Elgar: Sea Pictures, Opus 37

ELGAR: Sea Pictures, Opus 37

Edward Elgar (1857–1934) had a difficult career. Always scrambling to make a living, self-made rather than university-trained, and staunchly Catholic, he was the odd man out among well-heeled English composers. He bounced from sickening failures—such as the disastrous premiere of his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius—to glorious triumphs, such as his Enigma Variations. The 1899 song cycle Sea Pictures—to maritime texts by Roden Noel, Alice Elgar (the composer’s wife), Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Richard Garnett, and Adam Lindsay Gordon—followed closely on the heels of the Enigma Variations and displays an equally pleasing melodic richness.

 

Sea Pictures

Sea Slumber Song

Sea-birds are asleep,
The world forgets to weep,
Sea murmurs her soft slumber-song
On the shadowy sand
Of this elfin land;
 
"I, the Mother mild,
Hush thee, O my child,
Forget the voices wild!
 
Isles in elfin light
Dream, the rocks and caves,
Lull'd by whispering waves,
Veil their marbles bright.
Foam glimmers faintly white
Upon the shelly sand
Of this elfin land;
 
Sea-sound, like violins,
To slumber woos and wins,
I murmur my soft slumber-song,
Leave woes, and wails, and sins,
 
Ocean's shadowy might
Breathes good night,
Good night!"

—Roden Berkeley Wriothesley Noel
 

In Haven (Capri)

Closely let me hold thy hand,  
Storms are sweeping sea and land;
Love alone will stand.
Closely cling, for waves beat fast,
Foam-flakes cloud the hurrying blast;
Love alone will last.
Kiss my lips, and softly say:
“Joy, sea-swept, may fade to-day;
Love alone will stay.”

—Caroline Alice Elgar

 

Sabbath Morning at Sea

The ship went on with solemn face;
To meet the darkness on the deep,
The solemn ship went onward.
I bowed down weary in the place;
For parting tears and present sleep
Had weighed mine eyelids downward.

The new sight, the new wondrous sight!
The waters around me, turbulent,
The skies, impassive o’er me,
Calm in a moonless, sunless light,
As glorified by even the intent
Of holding the day glory!

Love me, sweet friends, this sabbath day.
The sea sings round me while ye roll
Afar the hymn, unaltered,
And kneel, where once I knelt to pray,
And bless me deeper in your soul
Because your voice has faltered.

And though this sabbath comes to me
Without the stol├Ęd minister,
And chanting congregation,
God’s Spirit shall give comfort.
He who brooded soft on waters drear,
Creator on creation.

He shall assist me to look higher,
Where keep the saints, with harp and song,
An endless sabbath morning,
And, on that sea commixed with fire.
Oft drop their eyelids raised too long
To the full Godhead’s burning.

—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

Where Corals Lie

The deeps have music soft and low
When winds awake the airy spry,
It lures me, lures me on to go
And see the land where corals lie.

By mount and mead, by lawn and rill,
When night is deep, and moon is high,
That music seeks and finds me still,
And tells me where the corals lie.

Yes, press my eyelids close, ’tis well;
But far the rapid fancies fly
To rolling worlds of wave and shell,
And all the lands where corals lie.

Thy lips are like a sunset glow,
Thy smile is like a morning sky,
Yet leave me, leave me, let me go
And see the land where corals lie.

—Richard Garnett

 

The Swimmer

With short, sharp, violent lights made vivid,
To southward far as the sight can roam,
Only the swirl of the surges livid,
The seas that climb and the surfs that comb.
Only the crag and the cliff to nor’ward,
And the rocks receding, and reefs flung forward,
Waifs wreck’d seaward and wasted shoreward,
On shallows sheeted with flaming foam.

A grim, grey coast and a seaboard ghastly,
And shores trod seldom by feet of men—
Where the batter’d hull and the broken mast lie,
They have lain embedded these long years ten.
Love! when we wandered here together,
Hand in hand through the sparkling weather,
From the heights and hollows of fern and heather.
God surely loved us a little then.

The skies were fairer and shores were firmer—
The blue sea over the bright sand roll’d;
Babble and prattle, and ripple and murmur,
Sheen of silver and glamour of gold.

So, girt with tempest and wing’d with thunder
And clad with lightning and shod with sleet,
And strong winds treading the swift waves under
The flying rollers with frothy feet
One gleam like a bloodshot sword-blade swims on
The sky line, staining the green gulf crimson,
A death-stroke fiercely dealt by a dim sun
That strikes through his stormy winding sheet.
0 brave white horses! you gather and gallop,
The storm sprite loosens the gusty reins;
Now the stoutest ship were the frailest shallop
In your hollow backs, on your high-arched manes.
I would ride as never a man has ridden
In your sleepy, swirling surges hidden;
To gulfs foreshadow’d through strifes forbidden,
Where no light wearies and no love wanes.

—Adam Lindsay Gordon

(July 2019)