November 20, 2009

A Poem That Gets Around

(Which is kind of a funny sort of double entendre, since it's about a pilgrim. On a pilgrimage. "Gets around"-- get it? Oh well, never mind.)

Let's see if I can pack John Bunyan, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band (oh, and how about some hobgoblins and foul fiends!) all into one post. Ready?

I shall let Brother Bunyan go first, which is the only proper thing to do, chronologically, deferentially, spiritually, ecumenically, grammatically... oh, sorry. Too many Englishman on this ship there for a minute.

We shall begin with a poetry recitation.

To Be A Pilgrim

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather.

There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.

No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.

Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labor night and day
To be a pilgrim.
by John Bunyan

Now, this, friends, is a poem that has achieved poetic immortality. First of all, Pilgrim's Progress, from which it is derived, is one of the most widely read books in history. If that weren't enough to make this poem a classic, it most likely would have lived on as a much-beloved hymn. And in the absence of that, it probably still would have emerged somehow or another as a folk song. As it is, it's all three-- the very rare poetic triple threat.

For many years, it's been one of the poems we take turns reading aloud at our family Thanksgiving feast. Justin requested it for recitation this month, freshly enthused by our most recent pass through Pilgrim's Progress, via the brilliant dramatized recording from Orion's Gate, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Every family library should have this recording. It's just basic household equipment in my estimation. My children wore out the tape sets, so we recently replaced them with the new MP3 versions. (Dandy Christmas gift!)

Alrighty then, the music! You'll enjoy this. I think.

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams adapted this poem for the English Hymnal, setting it to a traditional English folk tune called "Monk's Gate"-- which, as you will see, has proven quite a versatile tune. 

This first video is the full-blown Anglican choir treatment, a cappella.  Love the way those English choristers sing "'gaaainst oll dis-ahh-stahh." You'll never hear vowels like that on this side of the pond!

Do notice that Bunyan's lions, giants, hobgoblins and foul fiends are all tidily banished from the hymn adaptation.  I guess that's supposed to make the lyrics more sacred or something, but of course the very wise Bunyan knew better-- the Good Book is smack full of lions and giants and foul fiends, and we'd best not be forgetting that. 

(I'm not sure what all the train footage is about here. Maybe someone thought locomotive conveyance is an apt modern metaphor for pilgrimage?)

This second version is the wonderful English folksinger Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band taking the Monk's Gate tune back to its roots as a hearty folk tune in the Sussex tradition.  Prior manages to howl all of Bunyan's cast of horrors back into the song, where they belong.

And, if you're up for a third, this is a fellow doing a mighty fine job of it on an organ.

Amazing how different one tune can sound performed in different ways! And how different the poem feels in the two vocal settings, don't you think?

So, which setting do you think best suits the poem-- the pious atmosphere of the hymn version, or the hearty peasant tone of the folk song?


Anonymous said...

Much as I love the English Choral tradition, I have to go with Maddy Prior on this. Her version seems so much realer.

Keri said...

I loved them both - I think maybe which version I thought best suited the words would change depending on my mood. I'm so glad to know both and be introduced to this poem! Thanks!

Unknown said...

My vote goes for the hearty folksong. Love it! Thanks for sharing.

Dani said...

Undoubtable the folk song. The other sounds to clinical to me, all clean and perfect but devoid of feeling.

Steller poem though, I love the book, didn't realize it came from a poem by the same...

Anonymous said...

I had to leave another comment, just because I was watching a Doctor Who episode today and they used this hymn! I nearly jumped out of my chair when I recognized it (the funny part is, I'd seen the episode before, but of course I didn't know the song so it made no difference at all).

Lynn Bruce said...

Dr. Who? Really?

What felicitous timing!