From the Greek Anthology

Concert programme 4 June 1988, Club Voltaire, Catania
Concert programme 4 June 1988, Club Voltaire, Catania

Yesterday I came across an old cassette tape of a concert I gave at the Club Voltaire in Catania, Sicily on the 4th of June 1988. What a shock to hear this after more than thirty years!

The first half comprised a selection of preludes by Scriabin, while the second half comprised a piano suite I composed myself “From the Greek Anthology”.

The concert was very kindly recorded informally by a friend and the sound quality is very poor, especially of the first half. In fact, the sound quality of the first half is so bad it’s not worth trying to rescue it; what I’ve embedded below is the rescued version of the second half.

from the University of Tasmania

That second half, the suite, comprised a set of nine short portraits of friends and acquaintances, imagined as though poems from the collection of often scurrilous as well as grave epigrams, the “Greek Anthology“. The suite was written in a playful code that makes reference to a host of works in the orchestral and operatic repertoire (with some piano music too).  While conveying “secret” messages to and about individuals, I also wanted to bridge the popular and the elite through postmodernist mash-ups, emphasising the sensuous and physical side of performance with violent contrasts and virtuoso techniques, mobilised by lucid – even very strict – musical form.

As I explained in the notes I wrote to accompany the concert, I wanted to emulate in sound the poetic techniques of the Greek Anthology and the centos of late antiquity which happily – and often very cleverly – used ready-made phrases borrowed from previous poetry. Their work was also the precipitate out of – and glue between – friends, neighbours and enemies. With this music, then, I wanted to create a personal, situated, non-institutional, occasional art like theirs which was also capable of communicating to a broader public. I was also aware at the same time that if I were to write epigrammatic musical portraits, I should necessarily strip people of their complexity and reduce them to types (I was thinking of Theophrastus at this stage): the form itself would necessarily  distance us from them. In that respect my pieces were satiric even when they appear most sentimental and sympathetic.

Now, 30 years later, I hear these pieces as normative and utopian, even moralistic: there was in them an element of criticism, that desire to correct that is key to satire. Now I would prioritise their stories over their Theophrastian “character”. I wonder, rather, what the stories of these characters were. Some I know, but others? What happened to the addressees – to the princess whose extraordinary beauty could not hide her terrified grasp on love which she hoped would prevent her falling into the abyss, a terror all too clear in her nightmare of being smothered by bees that I’ve tried to represent in the piece dedicated to her?  What happened to the braggart soldier to whom she clung as though to a branch over the abyss, even while knowing he could not stop her falling? Did the feigned vestal live out the comfortable life of public virtue she craved as much as private sensual indulgence? Philosopher 1, I have discovered, turned to analysis of the surface of things, eschewing all depth.  He’s a photographer. The failed stoic, alas, I know now had a far stronger pull to a minor key than I presented, but I caught him at a good time and this is a happy memorial of that. The lady lives on as charming and nonchalant as ever, but philosopher 2 – what was or still is the story there? I think he became a therapist. As for the curse tablet, the body it referred to is quite forgotten.

A single file of the whole second half of the concert would be too large to upload, so here it is in two parts along with some notes. First, the 5 pieces to “Defixio” (just over 8 minutes). Parts have an unfortunate hum or hiss, but that becomes inaudible very soon.


1) To a philosopher 1 – a pale, still, very disciplined piece  in Gm /B flat which nonetheless can’t avoid sentimentality even if it aspires to do so. Aspiring higher and higher, it keeps falling back. It’s strictly based on the first four notes of Holst’s chaste “Venus” from the Planets suite played in a variety of combinations and sequences (even the final chord comprises the notes played simultaneously).

