Sun-Dogs: James MacMillan’s Setting of a Michael Symmons Roberts Poem

The Sun-Dog Painting (Vädersolstavlan)

The Sun-Dog Painting (Vädersolstavlan)

Dazzle mine eyes, or do I see three suns?
—Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 3, Act 2, Scene 1

I’m not terribly versed in choral music, to say the least, but little by little I’ve been adding pieces to my personal “canon.” Until David Nice noted that James “MacMillan took a leaf out of [Benjamin Britten’s] ‘The Driving Boy’ with the wonderful whistling tune in a choral masterpiece, Sun-Dogs,” I’d not been aware of the piece or the poem MacMillan set. I’ve since listened to Sun-Dogs again and again.

Setting a pre-existing poem to music is a tricky business. I’ve been disappointed enough in musical settings of poems by John Ashbery and Wallace Stevens to wonder whether keeping it simple might not be the best predictor of success—and surely the peril can only increase when the poet is around to hear the result. Composer Ned Rorem, for example, said about his setting of an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “she pretended to be happy with what I’d done . . . but in her heart I know that she hated it.”[Academy of American Poets Discussion with John Ashbery, Ned Rorem and June LeBell at 8:30]

Despite the odds, I remain eager to discover settings that “have it all.” The poems I most enjoy are those that don’t yield up their secrets at first glance—poems with a seemingly limitless capacity to unfurl meanings and associations. When I listen to music, I hope for much the same experience, and I find it most readily in that much-bothered-about term, “classical music.”

The experience I seek puts to mind one of my favorite passages in Thomas Mann’s The Stories of Jacob, about Jacob in the act of pondering.

It was a mighty and eloquent pondering, the essence of pondering, its very definition so to speak, an emotional self-absorption of the highest degree—he never did less than that. When Jacob pondered, then it had to be a pondering visible at a good hundred paces, a pondering so grand and strong that not only was it obvious to anyone that Jacob was lost in thought, but also people realized for the first time in their lives what it truly means to ponder and were left awestruck by such a state and sight . . . [Joseph and His Brothers 69]

The one word I’d change is “lost.” While others may see Jacob as “lost in thought,” I see him, in the act of pondering, as found. There are few things more absorbing than to find oneself in “the essence of pondering” a work of art.

Michael Symmons Roberts’s poem Sun-Dogs operates in several spheres at once, subverting ordinary boundaries between the real and imagined, confounding the notions of what is metaphor and what just is. The “sun-dogs” of the poem may be naturally occurring phenomena, seen “at the end of an equatorial summer,” but they might also be ordinary dogs racing “at full terrifying tilt across open fields.” The atmospheric and the animal are conflated: a chase results in a kill that ends a drought.

In the poem’s use of the phrase “Domini canes” (“Domini canes; a pair, one white, one black/guardians of order, watchdogs, custodians of luck), Roberts expands the realm of possible associations yet further. In James MacMillan’s Sun-Dogs: A Conductor’s Analysis, Timothy Shantz summarized the rich fund of resonances the phrase offers to the poem:

The Dominicans are a religious order of Roman Catholics founded by Dominic of Guzman in the early part of the thirteenth century. He became known for abandoning his books and all other possessions to help those trying to survive in a period of famine in Spain. . . . His followers became known as “dogs of the Lord,” after a dream Dominic’s mother had before his birth where she saw a dog carrying a lighted torch and setting the world on fire. Since their founding, the Dominican Order has been connected with the Latin words Domini canes. The emblem of the order is a black and/or white dog carrying a burning torch in its mouth. The torch is a symbol of preaching. [Shantz 47]

In a further spiraling of references and connections, as Shantz also noted, St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominican Order, is the patron saint of astronomers.

