The mood music of G.B. Smith, T.C.B.S.

In a guest post, Allan Turner, Tolkien scholar and formerly Lecturer in English at the University of Jena, Germany, provides a musical insight into A Spring Harvest, the 1918 anthology of Geoffrey Bache Smith’s poetry co-edited by his friend J.R.R, Tolkien. Smith, a member of Tolkien’s T.C.B.S. circle and a ‘wild and wholehearted admirer’ of his early mythological writings, died of wounds on the Western Front in 1916. Just months later, Tolkien wrote his creation myth, The Music of the Ainur.

Several of the poems in the poems of Geoffrey Bache Smith, edited posthumously by his friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman as A Spring Harvest, express a melancholic sense of loss. However one stands out to me as a particularly successful evocation of mood-music, as its title suggests: ‘Schumann: Erstes Verlust’. This is the name of a piano piece, no. 16 in Schumann’s Opus 68, Album für die Jugend (Album for the Young), which Schumann originally composed for his own children. It has always been a favourite for learners of the piano, but is not very often heard in professional recitals, so his close familiarity with it suggests that Smith was an amateur player himself. After all, he was writing at a time when recording was in its infancy, so that people were used to making music for themselves, either alone or with friends. Anyone who doesn’t know it (and sadly, not many young people have the opportunity to learn the piano nowadays) can listen to it here.

The title means ‘first loss’, and the correct form should be ‘Erster Verlust’; it’s notable that either Smith or Tolkien (as editor) or both got their German grammar wrong, so perhaps Smith was writing from memory. However, the music is quietly wistful rather than tragic. The argument of the poem is so slight as to be almost non-existent: a shadowy ‘she’ has gone and the poet’s feeling of despondency is reflected in the dismal late autumn landscape. Here, the mood is everything. This is the poem in full (with images of Schumann and Smith respectively).

Schumann: Erstes Verlust

O, dreary fall the leaves,
The withered leaves;
Among the trees
Complains the breeze,
That still bereaves.

All silent lies the mere,
The silver mere,
In saddest wise
Reflecting skies
Forlorn and sere.

Would autumn had not claimed its own
And would the swallows had not flown.

Skies overcast!
Leaves falling fast!
And she has passed
And left the woodland strown,
The woodland strown,
The silver mere,
The dying year
And me alone.

Skies overcast!
Leaves falling fast!
Does she that passed
Dream of the woodland strown,
The woodland strown,
The silver mere,
The dying year,
And me alone?

Not even the most ardent Smith fan would claim that there is anything original about falling leaves, grey skies and the wan light on a pool as symbols of human melancholy, nor is the migration of swallows as a sign of changefulness going to surprise anyone. Similarly, there is no description of individual features that would make the scene come to life in the reader’s imagination. In many poems, including perhaps some in the present collection, such stereotyping would be grounds for criticism, but not in this case. That is because the poem is intended as pure music inspired by the mood of Schumann’s piano piece.

The musicality lies above all in the sounds of the words. Since the lines are almost all short, mostly with only two main stresses each, there is frequent rhyming; in the first stanza, in fact, the rhyming words are almost reduced to single pattern, since leaves/bereaves differs from trees/breeze only by an additional soft fricative. The technique here is quite similar to that used by the French poet Paul Verlaine in his ‘Chanson d’automne’. (We know that Smith was good at French, since he acted in a French play at King Edward’s, so it’s quite likely that as a budding poet he was interested in trends on the other side of the Channel.)

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur

(The long sobs of the violins of autumn wound my heart with a monotonous languor.)

The poem comes from Verlaine’s first collection, published when he was 22 years old, so about the same age as Smith when he was writing his poems, in a section entitled ‘Paysages tristes’ (sad landscapes), which could also describe so many of Smith’s settings. Verlaine also focuses on a wind and dead leaves, but he establishes an explicit link between the landscape and himself: he feels himself being blown back and forth inwardly like leaves in the breeze, whereas for Smith, as in so many of his poetic landscapes, the scene is purely external without reference to any personal emotions.

However, the musicality comes also from the structure of the poem. In contrast to many other poems in A Spring Harvest, which conform to traditional forms and metres such as the sonnet, the four-line ballad stanza or the long narrative verse-paragraph in iambic pentameter, ‘Erster Verlust’ is much freer in form, with lines of different lengths. The second stanza echoes the first, the fifth repeats the fourth almost word for word, while the two longer lines in the middle seem to act as a pivot. What lies behind Smith’s experiment in sound?

The key is to be found in the Schumann piece that it recalls, not only through the evocative sound patterns but through the whole structure. If you listen to it played on the piano, you will recognise that the words of the first three stanzas correspond exactly to the notes and phrases of the music. The second stanza which echoes the first is the poet’s translation into words of the composer’s repetition, with an altered cadence, of the first 8 bars. As the music moves into a more flowing variation of the first motif, so the poem expands into the two longer lines.

Allan Turner sings G.B. Smith’s poem ‘Erstes Verlust’ to Schumann’s music

The relationship in the last part is more complicated, since the music develops into specifically pianistic figuration in which the two hands imitate one another before reaching a patch of chordal writing, the movement of which can only be hinted at in language, although the rhythm of the last two lines of the poem can be clearly heard in the final phrase of themusic. Furthermore, Schumann indicates that the second half of the piece is to be repeated, which provides the basis for Smith’s very atmospheric echo in the last two stanzas.

Let me be clear: I’m not claiming that Smith wanted to turn a favourite piece of music into a song, because that simply would not have worked given the pianistic nature of the composition. It’s simply an evocation of the mood of the music, using the structure of the piano piece but calling upon the resources of language. For me it is a finely crafted poem, a small work of art which can only suggest the talent that Smith might have been able to develop if he had lived longer.

Allan Turner’s impromptu performance of Smith’s poem to Schumann’s music was part of his presentation at the conference G.B. Smith and J.R.R. Tolkien: a meaningful friendship, held at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, on 21–22 March 2023, from which this post has been extracted and enlarged by Allan. To watch his whole conference talk, just go back to the beginning of the video above.

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