First reading of Basil Bunting's performance of Thomas Wyatt's 'Blame not my lute' (3)

Ross Hair

The black screen that greeted me when I opened the PennSound link seemed particularly appropriate for the First Reading assignment. No context, no introduction, no preamble; just a recording of Bunting in the form of a nondescript audio file that, after clicking play, inched its way across the black screen, its bar changing from grey to white in just under three minutes. The URL reveals that the recording dates back to 1977. The PennSound Bunting page yields little extra: “Blame Not My Lute” is but one of eleven Wyatt poems that Bunting read at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1977. Wyatt was keeping good company on that occasion as Bunting, it appears, also read poems by Pound, Spenser, Whitman, and Zukofsky.  

Perhaps this bit of digging around is cheating. Only half-listening to Bunting’s recording first time round, I had caught myself mentally drawing on everything I thought I knew or remembered about Bunting: his regard for Wyatt, obviously, but also his concerns for how poems are pronounced (a point he stressed in the case of Wordsworth, I think), plus his emphasis on how the music of the poem should preside over its meaning. The noise of the poem is how I vaguely remember Bunting describe it to Jonathan Williams.[1] Indeed, my initial reaction was to go to my Bunting books in order to answer an immediate question: what were Bunting’s reasons for reciting this particular poem of Wyatt’s? Research, however, seems to go against the spirit of the First Readings brief. So, instead, and counter to my “academic” instinct, all that I have allowed myself for this task is the recording of Bunting, the link to Wyatt’s poem (provided with the First Reading invitation), and one concession in the form of the OED.  

I don’t know much about Wyatt’s poetry or his period. I do, however, recall Bunting saying something (in one of his lectures, I think) along the lines that poetry, like music, is the pattern of sound played on the background of time.[2] If I have remembered that accurately, then it might be fruitful to listen more carefully to the intonation and accent (the noise) of Bunting’s recital. Spite simmers in Wyatt’s poem, but (to my ears at least) Bunting’s tone is calm, measured, wry, and gently insistent. I might go as far as to say that Bunting takes pleasure in his reading; the way he rolls the r in “break,” “wreak,” “rightful,” “great,” “strange,” and “rhyme,” or accentuates the sibilance in “must needs,” “case so strange,” “shall sound that same,” “such words as touch thy change” and “changing change.” From this I get the impression that Bunting relishes in the sound of Wyatt’s poem. So much so, words become verbal morsels.[3] And, considering Bunting’s emphasis on music, I’m also thinking of notes. But, as well as music and inditement (“the songs which I indite,” Wyatt writes), I also have in my mind the idea of flavor or aroma. The notes of words. Seasoned words. Words with bite, tang, sapor.

The flavor of Bunting’s reading also draws my attention to the repetitious nature of Wyatt’s poem. I’ve already used the word “insistent” but I wonder if “monotonous” is more accurate. If the noise of Wyatt’s words create a piquant pattern of sound, then the lexical palate seems, by comparison, rather limited and, as Wyatt writes, “somewhat plain.” Bunting’s recital has the effect of emphasizing the recurrence of simple and unaffected words in Wyatt’s poem: “change,” “blame,” and “sound,” for example, or “songs,” “spite,” “strings.” Perhaps Wyatt’s simple and restricted vocabulary reflects the speaker’s “somewhat plain” songs.  But it also has the effect of making even the plainest words seem “somewhat strange” and salient.

I find that this is the case with the repetition of “desert”: “by thine own desart,” “By thy desert their wonted way” and (once I note the etymology of the word) also in “deservèd to have blame.” Desert/desart: “Deserving; the becoming worthy of recompense, i.e. of reward or punishment, according to the good or ill of character or conduct; worthiness of recompense, merit or demerit,” so the OED informs me. I didn’t know that. Another definition: “An action or quality that deserves its appropriate recompense; that in conduct or character which claims reward or deserves punishment.” For this one the OED provides an example from John Stuart Mills: “What constitutes desert? ... a person is understood to deserve good if he does right, evil if he does wrong.” A neat reiteration, then, of the cause-and-effect reasoning of Wyatt’s poem? Blame not my lute but blame yourself for my change of tune, for such are the just deserts of your “falsèd faith.” Far from ceding the initiative to words, as I briefly entertained that this poem might be doing (and why Bunting might have chosen it), “Blame Not My Lute,” in this “desert” context would suggest that this is a poem very much invested in aim, design, and intention.    