James MacMillan wrote of the poem,

The text is richly allegorical, iconographic with a deep well of symbolism. The metaphors are complex, evoking a range of emotions and images, dark and terrifying one minute, radiant and ecstatic the next. [Shantz 43]

Setting such a poem isn’t a task for the timid, but MacMillan has a long and successful collaborative relationship with Roberts based on a substantial synergy of perspectives in their lives and creative work. MacMillan said of Roberts’s work:

As soon as I began to read his poetry I recognised a compatibility between us. His work is very complex – it doesn’t immediately communicate its sense to you, but lingers and resonates. It’s not what you would call “pop” poetry. It’s a search for the sacred that needs to ruminate in your mind, which is something I think music can enable and enhance. [Shantz 28, quoting The Independent]

Roberts has said of their collaborations:

We take a yearly break together to work on shared projects. We seem to have settled on Skye, although wherever we go, the main proviso is that there is a TV to watch the football. I’m a Manchester United fan and he supports Celtic, which is fine until we meet in the Champions League – they’ve embarrassed us a few times! [The Independent]

The signs augured well, then, but of course the proof is in the listening. For me, each listen places Sun-Dogs higher and higher in my pantheon of personal favorites. Everything about it works—even, and perhaps especially, things that had no “right” to work.

While the poem consists of seventeen couplets, MacMillan’s setting for a cappella choir is in five movements. Though each movement concludes with a completed poetic “thought” (as designated by a period), the movements vary in the number of couplets set, and the fourth movement starts with one couplet’s second line. Shantz noted that, while MacMillan worked collaboratively with Roberts, “it was MacMillan’s own sense of the overarching musical structure that influenced the overall musical design.” [Shantz 62]

Setting the words of deceased authors provides composers with a great amount of artistic freedom, but when it comes to living authors it can be difficult to find a creative ally who allows a composer to manipulate, rework, or even add to the original structure of the poetry. Fortunately for MacMillan, his established relationship and collaborative work with poet Michael Symmons Roberts has allowed him a certain amount of freedom to play with the poetic meter and line speed of Roberts’s pre-existing poems.

From the first movement of Sun-Dogs, MacMillan engages with the meaning and expectation of the poem by emphasizing specific words, phrases and ideas through musical means such as the length of notes, dynamic shaping and repetition or elongation of words and phrases. He adheres closely to the syntax of the poetry in his phrase structure but also influences the listener’s perception of the poem through his free musical setting. [Shantz 65]

Though I don’t have technical background that would allow me to understand Shantz’s meticulous musical analysis in full detail, his clarity of expression aided me in making many discoveries about what I’m listening to and what to listen for. Here is a small set of examples (Shantz, Chapter 4, 61+):

In the first movement, listen for the repetitions of “and then rain” at ~2:50 (Spotify) and “its throat torn apart” at ~4:07 (Spotify). Shantz noted:

“its throat torn apart” . . . are words seldom sung by a choir, let alone voices singing in high tessitura. Such words occasionally appear in solo work or a dramatic opera but are highly uncommon in choral music. MacMillan’s recollection of the rain in this passage and the full harmonic texture produces an almost incongruent contrast between the words and music . . . [Shantz 72]

In the second movement, which sets one couplet, beginning with “Domini canes,” listen for the use of repetition throughout.

In the third movement, listen for the whispered and sung interpolations from a 13th century nursery rhyme, “Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark.”

In the fourth movement, listen for the whistled tune, as well as the “glossolalia effect” of the interpolated Latin Eucharist prayer (Accipite et manducate ex hoc omnes . . . . Hoc facite in meam commemorationem”). Shantz wrote of the whistled tune that it was “an obvious example of Scottish folk music influence.” [Shantz 96]

The features of grace notes or snap rhythms (more commonly referred to as the Scotchsnap) and the prominence of thirds are familiar to the genre of Scottish folk and Classical music. The rhythms, in particular, relate closely to the technique of ‘gracing’ in Highland bagpipe music. [Shantz 96-97]

In the fifth movement, listen for singing that uses a “leader and drag” effect. I believe I first hear it at ~1:46 (Spotify), but others should feel free to point out any error. As described by Shantz:

MacMillan calls upon four to six soprano and tenor soloists (total of 8-12) to sing a florid melody . . . . according to the score it is, “To be sung by a handful of soloists, each staggering their entry canonically so that there is a continual flow of overlapping threads.” [Shantz 109-110]

The whistling tune returns at the close of Sun-Dogs, so it seems only fitting to close with Shantz’s delightful exchange about the tune with MacMillan:

TS – In this melody, did the inspiration come from thinking of the Saints, like Vitus?

JM – Um, partly. It was more to do with ah… it’s funny to say here, but ah… one way in which you communicate with dogs is by whistling at them… (he whistles as an example).

