Poem Meets Song: A Journey Through Time

William Blake

What does William Blake, a poet born in 1757, have to do with a small concert stage somewhere in a small Swiss lakeside town 259 years later?

If you don’t see the connection yet (and that’s very probable), let me take you on a journey to where the sound of poetry and song melt into each other, and bring you closer to the richness that hides in such liaisons.

Now, you have probably heard of William Blake, the English writer from the Romantic Era. Let’s take a look at one of his poems called “The Fly”. When the poem was first published at the end of the 18th century, I think the author would never have guessed its possible uses.

The poem goes like this:

Little Fly
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink, and sing
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly
If I live
Or if I die

(retrieved from genius.com on 09/28)

First of all, literary lovers will undoubtedly notice the harmony and the winged iambic rhythm that can be found in this poem. The rhyme and the repetition almost demand for these lines to be read out loud, and the meter of the stanzas results in a pulsing flow of words. It is clear that this poem involves a great deal of musicality. As you will see, that fact has not gone unnoticed in the years after it was written.

Let’s time travel to 1965: English composer Benjamin Britten has just adapted the poem within a song cycle featuring William Blake’s works: Songs & Proverbs of William Blake. In the section “The Fly”, the fluttering piano evokes the sound of a fly buzzing in the air, while a baritone voice serves as the representation of the deeper question of life and death that is treated in the poem:

Fast forward to 2010: on her album Chamber Music Society, Esperanza Spalding’s song “Little Fly” takes the poem and effortlessly blends words and melody. Accompanied by a string trio, the musician creates a gently flowing piece of art, complemented by her smooth voice. There is a very relaxed and laid-back feeling to it, calling on the summer days spent with dancing and singing:

Now, a few years later, on the concert stage in the small Swiss lakeside town, is where everything finally falls into place. It took an incredibly creative multi-talent called Cosmo Sheldrake to bring this poem to me in the first place. The young musician, composer and producer has taken the poem anew and transformed it into his very own version: a song called “The Fly”. With his loop station, he has mixed his self-collected and self-recorded elements, such as tribal singing or the sound of shattering stones, and assembled them into music, together with the poem as his lyrics:

I have to admit that I was awe-struck when the artist explained the origin of the song, and right after my return from the concert, I found myself frantically browsing the internet until late at night. With the help of Google, Wikipedia and YouTube, I started digging deeper into history to find out more about that intriguing song, the fusion of old and new, the development of poetry via sound to song.

The three songs could not be more different: each artist has interpreted the musicality of the poem in a personal way and adapted the piece into their own, whether it be with the help of a piano, a contrabass or a loop station. It is up to you as a listener which song you prefer, just like in literature, where some works are bound to divide the minds.

However, the fact that the poem has been turned into song so many times confirms that this piece of art is a prime example of the essential connection that literature and music share, and it deserves to get out there as an inspiration to musicians and writers alike. There is incredible potential where literature and music come together, and I’m sure that I’m not the only one who would like to see and hear more of that.

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