Friday, May 14, 2010

"Nursery Rhyme of Innocence & Experience"

SONG: Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience

BY: words: Charles Causley; music: Natalie Merchant

PERFORMED BY: Natalie Merchant

APPEARS ON: Leave Your Sleep [Nonesuch]

When we think about the poetry written in the wake of World War I, we probably tend to think of the “major” modernists—Eliot & Pound, & their ilk. It’s a poetry that looks at large cultural upheavals & examines how those upheavals affect society at spirtiual & artistic levels.

But while this may be the best known poetry to come out of the “War to End All Wars,” it’s not the only poetry. The British poets Wilfrid Owen, Siegfried Sassoon & Robert Graves wrote strong & moving poems about life in the trenches. & a rather obscure British poiet named Charles Causley wrote a beautiful & timeless poem, like an old ballad in its haunting simplicity, called “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience.”

I must admit, until I’d heard Natalie Merchant’s new cd, Leave Your Sleep, I’d never heard of Causley, despite having a pretty fair poetic background. The fact that Ms Merchant’s new work—a collection of settings to 19th & 20th century poems (& especially children’s poems)—could bring Mr Causley to light is just one of her project’s many virtues. Another great virtue is the beautiful music she has written as settings for the 26 poems.

In this post, I’d like to concentrate just on Merchant & Causley’s “collaboration”—I’ve reviewed Leave Your Sleep as a whole over on Robert Frost’s Banjo. However, it is worth noting that Merchant chose this poem-song to lead off her 2-cd collection of children’s poems, & as such it immediately directs us one of the album’s main themes, & perhaps its most artistically realized one, which is the loss of innocence. In the case of Causley’s poem, that loss of innocence come not just from the child’s encounter with the adult world in general, but with an adult world of war & violence &, at the very deepest level, unfulfilled promises.

Causley alerts us early on to what will develop from his fairy tale like setting—the sailor’s kiss is “strong as death”; the ship seems to sink as it passes from sight (it “dipped down/On the rim of the sky); it returns on a “steel morning.” As the ship reappears three summers later, we’ve moved from the fairy tale dream world of the silver penny & apricot tree & white quay to a ghost ship, emergiong from the sun with gulls flying thru it wrecked hulk. The red-haired sailor who’d promised the presents is gone—in his place is a stranger who brings the promised gifts—too late. The world has been changed—the “children’s toys” are a lie, an affront in this new nightmarish reality.

Merchant’s setting of this poem is haunting, & her rich voice conveys deep & precise emotion. The setting on the album is beautifully orchestral—Merchant & Sean O’Loughlin collaborated on an arrangment that includes the Celtic group LĂșnasa along with a full string section: 8 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos & a string bass. The music simultaneously reinforces the otherworld, fairy tale quality & the ultimate harshness of the real circumstances—& nothing conveys the latter better than Merchant’s voice. The pared down live version on display in the video below is also very effective.

This is a beautifully succesful musical setting of a haunting & powerful poem. Hope you enjoy it.

Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience

I had a silver penny
And an apricot tree
And I said to the sailor
On the white quay
‘Sailor O sailor
Will you bring me
If I give you my penny
And my apricot tree
‘A fez from Algeria
An Arab drum to beat
A little gilt sword
And a parakeet?’
And he smiled and he kissed me
As strong as death
And I saw his red tongue
And I felt his sweet breath
‘You may keep your penny
And your apricot tree
And I’ll bring your presents
Back from sea.’
O the ship dipped down
On the rim of the sky
And I waited while three
Long summers went by
Then one steel morning
On the white quay
I saw a grey ship
Come in from sea
Slowly she came
Across the bay
For her flashing rigging
Was shot away
All round her wake
The seabirds cried
And flew in and out
Of the hole in her side
Slowly she came
In the path of the sun
And I heard the sound
Of a distant gun
And a stranger came running
Up to me
From the deck of the ship
And he said, said he
‘O are you the boy
Who would wait on the quay
With the silver penny
And the apricot tree?
‘I’ve a plum-coloured fez
And a drum for thee
And a sword and a parakeet
From over the sea.’
‘O where is the sailor
With bold red hair?
And what is that volley
On the bright air?
‘O where are the other
Girls and boys?
And why have you brought me
Children’s toys?’


  1. Wow! That's amazing. If this song sets the artistic tone for the rest of the recording, then this is one I need to get my hands on. Thanks for the heads-up!

  2. Hi Roy: As I explain in my review on RFB, it's a smorgasbord--but overall it is an amazing album indeed.

  3. I shall definitely have to explore Causley as his style is in keeping with some of my own work.

    What an interesting poem with its darker undertones—it's so odd to have a seeming-sweet children's tale filled with images like a death-strong kiss and man's breath. I suspect Causley must have had an unusual childhood.

    As for Natalie Merchant, I've long been a fan - all the way back to 10,000 Maniacs.

    Thanks for this; I'll have to see if I can get it on iTunes or somewhere more conventional.


  4. Hi Kat: Causley's father died from tuberculosis that he contracted in the trenches during WWI--I think this memory must inform "Nursery Rhyme of Innocence & Experience." While the album has a couple of less interesting tracks, I'd highly recommend "Leave Your Sleep," & I think you'd really like it.

  5. Really interesting poem, liked it very much :)

    Marinela x x

  6. Hi Marinela: Glad you enjoyed it!

  7. What a beauty! This arrangement is haunting: It doesn't sound at all forced or gimmicky, which is what you'd worry about with a project like this. Lunasa is a terrific trad band, BTW.

    Have you read Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory? It's a superb study of the British war poets. I also recommend Pat Barker's trilogy of historical novels The Eye in the Door, Regeneration, and The Ghost Road. Sassoon is a major character in the first book, and Wilfrid Owen and Robert Graves put in appearances.

  8. Hi K: Haven't read those--have read "Goodbye to All That"; I suppose linking Causley with the WWI poets is a bit sleight of hand, but I think any writer who would have remembered his father dying from a disease contracted in the trenches is a "WWI poet." Glad you liked the music!

  9. Wow I really enjoyed the song! Thanks for the blog! :)

  10. absolutely beautiful. goose bumps whole way through!!!

  11. Hi hydra hotels & anonymous: Glad you both liked it.

  12. this is a stunning record from an amazing talent. i have been so inspired by her music. last winter i painted a series of 19 paintings (some on my blog) based on "My Skin". the painting series is called "the frost killing hour".


    -- joel.

  13. Hi Joel: Agreed on the record & Ms Merchant's talent. Beautiful series of paintings you did (frost killing hour) based on her lyrics!

  14. Hello to all. Yes, Natalie Merchant's settings are quite gorgeous, and this article nicely written. I'll be browsing this blog from time to time.

    I happen to be a poetry-loving musician, and have released an album of song/poems in 2011. Would the author of this blog be interested in listening? (I am staying anonymous so as not to use the blog for publicity purposes - I would be happy to contact you by PM, if you so wish.)


  15. Wonderful Charles Causley poem and beautifully haunting interpretation from Natalie Merchant. It seems that Causley has been out of fashion for far too long. This poem seems to speak to our world as at no time since the early 20th century.