POETRY AND THE THOUGHT OF SONG IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITAIN by Elizabeth K. Helsinger, Reviewed by Michael Allis
 

POETRY AND THE THOUGHT OF SONG IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITAIN
By Elizabeth K. Helsinger
(Virginia, 2015) 256 pp.
Reviewed by Michael Allis on 2017-07-05.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

This is a fascinating book. In focusing upon the significance of song for a range of nineteenth-century poets, Helsinger's study extends her previous interdisciplinary work (Poetry and the Pre-Raphaelite Arts, 2007), but also develops, modifies, or reapplies work done by several other scholars: Isobel Armstrong's Hegelian focus in the first volume of Thinking Verse (2011), Jonathan Crary's analysis of perception and attention (Suspensions of Perception, 1999), Angela Leighton and John Hollander's exploration of sound patterning, and studies of rhyme by Susan Stewart and Peter MacDonald. In addition, Helsinger's new book chimes with several recent musicological studies. Explorations of the myriad of ways in which connections between music and literature can offer new readings of both musical and literary works, or help us understand meaningful cultural exchange and aesthetic or structural parallels between these arts, can be found in the wide-ranging work of the Forum for the International Association for Word and Music Studies (founded in 2009), Phyllis Weliver and Katherine Ellis's edited book Words and Notes in the Long Nineteenth Century (Woodbridge, 2013), articles such as Don Randel's "Congruence between Poetry and Music in Schumann's Dichterliebe" (19th-Century Music, 2014) and Andrew Weaver's "Towards a Narratological Analysis of the Romantic Lied" (Music & Letters, 2014), the collection of Lawrence Kramer's writings on word-music relationships in Song Acts: Writings on Words and Music (2017), or the recent special issue of The Journal of Musicological Research (36:1, 2017) devoted to "Reading Music through Literature."

Taking as her subject what might be termed song-recalling lyrics--"the short, rhyming, stanzaic lyric poems recalling song composed by nineteenth-century poets"--Helsinger defines them as "lyrics demanding especially careful attention to voiced or silent reading, composed in knowing relation to the disparate uses of song in several popular and literary traditions" (1). She considers not only how nineteenth-century British poets portrayed the idea of song (whether representative of otherness, as a symbol of shared political, cultural and social identity, or as an imagined music), but also more technical aspects of rhyme, alliteration, assonance, rhythm, meter, and structure. Highlighting the importance of sound patterns in poetry more generally, including those involved in the performative act of silent reading (the "variations in tempo, phrasing, pitch (inflection), and dynamics"), this book encourages readers to "listen to the sound of a poem thinking" (6, 2).

As her introduction notes, Helsinger conceives the book in two parts: the first (chapters 1-3) surveys her subject widely while the second (chapters 4-7) offers a series of case studies. Chapter 1, "The Persistence of Song," reminds us of how many nineteenth-century British poets associated song with the "strange" or the "other," whether the "half-bemused encounters with the alien lyricism of rural ways of singing, speaking, and meaning" in Wordsworth (25), the unseen or ecstatic birds in the poetry of Keats and Shelley, or the way in which Hardy's poetry ("On a Midsummer Eve," for example) can be characterized as "speech haunted by song" (31). According to Helsinger, nineteenth-century British poets were drawn to song by three qualities: its "different temporalities" and ability to reach "beyond a singing present"; its potential for "impersonality" and vocal "plurality," situated at an "uncanny distance between poet and voice"; and its "non-discursive structures," allowing the generation of "chains of associated figures of speech and sound, metaphor and rhyme, ordered by rhythms of recurrence that move with thought and feeling" (32). She also highlights the importance and variety of musical performance in nineteenth-century Britain, from opera, oratorio, and art song to communal hymn singing, parlor ballads, and music hall, along with recitations that included music. Combined with changes in concert etiquette, where audiences were encouraged to be silent; with an increase in what Christina Bashford has termed "active listening" via reference to program notes and musical scores ("Learning to Listen," Journal of Victorian Culture, 1999); and with important developments in musical education (such as John Hullah's tonic sol-fa system), musical performances clearly raised attention to the nature and sound of music in this period.

