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His Melancholic Ship

by Ade Macrow


Any long-term Donofan (or 'acolyte' as we are sometimes disparagingly termed) can't help but have noticed the strong streak of melancholia that threads through much of his work. Indeed, it is arguable that this emotion is responsible for much of Donovan's finest work. Neither is the melancholia entirely absent from HMS Donovan and this is a topic I wish to briefly light upon here.

The first matter to underline is the essential difference between feeling melancholic and feeling lachrymose. It is entirely possible to feel the former without necessarily bemoaning one's fate. The latter involves a huge dollop of self-pity and the "woe is me" factor. We've all been to both places and perhaps the difference can best be pointed up by using George Harrison's two songs, While My Guitar Gently Weeps and This Guitar (Can't Keep From Crying) as examples. The first is a magnificent example of melancholia being ultimately overcome by resurgant hope and expectation; the second is a "so George feels very down. Get over it, man!" kind of number. One inspires similar hope in the listener, whereas the other just irritates by its refusal to even consider a brighter side. Donovan's had many such songs that wallow in lachrymosity, composed when he was "out on the lonely road/living the warrior code"  though most have thankfully remained officially unrecorded. One such instance is European Dream aka European Hotel.

Back to HMS and the subject in hand... The Road offers up a whole new, much wider world of adventure, as evidenced by the "Outside our little garden gate/far over hill and bright road/the long white road goes winding through". True, the words are from a poem by Lucy Diamond, but her meaning and Donovan's is explicit. The 'little' in the first lane implicitely invites the reader or listener to imagine that what lies beyond is much larger.

Which it is, but it is also unknown. The unknown nearly always invokes a degree of caution in most people, so how must a small child feel, peering through the bars of his/her garden gate? Yes, it's exciting but it's also very scary, a fact Diamond acknowledges with her wistful noting that "I wish that I could follow it/Some happy summer day". Yes, he/she might open the gate and walk out yonder but they know the fear within makes it unlikely. Donovan compliments this perfectly with a vocal of perfect understated hesitancy. The fact the song abruptly fades at the beginning of a second stanza (though a slightly longer version does exist) whether accidental or not, only reinforces the sad, subdued mood. It's as if the child's courage fails completely and he/she regrets 'confiding' in you, the listener and so descends into silence.

Little Ben manages to be both melancholic and sinister. Even after the listener is assured in this wholly-Donovan penned number that Ben is "in the rowan grove" it sounds less like a reassurance and more like an intimation of grave foreboding. The 'faery folk' who enter in the form of Gwindle are no more reassuring. Before the Victorians made fairies cutesie and loveable, they were often as sinister as trolls and other magical folk: witness the Sidhe. Although HMS Donovan is the quintessential Victorian/Edwardian era album, Little Ben harks back to a more distant time, when fairies weren't simply mischievious but downright evil at times. As a listener, you know little Ben has been taken and won't be seen by human eyes again...

(As an aside, Gwindle is clothed in "scarlet livery". Would this be the self-same clothing that Finn Hanley wore in Celtic Rock?).

Lord Of The Reedy River echoes Leda & The Swan and follows a traditional folk-ballad process through the centuries: that of the transformation of one or both lovers into another life-form, thereafter to spend the rest of their lives happily together in their assumed forms. Steeleye Span's adaptation of Two Magicians neatly encapsulates many of the forms often found in such songs. The odd thing about Reedy River is that although the two newly-converted swans are presumably about to live happily ever after, Donovan's langorous tones lend this the air of an elegy. It is almost as if Donovan knows something about the later lives of the sawns: it seems very much to be an evocation and marking of a past epoch, a lost period. Have the swans subsequently died or been killed? It is certainly possible to read the song in this manner.

If HMS Donovan can be compared to any book, on the basis of these songs alone, it would have to be L.P. Hartley's wonderful The Shrimp & The Anemone. Ignoring the symbiotic relationship betwixt the shrip and the anemone, Hartley's evocation of Edwardian childhood is suffused with the knowledge than one can never return. As Hartley observed in another book, "the past is a foreign country". And so it is with these HMS songs. All are excellent creations or co-creations and all resound with the plaintive and painful realisation that what's gone before can never truly be revisited. Yes, it can be remembered and even (in this era) preserved on various media but one can never truly think onself back into that time; one can never wholly immerse oneself in those events again. At best, all recollections can only be diffused, fractured pictures and scenes, whether we use the (rose) "coloured  spectacles" of Dippy or not.

It's axiomatic that the sharpest, finest emotions are frequently those with a mixed, bitter-sweet edge. The triumvirate of songs highlighted above will always represent the melancholic heart of HMS Donovan; the realisaton that life isn't "all as it is and evermore shall be". Like all great albums, HMS contains many threads, encourages many readings and can be interpreted in multitudinous ways. This has been but one such reading from a small number of the songs found within. There are many, many more.

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