Roger Marsh Composer

Poor Yorick

Poor Yorick  

For the Hilliard Ensemble and friends

The text of this piece is taken from Laurence Sterne’s 1759 comic novel Tristram Shandy.    Yorick, a country vicar, is a relatively minor character in the novel, although Sterne later adopted the name as his own alter ego, and wrote about him again in the later Sentimental Journey.  But in Tristram Shandy Yorick dies quite early on, and his death is one of two moving death scenes in the novel – although nothing in Tristram Shandy is to be taken too seriously.

The passage is set here with only a few small omissions, and is framed by Sterne’s famous comment on mortality from later in the novel: ‘Time wastes too fast’, together with Yorick’s motto ‘De vanitate mundi et fuga saeculi’ (‘on the vanity of the world and the swift passing of time’).

I

Time wastes too fast : every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen ; the days and hours of it……………..are flying over our heads…………… never to return more;………and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!  Heaven have mercy upon us.

 

II  (The Death of Yorick)

  A few hours before Yorick breathed his last, Eugenius stept in with an intent to take his last sight and last farewell of him. Upon his drawing Yorick’s curtain, and asking how he felt himself, Yorick looking up in his face took hold of his hand,—and after thanking him for the many tokens of his friendship to him, for which, he said, if it was their fate to meet hereafter,—he would thank him again and again,—he told him, he was within a few hours of giving his enemies the slip for ever.—I hope not, answered Eugenius, with tears trickling down his cheeks, and with the tenderest tone that ever man spoke.—I hope not, Yorick, said he.——Yorick replied, with a look up, and a gentle squeeze of Eugenius’s hand, and that was all,—but it cut Eugenius to his heart.—Come,—come, Yorick, quoth Eugenius, wiping his eyes, and summoning up the man within him,—my dear lad, be comforted,—let not all thy spirits and fortitude forsake thee …………..who knows what resources are in store, and what the power of God may yet do for thee!——Yorick laid his hand upon his heart, and gently shook his head;—For my part, continued Eugenius, crying bitterly as he uttered the words,—I declare I know not, Yorick, how to part with thee, and would gladly

flatter my hopes, added Eugenius, chearing up his voice, that there is still enough left of thee to make a bishop, and that I may live to see it.—I beseech thee, Eugenius, quoth Yorick, taking off his night-cap as well as he could with his left hand,—his right being still grasped close in that of Eugenius,—I beseech thee to take a view of my head.—I see nothing that ails it, replied Eugenius. Then, alas! my friend, said Yorick, let me tell you, that ’tis so bruised and mis-shapened with the blows which ***** and *****, and some others have so unhandsomely given me in the dark, that I might say with Sancho Panza, that should I recover, and “ Mitres thereupon be suffered to rain down from heaven as thick as hail, not one of them would fit it.”——Yorick’s last breath was hanging upon his trembling lips ready to depart as he uttered this:——yet still it was uttered with something of a Cervantick tone;——and as he spoke it, Eugenius could perceive a stream of lambent fire lighted up for a moment in his eyes;  Eugenius was convinced from this, that the heart of his friend was broke: he squeezed his hand,——and then walked softly out of the room, weeping as he walked. Yorick followed Eugenius with his eyes to the door,—he then closed them, and never opened them more.

He lies buried in the corner of his church-yard, in the parish of ———, under a plain marble slab, which his friend Eugenius, by leave of his executors, laid upon his grave, with no more than these three words of inscription, serving both for his epitaph and elegy.

 

Alas, poor YORICK!

 

 

III

Time wastes too fast : every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen ; the days and hours of it……………..are flying over our heads…………… never to return more;………and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!  Heaven have mercy upon us.

  Roger Marsh