TS – Aha! Right.

JM – And I didn’t want that simple whistle, I wanted it to be more musical. Dogs respond to human whistles all the time. I’ve got a little dog, a West Highland Terrier and I whistle to it. [Shantz 115]

Listening List

James MacMillan’s Sun-Dogs (2006; for SATB chorus a cappella (with multiple divisi))
MacMillan’s program note and other information about Sun-Dogs may be found here.

On Spotify (Celso Antunes, Chorus master; Netherlands Radio Choir)

On YouTube (Artists not indicated, but probably the same recording)

Celso Antunes in rehearsal, with commentary in Dutch and English (From about 6:50-7:30, Antunes talks about the importance of having the chance, with an a cappella work, “to do what orchestras do all the time.”)

Gramophone discussion of the Antunes/Netherlands recording of Sun-Dogs

Boosey & Hawkes rates the “choral level of difficulty: Level 5 (5 greatest).”

Sun-Dogs is a major concert work in five movements lasting some 18 minutes. It is certainly not for the faint-hearted and needs not only a choir of extensive resources but a conductor with confidence and ability. . . . This is an inspired work well worth the effort of surmounting its challenges by a skilful and ambitious choir.

Der hl. Dominikus mit Lilie und Fahne (1600)

Der hl. Dominikus mit Lilie und Fahne (1600)


Credits: The sources for the images in the post may be found here and here. The quotations are at the sources linked in the text, with the lion’s share from Timothy Shantz’s dissertation, James MacMillan’s Sun-Dogs: A Conductor’s Analysis, with grateful thanks for his kind permission to quote from that text. Timothy Shantz is Artistic Director, Spiritus Chamber Choir; Founder & Artistic Director, Luminous Voices Music Society; and Chorusmaster, Calgary Philharmonic Chorus. He generously responded to this total stranger’s request to obtain a copy of his invaluable dissertation, which, among other things, draws upon his conversations with MacMillan and participation in the world premiere performance of Sun-Dogs:

As scholar, conductor and soloist I had the unique opportunity to participate in the world premiere of Sun-Dogs, at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in August 2006, directed by one of the co-commissioners, Carmen Helena Téllez. During the days leading up to the premiere, I took copious notes during James MacMillan’s interventions at the colloquia and classroom lectures organized around the event, and I held several one-on-one interviews with him. [Shantz 2]

Reading Shantz’s analysis enhanced significantly the already considerable pleasure of listening to Sun-Dogs and reading the poem on which it is based.

24 thoughts on “Sun-Dogs: James MacMillan’s Setting of a Michael Symmons Roberts Poem

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    Sue, I really enjoyed my first listen of Sun-Dogs and am marking it on Spotify in the hopes the audio there is a little better than this youtube video. Reading about the creative collaboration between poet and composer put me in mind of the film 2001. If Kubrick and Clarke had not worked on it together it may not have been the masterpiece it is. I also like what you’ve written on pondering. That passage is quintessential Prufrock: it says so much about you and the heart of your blog (I embrace your use of “found” in place of “lost”). Thanks for turning me on to yet another great piece of music!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I didn’t know that about 2001 and glad to learn of it. Mann’s ponder on “pondering” certainly spoke to me, no question about it. I’ve been pondering, since writing this post, how often music has pointed me toward or returned me to poetry. Here on the blog, the line-up has recently included Mahler>classical Chinese poetry, Shostakovich>Michelangelo, Britten>Auden, Jaeger>Wendell Berry, and now MacMillan>Roberts. I’m going to think of this now as my own sort of celebration of National Poetry Month. It’s not only music, of course, that’s pointing me toward and back to poems. I’m really enjoying your National Poetry Month posts. I’ve put a link to your blog in the sidebar noting them and, in particular, recommend to everyone who might come by here your reading and commentary about Ashbery’s Three Poems: I’ve been dipping tentatively into Three Poems for some time now, and your post makes clear that it’s essential reading for me once I’m back upstate and reunited with the book.

