The autumn is, in much of the northern hemisphere, a good time to focus on changing seasons, especially that which is seen in the trees. The folk song for this month, ”The Ash Grove,” is about a “broad leafy dome” where the singer used to wander; but it is also about change and loss. The Welsh song was known as early as 1802, but the melody is likely much older than that. If you have ever taken recorder lessons, you may have played it.
The tune of “The Ash Grove” has been used for other purposes, including several Christian hymns. One of better known of these is “Let All Things Now Living,” by Katherine K. Davis; another is “Sent Forth By God’s Blessing.”
Because “The Ash Grove” was originally written in Welsh (its Welsh title is “Llwyn Onn”), there are various translations into English. There have also been translations into other languages, such as German. We are including four sets of lyrics: those written by Thomas Oliphant (included in an 1862 book called Welsh Melodies, with Welsh and English Poetry); a later adaptation by John Oxenford; one by Harald Boulton; and one from the twentieth century (see below for details). Feel free to choose the one you like best.
Lyrics #1 (Oliphant Translation)
Lyrics #2 (Oxenford Version)
Lyrics #4 (Rodney Bennett Translation)
The Arnold Book of Old Songs was published in 1950, and its story can be told only briefly here. British composer Roger Quilter wrote piano accompaniments for sixteen folk songs, and four of those were given newly-translated English lyrics by Rodney Bennett. The new set of lyrics for “The Ash Grove” were written in honour of Quilter’s nephew Arnold Guy Vivian, who had died during the war, and for whom the book was named.
1.Away in the shadows a lone bird is singing,
The wind whispers low in a sighing refrain;
Their music makes memory’s voices go winging:
The Ash Grove in beauty I see once again;
The voices of friends that the long years have taken,
Oh faintly I hear them, the song and the word.
How much in the heart can so little awaken:
The wind in the leaves and the song of a bird.
2. How little we knew, as we laughed there so lightly,
And time seemed to us to stretch endless away,
The hopes that then shone like a vision so brightly
Could fade as a dream at the coming of day!
And still, spite of sorrow, whene’er I remember,
My thoughts will return like a bird to the nest,
No matter though summer may wane to December,
And there in the ash grove my heart be at rest.