First reading of Basil Bunting's performance of Thomas Wyatt's 'Blame not my lute' (2)

Stefanie Sobelle

Sitting down to write my first “reading” of Basil Bunting’s 1977 performance of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s sixteenth-century poem “Blame Not My Lute,” I realize that I rarely read firstly anymore, properly speaking. That is, if I know I will be writing about a text of any kind, I research it before beginning. Were I to be writing an interpretation of the Bunting, for example, I would spend some time perusing relevant scholarship. In this case, I am familiar with Bunting’s voice, of course, though I have not written about him, and I have read Wyatt, though not since graduate school years ago. I fear I should know more about Wyatt before listening to Bunting, so I read the first stanza of Wyatt’s poem. Yet what might my experience be if I DON’T know the Wyatt? How will I hear Bunting differently? I change my mind and close the Wyatt window. I decide instead to use this exercise as an opportunity to reflect on how I confront a work at first encounter without much of a background — a reflection that has turned out to be far more challenging than I anticipated, so dependent have I become on the so-called conversation. I text two friends in the States who are scholars of Early Modern poetry and ask them what I need to know about Wyatt and the lute, knowing it will be hours before they wake. As I wait for them to reply, I begin. Below are my notes as I listen to this Bunting performance for the first time, including distractions of sound and sight.

So how do I begin? Where do I begin? Just begin.

Begin with Bunting. Listen to it through. Bunting, modernist, so interested in sound, in music, reading a poem by an early modernist about a lute.

I listen to it in the morning while gazing out the large windows of an old Scottish lodge on an island in the inner Hebrides. In front of me is a freshwater loch. In the background, I hear chirping birds. A fitting setting for Bunting’s quivering, powerful, aged northern English voice. The room smells of last night’s fire. The rest of the house is still asleep. It is 3:10 a.m. New York time.

Press pause. Google image search for Bunting. I want his craggy image in front of me too.

I keep listening. No interruptions this time. Start over. Listen through. Try not to “understand” the poem. Just listen.

The birds outside act as a complementary chorus as Bunting slows down and speeds up again, rolling his “r’s,” hissing his “s’s,” and softly tapping his “t’s.” I am slightly embarrassed by how he says “lute,” yet moved by the urgency of his voice.

I listen again. This time, I will mark his accentuations, track his fluctuations. I still do not want to pull up the Wyatt, as, in the spirit of Bunting, I am trying to read the voice, the performance. If I pull up the Wyatt, I will read the text, look at the line breaks, see the words. This form of reading is what I do; close reading is easy for me. Close listening is harder. So I begin again. This time, I will pause to transcribe the poem as I hear it, capitalizing letters that are enunciated and which link to each other, repeating letters whose sounds Bunting draws out, italicizing phrases where he speeds up, and spacing words where he slows down. This exercise in transcription is a (slightly misguided, definitely flawed) effort on my part to see what happens to the text when it is translated from written to oral/aural form, capturing Bunting’s various sounds and inflections — how the poem moves from Wyatt, to Bunting, and then inevitably, to me:

Blame noT my luTe

Forrr he muSt Sound of thiS or thaT aS likeTH meeee. Forrr lack of wiT the luTe iS Bound-to give SuCH TuneS aS pleaSeTH mEeee. [Bunting sounds almost surprised that he should be pleased.]

Though my SongS be Somewhat StranGE and SpeakSuch wordS aS TouCH thy CHanGE.

Blame noT my LuTe.

My LuTe alaS, doTH noT oFFend, THoughTHat perrrrforce he must agree to Sound Such Tunes aS IIntend to Sing to THem THat hearrrreTH me.

Then Though my Songs be Somewhat plAIN unTouCHeTHSome that used to FEIGN,

Blame not my luTe.

My LuTe and StringS may notdEnY, buT aS I StriKe, they musTobey. BrrreaK not THem THen So wrrrrrongfully, but wrrrreck thyself some wiser way! And though the SongS which I indiTe do q u I T thy C H a n G E with wrrrighful SpiTe, Blame not my luTe.

Spite aSkeTH Spite, and CHanGing CHanGE, and FalSed Faith muSt needS be kNowN. The THought so GRrrreat,   the CaSe So StrrrranGE,   a rrrright it must a BRrrrroad be BlowN.