  2. Curt Barnes

    This is one instance when having some preparation for a piece is really beneficial, Susan! Someone like Bert Carter, with a background in choral music and especially Baroque choral music, wouldn’t need much, probably, but being able to read the poem along with the music and understand a few levels of the symbolism was really helpful to me, and added up to a big appreciation for the piece (never mind that Spotify wanted to play me Part II before Part I, etc.). What was striking was how much more substantive the poem became for me in Macmillan’s musical setting, how much weightier and more fraught with awe (not always the case with poems rendered into music, as you know). Did you relate the background “murmurings” during the “One offers bread…” lines to the murmurings of prayers uttered during the Mass? (I have no Catholic background, but that suggested itself)
    Anyway thanks for bringing me back momentarily from the percussive post-avant-garde, slowing my heart rate and encouraging me to hear this. (The first thing I ever heard from Macmillan was “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” on YouTube, and I almost thought it was a parody, I was so ill-prepared. A prepared attitude can make all the difference)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Curt: I’m so pleased you were able to have a listen (despite Spotify’s sabotage) and enjoyed Sun-Dogs. Your observations are wonderful. While others may know better on this, I think you’ve got to be on target about the “murmurings,” by which I believe you’re referring to the treatment of the Latin Eucharist prayer. That effect was one of the things that most struck me (along with the whistling tune) about the setting and led me to try to find out more. Shantz relates a conversation with MacMillan (p. 71) in which MacMillan said Roberts had spoken of the “Eucharistic nature” of poem’s text at the point you note (“One offers bread, part chewed, soft
      with saliva”), and his setting was meant as a “backdrop” to that text. In reviewing Shantz’s commentary again, I also see that he notes the score marking for the poem’s words at this point is “Like a psalm chant.” (p. 125) This is a great example, I think, of your overall observation about MacMillan’s setting rendering the poem “much weightier and more fraught with awe.” It would be very interesting to hear from Bert on this. I’m suspecting we’ll hear from David before long too.

  3. The Solitary Walker

    Although I’m hardly qualified to talk about the musical content of your stimulating post, Susan, I do know Michael Symmons Roberts’s latest poetry book, ‘Drysalter’ — a fascinating and profound collection. One of the most interesting English poets writing today, he does not shy away from complexity, ambivalence, mysticism, transcendence. As someone wrote in a review I read, he sees ‘spirit’ in everything. And Jeanette Winterson, a writer I very much admire, has called him ‘a religious poet in a secular age’.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Robert: Well, you may be pleased to know that I immediately raced out to the bookstore to find Drysalter. Alas, not available there, so on my wish list it goes. I love Winterson’s take and spotted an interesting review about the book in The Guardian which I’ll note here for anyone who might come by: (I did not, however, come back from the bookstore empty-handed, in any event a rare event, as there was a Geoffrey Hill on the shelves, another poet I suspect you know. It’s a bit dismaying that even a fine independent bookstore like the one I visited doesn’t carry much if anything in the way of collections by either of these poets.) As to qualifications to talk about the musical content, my thought on that is that you’d have a uniquely interesting take as both a poet and one who knows Roberts’s poetry. If you do have occasion to lend an ear, I’d love to know what you think.

      1. The Solitary Walker

        Ah yes, Geoffrey Hill — another serious rather than populist poet. BTW, Jeanette Winterson is great, I think — loved her memoir ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal’, and her collection of essays ‘Art Objects’ is utterly brilliant. Any feminist who loves DH Lawrence is OK by me.

  4. Bert Carter

    Curt Barnes, of course I loved every note! It would be tremendous to hear this piece performed in a perfect acoustical setting. One needs great singers who are willing to come together to do ensemble work of the highest order to pull this off. This is superb choral writing, so the effect is absolutely masterful. I was completely won over in very short order. Thanks for posting, Susan Scheid.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Bert: Thank you so much for chiming in from your vantage point of long experience with choral music. It’s wonderful to be able to share enjoyment of this piece with you.

  5. David N

    I don’t know what I can add to Sue’s comprehensive coverage, but it’s good to see an ‘old hand’ commending MacMillan’s choral writing. Most of his church anthems are superb, though I run up against certain things that leave me feeling a bit queasy, like the problematic (for me) oratorio ‘Quickening’. At least he has the virtue of excess, never insipidity, but his catalogue is full enough of masterpieces to make the omission – if I remember rightly – in Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise – a serious flaw in a patchily interesting bestseller.

