Music and Meaning (13): ‘Other Songs for other worlds!’ in ‘Parnassus’ (1889)

Andrea Appiani's depiction of Mount Parnassus, the home of the muses, features the nine muses, all depicted in a manner appropriate to the art they represent, with Apollo in the middle.,_Andrea_Appiani_(1811).jpg

What be those crowned forms high over the sacred fountain?
Bards, that the mighty Muses have raised to the heights of the mountain,
And over the flight of the Ages! O Goddesses, help me up thither!
Lightning may shrivel the , but mine would not wither.
Steep is the mountain, but you, you will help me overcome it,
And stand with my head in the zenith, and roll my voice from the summit,
Sounding for ever and ever through Earth and her listening nations,
And mixt with the great of stars and constellations.
What be those two shapes high over the sacred fountain,
Taller than all the Muses, and huger than all the mountain?
In those two known peaks they stand ever spreading and heightening;
Poet, that evergreen laurel is blasted by more than lightning!
Look, in their deep double shadow the crowned ones all disappearing!
Sing like a bird and be happy, nor hope for a deathless hearing!
Sounding for ever and ever? pass on! the sight confuses -
These are Astronomy and Geology, terrible Muses!

Whereas the opening stanza celebrates an ideally efficacious 'voice' that hopes to sound 'for ever', the narrator's initial idealism is countered in the second stanza, which highlights how modern science in general (and 'Astronomy and Geology' in particular) threaten to blast the poet's laurel with 'more than lightning!' 'The poem has moved', says Cornelia Pearsall, 'from the inevitable disappearance of the ludicrously over-reaching poet to the more startling disappearance of the poet whose lips, though touched with fire from the altar of Pieria (home of Orpheus and the Muses), are also to be silenced in time, and by it.' Consider whether or not you agree that 'Parnassus' does undergo such a radical shift as Pearson suggests in the transition from its second to its final stanza:

If the lips were touched with fire from off a pure Pierian altar,
Though their music here be mortal need the singer greatly care?
Other songs for other worlds! the fire within him would not falter;
Let the golden Iliad vanish, Homer here is Homer there.

Parnassus closes by questioning whether a singer or poet 'need... greatly care' whether or not 'their music here' be merely 'mortal'. 'Although he dismisses the idea of poetry's immortality,' claims Pearson, 'Tennyson maintains the primacy of the poet's memorable words over any other kind of speech.' Having made your way through this resource on 'Music and Meaning' in Tennyson's poetry, do you think the 'singer' in Parnassus has cause for concern? What do you think Tennyson was attempting to achieve through his poetry, and how do the ideas of reading poetry aloud and appreciating its musicality relate to this? Was Tennyson a poet of Sensation as opposed to Reflection? Did Tennyson believe that poetry might be able to establish 'one music' or meaningful synthesis between various human bodies and souls, and if so, how permanent do you think any such synthesis might be? Hopefully this web-resource should have enabled you to think about (and possibly, to answer) a few of these key questions.

Further Reading

The ways that music and poetry resemble one another and work together, but also differ, and contrast, are by no means only pertinent to Tennyson. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a poet for whom the idea is never suggestive. The way to follow this up, then, is to think of other poets, whether ones whose works have been set to music, or who were writing songs all along, or ones for whom music is a telling metaphor running in parallel to their work. Shakespeare Sonnets 8 and 128 both concern music being heard or played; T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets have a music title and various kinds of musicality; countless poems call themselves 'songs', and not all of them have actually been sung. Pretty much anywhere you read, the way of thinking developed here will have something to offer.

Laurel wreaths were traditionally worn by great poets and Roman emperors; Mount Parnassus is a place where the poet's wreath counts for more.
'The music of the spheres' refers to an ancient belief, credited originally to Pythagoras, that the movements of heavenly bodies (sun, moon, planets) were harmonious in the way that music is.

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