Symphonie Fantastique

This poem answers two questions that came to me from readers. The first was, "Don't you ever write love poems with girls in them?" The second was, "What is your oldest surviving poem?" I started writing some little verses soon after discovering Poe, then, under the guidance of Mrs. Van Kirk, my high school Latin teacher, I composed a few poems in Latin and then translated them into English. One of the Poe-esque poems has survived and is in my "Whippoorwill Road" collection. The other is here.

At age fifteen or so, I was hospitalized for a few days after a nearly-fatal nosebleed. I lost two-and-a-half pints of blood and was declared dead by an intern since I had no pulse while sitting up. After transfusions, I recovered. Sitting in my hospital bed, whose windows faced a cemetery lit up by a steel mill's red glow, I was given a little AM radio, on which I heard the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique for the first time. The radio announcer spelled out the program of this daring 1827 symphony. In the first movement, a young artist falls hopelessly in love, and the music depicts the storm of his passion, and his hopelessness when he isn't noticed. In real life, Berlioz was smitten with Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress who came to Paris to perform in Shakespeare. Of course she played Juliet.

My first "real" poem was written that night: lines written in response to the music and its program. What survives my later editorial destruction is marked as my Opus 16, and only two parts of the five survive. I cast the love affair of the first movement literally, as the starving young student in love with the famous artist. The third movement, when the poet is off in the mountains trying to forget his love, includes imitations of lonely shepherds playing their pipes, interrupted by thunder rolling off the Alpine mountains.

As an "ekphrastic" poem relating impressions of the Berlioz music, I think it conveys that adolescent ardor, so I offer it in response to the challenge question about whether I had any boy-girl love poems that didn't involve witches, goddeses or vampires. I wish that my efforts to describe the "March to the Gallows" and the "Witches' Sabbath" that end the symphony were printable, but they were truly dreadful, consisting of jingling rhymes in very short lines.

[Note since the first posting: I just discovered another revision of this poem that has more details corresponding to the outline of Berlioz' music. Alas, it also includes a grimmer ending to the Pastorale movement, in which our hero decides to go back to Paris and strangle his beloved. Well, that is where Berlioz takes it next, with a March to the Gallows for the hero. The text below is now the expanded, darker version of the poem.]

By the way, I still love the symphony as much as I did then.

So here is young Berlioz, as told by teen-aged Rutherford:


(After the Symphony by Berlioz)

First Movement: Dreams, Passions
I did not plan this passion.
Your voice intruded on my consciousness,
its foreign lilt, its strange inflections,
the way your meter’d tongue dropped pearls
of Shakespeare, Poe and Baudelaire,
the way your eyes implored me
as though it were my destiny
to grapple with some hooded Darkness
to win you for myself.

But what am I?
What is my frail embrace
to beauty such as yours?
All eyes are chained to you.
See how the students crave your neck,
the soldiers admire your slender waist,
the old men yearn for your kisses —
an army would not suffice for you!

I am your unknown conqueror.
I am the one who sends you violets,
a myrtle wreath, a sonnet.
Others impress you with jewelry,
offer to garb you in silk and velvet.
I stood at the fringe of the stage door crowd.
Strong ones pressed in toward you--
oh, the broad-shouldered ones,
the lion’s-mane heroes, the uniforms!
I was the shadow at the edge of gas lamp.

You smiled, touched hands,
absorbing their love like a thirsty plant,
rose blush rising on your ivory cheek.
You never noticed me —
not tonight, nor on all the other nights.

But then my heart rose up
a double timpani of triumph.
You entered your carriage,
one hand enfolding a billet doux
(still in its envelope, unread perhaps),
the other protecting a fragile bouquet —

my violets! my violets! oh god,
tonight you will read my poems,
tonight you will know that I love you!

I walk the streets all night,
chilled by the Seine
on half a dozen crossings.
I pause before the gray cathedral,
look up into the knowing clouds
that hurtle eastward
to the sunrise.
The rosette window is dark,
for all the candles
and their attendant prayers
have guttered out.
This night my angel,
     good or ill,
is absent. I am resigned.
The heavens will do nothing.
My words alone shall win you.

Third Movement: Scene in the Fields
You shepherds, play!
You know not what your fluted night
     does to the haunted.
You wind, rising in harmony,
I think you plowed great ships
     across some sea,
you tasted salt not of tears only.
Look how you grapple
   with the landlocked cedars,
   birch staffs taut as ropes,
   leaf sails tattering.
The trees snap back, you drown
   the frail reed pipes
   and rage with your own voice
   among the mountain pines.

The shepherds flee. Now double thunder
rolls from peak to valley,
a mournful rumbling
of discontent, as though the gods
had lovers just as oblivious
as she to me.

If these vast and terrible beings
can gain no solace, then what of me?

Would I were dead and gone, would that
bare earth and unabating wind
outlived me, sole dwellers
of an everlasting night!

If I were left
to wolf and vulture,
to eagle, crow and carrion —
if only these pages
     (made orchestral by a hand
     unseen that guides my hand!)
remained, spun down
to the valley, the river, the sea.

If one day decades hence,
     this poem falls from an opened book
into your startled view, or,
passing the concert hall
you hear the corresponding melodies
and discern your name in them,

would you recall me then,
     knowing the one who loved you
     left a bleached skull
     on a granite mountain
     a heartbeat petrified
     into a stony silence
     the thunder punctuates?

My solitary end is pointless
     unless its iron-black pole
can draw you to it.
I will live on, and draw new breath;
I will return to you, unwelcome
as my love has been, not loving,
but as the Messenger of Death.
The pale throat I love,    
     I will crush beneath my hands.



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