AN ANALYSIS OF THE PURITANICAL HATRED OF MUSIC IN POETRY

Thomas-Moore-Statue

Thomas Moore, Central Park, New York City

There Silence, thoughtful God, who loves
The neighborhood of Death, in groves
Of asphodel lies hid, and weaves
His hushing spell among the leaves. 

—“Alciphron”  Thomas Moore

Edgar Allan Poe, in an 1840 review of “Alciphron” by Thomas Moore, writes the following:

At page 8, he [Moore] either himself has misunderstood the tenets of Epicurus, or willfully misrepresents them through the voice of Alciphron. We incline to the former idea, however; as the philosophy of that most noble of the sophists is habitually perverted by the moderns. Nothing could be more spiritual and less sensual than the doctrines we so torture into wrong.

Thomas Moore was Ireland’s most beloved poet and a friend and biographer of Byron—their letters read like a 19th century version of Lennon and McCartney trading song lyrics; Moore wrote famous songs, and Poe, ‘jingle man’ that he was, admired the Irish bard exceedingly, and Poe goes so far to wonder in this review whether Moore might not be the best poet of all time—that’s right: No. 1.

But Poe wrote real Criticism; his reviews were Criticism, not puffs, and therefore we see in the quote above a stern disagreement with a mind he very much admired.  Such things go on in the heaven of Letters, far above the little minds who think classical music is funeral music and Criticism is mean.

When he called Poe ‘the jingle man’ in a private conversation with a young William Dean Howells, Emerson wasn’t being mean; he was just being stupid, for Poe excelled in so many genres never attempted by Emerson that it would jingle the stoic New Englander just to think on it.  It is not that Emerson never rhymed himself; he did, but he somehow fancied that his rhymes harbored a rich philosophy while Poe’s rhymes were only rhymes—well, that is a point not yet resolved, but Poe was not bereft of thought—but why waste our time on a silly remark of Mr. Emerson’s?

The following passage may suffice to illustrate that Poe’s reviews were more than a little thoughtful, at least as thoughtful as Emerson’s colorful sermons which cogitated upon gigantic ideas, while Poe wrote philosophically on actual things:

[“Alciphron”] is distinguished throughout by a very happy facility which has never been mentioned in connection with its author, but which has much to do with the reputation he has obtained. We allude to the facility with which he recounts a poetical story in a prosaic way. By this is meant that he preserves the tone and method of arrangement of a prose relation, and thus obtains great advantages over his more stilted compeers. His is no poetical style, (such, for example, as the French have—a distinct  style for a distinct purpose,) but an easy and ordinary prose manner, ornamented into poetry. By means of this he is enabled to enter, with ease, into details which would baffle any other versifier of the age, and at which La Martine would stand aghast. For any thing that we see to the contrary, Moore might solve a cubic equation in verse, or go through with the three several demonstrations of the binomial theorem, one after the other, or indeed all at the same time. His facility in this respect is truly admirable, and is, no doubt, the result of long practice after mature deliberation. We refer the reader to page 50, of the pamphlet now reviewed; where the minute and conflicting incidents of the descent into the pyramid are detailed with absolutely more precision than we have ever known a similar relation detailed with in prose.

A remarkable observation from a ‘jingle man,’ but not remarkable to those who have actually read Poe; and his remark on the French is pertinent: Poe wrote in many different ways to a purpose, and Emerson’s ‘jingle man’ gibe is but the jealous growl of a man who wrote in the same style—and not a precise one, either.

One style: this is true of the current followers of Emerson and his line—which includes Whitman, who wrote in the style of Emerson’s prose (except for “O Captain! My Captain!” which modernists hate) and William James, Emerson’s godson, whose nitrous oxide philosophy influenced Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, which brings us right to the present day of scribblers who fancy themselves very modern and very free. 

The moderns’ practice is so free, their writing has no shape at all, for it is but poetry trying to shake free of poetry, form that is trying to shake free of forms, and thus the whole structure of po-biz is one gigantic bee-hive of prose that buzzes sans music, sans philosophy, sans criticism, sans poetry—a prose without any style whatsoever, except that style which rejects all style, like that philosophy which rejects all philosophy; a good example might be the head-scratching ruminations of 1990s Jorie Graham, the strolls in the park at twilight by John Ashbery, the cacophony of thousands of William Carlos Williams-influenced modern poets who race to the end of their lines like school-children hurtling pell-mell out of school.

One style of No style.

How was such a horror allowed to occur?

My guess is that somewhere along the line, it was decided that, to have a style, and, worse, to be proficient in a number of styles, was insincere. 

How dare Poe write “Ulalume” —and Eurekaand his Criticism— and his humorous tales— and his detective fiction— and his “To Helen” and his “The Masque of the Red Death”—and his Marginalia—and his Sea-faring novel—and his Reviews—and his essays—and his Tone Poems—and his Romances—and his early Science Ficiton—and his tales of horror—how dare he!

