NOTE: This is the first in a series of posts about Vaughan Williams' Ten Blake Songs for tenor and oboe that I will be writing over the coming weeks.
I have no name
I am but two days old.—
What shall I call thee?
I happy am
Joy is my name,—
Sweet joy befall thee!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee;
Thou dost smile.
I sing the while
Sweet joy befall thee.
- William Blake
Since my first encounters with Britten's Winter Words, I have been inundated with British composers' and poets' fascination with youth and innocence, and the imminent and inevitable threat that life inherently poses to both. Innocence versus experience - it's a dichotomy that humankind has wrestled with for eons. It's one of the predominant themes in Britten's work (not just in his Winter Words, but countless other works, as well), and I have been drawn to ruminating on it in depth for much of my professional life over the past decade or so. As a result of this fascination with the subject, I've been wanting to explore Vaughan Williams' Ten Blake Songs for tenor and oboe recently. Almost all of the songs in Vaughan Williams' piece are settings of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and I can think of no other piece of literature which engages with the subject more directly.
On the one hand, the concept of naïveté's preciousness is a challenging one for me. Growing up as the child of scientists, there was nothing worse in my family than not knowing. Combined with the earnest (and ironically slightly naïve) ethos of tthe internet age (let us make all knowledge and experience accessible to all), which has led to everyone suddenly becoming an expert on everything, this feeling that I need to know all the things or to have experienced everything has only been reinforced.
On the other hand, as an artist, there is nothing worse than knowing. The greatest artists I know and have the privilege of working with are the ones who never lose their sense of wonder at the world. It's almost as if they are in a perpetual state of discovery of the beauty and awesomeness that surrounds them. Without this sense of wonder, we lose the ability to create our art, and to draw our audience's attention to these beautiful things that can be so easy to take for granted. It is through this lens that I have mostly related to this idea, although there have been other moments of understanding along the way.
Watching Hannah Gadsby's Nanette recently added a whole new layer of understanding as to why this theme has been such a magnetic one for me. If you haven't seen it yet, you should frankly stop reading this blog post right now and set aside 75 minutes for yourself and watch it. It's incredibly moving. But the reason I mention it now is a specific moment towards the tail end of her show, in which she talks about shame and self-hatred and how we learn that as children:
"...By the time I identified as being gay, it was too late. I was already homophobic, and you do not get to just flick a switch on that. No, what you do is you internalize that homophobia and you learn to hate yourself. Hate yourself to the core. I sat soaking in shame… in the closet, for ten years. Because the closet can only stop you from being seen. It is not shame-proof. When you soak a child in shame, they cannot develop the neurological pathways that carry thought… you know, carry thoughts of self-worth. They can’t do that. Self-hatred is only ever a seed planted from outside in. But when you do that to a child, it becomes a weed so thick, and it grows so fast, the child doesn’t know any different. It becomes… as natural as gravity."
I first encountered Blake's poem, Infant Joy, over a decade ago when I read Vaughan Williams' songs for the first time with a colleague at the Marlboro Music Fesitval, and to be honest, at that first reading the beauty of it was lost on me. I merely took it quite literally and assumed it a simple depiction of a newborn infant. After recently reconsidering it in the context of Hannah Gadsby's speech above, the preciousness of this literary image was suddenly heartbreakingly apparent to me.
Much like Hannah Gadsby describes, internalized homophobia is something I have had to grapple with my entire life. Even despite having been out for nearly the last quarter century, since I was a teenager. I believe it is something that all of us in the LGBT community wrestle with in one way or another our entire lives. From day one, we realize that we are not normal. And we internalize the world's negativity and, in so many cases, outright hostility towards people like us. It's something that affects our ability to sustain healthy long-term relationships and to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We carry the burden of this shame in one way or another our entire lives, because on some level, we are taught that we aren't worthy of being happy, we are not worthy of pleasure - because we are sinful abominations that should be turned into pillars of salt. Regardless of how successful we are at overcoming that shame - through coming out of the closet, through pride, etc. - some version of it is always there, lurking somewhere deep beneath the surface.
Hearing Hannah Gadsby's words for the first time, I felt like she was speaking my truth. Her words also helped me understand just how precious and valuable the joy of infancy that Blake describes in his poem is. It is the most free and precious time of life, because one only knows joy and wonder. Those seeds of shame haven't been planted yet. Now, listening to Vaughan Williams' setting of this poem, the joyfully arching lines of the oboe and voice that intertwine with each other sound even happier and more glorious. I understand in a new way why they feel so weightless as they soar. This is the time when we are most connected with the Divine, most connected with Love, because we are not weighed down by the shackles of our shame and self-hatred.