To turn a page, read a text, and suddenly hear a song is one of the greatest joys bestowed by a life of choral singing.
It happens all the time with Bible study. A Scripture or a psalm text begins as ink on the page, then as the words register, they take on pitch and meter, melody and harmony. The anthem written on my heart years ago sings in my mind, the gift of decades of Monday night community choir rehearsals and Thursday night Choir practice and Sunday morning worship.
It happens with our poetry study as well. Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Alfred Tennyson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Frost and of course T.S. Eliot spring to mind as poets whose works have inspired musical interpretation which I’ve been privileged to sing.
This year, the Daughter’s poets are the Devotional poets – John Donne, George Herbert and John Milton. What general familiarity I have with these poets, I attribute to my beloved copy of A Treasury of Christian Poetry: 700 Inspiring and Beloved Poems, complied by Mary Batchelor. To deepen our poetry study, I picked up a Leland Ryken guide, The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton. The book begins with Donne, and unpacks the dense, rich, content of nine of his Holy Sonnets. As I flipped the page from Holy Sonnet 6 to Holy Sonnet 7, I heard the text turn to music:
At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners, by Wilhelmetta Spencer
I sang this piece many years ago, and have always found the poignancy of the poem strikingly expressed musically. The text is particularly fitting for Lent, as Donne ponders the reality of death, the warning of judgement, the urgency of repentance, and the glory of God’s grace.
Here is the full text for Holy Sonnet #7 by John Donne:
At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there. Here on this lowly ground
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon with thy blood.
When I looked around on You Tube for a well performed recording of the Wilhelmetta Spencer composition to share with The Daughter (Who has joined the ranks of choral singing!) I found two additional works. Each of these interpretations are quite different, yet they also beautifully express the text.
At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners, by Sir Charles Parry
At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners, by Lee Hoiby (warning the video is slightly cheesy)