'As swift darts the martin' (‘The Birdie Song’)

This is one of a collection of verses written in celebration of the human spirit by Sir Nicholas Harker (c1520-1595), almost certainly in the mid-late 1580s. Contemporary records indicate that many of these poems were set to music and performed by a small ensemble of local musicians or sung like hymns at various ceremonies held by the sect known as ‘The Kindred of the Spirit’ at Harker’s home in the Wiltshire village of Swively. Sadly no record of the original musical settings seems to have survived.

The poems came to light with the discovery of the Harker-Cranham Archive in The Netherlands in 2002, and were later published by the historian Dr James Appleby. Several, including this one, were set to music in 2006 by the composer Gordon Fairview for a televised re-enactment of one of Harker’s ceremonies held at the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall in York, where they were performed by professional musicians and received a warm critical response. For self-evident reasons, Fairview and the production team gave this poem its whimsical nickname, ‘The Birdie Song’.

This charming and subtle new setting has been composed by Professor Peter Dews of the University of Essex. Some commentators think it likely that it is even closer to the spirit of the original performances than Fairview’s versions. Here it is performed, as it would probably have been at one of Harker’s ceremonies, by amateur musicians from the same family. Singer Jessie Lea is accompanied on the acoustic guitar (in lieu of a lute) by her father Richard Lea. In a family endeavour, the performance was filmed by Jessie’s mother, Richard’s wife Alison Lea.

There is a detailed account of James Appleby’s sustained efforts to investigate Sir Nicholas Harker and the dramatic events which followed the discovery of his writings (including these verses) in Paul Hoggart’s book, ‘A Man Against a Background of Flames’ (Pighog, 2013).

The full text (spelling partially modernised by James Appleby) is below:

As Swift Darts the Martin

As swift darts the martin i’ the warm summer eve,
Let his quick flight and certain my Spirit achieve,
For thus with the wings of the birds of the sky,
Ever beauteous, unfettered, my Spirit shall fly.

As bold hops the robin when th’plough turns the ground
With his dexterous daring, my Spirit abound,
That with the quick eyes of the birds of the soil,
Courageous, my Spirit shall fruitfully toil.

As slow glides the swan on the smooth autumn stream,
Be my Spirit reflected in bright rivers’ gleam,
And thus with the grace of the fowl of the lake,
Let calm contemplation, my Spirit awake.

As soft sings the dove in the dovecot each day,
Her harmonies sweet bless my Spirit at play,
As the birds of the household bring food, sport and joy,
Let labours and pleasures my Spirit alloy.

As high soars the lark in the clear summer air,
Let us strive ever upward our Spirits to bear,
Entranc’d by the flight of the birds of the sky,
Ever beauteous, unfettered our Spirits shall fly

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