A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

He just wants to roast me in front of that grubby bitch, thought Monica. I’ll walk out. — I’ll tell Sir Benedict I won’t bear it. I’ll go home.

But she met Revelstoke’s eyes, and she sang. She was angrier than she had ever been in her life. She hated this man who dared to show himself naked, and whose talk was one smooth, sneering incivility after another; she hated that nearly naked tart lolling on the table. She hated Sir Benedict, who had been making fun of her behind her back. She was so full of passionate hatred that her head seemed ready to burst. But she had not spent six months with Murtagh Molloy for nothing. She took possession of herself, she breathed the muhd, and she sang.

She finished, and the seven bars of diminuendo regret on the piano were completed. There was silence. The first to break it was Miss Kinwellmarshe, and her comment was a derisive, dismissive, derogatory monosyllable.

“Not at all,” said Revelstoke; “and let me remind you, Persis, that I am the critic here, and any comment will come from me, not you. Take yourself off, you saucy puss, and do some typing, or wash up, or something.” Rising, he hauled Miss Kinwellmarshe off the table and pushed her toward the kitchen, giving her a resounding slap on her splendid buttocks. She repeated her previous comment with hauteur, but she went.

“Now,” said he, “let’s get down to business. What’s that song all about?”

Monica had occasionally been questioned in this way by Molloy, and she always hated it. A song was a song, and it was about what it said; it was almost bad luck to probe it and pull it to pieces, for it might never regain its shape. But Revelstoke had made her sing against her will, and she knew that he could make her speak. Might as well give in at once and get it over.

“It’s about people saying good-bye.”


“Lovers, I suppose.”

“Why are they saying good-bye?”

“I don’t know; the song doesn’t say.”

“Doesn’t it? Who wrote it?”


“The music, yes. When did he live?”

“Oh, quite recently; Mr Molloy once saw him.”

“Who wrote the words?”

“I — I don’t know.”

“Oh, then I assume that you consider the words of small importance in comparison with the music. Do you think it is good music?”

“No, not really.”

“How would you describe it?”

“A sort of drawing-room piece, I suppose.”

“Yes, yes; but technically?”

“A ballad?”

“No, not a ballad. It is hardly a tune at all — certainly not a hummable sort of tune like a ballad. It’s what’s called an aria parlante. Know what that means?”

“A sort of speaking song?”

“A declamatory song. So there must be something to declaim. The words were written by a Scottish Victorian novelist and poet called George John Whyte-Melville. I see that your copy of the song gives his initials as ‘G.T.’ and robs him of his hyphen; just shows what the firm of Ricordi thought about him. Ever heard of him?”


“An interesting man. Quite successful, but always underestimated his own work and was apt to run himself down, in a gentlemanly sort of way. Wrote a lot about fox-hunting, but there is always a melan­choly strain in his work which conflicts oddly with the subjects. His biographer thought it was because his married life was most unhappy. Does that seem to you to throw any light on that song?”

“It’s very unhappy. You mean that perhaps it wasn’t lovers, but himself and his wife he was writing about?”

“I am charmed by your implied opinion of the married state. Married people are sometimes lovers, and lovers are not always happy. Why are they unhappy, do you suppose?”

“Well, usually because they can’t get married. Or because one of them may be married already.”

“There can be other reasons. Read me the first verse.”

In a constricted tone, and without expression, Monica read:

Falling leaf, and fading tree,

Lines of white in a sullen sea.

Shadows rising on you and me;

The swallows are making them ready to fly

Wheeling out on a windy sky —

Good-bye, Summer,


“You see? A succession of pictures — the fall of the leaf, the birds going south, a rising storm, and darkness falling. And it all adds up to — what?”

This is worse than Eng. Lit. at school, thought Monica. But she answered, “Autumn, I suppose.”

“Autumn, you suppose. Now let me read you the second verse, with a little more understanding than you choose to give to your own reading —

Hush, a voice from the far away!

‘Listen and learn’, it seems to say,

‘All the tomorrows shall be as today.

The cord is frayed, the cruse is dry

The link must break and the lamp must die.

Good-bye to Hope,


What do you make of that?”