    I went out and bought a couple of Symons Roberts’ volumes of poetry after hearing how JM set his verse. There was a treasurable choral evensong at, I think, Merton College where MSR read his own work – very impressive.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Your instinct to buy some Symmons Roberts’s poetry after hearing a MacMillan setting strikes such a chord, as does the difference in our ability to make the purchase more or less on the spot. With music, too, I’m reminded, from time to time, of “blind spots” in music presented in the US (or perhaps they are just my blind spots). MacMillan’s work I’ve been aware of from you and also from his appearances at the Cabrillo Festival, though Sun-Dogs had escaped my attention altogether until you noted it recently. As another example, last week, I heard a piece I liked very much by Thierry Escaich (commissioned by Lisa Batiashvili), a composer brand new to me whose work it seemed to me I should have known about much before now. BTW, that concert, with Gilbert conducting the NY Phil, closed with a performance of Shostakovich’s 10th that was absolutely on fire. I could not have asked for a better first opportunity to hear that work live.

      1. David N

        Seems I like MSR so much I can’t spell his name. Noted. Likewise Thierry Escaich (heard the name, never the music, though Lisa Batiashvili is among the greats so I’d trust her). Would love to hear Gilbert on fire in anything – haven’t so far. The Nielsens pale cruelly alongside rival recordings. Still, he’s doing interesting rep, that’s important.

        Just read that Barry’s Importance of Being Earnest will be coming to you next season, with Ilan Volkov conducting (if I read my Royal Opera press release aright) the New York Phil. We get it at the Barbican too. This one will run and run.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: Just checked on the Barry/NY Phil (very glad to know it’s coming this way) and it seems to be slated for 2016. You can be sure I’ll be keeping my eye out for that. As for the NY Phil/Gilbert, yes, he was absolutely on fire in the Shos 10. The Scherzo, in particular, was riveting, harrowing, name your superlative. He and the Phil were also brilliant on the new Adams, smartly paired with Lyadov’s Enchanted Lake and Stravinsky’s Petrushka. (I see he’s over your way right now and will be mounting Petrushka in a semi-staged version. I’ve not seen that version and suspect I might find it a distraction from the music, but the concert performance I heard was excellent.)

          Of course I can’t begin to assess Gilbert’s Nielsen cycle against any others, and I had the thought on reading your comment how much I’d enjoy a BoL from you on any of the Nielsen symphonies, but if the Gilbert/NY Phil were truly but a pale reflection of the real deal, I believe I would pick that up. Not only did I love the live performance of the 5th and 6th, but also I’ve not been at all disappointed in the cycle on CD, all of which I own. I don’t by any means discount that there exist other interpretations that would shine out–just today, Horenstein’s New Philharmonia 5th was noted to me, and I was wholly captivated by it–but it doesn’t make me any the less happy with the Gilbert cycle. I’m glad I own it.

          I come very late to the party in hearing Gilbert conduct live and my sample is small, but the concerts I’ve attended have been of the highest caliber, both in programming and performance. Moreover, he is working, in New York, anyway, against absurdly high odds: a crappy concert hall with bad acoustics and a large coterie of attendees who are so bored, rude, and resistant to anything they don’t know by heart that they don’t qualify even minimally as listeners. Despite it all, he’s pushed past the obstacles to offer imaginative programs in committed performances of exceptional quality. We don’t deserve him, nor do we deserve any of the others that members of the press and paparazzi here think it is our right to expect to get when he goes. Why anyone would want to take the helm at the NY Phil under current conditions is beyond me. About Gilbert all I can say is, god bless that man.

          1. David N

            Gosh, well, that’s a passionate, eloquent plea. Clearly he is a Mensch, and he ‘sold’ Nielsen to New York, whatever differing views we may have on him as a conductor. I did like his Nielsen First very much but the general feeling here, which I share, is that he’s a bit of what Shostakovich called a ‘mezzo-fortist’. I know you won’t mind me saying what I think, while at the same time not doubting that he’s already given you some very high-level experiences.

            My few experiences of New York concertgoers were in partipating in Ashkenazy’s ‘Prokofiev and Shostakovich under Stalin’ fest, where, I think I’ve written already, I was horrified not by any outrageous behaviour but just by the low-level restlessness which made it impossible to focus totally on Shostakovich’s ‘Babi Yar’ Symphony. And can you believe I’ve never been to the Met?

