The Relation Of Poetry To Music

SO far we have been studying poetry in comparison with sculpture and painting; let us turn now to its relation to the other great type of art-music. ( All the poems studied in the preceding chapter have a direct musical appeal; in fact, the direct sensuous effect of poetry is to the physical hearing. All poetry is meant to be read aloud, and must be so read to have its full effect; yet, even when read silently, we get the music for the inner hearing, just as we get the vision by the imagination. Read either way, silently or aloud, we must first get the words as sound forms before we can see the images with the inner vision. Thus the kinship of poetry to music is even closer than to the spatial arts. In fact, all the elements of music are present in each of the poems studied. Rhythm is evident in carefully measured meter; melody is clearly present in the ordered rise and fall of accented and unaccented syllables, in the diction, the variations of movement, and the modulations of the voice; while even technical harmony, if rightly defined as the consonance or concord of sounds occurring simultaneously or in quick succession, is evident in rhyme, phases of meter and stanza-form, to the extent to which it is used in the singing of a single voice. Even timbre is present in the general quality of the music in a poem as a whole.)

In Shelley’s Ozymandias of Egypt the diction is strong, sonorous, masculine, harmonizing with the majesty of the description. The meter is iambic—as we have seen, the simplest form in English, with only an occasional variation of accent at the beginning of a line and a few three-syllable feet in the whole. The rhyme is somewhat irregular as compared with the strict sonnet form, but close enough to unify the whole in thought. The five-foot lines flow regularly, in stately harmony with the conceptions given.

There is direct sensuous pleasure in the response to the musical appeal, though less than with an equally great composition of music.

Keen aesthetic satisfaction is given by the harmony between the music and the spiritual content it embodies. A generic mood is awakened in the reader ; but with this the poem directly associates a range of forms and pictures for the imagination, and of definite conceptions and reflections for the intellect, thus passing beyond the scope and function of the art of music.

All the elements of musical appeal, studied in Shelley’s sonnet, are present equally in Wordsworth’s Upon Westminster Bridge. Here the strict Italian sonnet form is observed, the thought being divided in harmony with it the first eight lines describing the city, while the last six compare it with nature and give the interpretation of the whole. The meter, again iambic, moves with stately regularity, the variations at the beginning of certain lines (as the first, second and ninth) serving to emphasize important words. The diction is less severely majestic and more softly melodious than in Shelley’s sonnet, thus appropriately carrying the mood of peace which the poem contains. The rhyme-sounds, closely integrated, are especially melodious.

With the sensuous and esthetic pleasure, given by the music and its harmony with the content, the poem expresses a definite mood of peace, and awakes the corresponding emotional state in the hearer or reader. Thus the poem goes over into the field of music and fulfills directly something of the function of that art; but with the emotional appeal of the music, how vital is the range of associated images and reflections, interpreted in terms of the spirit of man.

The direct musical appeal of poetry is sufficiently strong to give some emotional effect when a poem is read aloud in a language we do not understand. Let Sappho’s Ode to Aphrodite be read to one ignorant of Greek: could the hearer fail to respond to the beauty of the liquid music, and could he fail to get, from the music alone, something of the general mood of the poem? Would not the dirge-like lines of Freiligrath’s O lieb’, so tang du lieben haling* awaken the mood of tender sadness even in one ignorant of German? So when Dante’s Francesca sobs, it is “like the murmuring of doves in immemorial elms,” as a critic has said, trying to echo in his harsher English the moaning melody of the original. No one could listen to Francesca’s lines without some emotional response, even if the Italian words meant nothing to him.

The musical element in poetry is so significant that there are many poems in which it makes the primary and stronger appeal, as for instance in the following burst of Elizabethan love song:


“Diaphenia like the daffadowndilly, White as the sun, fair as the lily, Heigh ho, how I do love thee ! I do love thee as my lambs Are beloved of their dams ; How blest were I if thou wouldst prove me.

Diaphenia like the spreading roses, That in thy sweets all sweets encloses, Fair sweet, how I do love thee ! I do love thee as each flower Loves the sun’s life-giving power; For dead, thy breath to life might move me.

