Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Ursula Wood

Letter No.: 
[About April 1938]

The White Gates,
Westcott Road,

Bellissima Donna senza Misericordia!

I meant to have written long ago, but I wanted to send you those Bullen1 books - & the bookseller has only just sent them. Then I wanted to write “Ursula” inside them & a lovely line from Epithalamion, but I do not dare undo the parcel because I should never be able to do it up again; so it goes as it is (I hope it’s the books I meant!). Then I wanted to send you a copy of ‘The Sky above the roof’ (D’un Prison)2  - but I’ve not got a copy of that - so the fates are against me.
I loved having your poems3  - the one about your hair especially4; I also like the one about thoughts - I’m not sure about the word “skull” but I daresay you are right5.
The 2 1st verses of the Verlaine6 seem to me very good - in v.3 I am not quite sure about “seduction” - it seems prosaic - but that is perhaps because they have it has been spoilt by the daily press. Just as you don’t like Bridegroom & Bride - in which I quite disagree with you - If we are to give up all beautiful words which are prostituted by the Daily Mirror our vocabulary will be very small.
Think of
“The voice of the Bridegroom and the Bride shall be heard no more in thee”7

I had a long journey to Liverpool and back the other day & thought a lot about you & Epithalamion. My ideas are crystallizing. One thing: I feel more and more certain the Bride & Bridegroom must not dance - they must move & mime (not too much) to a background of dancing. But I will write more when I have got it more fixed - or perhaps we shall meet - when?
Yours in thrall8


1. A.H. Bullen, Lyrics from the dramatists of the Elizabethan Age, first published London 1889, and Lyrics from the song books of the Elizabethan Age, first published in London in 1887.
2. VW had set a translation by Mabel Dearmer of ‘Le ciel est pardessus le toit’ (Sagesse iii.6), by Paul Verlaine in 1908 (see Catalogue of Works 1908/4). UW had also done a translation (now lost)
3. The poems appeared in UW’s first book No other chance (Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1941).
4. “When I unplait my hair at night / I touch it as a stranger might”
5. From ‘Excavations by moonlight’: “An antler shaped as a pick and the skull that stares at it”
6. Sagesse 1.xxi, which UW had translated in 1933
7. Revelation chapter 18, verse 23, words which VW had set in Sancta Civitas (Catalogue of Works 1925/6), fig. 33 ff.
8. VW’s opening and closing allude to stanza 10 of Keats’s poem La belle dame sans merci: ‘… La belle dame sans merci / hath thee in thrall.’


Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
MS Mus. 1714/1/11, ff. 3-7
Cobbe 291
Original database number: