Three Songs

Pauline Johnson (1862-1913) was a Canadian poet of English and Mohawk ancestry. Beneath its Victorian and sentimental surface, her verse is restless and conflicted, mingling erotic yearning with melancholy. I have tried to mirror this division with a “conventional” language of triadic harmony, slightly askew with inversions and added sixths and sevenths, and gently eroticized by keeping the voices very close and low in tessitura. At times, the world of Schubert seems close at hand, or of a late Victorian salon; yet the narrow choice of materials, simplicity of gesture, and asymmetrical repetitions look forwards to modern times.

Texts for Three Songs, by James Rolfe

from poems by E. Pauline Johnson

1. Shadow River

A stream of tender gladness,
Of filmy sun, and opal tinted skies;
Of warm midsummer air that lightly lies In mystic rings,
Where softly swings
The music of a thousand wings
That almost tones to sadness.

Mine is the undertone;
The beauty, strength, and power of the land Will never stir or bend at my command; But all the shade
Is marred or made,
If I but dip my paddle blade;
And it is mine alone,

O! pathless world of seeming!
O! pathless life of mine whose deep ideal Is more my own than ever was the real. For others fame
And Love’s red flame,
And yellow gold; I only claim
The shadows and the dreaming.

2. Overlooked

Sleep, with her tender balm, her touch so kind, Has passed me by;

O! Sleep, my tired eyes had need of thee! Is thy sweet kiss not meant for me tonight?

Peace, with her heated touches, passion-stirred,

Has passed me by.
O! Love, my tired heart had need of thee! Is thy sweet kiss withheld alone from me?

O! Love, thou wanderer from Paradise, Dost thou not know

How oft my lonely heart has cried to thee?
But Thou, and Sleep, and Peace, come not to me.

3. At Sunset

To-night the west o’erbrims with warmest dyes; Its chalice overflows
With pools of purple colouring the skies, Aflood with gold and rose;

And twilight comes with grey and restful eyes, As ashes follow flame.
But O! I heard a voice from those rich skies Call tenderly my name;

I know not why, but all my being longed
And leapt at that sweet call;
My heart outreached its arms, all passion thronged And beat against Fate’s wall,
Crying in utter homesickness to be
Near to a heart that loves and leans to me.