Diaphenia like to all things blessed When all thy praises are expressed, Dear joy, how I do love thee ! As the birds do love the spring, Or the bees their careful king: Then in requite, sweet virgin, love me ! ”

This is an outpouring of pure melody comparable to a bird song. The emotion is so exultant and exuberant that it breaks out in most exquisitely irregular metrical form. Try to scan a stanza, and you find dactyls, trochees, spondees and even iambic feet in the measure, poured out with an abandon; yet every variation in the measure quickening the movement, emphasizing pregnant words, or otherwise adding to the beautiful artistry by which the mood of the poem finds expression. As we have seen, classic scansion applies poorly to English verse; but the names of the feet are of no consequence : the significance is in the de-termination of the melody by the relation of accented to unaccented syllables.

Is not the poem just a burst of song; and does not its music waken in the hearer the very mood of springtime, early morning sunlight and the awakening of youthful love?

A greater example of poetry that is primarily music, is given in Shelley’s wonderful, melodious lyric,


“Swiftly walk over the western wave, Spirit of Night ! Out of the misty eastern cave Where, all the long and lone daylight, Thou wovest dreams of joy and fear Which make thee terrible and dear, Swift be thy flight !

Wrap thy form in a mantle gray Star-inwrought ; Blind with thine hair the eyes of Day, Kiss her until she be wearied out: Then wander o’er city and sea and land, Touching all with thine opiate wand— Come, long-sought !

When I arose and saw the dawn, I sigh’d for thee; When light rode high, and the dew was gone, And noon lay heavy on flower and tree, And the weary Day turn’d to his rest Lingering like an unloved guest, I sigh’d for thee.

Thy brother Death came, and cried Wouldst thou me? Thy sweet child Sleep, the filmy-eyed, Murmur’d like a noon-tide bee Shall I nestle near thy side? Wouldst thou me?—and I replied No, not thee !

Death will come when thou art dead, Soon, too soon Sleep will come when thou art fled; Of neither would I ask the boon I ask of thee, beloved night Swift be thine approaching flight, Come soon, soon ! ”

Here the dominant appeal of Shelley is through music to the emotions, as in his Ozymandias of Egypt it is through imagery to the inner vision and the intellect. Is it not significant that one poet should have written both? In the lyric To the Night the imagery is vague, dreamy, suggestive, not intended to produce clear pictures for the imagination. If one attempts definitely to visualize it, the effect is almost ludicrous. Try it with the first two stanzas. Note, too, that “Day” is made feminine in the second stanza, masculine in the third! This produces no jar, however, because the Day is so vaguely personified. The point is that the value of the imagery is, here, not in giving definite pictures for the inner vision, but in suggestion and color associated with the dominant mood.

On the other hand, what liquid, limpid music the poem is! The diction is full of open vowel sounds : noon, soon, boon, sweet, sleep, murmured—such words give the key to the music. Two-syllable and three-syllable feet are used varyingly in the poem, with many dactyls—the most musical foot in English. Note the liquid flow of the first three dactylic lines in stanza one, and then the slowing down of the movement in the regular iambic lines, four, five and six, with the peculiar impressiveness of the two short lines, two and seven, made each of a dactyl and an accented syllable. In several of the following stanzas these two lines are still briefer, consisting of three syllables, two of which are accented. The student will find it worth while to go through the poem line by line, noting the musical effects and how they are produced; and let him remember that there are no accidents in art. Finally, the long seven line stanza is closely integrated by the almost monotonous music of the rhyme, the scheme of which is a b a b c c b. Thus the music returns back into itself, closing the passage of melody at the end of each stanza.