2) To a feigned vestal – a passionate but entirely conventional – even banal – answer in E flat to the first piece, as if they were a couple unable to talk together. Most of “To a feigned vestal” is based on two themes, each from Strauss operas: the first subject is Arabella in search of “the right man” and the second Christine (from Intermezzo) who dreams of a glamorous alternative to her workaholic husband. They are woven together in a mini-sonata form whose coda quotes a coquettish version of the heroine’s theme from a third opera by Strauss, Salome, before an inconclusive end (a bland version of the terrible dissonance at figure 361 at the climax to Salome), broken into by …

3) To a married lady / matron– a bad-tempered, quixotic and querulous piece, whose main theme is a slow, cabaret-Satie-esque waltz in G minor, which tries to cheer up, but which eventually collapses  into the funeral march  from “The Farewell” from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The piece ends with a nod to Debussy’s Jeux. This was a portrait of my dear friend Nini Floreale, who died in 2005.

4) To a failed stoic – another passionate torrent of notes, this time based on Scriabin’s opus 11 C minor Prelude, of which, turned very definitely into C major, only the melodic shape remains. Other key references are to the theme of redemption in Wagner’s Ring and the interrupted cadence from the final , happy, movement of Mahler VII, whose key it shares. Structurally reminiscent of 1) – an A-A form – it is also a  solar answer to (or aspiration for) 3).  The two pieces share an interest with two adjacent notes at key moments, though used for different purposes.  The failed stoic is fact a portrait of my friend Lawrence Razavi of whom I have fond memories not for his deeply  problematic research on genetics  (long before genetics were fashionable) but for his passionate and humane engagement in art.  The piece is counterposed by….

5) To the infernal powers / Defixio. A defixio was for the ancient Romans a lead tablet on which a curse was inscribed before being thrown into a sacred spring. I tried to create the sound of hellish water bubbling up from the underworld at midnight using chords I found originally in the funeral march from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet; the melody by contrast is a dark parody of the main theme of Debussy’s sensuous waltz, La plus que lente, for of course this is a curse by a frustrated lover on a faithless or unobtainable beloved. The melodic line eventually gets trapped within the devil’s interval – the tritone –  and the curse comes true, with terrifying consequences, even if it ends in B flat major. An A-B form.

Here are pieces 6-9 (9 minutes).

6) To a lady. In the nonchalant, carefree style of popular songs of the early twentieth century – Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” is nearby. The melodic line is, though, built up of a host of references to other music, from Stravinsky’s Firebird and Scriabin’s Sonata no 5  to Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Another simple strophic form (A, A), this time centred on G major, with elaborations in the repetition.

7) To a princess. A mirror of the first piece in its compositional technique and an echo of 5) in its sound world, this seeks to represent the nightmare of the princess’s dream of being smothered by bees. How I interpreted the bees is suggested by how the piece is obsessively based on the first two bars of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (which becomes clear only towards the very end, when it is quoted in recognisable form). On the whole though the notes of Tristan are jammed together in extreme dissonance, the last thumped chord comprising all the notes of the two bars played simultaneously in the bass (except for the previous pathetic rising 6th). There is also a passing and rather hopeless reference to the Falcon’s warning cry from Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (don’t do it!) – and a Messiaen-esque ornithological screech towards the end still based on the Tristan semitone cluster. A-B-A. Atonal with hints of F minor.

8) To a braggart soldier. A mirror of the second (and again in E flat), but even more empty of content, whose main melodic line is built on a simple descending scale. Just as the second mocked conventional femininity, this satirises the masculine. There is mock-military version of Wagner’s Siegfried which falls short in its final phrase (a rising 5th instead of a 6th), some Beethoven III (the “heroic” symphony) shoehorned into march tempo, a moment from the apocalyptic 4th movement of Mahler VI, and lots of gesture without content on one note – the musical equivalent of hot air or a military side drum – that eventually peters out because it has nowhere to go. A-B-A but something of a mess in its determination to aurally manspread.

