Double Treble Choir (SSAA/SSAA), piano, optional Snare Drum (recommended)

Video credit: Performed on “Together in Song” on March 15, 2015 at Seattle First Presbyterian Church by Northwest Girlchoir Amore + Vivace and Seattle Girls’ Choir Prime Voci + Cantamus, conducted by Sara Boos, Andrew Seifert, piano


Recording credit: Premiere performance on March 31, 2008  by Northwest Girlchoir Amore + Vivace, conducted by Sara Boos, Andrew Seifert, piano

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“Sic transit gloria mundi,”
“How doth the busy bee,”
“Dum vivimus vivamus,”
I stay mine enemy!

Oh “veni, vidi, vici!”
Oh caput cap-a-pie!
And oh “memento mori”
When I am far from thee!

Hurrah for Peter Parley!
Hurrah for Daniel Boone!
Three cheers, sir, for the gentleman
Who first observed the moon!

Peter, put up the sunshine;
Patti, arrange the stars;
Tell Luna, tea is waiting,
And call your brother Mars!

Put down the apple, Adam,
And come away with me,
So shalt thou have a pippin
From off my father’s tree!

I climb the “Hill of Science,”
I “view the landscape o’er;”
Such transcendental prospect,
I ne’er beheld before!

During my education,
It was announced to me
That gravitation, stumbling,
Fell from an apple tree!

The earth upon an axis
Was once supposed to turn,
By way of a gymnastic
In honor of the sun!

It was the brave Columbus,
A sailing o’er the tide,
Who notified the nations
Of where I would reside!

Mortality is fatal —
Gentility is fine,
Rascality, heroic,
Insolvency, sublime!

Our Fathers being weary,
Laid down on Bunker Hill;
And tho’ full many a morning,
Yet they are sleeping still, —

The trumpet, sir, shall wake them,
In dreams I see them rise,
Each with a solemn musket
A marching to the skies!

A coward will remain, Sir,
Until the fight is done;
But an immortal hero
Will take his hat, and run!

Good bye, Sir, I am going;
My country calleth me;
Allow me, Sir, at parting,
To wipe my weeping e’e.

In token of our friendship
Accept this “Bonnie Doon,”
And when the hand that plucked it
Hath passed beyond the moon,

The memory of my ashes
Will consolation be;
Then, farewell, Tuscarora,
And farewell, Sir, to thee.
                   – Emily Dickinson


Some thoughts about Dickinson’s poem, “Sic transit gloria mundi,” and my setting of it

Sic transit as a Valentine
The poem was written in 1852 by the 21-year-old Dickinson as a valentine for William Howland, a graduate of Amherst College, a tutor, and a clerk in her father’s law office. Howland was so taken with the poem that he submitted it for publication in the Springfield Daily Republican, the poem being “signed” only with the occasion and the date: “St. Valentine – ’52.” (It is the first of only a handful of her more than 1700 poems to have been published in her lifetime.) Emily’s sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, referred to Howland’s act as “love turned to larceny”

The poem was prefaced with a rather playful, yet impersonal address to Dickinson. The author of this preface was the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Republican, Samuel Bowles, a friend of the Dickinson family (it is unclear whether or not either Bowles or Howland knew the identity of the author). The preface reads:

The hand that wrote the following amusing medley to a friend of ours, as “a valentine” is capable of writing very fine things, and there is certainly no presumption in entertaining a private wish that a correspondence, more direct than this, may be established between it and the Republican:”

(N.B. During this time of her life, Dickinson still participated in normal social activities, such as dances, calling on friends, and attending book club readings and concerts. Accordingly, Emily was still actively engaged with others in the Amherst community socially, including Howland, but soon after began entering her more reclusive life in her mid-twenties.)

Valentines of Dickinson’s day were sentimental, much as they can be today, but they were also meant as a catalyst for interaction between the sender and the recipient, a kind of witty and literary “flirtation.” With respect to the first aspect, this valentine is a parody, nearly a “burlesque,” i.e. a grotesque mockery of existing forms, certainly a notch or two above a simple parody. With respect to its catalytic intent, Thomas Johnson, the author of the definitive Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, published in 1955, indicates that “the purpose of valentine exchanges [of that day] was carried forward: to surprise the sender by a riposte and to keep up the badinage as long as possible.” According to the Random House dictionary, a riposte is either “1. a fencer’s quick thrust given after a parry” or “2. a quick sharp reply in speech or action” and badinage is “1. Playful banter” (noun) or “2. To banter or tease” (verb). Certainly the publication of Dickinson’s poem came as a great surprise to her and could be considered as a brilliant riposte on the part of Howland.

