Milkmaids – a Vine Cottage playlist
In the 1920s, the poet, publisher and occultist Victor Neuburg lived in Vine Cottage in Steyning, home, also, to his wife Kathleen, their son Victor Edward Neuburg, and the family’s imprint Vine Press – publishers of pagan-adjacent poetry, prose and song. Neuburg is most famous as an associate of the Great Beast, Aleister Crowley, and as one of the first champions of Dylan Thomas. The Vine Press output is often of … questionable quality. But its books are sought after still, for their excellent and often strange woodcuts, occasional flourishes of true greatness and, of course, association with Crowley.
For me, Vine Press is an entry point – Steyning, my Grandmother’s home and the focus of my childhood visits to England, is a gateway between two Englands: the staid, small-c conservatism of button-downland life, and the bizarre, entitled occultism of its doppelgänger.
Vine Press, located in the Cottage just a block from my Grandmother’s post-war newbuild, quietly churned out limited-edition volumes of the colorfully strange; flavors that didn’t exist among the watered-down tea and watercress sandwiches of the Miner’s Strike-era South. This is, to me, its heart, and it beat with a hidden ferocity.
There will be more about Neuburg (a patron saint of the Old Weird Albion), and Vine Press and Steyning, but for now, music.
The composer Peter Heseltine – known by his nom de plume Peter Warlock – was interested enough in the magick of Aleister Crowley and his (sometimes unwilling) accomplice and lover Victor Neuburg that, in 1921, he followed in the footsteps of the duo’s sex-magick travels from a decade previous, and drank his way from Algiers to Tunis, Marseilles to Paris.
At the end of 1923, Warlock, not quite 30 years old but already on the rise as a composer and arranger, spent time with Neuburg at the poet and publisher’s home in Steyning, West Sussex. While there he discovered the poem ‘Milk-maids’ attributed to the 17th-century doctor, vicar and poet Dr James Smith. Neuburg’s anthology Larkspur: A Lyrical Garland had included the poem – which formed either the root or, more likely, an early written version of the folk-song theme of ‘Dabbling in the Dew’, a song recorded from Sussex singers such as George ‘Pop’ Maynard and Shirley Collins throughout the 20th century. Warlock apparently thought enough of Neuburg to then set to music five poems from Neuburg’s own collection, Lilygay.
Those poems, as included here in various recordings, are: ‘The Distracted Maid’, ‘Johnnie Wi’ The Tye’, ‘Shoemaker, Shoemaker’, ‘Burd Ellen and Young Tamlane’ and ‘Rantum Tantum’. I’ve included two versions of some of the Lilygay songs – one each with male and female leads – where such a luxury was available.
In 1925 the American contralto Marian Anderson came to England. In London she met with the composer Roger Quilter, among others, but soon she was on a train to Steyning, where she was to study with Raimund von Zur Muhlen, the elder master of German lieder singing who had come to live at Wiston House at the foot of Chanctonbury Ring. Quilter helped arrange for her to stay with Victor ‘Vicky-bird’ Neuburg and his wife Kathleen – she slept on the upper floor of Vine Cottage, freezing cold, never enough shillings for the coin-op heater.
In her autobiography, Anderson writes that von Zur Muhlen (whom she calls, simply, ‘Master’) had her sing Schubert’s ‘Im Abendrot’ and ‘Nahe des Geliebten’ but rapped her for obviously not knowing the meaning of the words. She went back to Vine Cottage that night and she, Vicky-bird and Kathleen stayed up for hours translating the latter song so that she could sing with more conviction. Master’s age made her studies difficult, and after only two sessions with the American, von Zur Muhlen had to give up teaching for good, leaving Anderson somewhat stranded – she remained in Steyning for several weeks, waiting to see if Master would regain his strength, but to no avail.
When I pass Vine Cottage, I try to imagine the voice of this black, American genius spilling from its windows – from lieder and spirituals to mere vocal exercises with her three-octave range; what did the passers-by of Steyning think?
Absent recordings of Anderson singing the two pieces we know she did in Steyning, I’ve included two other Schubert lieder as performed by Anderson.
Another friend of Roger Quilter’s who knew Neuburg, and likely visited Vine Cottage, was the singer and activist Paul Robeson, who also spoke of visiting Rottingdean in East Sussex, home of the Copper Family of folk singers. ‘On sunny days I loved to sit – no, lie on the earth – try to press it to my bosom. …I lay in the gentle breeze on the downs of Rottingdean, near Eastbourne. How I loved the English countryside. How understandable the lovely poetry flowing from it…’ Robeson was allegedly one of many such visitors to Steyning on their way to visit Vera Pragnell’s utopian colony in the Downs near Storrington, known as The Sanctuary. This selection, Quilter’s arrangement of the old (folk?) song ‘Over the Mountains’, is the one Robeson has been quoted as saying reminded him of the Downs.
Dylan Thomas reading WB Yeats
Slightly less direct a connection: I don’t know whether or not Neuburg and Yeats ever met directly, but he certainly knew Thomas – Vickybird published DT in his Poet’s Corner at the start of Thomas’ career, a few years after Neuburg left Steyning. Yeats was, indeed, Neuburg’s neighbor – albeit separated by a few years; the Irishman spent a good bit of his last two years in Steyning, living at Chantry House, around the corner from Neuburg’s Vine Cottage. The selections I’ve chosen here – ‘Long-Legged Fly’ and ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ – are both poems that we know were partially or completely written while Yeats was in Steyning.