A Walk in the Park with Brooke, Sassoon, Beethoven, and My Current Orthopedist

Early this morning Elliot and I took a walk through Lake Park here in Milwaukee. One of the great things about this park is that each of the benches has a plaque with a poem about nature, chosen by whoever paid for the privilege. Much of it is doggerel (pun intended), but I have always loved the first one Elliot and I usually reach—the first two lines of Rupert Brooke’s “The Hill” (1910):

Breathless, we flung us on the windy hill,
   Laughed in the sun, and kissed the lovely grass.

These are two lines of poetry I wish I had written (lacking that, I’ve memorized them). They are so lush and musical on the tongue—they are a pleasure to say aloud. I love them not only for their sound, however, but for the sensuousness of the image which sparks a similar youthful memory of my own (as it probably does for most readers). Here is the rest of the poem:

Breathless, we flung us on the windy hill,
    Laughed in the sun, and kissed the lovely grass.
   You said, “Through glory and ecstasy we pass;
Wind, sun, and earth remain, the birds sing still,
When we are old, are old….” “And when we die
   All’s over that is ours; and life burns on
Through other lovers, other lips,” said I,
— “Heart of my heart, our heaven is now, is won!”

“We are Earth’s best, that learnt her lesson here.
    Life is our cry. We have kept the faith!” we said;
    “We shall go down with unreluctant tread
 Rose-crowned into the darkness!”… Proud we were,
And laughed, that had such brave true things to say.

 — And then you suddenly cried, and turned away.

I love this poem’s  counter-movement: rising to meet the expected sentimentality and bravura of the young man, comes the silent sorrow of his companion (male? or female?).

Just as I was thinking about my sister’s early death in Monday’s post, Brooke’s poem also contemplates the tragedy of early death. Brooke wrote it when he was just 23 and going off to World War I (he was about the age of my father’s father, who farmed and was thus exempt).  And Brooke did die, not in a battle as most think, but of blood poisoning caused by a small cut. Heroic?


Siegfreed Sassoon’s war notebooks were recently digitized and put online. You can read his handwritten poem “Memory” (1918) here.  Unlike Brooke, he lived to experience the horrors of World War I (his nickname was “Mad Jack” because of his recklessness and bravery) and did not die until 1967, the same year I was graduated from college.  The first verse of his poem (click link above) recalls joyful summers similar to Brooke’s (they both came from innocent and privileged backgrounds), but ends by asking for darkness and for the memory of past joys to dim. He says, “I am rich in all that I have lost” (another wonderful counter-image).

Yes, we survivors are all rich in what we have lost, but also in what remains.

Born to a violent, alcoholic father who reportedly dragged him from sleep to play for his drinking buddies, Beethoven enjoyed early success as a musician and composer. However, he started to become deaf when he was 28, and was profoundly deaf twenty years later in 1820 when he composed the late sonata, opus 109, that I hope to prepare for recital next year.  

Joseph Straus, author of Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music (2011), writes of Beethoven:

If the deafness had any impact at all, it was liberatory, freeing him up to move beyond common compositional conventions of his day. He was no longer able to do practical music-making, such as performing as a pianist, and conducting, and life naturally became more self-contained, hermetic, and isolated. That clearly has an impact on the kind of music he wrote.

So lack of human connection (and certainly also age and illness) actually freed him creatively, to some extent, though it also caused him (reportedly) great suffering and sadness.

Shortly after the time he wrote op. 109, he was asked by Louis Schlosser, a young musician, through writing in his “conversation book,” where his ideas came from. He answered:

You will ask me where I get my ideas. That I cannot tell you with certainty; they come unsummoned, directly, indirectly,—I could seize them with my hands,—out in the open air; in the woods; while walking; in the silence of the nights; early in the morning; incited by moods, which are translated by the poet into words, by me into tones that sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes.

I carry my thoughts about me for a long time, often a very long time, before I write them down; meanwhile my memory is so faithful that I am sure never to forget, not even in years, a theme that has once occurred to me. I change many things, discard, and try again until I am satisfied. Then, however, there begins in my head the development in every direction, and, in as much as I know exactly what I want, the fundamental idea never deserts me,—it arises before me, grows,—I see and hear the picture in all its extent and dimensions stand before my mind like a cast, and there remains for me nothing but the labor of writing it down, which is quickly accomplished when I have the time, for I sometimes take up other work, but never to the confusion of one with the other.

He also wrote, about this time, that the best way to deal with adversity was to work (again, a necessary counter-movement).

And so: I thought of Brooke, Sassoon, and Beethoven after my visit today to the third orthopedist I have seen in a year—this time, once more, for my shoulder that hurts when I play piano. I would love to forget it at the piano—in “work” (play)—but for now I must spend only short hours there.  

Professional athletes must also learn, as youthful Brewers pitcher Matt Garza said recently in an interview, “when not to push and when you can push” in order not to suffer a setback after an injury. We all, sooner or later, come face-to-face with the limitations of physical life, either temporarily or permanently.

In my case, something has indeed been lost (diagnosis: “age-related rotator cuff tendonitis”) but something remains as well.

For those of us who do survive early death, this seems to be one of the lessons–the necessary counter-movement to loss. Make something of what remains.

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