9) To a philosopher 2. Another march, but a very different masculinity from 8). The Siegfried-derived theme is taken up again (but now quietly in A minor – as far as possible from the soldier, and recalling the quietness of philosopher 1). The style distantly recalls the Poulenc of “L’aube” from Les animaux modeles (and thereby Parsifal). The opening chords from the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony (chords as distant from each other as it is possible to be in terms of key) move the piece into the atonal B section and quotations from Alban Berg – the Lulu Erdgeist-motiv and “Wir arme Leute” (“We poor people”) from Wozzeck. The climax cadence  is a version of the defixio chord, now rhythmically echoing not just the climax of 5) but also the funeral march of 3). The chord resolves into the A section again, now more insistently repeated in way that highlights its march-like quality (the soldier is not as Other as the philosopher thinks). The A-B dialectic is repeated until the New World chords eventually break free into the coda, a tiny syncopated dance that soon ends back with the New World chords calling for new ways of thinking that includes everything — even the devil’s tritone of the defixio. The chords fill out, eventually sounding simultaneously, clusters of the black notes of the piano glistening rhythmically high up in the air while all the white ones reverberate after a double glissando from middle C simultaneously up and down to cover the length of the keyboard. This is the aspiration this philosopher sought: to be open to everything.

And finally the encore (3 minutes).

This was my rather over-excited and not entirely accurate version of the famous Scriabin Etude opus 12 no 8 – except with even more notes tumbling over the keyboard than in the already full original. I always justified such excess to myself on the grounds that Scriabin used his piano scores as palimpsests for improvisation. My musically purist friends just thought all this sort of thing vulgar, and always made sure I knew it – so much for postmodern dissolution of aesthetic value in 1988!

Now I think they were right.

The Army Surgeon – some comments

“The Army Surgeon”

Sydney Dobell

Over that breathing[1] waste of friends and foes,[2]
The wounded and the dying, hour by hour,-
In will a thousand, yet but one in power [3] ,-
He [3] labours thro’ the red and groaning day.
The fearful moorland where the myriads lay
Moved as a moving field of mangled worms. [4]
And as a raw brood, orphaned in the storms,
Thrust up their heads if the wind bend a spray
Above them, but when the bare branch performs
No sweet parental office, sink away
With hopeless chirp of woe, so as he goes
Around his feet in clamorous agony
They rise and fall;[5] and all the seething plain
Bubbles a cauldron vast of many-coloured pain.[6]

[1] This immediate emphasis on breath not only suggests breath as a theme but as a corporeal sensation for the reader – for the poem itself offers various challenges to the reader’s control of her or his own breath: it starts with pretty regular rhythm (iambic pentameter), but especially during the epic simile from line 7 onwards, the convoluted syntax spreading over clever enjambements and caesuras strains the reader’s own breathing as well as the rhythm.

[2] The rhyme scheme gives the impression of being broken, befitting the damaged bodies the poem describes. As with the rhythm, the syntax fights the rhyme scheme, making it difficult to discern. When split into two sestets the scheme seems less awry — abbccd, d[eye rhyme]cdcac [pseudo rhyme], ee — but the rhythms, especially the strong pause at the end of line 4 and the recall of that line’s rhyme at line 8 suggest a tough yet ghostly tension with an organisation of the poem into the more traditional 3 quatrains which is never realised.

[3] Death and its proximity unite all into one undifferentiated nameless mass. This is a particular example of the sublime, as defined by Edmund Burke. Today we might be tempted to regard the use of the sublime here not for aesthetic purposes but for political — in describing and enacting the horrors of war, we might assume the poem is against war. However, other readings are certainly possible: quite what the poem’s politics are depends on how we read the poem. Read in isolation, it is true that its violent sensationalism seems to oppose war. Yet when read as an element of  the whole collection it might be regarded as indicating the depth of sacrifice necessary to make Britain Great. This latter was a reading of the collection certainly made at the time by critics and newspaper editors.

