Amy Lowell (1874-1925) was born into a prosperous Massachusetts family. A poet, critic and biographer, she was a leading exponent of the imagist movement, and was for a time closely allied with Ezra Pound. Her obituary stated, "She was upon the surface of things a Lowell, a New Englander and a spinster. But inside, everything was molten like the core of the earth.” In 1926, she was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Some of Lowell’s poetry was written for or about the actress Ada Dwyer Russell, with whom Lowell shared a “Boston marriage” (a 19th-century euphemism for a lesbian relationship) for more than a decade. I have chosen three of Lowell’s love poems for this set of choral songs. All three are concise and emotionally intense; vivid yet elegant in their imagery.
These settings are performed here by members of the Byrd Ensemble of Seattle.
My cup is empty to-night,
Cold and dry are its sides,
Chilled by the wind from the open window.
Empty and void, it sparkles white in the moonlight.
The room is filled with the strange scent
Of wisteria blossoms.
They sway in the moon's radiance
And tap against the wall.
But the cup of my heart is still,
And cold, and empty.
When you come, it brims
Red and trembling with blood,
Heart's blood for your drinking;
To fill your mouth with love
And the bitter-sweet taste of a soul.
I will mix me a drink of stars,
Large stars with polychrome needles,
Small stars jetting maroon and crimson,
Cool, quiet, green stars.
I will tear them out of the sky,
And squeeze them over an old silver cup,
And I will pour the cold scorn of my Beloved into it,
So that my drink shall be bubbled with ice.
It will lap and scratch
As I swallow it down;
And I shall feel it as a serpent of fire,
Coiling and twisting in my belly.
His snortings will rise to my head,
And I shall be hot, and laugh,
Forgetting that I have ever known a woman.
III: The Giver of Stars
Hold your soul open for my welcoming.
Let the quiet of your spirit bathe me
With its clear and rippled coolness,
That, loose-limbed and weary, I find rest,
Outstretched upon your peace, as on a bed of ivory.
Let the flickering flame of your soul play all about me,
That into my limbs may come the keenness of fire,
The life and joy of tongues of flame,
And, going out from you, tightly strung and in tune,
I may rouse the blear-eyed world,
And pour into it the beauty which you have begotten.