Samuel Barber: Hermit Songs

Hermit Songs are poems translated by various hands from Old Irish texts and set to music as lieder by the American composer Samuel Barber (1910-81). One can easily be content with the text alone, as in the following poem. (Thanks to a friend of Hermitary for recommending them.)

The Desire for Hermitage
Ah! To be all alone in a little cell
with nobody near me;
beloved that pilgrimage before the last pilgrimage to death.
Singing the passing hours to cloudy Heaven;
Feeding upon dry bread and water from the cold spring.
That will be an end to evil when I am alone
in a lovely little corner among tombs
far from the houses of the great.
Ah! To be all alone in a littie cell, to be alone, all alone:
Alone I came into the world
alone I shall go from it.


The wind blows through the trees from one end of hearing to the other. As suddenly as it blew, the wind abates, and a palpable silence emerges, as if always there but concealed among the treetops. I want to take the silence like a jewel, place it on my forehead, let its glow suffuse my mind. I want to hold the silence like a bird, delicate, in the palm of my hand, but it eludes my grasping. It wants to be free, to fly as it will, and I am loathe to restrain it. In the darkness, the wind picks up again. Far away a dog is baying. I wait for a bird-cry but there is none. The night is moonless, but I can see my empty hands. Silence folds and unfolds as it will.

Illness II

When we are ill, we feel trapped by our body in a rigid zone of pain and malaise. The body which we so carefully cultivate for others and for our vanity betrays us. It leaves us helpless and asea.

Is sickness inevitable, like the cycle of seasons that revolves many times for our learning, or the cycle of life itself, which only revolves once and inexorably? According to some, each illness debilitates us in a pattern of revising genetic code. Our body remembers its vulnerability, like an old and unresolved temptation, and knows how to betray us when the near occasion arises again.

The metaphor seems far-fetched, yet from a biological point of view we are a bundle of delicate chemical interactions, complex yet predictable. The body is many times smarter than ourselves when it comes to the arbitrariness of our personality, our intelligence, our poorly-honed spiritual sensibilities. We astonish ourselves when these human characteristics work well — we call it synchronicity, more ambitiously a tapping into a collective consciousness, or even a kind of mysticism. But sickness can yield this same strange insight. The abandonment by the body, the thrust into affliction that is the counterpoint of beauty, can also provide us a moment of insight. How many classic mystics have suffered a physical affliction? “Malheur,” as Simone Weil called it, is “the only way that the human creature can re-create itself.”