In Chapter 2, which examines the embedding of song within longer prose or poetic structures, we are again reminded of the number and range of these "interludes of visible song" (41) in works such as Tennyson's The Princess, The Idylls of the King, and Maud; Robert Browning's "Pippa Passes," Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market," and Swinburne's Lesbia Brandon, which is said to display "creative tension" (40). Helsinger also shows how embedded song transforms the text around it. Citing Arthur Hallam's phrase for Tennyson--"poet of sensation" (43)--Helsinger identifies his framing of songs as "alien elements within his poems" (43), whether the dangerous otherness of the Lotos Eaters chorus, or the attempts to recreate music of a distant youthful past in "The Miller's Tale."

Song is less alien for Swinburne. If the re-singing of ballads in his poetry evokes connections with "distant, temporally discontinuous occasions" (48), Helsinger nonetheless argues that song is integral to the "action" of Lesbia Brandon, and she highlights the strikingly performative quality of "Anactoria" (with its "sung song and danced dance" 50), Tristram of Lyonesse, and Atalanta in Calydon, and the visual impact of embedded song "set off by font or by quotation marks, indentations, or a surround of white space on a page" (53) in Tristram, Lesbia Brandon, and "On the Cliffs." Ultimately, she writes, these interruptions manifest the impersonality and plurality highlighted in the previous chapter, creating texts "by and for many voices, lacking the mystifying connection to a single voice or signature" (56).

In Chapter 3, which takes its cue from Gerard Manley Hopkins's phrase "figures of sound," Helsinger strikingly compares what Hopkins and Christina Rossetti do with rhyme. Hopkins, we are told, used rhyme in four ways: "metaphoric function," contributions to "structure and pacing," the "mnemonic power" of "aurally, visually, and kinetically memorable phrasing," and a "ritual music of words" suggestive of enchantment (62-4). In comparison with Hopkins's "consonantal chiming," which is part of his "sacred, incarnational poetics" (66), Rossetti's approach to rhyme is deceptively simple. Nevertheless, Helsinger argues, Rossetti's poetry not only betrays the influence of the nursery rhyme and market call, but also features silence, which "plays an unusually active role," whether the "virtual sounded space" between rhyming stanzas that represents time passing in "Song"--akin to music's notational rests--or the "unexpected silence" created by the shortening of specific lines in "A Pause of Thought" (68-69). Juxtaposing Rossetti's "A Christmas Carol" with its musical setting in Gustav Holst's carol "In the bleak midwinter", Helsinger closely examines syllabic stress, pacing of repetition, and relative motion within both works.

In Part II, chapters 4-7 offer a series of insightful case studies. The most effective of these--chapter 4, "Listening"--demonstrates how the "concentrated musical listening" (80) that Dante Gabriel Rossetti explored in paintings such as The Tune of the Seven Towers and The Blue Closet is mirrored in poetic texts such as "Song and Music." This chapter also highlights Rossetti's particular interest in the relationship between notation and sound, whether real or imaginary (challenging some negative perceptions surrounding Rossetti's musical awareness in the process), and suggests how a knowledge of old songs and ballads might have influenced the Pre-Raphaelites more broadly in their poetic and artistic endeavours, as well as explaining how the reader might be attuned to the striking patterning of sound within Rossetti's overtly-grouped "Songs" (including "A Little While" and "The Sea-Limits") and the Willowwood sonnets from The House of Life.

The last three chapters further examine song in the poetry of Christina Rossetti and Swinburne as well as in verse by Emily Brontë and William Morris. In Chapter 5, "Beyond Measure," Helsinger explains how the distinctively irregular rhythms in Rossetti's verse (akin to music's tempo fluctuation, fermata, breaks, improvisational shapes, metrical shifts, and even perhaps rubato) might be interpreted through her "secular and religious interest in the uneven experience of time" (118). This chapter also highlights Brontë's exploration of the "dangerous powers" of song and its ability to "make the past live again in the present" (128, 129). A shorter chapter, "Telling Time," suggests how the lyrical approach in William Morris's communal socialist chants--with particular focus on the "enactive lure of rhythm" (153)--helps us to understand the relatively neglected song-recalling lyrics that appear in the late verse and prose romances, including Morris's striking exploration of song-speech, charm and, riddle in works such as The House of the Wolfings and The Glittering Plain. Finally, taking the "visible song" of Swinburne's "Sapphics" as her starting point, and invoking Pater's concept of "sensuous motion" (169), Helsinger reassesses the significance of Swinburne's approach to rhythm in works such as "A Ballad of François Villon," Tristram, and "By the North Sea." Here she foregrounds two specific strategies: Swinburne's interpolation of rhythmic figures "to locally interrupt or create tension within an established rhythm," and his striking repetition of these interruptive figures "to construct much larger waves of rhythmic prolongation" as part of the poet's "rhythmic shaping of the feeling of thinking on a greatly extended scale" (171).

