From The Elizabethan Songbook (Breath & Air)


The Fool’s costume (the jester’s costume) – cap ‘n bells

Student: Yeats wrote a poem called “The Cap and Bells

AG: Well (W.B.) Yeats did.. (that’s more) Irish..This is Cap and Bells too. I just (give you) that – but I wanted to get back into the breath into the open space. So it’s sort of insubstantial breath finally, So we can go back to Samuel Daniel. where we were,  on page one-hundred-and-ninety, can sort of get back into…

Peter Orlovsky: Which page?

Student: One-ninety

AG: Oh yes, before.. yes, one-ninety. Before we get there, there’s one little shot I’d like to lay out. Before we get to.. We’ll get to one-ninety, but hang on, because there’s another aspect of the breath. In the singers in the time of Shakespeare‘s, say 1604, there’s a very interesting little Elizabethan song which is not in this book, which also bears out on the breath, which is, same thing as Shelley, but many years earlier. (So you don’t have it here, so if you’ll give me your attention for a second and then we can go to the Samuel Daniel). It’s.. it’s a little song about the breath, as follows – “What is beauty but a breath?” – That’s the first line -“What is beauty but a breath – That sums the whole thing up – “What is beauty but a breath?/Fancies twin at birth and death/The color of a damask rose/That fadeth when the northwind blowes/’tis such that though all sorts do crave it,/they  know not what it is tto have it;/a thing that sometimes stoops not to a king/and yet most open to the commnst  thing;/ For she that is most fair/ Is open to the aire” – That’s something! – Psychologically, that’s great. that openness, or that openness of body that I was talking about, or openness of mind, openness of breath – “What is beauty but a breath…” -“..she that is most fair/ Is open to the aire”

Student: What is the name of that?

AG: It’s by Thomas Greaves, 1604, and you can find it in An Elizabethan Songbook, Doubleday, 1955..

Peter Orlovsky: Thomas who?

AG: G-R-E-A-V-E-S – It’s a book I have around the house. I’ve brought it into class a few times, An Elizabethan Songbook. It’s got Shakespeare songs. Campion songs, Dowland songs, and this. It’s got the music for this too, I think – Elizabethan Songbook – Noah Greenberg – G-R-E-E-N-B-E-R-G – is the editor, Doubleday. 1955 – Yeah, and it’s got a Preface by (W.H.) Auden, Wystan Auden, talking about the music and poetry and the measure, and talking a lot about what I was talking about – quantity in the measure,the length of syllables, the length of vowels. I always like that because it’s like a… it’s sort of the most airy little song imaginable (the subject is air – What is beauty but a breath” – it’s like the Shelley conception)


An Elizabethan Song Book – edited by W.H.Auden, Chester Kallman and Noah Greenberg – UK edition, Faber, 1977

So, it’s all breath and air, it’s all air finally. The whole poetry vanishes into air, or it proceeds from air and goes out into the air on the vehicle of air. Then, the man who’s conscious of air and breath is probably the poet, poet’s poet is the one who’s conscious of the vehicle. So that it isn’t even words, finally, it’s also breath. And so that’s why they speak of inspiration. I keep saying, I keep coming back to this, and maybe you think I’m just being theoretical about that, that, you know, it’s a funny, tricky idea that poetry’s made out of words and words ride out on the breath and words are composed of vowels and things like that, but actually, that’s the materials (like, if you were a painter, you’re working with a canvas and you’re working with red and blue pigments, if you’re a poet, you’re working with those objects). So you can make an object out there in the air, or, as (Louis) Zukofsky said, “Only objectified emotion endures”

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately sixty-eight-and-a-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately seventy-two-and-a-half minutes in]

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