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Classic Poems Set to Music

Online Recordings of Old Poems Made into New Songs

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Poems are more than song lyrics, often more complex and certainly more independent—take the music away from most pop song lyrics and they collapse into someting very thin, almost transparent. But that is not to say that a poem can’t be remade into a good song, and since there have been poems, composers and songwriters have set them to music. Here is a selection of online recordings of classic poems set to music, old poems made into new songs.

“The Woodlark,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Woodlark, CD single by Sean O’Leary & Belinda Evans
Sean O’Leary

Hopkins’ poem was adapted into song by Sean O’Leary and sung by Belinda Evans to help save the endangered woodlark in the UK. (It has also been released as part of an entire album of Hopkins poems in musical adaptations, The Alchemist.)

“Hope Is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson

Hope Is a Thing with Feathers, CD by Trailer Bride
Bloodshot Records (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)
North Carolina “Alt-country” band Trailer Bride’s version of Emily Dickinson’s “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers —” features Melissa Swingle on vocals and saw, and it’s eerie and wonderful.

“Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?,” by Thomas Hardy

In a musical adaptation by Lewis Alpaugh, who has kindly granted us permission to post the mp3 of his song made from “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” here at About.com Poetry.

“A Red, Red Rose,” by Robert Burns

Robert Burns’ “Song—A Red, Red Rose” was a song from the very beginning—it was part of his project to preserve traditional Scottish songs. In this YouTube clip it’s performed by Scottish folksinger Eddi Reader, who released an entire album of Burns songs in 2003.

“François Villon Cries Noel,” by David and Lewis Alpaugh

A song based on a line by medieval French poet François Villon (“Tant crie l’on Noel qu’il vient”—“So much one cries Noel that it comes....”), accompanied by a video slide show of illustrative art and information about the poet.

“The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe has inspired a whole host of modern musicians, from the Alan Parsons Project to Lou Reed to the many recent heavy-metal and goth bands who have appropriated Poe’s lyrics. This one is a rap version of “The Raven” by “post-punk laptop rap” artist MC Lars, retitled “Mr. Raven.”

“The Oxen,” by Thomas Hardy

Christmas carol based on Hardy’s poem, performed by Patrick P. McNichols and the Galliard String Quartet at St. Andrews Cathedral, Scotland.

“Take This Waltz,” by Leonard Cohen after Lorca

Leonard Cohen translated Federico García Lorca’s poem “Pequeño vals vienés” (“Little Viennese Waltz”) into English and made it into a song entitled “Take This Waltz,” which came out on his 1988 album I’m Your Man.

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” by William Butler Yeats

Mike Scott’s Waterboys premiered an entire show of songs made from Yeats’ poems at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in March 2010, and among the surprises was this recasting of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” as a 12-bar blues song.

Sonnet 49 by Pablo Neruda

Luciana Souza has made an entire album of songs created from Pablo Neruda’s poems in English translations, but before you buy the CD, you can view this cut, a lovely solo performance of Sonnet 49, just Souza’s voice accompanied by her own karimba (African thumb piano).
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