Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker:
Thirty-five years ago, when I was twenty, I sold my Heckel bassoon. And that was that. Now I’m supposed to be writing a new book of poetry, which I’m calling Misery Hat. I don’t want to work on it. Today, to get inspired, I dipped into an extremely long poem by Samuel Rodgers called Human Life, because I liked the title. It didn’t do much for me, but I remembered that Samuel Rogers was friends with Tennyson and Coleridge, and that made me haul out my old edition of Tennyson and look at his extremely long poem Maud, narrated by an insane person who rambles. Tennyson was very ill if not clinically insane when he wrote parts of Maud, and a lot of it is unreadable. But there is one very nice soaring patch that everyone remembers. It begins, “Come into the garden, Maud,/For the black bat, night, has flown.” There Tennyson has us. Night itself is a black bat. How thrilling and un-Victorian is that? In the same passage there’s a mention of an unusual chamber group that’s apparently been serenading the roses all night long—a flute, a violin, and a bassoon. It’s a bassoon not because Tennyson knew anything about the bassoon, but because he needed an evocative word to rhyme with “tune” and “moon.” And also because he may have been remembering another poetical bassoon passage, from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner:
The Wedding-Guest beat his breast,
For he heard the loud bassoon.
Coleridge didn’t know much about the bassoon either, or he wouldn’t have said it was loud. The bassoon’s liability as an orchestral instrument is that it is quite soft, much softer in volume that its size would suggest. At a wedding reception in 1797, when Coleridge was working on his pem, it might have been used to double the bassline played by the spinet or the cello. But bassoonists the world over are grateful to Coleridge for including them in his stanza.