“Still Autumn?”

“An Autumn that continues forever? Examine the symbols — lamp gone out, chain broken, jug empty, cord ready to break, and all the tomorrows being like today — what’s that suggest? What is the warning voice? Think!”

Monica thought. “Death, perhaps?”

“Quite correct. Death — perhaps: but not quite Death as it is ordinarily conceived. The answer is in the last verse —

What are we waiting for?

Oh, my heart!

Kiss me straight on the brows!

And part — again — my heart!

What are we waiting for, you and I?

A pleading look, a stifled cry —

Good-bye forever,


There it is! Plain as the nose on your face! What is it all about? What are they saying Good-bye to? Come on! Think!”

His repeated insistence that she think made Monica confused and mulish. She sat and stared at him for perhaps two minutes, and then he spoke.

“It is Death, right enough, but not the Death of the body; it is the Death of Love. Listen to the passion in the last verse — passion which Tosti has quite effectively partnered in the music. Haste — the sense of constraint around the heart — the pleading for a climax and the disappointment of that climax — What is it? In human experience, what is it?”

Monica had no idea what it was.

“Well, Miss Lumpish Innocence, it is the Autumn of love; it is the failure of physical love; it is impotence. It is a physical inadequacy which brings in its train a terrible and crushing sense of spiritual inadequacy. It is the sadness of increasing age. It is the price which life exacts for maturity. It is the foreknowledge of Death itself. It is the inspiration of some of the world’s great art, and it is also at the root of an enormous amount of bad theatre, and Hollywood movies, and the boo-hoo-hoo of popular music. It is one of the principal springs of that delicious and somewhat bogus emotion — Renunciation. And Whyte-Melville and old Tosti have crammed it into twenty lines of verse and a hundred or so bars of music, and while the result may not be great, by God it’s true and real, and that is why that song still has a kick like a mule, for all its old-fashionedness. Follow me?”

Monica sat for a time, pondering. What Revelstoke had said struck forcibly on her mind, and she felt that it would have opened new doors to her if she had fully understood it. And she wanted to understand. So, after a pause, she looked him in the eye.

“What’s impotence?”

Revelstoke looked at her fixedly. Ribald comment rose at once to his tongue, but Monica’s seriousness asked for something better than that. He answered her seriously.

“It is when you want to perform the act of love, and can’t,” he said. “The difficulty is peculiar to men in that particular form, but it is equally distressing to both partners. The symbolism of the poem is very well chosen.”

There was silence for perhaps three minutes, while Monica pon­dered. “I don’t see the good of it,” she said at last. “You take an old song that hundreds of people must have sung and you drag it down so it just means a nasty trouble that men get. Is that supposed to make it easier for me to sing it? Or are you making fun of me?”

“I am not making fun of you, and I have not done what you said. I have related quite a good poem to a desperate human experience which, in my opinion, is the source from which it springs. If you think of a poem as a pretty trifle that silly men make up while smelling flowers, my interpretation is no good to you. But if you think of a poem as a flash of insight, a fragment of truth, a break in the cloud of human nonsense and pretence, my interpretation is valid. When you sing, you call from the depth of your own experience to the depth of experience in your hearer. And depth of experience has its physical counterpart, believe me; we aren’t disembodied spirits, you know, nor are we beautiful, clear souls cumbered with ugly indecent bodies. This song isn’t about ‘a nasty trouble that men get’ — to use your own depressingly middle-class words; it is about the death of love, and the foreknowledge of death; it is an intimation of mortality. As you say, hundreds of people have sung it without necessarily looking very deeply into it, and thousands of listeners have been moved without knowing why. Poetry and music can speak directly to depths of experience in us which we possess without being conscious of them, in language which we understand only imperfectly. But there must be some of us who understand better than others, and who give the best of ourselves to that understanding. If you are to be one of them, you must be ready to make a painful exploration of yourself. When I came in here just now, you were playing a rather silly piece in a very silly way. You sang your folksongs like a cheap Marie Antoinette pretend­ing to be a shepherdess. Domdaniel wants you to be better than that, and so he has sent you to me.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson