Friday, 22 June 2012

Where Corals Lie

When the glorious mezzo-soprano Janet Baker and conductor John Barbirolli recorded Elgar's Sea Pictures in 1965, it was one of those rare moments when the right music found its ideal interpreters at the peak of their powers. With the stars thus in proper alignment, magic happened.

First performed in 1899, Sea Pictures is a cycle of five songs, with texts by five different poets. I don't love the five equally. In Haven, with words by Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer's wife, is a beauty. Where Corals Lie is my favorite. I hope your computer speakers are good enough to pick up Elgar's orchestral touches as brought out by Barbirolli, especially the woodwind accents and the luminous way the cellos double the vocal line in the second stanza.

The poem Where Corals Lie was written by Richard Garnett. Here's the text, with Elgar's repeats:

The deeps have music soft and low
When winds awake the airy spry,
It lures me, lures me on to go
And see the land where corals lie.
The land where corals lie.

By mount and mead, by lawn and rill,
When night is deep, and moon is high,
That music seeks and finds me still,
And tells me where the corals lie.
And tells me where the corals lie.

Yes, press my eyelids close, 'tis well,
Yes, press my eyelids close, 'tis well,
But far the rapid fancies fly
To rolling worlds of wave and shell,
And all the land where corals lie.

Thy lips are like a sunset glow,
Thy smile is like a morning sky,
Yet leave me, leave me, let me go
And see the land where corals lie.
The land, the land where corals lie.


  1. "Yes, press my eyelids close, 'tis well."

    I've loved this song for many years too but I'm not sure how much I understand it. You'd press close the eyelids of a corpse, but I'm not sure that's Garnett's message. After all, the singer is presumable alive. Even so, there are other images suggesting death:

    "Corals" perhaps go with "Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made."

    "Leave me, leave me, let me go" -- let me die and go on to the Next World.

    "And finds me still" -- still, as in the grave.

    "sunset glow" -- sunset, the end of life.

    "lie" -- lie in a grave.

    "night" -- blackness, death.

    But why are her lips like sunset but her smile is like morning?

    Ah, morning/mourning is a pun.

    The character singing is a man, right? even though the song was written for a contralto. The character longs to die and, with eyelids closed, "see" the mythical, dreamlike land where corals lie.

    The first two stanzas are about hearing. The last two stanzas are about seeing.

    Is your take anything like mine?

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    2. Hi Mark: Like you I've loved this song for a long time, and my view of it has changed over the years. When I was young and knew nothing of life, or of death, I thought its seductive melodism merely represented the romantic lure of the sea, leading the singer (yes, a male) to eschew conventional love and marriage. Over the years I began to grasp the ominous, even suicidal, implications, revealed in the textual clues you so perceptively describe. (The "morning" pun hadn't occurred to me.) The tragic quality of Elgar's music during the passage "But far the rapid fancies fly / To rolling worlds of wave and shell, / And all the land where corals lie" reinforces this view. So in essence, I share your view of the poem. I still find the music incredibly seductive, but perhaps that's the point. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. SABK

    3. Greetings Brooklyn Kid,

      The poem could (also) be about the end of a romantic relationship, as you say. I see that in it too. A smile like the morning sun is cold. The morning sun provides light but little warmth. So her smile is false, unaffectionate. Or the singer derives no pleasure from her smile because he no longer loves her.

      "Press my eyelids close" might be a metaphorical way of saying close the book on me, forget about me, "let me go" away and leave you for good.

      I can't quite fathom "Leave me, leave me, let me go." "Leave me": you go away. "Let me go": I go away. The two phrases conflict. Who wants to part from whom?

      The poem begins with a wonderful image of the wind whipping the spray off ocean whitecaps. The spray becomes an invisible mist that travels by mount[ain] and mead[ow] to the singers ear, whispering enticements of the land where corals lie.

      "The land where corals lie." Not an easy image to weave into the narrative of the poem. Corals lie on the ocean floor, no? Not a particularly welcoming environment for a human being. Dead corals wash up on the beach in some tropical locales. But the lure of the beach of a tropical isle seems quite different from the lure of the ocean "deeps."

      Barring some fresh insight, I've probably reached the limit of how much of this poem I'll ever understand.

    4. Me too. We can still love the song, but these ambiguities will always remain remain. It would be interesting to hear Janet Baker's and/or John Barbirolli's take on the song. By the way, I just posted two more gems from twentieth-century English song: "Vagabond" by Masefield-Ireland and "Trade Winds" by Masefield-Keel. Cheers. SABK

  2. If you enjoy the Sea Pictures as much as I do, it would be worth hearing Gladys Ripley's 1954 performance with the London Symphony and George Weldon. I find her interpretation of the lyrics is better than Baker's, albeit at the expense of vocally, sounding a lot older.