There is no doubt that 4pm November darkness in Edinburgh is accompanied by a strong desire to hibernate under the duvet whilst yearning for the warmth of home, family and Christmas. Over the past few months, I have found myself constantly returning to beloved books and poems, craving the comfort of nostalgic familiarity in words I have already read.
This idea of yearning, especially for ‘the past’, is one that D.H. Lawrence encapsulates beautifully throughout ‘Piano’ and it is for exactly this reason that it has to be my poem of the week. I stumbled upon this poem completely by chance – which is usually the way I discover my favourite poems – after listening to the song ‘Cucurucu’ by Nick Mulvey. I fell in love with the simultaneous delicacy and immediacy of the song, especially in its lyrics, and after a little research discovered that the song was in fact inspired by ‘Piano’.
Like much of his work, Lawrence’s ‘Piano’ (1918) explores the relationship between the themes of nostalgia, memory, childhood and adulthood. The beauty of the poem lies within its lyrical voice and the conflict between present experience and past memory. In the opening lines of the poem, Lawrence establishes this connection between the childhood scene and the projection of the speaker’s memory of that scene: ‘Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me; / Taking me back down the vista of years,…’ The speaker’s memory of being ‘[a] child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings / And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings’ reveals the interconnectedness of music and memory, hence the title of the poem. Lawrence’s ability to render this remembrance intimate and homely whilst also exploring the complexity of the past’s relationship with the present is, for me, what makes this poem so compelling.
Lawrence builds on these themes in the second stanza as the speaker becomes aware of his remembrance. Memory is depicted as powerful and all-encompassing, as in the lines: ‘In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song / Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong.’ The speaker suggests that the strength of memory lies in its ability to provoke overwhelming emotion, implied in the personification of his weeping ‘heart’. The piano and its accompanying song therefore become central to this idea of remembrance as it is associated with ‘hymns in the cosy parlour’ and acts as their ‘guide’.
In the final stanza the speaker acknowledges and meditates on the idealised past, and is realising that the act of remembering the piano and its representation of childhood is tainted with sadness and melancholy: ‘So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour / With the great black piano appassionato.’ The bitterness elicited in these lines reflects the tension the speaker experiences between remembering and giving into the emotion evoked through remembering. Throughout the poem, a longing for the past and childhood memories associated with song unfolds with every line and culminates in the striking final statement: ‘I weep like a child for the past’.
Whilst the conclusion of ‘Piano’ is tinged with ostensible sadness, I think that Lawrence’s powerful and melodic depiction of the effects of memory and nostalgia could not be more apt for the times we are living in. Whether it be through music, literature, or conversations with friends and family, we are all longing for a pre-pandemic world. If the past few months have demonstrated anything, it is just how much we need nostalgic remembrance to function in this oddly virtual reality. Lawrence’s poem confirms that this yearning ‘to belong / To the old Sunday evenings at home’ and ‘[t]he glamour / Of childish days’ is just as prevalent in 2020 as it was in 1918.
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamourD.H.Lawrence, ‘Piano’, 1918
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.
Image: MaltaGirl via Flickr