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Music And Poetry

( Originally Published 1920 )



BY SIR JOHN STAINER, LATE ORGANIST OF ST. PAUL'S CATHEDRAL LONDON.

THE true poet must ever be attracted by the charms of Music : he must sing of her; he must perforce chant her praise. For he cannot but realize how much the two arts, Poetry and Music, possess in common. Both reach their highest excellence when they are characterized by lofty thought, graceful rhythm, and melodious diction: the thought which teaches and edifies; the rhythm which appeals to our love of regularity; and the melody which gives emotional pleasure. Yet these sister arts do not always live quite happily, as it were, under the same roof. For it rarely _ happens that the finest specimens of poetry receive an adequate expression when set to Music, and it is not improbable that the most thoughtful among poets would admit, if pressed, that he should prefer to dispense with the help of a musical setting, which certainly would share with the hearer the interest of his poem, if it did not actually absorb it; and on the other hand, the musician loves to wind his way, and hold his meditations, among the intricate paths of pure instrumental composition where words, aye, even the words of the poet, can no longer interpret his feelings nor stand as signs of thought.

Here, among sweet sounds of various pitches, qualities, and strength, molded by the mind of genius into harmonic combinations, sometimes majestic and bold, sometimes tender and plaintive, through which a melody or many deftly interwoven melodies are heard flowing ever onward in rhythmic waves, here, indeed, he feels his soul stirred to its very base by crowds of hurrying emotions, which press upon each other so rapidly that time for interpretation were wanting, even if the means were within reach. Thus snatched away from the ordinary course of thought and feeling, the musician may well believe that he is listening to the whisperings of unknown beings whose language is understood by the more spiritual side of his nature, while his common every-day mind stands looking on in wonder.

But cannot Poetry produce equally strange results? In some respects it can, but the answer to this question cannot be an unqualified affirmative. From one point of view Poetry stands inferior to Music, from another it is superior. Music after a long and slow process of development has constituted itself into a recognized method of expression, in short, into a language-speaking of or speaking to the emotions, yet one which cannot be spoken or heard without the subtle aid of intellect, which is as necessary an ingredient of the genius who creates the language of Music as of the hearer who hopes to understand it.

But the intangibility and indefiniteness of the language of Music, whilst allowing the most cultivated and refined among its hearers to soar into far-off regions of imaginative pleasure, addresses the untutored and ignorant: that is, (alas!), the majority, in an absolutely unknown tongue. To these it is merely a not unpleasant collection of sounds. They may perhaps have enough knowledge to trace the different kinds and qualities of tone, but they learn nothing from, and find no meaning in, such a variety; it is of no more mental import to them than a succession of sweet smells would be. In other words, Music can only call up slumbering or latent emotions, feelings already in potential existence: it cannot create new emotions for us and drive them into the soul through the ears; it can only awake vibrations among heart-strings already attuned and ready to throb in sympathetic pulses.

Poetry, on the other hand, has for its plastic material, words of known meaning and common use, and when addressed to the ordinary mass of people, it is therefore less likely to be misunderstood or to convey no meaning at all. It would, however, be fallacious to jump to the conclusion that the uneducated and vulgar are capable of gathering the full meaning of the best Poetry. Of course not: the more hidden beauties both of thought and diction will be missed by them, and lost. It must be feared even by the most pronounced optimist that there will ever be swine before whom the very pearls of Poetry and Music may be thrown; only, the ancient proverb is in these days illustrated in a rather remarkable way, it is found now that the two-legged tramplers-under-foot consider themselves highly qualified critics. But happily for the progress of humanity the pearls last on, to be admired and cherished for long ages; the criticism often dies with the critic.

The two higher beauties of Poetry which are missed by the uncultivated are-the ideality of the thought, and the Music of the diction. The upward flight of the noble mind, struggling ever onwards to attain something still more beautiful and more nearly perfect, cannot be watched or traced by the half-trained eyes of one of the common folk; such eyes as his must be shaded from the blaze of sunlight; so is the ideality of the great poet unseen and unknown but to the few.

The Music of Poetry consists in the presentation to the ear of successive sounds which satisfy our natural craving for rhythmical proportion, whilst tempering the regularity of rhythm by frequent contrasts; the taste must be carefully cultivated before it is keen enough to gauge such delicacies of construction or form. But every word which has just been said about the due appreciation of Poetry may be equally applied to the art of Music; indeed, the elements and characteristics of the two arts are so interwoven that they can with difficulty be unravelled. Has a man no Music in him? he will never become a poet; has he no Poetry in him? he will never become a musician. The old writer uttered a deep truth when he quaintly defined Poetry as "Reason joined with Musick"; and we may justly add that Music is "Poetry and Painting in sound"; Poetry, because its merit lies in the ideality of its aims and the beauty of proportion in its construction and form; Painting, because it enables us to call up vividly scenes which painters have ever essayed to put on canvas, though they have, perhaps, never realized them to the fullest. Great poets and musicians are of "the few who ennoble the many," and they probably do more than any other artists to save humanity from a saddening and pessimist view of life, of the dread struggle for existence going on around us. They have, of course, easier means of exerting widespread influence than other artists. A beautiful piece of music or a beautiful poem may conceivably be listened to or read in every home throughout civilized life at the same moment of time, but the master-picture of the all-but-living piece of sculpture remains stationary on one spot. If such are to be enjoyed, their whereabouts must first be discovered, and thither all (who can!) must take a pilgrimage.

These lovely twin-sisters, Poetry and Music, have, therefore, much cause for mutual congratulation, and I call upon all of you who, when listening to a sonata or symphony, have had poetical thoughts of inexpressible beauty suggested to you by sister Music, to turn to the pages of the poets and hear how tunefully Poetry can repay her sister's love. To you who know and love the beauty of Poetry, but to whom the highest meanings of Music are hidden, I would say, read Poetry's praise of her sister Music; if you do so, I doubt not you will earnestly desire to enter into that new realm of thought and emotion, from which it is in her power alone to draw aside the veil, and into the joys of which she alone can grant you admittance.

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