Music of Verse

Music of Verse

The ‘music of verse’ is a somewhat pejorative term today, suggesting artifice-laden  musings that occupy an unreal parallel universe, outside the pressing concerns of our  contemporary world, perhaps what the cheery ‘Tennyson and water’ simplicity  of amateur poetry feels more comfortable with. But the founders of Modernism, still much  quoted in critical articles and manifestoes, saw things very differently. Baudelaire realized that music, which lacks an obvious meaning, or at least a semantic one, could  move the heart more deeply that touching thoughts on contemporary issues. A better  understanding of music could enable poets to develop the instrumental resources of  language, and so explore unknown depths of the soul. He wrote, ‘La poésie touche à la  musique par une prosodie dont les racines plongent plus avant dans l’âme humaine que  ne l’indique aucune théorie classique.’ Mallarmé declared that his aim was to recover ‘un  art d’achever la transposition, au Livre, de la Symphonie’.

The Symbolists were not the first to make such a connection, of course. Dryden had  called music ‘inarticulate poesy’ and even Shelley, in his nebulous way, had said ‘Sounds  as well as thoughts have relation between each other and towards that which they represent, and a perception of the order of their relations has always been found  connected with a perception of the order of the relations of thought.’ The most gifted  English poets of the late nineteenth century, struggling to escape lush Romanticism and the impersonal correctness of the Parnassian school, were drawn to Symbolism’s view  that poetry aspired to the condition of music, for all that hostile critics might counter with  the sturdy commonsense of Pope:

In the bright Muse, though thousand charms conspire,
Her voice is all these tuneful fools admire,
Who haunts Parnassus but to please their ear,
Not mend their minds; as some to Church repair,
Not for the doctrine, but the music there.

But Pope himself was a master of immaculate verse music: there is more to his poetry  than homilies neatly expressed.

Far more than is the case today, poets once looked to music for what their art should be  doing. ‘But for opera I could never have written Leaves of Grass,’ said Whitman,  meaning not simply that his relish for Italian opera had developed and inspired his sensuous faculties but that the poem itself was operatic in structure. Tennyson, who was  tone deaf and did not care much for music, imitated the rhythms of a contemporary polka  in ‘Come into the garden, Maud’. Indeed the Hawaiian rhythms of his Kapiolani went  back to a visit made some twenty-five years earlier by Queen Emma and her entourage,  who had called on the poet at Farringford to chant their Hawaiian songs, seated briony- wreathed on his drawing-room floor.

Poets sought not exact correspondences but something more fluid and subtle, with less of  martial precision and oratory about it and more capable of modulations, shifts of  emphasis, rhythmical patterns and harmonic progressions.

In his lecture of 1942 on the The Music of Poetry, T.S. Eliot observed that:

The use of recurrent themes is as natural to poetry as to music. There are possibilities for  verse which bear some analogy to the development of a theme by different groups of  instruments; there are possibilities of transitions in a poem comparable to the different  movements of a symphony or a quartet; there are possibilities of contrapuntal  arrangement of subject matter.

Eliot’s critical writings often disclose concerns central to his own writing, and here he  may be referring to the celebrated passage from The Waste Land, that collage of  impressions, clashing social registers, slang and quotations that contemporary poets still find a useful technique:

O city city, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
the pleasant whining of a mandoline
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
In explicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.

Individually, the lines are less than impressive: the heavy slab of prose in Lower Thames  Street, the brazen clatter and a chatter from within that would be difficult to follow in the  same metre, the improbability of the mandoline (of all things) and fishmen lounging at  noon. But then comes the subsuming last line, where the inexplicable is exactly right for  reasons of sense —adding unreality of the scene and a nagging anxiety — and verbal  music.

Sense clearly matters. For all its beauty, and it’s a very considerable beauty, Dowson’s  verse was only rearranging or emphasizing stock responses.

Equally, the sense must seem natural, to grow out of the poem’s context. Baudelaire,  Mallarmé and Valéry ascribed genius to Edgar Allen Poe, finding enchantment in such  things as:

The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crispèd and sere,
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year;
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir:
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

Where we will probably find the insistent dactylic rhythm intolerable, not to mention the  over-alliteration and the femine rhyming.

Ezra Pound may well have said:

Let the candidate fill his mind with the finest cadences he can discover, preferably in a  foreign language, so that the meaning of the words may be less likely to divert his  attention from the movement.

And F.E. Halliday (Shakespeare and his Critics) have added:

I am suggesting that as there is a visual symbolism in dreams there is in language an   aural symbolism lying deep in the unconscious, and fully operative and evocatory only   when experiences in the semi-hypnotic condition induced by verse, and to a lesser degree  by rhymical prose such as that of the Bible and Sir Thomas Brown.

But the conscious mind still has to be satisfied. Kubla Khan, for example, has a hypnotic  rhythm, but none of the original’s atmosphere survives in:

In Bakerloo did Ali Khan
A stately Hippodrome decrees
Where Alf the bread delivery man.

What that sense consists of, I will leave to a subsequent post.


The interpretation is my own, but I have drawn heavily for details on Chapter 4 in John  Press’s The Fire and The Fountain: An Essay on Poetry. OUP, 1955.

Related Website Pages

Sound in Poetry.

Rhythm in Poetry.

Sociology of Poetry.

Art as Purposeful Activity.

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