Speaking the Serenade

Here’s an A Far Cry challenge for whoever wants to take it on! 

This Friday, we’ll be playing the magnificent Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. One of the greats! Earlier this week, we were speaking about it and one of the Criers described it as one of the last iconic works for strings that we haven’t performed yet. (Of course we’ve been dreaming about playing it for years, and we’re totally totally thrilled to finally be bringing it to life with Nicholas Phan.) 

What makes the Britten so Phan-tastic? (Sorry, Nick!) 

In part, it’s the fact that Britten used six absolutely thrilling English poems - from some of the most revered poets in the language, and spanning a space of nearly six hundred years. I’ve always found English is a funny language to read out loud; as opposed to, say, French or Italian, the words don’t necessarily sit comfortably in your mouth. But as a language, it is so very very precise (more precise than beautiful, I would say) that the craft of writing poetry in English gives you a whole world of options. And these poems are rich, specific, resonant, and truly great. 

So, the challenge: Read them! Go ahead and read them out loud! 

One of the best ways to get to know a poem is to see where it leads you as you read. Certain things become so much more clear as you say them. And it’s also a wonderful way to come closer to what is happening onstage on Friday, if you yourself have said the very same words. Where do you find yourself lingering? How do you shape a certain sentence? What do you recite louder, what softer? It’s a fascinating exercise.  

So here they all are, in order, below, with a few notes from me on each (mostly just detailing some of my favorite parts.) 

Do it! Don’t be shy, no one’s listening! We believe in you! 

Here goes… 



The day’s grown old; the fainting sun

Has but a little way to run,

And yet his steeds, with all his skill,

Scarce lug the chariot down the hill.

The shadows now so long do grow,

That brambles like tall cedars show;

Mole hills seem mountains, and the ant

Appears a monstrous elephant.

A very little, little flock

Shades thrice the ground that it would stock;

Whilst the small stripling following them

Appears a mighty Polypheme.

And now on benches all are sat,

In the cool air to sit and chat,

Till Phoebus, dipping in the west,

Shall lead the world the way to rest.


Charles Cotton (1630–1687) “The Evening Quatrains” 


There are a few things that I adore about this nearly 400-year old poem. The beauty of the dominant image, with shadows making giants of us all at day’s end, is striking and intimate, and somehow evokes the approaching dark without making it seem ominous. I also love the colorful words sprinkled throughout. “Lug” and “chat” pop up so brightly and casually in the language - I had no idea they were even used at that time. “A very little little flock” is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in print, and the “monstrous elephant” is just damn fine. 



The splendour falls on castle walls

And snowy summits old in story:

The long light shakes across the lakes,

And the wild cataract leaps in glory:

Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,

Bugle blow; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,

And thinner, clearer, farther going!

O sweet and far from cliff and scar

The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!

Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:

Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,

They faint on hill or field or river:

Our echoes roll from soul to soul,

And grow for ever and for ever.

Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,

And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.


Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) “Blow bugle blow” 


First of all: the horns of Elfland?! 

Second of all, this poem feels fantastic when you recite it out loud. The words start to hum and thrum, leaping and echoing of their own accord. 

Third, I can’t get enough of the way the poem zooms closer and closer in for each stanza - the first merely descriptive, the second, addressing someone (but who?) and the last, revealing the loved one. The poem gets warmer and warmer, even as it becomes more heroic. 

Lastly: “roll from soul to soul” - so good. 



O Rose, thou art sick!

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.


William Blake (1757–1827) “The Sick Rose” 


I find this poem unspeakably disturbing. I’m sure Blake wanted it that way. When you read it out loud, I find it makes you slow down incrementally until the last few words seem to take an agonizing lifetime to intone, and by that time you’re probably speaking in a whisper. 



This ae nighte, this ae nighte,

Every nighte and alle,

Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte,

And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,

Every nighte and alle,

To Whinny‑muir thou com’st at last;

And Christe receive thy saule.


If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,

Every nighte and alle,

Sit thee down and put them on;

And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane

Every nighte and alle,

The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;

And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinny‑muir when thou may’st pass,

Every nighte and alle,

To Brig o’ Dread thou com'st at last;

And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o’ Dread when thou may'st pass,

Every nighte and alle,

To Purgatory fire thou com'st at last;

And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest meat or drink,

Every nighte and alle,

The fire sall never make thee shrink;

And Christe receive thy saule.

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav'st nane,

Every nighte and alle,

The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;

And Christe receive thy saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,

Every nighte and alle,

Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte,

And Christe receive thy saule.


Anonymous (15th century) “Lyke-Wake Dirge” 


Another mesmerizing one to read out loud. (PS: Here’s a translation into more regular English, with some explanatory notes!) This one to me has the aspect of a story you share with a child, with each pair of stanzas detailing what happens if you did a GOOD thing, versus what happens if you did a BAD thing. Somehow, the words themselves seem to take a fierce delight in what happens if you weren’t quite good enough. Dark, creepy, but also terrifyingly just. I love the fact that the poem details both what’s happening in the journey (towards Heaven or Hell) but also brings you back, again and again, to what has happened in your own life. I honestly can’t read it without asking myself “Wait… Have I given meat or drink? Have I given hosen and soon? Will I be OK?” And I’m sure that’s the point. 



Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,

Now the sun is laid to sleep,

Seated in thy silver chair

State in wonted manner keep:

Hesperus entreats thy light,

Goddess excellently bright.

Earth, let not thy envious shade

Dare itself to interpose;

Cynthia’s shining orb was made

Heav’n to clear when day did close:

Bless us then with wishèd sight,

Goddess excellently bright.

Lay thy bow of pearl apart,

And thy crystal shining quiver;

Give unto the flying hart

Space to breathe, how short so-ever:

Thou that mak’st a day of night,

Goddess excellently bright.


Ben Jonson (1572–1637) “Hymn to Diana” 


Try not to smile while saying “Excellently bright.” You might manage it for the first couple, but by the end of the poem… well, just see. I adore the fancy language in this one - it’s like Jonson’s breaking out the good china. It’s also such a sweet relief after the two preceding poems! 

Who rhymes “quiver” with short so-ever?” C’mon, Ben! 



O soft embalmer of the still midnight,

Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,

Our gloom‑pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,

Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:

O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,

In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes.

Or wait the “Amen” ere thy poppy throws

Around my bed its lulling charities.

Then save me, or the passèd day will shine

Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,

Save me from curious conscience, that still lords

Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;

Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards,

And seal the hushèd casket of my Soul.


John Keats (1795–1821) “To Sleep” 


Extra credit if you yawn in the middle of this one. Props to Keats for writing a poem in which he basically begs the god of Sleep to send him off to dreamland “in midst of this thine hymn” - before he even finishes the poem. It reminds me for no good reason of a limerick a friend of mine wrote once: 

“The secret to writing a limerick

Is always to have a good gimmick.

If your rhymer is sore

You can end on line 4…” 

But Sleep doesn’t oblige Keats right away, and then the poem takes a darker turn as we become aware of what he is trying to flee, in his search for sweet oblivion. Amazing, how you can still feel the distressed spirit of a poet hundreds of years after his death, trying to do what we all sometimes try to do - just drift off and escape it all, for just a little while. 

I love the last two lines, where he describes that moment he knows will eventually come; Sleep like a methodical night watchman, tiptoeing through the rooms, shutting them one by one with skill and care. The words are hushed and perfect, and saying (or whispering) each one of them out loud is a pleasure. 

Hey, there! 

You’re still here!

Did you read any of ‘em out loud? 

You can do it any time you want!

The challenge holds - until Friday, or after! 




Sarah Darling - for A Far Cry