Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Garden: The Decemberists' "June Hymn" As Lyric

It's incredibly interesting to me how music functions artistically. Somehow the meaning is contained in both the text and the music simultaneously, and the forms of each complement each other as a result. I have a theory that if a piece or song is musically beautiful, it must also be so poetically. That is to say, if a song touches my heart and mind with its music and fails to do so with its lyrics, it's likely due to my own lack of poetic sensibility and not the song's lack of poetry.

Take "June Hymn" from The Decemberists' most recent album The King is Dead. As usual, here's the direct link to the music video in case the embedded audio below doesn't work.

Here's a hymn to welcome in the day
Heralding a summer's early sway
And all the bulbs all coming in
To begin
The thrushes bleating battle with the wrens
Disrupts my reverie again

Pegging clothing on the line
Training jasmine how to vine
Up the arbor to your door
And more
You're standing on the landing with the war
You shouldered all the night before

And once upon it
The yellow bonnets
Garland all the lawn
You were waking
Day was breaking
A panoply of song
And summer comes to Springville Hill

A barony of ivy in the trees
Expanding out its empire by degrees
And all the branches burst to bloom
In the boom
Heaven sent this cardinal maroon
To decorate our living room

And years from now when this old light
Isn't ambling anymore
Will I bring myself to write
"I give my best to Springville Hill!"

Lyric poetry is the most basic, most fundamental form of Literature; as such, it is the most difficult to understand. I think the reason it so easily frustrates so many is that it seems like the meaning should be self-evident, it's staring us right in the face, and yet we often can't see it. It's analogous to the way in which Metaphysics (i.e., the study of being in itself) is the most basic and fundamental branch of Philosophy, and yet, the hardest to grasp...at first. Once understood it contains the simplest, most obvious principles. In fact, it contains those very principles upon which the rest of Philosophy is founded. All of this is to say that, like Metaphysics in Philosophy, in Literature Lyric is last chronologically but first ontologically.

Unlike Tragedy, Comedy, or Epic, then, Lyric isn't saddled with the baggage of plots and characters. In many ways, Lyric simply is. Tragedy, the form of Literature closest to us (in our very hearts, in fact), overflows with exciting and dramatic events and over-the-top characters who do things like murder people and gouge their own eyes out. It's good stuff, and no less good or beautiful than Lyric. It is simply the earthy, gritty, concrete way in which Tragedy goes about incarnating those larger realities which all art does.

Lyric, on the other hand, largely steers clear of such complicated and individual concerns. A poem doesn't incarnate the life of one man as Tragedy does, but of all men simultaneously. Or perhaps we should say that Lyric doesn't incarnate the life of one man, but the life of Mankind himself. This is why every poem retells the story of Adam (who is Man) and Eve (who is Woman) and whose union together constitutes Mankind (and produces life). The usual way to speak about this phenomenon is to use the image of the Lover and his Beloved, the quintessential example of which we find in Biblical Wisdom Literature. All Lyric poetry deals with the Lover and his Beloved, and their union together. Always, too, this union occurs in the fertile Lyric Garden of Paradise.

"June Hymn" tells the uncomplicated story of a man and his wife and their prosaic life together. The vast majority of the song is spent describing the garden which surrounds their home. This garden that they have created isn't just a facade, however, they bring it into their very life, allowing it to penetrate every intimate facet of their being: "Heaven sent this cardinal maroon / To decorate our living room."

Theirs is a love which cannot be contained, like the "barony of ivy in the trees / Expanding out its empire by degrees / And all the branches burst to bloom." The garden is not a romantic ideal, though. It is never a dream, never ethereal: "The thrushes bleating battle with the wrens / Disrupts my reverie again." The garden is never a place to escape the world. It is the world, the world to which their loving union, so infectious, brings beauty and life. Their life together, in harmony with that of the world and their garden, produces beautiful music: "You were waking / Day was breaking / A panoply of song."

Though beautified, the world which they inhabit is still imperfect. We are not told exactly what "the war / you shouldered all the night before," but it is unimportant. All that matters is that these are lovers doing their best to  live a good life faithful to each other and the world, working through the pain and toil of everyday life. Like their life together, the garden too must be tended carefully and dutifully, lest it wither. They must sweat through the work day in and day out, making sure their life together bears fruit in themselves and in the world around them: "Training jasmine how to vine / Up the arbor to your door / And more."

This is Lyric. Life, Love, Beauty, "Heaven," the Garden, Paradise, the Divine, encountered in everyday life, in the smallest, most insignificant things you can imagine. Things like one's spouse, a home, plants and flowers in a garden, for that matter, a baby born in a stable, water, and bread and wine.


  1. Wow, a gracious and civilized piece of 21st century music; and a fine expostion thereof. Thanks for this.

  2. This reminds me of my life even down to the bulbs, wrens and cardinals before the living room picture window.

    My impression is that the spring garden/ Springville Hill is an allegory of the writer's family: the spouse holds a crabby baby who was up all night; their love creates new life which will in its turn also create new life. But this life-creation doesn't go on indefinitely: when their baby-making days are over, it'll be good to know that he didn't hold anything back but gave fully of himself such that the garden/ extending family will continue to flourish.

    Kind of a Psalm 128 thing.

  3. Thanks for the words of support.

    What an interesting suggestion. I hadn't considered a fussy baby being "the war" to be "shouldered." As you say, that would be immensely appropriate given the content of the rest of the song. It could also be that the woman gave birth to a child over night.

    Whatever it may be, it is clear that the song wishes to incarnate the lyric concept that hard work in love(which is the opus Dei, or work of God) brings new life (which is another way of saying "grace") to everything it touches.

    "Blessed are all they that fear the LORD: and walk in his ways. [...] Thou shalt see thy children's children: and peace upon Israel," (Psalm 128:1, 7).

    Psalm 128 was the Psalm at our wedding.

  4. "Psalm 128 was the Psalm at our wedding."

    Wow! That's great! I say it every year as part of grace at Thanksgiving. I imagine the Pilgrims having done the same.

    "hard work in love(which is the opus Dei, or work of God) brings new life (which is another way of saying "grace") to everything it touches."

    Yes. I think this relation of love-work to the world in general, and family in particular, only occurs to men after they've had children.

  5. You may be right about that. I think I might say rather, when he enters into a communion (community) in which he has real responsibility. This may be what Gen. 2:24 is talking about. It is when a man marries that he ceases to be a member of his parents' communion, and sets out to found his own. That is to say, his role in the family to which he belongs ceases to be one of participation and begins to be one in which others participate in him.

    There are, I think, different ways in which this can happen. Confirmation in the religious life. Ordination (both of which are like marriage in many ways). I imagine it may even be possible for it to occur to a life-long lay bachelor somehow.

  6. I suppose what I mean is that it didn't occur to me until I had kids. That is, it didn't happen when I got married & took the vow, but when I was kind of forced to start dumping my life energy into someone else.

    This thread reminds me a lot of my Catechism class on Genesis.

    Re: original post I'm trying to think of a tune I really like which has terrible lyrics.


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