On Vaughan Williams and John Greening

Yesterday I took a train or two to Dorking, one of several lovely Surrey towns which have a Georgian heart (though no doubt the prosperity which enabled that loveliness derived, at least in part, from the profits of slavery).

Outside Dorking Halls, AKA ‘Mole Valley’s top entertainment venue’, as the local council boasts, and which was built to house Leith Hill Music Festival which his sister had founded, is a statue of the man who did as much as anyone to put it on the map: Ralph Vaughan Williams.


It would be easy to characterise him as belonging to a hazy, Golden Age summery Neverland beloved of Home Counties National Trust member types, but that would be lazy labelling. There is so much to like about the man and his music, so much more than just his best-known works, The Lark Ascending and the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, gorgeous though both of those are. He was a man of contradictory impulses: having already established himself alongside Holst as the leading British – and very English – light of his generation, at the age of 35 he felt a need for some finishing tutelage from an older composer, Ravel; and having played a major part in reviving the English folk song tradition, he revived its hymnal tradition too, despite being an Atheist. In his concerns and a ground-breaking layering of the modern upon a profound understanding and respect for his art’s tradition, he’s like a musical equivalent of Edward Thomas; and, like Thomas, he enlisted despite being over conscription age, first as an ambulance-driver in the RAMC and then as a junior officer in the RA, but, like his exact contemporary Bertrand Russell (who was was fined and then imprisoned for his conscientious objection during that war), never bought into the jingoism of the time.

He was of that generation which saw perhaps the greatest amount of change and technological advancement of any lifetimes – aged 13 when Benz’s first motor car was driven, 31 when the Wright Brothers took to the air, 56 when the first television broadcast was made, 73 when the first atomic bomb was dropped. . . In his long career he produced a remarkable range and quantity of work: nine symphonies; four concertos, each for a different instrument; chamber pieces (none finer than Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus); choral works; operettas; ballet scores; and many wonderful songs, notably settings of Blake, Swinburne and, above all, Housman

All of which brings me to John Greening. Those who have read any of his collections will know that not only is he a very fine poet, but he also has a deep love of classical music, as demonstrated by his last, beautiful collection The Silence, about Sibelius. Greening’s recent Poetry Salzburg pamphlet Moments Musicaux collects 34 previously uncollected music poems which, Greening says, “hadn’t quite fitted into individual volumes”. Two of the 34 relate to Vaughan Williams, ‘RVW’ and ‘A Sea Symphony’, named after Vaughan Williams’ first symphony, though the latter is not about the composer but somebody else.

‘RVW’, four rhymed quatrains dedicated to the contemporary composer and occasional poet Philip Lancaster, depicts its subject as, ‘An old man/ standing up by the Folly’ – Leith Hill Tower – ‘His back towards London Town’, contemplating a ‘fallen poplar’:

They lie there, unmastered, the nine branches,
  And numberless carolling shoots.
He kicks at the crown’s now silent ocean.
  He probes a fantasia of roots.

It’s difficult to write biographical poems which don’t resort to cliché. In the poem’s ending, Greening gently refers to the deafness which afflicted Vaughan Williams in his last few years but which, like Beethoven before him, didn’t prevent him composing:

The old man sitting up by the Folly,
  Not hearing the aspen’s riposte:
There’s more to be sung than it ever dared whisper,
  And pastoral may not mean past.

It’s a haunting image, with a message which is as ungraspable as the wind is strong, up there at the highest point in south-east England.

Greening is a likeable poet, and Moments Musicaux contains many enjoyable poems, none more so than a punningly-titled one of young love, ‘A Song Cycle’, in which ‘[a]fter she said yes’, presumably to a date, the poet–protagonist’s joy is freewheeling: ‘I took off// down Lowlands Road on my inherited bike/ (the one that Dad had ridden all the way to/ Evesham when he was my age) and sang aloud// in my flares and long hair to suburbia’s/ twitching nets, old sirens, new dishes, shiny/ wheels again and again: Dein ist mein Herz, Dein’.

John Greening, Moments Musicaux, Poetry Salzburg, £7.50 (+ p&p).

3 thoughts on “On Vaughan Williams and John Greening

  1. I’m touched by your remarks about my work, Matthew. Many thanks. Leith Hill Place is wonderful. I had the privilege of reading there a few years back – inbetween songs from Roderick Williams.

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