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Poetry, Creativity, and the Musical Imagination
By David Gosselin
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
Populations that aren’t in a disposition to receive beautiful and impassioned conceptions in the realms of the arts will seldom know how to pursue them in the real world. A nation of people which knows only how to think in literal terms—rather than in metaphorical and ironical terms—loses the ability to not only appreciate nuance in both thought and ideas, it loses the ability to discuss reality beyond mere sensory or statistical apprehensions of the world, and ultimately loses the ability to wield the power of a creative imagination.
Such a people cannot remain free for long.
The essential role of classical music and poetry is the fostering of a powerful creative imagination. The ability to seek out and appreciate nuance in both musical and poetical concepts within the domain of the creative imagination expresses at its heart a fundamental freedom to think and act creatively within the real world.
This freedom of creative thought is used by the great scientist who generates and investigates new hypotheses; it is the freedom of thought which stands in opposition to the anti-creative, homogenizing, and stultifying quality of popular thinking so present in mass culture.
One who thinks only literally has no ability to question his/her assumptions, has no power to investigate the underlying causes of his/her experience, and as a result, has no ability to affect any fundamental change in the universe. Today, rather than believe one can affect meaningful change in the world, contribute something of value, or have a place in history, an increasing number of the population is drawn towards a never-ending pursuit for new forms of entertainment, new distractions and new kinds of momentary pleasure. An increasing number of individuals feel that they have been denied the joy of participating in any sort of higher meaningful function in society.
The role of poetry in a healthy society is to awaken the higher faculties of the human race. These higher faculties are one’s creative reason and the power of the human imagination, the ability to make discoveries and express poetical ideas. Through great poetry such as the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, to name a few, individuals are afforded the opportunity to explore the complexities of human nature and to seek out rather than run from the great paradoxes of the universe.
Rather than literal thinking, poets engage the minds of a population through irony and metaphor. Poetry allows the human race to act in the universe with increasing levels of awareness in respect to the unseen laws and principles governing our sense-perceptual experience.
In the words of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley:
Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called, in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators, or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.
In his “Defence of Poetry” Shelley referred to this quality of thought as “impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature.” Through this kind of impassioned “awareness” of our higher nature—a nature which is not revealed through the senses—the species gains an ever-increasing power to act on those things which lie beyond the scope of a direct experience of the world, but which lie at the heart of our indirect experience of the principles and ideas governing the myriad expressions of the finite world. In a word: poetry serves as a source of inspiration which strengthens our imagination and develops our ability to think and act in non-literal and non-linear ways.
Without this essential quality of creative thought, typified by musical or poetical thinking, a majority of the population may succeed in describing the world as it is, but rarely imagine it to be other than it is, and rarely find themselves capable of conceiving new possibilities or here-to-fore unknown potentials inherent in the human species. Whether it be the idea of space exploration, the theory of relativity or the discovery of the periodic table of elements, all such insights are the products of the creative imagination, rather than the result of mere literal sensory experience.
Shelley writes the following in his Defence of Poetry:
A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not. The grammatical forms which express the moods of time, and the difference of persons, and the distinction of place, are convertible with respect to the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry; and the choruses of Aeschylus, and the Book of Job, and Dante’s Paradise would afford, more than any other writings, examples of this fact, if the limits of this essay did not forbid citation. The creations of sculpture, painting, and music are illustrations still more decisive.
The One and the Many
Poetry must not only capture the changing, it must capture the unchanging.
Without knowledge of the infinite—the unchanging principles which govern our ever-changing experience of the universe—knowledge of the finite becomes absurd, meaningless. It is the human imagination which allows the species to grasp and wrestle with concepts of the infinite and change the conditions of the finite world. Without such faculties, there would be no possibility for human evolution. A change of environment or depletion of resource would simply result in the extinction of the human species, as has been the case for nearly every other species of life on Earth. As Einstein stated himself, the creative imagination has made the “evolution” of the human species possible.
Poetry, like all great art, is a distillation of the intimate relationship between the ever-changing phenomena of the ephemeral world and the unchanging principles of the universe at large. Without knowledge of those things which never change, knowledge of things which change becomes meaningless; humanity cannot gain any greater understanding of either its own purpose or the purpose of anything in the universe. The world simply becomes an aggregation of arbitrary and purposeless experiences unfolding in a completely absurd non-creative universe.
With every step and at every turn, human beings are confronted with a paradox which Plato referred to as the paradox of the “One” and the “Many.” Phenomena which appear seemingly incommensurable exist simultaneously—mind and matter, spirit and flesh—and cannot be adequately addressed one apart from the other. Each attempt to do so causes us to err in our thinking.