"To follow poetry's songs," this book asks, "how important is it to study musical song?" (34). Helsinger's response to this question is particularly convincing where the work of poets and artists is demonstrably influenced by specific forms of song. William Chappell's song transcriptions and Jean-Baptiste Wekerlin's Échos du Temps Passé (1853-5), for instance, not only influenced the titles of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and suggested poetic translations; in representing ballad forms, these musical models also exemplified the use of memorable repetitive devices. In addition, Helsinger suggests, Christina Rossetti's immersion in plainsong at Christ Church, Albany Street might have informed the freedom of rhythmic structure in her poetry. The reproduction of musical notation gives additional focus to the discussion, whether Wekerlin's "La chanson de Marie," or Thomas Helmore's "Venite" from The Psalter Noted (1856).

Further evidence of the links between musical experience and poetic utterance could be found in the poetry of Swinburne and Tennyson in particular, especially as the latter gave very specific advice to the composer Charles Villiers Stanford on two choral works: he discussed choices of pitch for the phrase "Was he devil or man" in The Revenge, and the placement of musical accents at the line "Let the bell be toll'd" in the Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington. Helsinger might also have made more of the parallels between poetry and musical notation--such as in the Hopkins-Coventry Patmore correspondence, where Hopkins incorporated musical symbols as a suggested aid to effective reading practices, or in Patmore's "Essay on English Metrical Law" (1857), noted only in passing in chapter 5. Furthermore, since chapter 4 briefly highlights the significance of the type of music- making experienced within a small artistic or literary circle, the central role of Georgiana Burne-Jones as a competent pianist and singer among the Pre-Raphaelites is another topic with potential for more detailed appraisal.

Mirroring the variety of poets discussed (who, besides those noted above, include Matthew Arnold, William Blake, Dante, Emily Dickinson, Simon Jarvis and Jeremy Prynne), and the philosophers, critics, and commentators invoked (Adorno, Baumgarten, T. S. Eliot, Hallam, Hegel, Heidegger, Kant, Pater, Patmore, Pound and Saussure), the musical references in this study range from the lute songs of John Dowland to John Cage's "attentiveness to silence" (87); it is also striking just how many of the musically-inspired poems discussed in this volume were themselves set to music. They include Christina Rossetti's "A Birthday" (in Hubert Parry's solo song "My Heart is like a Singing Bird"), and "Goblin Market" (in Aaron Jay Kernis's 1995 work for narrator and instrumental ensemble), Tennyson's The Princess (in Stanford's cycle of nine songs for solo vocal quartet and piano) and "The Lotos-Eaters" (Parry's choral work, Elgar's part-song), and Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon (in Granville Bantock's "choral symphony"). Serving the book's interdisciplinary aim, its examples of visual art (Burne-Jones, Mantegna, Martini, D. G. Rossetti, Titian/Giorgione) are carefully chosen, although these are all reproduced in black and white, which limits their illustrative value, especially in terms of the musical imagery in Rossetti's The Blue Closet.

Given the range and thought-provoking nature of this book, it will surely encourage--as Helsinger hopes--further scrutiny of verse practices within other song-related poetry such as "the ballad, the national air, or the revived anacreontic" (18). But since interdisciplinarity is a two-way street, her work also offers potential for musicologists to investigate further the function and nature of song. Whilst Helsinger's close readings might have implications for analyses of musical settings of these poetic texts, her discussions of the embedding of song within larger structures could encourage reassessment not only of musical design and formal processes, but of song's meaning (whether political, emotional, or in terms of vocal identity) when interpolated within an extended musical composition. Within British music alone, obvious examples include the central love song in Arnold Bax's 1916 orchestral work The Garden of Fand (Part I) (Part II) or the several fragmented references to Shelley's "Song" ("Rarely, rarely comest thou, / Spirit of Delight!") in Edward Elgar's Second Symphony. In conclusion, therefore, I can highly recommend this book as one that will engage readers with literary or musical backgrounds, as well as those interested in the fascinating potential that such interdisciplinary studies can offer.

Michael Allis is Professor of Musicology at the University of Leeds, UK.


Leave a comment on Michael Allis's review.

Name:
Email:
Comments:

 Subscribe to RSS feed

Search NBOL-19.org
Loading