a music "subtle ... fiercer than the pain that folds" the instrument, a music, indeed a "pleasure" "softer than your sorrow's name."  

But the narrator of this poem is not made to make on this instrument, an instrument he addresses as his "soul's anointed", a "swaggering pride of song and fight", but "something stranger, something sweeter," something "magic as your sorrows are."

The mysterious instrument is the narrator's soul, indeed his "anointed soul", a soul called to Christ.  And while neither time nor life nor death can fully wring out the great music the narrator feels he cannot play on this harp supernal, he will "learn you" (learn the mysteries of making his soul sing), he will "play you", while "the stars stand still to hear".  


Dear Poet, whether you be really a homeless wandering minstrel, drinking and singing to a princess, a Lady, or your own dear wife; whether you be a bored office worker enslaved in Indiana; whether you be my alter-ego, or even the sad and lonely poet in all of us - do not fear to match the bunglers that can not wring from your soul the music God has placed there.  Time, life and death can not strum the strings that God has stretched, but when it is finally played (and it is made to be played but once - when struck, or in the language of the poem and in the language of pain, when "stricken"), the four lost chords will sound across even the darkest pit, and it is a song we all will know, for we have heard it long ago, before this world and its men fell into a deep darkness and a tone-deafness that can barely hear and never quite play.


Anonymous said...

:D I'm in love with G.K.'s poem the moment i started reading it!! And i fully understood it (even after reading your explanation), as if they were the echo of my lost 4 chords made manifest into words. This will be my personal lyrical battlecry to live by, to be of great encouragement, and "The Strange Music" has topped 'The Song of the Strange Ascetic' as my most favourite poem. Also enjoyed what you wrote in your final note to your friend/s the Poet.

Thank you Kevin; a lesson more fruitful, enjoyable and eye-opening than any of my lectures at Uni. Thousand times thanks :)


Zach said...

That's beautiful. I hadn't seen that poem before.

I love GKC's pun on "fret."