Since the appeal of this lyric is so dominately musical, let us compare its effect with that of a cognate work in the art of music, such as a nocturne of Chopin’s. Both compositions present a series of sound forms in time succession, based on the principles of rhythm, melody and harmony; but the nocturne is pure sound forms, while the lyric associates with these plastic forms for the inner vision. The sound forms in both compositions give direct sensuous pleasure; but this is more powerful and unmixed in the music, while the poem adds the less direct sensuous delight in the forms molded for the imagination. In both, is the same type of aesthetic satisfaction in the adequacy and harmony with which the spiritual content is expressed. The lyric, like the nocturne, tends to waken a dominant mood in the hearer and, beneath this, to carry him through a series of vaguely defined emotional states. The music does this far more powerfully, however, with more clearly defined emotions; but the poem associates, with the feelings awakened, a range of ideas and reflections for the intellect, and interprets both the thought and the emotion in terms of Shelley’s experience and, therefore, of the life of man. Thus the poem unites something of the function of sculpture and painting with something of the function of music in a new unity, more complex and many-sided in its expression of the human spirit.

This is so true that we can find characteristic painter poets and singer poets—the one appealing primarily through imagery to the inner ‘vision, the other through music to the ear. All poetry uses, of course, both appeals, and in the greatest poetry they are combined in harmony; but now one, now the other, may be dominant. Thus, with all his melody, Dante visualizes first and sings afterward; Milton dominantly makes sonorous music, and subordinately paints for the imagination. So Browning is of the seers, Tennyson of the singers; Shakespeare primarily creates for the imagination and intellect, Spenser molds harmonious melodies for the ear.

To note how far the contrast may go, take a characteristic passage from the Faerie Queene, describing the descent of a spirit to the house of Morpheus to bring up a dream. Please note how difficult the situation itself is to imagine, while the description of the house of Morpheus is even ludicrous if you try, as you should not, to visualize it :

“He, making speedy way through spersed ayre, And through the world of waters wide and deepe, To Morpheus house doth hastily repaire. Amid the bowels of the earth full steepe, And low, where dawning day doth never peepe, His dwelling is ; there Tethys his wet bed Doth ever wash, and Cynthia still doth steepe In silver deaw his ever-drouping hed, Whiles sad Night over him her mantle black doth spred.

And unto Morpheus comes, whom drowned deepe In drowsie fit he findes ; of nothing he takes keepe.

And, more to lulle him in his slumber soft, A trickling streame from high rock tumbling downe, And ever-drizling raine upon the loft, Mixt with a murmuring winde, much like the sowne Of swarming bees, did caste him in a swowne. No other noyse, nor peoples troublous cryes, As still are wont t’annoy the walled towne, Might there be heard : but carelesse Quiet lyes, Wrapt in eternall silence farre from enimyes.”

Try to realize the imagery, and note its utter inconsistency. The dwelling is in the bowels of the earth, where day never dawns ; yet the dew is falling, the sea washes the bed of Morpheus; apparently the moon is shining while the rain is falling, a stream is tumbling down, a murmuring wind is making a sound like that of swarming bees ! The effect is ludicrous if one attempts to fuse the different images in a single picture ; yet, here, that is just what one should not do. Spenser has gathered together all the images suggestive of sleep, woven them loosely together, and subordinated the whole to the wonderful slumbrous music of the passage. Note the sound of the words : lull, slumber, streamer, down, rain, murmuring, swarming, sown, sown, towne-they are all characteristic of the melody achieved through the regular, peacefully moving lines and the long, close, harmonious rhyme scheme.

Poetry is thus the widest of the fine arts in function, combining in a new union something of the work of the two great contrasting types of art, without usurping the place of either. Hence poetry is the most universal and many-sided of the arts, in relation to the human spirit and in the interpretation of life.) Lyric poetry can give a series of connected emotions and reflections revealing the life of the personal spirit. The epic may portray a varied range of characters and narrate a succession of actions, interpreting both in relation to the whole life of man. The drama presents human beings in action and relation, on the stage of time, in the whole working out of character and conduct in relation to the laws of life.