But “desert” also (this one I did already know) denotes a barren and uninhabited place as well as the condition of being forsaken, desolate, and lonely. And, of course, as a verb, “to desert” means to abandon. These more familiar meanings then, might express the cause of the speaker’s spite, who, it seems, has been forsaken by his (I am presuming the speaker is male) lover. The player has been played. This is all very well, but the Wyatt text that I have been reading spells “desert” in two ways — one with an a, the other with an e — whereas Bunting pronounces both words the same. (How differently these two words would have been pronounced in Wyatt’s time, I have no idea.) I don’t know what to make of that, yet I think it invites comment. The “art” in “desart” makes me think of cunning, wile, and contrivance, but I’m clutching at straws. Maybe an early modern specialist could explain that one for me.

In his recital Bunting is largely faithful to the Wyatt text that I’ve been reading.[4] One notable departure, however, occurs in the line, “And if, perchance, this sely rhyme,” in which Bunting changes “sely” for “foolish.” It’s a shame. I don’t ever recall coming across “sely” before now, and, in my ignorance, I love it for its incongruity and for its ambiguity. I assume Bunting has “silly” in mind when he opted for “foolish.” But, I wonder as I look up the word, whether Wyatt entertained other possible meanings. The OED in fact quotes from Wyatt’s poem “My mother’s maids when they did sew and spin” — “At the threshold her sely fote did tripp” — as an example of this definition of “seely”: “Deserving of pity or sympathy; pitiable, miserable, ‘poor’; helpless, defenceless.” Picking up again on the occurrence of “desert,” this meaning works well in the context of both the witless/helpless lute and the forsaken lover who plays it. But I prefer the other definition the OED provides: “Strange, marvellous, wonderful.” A “sely rhyme” then might also be a strange, marvelous, wonderful rhyme. I like this more positive, lively connotation as the flipside to the negative associations that brood around the poem’s desert/ed speaker. I also think these strange rhymes establish a counterpoint (a descant?) to the self-professed “plain songs” of the speaker. (Although I now recall that earlier in the poem the speaker’s songs are also described as “somewhat strange.” So I might have to rethink that. Indeed, what did “strange” mean for Wyatt and his contemporaries?) Nevertheless, such multiplicity suits well the rhetoric of “Blame Not My Lute,” I think, for Bunting masterfully highlights both the strange qualities of Wyatt’s deceptively “plain” song and its rich music. But why did Bunting choose “foolish”?

[1] After my First Reading, I checked this. “It’s what I always say: a poem is a series of sounds in the air, just as music,” Bunting tells Williams in an interview conducted in 1983: “Other things can be included or loaded on to it, but the essential thing is just the noise.” Jonathan Williams, Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems, and Photographs (New York: Turtle Point Press, 2000), 44.

[2] I was almost right, but not quite. “Poetry and music are both patterns of sound drawn on a background of time. That’s their origin and their essence.” Basil Bunting, Basil Bunting on Poetry, ed. Peter Makin (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1999), 4.

[3] Deriving from morceau, a short literary or musical composition, “morsel” seems serendipitously apposite.

[4] The Poetical Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt, ed. James Yeowell (London: George Bell and Sons, 1904), 96–98.

Ross Hair is a lecturer in American Studies at the University of East Anglia and the author of Ronald Johnson’s Modernist Collage Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and Avant-Folk: Small Press Poetry Networks from 1950 to the Present (Liverpool University Press, forthcoming in 2016). His poetry has been published by Longhouse and appeared in numerous magazines, including The Cultural Society, LVNG, Shearsman, and From A Compos’t.