First reading of Basil Bunting's performance of Thomas Wyatt's 'Blame not my lute' (1)
This essay by Andrea Brady is the first of five “first readings” we will publish — initial responses to the experience of hearing Basil Bunting cover Thomas Wyatt’s “Blame Not My Lute.” The recording is linked here and also available at PennSound’s Bunting page. — A.F., B.R. & C.W.
Basil Bunting’s voice is so familiar – the Briggflatts intonation, half-Santa Claus, half-priest, that hieratic tone which makes Ezra Pound reach for his kettle drum; those luxurious rolling rs. He plays wonderfully with the bathos of the sounding of the word “lute,” not pressing too hard on it, but giving it a solid /oo/ rather than /yu/ sound. His modern Northumbrian accent is not Wyatt’s Kentish early modern one, of course, and I can also hear Bunting’s age in his voice, where I think of Wyatt’s poem as that of a much younger man. Bunting sounds like he is reading Wyatt’s poem off a paper, you can almost hear the pauses as he squints – e.g. after the fourth line; so that speaks to the transition from oral cultures to print ones, a transition which interested Bunting too. And to have a performance text he also had to settle on a version of the poem, which means glossing over the worries around manuscript variants which are particularly acute in the case of the Wyatt canon.
I know this poem pretty well, as I’ve been working on Wyatt recently, and this is one of his best-known lyric poems – or to use a term which is perhaps less anachronistic, his best-known balets. The term “lyric” didn’t really emerge until the 1580s, when it’s picked up in works of literary criticism by Sidney, Webbe, and Puttenham. “Balets” and “ballades” are how Wyatt’s contemporaries often named their strophic poems (like “Blame not my lute” with its circular refrain). It’s recorded that Anne Boleyn, when imprisoned in the Tower in 1536 along with Wyatt, asked an attendant about her friends who had also been swept up in her downfall: “whether anybody makes their beds…?” “Nay, I warrant you,” she was answered. Anne replied punning on pallet/balet: “They might make balets well now” (Susan Brigden’s impeccable The Heart’s Forest is my source here and the richest biography of Wyatt).
Knowing this poem well, I’m struck by the contrast between the delivery, which is lyrical and pleasant, and my own preconceptions (or my tendentious reading of the poem for my current project on Poetry and Bondage). I fasten on the vocabulary of being “bownde” and commanded: “perforus he must agre”; “as I strike they must obay,” a violence which enforces submission, rather than a delicacy of “touch”; wreaking, rightful spite (a tautology which justifies and then immediately undermines itself). To me this is a poem not of whimsical or flirtatious banter but of violent competition, bridled by social decorum — or at least arriving at it through the often sadistic pleasures and complaints of Wyatt’s poetry makes me read it that way.
Wyatt is famous for initiating, through his transmission of Petrarch’s canzoni, Serafino d’Aquilano’s strambotti, and French rondeaux into English, the tradition of lyric inwardness represented as a solitary speaker whose utterances are overheard by the reader. But the speakers in his highly sociable poems actually give away very little: they aren’t individuated or particular, there’s hardly ever any narrative development. His balets are both privately intimate and publicly anonymous. They also don’t represent their objects in any detail: for example, someone’s “falsed faith must needs be known, / The fault so great, the case so strange,” but we don’t actually learn anything about the faith, the fault, or the case from the poem; what we get is an enactment of a particular moment of negotiation within a larger relationship whose terms aren’t described. The poems tend to represent love as a kind of service, a knot or bond. In this poem the lute is deprecated as lacking in wit; it is “bound” to please me (both obliged to, and likely to). So perhaps the speaker is occupying the role of the Lady here, i.e. is the one with power who controls the rhythms of the exchange; and the lute is the vassal, bound to his service. Nonetheless, Wyatt’s poetry regularly explores the obligation on the master which this relation of service incurs – and you could do a very interesting reading of this poem in terms of Hegel’s lordship and bondage dialectic. But however far you want to take this element of compulsion, the poem’s undercurrent of restraint and manipulation, being played and strung up, subsides in Bunting’s gentle delivery, which turns the whole thing into a rather arbitrary and delightful pastime.
