Sunday, March 16, 2008

Russet Lawns, and Fallows Gray

Thomas Cole, L'Allegro (Italian Sunset), 1845

John Milton's poem describing 'the happy man', L'Allegro (1631), inspired various artists: Turner, Blake and Cole (above) for example. Here are some lines in which Milton himself paints a Lantskip (
in the final line, a cynosure is, according to the OED, 'something that attracts attention by its brilliancy or beauty; a centre of attraction, interest, or admiration').
Streit mine eye hath caught new pleasures
Whilst the Lantskip round it measures,
Russet Lawns, and Fallows Gray,
Where the nibling flocks do stray,
Mountains on whose barren brest
The labouring clouds do often rest:
Meadows trim with Daisies pide,
Shallow Brooks, and Rivers wide.
Towers, and Battlements it sees
Boosom'd high in tufted Trees,
Wher perhaps som beauty lies,
The Cynosure of neighbouring eyes.
In 1740 Handel premiered a composition based on Milton: L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Its libretto by Charles Jennens interweaved L'Allegro with Milton's companion poem Il Penseroso ('The contemplative man') and, in the third movement, resolved their differing moods with a poem of Jennens' own, Il Moderato. Here is part of the libretto which starts with text from Il Penseroso and ends with the lines in L'Allegro just before those quoted above, describing a pleasant scene of unfeasibly cheerful pastoral characters:

16. Air

Il Penseroso (soprano):

Oft on a plat of rising ground,
I hear the far-off curfew sound,
Over some wide-water'd shore,
Swinging slow, with sullen roar;
Or if the air will not permit,
Some still removed place will fit,
Where glowing embers through the room
Teach light to counterfeit a gloom.

17. Air

Il Penseroso (soprano or tenor):

Far from all resort of mirth,
Save the cricket on the hearth,
Or the bellman's drowsy charm,
To bless the doors from nightly harm.

18. Recitative

L'Allegro (tenor):

If I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew!

19. Air

L'Allegro (tenor or soprano):

Let me wander, not unseen
By hedge-row elms, on hillocks green.
There the ploughman, near at hand,
Whistles over the furrow'd land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his scythe,
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale.

Donald Teeters has written some interesting and amusing reflections on Handel's composition, Milton's poems and English plumbing: 'As anyone who has ever spent a winter in London will know, the English seem always to be surprised — offended really — that winter arrives. Their houses, even now, rely on bizarrely inadequate heating devices; the plumbing lines, often attached to the exterior of a house, are expected not to freeze, but usually do. The advertisements for L'Allegro's first performance stressed that "Care is taken to have the House secur'd against the Cold, constant Fires being order'd to be kept in the House 'till the Time of Performance."' It doesn't get this cold in London anymore but after a weekend of such miserable weather it would certainly be nice to welcome back Milton's 'frolick Wind that breathes the Spring, Zephir with Aurora playing...'

1 comment:

arcady said...

I didn't know this poem (in spite of being regularly admonished by my tutor to read my Milton) but 'russet lawns and fallows gray' is such a lovely phrase that it keeps coming to mind, weeks after I first read it, always beautifying my day. Thank you.