First reading of Basil Bunting's performance of Thomas Wyatt's 'Blame not my lute' (4)
Jeroen van den Heuvel
With Jeroen van den Heuvel’s short essay responding to the experience of hearing Basil Bunting’s performance of Thomas Wyatt’s “Blame not my lute,” the three coeditors of the “First Readings” series offer the fourth of five takes on this cover. The recording is linked here and is also available at PennSound’s Bunting page.
The first time I listen to Basil Bunting perform Thomas Wyatt’s “Blame not my lute,” I am unable to follow it. The sixteenth-century English certainly does not help. I hear the word “desart” and don‘t know what it means. I hear the word “change“ that is familiar to me but it is used in a way that I am not accustomed to. I listen to it a few more times.
I hear a lot of repetition in the recording. Besides the phrase “blame not my lute,” I hear nontrivial words being used multiple times: “strange,” “change,” “songs,” “spite,” “right(ful),” “strings,” “(un)known,” “blame,” “fingers,” “sound,” “though.” The result is that of inner coherence. This poem is an entity that cannot be taken apart without breaking it. The repetition also radiates a kind of pleasure. The poem could have been a lot shorter, but it keeps going because the sounds are pleasing to the ear.
At the start of the performance, when Bunting recites the phrase “blame not my lute” for the first time, I cannot tell whether the last word is “lute” or “loot.” It becomes apparent soon enough as the poem progresses with words like “sound,” “tunes,” and “songs.” But the idea of asking not to be held accountable for a criminal and unethical act, and the enjoying of the results thereof, sticks in my mind.
I hear several remarkable pauses in Bunting’s performance. He isolates the phrase “blame not my lute” by a short pause before, and a long pause after it. This makes the phrase a kind of hinge holding the parts of the poem together. I also hear a longer than usual pause at the beginning of the poem after “pleaseth me,” and toward the end of the poem two pauses surrounding “unknown.” I also hear Bunting misspeaking “My songs do tell how true thou art” and using the modern “you” instead of “thou.” He is quick to correct himself, but it is clearly audible.
This makes me think about Wyatt’s time versus Bunting’s. Why would a twentieth-century poet recite a sixteenth-century poem? One obvious reason is admiration. The recital is an attempt to draw attention to the poem. Another reason might be to make a point about poetry: it should be read aloud. This poem is metrically strong, has a steady end rhyme, and contains many references to sound and music, which makes it particularly suited for that cause. The difficulty for a twentieth-century audience to understand the sixteenth-century language is only a plus: poetry should be read aloud and enjoyed, instead of read silently and studied and understood. A related but somewhat different reason might be to put poetry in historical perspective. To show the “changing change.” The use and meaning of the word “change” itself has changed since Wyatt’s time. The way we treat poetry has changed.
I listen to Bunting’s performance a few more times with the written text in front of me.
There are things visible that are not audible, most notably punctuation and capitalization. There is an exclamation mark after “Blame not my Lute.” Most sentences in the poem run over multiple lines. A semicolon is used to mark the end of a complete grammatical sentence. Each line begins with a capital letter. The word “Lute” is capitalized throughout the poem, but other nouns are not. This gives the impression of “Lute” being the name of a child or another close relative, or possibly an abstract entity or deity.
Given Bunting’s performance, the phrase “Blame not my Lute” could be either marking the beginning of a stanza, or ending one. It could be an exclamation on its own, or the beginning or ending of a sentence. The written text shows that in all but its first occurrence the phrase is at both the end of a sentence and a stanza. My impression of the phrase as a hinge has a visual counterpart: the poem is at its smallest each time the phrase occurs.
After a while, I hear Bunting recite in the third stanza “some wiser way” where I read “some other way.” In the last stanza Bunting says “this foolish rhyme” where the text reads “this sely rhyme.” At this point I start to suspect that Bunting is reading a different version of the poem.
After a quick search I stumble upon a version on WikiSource that indeed includes the words that Bunting reads. This version’s visual appearance is very different. It has white lines separating it into clear stanzas. The indentation of the phrase “Blame not my lute” is diminished. The word “lute” is not capitalized. There are no exclamation marks, and most sentences end with a period.
With the help of this “second” version I can explain Bunting’s pausing policies. The poem is based on lines of four iambs. The fifth line is lacking an unstressed syllable at the beginning. Bunting pauses after “pleaseth me” in the fourth line to acknowledge this. The pauses surrounding “Blame not my lute” at the end of each stanza are also easily explained: this line metrically counts as only half a line. The white of the indentation in front of the phrase calls for a pause, and the white line after it for an even longer one. It bothers me that this version’s indentation is pretty small. It does not justify the length of the pause that Bunting attaches to it, whereas the size of the indentation of the “first” version does. In addition, the rather long pauses surrounding the word “unknown” in the final stanza are better justified by the punctuation of the “first” version. The versions differ in yet another respect, and that’s the word “desart” in the fourth stanza. The “second” version reads “desert,” but I hear Bunting pronounce “desart.” This makes sense, because it should rhyme with “art” at the end of the next line.
I am left with the impression that Bunting reads yet another version of the poem that is somehow a combination of the two versions I have.
Why should I, in 2017, bother to listen to one dead guy reciting a poem four decades ago that another dead guy wrote five centuries ago?
One important reason for this is that Wyatt’s poem is still relevant today. The poem consists of six stanzas that each speak about the relationship between an “I” (author, speaker, singer, performer), a “thou” (addressee, reader, listener), and the instrument of the “I” (lute but also what it produces: tunes, songs, poems). This relationship has been, still is, and always will be relevant to poetry.
The poem is in a sense “empty.” Its repetitions circle around an empty core. The main point the “I” makes is that the “thou” should not “blame” the “lute” and break it, i.e. should not shoot the messenger for not liking the message. However, what this message actually says remains untold. We only learn that it is unfavorable to the “thou.” The “first” version goes by an elaborate title that contextualizes the poem by making it about a “lover” and a “lady,” but that is just one possible context for the poem. Its emptiness makes it applicable to many situations.
And then there is Bunting’s recital. The poem naively talks about the “I” and his or her intent. Bunting complicates the relationship between author, reader, and poem. Bunting is not Wyatt. His recital separates the speaker from the author.
Bunting knew he was being recorded. It wasn’t possible to record performances in Wyatt’s time. Technology progresses and we ever get more possibilities to “perform” a poem. Think poetry videos, think interaction, think augmented and virtual reality. Each performance is a volatile instantiation of the same lasting poem. Each performance is different. Wyatt’s poem, by virtue of its emptiness and timeless theme, is applicable each and every time it is being performed. The poem, in both its form and its content, demands to be performed. It supposes there is a “thou” to listen to the “songs” of an “I.” Bunting complied and propelled Wyatt’s poem into the future, into the “unknown” that is addressed in the final stanza.
Whatever happens, Wyatt’s poem is future-proof.
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!
Jeroen van den Heuvel is editor of the Dutch literary website ooteoote.nl. He runs the Eerste Indrukken (First Impressions) series that records an initial reaction to a poem from a recent publication. He translated poems by (among others) Lorine Niedecker, Rae Armantrout, and Adam Clay. Jeroen is currently translating a selection of poems by Michael Heller in cooperation with Ton van ‘t Hof and Mereie de Jong. He wrote an essay on the translation of a poem by Wallace Stevens and one by Robert Frost for the recently published Stevens/Frost special issue of the Wallace Stevens Society. In 2016 Jeroen was guest editor of the US online TYPO magazine with a selection of contemporary Dutch poetry.