Poetry functions as the bridge between these two domains: the world of the finite and the world of the infinite—the “One” and the “Many.”
Edgar Allan Poe identified this essential function of poetry in his essay on the “Poetic Principle”:
And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight. But this mere repetition is not poetry. He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and sentiments, which greet him in common with all mankind—he, I say, has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man.
This “thirst” for immortality lies in the resolution of the eternal paradox of the “One” and the “Many.” Regardless of what station we hold in life, we encounter this paradox as it is expressed in its myriad forms throughout the universe: though the individual human being is mortal, the species is immortal; the body is material, but the mind is immaterial; the universe is finite, but unbounded.
As Edgar Allan Poe described in his essay, human beings do not merely seek to be individuals, human beings seek something greater—a “something in the distance”—which they cannot directly see, but which the human mind can indirectly apprehend. This “something in the distance” gives us an intimation of meaning beyond our mere immediate mortal identity and personal self-interest.
As Shelley described, the poet uses poetry as a means of resolving the paradoxes inherent in our individual mortality. He/she does so by causing the mind to reach beyond the merely finite expressions of time and place and directing it towards the infinite.
By defining an endlessly expanding store of metaphors, stories and imagery, the poet is able to distill new thought-objects and generate new thought constellations within the minds of his/her audience. This in turn allows the human race to make new discoveries and act with increasing levels of awareness in respect to the eternal paradoxes of the universe and human condition.
The Modern World
The great German poet Friedrich Schiller wrote of the artist’s role in society:
The Artist, it is true, is the son of his age; but pity for him if he is its pupil, or even its favorite! Let some beneficent Divinity snatch him when a suckling from the breast of his mother, and nurse him with the milk of a better time that he may ripen to his full stature beneath a distant Grecian sky. And having grown to manhood, let him return, a foreign shape, into his century; not, however, to delight it by his presence; but terrible, like the son of Agamemnon, to purify it. The matter of his works he will take from the present; but their Form he will derive from a nobler time, nay from beyond all time, from the absolute unchanging unity of his nature. Here from the pure aether of his spiritual essence, flows down the Fountain of Beauty, uncontaminated by the pollutions of ages and generations, which roll to and fro in their turbid vortex far beneath it.
Schiller cautioned the artist against becoming merely a product of his/her time. However, in the twentieth century, we see that art, and especially poetry, increasingly became precisely this—a product of its time.
The Poetry Foundation’s essay “An Introduction to Modernism—The monumental Artistic Movement that Changed Poetry Forever,” states the following regarding the advent of Modernism:
With the inventions of everything from the automobile to the airplane, the vacuum cleaner to the incandescent lightbulb, the motion picture to the radio, and the bra to the zipper, people’s lives were changing with unprecedented speed. Many English-language artists, including poets, thought a new approach was needed to capture and comment on this new era, requiring innovation in their own work: the result was called Modernism, the largest, most significant movement of the early 20th century.
The Modernists recognized the need to address the changes brought on by modern society, but they in large part failed to describe these changes within the context of those things which never change. The failure to properly distinguish those things which constantly change from those things which never change has been a cause for much confusion in regards to the proper function of not only art, but every facet of human thinking.
In light of the economic depressions of the early twentieth century, the great wars in Europe, Modernist poetry increasingly became a reflection of the darkest facets of human nature, but it rarely offered a way out. Modern art generally drifted away from a substantial discussion of ideals or higher principles and became increasingly flooded with waves of obscure thinking and existential commentaries, artists constantly looking for new innovative ways to voice their angst and despair. This break with earlier traditions left a great void in the poetic dialogue among cultures. A modern audience was left with little more than an existential sense of despair in the face of the crises and challenges of the twentieth century.
Rather than developing new metaphors and ironies for transcending the obstacles of the modern world, twentieth-century Modernism largely decided to concern itself with new innovative ways of describing the world as it was, but rarely as it “ought to be.” With a flurry of free associations, Nobel laureate poet T.S. Eliot described the modern world as a “Wasteland”; W.B. Yeats (another Nobel laureate) sought for a higher meaning, which he could not find in modern society, through Gnostic symbolism and occult practices—knowledge of which was reserved only for the initiated; Ezra Pound championed with fervor the “new” in all its myriad forms, including the novelty of Italian fascism.
Many Modernists expressed their open disdain for what they considered the “masses”; they treated poetry as something increasingly sectarian, rather than an instrument for inspiring the creative imagination and uplifting the population from a purely literal and sensory apprehension of the world. Modern art described human beings and the world in all its imperfections, but seldom identified any means for its perfection.
