Caught by the River

Swift Wings

Gareth Thompson | 27th May 2022

Eight poems by the eccentric mystic Victor Neuburg get a musical makeover, thanks to Sharron Kraus and Justin Hopper. Gareth Thompson is suitably bewitched.

Victor Neuburg was a key figure in the cultural life of early twentieth century England. From the 1920s onwards he published poetry via his own imprint The Vine Press, discovered Dylan Thomas and wrote for numerous occult or literary journals. After his death in 1940 he became a keystone for any old sordid biographer on the Aleister Crowley trail. Neuburg had spent much of his twenties in the magician’s grip, both mentally and sexually.

As a writer, Neuburg revelled in the magical and fragrant Sussex landscape, his work evoking the likes of John Clare and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Eight of his poems have now been given a musical twist on Swift Wings, a CD by psych-folk artist Sharron Kraus and the writer Justin Hopper. The two had previously united for the album Chanctonbury Rings released by Ghost Box Records. Swift Wings links into Hopper’s 2022 anthology about Neuburg and his Vine Press publishing venture.

Within a folk-gothic setting of rippling flutes and sci-fi synths, Neuburg’s words turn a startling corner. Kraus gives each lyric a spooky undercurrent, where dark and buried passions come to life as pagan sonnets. Sunny ballads and mysterious odes are offset by ghostly giggles. Hopper narrates the words in his best fruity tones, Kraus murmurs in tandem, as we drift into a realm of laudanum-laced harmonics. It feels akin to seeing an apparition on the Downs at mid-day, yet having no fear and pouring another glass of claret. Given this backdrop, Neuburg’s poems finally realise their romantic and phantasmal potential.  

Despite her initial misgivings about Neuburg’s ornate imagery, Kraus says, “Once I started working with more of the poems, they really grew on me and opened up a kind of enchanted world which comforted me during lonely lockdown times. ‘Cuckfield’ was the first one I liked and wanted to try doing something with. The way that poem begins and ends – ‘Set in the key of blue’ – is one of my favourite Neuburg lines.”

Kraus trusted her instincts and used the poems to suggest music rather than turning them into songs. “It’s harder to sing words that aren’t my own than to respond musically to them, to have a kind of dialogue with them. I collaborated with the poet Helen Tookey once and found reacting musically to her words very natural, even though I didn’t fully understand what her poems were about. Also, when working on a solo album I’m usually writing songs and that can be hard work. So having an opportunity to create instrumental music, which I find much easier, is a nice change.”

One of the poems included is ‘Coombes’ which features some of Neuburg’s most telling lines: ‘When man goes, the secret things come back/Old pagan things/And there is old life in the ruined track/Strange feet and stranger wings’. Kraus says, “The main influences I detect in Neuburg’s poetry are those of nature and place. He seems to have found peace and ecstasy in nature during his time around West Sussex, when he wrote the poems published in his Swift Wings collection. Justin Hopper surmises that this was the only time in his otherwise troubled life when Neuburg was truly happy.”

‘Swift Wings’ is out now. The CD is additionally available as part of a limited edition bundle with the book ‘Obsolete Spells: Poems & Prose From Victor Neuburg & The Vine Press’ here, via Strange Attractor Press.