Category Archives: MacDonald

Dienstag Dictung XX

Song of the Waiting Dead
With us there is no gray fearing,
With us no aching for lack!
For the morn it is always nearing,
And the night is at our back.
At times a song will fall dumb,
A thought-bell burst in a sigh,
But no one says, “He will not come!”
She says, “He is almost nigh!” 
The thing you call a sorrow
Is our delight on its way:
We know that the coming morrow
Comes on the wheels of to-day!
Our Past is a child asleep;
Delay is ripening the kiss;
The rising tear we will not weep
Until it flow for bliss.
— George MacDonald

George on my Mind

I have yet to read a huge percent of the written works of George MacDonald. In addition to the poignant and mysterious fairy tales for which he is most remembered, he wrote several serious novels, religious essays, sermons, and scads of poetry. His works strike very near to my core; I feel that I require just the right circumstances and repose of heart to read him, and then just the right interval between readings for digestion and heartening enjoyment and thanksgiving. These aren’t your fast-paced thrillers. These are a literary Well-Tempered Clavier of edifying enjoyment.

True to the name of this blog, I found myself counterpointing my favorite author yesterday. Boxes need to be packed and background music is crucial. After exhausting my taste for Celtic (it has just the right amount of toe-tapping energy and ethnomusicological fascination) I searched on Naxos for something more soothing. Walt Whitman (and his volcanic, reaching limbs pontifical) was formerly familiar to me only through R.V. William’s Sea Symphony and Emily Dickinson’s succinct and succulent verses are prime for lieder or art song setting. I decided to find any songs set by my buddy G.M. and found one piece entitled Baby No. 1 (from 2 Mother Songs, Op. 69) composed by Amy Beach. (You can find the whole text in At the Back of the North Wind at the Gutenberg Project or my previous post.) Beautiful, simple lullaby; tender piano accompaniment; an odd shift to minor in the second line that finds justification in the hovering fermata-ed fourth line; ABA twice with a minor twist in B; gorgeous.

The only other G.M. setting that I’ve found so far is by contemporary composer M. Ryan Taylor. (Perhaps the M stands for Mervin or Mickey?) On his website he features a song cycle called Leafs from the Diary of an Old Soul. The texts of these songs are taken from a lengthy collection of verse called A Book of Strife in the Form of the Diary of an Old Soul. Three hundred and sixty-five ABABBCC stanzas daily reflect on the poet’s soul being reconciled to God. Melvin Taylor has set five of these “days” with piano accompaniment. His sight provides a free PDF file of the sheet music and sound files of the first two songs. The voice seems to provide the sustaining thread to the sporadic and disjunct accompaniment: long melismatic passages, held notes. He seems to like the neighbor tone ornament and the piano punctuating the offbeat of the voice declaiming a list. I don’t trust Mercutio Taylor’s accompaniment. It’s like a tightrope ready to snap with its dissonances and then these lengths of silence with a naked voice powering its way through tonal silences. It’s the sound of an old soul, full of strife and conviction. I’d love to hear all of it and get a feel for the cycle as a whole. Very interesting.

It makes me want to set MacDonald poetry myself. His words lend themselves so easily to a bunting imagination. I’ve imagined a tone poem to The Shadows, an opera to Photogen and Nycteris, and a piano suite to The Light Princess. The latter has actually come nearly to fruition. Hopefully I’ll be able to post my own recording of The Light Princess Suite, Op. 1 on this blog soon.


The River’s Song

I simply love the writings of George MacDonald. Very high on my list of favorites is “At the Back of the North Wind”, which I just finished reading out loud to Jessica. As I already mentioned I read from a chair in the kitchen. Jessica performs her sacred alchemy of turning vegetables palatable and succulent. Numi scavenges for scraps and takes a nap (though I’m sure he’s really listening). Nothing beats that.

The book (published in 1871)  is written in MacDonald’s classic, verbose prose. Yet the wordiness sets a mood of propriety and exactitude without pompousness. It draws more meaning from simple actions and descriptions as though there were more meaning intrinsic to the normal things in life. Frequent and sometimes cheeky asides from the witty and honest narrator wrap you in the relaxed atmosphere of storytelling. The characters sweep you away with their humanity. They are diversely heroic, common, otherworldly, and raw with human foibles and suffering.

The hero of the story, a young boy named Diamond, is visited and befriended by the mysterious North Wind. Though North Wind is used to appearing in many guises, the one Diamond likes best is that of a pale, beautiful, tall woman, with black, undulating hair that ebbs and flows in the heavings and whisperings of the air like Mucha macaroni. North Wind is the true Mother, the rustling Holy Spirit, dutiful and bellicose and enigmatic, and loving, oh, so loving. She loves Diamond with the agape of God. She touches that part of me that weeps at C.S. Lewis’ Aslan.

Upon his request she takes Diamond to the land at her back. The river there teaches him songs, if not to his ears then to his head, and throughout the rest of the story he is found singing. He sings such nonsense: fragments of angel songs, buffooned nursery rhymes, lullabies to the moon, diddles for the enjoyment of infants. He gains the nickname “God’s Baby”, on account of being “touched in the head”. Yet he cannot come into contact with anyone without them becoming surprised, humbled, or insulted by his honest, childlike view of the world. He reminds me of Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin.

