Music and Meaning (3): Mind and Melody in ‘To Poesy’ and Poems, Chiefly Lyrical

The following extract comes from one of two poems entitled 'To Poesy' that Tennyson wrote at the age of nineteen, in 1828. 'O God, make this age great', the poem begins, and Tennyson exclaims in its subtitle. The narrator then proceeds to petition God to 'raise up Mind,

Whose trumpet-tongued, aerial melody
May blow alarum loud to every wind,
And startle the dull ears of human kind!

How does this early poem relate to what has already been said about a possible interrelation of music and thought? Bearing in mind how Tennyson suggests that 'Mind' itself creates an 'aerial melody' (if only 'dull', 'human' ears would hear it), would you agree that this poem supports the various claims we have considered concerning the central importance of music to Tennyson's verse?

Addressing 'Poesy' (or poetry), Tennyson concludes this early poem by asserting 'thou art all unconscious of thy Might'. However, 'I, even I', the poet has just asserted, 'Am large in hope that these expectant eyes/ Shall drink the fullness of thy victory'. At the age of nineteen then, Tennyson appeared to be extremely confident that such 'aerial melody' as already existed in the godlike 'Mind' would, through the medium of verse (presumably including his own), soon become mortally audible.

Let's now compare the confidence of 'To Poesy [O God, make this age great]' with the beautiful fragility of a poem called 'The Dying Swan', which Tennyson would publish in his Poems, Chiefly Lyrical anthology two years later. The first two stanzas of 'The Dying Swan' introduce a grassy plain and describe how 'a dying swan' begins to 'loudly... lament' as it runs down the river beside it. Then, at the beginning of the third stanza:

The wild swan's death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear;
... But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a strange music and manifold,
Flowed forth on a carol free and bold;
As when a mighty people rejoice
With shawms, and with cymbals, and harps of gold,
And the tumult of their acclaim is rolled
Through the open gates of the city afar,
To the sheperd who watcheth the evening star.
... And the wave-worn horns of the echoing bank,
And the silvery marish-flowers that throng
The desolate creeks and pools among,
Were flooded over with the eddying song.

So the swan dies and 'The Dying Swan' closes.

To some extent 'The Dying Swan' might be seen as a confident poem: just as 'To Poesy [O God, make this age great]' declares that God will 'raise up Mind', so the dying swan's 'death-hymn' here '[takes] the soul... with joy'. This swan is literally dying, however, and although there is 'joy' to be experienced in hearing its 'awful jubilant voice', this joy is explicitly 'hidden in sorrow.' Contrasting it with the strongly-sounded 'aerial melody' of 'To Poesy', what do you think about the 'strange music' and 'eddying song' of this later poem?

It was in his review of Poems, Chiefly Lyrical that Arthur Hallam called Tennyson a 'poet of sensation'. According to Hallam, 'the whole being' of such poets is absorbed 'into the energy of sense'. Thinking about how vividly this poem does or does not make you feel about the dying swan (how - if it all - it makes you think the bird looks and sounds), ask yourself what you think about Hallam's remarks concerning the sensuous qualities of this early anthology of poetry. According to Hallam's essay, 'shades of fine emotion... leave signatures in language', such that when 'strong musical delight' and 'painful feeling' are made to coexist in poems like 'The Dying Swan', beautiful emotions 'find a [musical] medium' which enables them to 'pass from heart to heart'. If this is true then it appears that 'Poesy' really does provide a means of conveying an otherwise inaudible 'aerial melody' of 'Mind' to 'the dull ears of human kind!', but do you think that this is actually what is happening in Tennyson's poetry?

As the literary critic W. David Shaw explains in his 'Conclusion' to Tennyson's Style, 'Tennyson's poetry is "diatonic", not "chromatic"'. 'In music', Shaw explains, 'the diatonic scale omits half notes'; likewise then, 'instead of advancing in a continuous chain-like process of visual mergings, Tennyson's poetry usually severs its links. Seldom smoothly transitional, it abounds in broken parallels and antitheses, like the discontinuous planes of painting'. It is not easy to follow the way in which Shaw moves across the techniques of music, poetry, and painting, but again we can see ideas about music, and a stylistic connection between Tennyson and painters like Rossetti, are being used to suggest something important about the emotional effect of Tennyson's poetry.

In The Victorians, another of Tennyson's critics, Philip Davis, also appears to use ideas about music to express something similar about Tennyson's poetry. Quoting , Davis declares that there are 'two utterly different musics known to men: one "loud and bold and coarse" like public noise in the social dance, the other "soft and low", near-silent, hard to hear, and yet easy to forget'. What is most striking about Tennyson, according to Davis, is that '[he] can find the poetry of the soft and ghostly even within the loud Parnassian cries of lament'. In Greek mythology, Mount Parnassus was the home of the muses and also - therefore - the home of poetry, music, and learning; analysing Tennyson's late poem 'Parnassus' (1889), we will later explicitly question what it might mean to characterise Tennyson's poetry as 'Parnassian'. For now though, the main thing that Davis appears to be stressing is that Tennyson's poetry can be simultaneously loud and soft, full-bodied and ethereal, coarsely communal and intimately personal. Think again about how Tennyson's 'melody' of the 'Mind' is both 'trumpet-tongued' and 'aerial' in 'To Poesy', and about how Tennyson emphasises the co-mixture of joyfulness and sorrow within the 'awful jubilant voice' of 'The Dying Swan'. This gets us close to what Davis is suggesting when he says that Tennyson's poetry is both 'loud and bold' and 'soft and ghostly'.

Through discussing these two early poems, we've highlighted some central questions about music and poetry: is it too ambitious to imagine that the language of men (even when wielded by poets) can convey or contain the aerial melodies of the Mind? What, moreover, are the relations between Mind and emotion and between painful feeling and aesthetic delight? Ultimately, if the 'music' of Tennyson's poetry is both coarse, loud and Parnassian and soft, introspective and ghostly, is his music 'diatonic' (such that it constantly shifts between styles) or is it rather somehow always all of these things at the same time? All of these questions become increasingly important as we continue to chart the course of Tennyson's poetic career.

[Go on to Music and Meaning (4): Living in 'The Palace of Art']

The name derives from the group's belief that art should be freed from the classical elegance and formal technique they felt was prevailing in art theory and education at the time. They traced this back to the Italian painter Raphael - Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520 - and themselves aimed to emulate the freer, vivid, complex vision of earlier Italian painters.
Clough (1819-1861) was a poet with a taste for unconventional religion and revolutionary politics. His most famous work is a long Scottish-based pastoral entitled The Bothie.

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