Gerard Manley Hopkins Poems In Musical Adaptations
Gerard Manley Hopkins Poems In Musical Adaptations
    R E V I E W
reviews index
Joe Potts
Novelist & Songwriter


  Sean is a talented multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, indeed a creatively-driven song-writing machine, who has produced many a fine song and performed it in that sensitive voice over the years… but setting Gerard Manley Hopkins to music?

Gerard Manley Hopkins has written arguably the greatest pantheistic, God-in-Nature, religious poetry ever penned by man, an extraordinary garland of thought-blossoms. His language, which inspired such a modern master as Dylan Thomas, is a rhythmic roller-coaster of audacious expression. It's compacted with meaning, jumping with freshly-minted surprise.

How on earth to put this supreme poetry, each phrase the fruit of meditative attention given to the animate falcon and the inanimate stone alike, to music?

The history of poetry being put to music is not a happy one when one leaves aside the work of the great composers, such as Beethoven's setting of Goethe's 'Ode to Joy'. Robert Burns, who put his verse to existing folk songs, achieved a unique creative and popular success.

For it's hard to think of an entirely happy musical setting for existing poetry in the 20th century. Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Cats'? The odds were that poor Sean was going to lose himself in the mists of a literary Matterhorn…

And I have to say that 'The Alchemist' is a complete triumph and that if Sean O'Leary has trodden the thorny path of creativity to make this one recording he has not lived in vain.

His voice has a rapt, empowered sincerity which is never sentimental and a lifetime's experience of music-making has enabled him to provide simple, lyrical, unpretentious and entirely appropriate musical settings to Hopkins' magic words of joy or suffering. O'Leary's well-honed songwriting skills and devotional voice achieves the quite extraordinary feat of actually bringing to life for me many a Hopkins’ poem I had skipped or ignored.

I first encountered 'Felix Randal' on the mortuary slab of a school text book yet Sean’s version, backed by a simple organ motif, with Sean singing as a gentle, burnt-out Celtic priest, is so moving that it irresistibly brings tears to my normally dry eyes every time I hear it.

There are simple joys to be had on this remarkable CD such as the gospel bounce of 'Pied Beauty' or the irresistible jig of 'The Woodlark' but Sean effortlessly takes you into difficult areas - such as that terrible room where 'I awake and feel the fell of dark, not day.' Sean has even succeeded in dragging me on board 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' with the fate-battered, earth-shaking crew and passengers, wondering how I ever thought of skip button when I knew this great poem was on the album.

The music is simple to cushion the momentous and complex poetry, yet with many a subtle song-writing twist and musical motif to further the poetry's meaning. It's surprising just how many Hopkins poems now seem to contain a perfect chorus line. The production is rich and bright, with Sean’s devotional voice to the fore.

Yes! 'The Alchemist' is a unique achievement. No lover of poetry, no lover of Hopkins, no one with a splash of nature mysticism in their veins, and certainly no Christian should be without this deeply-moving and inspirational album.

And it has to be said that when it comes to cosmic, religious music the team of lyricist Gerard Manley Hopkins and singer-songwriter Sean O'Leary knock even Bob Dylan out of his born-again boots. 

5 May 2005
© Joe Potts 2005