April 20: Stephen Sondheim's "Green Finch and Linnet Bird"

“Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems,” states Stephen Sondheim in the introduction to Finishing the Hat, a collection of his lyrics from 1954 to 1981. “Poems are written to be read, silently or aloud, not sung. Some lyrics, awash with florid imagery, present themselves as poetry, but music only underscores (yes) the self-consciousness of the effort….Poetry is an art of concision, lyrics of expansion.” The whole of this fascinating reflection is not quotable here, but Sondheim’s position is summed up when he tells us simply, “Poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do.” Nonetheless, his lyrics make for a fascinating read, partly due to the “attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes,” as he refers to them, which are appended throughout the volume and add to our understanding of his art. He also adds, right after his introduction, a piece he entitles “Rhyme and Its Reasons,” in which he discusses the use of rhymes and their efficacy in lyrics—he prefers a perfect rhyme, especially when a joke is involved, though he notes that, curiously, “Rhymes whose endings are spelled differently (for example, “rougher/suffer”) are more interesting than those which are spelled the same (“rougher/tougher”), not only to the eye but to the ear, perhaps because the brain subliminally sees them in print and is therefore more surprised when they come along.”

“Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” sung by the character of Johanna in Sweeney Todd, may not be a poem, but to read it without its haunting, angular melody is to “hear” it slightly differently.


Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
How is it you sing?
How can you jubilate,
Sitting in cages,
Never taking wing?

Outside the sky waits,
Beckoning, beckoning,
Just beyond the bars,
How can you remain,
Staring at the rain,
Maddened by the stars?
How is it you sing
How is it you sing?

Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
How is it you sing?
Whence comes this melody
    constantly flowing?
Is it rejoicing or merely halloing?
Are you discussing
Or fussing
Or simply dreaming?
Are you crowing?
Are you screaming?

Ringdove and robinet,
Is it for wages,
Singing to be sold?
Have you decided it’s
Safer in cages,
Singing when you’re told?

My cage has many rooms,
Damask and dark.
Nothing there sings,
Not even my lark.
Larks never will, you know,
When they’re captive.
Teach me to be more adaptive.

Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
Teach me how to sing.
If I cannot fly,
Let me sing.

Learn more about Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim

Listen to Kate Levy reading Sondheim’s lyrics. (Levy is a New York actress who wishes she could sing the words but, out of respect for Stephen Sondheim, has decided to read them.)

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