When I was about 13 years old, I wrote two poems on cardboard, covered them in a sticky, shiny, plastic wrap and stuck them on my wall. They stayed there, next to my bed, for years.
This was the first poem:
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.
I think I loved it because it smelt of anarchy. But eventually I forgot about it. Last night the words suddenly popped into my head after almost a decade of forgetting them. Today I googled the three lines to learn the name of the poet. I don’t have a good memory, but I can usually remember the authors of quotes I like. And it’s weird that I don’t know it, because I can count on one hand the number of poems (however short, like this one) I know by memory. If I had to guess, I thought it could have been Virgil or someone like that.
I was so surprised to discover that my favourite childhood (and adulthood, for that matter) poem is actually part of the ‘grand chorus’ of a Christian hymn written in 1687. So I decided to write a blog about it, which is a big step up from a link posted on Facebook. Or maybe I just don’t want to forget it again. Anyway, a highly influential Englishman called John Dryden composed it for the festival of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. In his portrait, he is nearly-smiling and has waist-length, light brown hair (or perhaps a wig), as was the custom way back then. He died in 1700.
The Literature Review Network writes of Dryden’s “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day 1687”, “To be appreciated, it must be read aloud.”
This is the full chorus – SING IT LOUD!!
GRAND CHORUS As from the power of sacred lays 55 The spheres began to move, And sung the great Creator's praise To all the blest above: So, when the last and dreadful hour This crumbling pageant shall devour, 60 The trumpet shall be heard on high, The dead shall live, the living die, And Music shall untune the sky. I suspect that I may have come across the verse during Christian religious studies in primary school or early high school. I'm not sure how else I would have found it. I hope it wasn't a funeral... But it's funny to think how after all these years, I thought I was humming about freedom and disorder, whereas I was supposed to be thinking about God. Or rather, Hell, if I am interpreting it correctly. I'm amused because I'm an atheist and have been for a long time - and whenever I first found the hymn, I sliced out the references to God. After a relatively brief stint as an overly enthusiastic 10-year-old Christian (I started a war against swearing that started and ended with my big sister), I decided that it wasn't for me. I was actually put off by my religious studies teacher, who used to always come to class with a picnic basket for some reason (though it wasn't the picnic basket that put me off, but rather the way she answered a single question).
A smartass put up his hand and said, “What about the Buddhists – they don’t believe this stuff, do they?”
The teacher said, “The Buddhists are wrong.”
True story – this was the early 1990s, and maybe that wouldn’t happen in Australian state education today. Anyway after that I flirted with Buddhism (possibly just to rebel against my teacher), but converted to Science and Reason after a guy who I can’t remember told me that Buddhism actually encourages a self-focused state of being (the author does not necessarily agree with the views expressed on this page).
That’s all I wanted to say about that. If you’re still interested, this is the second poem that was plastered to the wall of my bedroom:There is pleasure in the pathless woods, There is rapture in the lonely shore, There is society where none intrudes, I love not man less; But nature more.
– George Gordon, Lord Byron (I still remember writing it out, thinking what an incredible name he had…)