Harnett, music and literature
William Michael Harnett, "Music and Literature", 1878
Chapter 3 — Section 1
Pages 59-6558-6349-54
WhereFlute band practice, Presentation College
WhenFriday evening, May 7 1915

Brother Polycarp rapped his wand on the easel and the fluting straggled to indefinite desistance. “Will the man at the back with the grace notes kindly stand forward?”

Erskine Nicol (1825–1904), "Playing the Flute"

Feet shuffled, some faces turned, eventually the culprit rose.

“The new man, is it? Tell me, Doyle, where did you learn to play flute at all?”

“Nowhere, sir. Brother, I mean. I mean I learnt meself.”

Brother Polycarp inclined his head while a suspense playfully mounted. “In this band, Mr. Doyle, we are accustomed to a respectable music. A music in the tradition of Kuhlau and Briccialdi and like gentlemen of the transverse mode. We do not slip and slide the like of Phil the Fluter at his ball. Sit you in front in future, boy, and play by the tongue not your maulers.”

In a coarse whisper someone let out, “Plays be the arse be the smell off him.”

Brother Polycarp chose to disattend the cod. “Go on now, home with ye. No, stand still till we say a prayer first. Would think the public house was closing on us. Name of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost.”

reni cecilia
Guido Reni, "Saint Cecilia", 1606

He charged through the Our Father versicle, the boys doing a trailing response. Three times in all, then three Hail Marys and an invocation to St. Cecilia. In the end, he called over the clatter of benches, “Now punctual next week. Don’t leave me down. The new curate is due this fortnight and we needs must cut a dash for his reverence.”

At the front row, Jim was wedging his flute in its sock, a sewn-up sugar-sack on which his father had stencilled Master James Mack, Esqr. There was more chaffing behind which he strained to apprehend. A boy randled metallically, “I think I think I smell a stink, I think I think I do.”

Fahy, the ugliest of his schoolfellows, added, “Something fierce in here whatever it is.”

Surreptitiously Jim wiped the wet patch on his breeches where his neighbor’s flute had dripped.

“Worse than a cheeser.”

“No,” said Fahy. “Less than a cheeser, it’s the dungman’s monkey.”

A hand from behind landed on Jim’s shoulder. It stiffened like a vaulter’s pole. He had time to glimpse a cloudy, mismatched suit sail by, then a kick in its leg sent Fahy’s case scattering.

... ... gabh mo leithscéal
postcard, 1906

Gabh mo leithscéal,” said Doyler when he landed. “That’s excuse me in our native tongue.” He thrust the bits of his flute in his jacket, cocked an eye at Jim, then strode out the passage, lurching once, twice, as he went.

“Class of gouger they’re letting in now.”

“A stinker and a cripple.”

And Fahy said flatly, “That one’s not long for this band. No, nor long for this world.”

Jim stared toward the door, moving his lips to the Gaelic phrase. He believed Doyler had uttered something more while he clambered past. It had sounded again like What cheer! The mix of quaint and Gaelic struck him as fantastical in the school commons.

“Mr. Mack?”

“Yes, Brother?”

“Close your mouth, boy. You’re not in training for a fly-paper. Kindly do the honours and collect me the music. I’ll be waiting within.”

A head leant into Jim’s ear and uttered the one word, “Suck.”

“I heard a coarse word and mention of smell this evening,” Brother Polycarp said when they were alone in his monastery room. “Was it you, Mr. Mack?”

“No, Brother.”

One eyebrow drolly lifted. “Who was it so?”

“I didn’t hear, Brother.”

“A vilipendence about the new boy, no doubt.”

Jim’s face perked at the word.

... chees and chaws
Ice-cream seller, Victorian scrapbook

“The new curate was very insistent he be let in. Why would you say that was?”

“I wouldn’t know, Brother.”

“There’s moves afoot. The new curate speaks Erse. Did you know that? An Erse-speaking priest. Wouldn’t you think they’d get the Latin right first. The inflexion one sometimes hears is deplorable. All chees and chaws like an ice-cream vendor out of Napoli.”

Jim finished lighting the candles. Grease had spilt on his finger and he rubbed it now with his thumb. Particles fell like dandruff to the floor.

“He’s a decent enough mouth on the flute, I’ll grant, for all he’s not a college boy. Howsoever, there is a certain redolence.” The eyes yellowly closed, whitely opened. There was intimation of humour in the thirsty wax of his face. Muscles strained and opened till a wheezing noise let out. “The ars musica,” he said with lubricious intonation.

... inimitably
Joseph Pujol – "Le Pétomane", 1857-1945

He picked up some music he had been studying, fetched a sigh, replaced it on his table. “On that subject St. Augustine as always is enlightening. Feast Day?”

“August twenty-eight.”

“What he says, inimitably, is: ‘There are those who can break wind backwards so artfully would they sing.’ Dates?”

A brief hesitation. “Three-five-four, four-three-o AD.”

“The anno Domini is unnecessary. A supererogation in the instance of a saint.”

“Yes, Brother.”

