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Wednesday, 28 March 2012




'Never seek to tell thy love'

Following last week's consideration of the similarity between poetical and musical openings, it seems logical to consider to what extent poetry and music might be further connected. First, there is the obvious connection in the case of poems that are specifically conceived as songs to be set to music and sung, such as ballads, folk and love songs.

A famous example is Burns' "O my Luve's like a red, red rose", which Bob Dylan is said to have acknowledged as the source of his greatest inspiration. Such poems are generally incomplete without their musical setting. Then there are those passages of poetry in which the poet appears to be using language, whether consciously or otherwise, to achieve a primarily musical effect, as in the following extract of Milton's "Lycidas":

"Ye valleys low where the mild whispers use Of shades and wanton winds and gushing brooks, On whose fresh lap the swart Star sparely looks, Throw hither all you quaint enamell'd eyes, That on the green turf suck the honied showers, And purple all the ground with vernal flowers." Despite the visual nature of the imagery Milton, in describing it, seems to have relied on his auditory rather than his visual imagination. Consequently, it is the sound rather than the sense of the words that makes an impression on us.

Allusive or suggestive

But there is a deeper connection between poetry and music than is involved in the above examples. This relates to the effect they both have of being allusive or suggestive. Music is nothing if it is not this, evoking a mood or feeling or sense-impression of some kind that does not necessarily arise from any rational or intelligible premise. We are not, however, referring here to poetry that deliberately sets out to produce a comparable, unthought-related effect as, for example, much of de la Mare's verse does. Consider this extract of his 'The Unchanging':

T S Eliot

"After the songless rose of evening, Night quiet, dark, still, In nodding cavalcade advancing Starred the deep hill: You in the valley standing, In your quiet wonder took All that glamour, peace, and mystery In one grave look." This is patently intended to produce an enchanted or dreamlike effect upon the reader without reference to any intelligible thought content. As such, we are justifiably inclined to dismiss it as "the stuff that dreams are made on."

Unlike music, the evocative nature of poetry that connects it with music does not exist apart from its sense or intelligibility. For poetry is made not of notes but of words, and words are nothing if they do not convey meaning. The primary aim of genuine poetry, therefore , is to make sense, and the genuine poet's primary aim is to find the mode of expression in which he can make sense for the reader of his time. He has not only to develop a personal idiom that is distinctively his own, but to adapt this idiom to the current usage of the language in which he writes.

Effective revolutions

That is why a few great poets have, from time to time, had to effect revolutions in poetic language to rescue it from worn-out modes of expression and bring it in line with contemporary speech. This was what Wordsworth achieved at the turn of the 18th century and Eliot in the early 20th. The achievement of the latter can be better appreciated alongside a typical example of the 'Georgian ' school of the early 20th century:

"We are thine, O Love, being in thee and made of thee, As thou, Love were the deep thought And we the speech of the thought; yea, spoken are we, Thy fires of thought out-spoken....Yea, Love, we are thine, the liturgy of thee, Thy thought's golden and glad name, The mortal conscience of immortal glee, Love's zeal in Love's own glory."

These are the opening and closing verses of 'Hymn to Love' by the so-called Georgian Laureate, Lascelles Abercrombie. They neither make sense nor are they allusive in any notable way. The vague sentiments and archaic diction can best be described as representative of the fag-end of 19th century romanticism. Yet this is the type of verse that was inflicted on schoolchildren in the fifties in the name of Modern English Poetry, the Georgians having actually been regarded as modern in their time. This was before Eliot made his impact and he, needless to say, was not among the modern poets anthologized for our edification.

When Eliot came out with 'Prufrock and Other Observations' in 1917, he presented us with a new idiom which, unpoetical as it may have seemed at the time, made obvious sense in terms of contemporary speech. This is evident from the very opening lines of the title poem: "Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherised upon a table; Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:"

Unaccustomed expedition

This is an invitation to an evening expedition in an unaccustomed, seemingly squalid, part of town. That is plain to see, it makes immediate sense. But consider how much more is suggested in these few words through the manner of expression. The phrase "you and I" suggests a desire for intimate company. The persistent rhythm and the end rhymes of the first two lines indicate purposefulness with a touch of the reckless. The startling simile of the third line that purportedly describes the evening tells us much more about the speaker. It is he who feels trapped within his circumstances like an anaesthetised patient. His life seems to him to be as unreal as unconsciousness. He desperately wants to break out of it into reality, which is why he chooses a destination that promises tangible experience, even if unsavoury by his usual standards.

What a lot Eliot has been able to impart to us about the speaker and his situation, but in how few words! It is all conveyed by what the words suggest or evoke, which is far beyond what they literally mean. If Eliot had put things explicitly and explained it all, as I have endeavoured to do, he would have succeeded as a writer of prose masquerading as a poet, but he would have failed as a real poet. Poetry never seeks to tell it all, it tells a little and suggests the rest. "Never seek to tell thy love," as Blake says, "Love that never told can be." We saw above how Abercrombie seeks to tell us all about love and only succeeds in making us heartily sick of the subject.

This, then, is the evocative power of poetry, and it is the way in which it chiefly resembles music. It is not devoid of thought, indeed it depends on its core or nucleus of thought, but what it presents to us, in Eliot's apt phrase, is "the sensuous apprehension of thought." And this is where craftsmanship comes to the support of the imagination. Through his ability to choose the right words and put them together in the right combinations, the poet achieves a synergy of creativity, getting his words to produce a wealth of meaning far in excess of the combined value of their individual worth. It is the same with the composer. His musicianship comes to the aid of his imagination, enabling him to choose and arrange his notes in such a way as to create an aura of sensation that transcends the merely sonic value of his notes. But there is more to the relationship between poetry and music, which we hope to consider next week.


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