Poetry and music: a harmonic, melodic relationship

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Albert Béguin, a little-known Swiss academic, once said that poetic images “ascend from the depths of the being and compose a song.” In his book “Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry,” the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote, “I submit that in the relationship between this indivisible unity of the poetic intuition and the successive partial units of its expansion or expression in its own vital milieu a kind of music is involved.” I think any University of Dallas student has experienced the feeling of confusion, or more aptly, the “stun gun of beauty” feeling, upon reading a poem. Perhaps after reading some William Blake or T.S. Eliot in Lit Trad II, you feel like you are on a boat on a lyrical sea, paddling quickly and without direction. Or perhaps, certain lines stick out more than others as slanted light from a hidden crack. Even though the first, second, third and maybe even fourth reading of a poem may seem daunting, the seas quell. I think music has a part in this. As we all spend more time reading a poem, or listening to a professor’s explanation, a certain light washes over most of the poem and its ideas come together like music.

Modernist 20th century poet and author of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot. -Photo courtesy of fineartamerica.com
Modernist 20th century poet and author of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot.
-Photo courtesy of fineartamerica.com

If you have already been to Rome, taken Lit Trad III or happen to be an English major here, then the term “negative capability” has probably floated through your classes. The concept, coined by Keats, is supposed to express the power of human beings to embrace uncertainty, especially in the context of experience. I bring Keats into this conversation to bring a unity between poetry and music, and to help explain more fully how music pervades poetry and helps explain it.

There is an inclination to separate poetry and music when we study them in class and perhaps on our own. It is difficult enough to read poetry, and trying to think of other areas of study simultaneously may seem like a crazy idea. But I challenge everyone, including myself, to always remember that there is music in all things, especially poetry. Just as Plato iterates in “The Republic,” “Education in music is most sovereign . . . [and] when reason came the man thus nurtured would be the first to give her welcome.”

You might not immediately see why Eliot included a stanza in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that reads, “Shall I part my hair behind?/ Do I dare eat a peach?/ I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach./ I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.” But eventually you will see, and until you do, you can at least enjoy the bizarre music that emanates from these lines. If you need a little help finding the music, just look for the beauty, and allow the images to come from the depths and stir you. Maybe even just bask in the uncertainty. Finally, I recommend a song to accompany your reading. For the tame or classical music lovers, I recommend Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto in E Minor.” It is a song that I think really shows exactly how music is like poetry. It beautifully instills wonder; the harmonies and melodies dance around one another until their closing unity.

 

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