Sunday 24 July 2022

Porter and Bach

No apologies for returning again to Peter Porter, the Australian expat poet who seems in danger of being forgotten, despite writing some of the best verse of his time. 
Two themes very prominent in Porter's work were death and music – and, less obviously, religion, which for him was the link between the two: 'I think I was six when first I thought of death./I've been religious ever since./Good taste lay in wait and showed me avenues of music.' This poem, taking its title from the final lines of Larkin's 'Toads Revisited' ('Give me your arm, old toad;/Help me down Cemetery Road.'), was new to me, as was the Bach church cantata at its core.

Down Cemetery Road

The wind brings the Sunday bells. Come to church,
good people. But for me they're simulacra
of the great bell in my chest, clouting out the end.

This comes of keeping one's nose to the moral North
where gods go when they die. Oh how pleased
they are to leave their Babylonian captivity.

And how strange that religion comes from the East
where tourists see only commerce – fanaticism
seeking blue-eyed converts in the claggy fens.

But not the point of this poem. The chorale of Bach's
which moves me most is a tune of 1713,
a real contemporary, Liebster Gott, wann wird ich sterben?

The tune is Daniel Vetter's, the treatment Bach's.
There's the soft flush of earth when corpse and men
move among the matutinal flowers.

Bells like teeth touching, the towers of Leipzig
carving a Lutheran world in friendly slices,
that warm sententiousness we know as death.

Almost chirpy music, but don't ask the corpse
his view. Perhaps he sees that transcendental
radish bed promised by the tame Tibetans.

After a lifetime of blood letting, we deserve
a vegetable future. The flutes and oboes pilfer grief,
we have earned this joyful gruesomeness.

I think I was six when first I thought of death.
I've been religious ever since. Good taste
lay in wait and showed me avenues of music.

Which opened on the road to Leipzig's cemetery,
the alder trees in leaf and the choristers
waiting for their dinner. Herrscher ├╝ber Tod und Leben!

We Northerners are really Greek. Stoic, old
and held by oracles. Tears are running down like soot.
My daily prayer, Mach einmal mein Ende gut!

And here is the cantata. The glorious opening section is, I think, especially beautiful. That repeated flute motif, in which the same note is played 24 times, suggests the sound of a bird – perhaps the alarm call of a blackbird – but surely also refers to the 24 tolls of the bell that were rung at someone's death in the Leipzig of Bach's time...


  1. 'not a brook, but a sea' - Beethoven's words never more true than here.

    1. Absolutely, MM. I sometimes wonder idly what a musical world without Bach would be like. Who would fill the space left? I guess it could be Handel, but there's so much less of God in his work...

  2. I wonder too.

    "A Europe of vast empty spaces, unresounding,
    everywhere unawakened instruments..."

    Nige, I've been reading Christopher Middleton's edition of Lars Gustafsson's selected poems, a cpious though slim volume which takes its overall name from this poem, "The Stillness of the World Before Bach."

    I have listened to this cantata eight or nine times already since you posted it. It's new to me, too, and now I can't be without it.

    Thank you (and Peter Porter).

    1. Thanks so much Baceseras – I had never come across that poem, and it's very good. In case anyone is reading this, I'll post it here (in someone else's translation) –
      There must have been a world before
      the Trio Sonata in D, a world before the A minor Partita,
      but what kind of a world?
      A Europe of vast empty spaces, unresounding,
      everywhere unawakened instruments
      where the Musical Offering, the Well-Tempered Clavier
      never passed across the keys.
      Isolated churches
      where the soprano line of the Passion
      never in helpless love twined round
      the gentler movements of the flute,
      broad soft landscapes
      where nothing breaks the stillness
      but old woodcutters' axes,
      the healthy barking of strong dogs in winter
      and, like a bell, skates biting into fresh ice;
      the swallows whirring through summer air,
      the shell resounding at the child's ear
      and nowhere Bach nowhere Bach
      the world in a skater's stillness before Bach.