I am lucky enough to have in my personal library a book entitled ‘The Mourner’s Friend or Sighs of Sympathy For Those Who Sorrow’. It is a collection of prose and verse compiled to give comfort to the grieving. Edited by J.B. Syme, published in 1852 by S.A. Howland in Worcester, Mass, USA; its contents are by American and European authors and some surprising famous names. My copy of the book has some water damage, ageing paper, and precarious binding, so before it deteriorates my project to preserve the words of the authors will find its way here on the MOLAM blog.
Who wrote this poem? In this publication (1852) it is listed as The Star and the Child without an author. Then I find online the poem in the Morning Chronicle of Canada published on September 30 1847 is is titled as The Star and the Child and includes the “dying child”. So perhaps someone saw this poem and remembered it to include in this anthology?
Then, something happens. I find it in later version as a musical piece and re-titled as Behind the Clouds and the score attributed to JM Coward. Here is an online copy of the sheet music of Behind the Clouds by JM Coward published by Benjamin W Hitchcock, Chicago and National Music Co. New York. Importantly, note that the line in this version reads “Watching a child at dawn” as opposed to the earlier published version “Watching a child dying at dawn”. Here is another version of the same song from a collection of sheet music entitled Fireside Favourites – A choice collection of vocal gems, by NA Evans & Bro publishers, Boston. This copy is at the Indiana University and they have the date as 187?. Again they have edited out the “dying” child. There is no mention that the lyrics were written by someone else.
Who is J.M. Coward? There might have been two of them according to this website. A John M. Coward 1824 – 1880 and a JM Coward who composed for the 1898 Prom Season.
A JM Coward was listed as the organist performing at the 1900 Golden Jubilee at St Saviour’s Catholic Church, Broadway, England. It looks like this JM Coward was the organist at Crystal Palace and earlier at St Albans – and was Noel Coward’s uncle. So did Noel’s uncle write the score, having found the poem and inspired to create music around it? Or did JM Coward write the poem as a young man, and later the music? Possibly neither Coward wrote the poem. Perhaps an unknown American or Canadian? Hmmm. Interesting scenarios. Read the poem and understand why it has touched those over continents and time.
The Star And The Child.
A MAIDEN walked at eventide
Beside a clear and placid stream,
And smiled, as in its depths she saw
A trembling star’s reflected beam.
She smiled until the beam was lost,
As ‘cross the sky a cloud was driven ;
And then she sighed, and then forgot
The star was shining still in heaven.
A mother sat beside life’s stream,
Watching a dying child at dawn,
And smiled, as in its eye she saw
A hope that it might still live on.
She smiled until the eyelids closed,
But watched for breath until the even ;
And then she wept, and then forgot
The child was living still in heaven.