This was not the case for Homer or Dante Alighieri, nor was it the case for a Shakespeare, Keats or Shelley. All these poets lived within their own time, but each of them, in their own original way, rejected the biases and prejudices of their time. They were not simply mirrors of their time, they were mirrors of timelessness. Their explorations of the complexity and nuance inherent in an understanding of the universe and human nature—as exemplified by Homer’s Iliad, Dante’s Commedia, or Keats’ great Odes—had as its purpose the progress and evolution of the human spirit. Poets like Homer and Dante defined civilizational concepts by extensively elaborating an idea of human nature which allowed mankind to become an ever-more conscious actor in society and the universe at large.
On the other hand, as their own words attest, Modernist greats like T.S. Eliot had for their poetic purpose merely the creation of impressions and implicitly avoided any philosophical investigation of meaning, purpose or morality for humanity. So Eliot famously said “for a poet to be also a philosopher, he would have to be virtually two men; . . . the work is better performed inside two skulls than one.” Eliot also elaborated his idea of the “objective correlative” and stated that he were in no better position to describe the meaning of his poem the “Wasteland” than any other reader was!
As the poet and critic Adam Sedia writes in his essay on the “Mask of T.S Eliot”:
Eliot the poet consciously structured his poems to convey only an image or impression, and one that would vary according to each reader. In addressing how to interpret his own works, Eliot the critic wrote, “I am no better qualified to say No! [to any interpretation] than is any other reader.” (See, § II, infra.)
While Eliot explicitly avoided philosophical concepts or any idea of intrinsic meaning in his poetry, opting instead for the creation of novel literary effects, W.B. Yeats—another Nobel laureate—wrote poems whose purpose was to mystify his audience with occult symbolism and imagery, dazzling them with what they did not know. However, the lack of meaning in any traditional sense was not seen as an issue for most Modernists. Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot—two of the first Modernist giants—eschewed forms of classical metaphor and irony in favor of a flurry of new literary styles and innovations which allowed them to create novel impressions, even as their ideas often remained obscure or inscrutable.
While it was nearly impossible to completely forgo the use of irony and metaphor, which had been used for millennia, Modernists did occasionally pepper some of their pieces with flashes of insight. Despite that, what mattered most for the Modernist artist was the question of craft, precision in language (not ideas), and novel effect. Special attention was paid to language and word choice, but these poets did not go to great length to ensure their poetry had any discernible meaning or value for someone seeking to better understand the nature of the human condition. Modernist versifiers preferred to busy themselves with new styles and literary virtuosity.
At around the same time, Modernist playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw wrote some of the most cynical plays in existence and used his position as a poet, playwright and essayist to denounce the classical tradition of Shakespeare and Homer:
There are moments when one asks despairingly why our stage should ever have been cursed with this “immortal” pilferer of other men’s stories and ideas, with his monstrous rhetorical fustian, his unbearable platitudes, his pretentious reduction of the subtlest problems of life to commonplaces against which a Polytechnic debating club would revolt, his incredible unsuggestiveness, his sententious combination of ready reflection with complete intellectual sterility, and his consequent incapacity for getting out of the depth of even the most ignorant audience, except when he solemnly says something so transcendently platitudinous that his more humble-minded hearers cannot bring themselves to believe that so great a man really meant to talk like their grandmothers. With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his.
George Bernard Shaw – Dramatic Opinions and Essays (1907)
While Shaw’s palpable hatred of Shakespeare and the tradition he represented may be considered an instance of exceptional vitriol and contempt for the classical tradition, the Modernist approach to poetry and the arts very much shunned any sense of classical metaphor or irony as it had been wielded by the bards of the past.
In truth, the true artist must care and pay close attention to his/her craft, but the perfection of craft must not be an end, only a means for improving one’s communication and development of ideas. Ideas, as thought-objects, cannot be communicated through the sense, but rather only through paradox, metaphor, irony. The good critic must be able to distinguish between excellence in craft and the successful composition of a poetical concept.
Edgar Allan Poe beautifully and succinctly identified this dual task in his essay on the Poetic Principle:
He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and sentiments, which greet him in common with all mankind—he, I say, has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs.
Edgar Allan Poe – The Poetic Principle
Twentieth-century poetry was much more concerned with the question of craft and literary innovation than it was with having a role to play in changing or uplifting society—as a Homer or Dante had done, or as their poetical heirs had achieved—quite the opposite: the role of art and poetry became that of highlighting the worse aspects of history and human nature, and offering nothing better. A concern for craft was much more pressing than a concern for Truth of Beauty in any traditional sense of the word. This was the essential function of Modernist poems like Eliot’s “Wasteland,” “The Hollow Men” and “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufock.” Those Modernist poets preferred to busy themselves with finding new innovative ways of expressing their existential despair about modern society and the horrors of the world.
