St Albans Cathedral, 13th November 2004, 7.30pm


An Oxford Elegy
Vaughan Williams


Rebecca Outram, Chris Bramwell, Deborah Miles-Johnson, Ken Burgess
St Albans Bach Choir
City of London Sinfonia
Andrew Lucas conductor


It’s amazing the things you can learn, sitting next to such an eminent choir member as my learned friend Tony Tenore. The other week he modestly revealed to me that he had just been appointed Visiting Professor of Exfordology at the University of Little Snoring. (In Norfolk, for the geographically challenged.) Reluctant to admit my ignorance (which was nevertheless plainly written across my face) he saved me the embarrassment by explaining that “exfordology” was the study of hidden meanings in obscure poetry. (Doubtless, most of my readers already knew that, and will have read several of the standard works on the subject.) The origin of the word is obscure.

By way of example, he turned up that strange verse in the Vaughan Williams, “Go, Shepherd, and untie the wattled cotes”. What did I think that meant? I hadn’t a clue. “Well”, he said, “this is where it gets interesting.” Apparently, behind a spoonerism, Matthew Arnold had actually hidden a reference to cottled wotes.

Cottled wotes!? Let me explain, as Tony did to me.

Shepherds in those days were very cultured, and invariably carried with them either a harp or an anthology of poetry. Since harps are cumbersome instruments, harp-playing shepherds often found it difficult to keep up with their sheep, which as a consequence, frequently got lost. When this happened, the shepherd would sit down to play his instrument. Since it generally takes some 30-40 minutes to tune a harp, by the time he was ready to play the rest of his flock would also have got lost. This did, in fact, simplify the problem, since all his sheep were now in the same state (i.e. lost). His heart brimming with music, the shepherd-harpist would then start to play, in the vain hope that his sheep would return to him as the sublime strains carried over the hills. Unfortunately, this rarely worked since (as modern science has taught us) sheep are completely tone-deaf. However, the shepherd did have another trick up his sleeve. Knowing that sheep are very fond of wotes, especially when cottled, he would untie the little bag of wotes that he always carried with him, give them an extra cottle for good measure, and then throw them into the air. (Sheep are very sensitive to both the sound and the smell of wotes being cottled.) Even so, this often didn’t work either, at which point the shepherd would usually turn to writing obscure poetry instead. Which, of course, is why you very rarely see a shepherd carrying a harp today.

Amazing. But what about the “Bleating of the folded flocks”? According to my friend, there was much debate in academic circles as to whether this was a covert reference to the “Fleeting of the bolded fox”, or the “Feeding of the bolted blocks”. But what about the “Bolting of the fleeted phlox?" I tentatively enquired, warming to the theme. “Don’t be silly”, retorted Tony. “That’s pure nonsense!”

Sometimes I can’t help wondering if Tony is pulling my leg.

©Philip Le Riche, 2005

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