Diamond’s world is full of wonder. Rustling leaves and beautiful dreams become hints and promises and spiritual food. The laughter of babies become the potent weapon against despair and shame. Hard work and and an open heart, toast and tea, wrestling with metaphysics and reality, social conventions and organized religion. However I do not find doctrine here. Rather I find hope. It is a beautiful picture of grace in the real world, of Jesus, god-man and brother by adoption. Here are characters that make me want to stand still and listen to what songs the river has for me, and then to sing those songs wherever the wind takes me.

Last Tuesday I gave one of my favorite quotes from “North Wind”. Here’s another in the form of a prelude and fugue, sung by Diamond to his baby sister, Dulcimer:

Where did you come from, baby dear?
Out of the everywhere into here.
Where did you get your eyes so blue?
Out of the sky as I came through.
What makes the light in them sparkle and spin?
Some of the starry spikes left in.
Where did you get that little tear?
I found it waiting when I got here.
What makes your forehead so smooth and high?
A soft hand stroked it as I went by.
What makes your cheek like a warm white rose?
I saw something better than anyone knows.
Whence that three-cornered smile of bliss?
Three angels gave me at once a kiss.
Where did you get those arms and hands?
Love made itself into hooks and bands.
Feet, whence did you come, you darling things?
From the same box as the cherubs’ wings.
How did they all just come to be you?
God thought about me, and so I grew.
But how did you come to us, you dear?
God thought about you, and so I am here.

“You never made that song, diamond,” said his mother.
“No, Mother. I wish I had. No, I don’t. That would be to take it from somebody else. But it’s mine for all that.”
“What makes it yours?”
“I love it so.”
“Does loving a thing make it yours?”
“I think so, Mother- at least more than anything else can. If I didn’t love baby (which couldn’t be, you know), she wouldn’t be mine a bit. But I do love baby, and baby is my very own Dulcimer.”
“The baby’s mine, Diamond.”
“That makes her the more mine, Mother.”
“How do you make that out?”
“Because you’re mine, Mother.”
“Is that because you love me?”
“Yes, just because. Love makes the only myness,” said Diamond.

If you have a desire to get more of this wonderful story, read it online courtesy of the Baldwin Project here.

Dienstag Dictung IV

At the Back of the North Wind, Chapter 36

“I can’t get any sense into him,” exclaimed Nanny with an expression of mild despair. “Do you really believe, Diamond, that there’s a house in the moon, with a beautiful lady, and a crooked old man and dusters in it?”

“If there isn’t, there’s something better,” he answered and vanished in the leaves over our heads.

— George MacDonald

"Is that the sun coming?"

Numbered among my favorite writings of George MacDonald is “Princess Daylight”. It is a fairy-tale within a fairy-tale, a chapter in the larger and exceedingly moving “At the Back of the North Wind”, as told by the benevolent Mr. Raymond to an eager crowd of invalids in a children’s hospital in Victorian London. As all of MacDonald’s writing he moves beyond the conventions of “children’s literature” (quite the institution at the time) and into what Tolkien expounds as the Secondary World of Enchantment which none can come into contact with without being moved in some way. (See his full and wonderful treatise “On Fairy -Stories” for more.)

Numbered among my favorite modes of reading such stories is out loud to my wife while she fills the house with the aroma of sautéed onions and peanut sauce. My father and mother read to my siblings and I in a way that I can only hope to emulate with my own children. Last night I read this tale aloud to my mother-in-law after our Margarita Friday feast.

The story’s language is most charming: proper, 19th century, British, yet gentle and playful and full of asides. It makes you imagine that he was well versed in the art of extemporaneous storytelling to an inquisitive audience. His descriptions are vivid and fresh like a painter. His dialog among characters is often filled with wit and comedy, and the inner motivations and reactions of his characters give them a beautiful and honest reality.

MacDonald is always pushing the bounds of convention, turning the conventions on it’s head or poking fun at it. The evil fairy must “of course” curse the Princess at her christening, but first must find good cause to be insulted so as to categorize her machinations as revenge. The good fairies know such a thing is bound to happen and so take the precaution of keeping a good fairy in reserve to undo all she can; and when that doesn’t work you find they actually kept two in reserve.

Traditional roles and expectations are also challenged in this story. The Prince is qualified as not simply of royal blood, but as someone who both does what he’s told and tells the truth: a gentleman-prince. This notion is quite different from z.B. the Princes of the Tales of Grimm who need nothing more to their character than handsomeness, servants, and a title. The role of beauty is also poignantly explored in this story. The Grimm stories expound the simple (and insidious) correlation between physical beauty and spiritual holiness: in Frau Holle, the good and hard-working step-daughter is beautiful; the stupid, lazy one is ugly as a frog. (I would think these labels especially applicable to women seeing as the stupid and lazy “Man who set out to learn fear” in the end gets the Princess.) In “Princess Daylight” the heroine is cursed to not only fall asleep at the first hint on the dawn, but to wax and wane with the cycle of the moon. When the moon is its brightest and fullest the Princess is radiant and beautiful like a heavenly wood nymph. Yet when the moon fades to a crescent and darkness she looses health and seems like an octogenarian bent with suffering. The relationship between beauty and ugliness is rather the result of an evil enchantment and has no comment on her spirit or morals. From the beginning she is always virtuous and sweet, yet under a dreadful spell that causes her much suffering. Yet in the end the curse brings about its own undoing, as MacDonald’s narrator assures us is the end result of all evil.

This story can not only be read as the 28th chapter of “At the Back of the North Wind” but also in a wonderful collection called “The Complete Fairy Tales of George MacDonald”. Read it out loud to those you love, and then to  everyone else as well.