Flora, in the Country and City

Perhaps we have Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and spring, to thank for the spate of good weather we’ve enjoyed the past few days. We were certainly thankful for the sunshine this past weekend on our visit to Stourhead, the elaborate eighteenth-century estate built by Henry Hoare “the Magnificent” in southwest England.  The landscape at Stourhead is deliberately Italianate, and is studded with classical edifices meant to be sighed over from the various prospects that open up as you walk around the artificial lake. In the picture above, you can see the so-called Temple of Flora on the left, taken from just such a prospect.

Viewing this eighteenth-century temple, I couldn’t help but think of Thomas Shadwell’s poem, “Nymphs and Shepherds,” from 1692:

Statue of Flora at Stourhead

Nymphs and Shepherds come away,
In the Groves let’s sport and play,
For this, this is Flora’s Holiday.
Sacred to ease and happy Love,
To Dancing, to Musick, and to Poetry:
Your Flocks may now securely rove,
whilst you express your Jollity.

It’s a terrible poem, by a terrible poet (who, as my wife points out to me, was considered the literary dunce of his day) but it was set to wonderful music by a  wonderful composer, Henry Purcell.  The song went through my head the entire time I was at Stourhead, and seeing them from a distance, you could hum and sort of pretend that the visitors enjoying the day were nymphs and shepherds frolicking by the lake.

The most famous recording of “Nymphs and Shepherds,” to which I’ve set a link below, was done by the Manchester Children’s Choir in 1929.  Depression-era Manchester was about as far from the affluence of Henry the Magnificent’s English Arcadia as could be imagined. In an act of true civic inspiration, the education leaders of Manchester decided to recruit 250 schoolchildren for a choir as a sort of artistic public works program. Under the able leadership of Sir Hamilton Harty, this choir of utterly untrained children (a third of whose parents were unemployed) practiced for a year and sang their hearts out in a recorded performance. After it was played on BBC radio, the 78-rpm record of “Nymphs and Shepherds” went on, astoundingly, to sell over a million copies.  For many during the gloom of the Depression, the Manchester Children’s Choir offered a genuine ray of sunshine. Such, evidently, is the power of Flora.

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About Uncomely and Broken

I teach Latin and Greek at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Classics, England, Mythology, Poetry, Statues & Monuments, Trees & Flowers. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Flora, in the Country and City

  1. I was blessed with a British education in the late fifties early sixties and remember well singing this song as a wee one. I loved it and loved listening to this choir. But it’s funny listening to these working class northern kids singing “dauhnce” instead of their own dialect’s short a. We working class Scottish kids were taught by our wonderful music teacher to use our lovely bright short “ay” and not the dreary English long “ah”! On a side note, I was appalled at the school system in affluent California that my kids went through – where music programs were only made possible by parent fund raising efforts. On another side note, I love knowing that the British predilection for potty popular hits goes back so far. I recall in the 70s Terry Wogan (a DJ on the Beeb) had a hit singing “the Floral Dance” – another tribute to Flora. More commonly known as The Furry Dance, this is an ancient (?) annual event in Helston Cornwall, near which my English father’s family hailed from. My grandfather told me that as children (in the 1890s) they were strictly forbidden from taking part in this heathen and licentious event, by their strict Methodist parents. (It’s a truly horrible song – but if you want to see Mr Wogan performing it — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElnCI1fkfFM.)

  2. Country Mouse, thanks so much for your remarks, and apologies for the delay in responding. I’m still traveling and wrestle with my son for time on the computer. The story behind the Manchester Children’s Choir is a fascinating one, but you’re right that there is a buried class issue lurking in that “dahnce” versus “dance.” I have to agree that the American system really relegates music and the arts off to the side, although it’s clear enough to me at least that creativity is a driving force of the American economy. Ah well, but I’m a classicist, so I would say that. (Uh, this song is awful, by the way, but weirdly memorable)

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