This song is a setting by Peter Bellamy (who else) of a poem by Rudyard Kipling (who else). The reason why the diction is so archaic is that it’s a fake Chaucer poem (actual title “Gertrude’s Prayer”), which was printed alongside a story in which it plays a prominent part. The plot of the story (Dayspring Mishandled) is too complex to summarise here; suffice to say that the forbidding moral of the poem (That which is marred at birth, time shall not mend) seems to apply to one of the main characters, but ends up applying to several of them – including the most sympathetic. Perhaps not one to read last thing at night.
I worked out the parts from Peter Bellamy’s recording, on which his voice was accompanied by the voices of Anthea Bellamy and Chris Birch. I sang the lead and Chris Birch’s low harmony; this marks the first appearance of vocal harmony in 52fs. Anthea Bellamy’s part is pitched an octave above Peter’s; this was beyond me, so I played it on recorder (recorded in the bathroom for the harmonics).
This is Peter Bellamy’s setting of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “A St Helena lullaby”, recorded by Bellamy as “St Helena”. I’m using the longer title in case I want to record the trad “St Helena” further down the line (“Now Napoleon, he has done with his wars and his fighting…”).
These days Kipling is a hard writer to get to like; the problem isn’t so much his robust British imperialism (which doesn’t pervade everything he wrote, and in any case is often more ambiguous than it seems) as his style – all Initial Caps and Exhortations! One of these days someone will discover he was actually manic-depressive, and we’ll be able to detect a hectic anxiety behind all those Exclamation Marks! – that would do his reputation no end of good.
Anyway, this poem is very Kipling, for good and ill. It sums up the life of Napoleon using the conceit of looking in on key scenes in his life, asking each time “how far to St Helena…?” I particularly like the very last line, visualising the Emperor in his tomb as a troublesome child tucked up in bed – after all your traipsing, child, lie still! (Oops, spoilers.) There’s an odd sort of rhetorical double-bluff here – the image belittles Napoleon, but does it so exorbitantly that the effect is the reverse, drawing attention to just how great a figure he was.
The voices are all me, and there’s only one whistle (a cheapo Generation high G). There was going to be drumming, but my current system of recording everything separately and layering it together isn’t great for matching unaccompanied singing to a repeated drum pattern. Maybe a metronome should be the next investment!
I may pick up one of the other Napoleon songs later on (“St Helena”, “Dream of Napoleon”, the other tune for “Bonny Bunch of Roses”…), but this is the last one for now. Hope you’ve enjoyed them.
Another Bellamy setting of a Kipling poem. The poem, which is said to be based on a true story, vividly brings out the horror of a public hanging – a contorted black shape, a whimpering cry, men shivering and fainting as they watch. But it’s not anti-hanging; it’s not even anti- this particular hanging, except in the sense of pitying what the poor man has been reduced to. The nearest thing to a narrative voice in the poem is the voice carrying the refrains (“For they’re hanging Danny Deever” and so on) – and that third voice makes it quite clear what we’re to think of Danny Deever:
They’re hanging Danny Deever – you must mark him to his place,
He shot a comrade sleeping, you must look him in the face
Nine hundred of his county and the regiment’s disgrace
They’re hanging Danny Deever in the morning.
(Gawd love yer, Rudyard, but I ain’t reproducin’ your bloomin’ vernacular punctuation for nuffink.)
Nine hundred of his county and the regiment’s disgrace – that line is at the heart of the poem, and really explains what it’s doing. To execute a man is a terrible thing; to turn out first thing in the morning, stand at attention and watch a man being executed is a terrible experience. But, in the world of the poem, it’s what the soldiers must do, when one of their number disgraces them; it’s another burden that they take on themselves. Which is a nasty theme, frankly – the self-pity of the strong, the thug’s troubled conscience – and would make for a nasty poem. I think what just about rescues this poem – making it both brutal and humane, instead of just brutally sentimental – is the vividness of Danny’s suffering and the fellow-feeling of his comrades. In this poem as in My boy Jack, Kipling’s compulsion to turn all the dials up to eleven results in something both moving and troubling.
One of the things Peter Bellamy did particularly well was write (and perform) settings of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry. Kipling’s an extraordinarily rich writer – far more so than you might think at first glance; it’s hard for us to get past all those grandiose Capital Letters and exhortations! ending in exclamation marks! But stick with it and you find yourself dealing with someone who’s not shallow, one-sided or inhumane – in short, someone who’s already thought of most of the objections you were about to make.
That’s not to say that his poetry doesn’t present problems for us now. “Big steamers” is all about how Britain needs maritime superiority in order to keep the supply routes from the colonies open; “Our fathers of old” is a hymn in praise of ignorant determination; “Cold iron” is a sick and muddled fantasy conflating feudal submission with Christian humility. He was what he was, and he was a man of the British Empire in its pomp. But he wasn’t shallow, one-sided or inhumane.
This poem is a case in point. The Kipling Society has very effectively debunked the persistent myth that this poem had something to do with the death of Kipling’s son John, who had gone missing in a land battle a year earlier (and who, in any case, was never known as ‘Jack’). Setting that aside, we’re looking at a poem for the sailors lost in the battle of Jutland, and their parents, waiting for the good news which had not come and never would (for what is sunk will hardly swim). As that line suggests, there’s a brutality to this poem, a touch of gallows humour, as well as a mood of genuine grief. What’s harder to handle, now, is the turn to a patriotic resolution (hold your head up all the more), and the call to take comfort in the thought that your son, although dead, had at least died bravely (he did not shame his kind). This seems still more brutal, until you think of the alternative to dying bravely – to imagine your son dying in terror and despair would be much worse. The patriotism of the poem, on the other hand, is quite genuine, but it does come close to being undercut in those closing lines: your duty as a parent is to give children to that wind blowing and that tide? If courage is always the repression of terror, in this poem the achievement of the repression is on a knife-edge and the fear is still palpable.
And here’s me singing it, very much in the style of Peter Bellamy.