Surely Poe was some Victorian prank, and modern poetry, with its frankness and its bare-bones honesty and its one trusty style has saved the best of us from the sin of that populist trash.

So goes the unspoken analysis of the solemn modern who ponders Emerson and Pound with the utmost somber common sense.

But where’s the music?

Music?

Why, if we allow music, the ‘jingle man’ and his jingling might creep back into the tent, and with him all those styles, the Criticism (O mean criticism!), the poetic stories, all those genres he invented or developed, and that is so much work (what do you think we are?  Geniuses?)—better by far to proceed down the noble path of making poetry as “free” as possible!  Quick! Get me my copy of Aldous Huxley’s send-up of “Ulalume!”

For isn’t this the 800 lb. gorilla in the room?  Poe recounting how Thomas Moore is more descriptively precise in his poetry than anyone else in their prose points a cold finger directly at it: Shakespeare, after all was a poet in his plays and Shakespeare’s works are remarkable for their story-telling popularity as well as for their music; Moore, Shakespeare-like according to Poe, was very popular in his day, that Irish sun hidden now by the prosaic little moon of american modernism.

What poet in our day—and we can include the whole previous century–has the popular, story-telling, philosophical appeal of a Shakespeare, or an Alexander Pope, or a Thomas Moore, or a Poe, or a Byron?

This is a large topic, but something tells me it begins with the moderns’ horror of poetry that has music.

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16 Comments

  1. Aaron Asphar said,

    February 27, 2011 at 6:22 am

    Do you know what century it is? Not the one to be having debates bout the fucking TASTES

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 27, 2011 at 12:38 pm

      And so you wake up in the morning and check ‘the century’ and then respond with your heart and soul accordingly? You are a cretin, then, and no poet. True poets swim backwards in the mystical river of time and bathe in the freshness of a morning populated by spirits from afar. You express disdain not for me, but for your own being. You are a caliban.

  2. Aaron Asphar said,

    February 28, 2011 at 4:08 am

    don’t forget – a happy one – one who does not feel anachronistic or impotent : )

  3. Aaron Asphar said,

    February 28, 2011 at 9:57 am

    I have a humane test which I apply to books and blogs – I search the site to see how often ‘suffering’ is mentioned – this is an inverse measure of egoistic, reified, mysanthropic personality. You have not 1 mention of the word – until now. Shame on you.

  4. Aaron Asphar said,

    February 28, 2011 at 9:58 am

    Actually you have six. Oops! : S

  5. thomasbrady said,

    February 28, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    Aaron,

    What the devil are you talking about?

    Here’s a nickel. Purchase a Thomas Moore song forthwith; play and sing it with your mum at the fortepiano, and then get back to me. OK, luv?

  6. Noochness said,

    February 28, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    The Last Rose of Summer

    ‘Tis the last rose of summer
    Left blooming alone;
    All her lovely companions
    Are faded and gone;
    No flower of her kindred,
    No rosebud is nigh,
    To reflect back her blushes,
    To give sigh for sigh.

    I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one!
    To pine on the stem;
    Since the lovely are sleeping,
    Go, sleep thou with them.
    Thus kindly I scatter,
    Thy leaves o’er the bed,
    Where thy mates of the garden
    Lie scentless and dead.

    So soon may I follow,
    When friendships decay,
    From Love’s shining circle
    The gems drop away.
    When true hearts lie withered
    And fond ones are flown,
    Oh! who would inhabit,
    This bleak world alone?

    Thomas Moore

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 28, 2011 at 10:31 pm

      This is so beautiful. More than that, it is genius. It is like a beautiful piece of music. The modern who would reach for terms like ‘flowery’ and ‘sentimental’ in order to dismiss this poem would be committing a grievous sin against the Muse.

      • March 1, 2011 at 1:33 pm

        I agree with you that a lot of “smart” modern readers would not be able to intelligently read this beauty of a poem. I always get really annoyed when wannabe tough guy poets dismiss “poetry about flowers.” First of all, as a gardener, I can tell you that most flowers are a lot hardier than most people, especially those that write poems. Secondly, flowers are among the primary biological manifestations of love in our realm of being, so if that’s not a very good subject for a poem, I don’t know what is.

        This actually reminds me of Stevens’ “One must have a mind of winter…” poem, which I imagine you probably don’t like, Tom. I do like that poem, but ultimately prefer Moore’s more lush and graceful treatment of the theme, over the tough, severe posture that the ultimate “high modern” Stevens employs.

