Some poets are remembered for the strength of their writing – regardless of whether or not it had been set to music. Others’ works are supported by the musical settings that establish them in another art form outside pure literature. Finally there is a third group where, had it not been for a composer setting it to music, the poem and poet probably would not survive beyond a couple of generations.
Fredegond Shove (1899-1949) is remembered for a handful of poems that on the one hand have survived due to its sequential publication from one war poem anthology to another because, as Tim Kendall says, “Anthologists read anthologists.” On the other hand, thanks to Ralph Vaughan Williams Four Poems by Fredegond Shove from 1925, Shove is still read by performers of English art song. Of the four poems, The Water Mill and The New Ghost are the strongest poems and the most interesting songs.
There is a mill, an ancient one,
Brown with rain, and dry with sun,
The miller’s house is joined with it,
And in July the swallows flit
To and fro, in and out,
Round the windows, all about;
The mill wheel whirrs and the waters roar
Out of the dark arch by the door,
The willows toss their silver heads,
And the phloxes in the garden beds
Turn red, turn grey,
With the time of day,
And smell sweet in the rain, then die away.
The miller’s cat is a tabby, she
Is as lean as a healthy cat can be,
She plays in the loft where the sunbeams stroke
The sacks’ fat backs, and beetles choke
In the floury dust. The Wheel goes round
And the miller’s wife sleeps fast and sound.
There is a clock inside the house,
Very tall and very bright,
It stikes the hour when shadows drowse,
Or showers make the windows white;
Loud and sweet, in rain and sun,
The clock strikes, and the work is done.
The miller’s wife and his eldest girl
Clean and cook, while the mill wheels whirl.
The children take their meat to school,
And at dusk they play by the twilit pool;
Till the day is dead,
And their mother calls them in to bed.
The supper stands on the clean-scrubbed board,
And the miller drinks like a thirsty lord;
The young men come for their daughter’s sake,
But she never knows which one to take;
She drives her needle, and pins her stuff,
While the moon shines gold, and the lamp shines buff.
The Water Mill has been referred to by Trevor Hold as “a Dutch painting in music”. Shove has a tendency, in an attempt to be clear, to give a lot of information in her poetry. This serves for drawn out episodes, which lack the strength to keep the reader’s attention. The attention to detail in The Water Mill counts in Shove’s favour. Ralph Vaughan Williams used these details to develop the scene like the turning of the the wheel, the sounding of the clock and the playful movements of the cat.