Why are we singing two versions of “Sure on This Shining Night” for our Christmas program when it isn't even a Christmas song? (And just what is it about, anyway?) . . .
As is often the case, I have wandered far afield in my attempt to answer a seemingly simple teaser question. Since I don't have access to the thought processes of the Artistic Committee in their deliberations about what we sing, I'm going to assume that someone thought that “this shining night” would make a good title for our program and things went on from there. (They'd tell me how they chose it if I asked, I'm sure.) Here's the rather puzzling text:
Sure on this shining night of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me this side the ground.
The late year lies down the north. All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth. hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder
wand'ring far alone of shadows on the stars.
After wading through a fair amount of blather I can say at least a few things with at least some certainty:
1. The text of our two pieces, one by Samuel Barber and one by Morten Lauridsen, is not the complete poem. It's ripped from the middle of a longer poem titled “Description of Elysium” by James Agee, who is much better known as a screenwriter, film critic, novelist and journalist than he is as a poet. His one volume of poetry, Permit Me Voyage, was published in 1934. His most famous work, though, is the text he wrote to go with photographs of sharecroppers during the Great Depression in a book titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
2. Our words begin after Agee has described his version of Heaven, or Elysium. The imagery in that earlier section is gorgeous, including this:
And all the gracious trees
Spout up their standing fountains
Of wind-beloved green
And a wonderful description of what eternity is, where there is only the present, no past and no future:
The unalterable hour
But we're told, just before the section in our piece,
We can not come there.
3. So then, I think, we move back to earth for the part of the poem in our song. What's it like to be down here, looking up at the stars, instead of being in Heaven? Well, for one thing, the stars cast shadows; there are obstacles in the way. (One description I read that I did like, amidst the blather, said that we could imagine ourselves walking through a pine forest at night, with the starlight shining through the branches.) And we all know, even if we're extremely limited in our astronomical knowledge, that the stars don't really twinkle; that visual phenomenon is caused by fluctuations in the atmosphere. So we don't see them as they really are as long as we're in this life.
4. What's left for us here, “this side the ground,” before we're buried in the ground, is kindness, which isn't the trivial idea we sometimes think it is: paying the toll for the person behind you in line, for instance. Agee probably means the more intense idea of what the Bible calls “lovingkindness,”--acts of service motivated by love and compassion. He seems to be saying that he's at a point in his life when “the late year lies down the north,” so winter is past, and “high summer holds the earth,” so he's at his zenith and his heart is whole. But once high summer is past, there's nowhere to go but down to the end of the year; the days will now get shorter. He wanders, wondering and weeping, seeing the shadows (of coming death?) on the stars.
The foregoing is at least one interpretation. It's fair to say that the ending of our song doesn't match up with the actual ending of the verse, let alone the poem as a whole. I would love to unleash my
literature-teacher persona and go on to explicate the rest of it, but a) this post would go on for pages, and b) I don't understand much of it anyway. Which is perhaps just as well, since poetry isn't supposed to be an art form that can be reduced to simple explanations; otherwise, why write the poem at all? Just explain what you're trying to say in a clear, concise paragraph and forget the versifying. So if you feel that my explanations have in any way destroyed your perceptions of the text, throw it out and go with what you think it all means. Whatever you decide, I think we can all agree that the imagery of the stars fits perfectly into the Christmas season. (For the entire poem, go to http://nottoomuch.com/?page_id=2374.)
I must include an anecdote I ran across when researching this piece. Apparently (I'm always a little suspicious of these too-good-to-be-true tales), in 1979 Samuel Barber had just moved into a new apartment in New York City and gotten a different phone number. He was away from home and needed to call there because his friend Gian Carlo Menotti (of course it wasn't anyone ordinary) was visiting. But he couldn't remember the number. So he called directory assistance, but the operator was reluctant to give out the number; she apparently thought that he was some celebrity stalker and not actually Barber himself. But, she said, she was very fond of “Sure on This Shining Night.” Could Barber sing the opening phrase? He did so and was rewarded with the phone number. (The article I read said that “No doubt the popularity of 'Sure on this Shining Night' was amplified by Barber's frequent retelling of an anecdote that directly involved the song.” Hmmm.)
So there it is. Along with Barber and Lauridsen at least two other composers have set these words to music. (I was going to say that the poem must have really struck a chord with them, but I decided not to do that.) It's a nice challenge for us to give each rendition its proper mood and a great gift to begin and end the concert with these haunting words.