We all know how strongly music can bring back memories – a particular song, or hearing someone hum a tune, and we can be transported back into somewhere in our pasts. D.H. Lawrence certainly knew that feeling and his wonderful poem Piano, written in 1918, is all about that.
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 clamour
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.
Lawrence’s mother, Lydia Lawrence tried so hard to be genteel and to rise above the status of being wife to a coal miner. Her piano was much treasured, and it was kept in the parlour and used on Sundays. Lawrence evokes a sense of comfort, childhood innocence and intimacy. His parents often fought, and perhaps the Sunday evenings of music were a respite from the strife that ripped through the house. He realises he is being sentimental and refuses to give in easily to his emotions – “in spite of myself”, but the mastery of song is “insidious” and pulls him back into his past. At the end of the poem, he weeps, realising in full the gap between his idealized childhood world and where he is in the present. He wants to throw his manhood away, and retreat to that warm, secure room of his childhood.
It is an intensely skilled piece of writing. Lawrence makes you feel what the child feels and sees – the keys “boom” because he is sitting under the piano, his mother’s feet are poised and elegant to him and there is a sense of awe in his attitude to her. And then, we see him as an adult, with warring emotions and we sense that he no longer has the comfort of home, but instead just some anonymous woman whose singing begins to jar on him because she is not his mother. It is a poem that pulls the heartstrings in the way any good music does. If you are in England, do visit the D.H. Lawrence Birthplace museum in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire. It is so moving to see the piano in the parlour there and to think of this poem.
There is an early version of this poem which is interesting to read here.
Have you been to the D.H. Lawrence Birthplace Museum in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire? Let me know your thoughts in a comment.
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