All expressed some sort of despair, anxiety and neurosis about the world, and merely used its tragedies and horrors as mere poetical fodder for their verses. Poetry served more as a dark mirror, rather than a domain for the creative imagination to flourish.
T.S. Eliot famously sought to allay his Modernist malaise—unsuccessfully—through religious dogma. He could not find a remedy in philosophy, he could not find it in poetry, and nor could he find it in religion. Despite what some of Eliot’s more conservative or traditionalist admirers wished to believe, in light of his religious conversion, Eliot’s passionless and sterile defense of Christianity spoke more to his desperate search for meaning in life rather than a genuine spiritual awakening. But the case of Eliot only typifies the Modern age’s vapidity, and the many ways in which its practitioners sought to allay their modern malaise.
Musical Thinking vs. Literal Thinking
While the Modernists shunned traditional forms of poetic communication such as classical metaphor and irony, many did still demonstrate a technical prowess and devoted sense of literary craftsmanship. Just as the musical virtuoso can show off his/her technical mastery and display his/her talents with great pomp yet still not lay claim to the title of composer, so too does the impressive craftsmanship of a Yeats, the versatility of a W.H. Auden or the elaborate historical, cultural and social commentaries of a T.S. Eliot not allow these individuals to claim the title of genuine composer or poet.
As Edgar Allan Poe described, “with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description” the modern artist largely lost sight of that “something in the distance,” which is precisely what poets like Keats, Edgar Allan Poe and Shelley expressed, defended, upheld and even made progress with, in the tradition of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare.
In his preface to Prometheus Bound, Percy Bysshe Shelley specifically made reference to this tradition and the essence of what may be termed the classical approach:
The imagery which I have employed will be found, in many instances, to have been drawn from the operations of the human mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed. This is unusual in modern poetry, although Dante and Shakespeare are full of instances of the same kind; Dante indeed more than any other poet, and with greater success. But the Greek poets, as writers to whom no resource of awakening the sympathy of their contemporaries was unknown, were in the habitual use of this power; and it is the study of their works (since a higher merit would probably be denied me) to which I am willing that my readers should impute this singularity.
“The operations of the human mind” must guide the hand and give life to the words and images which the poet paints. In the tradition of Plato, the words and language of a poet are merely the footprints of ideas; they are the shadows cast upon the cavern wall.
For the classical poet does not seek to impress some effect on his/her audience with novel displays of technical prowess or to mystify them with obscure, occult or symbolic references, the classical poet seeks to provoke something which already exists deep within the human being, to awaken and rouse this quality within the reader. It is a quality of an awareness which can then be made fully conscious and acted on by a sovereign creative individual who experiences this “poetic” principle.
So Homer sought to inform his listeners of their history, to help them understand what made them what they were, and to allow them to draw the lessons of their history, to learn the value of cultivating nobility in spirit and to question the value of one’s life and the meaning of one’s mortal existence. In so doing, European civilization was able organize and direct its actions with a greater wisdom and consciousness, a wisdom embodied in the constitution of Solon of Athens—a constitution written as poetry.
While Modernists like Yeats and Eliot were adept in writing with rhyme and meter, there is a curious lack of music in their verses. Indeed, the tragedy of much twentieth and twenty-first century poetry has been its increasing tendency towards the symbolic and literal and a drift away from the metaphorical and musical; it has largely eschewed metaphorical language and lost the essential musicality in thought and idea which defined the classical poet’s ability to rouse an “immortal instinct” within a population. The Modernist’s rhymes ring hollow and their verses resound coldly—they lack music.
On the other hand, the verses of an Edgar Allan Poe, Shelley or Keats were extremely musical and ironical—they shunned the literal. Modernist verses rarely uplift or leave us with a sense of insight into humanity. As can be seen with Eliot, Shaw or Yeats, they tended to be a reflection of the worse qualities of their time, which poets like Schiller had specifically warned against.
What Is Musical Thinking?
“It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition.
My discovery was the result of musical perception.
Great scientists and artists understand that scientific and artistic insights are one and the same. The only thing that differs is the object of investigation and the predicates with which the practitioner of a given field works with.
This author believes that an exploration and renewed understanding of the inherently musical and poetical nature of creative thought—as opposed to literal description—lies at the heart of a renaissance in human thinking today.