[3] The final line of the first stanza introduces the single character into the undifferentiated mass of humanity. Both are unnamed: neither the mass nor the surgeon are individuals, but effects of their jobs. We might also regard the surgeon as the poet who surveys and dispassionately reports. Given the emphasis of the poem on painful suffering this might be a surprising suggestion, yet we should not forget the sheer skill of the poet’s pen here mirroring the surgeon’s own expertise with the scalpel. In neither case can professional knowledge alleviate suffering (see also below, note [5]). What the poet can do, however, is in a curious way comfort readers by reminding them that, like the surgeon, both he and they have survived. This is quite consonant with the Burkean understanding of the sublime, which was based on the perceiving subject’s realisation that he or she had survived death even though death had been encountered.

[4] The fallen seem already to have become prey to being eaten by worms: time, in this case the future and the present, has been collapsed in ways typical of the sublime. Simultaneously, a point is being made about the unity of living creation, a notion reinforced by the following comparison of the wounded to chicks desperate to be with their mother who will never come, and the surgeon to the tree branch which the chicks believe to be her but which cannot, by its nature, help them. We are all mortal animals dependent on the rhythms and failures of breath.

[5] The suggestion is of a wave – a rhythm – that rises and falls uselessly. The surgeon can do nothing for the dying. Here is the limit of the professional’s ever-increasing pastoral role caring for his flock (cf. King para 31). Scientific rationality cannot have a purchase here: the only language adequate for such suffering is that of flesh itself – the body and its breath, fragile, easily interruptible: in short, corporeal sensation, the spasmodic. This is not representation so much as presentation that produces in the reader the same sensations felt by the described.

[6] The last line shockingly introduces the language of the kitchen, suggesting a parti-coloured stew of boiled meats and vegetables seen from the point of view of the meat rather than the cook (whether the reference is to a witches brew leads to the same conclusion). Suddenly in this line we are presented with a space  where damaging flesh, even if not human, is the norm. This normalisation and naturalisation of suffering, legible in the epic simile too, confirms a preoccupation for how suffering is to be represented (or presented) rather than politically or ethically dealt with. Death is natural and normal, however painful and horrific, and it is the poet’s duty to communicate it. How to communicate death and dying is both the “scientific” and aesthetic point of the poem. Whether the suffering is to be valorised or condemned – that is, read politically and ethically – is, however, for the reader to decide, at least in this poem.

Publication and Reception Note

Sydney Dobell’s sonnet “The Army Surgeon” was originally published in Sonnets on the War, a joint collection with Dobell’s friend Alexander Smith that is now freely available or

No manuscript source seems to have survived (see National Archives entry on Dobell). The one contemporary reprinting (see below) offers no variation of the text. While Dobell used only ‘the Author of “Baldur” and “The Roman”‘ on the title page, contemporary reviews show that his name and identity were already well known.

Frontispiece from 1856 edition

Smith and Dobell’s slim volume (of just 48 pages) was published in the first days of January 1855 by Bogue of Fleet Street as a shilling paperback (we can date the publication from a reference to it in a letter from Dobell to one of his sisters dated 5 January in which he says he hopes to send her a copy the next day – Life and Letters of Sydney Dobell, p. 396). Presumably Smith and Dobell’s usual publisher, Smith, Elder and Co (who published Dobell’s later and more expensive hardback collection England in Time of War) was unable to insert publication of the volume into their schedules, whereas the lower-status Bogue was more flexible. The poem was republished without emendment in The Poetical Works of Sydney Dobell (2 vols, Smith, elder & Co, 1875)  on p. 226, where Dobell’s contribution to “Sonnets on the War” are precipitated out from that volume, enabling us to distinguish them from Smith’s. The Poetical Works of Sydney Dobell is also available through

Although “The Army Surgeon” can certainly be read as a self-standing commentary on (or description or enactment of) generic horrors of war, it in fact forms part of a narrative sequence that very firmly locks the poem into its historical context. The borders of this particular sequence are porous since the entire volume begs to be read as a whole, but one can see a distinct set of poems centred on the Battle of the Alma (20 September 1854, generally considered the first major battle of the Crimean War), comprising the sonnet “Alma” that immediately precedes “The Army Surgeon”, and the following three, two entitled “Wounded” and the last “After Alma”. Dobell only wrote “The Army Surgeon” amd the two “Wounded” poems but the arrangement of the pages certainly asks the reader to think of the Surgeon at the Alma.