THen, Since that by thine own dezarrrt, my songSdo tell howwww Trrrrue you arrrethyarrrte. Blame noT my luTe.

Blame butthyself that has misdone and well dezerrrrved to have BlaMe. CHanGE THou THy way so eVil beGuN, and then my LuTe shall Sound that SaMe.

But if    ‘till then    my FinGerS play by THy deserrrrt THeir Wanted Way, Blame not my luTe.

Farrrrewell.     UNkNowN.

For THough THou brrrrreak my stringSinSpite with GrrrrreaT diSdaiN, yeT have I found out forrrr thysake StringS for to String my luTe agAIN.

And if by perrrrCHanCE this fooliSH rrrrhyme do make THee bluSH aT any Time, Blame not my luTe.

I do not correct my transcription against the original, but I do read the Wyatt alongside both Bunting and myself. The erotics of Wyatt’s poem are evident, but Bunting’s strong, undulating voice is so full of self-surprise and yearning that it gives the flip bitterness of the old poem a kind of reflective sorrow, particularly in how Bunting sounds “t” and “ch”: the CHanGE and the LuTe. I wonder, what do Wyatt and Bunting mean by “thy change”?

I turn to the Lexicons of Early Modern English (LEME) database for help. “Change” does not show up as anything particularly unusual, but I find this definition at least: “the alteration or change in ones bodie, by often swooning.” Without a proper library nearby, I open Google Books and look up “change” in Gordon Williams’s A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, where I learn that “change” was an “effect of sexual passion.” “Lute,” on the other hand, is the woman’s “vulva,” or “genital area.” Williams suggests that fingering the lute is an allusion to fondling a woman. I wonder at Wyatt’s reversal of this image to belong to the male speaker, instead.

The tension of the poem — the language of blame; the suggestions of boundedness and wreckage and punishment; the lover’s deception, the speaker’s acrimony — does not rise into climax, as a seduction poem would do (the climax, so to speak, has already occurred, before the poem has opened) but rather loops into the recursion that attends jealousy, loss, and longing.

The strong morning sun outside has been shaded over by a dark cloud covering, and my perch in a massive checkered wing chair at the window soon becomes cold. I hear stirrings upstairs and am distracted from the poem. Breakfast leads to a long hike to a long nap. I wake up in the late afternoon to two text messages: “Check Gordon Williams,” reads one. “It’s his penis! Don’t blame it!” reads the other.

For all of Wyatt’s feistiness, the sadness that resonates in Bunting’s performance is a sadness that insinuates a kind of ending. I find myself doing something in this encounter that I rarely do in my scholarly readings of texts: I wonder about the man himself. Bunting is seventy-seven-years-old when he performs Wyatt; his relationship to his own lute — both of song and body — and all its misadventures is not the same as that of his wily, youthful predecessor. I think then of a different Wyatt poem — “My Lute Awake,” the closing lines of which read:

Now cease, my lute; this is the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste,
And ended is that we begun.
Now is this song both sung and past:
My lute be still, for I have done.

Wyatt’s lines here are echoed for me in Bunting’s own last words, in his late poem “Perche no Spero” (trans. “because I have no hope,” the first version of which Bunting composed in 1977, the same year as his performance of Wyatt) — a poem by an old writer, reflecting on love lost and late life, waiting:

Now we’ve no hope of going back,
cutter, to that grey quay
where we moored twice and twice unwillingly 
cast off our cables to put out at the slack 
when the sea’s laugh was choked to a mutter 
and the leach lifted hesitantly with a stutter 
and sulky clack,  how desolate the swatchways look, 
cutter …

… We have no course to set,
only to drift too long, watch too glumly, and wait,

* * *



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 desert
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!

Stefanie Sobelle is an assistant professor of English at Gettysburg College, where her research brings together literary and material history, focusing on the intersections of art, architecture, and literature in late nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century culture. She is currently completing a book that draws concepts from architectural theory and practice to understand developments in American literature throughout the twentieth century. She has received grants and fellowships from the California Institute of Technology, The Huntington Library, and The Society for the Preservation of American Modernism, and she has given invited lectures at The New York Institute for the Humanities, The de Young Museum, Caltech, the University of California at Irvine, et al. In addition to her teaching and scholarship, she is an editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and her criticism has been published in Bookforum, the Financial Times, BOMB, Words Without Borders, and the Review of Contemporary Fiction.