The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on June 11th, 2014

I once conducted a choral song cycle by the American composer Irving Fine (1914-1962), called "The Hour-Glass". The texts for each of the movements were various love-related poems originally (and some say mistakenly) attributed to the 17th- century English poet, actor, and playwright, Ben Jonson (1572-1637), now probably best known for his poem, "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes". Of all the songs in the cycle, one stood out from the rest to me when I first performed it, and it continues to beguile me to this day.

Have you seen but a white lily grow
Before rude hands have touched it;
have you Mark'd but the fall of the snow
before the earth hath smudged it?
Have you felt the wool of beaver
or swan's down ever
or have melting of the bud of the briar
or the nard in the fire
or have tasted the bag of the bee?
Oh so white, oh so soft, oh so sweet, so sweet is she.

In describing the woman with whom he is so enchanted, the poet has alluded to a laundry list of exquisite attributes, each one the quintessence of loveliness. Go back for a moment and linger over those references. Give them time to ignite your own sense memories so that the words become more than words ---- coalescing into vivid impressions that expand and flower in your imagination.

But here is where we may begin to run into problems. You will notice that the author’s tone is one of questioning. “Have you ever…. (experienced these things)?” he asks. In the 17th century, the experiences he is describing might have been part of everyday life for many people. But for us it is different, and unless we too can answer him in the affirmative, we are at a disadvantage. Those beautiful evocations will just languish on the page, unable to convey their nuances. Our connection with the expressive intent of the poet will be broken, and we will not be able to fully discern what he is trying to impart.

Sadly, our experiential frame of reference regarding the natural world has shrunken markedly since the 17th century… or even since the early 20th century, for that matter. We assume that we moderns have plenty of worldly experience and knowledge because we have seen and heard so much about our planet through media. But media only provide us with half-knowledge, partial understanding. They can’t help us meet the requirements of this poem, for example --- to touch, to smell, and to taste. To exercise those faculties, we must at some point have had the direct experience of actually touching the beaver’s fur and the swan’s down, of tasting the honey, and remarking to ourselves on the delightful sensations they produce. Unfortunately, most of us are so far removed from the variety of sensory experiences that were available to our predecessors and so swept up in the rush and frenzy of modern life that relating to some of the author’s examples can be a challenge.
For example, while I have directly experienced some of the sensations the poet is referencing, there are two that have so far eluded me --- and here’s where things start to get a bit nerdy. I’ve never experienced the “melting of the bud of the briar,” and until I went out of my way to do a little searching (nerdy), I had never even heard of a “nard.” As a result of my initial inquiry, I now know that the term “nard” is short for spikenard, a flowering plant of the Valerian family that, among its other properties, contains an aromatic oil that can be used for a variety of purposes, including the creation of perfume and incense. But that single snippet of information is of little value to me because I have never encountered spikenard in person --- never smelled its fragrance “in the fire” or otherwise. Until I have done that, along with experiencing the “melting of the bud of the briar” (whatever that is…?), my understanding of the poem will be incomplete and I may well be missing out on significant pleasures, if the other references in the poem are any indication of potential quality.

Now I’ll admit that harboring any discontent about not being able to grasp the full meaning of all of the author’s references may be a bit precious and, yes, even nerdy. But one of the great things about the arts is that they can enable us to get out of our own shoes, to travel back into history and see life from the perspective of past generations. Especially in an art like poetry that aims to capture so much more than simple prosaic narrative, maximum comprehension is pretty much a requirement. Poetry often aspires to primarily convey moods, feelings, reflections, and impressions lying beneath the surface of the subject matter of a poem. The words are the transmitters that make such communication possible. If we can only unlock the hidden magic of those words we may just find ourselves standing at the frontier of a new (old, actually) way of seeing the world through the eyes and experience of a bygone individual or generation. How exciting, and perhaps even insightful, would that be?

So because I am fascinated with the possibilities inherent in such a reunion of the present and the past, I’m on a mini-quest to remedy the deficits in my experience that currently prevent me from embracing this lovely poem fully. I call upon anyone out there who might have the right information to be kind enough to offer any advice as to how I might witness “the melting of the bud of the briar” and “the nard in the fire.” I know that these small things may not matter in the grand scheme, but if they had such exquisite meaning to the poet, perhaps they are still worthy of at least our passing attention.
In the meantime, here is the choral setting of "Have you seen the white lily grow?" to which I referred earlier. Judging from the music Irving Fine composed to illuminate the text, music that is so reflective of the affect behind the words, he was as enchanted by the poem as I.

Posted in MUSIC, POETRY AND LITERATURE    Tagged with poetry, music, IRVING FINE, BEN JONSON


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