Any other day, I might be up for a significant rewrite of a classic poem, but today is not that day. Snarky, cynical Kimberley is back, and she’s not having it.
I read the lyrics, sang (another fine Southern Harmony tune), then read again, feeling baffled. So I went to the internet to look up the original poem to see if anyone had any commentary, because I just wasn’t getting it.
It took me a long while to find it – finally, the phrase “whirl the glowing wheels” was enough for Google to point me to the original poem “Song of Nature.” For the record, I’m much more familiar with Emerson’s essays than his poetry – and even reading the full poem didn’t ring any bells of familiarity.
Now I am all for one art form inspiring the next – that’s what it’s all about, really. I like it when passages of longer pieces become lyric. I even get adjustments of words to fit musical meter. But this one has gotten under my skin in a bad way, and I think I know why: instead of picking a couple of verses that say something specific, the person who adapted the poem took bits and bobs from throughout the long poem and, to me, edited out the actual spirit of the poem.
The Song of Nature is a first-person song, sung by Nature! This adaptation is third-person – a human’s eye view. Oh gosh, yes, let’s notice once again nature and how long-lived it is. Because we haven’t already done that in previous hymns. But that’s not the point of the poem. The point of the poem is Nature, recounting with joy the long expanse of time through which she has stood and watched sometimes happily, sometimes sadly, as humans play their human games of birth, inspiration, anger, war, peace, and death. That’s the point – Nature sees the long arc of the universe, moral or otherwise, and sings an ode to it.
This hymn hints at what Emerson was going for, but to me takes all the teeth out of it.
No number tallies nature up, no tribe its house can fill;
it is the shining fount of life and pours the deluge still.
And gathers by its fragile powers along the centuries
from race on race the rarest flowers, its wreath shall nothing miss.
It writes the past in characters of rock and fire and scroll,
the building in the coral sea, the planting of the coal.
And thefts from satellites and rings and broken stars it drew,
and out of spent and aged things it formed the world anew.
Must time and tide forever run, nor winds sleep in the west?
Will never wheels which whirl the sun and satellites have rest?
Yet whirl the glowing wheels once more, and mix the bowl again;
seethe, Fate, the ancient elements, heat, cold, and peace, and pain.
Blend war and trade and creeds and song, let ripen race on race,
the sunburnt world that we shall breed of all the countless days.
No ray is dimmed, no atom worn, the oldest force is new,
and fresh the rose on yonder thorn gives back the heavens in dew.
And maybe I’m being too cynical. Maybe my mood – compromised by bad health news about one of my beloved pets – isn’t up to seeing some of Emerson’s poetry being sung at all. Maybe I stand alone in my frustration and disappointment, wishing for more than a hymn could provide. I mean, it might be weird to sing all the I-statements of this poem; it would easily be confusing to the singer.
So I don’t know… I’m not sure a hymn like this HAD to exist at all, given the plethora of other good nature hymns and the actual power of the original poem.
Thanks for this commentary and the link to the original poem. I’ve like thing song since I first saw it, but I think you’re right: the poem is more powerful.