Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Reciting the Hymn to Pan

The recitation of poetry - poetry as vocal presentation, live on the breath - is about as lost as a lost art can be. Poetry itself can be classified as "all but lost", but the proper, effective, artful presentation of poetic recitation is dismally lost - great recitation is very, very rare. No one knows how to deliver the spoken word anymore. This, at least, is the reluctant conclusion of the present author. With few exceptions (Tegan Gigante is one) it is devilishly hard to find people who know how to read poetry. It makes an interesting test, to ask a group of the poetically inclined to read a poem, say, Eliot's Prufrock, aloud. It is hard to find a single convincing reader. The art of reading aloud is as neglected today as the art of fine handwriting. 

Given that, here is a real test. Who can offer a convincing rendering of Aleister Crowley's celebrated and ecstatic 'Hymn to Pan'? Many try, and many fail. Frankly, it is a dreadful poem with very few redeeming features, which is true of nearly all Crowley's poetry. There may be grounds for reconsidering the character and importance of Mr Crowley, now that we are over one hundred years into the Aeon of Horus, but his poetry, surely, is beyond saving. His 'Hymn to Pan' is widely known because it was anthologized in the Oxford Book of Mystical Verse, and it caused a public stir about "paganism" when it was read at Crowley's funeral. Crowleyphiles make inflated and unwarranted claims for it - "the greatest poem in the English language!" - when in fact it reads like it was written by a man addled on cocaine, and it probably was, although not even cocaine excuses the lame rhymes that it bumps against from start to finish. There's not a decent, original rhyme in the whole thing... or maybe "fetter/all-begetter", just. At best, we might admire its energy. 

Crowley was a fine - well, entertaining - prose writer, but his verse is tiresome and derivative (and usually obscene. He is at his most poetic when he is being scatological). The Hymn to Pan is arguably among his better poems, all the same. We might even call it a signature poem - in style and content it is pure Crowley. What we have here is a bad poet drunk on transgression. 

(A point: his poetry is Victorian and rooted in the conventions of nineteenth century verse. He never embraced modernism. Yet, this is not true of his paintings, whereby he embraced expressionism; his is a modern art. And a further aside, he never embraced film either. The Prophet of the New Aeon was often stuck in nineteenth century modes.)

But how to recite 'Hymn to Pan'? That is the question. All those exclamation marks!!!

Here is the poem:


Thrill with lissome lust of the light,
O man! My man!
Come careering out of the night
Of Pan! Io Pan!
Io Pan! Io Pan! Come over the sea
From Sicily and from Arcady!
Roaming as Bacchus, with fauns and pards
And nymphs and satyrs for thy guards,
On a milk-white ass, come over the sea
To me, to me,
Come with Apollo in bridal dress
(Shepherdess and pythoness)
Come with Artemis, silken shod,
And wash thy white thigh, beautiful God,
In the moon of the woods, on the marble mount,
The dimpled dawn of the amber fount!
Dip the purple of passionate prayer
In the crimson shrine, the scarlet snare,
The soul that startles in eyes of blue
To watch thy wantonness weeping through
The tangled grove, the gnarled bole
Of the living tree that is spirit and soul
And body and brain — come over the sea,
(Io Pan! Io Pan!)
Devil or god, to me, to me,
My man! my man!
Come with trumpets sounding shrill
Over the hill!
Come with drums low muttering
From the spring!
Come with flute and come with pipe!
Am I not ripe?
I, who wait and writhe and wrestle
With air that hath no boughs to nestle
My body, weary of empty clasp,
Strong as a lion and sharp as an asp —
Come, O come!
I am numb
With the lonely lust of devildom.
Thrust the sword through the galling fetter,
All-devourer, all-begetter;
Give me the sign of the Open Eye,
And the token erect of thorny thigh,
And the word of madness and mystery,
O Pan! Io Pan!
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan Pan! Pan,
I am a man:
Do as thou wilt, as a great god can,
O Pan! Io Pan!
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! I am awake
In the grip of the snake.
The eagle slashes with beak and claw;
The gods withdraw:
The great beasts come, Io Pan! I am borne
To death on the horn
Of the Unicorn.
I am Pan! Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan!
I am thy mate, I am thy man,
Goat of thy flock, I am gold, I am god,
Flesh to thy bone, flower to thy rod.
With hoofs of steel I race on the rocks
Through solstice stubborn to equinox.
And I rave; and I rape and I rip and I rend
Everlasting, world without end,
Mannikin, maiden, Maenad, man,
In the might of Pan.
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan! Io Pan!

Readers are invited to put it to the test. Try reciting it, and ask your friends to try. How is this poem to be recited? 


Below are various attempts, mainly offered from the swelling ranks of contemporary Crowley pretenders. Some of them have merit, but most of them are limp. Only the last of them (Version Fourteen), below, even attempts to capture the poem's ecstatic qualities (and its author's beastliness.)Version Seven, recited in the ruins of the Abbey of Thelema in Sicily, at least has atmosphere.

Version One

Version Two

Version Three

Version Four

Version Five

Version Six

Version Seven

Version Eight

Version Nine

Version Ten

Version Eleven

Version Twelve

Version Thirteen

Version Fourteen

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