A Scene from ‘The Sea-Change’, an Operetta by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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The Journal of the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society has been published annually since 2000 and aims to celebrate all aspects of Townsend Warner’s varied career, as well as her enduring influence. The lastest edition, edited by Professor Peter Swaab, contains previously unpublished works, interviews, critical essays and reviews. The Journal is currently available in the Bookshop, and is also available to read online.

This extract is from Sylvia Townsend Warner's libretto for an opera by American composer Paul Nordoff, a friend of Townsend Warner's, who had previously written an opera based on her novel Mr Fortune's Maggot. Although the opera was never performed - and prior to its publication in the Journal, remained unpublished - the experience of writing the libretto was one that Townsend Warner cherished: 'I wish I could write librettos for the rest of my life. It is the purest of human pleasures, a heavenly hermaphroditism of being both writer and musician. No wonder that selfish beast Wagner kept it all to himself.'

The Sea-Change

Opera Libretto in Six Scenes for Paul Nordoff.
(with love)


     CLAIRE CLAIRMONT – half-sister to Mary


The action takes place in the year 1822, at the Villa Magni on the Bay of Spezia. The scene is a large room on the upper floor, with a door L. and five french windows in the back wall. These windows have slatted shutters, opening outward on to a flat roof, which extends the whole length of the five windows, and has a low balcony. Beyond is the sea. The room has a faded decoration of frescoed garlands on the walls, which are stained with damp. The furniture is scanty, 18th cent. in date; it has been handsome and now is shabby. In the opening scene the room must appear disused. The producer should note that all the characters are young. TRELAWNY, the eldest among them, is thirty.

SHELLEY stands in the window when he first enters after his vision of Allegra.

[Act 1] Scene i.

The time is spring and summer of the year 1822. The scene is the sala on the first floor of Casa Magni, at Lerici. Door on L. five french windows on the back wall. These are now closed with slatted shutters. The walls have a faded decoration of frescoed garlands. The furniture is scanty, a makeshift of shabby 18th cent. magnificence, and rough wooden stools. The ceiling is cracked and stained with damp, the whole room looks disused and out of condition.

Enter MARY, CLAIRE, and TRELAWNY, in travelling dress. MARY and TRELAWNY are preoccupied with some interior anxiety, which they conceal from CLAIRE.

TRELAWNY, with a gesture of displaying the room.:
          Here, is your sala, Mary. How does it please you?

          If I were a lady in a poem, it would do well.
          Penelope might sit here, weaving and grieving,
          Or Hero trim her lamp for a drowned Leander.
          But I am a poet’s wife.

                                                  Then it should please you;
          For this is the very room for a poet,
          Full of stains and shadows
          With lyres and laurels on the walls.
          Oh, it is certainly the room for Shelley!

          But that’s not all. Laurels and shadows are not all.
          Laurels and shadows are everywhere in Italy;
          But when I open this window, everything changes:
          The house turns to a ship, we are at sea,
          We suffer a sea-change. (Goes towards window.)

          Not yet, Trelawny. Do not open the window.
          No, Trelawny! Do not let in the daylight yet!

          My eyes are tired with the journey!
          Let us wait till Shelley and the others come.
          We will be changed together. Let the sea wait!

          Trelawny wants us to be turned to coral.

          Trelawny wants to set the sea-nymphs tolling.


          Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell,
          Hark, now I hear it! Sing, Trelawny!

          Ding dong bell! Ding dong bell!


          Hark, now I hear it! Ding dong, ding dong.

           Listen! (They are silent.)

          Only the sea.

          Only the sea.

          I thought… No, I thought nothing. My nerves trouble me.
          I am tired with travelling.

          Why did we travel here so fast, so suddenly[?]

          It was Shelley’s wish. You know how impetuous he is.

          It seemed to me that we were running away.
          And that I had left something behind.
          Was it a letter, telling me of my child?
          My sweet lost child. (Turning to TRELAWNY.)
                                                  You have not seen my Allegra.
          Byron sent her to be brought up among nuns –
          A mother were better.

(TRELAWNY approaches her with a look of intense compassion, then turns away.)

          What shall we do to make this room less awkward
          Before the others arrive?

(She begins to move chairs about. CLAIRE and TRELAWNY help her. Enter, in travelling dress, SHELLEY, EDWARD and JANE WILLIAMS. JANE glances enquiringly at MARY. MARY shakes her head.)

          (Wildly) What is your secret? What is it you know
          And do not tell me? O Shelley, dearest Shelley,
          You are a poet but compassionate.
          You have lost children. Is my child dead?

(He looks at her in silence. She leans on a chair, weeping.)

          Across the threshold of the spring.

          Brief as the shadow of a linnet’s wing,

          A shadow falls.

          Light as a blossom shaken loose,

          And wept by April dews,
          A child is dead.

          Why did you bring me to this desolate place
          To tell me I am desolate?

(SHELLEY leads her to the centre window, which he opens. It gives on to a flat roof, overlooking the sea. The afterglow of the sunset fills the room.)

          Look out! Look round us! In what quietude
          The mountains stand, and gaze upon the sea!
          Cloaked in their woods, do they not seem like travellers,
          Spell-bound, lost in arrival?
          They hear the assenting murmur of the wave,
          The salt sweet air fingers their stoic brows;
          Here is their journey’s end, here is the sea,
          Hither their brooks, their cataracts, their rivers,
          Have run, like children, before them.
          Weep, weep, dear Claire, weep on this solemn strand!
          Weep, while the yearning wave clings to the rock,
          Sighing, and falls back, sighing. Weep, while the light
          Mutely relinquishes the mountain.
          Here, in this innocent desolation, unlearn
          Hate and remorse and sophistries of comfort,
          And as the mountains gaze upon the sea
          Gaze on death’s patient face till it grows beautiful.


You can read the rest of The Sea-Change here. The Journal of the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society can be read online here, or purchased in the Bookshop for £4.

Sylvia Townsend Warner is our Author of the Month for August. Find out more about her here, or come into the Bookshop to browse her works