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:
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.