One of the most ancient forms of poetry, which serves as a beautiful example of the non-literal and inherently ironical nature of creative thought is the classical tradition of strophic poetry. In the essay entitled “How Hobbes Mathematics Misshaped Modern History,” the basic unit of a strophic poem—a strophe—is described in the following manner:
The strophe provides a repeated, yet varied structure for the poem as a whole. The change of vowels and consonants, in contrast of one strophe to each of the others, provides a degree of contrapuntal irony to the repeated common aspect of the successive strophes. The imagery of ideas in the verse as such, provides another degree of contrapuntal irony. It is the juxtaposition of these ironies, which generates paradoxes. The form known as the classical strophic poem, provides the poet, thus, a medium whose potential is a nest of paradoxes: within the stanza, among the stanzas, and in the poem taken as a unit-whole.
Lyndon LaRouche – How Hobbes Mathematics Misshaped Modern History
The poet’s ability to generate paradoxes in the mind of the reader defines the poet’s essential power to move, inform and inspire the reader’s imagination. Through the use of counterpoint and the juxtaposition of various ironical thoughts, images and rhymes, the poet is able to direct the reader’s attention away from the mere words and literal text—the said—to the metaphorical unspoken idea, the unsaid.
The literal text of a poem functions much like a musical score. A poetic idea is enfolded within a successive series of stanzas, rhymes and images; then it is unfolded through counterpoint, irony and the metaphorical relationship between successive images, rhymes, strophes and stanzas.
Moreover, the poetry per se is best highlighted by the natural human singing voice. The singing voice is able to unfold the tension found between the various poetic elements nested between the words and images. The human voice is able to contrast the different thoughts that lie between the lines much in the same way a painter uses darkness and light to make visible his/her unseen subject.
The art of musical communication lies in the ability to communicate the unsaid. To the degree a talented communicator can master these poetic elements, their speech will become musical, their stories will be compelling and their voices will be able to command the imagination of listeners in essentially the same way as a scientist is able to cause the universe to respond to his/her valid hypothesis.
As in a classical poem, the essence of classical music lies in the development and exploration of a theme: a theme is explored, transformed, inverted and counterpointed. For example, the sonata form is based on the idea of making a musical statement, a counter musical statement, followed by a restatement of the whole. But regardless of which instrument, or which form—whether it is an essay, a musical composition, a poetic composition, a painting or a scientific thought-experiment—what is termed the “sonata form” is simply musical verbiage describing a process that exists universally in all fields of thought. Whether it is the theme of a Bach fugue, a Mozart piano concerto, or a symphony by Beethoven, each piece originates out of musical theme or phrase. Likewise, Shakespeare composed his dramas by largely drawing from pre-existing stories, folklore or legends and giving them his own dramatic treatment.
How and why a poet, dramatist or any artist chooses to treat his/her theme or subject largely defines a piece at any given moment of its unfolding. Such choices also provide a window into the poet’s outlook on the world, his/her understanding of human nature and the universe at large. Thus, the essence of a talent like Shakespeare’s lies in the manner in which he chose to “treat” his theme or story. Shakespeare was able to investigate and explore a thematic idea for all its richness and potential insight. However, a dramatic or poetic treatment of a theme is essentially a special kind of musical treatment. Regardless of what medium the artist uses, whether it is music, poetry, drama or the plastic arts, the essence of the art lies in a musical approach, rather than a literal one.
In the case of a strophic poem, the poet selects a theme which he/she then treats musically. The poet states his/her opening theme, unfolds this theme through variation and counterpoint, and then states the purpose for his statement. A series of images and rhymes are generated that allow one to carry the theme further.
One of the key aspects of music is repetition. In a strophic poem, one notices the repetition of not only a fixed form such as a stanza or strophe, but also of words or phrases. However, it is not the literal repetition of words, but rather a special kind of musical variation. A phrase or word may be repeated, but these restatements function as elaborations of the initial theme—they represent a musical development. Each repetition allows for a further nuancing of the initial statement as a re-statement of the initial theme in respect to the literal words, but as also a special kind of variation on the opening theme in context of the new images, rhymes and thoughts that have unfolded.
Rather than repetition of literal words, one should look for the ironies in a re-statement—something new which could not have been originally stated, but which can now be expressed as a variation on the opening theme. In a word: the purpose of restatements is to add more precision and more nuance—more richness—to the musical idea.
Poe identified precisely this musical nature of strophic poetry in his essay by pointing out that the repetition of a phrase, image or line is not poetry:
And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight. But this mere repetition is not poetry.
Thus, just as a series of notes defines a musical phrase or theme which can then be explored for all its richness and meaning in musical language, so too may a word, phrase or series of images be explored for all their nuance and richness in poetic language. Likewise, a scientific hypothesis may be explored in all its possibilities and dimensions in a thought experiment, such as those performed by Einstein or Kepler.
