The Rivered Earth

The Rivered Earth
Image source: Google

Rating: 3.9/5

Author: Vikram Seth

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

Publishing Date: 2011

Language: English

Genre: Poetry, Musical Score

ISBN-10: 0670085413

ISBN-13: 978-0670085415

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 112

Cost: Rs. 263 (Hardcover)


Drawing on a range of personal experience and literary influences, and mixing translation and original creation, The Rivered Earth consists of four libretti written by Vikram Seth to be set to music by Alec Roth - together with an account of the pleasures and pains of working with a composer. Entitled - ‘Songs in Time of War’, ‘Shared Ground’, ‘The Traveller’ and ‘Seven Elements’. The libretti take us all over the world - from Chinese and Indian poetry, to the beauty and quietness of the Wiltshire rectory where English poet George Herbert lived and died.

Spanning centuries of creativity and humanity, the poems form these libretti pulse with life, energy and inspired brilliance. They are accompanied by four pieces of calligraphy by the author.


The introduction of the book itself provides insight into the way creative minds work and collaborate to produce music inspired by verse and this verse being intermingled with music in a chorus environment.

Vikram Seth discusses with his fellow artists (in an interview format), the composer Alec Roth and the violinist Philippe Honoré in his interviews with them- the story of how the four libretti with each of the verses that make them took form, were set to music and then performed by the musicians in the beautiful setting of the churches and cathedrals of England; evolves and brings the poems to life.

Additionally, there are also contained exquisite pieces of calligraphy by Seth- Chinese characters; cursive Roman handwriting of ‘Oak’ that reflects the shape of Herbert’s ‘Easter-Wings’; a Surdas poem hand-scripted in Brajbhasha; and a roundel in Arabic.

Most of the poems are set during a terrible rebellion in the Tang dynasty, which caused immeasurable destruction and famine. The poems will make you think hard, laugh uncontrollably, and move your inner thoughts.

Poem 8, ‘The Old Cypress Tree at the Temple of Zhu-ge Liang’ is particularly emotionally stirring:

“Although its bitter heart is marred by swarms of ants,

Among its scented leaves bright phoenixes collect.

Men of high aims, who live obscure, do not despair.

The great are always paid in disuse and neglect.”

This book is a captivating mixture of prose and poetry. And one can almost feel while reading the poems and imagine the magical moments of music being played in the most beautiful, exotic locations by wonderful musicians. These are exactly the sentiments that Seth wants his readers to feel as he writes:

Words are all very well, but the success of a musical work lies in its music..."

About the Author:

Born in 1952 in Calcutta, India, Vikram Seth was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Stanford University and Nanjing University.

He has travelled widely and lived in Britain, California, India and China. His first novel, The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse (1986), describes the experiences of a group of friends living in California. His acclaimed epic of Indian life, A Suitable Boy (1993), won the WH Smith Literary Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book). An Equal Music (1999) is the story of a violinist haunted by the memory of a former lover. Vikram Seth is also the author of a travel book, From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983), an account of a journey through Tibet, China and Nepal that won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and a libretto, Arion and the Dolphin: A Libretto (1994), which was performed at the English National Opera in June 1994, with music by Alec Roth. His poetry includes Mappings (1980), The Humble Administrator's Garden (1985), winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Asia), and All You Who Sleep Tonight: Poems (1990). His children's book, Beastly Tales from Here and There (1992), consists of ten stories about animals told in verse.

Vikram Seth's latest works include Two Lives (2005), a memoir of the marriage of his great uncle and aunt, and Summer Requiem (2015), a book of poems.