Prose, too, set in a lower key and therefore with less restraint, can accomplish the same ends. If less exalted in artistic form than poetry, it is therefore often wider in scope. The novel is an epic-drama, lowered in key, but more complex in relation to life. Prose has, too, its rhythms and melodies : to realize this, one need but compare the organ-like music of De Quincey—where passage after passage, by changing an occasional word, can be scanned as iambic blank verse—with the music of a North Sea storm one hears in Carlyle’s prose, with three accented monosyllables frequently occurring together. The contrast of seer and singer holds with prose writers as with poets: compare the constant picture making of Victor Hugo, with the subtly tender melody—the imagery constantly subordinated-in the exquisite prose of Pierre Loti. Thus all the functions of poetry are fulfilled in prose as well; and our study has dealt chiefly with poetry only because it is the highest form of literature, in which the functions of the art can be most clearly seen.

It may help to clarify and fix our view of the respective functions of the great types of art if we take a few closing comparisons, considering first the treatment of the same theme in the different arts. In Fitzgerald’s rendering of Omar Khayyam occur the following stanzas :

“I sent my Soul through the Invisible, Some letter of that After-life to spell: And by and by my Soul returned to me, And answered ‘I Myself am Heaven and Hell:’

Heaven but the Vision of fulfilled Desire, And Hell the Shadow from a Soul on fire Cast on the Darkness into which Ourselves, So late emerged from, shall so soon expire.”

Vedder has illustrated these on one page. Above, at the left, he has drawn a radiant face on a background of light ; below, at the right, a face of agony on a background of flame and darkness; between them is a figure representing the soul, with the symbolic swirl of life. The conceptions of the faces of joy and pain are given directly through the sense of sight and burned in on the imagination with a vital intensity poetry cannot equal.

What could music give of the same theme? The answer is found in Liza Lehmann’s In a Persian Garden—not to look further. Music can give the mood of heaven and the mood of hell, awakening the emotional state we associate with the one and the other conception, with a power unequaled in any other art.

The two stanzas of the poem give the conceptions, less powerfully and directly for the eye than in the drawing ; unite with these the direct sensuous and emotional appeal of the grave music of the poem, less impressively than in the art of music ; and add the interpretation of the whole in terms of human thought and feeling.

Compare the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno with Watts’s painting of Paolo and Francesca, and with the love music of Tristan und Isolde. Watts paints the lovers clinging together, swirling onward on the black air of hell. The two faces and bodies, in the eternal instant, are given with a direct smiting power no other art can equal; yet our feelings in the presence of the painting are not determined by its conceptions, but by our experience and knowledge of life.

The love music of Tristan and Isolde sweeps us on to the bosom of the sea of emotion, melts us with the tenderness of love and longing, clutches us with the mood of Fate, with a commanding power no other art can equal; yet many love-stories besides Isolde’s and Francesca’s might be associated with the music.

In Dante’s canto the two lovers are painted sweeping toward him on the purple air. They stop at the call of love, and Francesca moans out her story. The whole narration is given. The verse first pains with discordant words and bitter images, and then sobs with the music of Francesca’s sighed-out story, as though with a moan of the universe over the bitterness of fate. The whole life story is given, the music of the verse is associated with it; while, through the effect upon Dante’s thought and feeling, the meaning of the whole in relation to human life is interpreted.

If the student cares to go further, let him compare Michael Angelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel with Dante’s Divine Comedy, and these with a fugue of Bach’s and a symphony of Beethoven’s ; or let him compare Cormon’s Cain with Wagner’s music to the Götterdam merung, and these with Shakespeare’s King Lear.

In each instance the spatial arts are most powerful in rendering conceptions in statical form for the eye and the imagination; music excels all other arts in the sweeping appeal through dynamic forms to the ear and the emotions; while poetry unites something of both types of appeal in a new complex whole, interpreted in terms of human thought and feeling.

With this differentiation in function it is impossible to say that any one art is the highest: each is supreme in its own way and in its own service to the spirit of man. One may prefer roses to lilies, or violets to ‘roses, but one cannot say that any one of these is the most beautiful of flowers. So one may be drawn most deeply by a particular art, but one must recognize that this means only a special responsiveness to the function of that art, and not at all that the art is to be ranked above the others objectively. Each is highest in its own field, and all are needed to express and interpret fully the life of man.