Five Poems by W. H. Auden
1. Among the leaves the small birds sing (Lauds)
2. O lurcher - loving collier - black as night
3. What’s in your mind, my dove, my coney
4. Eyes look into the well
5. Carry her over the water
Much of Auden’s poetry seems to have been written for singing; and in his Collected Shorter Poems (1955) there is a section of 37 poems entitled ‘Songs and Other Musical Pieces’. All but the first of Berkley’s Five Poems by W. H. Auden are found there; (the first of them, ‘Lauds’, is the final piece in the later volume The Shield of Achilles). Some of these 37 poems were written to fit existing tunes (St James’s Infirmary, or Frankie and Johnny). Others were intended for Benjamin Britten to set, or else were so memorably set by him that words and tune now seem inseparable. Some have a nursery-rhyme or singing-game quality. And in all of them, music seems to be implicit, waiting for a composer to bring it out as Berkeley has done.
‘Lauds’ is a roundelay, a kind of villanelle in which a 21-lined poem is constructed from only nine distinct lines. Berkeley follows the form of the poem; as each line is caught up for the second time, the shape of the melodic phrase is repeated (but not exactly); the rhythm remains the same. The refrain, ‘In solitude for company’ keeps the same rhythm; its melody is varied, and sometimes falls across different beats of the bar. The accompaniment has an early-morning sparkle.
‘O lurcher - loving collier’ is perhaps the most Britten-like of Berkeley’s songs. The composer has concentrated less on Auden’s evocation of the scene - life in the mining town captured in a few words - than on the music of the verses - especially in his setting of the last line.
‘What’s on your mind’ is a morning song apparently addressed to the casually acquired companion of a night’s love-making. The poet’s tone is gently mocking, both of himself and of his companion; but he is also tender, both to the youth and to himself. Berkeley sets the verses to a playful, innocent tune, and in his final cadence perfectly matches the tone of the line - seven-eighths ironic, one eighth serious!
‘Eyes look into the well’ is a curiously haunting poem, somewhere between Housman in its suggestion of dark meanings without explicit statement, and nursery rhyme technique in the simplicity of its lines. The setting reflects the constant emotional deepening.
‘Carry her over the water’ is a pure song for singing, and Berkeley has set it to a pretty tune, with a lively, tricky accompaniment; there is a nice touch of humour in his depiction of the frogs’ agreeable epithalamion.