We humans have always had a love relationship with poetry since Adam first saw Eve in Eden and in the throes of the wonder and ecstasy of love cried out:
BONE OF MY BONES AND FLESH OF MY FLESH,
SHE SHALL BE CALLED WOMAN.
Instantly, poetry was born!
Poetry is the product of the passions of man and in its purest form expresses the sublime. It is his natural response to the experiences of life and the flow of his imagination. I am also a lover of poetry so it is no surprise that I have also written several pieces myself. Unfortunately, over the years I have not been diligent in storing my poems and they are either lost or are scattered about.
Needless to say, I have my favourite poems written by others – two of which have become part of my mental data. I would like to highlight these in this article. They are: The West Isles by Allister McMillan and the Music Makers by Arthur O’Shaughnessy. Due to my occasional repetition of these works from memory my wife has grown accustomed to them.
Over the past months she has made a deliberate effort to learn the lines by heart in the course of our frequent morning walks. When she repeats them, I would sometimes respond with “I think she’s got it. She’s got it,” This is in imitation of Professor Higgins’ response to Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady after she correctly repeated poetically: “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the spring.”
I am always thrilled with McMillan’s poem, THE WEST INDIA ISLES
Of all the beauty spots of earth, the fairest and the best
Are the jewels of the Caribbean – the islands of the West;
Where nature in profusion grows,
Her choicest gifts bestowed in land and sky, in temperature
In everything that glows.
Verdant hills and singing rills and woods of sweet perfume
Balmy air and everywhere are wondrous flowers in bloom;
Zephyrs sight through palm trees high and whisper peace and rest,
Enchanting lands with golden strands
Dear islands of the West.
O for the stephanotis scent and frangipani too!
O for the thrilling mountain peaks and panoramic view!
O for the hush at eventide, the silvery moonlight,
The voices of the forest and the glories of the night!
The busy ports the laden wharves, the darkies in the way,
The schooners in the harbour and the steamers in the bay,
The stores with varied merchandise, the lively sights and sounds
And all the interesting things with which each isle is bound.
Then ship me to the Indies for t’is there that I would be
Roaming o’er a fragrant shore beside a sapphire sea.
I hear the siren voices call from surf to mountain crest,
The sweet seductive voices of the islands of the West.
In these fascinating lines the poet rhapsodises on the captivating beauty, the tantalising fragrance, the exhilarating breezes, the sylvan hills, and the pulsating life of the Caribbean in his poetic masterpiece. His masterful description makes it easy to fantasise the scenes described. No wonder he desires to be shipped to the Indies to explore its pristine glories and subtly suggests that others join him on tour. Since this region is my home let me say, WELCOME TO THE WEST INDIA ISLES.
We now move from the scintillating description of the West India Isles to the somber lines of the MUSIC MAKERS BY Arthur O’Shaughnessy:
We are the music-makers
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems.
With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.
We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.
In this classic work, O’Shaughnessy recognises the contributions which song has made to the rise and fall of civilisations from ancient Nineveh and Babylon to the present. The marriage of music and poetry appeals to the imagination stimulating the actions of men and nations and shaping the contours of cultures.
The music-makers tend to see further than most people because they have taken time to resort to desolate streams and seashores in order to think. They then put their dreams and visions into poesy and music in order to communicate to their fellowmen the fruits of their reflection using the most effective medium possible.
It was Andrew Stewart who once said in parliament, “Let me write the music of a nation and I care not who writes its laws.” He understood the power of song as did O’Shaughnessy. Nero was trampling his own kingdom down as he played his lyre and sang while fire was raging in Rome.
Balladeers and minstrels inspired by the muse have carried their songs into court, countryside, and townships captivating the imagination of kings, courtiers, farmers, and the general society. They have kindled vision and stimulated passions making the impossible seem possible. They have energised soldiers as well as artisans and builders. Their music has been the food of love and the dynamic of noble deeds. The sound of bagpipes and trumpets and the roll of drums have set the blood of soldiers boiling as they rushed like lions upon their enemies.
Wagner’s classical piece, Gutterdamerung (Twilight of the Gods) based on Nordic lore provided the backdrop to the destruction of the Third Reich in 1945. The Nazi rulers listened to its refrain before they committed suicide as the Russians closed in on Berlin.
Gilbert and Sullivan helped to bring down the presumed prudishness of the Victorian culture in their creation of the musical Mikado. One can talk a lot about the influence of African music on the American culture as well as the power of Calypso, reggae, dancehall music, and soca in the Caribbean context. The songs and sounds of Caribbean Carnival and Louisiana Mardi Gras stimulate the sensuality of their cultural environment.
Music has crossed the boundaries from one culture to another spreading messages across a wide spectrum. Rather than be influenced by laws music instead has influenced the laws of nations forcing lawmakers to pass legislation passed upon cultural trends rather than on moral standards and fundamental principles. Sociological law has virtually replaced natural law.
The Bible is rich in poetry and song. Much of its contents are communicated in this genre. The book of Psalms, which have been described as “Humanity’s Hymnbook, proclaims the musical lyrics of David, Heman, Jeduthun, Ethan, Asaph and others as they express worship to God and reveal his will for mankind. They declare his creative power, sovereign majesty, covenant love, and judicial acts. At creation the morning stars sang together while the sons of God shouted for joy.
The music of a culture can either make or break a civilisation. Many cultures have fallen on account of the content and character of their music. Sadly, much of today’s musical vibes promote degrading lifestyles with the focus on destructive drugs, sexual immorality, anarchy, witchcraft, and violence. Rather than spiraling upward to the sublime culture today is spiraling downward to the grotesque aided by the existing musical preferences.
The appetite of the Generations X, Y, and Z seems to be already skewed in the directions of that which is anarchic and chaotic. Rhythm often overrides melody and harmony as musical productions are churned out with deafening decibels.
Although there is much that pass for music, in reality, culture has lost its song and has replaced it with sounds that have no meaning. The psalmist recognised this fact and cried out, “Let the people praise thee, O God, let all the peoples praise. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy.”
Unless, there is a divine intervention the concatenation and cacophony of our current music-makers will be but the swan song of another dying culture. Our age is indeed “a dream that is dying” but there seems to be no evidence of another which is coming to birth.
Yet, there is hope. The song of creation which became lost at the commencement of human corruption is being replaced by the song of salvation. It was introduced in Eden when God promised to send a Redeemer to restore hope to mankind. That Redeemer came in the person of Jesus Christ the Son of God. No wonder his birth was accompanied by the music of the angels, the Sons of God.
The music of Christmas is unrivalled because it restores hope to humanity. It is the song of salvation with its lyrics of pardon, peace with God, and eternal life. It invites men to repent and look in faith to the cross where the Son of God died in order to lift them from the fall to become sons of God. These sons of God are the new humanity that sings a new song because of their new creation in Christ Jesus.
That new creation is the new age which is coming to birth. Then “there’ll be one song through endless ages, there’ll be song, one song alone. T’will be the song of Christ the Saviour, the Great Redeemer upon his throne.”