The brother was shifting through the folds of his soutane in search of the slip for his pocket. Unbidden otherwise, Jim stood and waited. He could never be sure if Brother Polycarp liked him, or, if he liked him, was it for company or play. It was a trust of sorts to be the audience of these remarks. But was he trusted to share their scandal, or merely not to repeat it? His eyes roamed the scanty room, its whitewashed walls, crucifix over a bed perfectly if thinly made. In the corner, the little grotto to Mary, Our Lady of Presentation. Smell of Macassar from the grey-sleeked head of the brother.

memling young man at prayer
... Mister Suck
Hans Memling, "Young Man at Prayer", c. 1475

He took Jim for Latin, and on those mornings when he ran a fever and his hands shook with the strain he had Jim stand up and read page after page of Virgil. All morning long the stumbling feet, while the brother nodded and the boys like Virgil’s Trojans embraced their arms in weary sleep.

Keep in with the brothers, his father admonished. Mister Suck, said the boys, the Grand Exhibit.

Was that true about saints? He could think of any number that were born before Christ, but had any died BC? St. Zachary perhaps, father of John the Baptist. Supererogation. It was an easy word to say once you had heard it spoken. Tomorrow he’d look out vilipendence in the school dick.

The candles at the grotto glimmered and guttered. He wished the brother might hurry that their devotion would begin and be over. Our Lady’s downcast eyes.

A silver snuff-box had appeared and the brother made play with settling the top layer of dust. There were stains all down his soutane, a tide of rust, from grains that had rubbed in and soiled. On his sleeves was a shine of chalk-dust. Before he snorted, he blew his nose on a big blue belcher with grubby white spots. The ritual over, he picked up the new sheet of music again. “What do you make of this, Mr. Mack?”

nation once again
... we'll give it a blast
sheet music, "A Nation Once Again"
low, irish flute player
... mountain-men musicianers
William Low, "An Irish flute player dancing a jig", 1832

A Nation Once Again,” Jim read. The page was white as nip. Con brio was crossed out and underneath, in green ink, a phrase in Gaelic had been substituted. Surprising, on account Brother Polycarp wasn’t known for his advanced opinions in politics.

“Are we to learn this next?”

“The new curate has asked for it. A particular favourite, evidently. He would appear to be under the impression we are a band of rapparee fifers. Mountain-men musicianers. Fluters with slips and slides.” He watched Jim’s face a moment, then brightly said, “How’s your Virgil today?”


“Vincet amor patriae laudumque immensa cupido: translate.”

Reddening, Jim said, “Love of fatherland will conquer and the immense cupidity of applause.”

vincet amor patriae, virgil, aeneid, Cristofero Landino
... vincet amor patriæ
page from the Cristofero Landino (1424–1504) incunabulum of Virgil's works

“Applause? Where do you get applause? ‘The overwhelming greed for praise,’ says Virgil.” He took the sheet of music. “We’ll give it a blast, I suppose.” Opened a drawer, let it slide within. Before the drawer closed, Jim saw without looking for it the protuberant cork of his whiskey bottle.

“An all-for-Ireland personage,” the brother continued. “Went out of his way to tell me ‘God Save the King’ is an Irish air the English have purloined on us. Father O’Táighléir he calls himself. Meaning Taylor. In my day it was a pandy on the palm for speaking Erse. O tempora, O mores: now they have you priested for it.”

Another pinch, another snort. He sneezed and spindrift floated through candleshine.

“Take the hair out of your eyes.”

Momentarily, Jim mistook this for a metaphorical injunction, but screwing his eyes he saw the brother’s encouraging nod. He fingered the flop off his forehead.

“You might train your hair to keep out of your eyes. You have long lashes for your eyes, Jim, and no need of hair to hide them. I’m surprised your mother didn’t tell you that. But I was forgetting. You don’t remember your mother.”

... was counting the candles
Lady Shrine, St James, Seattle
Flickr: camerarchitect

Jim was counting the candles. Twelve. He blinked. Six.

“It is a shame, for a vocation is often the easier with a mother in the home.”

The brother shifted from his chair, heaving himself up and round, and Jim closed his eyes as resiny black linen enfolded his neck. The brother’s arm wrapped round him, bringing him down, on to his knees, the brother kneeling beside.

“Don’t worry you feel confused. It is only natural you feel confused with your mother taken from you.”

A finger rubbed on his cheek, down his chin-bone, to the collar of his shirt. Far out to sea, Jim registered the touch.

“Believe me, Jim, this world without a mother’s care is a parlous place indeed. I know this because mine too was taken from me at a tender age. But I found solace in the words of our Lord. Do you know the words I intend, Jim?”

“I do, Brother.”

“When on the cross our Saviour in His passion turned to the disciple He loved. And He said to him, to the disciple whom He loved, Behold thy Mother. Believe me when I say to you now, Behold thy Mother, Jim.”

The statue glittered before them while the finger that had played on his neck ceased its roam. Suddenly the brother called out, “Mater misericordiae, mater dolorosa, advocata nostra, O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria: ora pro me!”

His arms had swept forward and the shadows shook in the disturbed air.

durer praying hands
Dürer, "Praying Hands", 1508

After a while, he said dully, “We will pray to Our Lady of Presentation for her continued longanimity. Ever glorious and blessed Mary ...”

“Ever glorious and blessed Mary ...”

“Queen of virgins, Mother of mercy ...”

“Queen of virgins, Mother of mercy ...”

“Hope and comfort of dejected and desolate souls ...”

Arm-enfolded they prayed, so close that Jim could trace on the brother’s face the imperfect course of his shaving. Each time their heads bowed in honour of Jesus, he sensed the chafe of jowl on his cheek. And when in the prayer’s pause silently each made his lawful request, he heard the brother’s breath come short and sharp, tingeing the air with a tinct fume of alcohol.