Tranströmer, musically

Tomas Tranströmer: Allegro

After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.


I love this poem. It juxtaposes war and peace, freedom and oppression, sound and silence, cold and warmth, life and death, and its central theme is the power of art to help us deal with life’s turbulence.

The poem opens at its nadir, “a black day”. As a common enough experience, it immediately draws the reader in, empathising with the writer. The tough day is now over and the writer settles at the piano. We feel the cold through its opposite as, beginning to play, he feels some warmth returning to his hands.

The second stanza revolves around the oxymoron of silent sound. The reader feels the expectant hush as the reader pauses before playing—”[t]he keys are ready”—then as the “kind hammers” fall, the sound is “full of silence”. That silence is internal and distinct while arising from the “spirited” sound of the music itself. The image perfectly captures that sense of inner peace that comes from listening to music (of the appropriate sort). Further, the sense of healing coming from the music is reinforced by the regenerative “green” of the sounds, counterpointed against the “black” of the day in the opening line of the poem.

The third stanza moves us out into the wider, historical world. Music reminds us that we are, at least in some part that we may struggle to find on occasion, free. The biblical1 reference to Caesar’s tax transports us from the sitting room where the poet plays to all those places and people, ancient and modern, who have been under the yoke of some tyranny. Even if we no longer pay tax to Caesar, we pay tax to our governments, who fill our lives as much with frustration and anger as with benefits and utility. We are also reminded of Jesus’s lesson to find a balance in life between our civic responsibilites and duties (which in Tranströmer’s case, as a psychologist working with young offenders, may have caused many “black days”), and the duty to ourselves to stay in touch with the spiritual.

In the fourth stanza, we move away from the immediacy of the music. Humour irrupts with the comic and invented “haydnpockets” into which the poet jams his hands—plainly, he cannot be playing the piano now. But we feel that as he gets up and moves about he carries the music with him, inside. There is an insouciance about the image of the man with his hands thrust deep in his pockets, a certain devil-may-care quality. He is not actually calm inside, but he can now act as if he were, thanks to Haydn, and this is a step towards balance and inner harmony.

The fifth stanza continues the comic vein, but introduces an overt element of disharmony. We are now at war, the war of everyday life and its relentless struggles. The poet leans again on the music of Haydn and, steadied by it, runs up the “haydnflag” not in surrender—the fight will continue—but to signal that he seeks peace, both temporary at the end of this hard day and more permanently. He is no pushover—if his opponents seek a fight, they will get it—but he wishes to talk, to open and maintain a dialogue. Surely, that must be the better way to deal with life, the poet tells us, than eternal violence and oppression (and the poem nods back towards Caesar’s tax and oppression here).

In the sixth and seventh stanzas, we change gear altogether. The visual comes to the fore and the poet miraculously uses it to convey the force and peaceful resistance offered by an entirely non-visual sense: sound. The music now takes shape and becomes a house, yet its fragility is highlighted by being a house of glass. The old adage about “people in glass houses” springs to mind, yet we are now faced not by stones but by huge rocks, an avalanche of rocks rolling unstoppably down the mountainside to crash into the house of glass sitting passively right in their path.

Yet miraculously, as the rocks roll right through the glass house of music, “every pane of glass is still whole”. The storms of life have no power fundamentally to affect us if we have our inner harmony. Art—music, in particular, in this case—helps us to achieve and hold onto that harmony. The unyielding and jagged rocks of our perceived troubles cannot shatter our tranquility if we find the right balance and can see, through the unbroken panes of glass, that our daily difficulties and sorrows cannot shake our inner, spiritual core.

  1. Matthew 22:21 King James Version (KJV)—”They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” 

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