Sibelius at Hawk Lake, a poem by Tom Henighan

(“We were all enthralled by the dark pine forests and the shadowy gods and wood-nymphs who dwell therein. The coda with its icy winds sweeping through the forest made us shiver.” On the Sibelius tone poem Tapiola. From a letter to the composer by Walter Damrosch, who conducted the premiere of that work in 1926.)

The cabin walls groan,
I step out, under articulate stars,
their wild canopy excites me,
those icy exclamations
make the black scroll sing,
and punctuate the night
with a dazzling syntax
that lets the heart speak in parables.
When something lumbers by in the darkness,
I retreat to my fireplace.

This is Canada.
We are an outpost of terror.
Mountains, granite ridges,
chill mornings, mist-shrouded
lakes, the bleak sun,
the slow turning of the endless day.
Marshes and moors,
the smell of mud and decay,
glacier-tossed boulders
like the severed heads
of an ancient enemy.

What’s trivial in the human
he cast out–
and most of all our frenzy
to remake the world,
creation’s paradox and bane,
the junk piled high,
earth and space littered
with false dreams.

Implacable nature, in Tapio,
god of the forest.
by another name lurks
in these rough shaggy pines,
cedars and elders,
dark birches, like runic figures,
boundaries and portals of time,
of our deep hidden life,
to be entered only at twilight
or when the wind shrills
bleakly across the lakes,
the mind full of music
and what moves in the woods,
by cloven nature bound
to another earth.








In the drawing rooms of Europe
the sad waltzes ceased,
the sun swallowed up
by its own serpent tides,
as in his knotted glance
by Karsh, looking inward
and downward
to where creation stops
at the boundaries
of feeling.

At the end, endless silence.
Ambition burned out,
mind falls back to its source:
the drowned book’s spell
alive in rugged lines,
in fractal clouds and waves,
this globe’s solemn music–
while time flows unhurried
to its own desolation,
the great swans gather
on the lost lake.


Evening Forest. Photo by Ari Helminen (Click photo for link)

Sibelius at Hawk Lake – A Poem by Tom Henighan

Art inspires art, and sometimes not in the form you expect. The poem above is by Canadian author Mr Tom Henighan (born in Manhattan) who is also Professor Emeritus at the Carleton University of Ottawa,  and “a very busy free-lance scholar and writer, with a special interest in Canadian culture, mythology, and popular culture.” Among his other eminent qualities is a tendency to “get jumpy if [he] can’t stay in touch with the natural world.” Mr Henighan is an active author and has an extensive publication history.

In the last few years beginning around 2008, in my gradual return to writing about Sibelius, I have had the immense honour and pleasure of becoming acquainted with Sibelius fans from around the world, including conductors, musicians, painters and now a writer. Tom left a kind comment on Dust of Hue here (which I have barely begun to do justice in terms of a reply, and in subsequent emails, he sent me this Sibelius-inspired poem – essentially an act of kindred sharing.)

You have to know something about Sibelius to get the references, Tom explained. And indeed that was definitely the case. Of forests, mountains, stars, the slow turning of endless time, endless silence – the words and images include many that I have used in near poetic futility to capture the essence of Sibelius’ music in words. It made me eager to share with you, fellow Sibelians. About the poem, Tom wrote:

“I was sitting outside my cottage one dark-bright summer night, a cottage that’s on a very quiet lake next to the huge provincial park Papineau-Labelle in Quebec. I was listening to Sibelius, probably Tapiola as I recall, and I remembered how similar to the Canadian landscape the landscape of Finland looks, at least in photographs…”

And that’s how it often begins for us Sibelians. We find ourselves in the midst of nature, almost always quiet nature. And then we hear – sometimes imagine – his music. Sibelius himself often composed in silence. But for us, “nature music” isn’t always the romanticized, sentimental lyric tune written to admire her beauty. For us, Sibelius casts a spell as binding as it is often fearsome – “the mystery of nature in the dark woods”, as Tom puts it, where wood sprites weave magic secrets.

… and I thought how beautiful and peaceful that night was, but also, in a way “terrifying”–as wild, sublime nature sometimes is.  So I began to fuse my experience of nature in Sibelius’ wonderful sound-landscapes with my immediate experience of the sublime natural setting all around me.

Sibelius in 1945
Jean Sibelius (1945). Photo by Yousuf Karsh

Tom mentions Yousuf Karsh, the celebrated photographer responsible for a handful of the noblest photographs of Jean Sibelius, among other famous portraits. He refers especially to the one showing Sibelius in deep meditation (pictured above). “I imagine him contemplating “creation” –the natural world–and his own shackled powers” – Sibelius locked away his magic for the last three decades of his life, Prospero-like.

At the end, endless silence. Readers from either today or at the Inkpot will know how often I say Sibelius’ music often ends in a “vast silence” you dare not disturb; and that in the inexorable flow of his music, time often feels timeless. Time indeed “flows unhurried to its own desolation.”

 I try to evoke the indifference of time that rolls everything into oblivion but dissipates itself in so doing, and at that point I bring in Sibelius’ beloved swans, in some lost dimension, poised for a kind of rebirth, signaling the perennial unfolding of nature and its mysterious qualities (and of course the power of Sibelius’ music to announce such transformations and celebrate them.)

Tom calls his final stanza, “enigmatic” – but Tom, I want you to know that for me, it rang – it glowed – with clarity. In it, I hear the endless silence of the Seventh Symphony’s post-conclusion. I see the composer letting go of his final spell, not yet fully cast, and receding back into his mysterious wellspring of creation. His book of creation purposefully destroyed, yet his music –  the ancestral DNA of the Eighth Symphony, still alive, soaring in the clouds and waves of its predecessors, flowing unhurried as time. Desolation, “logical collapse”, the final breaths of Tapiola, the Fourth Symphony.  The final image, the great swans of his Fifth Symphony, gathering on the lost lake, invokes the nostalgia and heartache Sibelius spoke of in the birth of this symphony.  They settle gently in the still waters, knowingly, paying silent homage.