The power of the musical imagination lies in its exploration of nuance, of the variation and complexity of even a seemingly simple idea. This variation does not represent alternative meanings, but rather different degrees and dimensions of meaning. Music demonstrates that there are in fact no “simple” ideas, only different levels of awareness regarding the complexity and richness of an idea. The composer or scientist’s talent depends on their ability to explore their theme or hypothesis.
We can best illustrate the point by taking the example of a simple traditional “ballad”. The ballad is a particularly musical example of the kind of strophic poem championed by poets like John Keats and Edgar Allan Poe—a form which has since lost popularity.
The ballad offers us a stark example of how the mind functions musically, rather than literally. With the use of counterpoint in imagery, and the counterpoint between the ironies among various images, the poet is able to create a transformative tension which generates paradoxes in the reader’s mind. These paradoxes, rather than anything said directly, make the poet’s indirectly spoken idea intelligible.
The “Unquiet Grave” is an English ballad dating from the 1400s which serves as a perfect first example. The scene is set at a grave site where a lover sings to his deceased beloved.
“The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.
“I’ll do as much for my true-love
As any young man may;
I’ll sit and mourn all at her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day.”
The twelvemonth and a day being up,
The dead began to speak:
“Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
And will not let me sleep?”
“T’is I, my love, sits on your grave,
And will not let you sleep;
For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips,
And that is all I seek.”
“You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
But my breath smells earthy strong;
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
Your time will not be long.
“T’is down in yonder garden green,
Love, where we used to walk,
The finest flower that e’re was seen
Is withered to a stalk.
“The stalk is withered dry, my love,
So will our hearts decay;
So make yourself content, my love,
Till God calls you away.”
One’s ability to understand and appreciate the quality of a strophic classical poem not only defines their ability to think poetically, it highlights the most vital function of an imagination: to ascertain the unchanging laws according to which the changing world is governed. The imagination can uniquely perceive what the senses cannot. The poetic imagination understands that the myriad expressions of the world are merely individual instances of unchanging principles; that the finite is merely a special case of the infinite, and that the seen is merely one instance of the unseen.
In the case of the “Unquiet Grave,” the wind is blowing, the rain is falling; the beloved has passed away, but after an initial setting of the scene in stanzas I and II, the deceased beloved responds to the lover’s song in stanza III:
Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
And will not let me sleep?
The narrator will not let his beloved sleep; he craves the kiss of her “clay cold lips”—“that is all I seek,” he says. We hear the echoes of the previous stanza III’s rhymes “speak” and “sleep” return as “sleep” and “seek.” The lover will not let his beloved rest.
Though the narrator’s love has passed away, he still wishes to honor her and do things for her. In fact, the narrator is still so attached to his departed love that he largely forgoes attention to the earthly world in which he still resides. The ballad is intensely ironical: by refusing to live his own earthly life the lover is keeping his beloved from her eternal sleep.
While a seemingly morbid theme, the deceased is ironically the individual who encourages the forlorn lover to live and to enjoy his life, a life which is so dear, and yet so short and fraught with obstacles.
Someone reading this ballad may be forced to consider how they spend their own earthly life. Are their energies spent on those things which have already fled, which are no longer, or are they using their time on this earth in a way that will allow them to rest easy and honor the departed when their time has come?
The “Unquiet Grave” is a musical exploration of this theme, to great effect.
As we have stated: the purpose of the poet is to make the reader conscious of that which lies beyond their immediate perception and exists beyond mere literal words and images; that is, that which cannot be said, but which is in fact the true subject of a poem. By being able to communicate in the terms of an unspoken idea, we may appreciate the musical nature of not only a poetic thought, but the intrinsic musical nature of all creative thought.
The art of the ballads lies in the poet’s ability to tell a story, and to tell it musically, that is, not to refer to his/her subject directly, but indirectly.
A poetic idea is grasped musically, rather than literally. In fact, for the ancient Greeks, music and poetry had a common source in the “Muses.” Each art was a reflection of a higher creative power, a “Musical inspiration.”
Those who can think musically experience a freedom of thought not found in literal forms of communication—they are able to grasp what the literal minded cannot. Ultimately, someone who only thinks literally has effectively no ability to think creatively.
John Keats’ ballad “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, written in 1819, remains one of the most famous and finely crafted examples of a strophic poem. It serves as a perfect example of how poetry communicates its ideas in a non-literal fashion.
In the Greek musical tradition, an understanding of poetic ideas (and music) involved the recognition that poetry is not something crafted of the poet’s own free will so much as it is something which already exists, something already comprised within human nature—an eternal idea—which the poet is tasked with rendering into language through new metaphors and ironies. A great poet is able to take even the simplest language and simplest imagery and create coherent new thought-constellations
La Belle Dame…
So 400 years after a ballad like the “Unquiet Grave,” John Keats tried his hand at the ballad form and composed one of the most timeless and celebrated of all English poems, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”
A brave knight recounts the story of how he succumbed to the strange and charming powers of a “fairy child.” The theme is a very ancient one, but Keats treats the theme with a quality of irony and classical metaphor that distinguishes it among the most timeless of ballads.
