Impetuous maid


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“O hang the head, 
Impetuous child with the tremendous brain”

WH Auden, Hymn To St Cecilia 


“No, darling, I can’t possibly sleep with you,” said the flawless noblewoman to her newlywed husband the nobleman.

This was not what Valerian, successful and handsome citizen of Rome, wanted to hear on his wedding night, but there had been warning signs. Cecilia was not like other girls. She had a quality of absence which was at once enticing and maddening.  She had spent the whole of the wedding in the corner singing songs to herself. The guests viewed the situation with some relish. Scandal was in the air.

And now his wife was painting stories in the elements around them: she couldn’t sleep with him because she was promised to God and virginity was her calling, and if Valerian laid a finger on her the large henchman-angel which had been sent to protect her, and stood at her elbow, would strike him down.

Valerian eyed the thin air at her elbow with deep suspicion. I don’t see any angel, he said. And she said: go to the third stone of the Via Appia, and there a man will baptise you, and you’ll see the angel, all right.

And it was just as she said: he went, he was baptised, and once he had seen the angel made a hasty decision not to mess with his wife. In fact he got with the programme and was martyred shortly afterwards, and after him, she was martyred too.

She was hacked at the neck three times, and lived on for three days, and then died. Her body was placed in the catacombs of St Callistus and then transferred to the Church of St Cecilia in Trastevere. When they dug her up in 1599 it is said she was still as fresh as a daisy, sleeping peacefully, waiting for the second coming.

And it is this woman who is the patron saint of us musicians.

1935: and two creatives met in Britain’s General Post Office Film Unit. WH Auden and Benjamin Britten were drawn together like magnets, Auden the dominant, Benjy the ‘loveable talented little boy’ as Auden once called him.

The flame between them burned briefly and dazzlingly bright. And when it was time for them to part Britten asked Auden to write a last set of words for him: a hymn to the noblewoman who had once fended off a husband using an angel-henchman at her elbow.

The poem is stunning. A marauding haze which cuts to the heart of Cecilia and is filled with an eternity of wistfulness:

In a garden shady this holy lady 
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm, 
Like a black swan as death came on 
Poured forth her song in perfect calm: 
And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin 
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer, 
And notes tremendous from her great engine 
Thundered out on the Roman air. 
Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited, 
Moved to delight by the melody, 
White as an orchid she rode quite naked 
In an oyster shell on top of the sea; 
At sounds so entrancing the angels dancing 
Came out of their trance into time again….

You can read the full poem here.

Britten took the words and wove such strange and sweet music with it that it has been speculated this was a final, parting love song for the poet who had turned his world upside down.


20 thoughts on “Impetuous maid

  1. Such a haunting and beautiful piece to go with the words, and the bane of amateur choirs who can’t cope with exquisitely shifting harmony (as I have been pained to experience). And thanks for the polychrome image of the saint, a black and white version of which haunted my Catholic childhood — now a whole belief system away.

    1. I sang the solo a lifetime away, Chris, for the Southampton University Chamber Choir, under the direction of Tim Byram Wigfield. Genius musical director, utterly inspirational experience. I shall never forget it.

  2. I have a marble statuette of Saint Cecilia on my mantel.. beautiful white marble,carefully carried wrapped in a coat, from Rome, by a priest who was a friend of my mother. He brought it to her after I was born. It is a little gruesome though. When i was young I heard her story differently though.. but in all her stories she comes to a grizzly end.. c

    1. I’d love to hear your story, Celi. Like many of the early tales of the time I think it has been told and told, re-worked like the lines of a sketch in a sketchbook until Cecilia’s form gained a kind of consensus.

      1. I will write what i remember – it was told to me by an old priest called father Smith – he was a prisoner of war – a chaplain and he was on that hundred mile march where they almost all died – I can’t remember its name now.. I will ask Dad – but his story was much more gruesome.. I will recall it and write it soon.. c

    1. Hi Barb! Are you back in the States? I hope you had a fabulous holiday in the UK. Yes, it’s a sad story. The tales of the early martyrs all have that quality. So very long ago, shrouded in folklore yet still stark and uncompromising.

  3. Britten and Auden together! Whoa! The painting is incredible, as well. The drama and violence of the story is somehow overshadowed by the purity of her intention. A rather haunting tale, and fascinating to consider her remains held mystery to further on the fascination. This was a gift, Kate. I have every intention of doing what I can to learn more about this beautiful soul–and to purchase a copy of this gorgeous Hymn.

    1. “The drama and violence of the story is somehow overshadowed by the purity of her intention.” So perfectly put, Debra, that I might have to learn that phrase for later recall. So pleased you enjoyed this enough to go find out more about Cecilia.

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