Even though I have been unable to locate specific examples in newspapers before the collection appeared, I nonetheless think it helpful to regard the collection as comprising a specific type of what Natalie Houston has called the “newspaper poem,” that is, occasional poetry responding to or commenting on contemporary events reported in the press. The most famous Victorian example of this is Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”  first published in The Examiner on 9 December 1854 in response to a Times article.

Andrew Hobbs has persuasively argued that the provinciual press was a major locus of poetry publishing in the nineteenth century,  and poems from “Sonnets on the War” is no exception. But rather than reprint all of them equally, there is a decided preference by newspapers for some over others. “The Army Surgeon” was not amongst those favoured at the time, perhaps because its imagery was too strong or its sentence structure and long and tortured central metaphor were considered too difficult.  The Aberdeen Journal (10 January 1855, p. 6) reprinted six sonnets: “Alma”, “After Alma”, the two sonnets on “The Cavalry Charge”, “Miss Nightingale” and “Cheer.” This is a selection that offers a reassuring narrative arc and avoids too much horror. The first three are reprinted again by  The Blackburn Standard on 7 February (p. 4) along with “Sebastopol” with a similar effect.

The politically more radical Lloyd’s Weekly, full of praise for the collection (14 January 1855, p.8), offers a different selection. Starting with “Alma” again, it continues with the second “Wounded” poem (a startling choice given the poem’s poetically very new technique of assembling fragments of everyday speech and follows it with “America”, “Freedom” and “Volunteers”. Again, however, despite a selection emphasising the politically and aestehtically radical, the arc remains comforting: for even if poetic novelty is admitted in Lloyd’s pages, the most shocking, visceral poems are omitted.

The volume was greeted with a mixed reception at the time. The lengthy review in the Inverness Courier (1 February 1855, p. 2), the only contemporary newspaper where I have found “The Army Surgeon” reprinted, regarded the collection’s level as of “respectable mediocrity.” But it did praise the the poets for “producing work on a practical subject, which, if its poetry is not of a very high order, contains nothing visionary, absurd or impracticable”. It singles out “The Army Surgeon” as one of the best according to these criteria. The review of the collection in The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent (5 May 1855) is likewise very lukewarm. Its principle bone of contention is that the sonnets are not musical: “In the hands of of a master the sonnet gives exquisite music;but strung by a tyro the sounds will be discordant.”  Ironically, of course, it is precisely the violence the authors of “Sonnets on the War” do to the traditional expectations of the sonnet that today constitutes one of the collection’s main interests. The review ends  by reprinting two of the more conservative poems (both ideologically and formally): “Miss Nightingale” and “Good Night” which they assume to have been written by Smith and Dobell respectively. It thus rescues the collection for patriotism just as the other newspapers had done.

Interestingly the London Lancet (the American edition of the British medical journal Lancet)- which reprinted the poem in 1856 – uses the isolated poem as an example of “all the heroism and self-denying devotion of which we have spoken” (p. 222), suggesting not only a reading of the individual poem through the lens of the self-abnegating professional (cf. King para 34) but also a reading of “The Army Surgeon” through other poems in the volume. Whatever our own views, this is a reading made possible by the poets’ interest in the problems of communication rather than in the politics of the described action.

That said, when the poem became detached from its collection, the alternative anti-war reading became more easily available. This is certainly possible for example in the New Zealand Herald (10 February 1917, p. 1).

The context of the poem in the Crimean War and has been well covered elsewhere: Kathleen Béres Rogers “Embodied Sympathy and Divine Detachment in Crimean War Medical Poetry” is recommended as offering an attentive reading of the poem which places “The Army Surgeon” in a slightly different context from what I have offered here.