  7. Noochinator said,

    March 1, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    The Snow Man

    One must have a mind of winter
    To regard the frost and the boughs
    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

    And have been cold a long time
    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
    The spruces rough in the distant glitter

    Of the January sun; and not to think
    Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
    In the sound of a few leaves,

    Which is the sound of the land
    Full of the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

    Wallace Stevens

    • March 1, 2011 at 5:11 pm

      Thanks for posting the Snowman. I think the two poems are concerned with the same problem. The difference in setting, late fall vrs. dead of winter, is pretty important in terms each poems’ “answer” to the problem.

      I actually think the Moore poem is tougher. Stevens is resolving himself into Nietzschean superman territory, and all human loss in the poem is a distant memory, long ago swept away by the icy northern winds. Moore is setting himself right at the climax of loss, and there is no tight-lipped triumph of one who “beholds/Nothing”–just lyrical appreciation/mourning for what is being lost, and is always lost again and again, through all the generations of man.

      • thomasbrady said,

        March 1, 2011 at 7:09 pm

        It sounds to me like Wallace Stevens (not a recognized poet until an old man) began trying to write a Robert Frost poem (the first few stanzas are pleasant enough) and then gives up his Frost attempt as we see an abrupt shift into WC Williams mode—or perhaps he’s still going for Frost, after all, Frost could be meditative and philosophical, but there’s something about a falling off in the music which makes me think of Williams. And the final ‘metaphysical’ line—for me, anyway—lands with a terrible thud, and the poem which began in Frost, ends not in fire or delight, but in fizzle. It doesn’t help that the penultimate line is very awkward—I find myself pausing to get the meaning every single time I read it—and perhaps one could say this is intentional (a frost slowing down one’s thoughts?) but lyric poetry that stops you like a puzzle always feels like a failure to me because finally, what are you pausing for? There’s a time and place for great mental effort—but puzzlinlg over what’s real and what’s not in the middle of a lyric poem? Stevens was awfully talented and clever, obviously, but I don’t always like his taste.

  8. Noochinator said,

    March 2, 2011 at 12:33 am

    Dust of Snow

    The way a crow
    Shook down on me
    The dust of snow
    From a hemlock tree

    Has given my heart
    A change of mood
    And saved some part
    Of a day I had rued.

    Robert Frost

  9. Noochness said,

    March 2, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Snowblind

    What you get and what you see
    Things that don’t come easily
    Feeling happy in my vein
    Icicles are in my brain

    Something blowing in my hair
    Winter’s ice, it soon was dead
    Death would freeze my very soul
    Makes me happy, makes me cold

    My eyes are blind, but I can see
    The snowflakes glisten on the tree
    The sun no longer sets me free
    I feel there’s no place freezing me

    Let the winter sunshine on
    Let me feel the frost of dawn
    Fill my dreams with flakes of snow
    Soon I’ll feel the chilling go

    Don’t you think I know what I’m doing
    Don’t tell me that it’s doing me wrong
    You’re the one who’s really a loser
    This is where I feel I belong

    Crystal world with winter flowers
    Turn my days to frozen hours
    Lying snowblind in the sun
    Will my ice age ever come?

    Black Sabbath

  10. richard Hanna said,

    January 10, 2012 at 8:03 am

    Thomas Moore’s liminality makes him a current and relevant historical figure. As a writer it seems Moore spread himself too thin. As a lyricist however he has written some exquisite songs. Oft In The Stilly Night and AT The Mid Hour Of Night are considered by many musicologists as flawless examples of perfect metre alongside perfect sense alongside perfect rhyme. As Moore was also a singer he gives us wonderful vowels to sing.

  11. thomasbrady said,

    January 10, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    How to best describe the songs of Thomas Moore? How do these lyrics compare to the present day? Some would call them “sentimental” or “fastidious.”. Smirking, some might call them “drunken.” They are certainly “musical” and “beautiful.” But I have a better word, perhaps.

    “Sane.”

    Oh! think not my spirits are always as light

    Oh! think not my spirits are always as light,
    And as free from a pang as they seem to you now,
    Nor expect that the heart-beaming smile of to-night,
    Will return with to-morrow to brighten my brow.
    No; life is a waste of wearisome hours
    Which seldom the rose of enjoyment adorns;
    And the heart that is soonest awake to the flowers,
    Is always the first to be touch’d by the thorns.
    But send round the bowl, and be happy a while,
    May we never meet worse, in our pilgrimage here,
    Than the tear that enjoyment may gild with a smile,
    And the smile that compassion can turn to a tear.

    2. The thread of our life would be dark, Heaven knows,
    If it were not with friendship and love intertwined;
    And I care not how soon I may sink to repose,
    When these blessings shall cease to be dear to my mind.
    But they who have loved the fondest, the purest,
    Too often have wept o’er the dream they believed;
    And the heart that has slumber’d in friendship securest,
    Is happy indeed if ’twas never deceived.
    But send round the bowl; while a relic of truth
    Is in man or in woman, this prayer shall be mine,
    That the sunshine of love may illumine our youth,
    And the moonlight of friendship console our decline.


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