The reader is encouraged to read “La Belle Dame sans Merci” silently, consider the paradoxes/ambiguities generated by the images, and then read the poem once more, only this time aloud, perhaps to the person/people next to them. Can the reader capture the shifts and re-create the ironies generated by the images. Is the reader able to make the ironies and shifts in the poem musically transparent?
O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms!
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful — a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said —
“I love thee true.”
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d — Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried — “La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
The knight’s telling of his initial encounter with “La Belle Dame” seems pleasing enough, but there is something mysterious about the dame. Something about this fairy-tale seems off. The narrator tells us “And sure, in language strange she said/I love thee true.” However, this seeming anomaly was not enough to deter the senses; there is more to the narrator’s story.
The narrator ends the first stanza by saying “And no birds sing,” and then ends with the same line ten stanzas later. What is the meaning of the line, “And no birds sing”?
In a literal sense, the line suggests the world around is quiet, there is no rustling, no stir, no din of life or activity, but what is the nature of this silence?
In a life, just as in a classical poem, there is nuance; the appearance of things is rarely the truth—they are two very different worlds. The nature of the silence is not merely the absence of sound.
While in the featured image of this article, the Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse presents a rather Romantic setting for the ballad—a kind of “mystical Eros”— the scene fails to convey the essential paradox that Keats is highlighting: while the senses of the knight are captivated by the fairy nymph’s charms, his soul is being ensnared. Her sensual charms are merely the means by which she imprisons his soul.
The reader should consider: Have the birds really stopped singing, or has this knight-at-arms become dead to the music? The object of passion, “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, which had kindled all of his senses, has vanished. He has become enthralled by the objects of sense, which can only fade, and so must he.
And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering
Though the sedge is withered from the lake
And no birds sing.
The subject matter and images used to elaborate his theme are what make this ballad so timeless and compelling. Rather than merely description, the images in Keats’ ballad are generated as the result of ironies.
The Modern Mind
Many modern-minded readers will undoubtedly appreciate Keats’ poem for its craft and imagery, but it is Keats’s metaphorical power, his ability to communicate something unspoken through his strophic setting, which defines the poem’s true power. Keats achieves this through the use of poetic counterpoint which generates ironies represented by the series of paradoxical images.
A modernist reading of this piece might focus on descriptive details, but will most often overlook or refuse to deal with the central paradox of the piece—the effects of a mind subordinated to the senses. The music, the movement of the idea is born out of this paradox and Keats’ searching for a means of expressing it in an efficiently intelligible manner. To fully appreciate the piece, one must do more than simply experience their feelings of the piece, the effects of the images and sounds on our psyche, they must experience the paradoxes. They will not simply feel what Keats feels, they will discover the underlying causes for the feelings described, and be made conscious of it within themselves.
This is the true goal of a great poet.
The human voice is also uniquely able to capture and shape the voice of the poem such that the ironies are made transparent. As the poet Paul Gallagher notes—in his essay Keats vs. the Enlightenment—Keats mentioned how the final stanza of “La Belle Dame” should be recited in one of his letters. And no bird sings should be spoken twice as slowly as it is in the opening stanza, which gives the final closing lines its gravity of irony.
The composition is a beautiful reflection of the common origin of music and poetry, and of a timeless standard.
In modern times, the art of strophic poetry and ballad composition declined to the point of near-extinction. But the ballad form had also been championed by the great German poets Schiller and Goethe who had a friendly ballad competition in 1797. Some of their most celebrated pieces, including “The Diver,” “The Cranes of Ibykus,” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” “The Bride of Corinth” and “The Treasure Seeker” were composed in a single year at the height of Weimar classicism. Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, was also a master of the ballad.
Keats and Edgar Allan Poe were the last great poets to carry the torch, and make new progress in the composition of strophic ballads and poetry. Works such as Poe’s “The Bells,” “Ulalume” and “For Annie” made the boundaries between song and poetry evermore illusive. Poe’s deep knowledge of the subject was evidenced by writings such as his essay “The Rationale of Verse” in which he analyzed the nature of poetic meter, its origins, purpose, and development across time going back to the ancient Greeks. However, with the advent of Modernism, a largely different path was taken.
The strophic form nearly disappeared, and with it an intimate knowledge of the musical nature of poetry and the development of poetic ideas. This is evidenced by the prose-like quality of modernist verses, its obsession with precision in words and language (but not ideas), and the attempt to pass-off literal texts as poems.