            1. Susan Scheid Post author

              David: I appreciate very much that and how you’ve responded to my impassioned comments. “Low-level restlessness” is a perfect way to describe the common state of affairs at the NY Phil, and it’s beyond me why so many seem to take it for granted that the NY Phil (and by this I don’t mean the musicians of the orchestra, who give us their considerable all, but rather those in the listener and donor base who exhibit these symptoms) constitutes an utterly fetching catch that no conductor in his or her right mind could resist. I beg to differ . . .

              George Grella, on reading the RPS lecture transcript, commented with thoughtful insight as follows: “Gilbert’s statements reinforce what his music making has presented to me these past several years, which is that he’s erratic with what’s considered the standard rep and excellent, commanding and insightful, with 20th-21st century rep. Also as an opera conductor. Seems to me he could have quite a career sticking with those two, and be in demand. NY Phil probably not the best place for him. He has done quite a bit for contemporary music, but it’s not the type of organization or board that will support it in the long run.”

              I looked up the mezzo-fortist comment from Shostakovich. I think it far too harsh and hope you’ll consider a reassessment. Certainly, if we look to Abbado as the measure (and I do), Gilbert is not Abbado, but if we look to the continuum from Abbado to Long Yu, Gilbert is far closer, in the repertoire he cares about most, to Abbado than he is to Long Yu.

            2. David N

              I’m not saying he’s a bad conductor, just a rather bland one in the repertoire I’ve heard him in (Mahler 2, 3, 7, Nielsen 4 and 5). His musicianship is unimpeachable, but maybe he’s a bit like Salonen used to be, a cool thinker right for later 20th/early 21st century scores rather than impassioned in late romantic music. When I hear something electrifying from him – and I’m perfectly capable of changing my mind, look at Vanska – then I’ll reassess and stick him up there in the considerable pantheon of really wonderful living conductors.

  6. shoreacres

    I saw the mention of Vitus up above, but I’m wondering if you came across anything specific about Tobias. There was a Rev. Tobias Snowden mentioned in Edward B. Tylor’s seminal “Primitive Culture” [1871] who, “in a book published in the last century [i.e., in the 1700s] proved the sun to be hell, and the dark spots gathering of damned souls.” How I ever knew of the good Reverend, or remembered him, I haven’t a clue, but there it is, and I’d be surprised if that wasn’t the reference. It certainly lends a bit of darkness to that felt breath on the back of each hand.

    It’s interesting, too, that the atmospheric phenomenon isn’t limited to winter, as I used to assume. Over at the Atmospheric Optics site, it’s noted that sundogs “are visible all over the world and at any time of year regardless of the ground level temperature. In Europe and North America one will be seen on average twice a week if searched for.” So: an equatorial sighting in summer is perfectly possible.

    Now, I’m off to have a listen. However much I do or don’t understand about the music, I’m happy to have been introduced to the poem.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Now, that Rev. Tobias sure would make for an interesting connection. I don’t know whether or not there’s any relationship, but from Shantz I learned that all three named saints had dog companions. About Tobias, he wrote “Tobias, though not properly a saint, was the son of Tobit (author of the apocryphal book). He is described in the Book of Tobit as a prophet whose dog watched over him as a travelling companion.” [Shantz 56]

  7. Steve Schwartzman

    What a great concept, Susan: found in thought.

    That and your reference to “what is metaphor and what just is” reminds me of two things. One is the account of an old man who was asked what he did on the porch of his house for such long periods. His answer was: “Sometimes I sit and think. Other times I just sit.”

    The other thing you reminded me of is the 12th line in Emerson’s poem “The Rhodora” (On Being Asked, Whence Is the Flower?):

    In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
    I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
    Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
    To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
    The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
    Made the black water with their beauty gay;
    Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
    And court the flower that cheapens his array.
    Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
    This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
    Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
    Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
    Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
    I never thought to ask, I never knew:
    But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
    The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.

      1. Steve Schwartzman

        By coincidence, just this morning I received an e-mail with a quotation attributed to Emerson (and found in various versions on many websites):

        “Do not go where the path may lead,
        go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

        The only problem is that no researcher has found those lines in anything Emerson wrote. At least with “The Rhodora” we’re on solid ground in attributing it to Emerson.

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