Sic transit as “history lesson”
The entire poem seems to be a recollection of snippets of facts and fiction from Dickinson’s school days, which she wove into a crazy quilt made up of Latin phrases, quotes from textbooks & literature, and references to scientific discoveries, historical events, and mythology. Virginia Walter Jackson says of this poem in her book Dickinson’s misery: a theory of lyric reading, “Whatever we make of these lines, it would be difficult to make them a lyric. [Samuel] Bowles [publisher of the Springfield Daily Republican] uses the Tennysonian term ‘medley’ [to refer to ‘Sic transit Gloria mundi’] and that seems about right, combined with the ‘valentine’ that provided the lines’ occasion. They appear to be what they probably were: a pastiche from various sources, most of them textbooks, one of them Shakespeare,…a cultural grab bag of languages, texts, stories, myths, aphorisms, and bon mots [i.e. well-chosen words or witty remarks].”

Michael West, in his book Transcendental Wordplay: America’s Romantic Punsters and the Search for the Language of Nature explains the poem and its motivation as follows.

“Eluding doctrinaire religion and feminism by returning home to Amherst, she threw herself into the thick of village amusements. She enjoyed a reputation as a cut-up. Combining a burlesque sermon with mock-epic, her earliest surviving manuscript poem is a comic valentine. She cultivated this genre assiduously. Forbidden by Mount Holyoke authorities, it allowed her to skewer clichés, parody religious, political, and academic bombast, and generally exercise a talent for whimsical nonsense.

“This valentine so amused its recipient and others who copied it that it wound up in the Springfield Daily Republican in 1852 (the first of Dickinson’s poems know to have been published). The first three stanzas…mock textbooks, the fourth discombobulates the nursery rhyme ‘Polly, put the kettle [on],’ while the sixth travesties Watt’s hymn ‘There is a land of pure delight’ by adapting it to an academic nirvana. Like most hymn lyrics her poetry took shape as parody—that is, par-odia, to suit an existing tune. [T]he jeu d’esprit suggests how humor helped her maintain a safe distance from people and events with deep claims on her allegiance. The punning theology of the fifth stanza…(pippin = an apple/a beauty) lets her present herself coyly as a seductive Eve. The effusive Romanticism of sentimental valentines is mocked in a way that honors the intelligence of the reader, yet the irony created such intimacy with whoever fathoms it that one wonders whether the missive is devoid of conventional sentiment.”

NOTE: Despite the fact that I’ve provided a fairly detailed set of annotations for the text of the poem, I’m confident that there are many other references and allusions yet to be discovered.

Notes on the Musical Setting
When looking for a text for this commission from the Northwest Girlchoir in celebration of its 35th Anniversary, I wanted to look for something that would be appropriate for girls and young women between junior high school age and late teens. When I ran across “Sic transit gloria mundi” and discovered that Dickinson had written it at the age of only 21, I thought that it might afford a text to which the young women of NWGC could relate, particularly with its manifold and often quirky references to historical events, which would be as fresh in the minds of the young women singing the text as they would have been for Emily herself. In addition, the text provided a range of emotions from humor & nonsense to heartfelt emotion & poignancy, all of which promised rich potential for a musical setting.

The poem was written in 1852 by the 21-year-old Dickinson as a valentine for William Howland, a graduate of Amherst College, a tutor, and a clerk in her father’s law office. Howland was so taken with the poem that he submitted it for publication in the Springfield Daily Republican, the poem being “signed” only with the occasion and the date: “St. Valentine – ’52.” (It is the first of only a handful of her more than 1700 poems to have been published in her lifetime.)

In keeping with the sense of parody and the mocking style that Dickinson used in her valentine, as well as her almost “postmodern” juxtaposition of styles in what might be called the textual equivalent of a patchwork quilt, I decided to use a parallel style in the music, incorporating parodies of folksong, musical theater, jazz, children’s songs, waltzes, and marches. Thus the music acts as an analogy to the kaleidoscopic interplay of historical, scientific, literary, religious, and mythological references. To help unify the musical setting and emphasize the theme of the opening line as well as the title that I chose for the work, I introduced a “Gloria!” refrain intended to capture the pomposity of worldly glory. Each statement ends with a musical portrayal of the fading glory of the poem’s first line, with the exception of the final statement’s militant shout. While Dickinson’s poem ends on a more somber note, I decided to reprise the opening stanzas in order to close the musical setting with the same ironic tone that is sustained throughout most of the poem.

John Muehleisen
April 2008