Twenty-first Century Poetry
The essence of the poet’s power lies in his/her ability to communicate in the kinds of non-literal forms that are vital to the health and sovereign development of a people and nation. A nation of peoples who thinks in increasingly literal terms loses the ability to discuss the world beyond the scope of their immediate and subjective apprehension of it. One who thinks literally may describe the world as it is, but seldom imagine or consider what it lacks, or in Shelley’s words, how it “ought to be.”
As expressed by timeless poets like Keats, Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe, the poetic imagination allows one to conceive of the ideal, and that which transcends the reality of any present moment. The laws of the creative imagination are not bound by the laws of a time or place; they are bound by the laws of creative reason. Thus, both Keats and Einstein viewed the creative imagination as the faculty by which the unchanging Truth of things could be apprehended.
The experience of the imagination is not bound by the experience of the literal world, and is therefore free to conceive of not only that which is, but of that which has always been, and to rediscover this unchanging reality within the present world. In a literal-minded culture, there is no room for nuance, and as a result, no room for scientific thinking or poetry. Concrete experience, our senses, becomes the ultimate measure of reality.
Though our two previous ballad examples treated the subject of love, the subject of ballads is not only love, romance and the delights of the world, but an exploration of all the facets of human nature. Take the example of a more modern ballad written by the poet Paul Gallagher, “Apollo.” The opening scene is the surface of the moon and is narrated by a speaker who watches from Earth:
I looked upon the Moon’s face, one evening warm and bright,
As near as a silver Matterhorn in the setting Sun alight;
That curving height of gleaming white on heaven’s dark blue did rise,
And then its rings of shadow
Were drawn upon my eyes.
The shadows there were those of men, now many years ago
When breathless on that mountainside, they saw the worlds below;
That desert land of shining sand with rich oases shone,
And beck’ning circle seas
And stately isles of stone.
O how that face was gazed upon, now many years ago,
Her beauty shone in every eye, each spirit burned below;
Her hidden arts in children’s hearts a lively picture drew,
And to her lovely shore
The hopes of nature flew.
Then came a day the stately craft, that courting ‘round her flew,
Received their fateful summonses, and soundlessly withdrew;
It happened so, she saw them go, nor ever to return,
And on the Earth below
No lamp or signal burn.
I watched the shining desert land ‘til I could look no more,
There were no spirits venturing to walk that mountain shore;
Behind a veil, now dark and pale the face of beauty lay,
Once loved and then abandoned
Forlorn and far away.
Where beauty shone in every eye, now gaze but one or two,
And all the ancient poets’ songs forgotten and untrue;
Across her white, in deepest night, the winds and shadows blow,
Her empty, glowing plains
And peaks in silence glow.
Then look upon the Moon’s face, though now the night is deep;
And gaze on that silver mountainside, though all the world’s asleep.
Where not a soul doth move or dwell, she looks across the sky
And all the worlds beyond
Are spread before her eye.
The narrator speaks of space, and treats the moon as a lost and abandoned land. But the yearning of the speaker is not for some earthly object, but for something beyond the earth, something cosmic.
Then look upon the Moon’s face, though now the night is deep;
And gaze on that silver mountainside, though all the world’s asleep.
Where not a soul doth move or dwell, she looks across the sky
And all the worlds beyond
Are spread before her eye.
Our attention is initially directed towards the moon; the speaker then directs our attention back to earthly reality and then re-directs our attention away from the earth and away from any object, towards his true subject: the role of the human species in the universe. The moon is presented as only one of the infinite stepping stones for humankind’s cosmic journey.
“Apollo” is a great example of how the classical ballad form can be adapted to any time and place. The challenge becomes figuring out how to adapt knowledge and experience of one’s own particular time to the timeless standard, as opposed to a merely modern or contemporary standard. The success or failure to do so determines whether a poem will endure after time and place have changed.
That every individual should become conscious and gain precise knowledge of how to marshal and develop their creative faculties is in this author’s opinion not merely some kind of wishful thinking, it is an absolute necessity for a species who wishes to progress beyond a system of democratic facades, oligarchical societies and the arbitrary rule of populism.
In truth, there is no rule book; even the greatest rule book depends on the cultivation and reproduction of a society—generation after generation—that has the capacity to seek out and appreciate nuance and understand to a high degree the fundamental principles of the universe—this ultimately decides the ability of a society to understand any valid “rule book.”
Indeed, the poet shows us how to defy the conditions of the present time and place and to conceive of a higher set of laws. They are able to perceive not only those things which are constantly changing, but those things which never change, “For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.”