As a poet Wyatt seems to aspire to the condition of song; his poems often refer to music. There is a great deal of uncertainty however about the relationship between poetry and music in the Tudor courts: which poems were written for, or performed to, music; how much did musicological theory influence lyric poetry, or poetics influence music? We’ll probably never know. (There’s some great stuff about the relationship between expressive lyric and the pure abstraction of music as it emerges in the 19th century out of German idealism in Jacques Rancière’s La parole muette and it would be interesting to contrast that with the Tudor context which shapes Wyatt’s poem.) The stringed instrument recalls Orpheus’s lyre and the root of lyric. In Untuning of the Sky John Hollander writes about the ancient Greek preference for stringed instruments (with their rational intervals) to wind instruments (which Heather Dubrow observes in The Challenges of Orpheus were often associated with slave girls), so I’d want to think further about how gender is insinuated into the poem’s sketch of domination and submission.
Wyatt’s poem apostrophises his lute and masculinises it: “he” must sound. But it also switches its address later into a series of imperatives, which you can’t help but read as directed to the Lady, a fabulous “she”– but maybe that’s not the case. My songs be “somewhat strange”: what’s so strange about them? I’m reminded of “a straunge fashion of forsaking” in the Devonshire (but not the Tottel) version of “They fle from me,” and how much work this word does in Wyatt’s poetry around wildness, domesticity, near and far, and the reiterated desire to “raunge” in Wyatt’s poetry – to recover a wonted mobility, and shake off the “cloggs” of both love and power. I’d like to run some comparisons on this word in Wyatt’s corpus, and see where the OED might take me. But if they are “strange,” they are also “somewhat plain”: plain-speaking is how Wyatt’s poetry is now regularly characterised. Does this poem still seem plain to us? Does it make things plain? “Plain” is close to “complain” in this period. The lute is played by being “touched,” but to “toucheth some that use to feign” is wonderfully ambivalent: it touches, i.e. affects or incriminates, those who are deceptive, and feigning is one definition of poetry (cf. Sidney’s Platonic Defense of Poesy). The music or the poem, these abstract aural recitations, have physical effects on listeners and readers which then impel them to physical movements like smashing up instruments. Maybe Susan Stewart’s Poetry and the Fate of the Senses could help me here.
The poem has a beguiling circularity to it which depends on the performance. It says: don’t attack my instrument for telling the truth about your deception; but the poem has already begun, and the attack already taken place, before the deception is alluded to, which not only sets this event into a series or a relation (which is extended further by the poem itself), but also anticipates and encourages the attack which will be the substance of the poem’s composition. This too is part of Wyatt’s famously tricky temporality, which anchors itself solidly in the present tense, but also brings the past and future into a disorienting modulation. For example: if you break my strings (in the future), then I have found strings which I can use to replace them (in the past). Either the effects of the poem’s provocation have been anticipated, in which case she may well have cause to “blame my lute” for “sounding” her fault, or the poem manufactures a slippery circularity of repeated performances, which brings us here, to Bunting, and to the circularity of readings which end where they began, and begin where they end.
THE LOVER’S LUTE CANNOT BE BLAMED
THOUGH IT SING OF HIS LADY'S UNKINDNESS.
BLAME not my Lute ! for he must sound
Of this or that as liketh me;
For lack of wit the Lute is bound
To give such tunes as pleaseth me;
Though my songs be somewhat strange,
And speak such words as touch thy change,
Blame not my Lute !
My Lute ! alas ! doth not offend,
Though that perforce he must agree
To sound such tunes as I intend,
To sing to them that heareth me;
Then though my songs be somewhat plain,
And toucheth some that use to feign,
Blame not my Lute!
My Lute and strings may not deny
But as I strike they must obey;
Break not them then so wrongfully,
But wreak thyself some other way;
And though the songs which I indite
Do quit thy change with rightful spite,
Blame not my Lute!
Spite asketh spite, and changing change,
And falsèd faith must needs be known;
The fault so great, the case so strange;
Of right it must abroad be blown:
Then since that by thine own desart
My songs do tell how true thou art,
Blame not my Lute !
Blame but thyself that hast misdone,
And well deservèd to have blame;
Change thou thy way, so evil begone,
And then my Lute shall sound that same;
But if 'till then my fingers play,
By thy desert their wonted way,
Blame not my Lute!
Farewell ! unknown ; for though thou break
My strings in spite with great disdain,
Yet have I found out for thy sake,
Strings for to string my Lute again:
And if, perchance, this sely rhyme
Do make thee blush, at any time,
Blame not my Lute!
Andrea Brady's books of poetry include Wildfire: A Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination (Krupskaya, 2010), Mutability: scripts for infancy (Seagull, 2012), Cut from the Rushes (Reality Street, 2013) and Dompteuse (Bookthug, 2014). She is Professor of Poetry at Queen Mary University of London where she runs the Centre for Poetry and the Archive of the Now, a digital repository of recordings of poets performing their own work. She is co-publisher of Barque Press.