Friday, June 25, 2010

`Both Wallers, Edmund and Fats'

In his elegy for a friend and fellow poet, “To L.E. Sissman, 1928-1976” (The Transparent Man, 1990), Anthony Hecht writes:

“Dear friend, whose poetry of Brooklyn flats
And poker sharps broadcasts the tin pan truths
Of all our yesterdays, speaks to our youths
In praise of both Wallers, Edmund and Fats…”

Any friend of the Wallers is a friend of mine. Edmund Waller (1606-1687), whom Samuel Johnson describes as “too young to resist beauty, and probably too vain to think himself resistable,” is a modest, sober-minded poet not of the first or second rank, best remembered for that anthology war horse:

“Go, lovely Rose—
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.”

More to contemporary taste is Thomas “Fats” Waller (1904-1943), composer of another roseate song, “Honeysuckle Rose,” introduced as a dance number in the 1929 revue Load of Coal. The lyrics are by Waller’s longtime collaborator Andy Razaf:

“When you're passin' by,
Flowers droop and sigh,
And I know the reason why,
You're my sweety, goodness knows,
Oh, honey ! suckle rose!”

The continuity of lyrical content across three centuries, shared by an English parliamentarian and two black American showmen, is remarkable. But so is the swing, if I can apply such a quality to Edmund Waller’s little song. Listen to its closing couplet:

“How small a part of time they share
That are so wondrous sweet and fair!”

Imagine Fats tickling those iambs. As the Rag King says: “…you are the music / While the music lasts.”

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