What Music Does Humanity Make?

Musical Wordsworth presents an original understanding of Wordsworthian harmony by examining an organised but dynamic sense of musicality that shapes his poetic theory and practice. It is the first study to draw on musical conceptions to interpret the function and mechanism of Wordsworth’s soundscape. 200 years on from Wordsworth’s appearance at a musical party, in this blog post Yimon Lo shares her thoughts on the poet as a ‘musical’ figure and provides insight on her new book Musical Wordsworth.

200 years ago today, 5 April 1823, William Wordsworth attended a large musical party at the residence of Eliza and Charles Aders in Euston Square, London. Among the guests were fellow poet S. T. Coleridge and artist John Flaxman. According to Henry Crabb Robinson’s recount of the gathering, there was a ‘great diversity’ in the audience’s enjoyment of music: ‘Coleridge’s was very lively & openly expressed. Wordsw. sat retired & was silent, with his face covered. Some thought he was asleep. He might pass over to sleep after enjoyment. […] Flaxman, who was also there, confessed that he could not endure fine music long: it exhausted him. So it might be with Wordsworth.’

When I first came across this entry, I was quite amused to know that Wordsworth, a poet entirely unfamiliar with the world of musicians and composers, once attended a musical event in the company of his friends. Crabb Robinson’s rather sarcastic remark reminds me of Edward Quillinan’s observation that Wordsworth ‘had no ear for instrumental music’. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wordsworth lacked the skills to either appreciate or play music. He did not receive any formal education in the subject, nor did he harbour any interest in setting his verse to music. So, you may wonder, in what sense can Wordsworth be considered musical?

Growing up with fond memories of playing instruments and going to classical concerts, I have always been fascinated by the close connection between Romantic poetry and music. The synchronicity between Wordsworth and Beethoven, who happened to be exact contemporaries, has been the talking point of some Romanticists for many years. Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 18, No. 1, for instance, was pointed out as being composed in the same year that the Lyrical Ballads was published. Wordsworth, however, had never been personally informed or directly influenced by any musical pieces or studies; a comparative reading of the two forms of artistic expression as related but separate disciplines would undermine a conceptualisation of musical ideas and qualities from a literary perspective. For me, Wordsworth is an intriguing ‘musical’ figure not because he is a poet who engages with actual musical knowledge, but because he is a writer who understands music as an imaginative influence and consciousness.

In tracing the sense of equivocality and multiplicity that poetry associates with music, I examine how Wordsworth transfers the notion of harmony in music to his poetic theory and practice. Claiming that ‘a pure and refined scheme of harmony’ must prevail in all ‘higher poetry’, he presents some of the most sophisticated thematic and stylistic engagements with the music of verse. At the age of thirteen, Wordsworth confessed that his ‘ears began to open to the charm / Of words in tuneful order’. He locates ‘a complex feeling of delight’ in ‘the music of harmonious metrical language’.

Wordsworth establishes himself as a poet-composer who transforms discord into harmony by presenting the intricate craftsmanship of the poet’s mind through the orderly and systematic organisation of music. The poetic mind, he writes in The Prelude, is ‘framed even like the breath / And harmony of music’. With a deliberate purpose to construct and implement order, the mind accommodates and frames conflicting elements into a structured creation through the poet’s greater scheme of musicianship.

The unifying effect of Wordsworth’s musicianship resembles the reorganising and regulating function of the imagination, the ‘chemical faculty by which elements of the most different nature and distant origin are blended together into one harmonious and homogeneous whole’. Retaining the feeling of a whole without dispelling the individual parts of which it is composed, the poetic faculty that assembles and houses external inspirations with inner feelings and emotions produces not only sound but, more importantly, harmony.

Wordsworth’s poetry does not create harmony by reducing and dissipating dissonance and noise, but by sounding and sustaining an infinite range of possibilities and varieties. In search of what is necessary to the ‘mak[ing] up’ of his ‘Composure and ennobling harmony’, he listens to the ‘still, sad music of humanity’. Wordsworth’s harmony achieves a comprehensive and complex balance between opposite and discordant elements under one organised and collective whole, such that, as he writes of nature, ‘nothing [is] defined into absolute independent singleness’.

This book presents an original understanding of Wordsworthian harmony by examining an organised but dynamic sense of musicality that shapes his poetic theory and practice. It is the first study to draw on music psychology and aesthetics to interpret the function and mechanism of Wordsworth’s soundscape. Engaging with scholarship from the fields of literature and music, the book defines Wordsworth’s poetry and the imagination through musical conceptions, and establishes various modes and forms of poetic listening as experiences of musical performance and appreciation.

As part of the poet’s 250th-anniversary celebration, Paul Lodge recorded an album of songs that are settings of William Wordsworth’s poems. The songs were released at the poet’s home near Ambleside in the Lake District last September. In the same month, a musical production that reimagines the lives of the Lake poets with rock and roll music and lyrics premiered in Liverpool. The poetry of Wordsworth continues to inspire new and different responses to literature through the medium of music and sound. Musical Wordsworth plays the harmony of the poet’s major lyrical pieces.

Yimon Lo

Yimon Lo is Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Tübingen and Research Fellow at the University of Leuven.

Find out more about Musical Wordsworth on the Liverpool University Press website.


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