Robert Herrick, a forgotten poet of the seventeenth century, leaves his legacy in song. Known as the “songwriter,” his work is among the easiest to set to music.
Blake R. Henson arranged one of Herrick’s most widely recognized poems, “To Music, To Becalm His Fever,” in a choral setting of tense chord clusters that resolve into freeing harmonies. They mimic the structure of the poem. Give it a listen and revel in the movement from tension to release.
The poem is written in three stanzas of eleven lines each, which may make it feel a little unbalanced. Perhaps that is the point. The words constantly move forward, never finding rest until the end. The lines shorten as the stanzas progress, in a pattern of 87874474443. They move in and out like waves, settling on the final, emphasized line. The effect on the audience is much greater when the rhyme-scheme of ababccdeeed is taken into account. The “d” rhyme, or “sever” in the first stanza, is almost forgotten until the last line rings out.
Read it aloud a few times, and you’ll feel the punch at the end.
To Music, To Becalm His Fever
Charm me asleep, and melt me so
With thy delicious numbers,
That, being ravish’d, hence I go
Away in easy slumbers.
Ease my sick head,
And make my bed,
Thou power that canst sever
From me this ill,
And quickly still,
Though thou not kill
Thou sweetly canst convert the same
From a consuming fire
Into a gentle licking flame,
And make it thus expire.
Then make me weep
My pains asleep;
And give me such reposes
That I, poor I,
May think thereby
I live and die
Fall on me like the silent dew,
Or like those maiden showers
Which, by the peep of day, do strew
A baptism o’er the flowers.
Melt, melt my pains
With thy soft strains;
That, having ease me given,
With full delight
I leave this light,
And take my flight
Not all music has to have notes. This poem is music all on its own, and maybe that’s why it’s so easily set to music. Henson’s title of the setting, “My Flight For Heaven” is a beautiful way to emphasize what seems to be the most important lines of the poem. It certainly feels that every word leads to those.
Hi, I’m Amy!
I’m a PhD studying Music Theory & Cognition at Northwestern University in Chicago.
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