The Inarticulate Burr

text by Edward Dowden (1843-1913): 

“The Secret of the Universe” 

for STB soli, choir SATB and instrumental ensemble:

2 flutes, oboe, harp, 2 string quartets, double bass        13’    2013

Edward Dowden was a renowned Irish critic and poet of the late Victorian period. With an distinguished academic career spanning Dublin, Oxford and Cambridge he wrote extensively on Shakespeare, Shelley, Goethe and a host of other writers.  It is not known how and why he came to write this extraordinary text subtitled ‘An Ode (By a Western Spinning Dervish)’. The Victorians were certainly interested in other cultures: English translations of the vast body of Persian poetry began to appear in England in the 1880’s and it may have been through these publications that Dowden became acquainted with the philosophy of Rumi and the Mevlevi Order. Rumi was a 13th century Sufi mystic, and a passionate advocate of the use of music, dance and poetry as a way of reaching God. The Sema ritual that has been practised ever since represents a mystical journey, the ascent of the spirit to the Perfect One. Certainly, Dowden’s poem elucidates (in a curiously Irish kind of way) the essence of the Sema ceremony very well. This setting of it makes no attempt to depict the rituals but, rather, to interpret a Victorian text that, for its period, seems peculiarly unrestrained.

Performed and recorded by Elaine McKrill, Daniel Meades, Jeremy Hagan, The Music Troupe, Newbury Chamber Choir, conducted by Edward Lambert at the Arlington Arts Centre, Newbury, June 2014

Mevlevi dervishes 1887 (Wikipedia)

"The Sema, (the dance of the whirling dervishes, or semazens), has been celebrated since Mevlana's passing on December 17, 1273. Hazreti Mevlana's realization expresses the source of all religions and spiritual paths -- the Way of Love -- uniting those of many cultures and traditions. Everyone attending the Sema is a participant. As the ceremony unfolds, any apparent distinction between "audience" and "dervish" dissolves as all are attuned, by the music and language of tht Heart, to the baraka (blessing) filled atmosphere of love.

As planets and stars circle the sun, the dervishes turn counterclockwise, both around themselves and around the halka (circle). They turn first with crossed arms; then, taking flight, they open their arms, holding the right hand up and the left hand down, becoming transparent vessels for bringing divine blessings to earth. Pervading the space is the Remembrance of God (Zikr), through the silent chanting of the holy name name of God, Allah, invoked within the heart by all. Turning becomes a travel through the universe before God, the spiritual sun of the worlds. The semazens first turn to dissolve their doubts into belief in God's unifying presence. Then, belief deepens, becoming faith, and the semazens scale the heights, to the abode of absolute existence, of Unity. With God's grace, it is here that everyone drinks deeply from the same source of life and love that united Mevlana and Shams hundreds of years ago. The eternal bridge they became, as teacher and student, lover and beloved, still beckons the spiritual traveler who is willing to risk all in its precarious course. Finally, the semazens return to stillness. At the sound of verses from the Koran the whirling stops, the dervishes kiss the floor, raise their hands in prayer, and ask for God's blessings with the silent recitation of the Surah al-Fatiha, the opening chapter of Quran. In unison, the dervishes kiss the floor, and invoke the blessings of God. "Selamun Aleykum" ("God's Peace be with you") echoes through the space. The dervishes intone together the sacred name of God, "Hu", and bow together once again before leaving the sema hall."

The Inarticulate Burr is a response to the Victorian poem, not a depiction of the Sema itself.

Edward Dowden (1843-1913)

The Secret of the Universe

An Ode

(By a Western Spinning Dervish)

I SPIN, I spin, around, around, 

And close my eyes, 

And let the bile arise 

From the sacred region of the soul’s Profound; 

Then gaze upon the world; how strange! how new!

  The earth and heaven are one, 

  The horizon-line is gone, 

The sky how green! the land how fair and blue! 

Perplexing items fade from my large view, 

And thought which vexed me with its false and true

Is swallowed up in Intuition; this, 

  This is the sole true mode 

  Of reaching God, 

And gaining the universal synthesis 

Which makes All—One; while fools with peering eyes

Dissect, divide, and vainly analyse. 

So round, and round, and round again! 

How the whole globe swells within my brain, 

The stars inside my lids appear, 

The murmur of the spheres I hear

Throbbing and beating in each ear; 

Right in my navel I can feel 

The centre of the world’s great wheel. 

Ah peace divine, bliss dear and deep, 

  No stay, no stop,

  Like any top 

Whirling with swiftest speed, I sleep. 

O ye devout ones round me coming, 

Listen! I think that I am humming; 

  No utterance of the servile mind

With poor chop-logic rules agreeing 

  Here shall ye find, 

But inarticulate burr of man’s unsundered being. 

Ah, could we but devise some plan, 

Some patent jack by which a man

Might hold himself ever in harmony 

With the great whole, and spin perpetually, 

  As all things spin 

  Without, within, 

As Time spins off into Eternity,

And Space into the inane Immensity, 

And the Finite into God’s Infinity, 

 Spin, spin, spin, spin.