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Keith Gates: A Pastoral Lament

A Pastoral Lament

Words by John Wood
Music by Steven Manley

A Pastoral Lament is also available
in the collection:
Three Songs

Other Works by Steven Manley

A Pastoral Lament by John Wood

A Pastoral Lament
for my friend, Keith Gates

Sweet singing shepherd boy, why have you ceased
To make your songs, and who now tends your sheep?
Have you run off to fields more bright and blest
And left us here to weep?

We wished more time to hear your psalms.
They set so sweet upon our hearts.
Honey of hope and sorrow's balms,
Those were the measures of your arts.

Our singing boy, he now has fled
The fields of grass and flesh to tend
His flocks where pains are shed
And music will not end.

"Keith Gates was not only an old friend but also an artist I had the greatest admiration for. Though I am a poet, I would have been a musician if I'd had the necessary talent. Music is my greatest love. I've listened to it intently, near daily, for over a half century, studied scores and music history, and also played the flute for half a century until arthritis crippled my fingers. And so my admiration for Keith's genius was not founded on our friendship or the fact that we were both colleagues at the same university. It had nothing to do with anything but his genius, his gift, his God-given talent. And so when that great, powerful artist, who also happened to be a friend I'd had for twenty-five years and the gentlest of human beings, asked if I would write a poem he could set for his own funeral, I broke down in tears. How could I do it, but how could I decline? I knew that I could not address the poem directly to him. It would simply be more painful for me to write than I could stand, and so I structured it like a 17th century pastoral elegy, a convention in English poetry of that day to cast the friend who has died in the form of a neo-classical shepherd. Such a form with an accompanying formal structure would allow me the distance I needed to address the terrible subject I was faced with. And that is what I did. It's classical but also Christian with the echo from the first book of Peter: "For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass." When I finally finished it and sent it to him, he wrote me: "If you could hear me, I would play for you on my piano the most beautiful melody that I have ever improvised. If you could hear me now, I would show you how deeply you have inspired me to create. Your words are so beautiful and your thoughts to me are beyond my poor ability to convey. Please know that I am so appreciative of your love expressed in that poem, John." It touched me that he was pleased, but he exaggerated about his "poor ability to convey" things; there was no emotion, no feeling Keith could not convey in music. I don't know what he would have written had he lived a little longer and been able to write the music, but I am certain he would have loved the beautiful setting Steven Manley has written."

John Wood