Saturday, 29 September 2012

Harmonium, by Simon Armitage


by Simon Armitage

The Farrand Chapelette is a type of harmonium or small organ. Simon Armitage and his father before him were choir boys at the church of Saint Bartholomew in Marsden, a village in West Yorkshire. On occasions when the congregation at a service was quite small, the organist would play the harmonium instead of the full-size organ.

The harmonium eventually fell out of use, and in the opening lines of his poem “Harmonium” Armitage states that it was “gathering dust / in the shadowy porch.” It would have been thrown in a skip had Armitage not wanted it. In the final line of the first stanza he comments that he could have it “for a song”, an idiom that means very cheaply. There is an obvious play on words here, as the harmonium is of course used to play song tunes.

The second stanza of “Harmonium” is twice as long as the first and describes the musical instrument in detail. The first half of this stanza focuses on the effect sunlight has had in the church. The windows show images of saints and of Jesus Christ rising from the dead; Armitage says that the sun can “beatify” the saints, in other words raise them above the level of ordinary people. He contrasts the fact that the sunlight shining through the stained glass windows has a positive effect whereas it has weathered or “aged” the wooden case of the instrument. Armitage uses the metaphor “fingernails” in describing the way the sun has discoloured the harmonium's keys; the area that the organist would have pressed with his fingers is now yellow. One of the harmonium's notes or keys has “lost its tongue;” the personification to convey the fact that the key is silent brings life to the image.

The last three lines of the second stanza focus on how worn the treadles of the harmonium are. These are like pedals that the organist has to continually push down with his feet as he plays the music. There are actually holes in both of them now. Armitage even describes how the organist used to wear “grey, woollen socks / and leather-soled shoes,” conjuring up a rather dull picture. He uses a half rhyme, with “treadles” at the end of line ten and “pedalled” at the end of line twelve; this is the only instance of rhyme in the stanza.

The third stanza is a shorter one, consisting of five lines. Armitage uses alliteration twice in the opening line, “But its hummed harmonics still struck a chord.” This is a vivid description emphasising the fact that although the harmonium is very old and worn, it means something to the poet. The idiom “to strike a chord” means that something triggers a memory, but of course this is another play on words, since chords can be played on a harmonium. Armitage tells us that the instrument was used for a hundred years and stood “by the choristers' stalls.” He mentions that “father and son” had both sung there; this could refer to himself and his father, although he does not specifically say so. In the closing line of the third stanza, Armitage reverses a simile to describe the singing of the choir boys. He says that “gilded finches” “streamed out” of their throats, using metaphors, and says that the finches were “like high notes,” which is in fact what they were. This imagery is rather complicated but nevertheless conveys the image beautifully.

The fourth and final stanza is the poem's longest one. It concerns Armitage's father, although the poet does not actually say so; the only actual use of the word “father” is in the third stanza. Armitage describes the way his father came to help him “cart” the harmonium away. The description is not a flattering one, and it echoes the description of the aged musical instrument. The poet's father came in a “blue cloud of tobacco smog, / with smoker's fingers and dottled thumbs.” We can't help but be reminded of the harmonium's yellowing keys and weathered wooden case. The two men carry the instrument “flat, laid on its back,” personifying it. This leads to Armitage's father making a remark that the poet says “he, being him, can't help but say.” The father tells his son that the next box he will carry down the nave of the church will be the father's coffin. The word “coffin” is not actually used, but the father says the box “will bear the freight of his own dead weight.” In other words, it will contain his dead body; the phrase “dead weight” is used literally here, but it can also mean a particularly heavy weight or even an oppressive burden.

The last three lines concentrate on Armitage's emotional response to his father's remark. He begins “And I, being me,” echoing the phrase “And he, being him” that came three lines earlier. Armitage says that his reply was “some shallow or sorry phrase or word” that he mouthed. The lack of precision conveys the idea that he couldn't think of the right or suitable answer to such a poignant remark. The poem closes with the line “too starved of breath to make itself heard.” Armitage was so out of breath from carrying the harmonium that he could not speak loudly enough, and perhaps he didn't want his answer to be heard as he felt that it was inadequate. The last two lines rhyme, and these are the only two consecutive lines in the poem that rhyme with each other.

“Harmonium” is a touching poem that initially appears to be about Armitage's attachment to this musical instrument that, although old and almost worn out, was a part of his childhood. The final stanza, however, introduces his father, and Armitage is clearly affected emotionally by his father's comment on the fact that the poet will soon be carrying his coffin into the church. Armitage's use of imagery, plays on words and sparing use of rhyme create a convincing piece of poetry. He shows that objects that are old and no longer used still have value and the memories they trigger are meaningful. More than that, he links the theme of the harmonium with his feelings towards his aging father, whose death draws ever nearer; confronting this idea, the poet is so emotional that he cannot express himself as he would wish.

Originally published on

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