Sometimes I while away the time when I’m too tired to read but not tired enough to go to bed by browsing through Yootoob.
Struck by a video title, “The Last Words of Copernicus”, I clicked on it.
It turns out that “The Last Words of Copernicus” is a shape-note hymn. The only Youtoob performances I could find were by Sacred Harp shape-note singers.
(If you’re not sure what that’s all about, Wikipedia can tell you here and here.)
Unfortunately, the primitive, vigorous fervency of Sacred Harp singing, which makes it so electrifying compared to other hymning, also renders the words of the hymns pretty much unintelligible. It’s even hard to tell when the singers shift from fa-sol-la-fa-ing to singing the hymn itself.
Unable to make out the words, but still intrigued by the title, I turned from Yootoob to Googoo.
The Sacred Harp hymn, “The Last Words of Copernicus”, published in 1869, comprises the first two stanzas of another hymn, “Sursum” (Upward), written in 1755 by the hymnist, Philip Doddridge.
The Last Words of Copernicus
Ye golden lamps of heav’n farewell,
With all your feeble light;
Farewell thou ever changing moon,
Pale empress of the night.
And thou refulgent orb of day,
In brighter flames array'd;
My soul which springs beyond thy sphere,
No more demands thy aid.
The remaining three stanzas of “Sursum” are frowsy elaborations on the simple and moving hail-and-farewell of the first two.
Whoever was responsible for paring “Sursum” down into a rousing down-to-earth evangelical hymn—it was probably Sarah Lancaster, who is listed as the composer of “The Last Words of Copernicus”—was a person of taste and discernment, and a solid poetic sense. But whoever thought of naming it “The Last Words of Copernicus”—Sarah Lancaster or someone else in Sacred Harp—whoever made the connection between the eight-line triumph over death, in astronomical metaphors, and Copernicus, and then imagined it as Copernicus’ last words was—at that moment anyway—an inspired genius.
Transforming Doddridge/Lancaster’s two-stanzas of general rapture into Copernicus’ last words opened the doors of history, allowing the ghosts of George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw and Giles Fletcher to flutter in.
There is a place beyond that flaming hill,
From whence the stars their thin appearance shed;
A place beyond all place, where never ill
Nor impure thought was ever harborèd;
One of my favorite Rolling Stones songs is “Paint it Black”. No matter how often I hear it, the second stanza thrills me. It hits me with enough force for me to call my response a twinge of the Stendhal syndrome (a feverish reaction to beauty discovered in a work of art).
I see the girls walk by
Dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head
Until my darkness goes.
I love those lines. I love the way their limpid conversational style intensifies their emotional punch. They remind me of lines by Eliot and by French poets like Verlaine and LaForgue.
When I listen rock music, I am subject to hearing mondegreens instead of the actual lyrics. For example, instead of “There’s a bad moon on the rise” I hear “There’s a bathroom on the right,” and still do even though I now know what the right words are—force of habit, I think. Anyhow, when I listen to a song I especially like I concentrate so hard on getting the words right that I don’t pay much attention to what the song is about.
I had assumed that “Paint it Black” was an expression of a general 20th century melancholy about the human condition (weltmelancholie) like “Prufrock”,
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
Verlaine’s “Il pleure dans mon cœur”,
It is raining in my heart
Like it rains on the town
Then, having come across “the “Official Lyric Video” of “Paint it Black” on Yootoob, I realized that even though I had got the words of the next stanza right, I had not grasped its meaning.
I see a line of cars
And they're all painted black
With flowers and my love
Both never to come back.
Aha! “Paint it Black” is not an expression of general despondency, but has a specific context. (I assume that the reader, if familiar with the song, already knows this.) It is a heartfelt elegy for a dead mistress through which flit the ghosts of Marvell, Donne, Herrick, Wyatt, and the Mick Jagger of the English Renaissance, John Dowland,
The roof despair, to bar all cheerful light from me;
The walls of marble black, that moist'ned still shall weep;
My music, hellish jarring sounds, to banish friendly sleep.
Thus, wedded to my woes, and bedded in my tomb,
O let me living die, till death doth come, till death doth come.