One of the key moments in the creation of the libretto for 17 Days was the discovery of the works of the English poet Charlotte Mew (1869-1928). I fell instantly in love with her direct, unadorned, yet deeply evocative style. So much so, that I ended up using two of her poems in 17 Days: Do dreams lie deeper and A quoi bon dire. Returning to her poems again several months later, I can see why - on a purely technical level - I was drawn to them. The line lengths are short, there are few awkward polysyllabic words (which play havoc with a beautifully shaped musical line) and the poems bloom with lovely long vowel shapes.
The subjects that she chooses to write about (at least in the poems I have chosen) are gently poignant, not railing against the Gods in any melodramatic way, but focusing instead on moments of keen longing. As an example, here's the last stanza of A quoi bon dire:
"And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
That nobody can love their way again
While over there
You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair."
Incidentally, the first two lines of the poem as Mew wrote them are: "Seventeen years ago you said / Something that sounded like goodbye". In my setting I changed "years" to "days", the coincidence of the fact that the miners were trapped undiscovered underground for 17 days being far too strong for me to resist a little poetic licence.
Mew herself was a fascinating character: a fiercely private person, she kept her hair short and had a habit of wearing gentlemen's clothing. Her life ended in tragedy. Inconsolable after the death from cancer of her sister, Anne, Mew committed suicide by drinking Lysol (a cleaning detergent) in March 1928. She is buried alongside her sister in the north end of Hampstead Cemetery, NW6, not far from where Crouch End Festival Chorus rehearse today…
"And how does one bury the breathless dreams ? -
They are not of the earth and not of the sea,
They have no friends here but the flakes of the falling snow;
You and I will go down two paces -
Where do they go?"
(From Do dreams lie deeper? by Charlotte Mew)