Enlightenment Orpheus: The Power of Music in Other Worlds

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To put the matter in other, not less apposite, Wordsworthian terms, it separates "natural piety" from Christian piety. In On the Power of Sound , then, it is as if Wordsworth, with a kind of redundant reflexivity, were recomposing the straggling sounds of his earlier work into a sanctioned order, thus legitimating at once the soundness of its poetic principle and the principle of its poetic sound. There is of course considerable variety in the way the poem fulfills the requirements of its formal scheme of meter and rhyme—variety in the sound of individual words and of the sound patterns by which they are combined.

But one might say that this is a far subtler sense of variation than that of the widely varying sounds to which the poem refers in its semantic register: the roar, the bleat, the shout, the throb, the prayer, the lullaby. One might well argue that the human sounds are themselves already more homogenous, more shaped and cadenced, than the animal sounds. Through the double-sided sound capacities of poetry and indeed of language —its capacity both to be sounded and to refer to sound—the poem thus seems to suggest two conclusions: first, that the pre-semantic sounds of the world are made meaningful by their being semantically distinguished in such words as roar, bleat, shout ; second, that when these words are themselves brought into the formal sound pattern of a poem's distinctive music, they can be "heard" as constituting yet another kind of order: let's call this musical order "post-semantic.

Such an account may help to explain why Wordsworth goes on to spend so much of the rest of this poem on the question of music. In this, too, Wordsworth seems to be revisiting work of his "great decade," specifically a poem from the volumes titled The Power of Music , a verse reflection on how musicians playing to a crowd on Oxford Street provoke strong emotion among diverse listeners.

The great Orphic theme of music's power became a kind of obsession in the Romantic period, for reasons related to those explored in Cohen's analysis. Vanessa Agnew has recently been developing an ethno-musicological account of how this topic came to have such importance from about the time of Charles Burney's musical travel writing in the s.

For now, I attend to the question of how On the Power of Sound rewrites the poem in which he developed the theme of "natural piety," the poem that is arguably the most important single lyric that Wordsworth published in the volumes, perhaps in any volume: the simply titled Ode , better known by its elaborated title of , Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. On the Power of Sound, like the "Intimations" Ode , is a long lyric in roman-numbered stanzas; at lines and fourteen parts it is slightly longer but on the same order of magnitude as the Ode.

At the opening of stanza III, Wordsworth addresses the sounds to which he has referred in stanza II, beginning with lines about the phenomenon of echo that themselves echo the "Intimations" Ode :. This passage recalls two moments in the "Intimations" Ode. The first, the opening of stanza IV, addresses the songs of the birds and lambs, creatures named in stanza III:. The second is the reprise of these lines at the top of stanza X, where the speaker says, in effect, "on with your pastime":. Most important for my purposes, the final stanza of On the Power of Sound includes a pointed and complex echo—to the ninth stanza of the "Intimations" Ode , arguably the poem's pivot, and one of the most complex passages in all of Wordsworth.

Enlightenment Orpheus: The Power of Music in Other Worlds - Oxford Scholarship

Here, first, is the concluding stanza of On the Power of Sound :. The audible allusion is to the passage that records the sudden eruption of joy at the top of stanza IX in the "Intimations" Ode , more specifically a few lines on, when the poet says that it is not for the "simple creed" of childhood that. What is involved in the crowning echo of this passage in On the Power of Sound— this return to the question of whether "noisy years" are mere "moments" in a metaphysical Silence? Each passage, let it be noted, solves a problem posed in preceding stanzas. In the "Intimations" Ode , the problem is the puzzle voiced at the end of stanza VIII: why the growing child hastens his maturation by fitting his tongue to the dialogues of business, love, and strife.

The answer comes when the poem is able to see these acts of "endless imitation" as expressing not a submissive accommodation to the world of custom but a defiant skepticism about the world of sense. The relief that erupts into the poem in that pivotal exclamation at the top of IX—"O joy!

The child turns to mimesis as to a world of forms, one that expresses his distrust of the world of passing sensations. The solution to the poem's puzzle, that is, involves the recognition that all sounds ultimately pour into the ear of the Lord God of all, the author of the all-creating Word. The world is thus the Word, understood as a perfectly circular figure of sound's power. To see just what is at stake in Wordsworth's late reprise of his famous lines about the "Silence" and the "noisy years," we need to attend still more closely to the solution in stanza IX of the "Intimations" Ode.

It is, I suggest, hedged around by syntactical ambiguities. These depend chiefly on two prominent echoes internal to the passage. The first "But for" follows on "Not for" "Not for these I raise" and so may denote "Not for these but rather for. This raises a question as to whether the second "But for" clause is to be understood in apposition with the first or as a qualification of it—a matter of serious instability to the grammar and logic of the passage.

The effect of this further instability is to let the key point about just how the noisy years are made to seem thus hover between a statement and a plea, a fact and a hope. The larger effect of all these syntactic ambiguities in the "Intimations" Ode is to undermine the logic of the decisive transition to joy, and thus ultimately to lodge the poem's claim to find consolation—affective renewal—in something like the sound of its own words. In On the Power of Sound , on the other hand, the primacy of sound's affective power is more like the problem than the solution.

This effect, whose secular power strikes the older Wordsworth as dangerous, must now give way—not to the older "logic" of Murray Cohen's pre-enlightenment language scholars, but to Christian Logos, the Word issued and received by the Lord God of all, a transcendental figure that dissolves all distinctions of read or said, declarative or imperative. The sound of this Word is not only virtuous but also virtual. It is the sound of the power of sound. Retrospectively, then, the later poem's moral sentence—its categorical "No" to the question of noisy years and eternal silence—reveals something crucial about the earlier poem, and about the electric life which there is in its words, in its auditory effects and affects.

Despite its references to "the fountain light of all our day" and "master light of all our seeing" , despite its metaphors of sunlight and skyscape—"trailing clouds of glory" 64 and the coloring of "Clouds that gather round the setting sun" —the "Intimations" Ode is finally absorbed in the sheer sound of its own named affections. Wordsworth may have had his second thoughts about this feature of his extraordinary early lyric, but for Shelley it was perhaps the most cherished feature of a poem that much preoccupied him. It was the feature that made the "Intimations" Ode very much a lyric of its age.

Recall his comment in the Preface to the Poems of —a memorable instance of Wordsworth listening to Wordsworth—on the Milton-influenced line in Resolution and Independence , "over his own sweet voice the Stock-dove broods ": "The stock-dove is said to coo, a sound well imitating the note of the bird; but, by the intervention of the metaphor broods, the affections are called in by the imagination to assist in marking the manner in which the bird reiterates and prolongs her soft note, as if herself delighting to listen to it, and participating of a still and quiet satisfaction, like that which may be supposed inseparable from the continuous process of incubation" 2: Here sound and sense unite in a single word, while On the Power of Sound requires a full poetic "scheme," divinely sanctioned, to bring about such resolution.

I don't mean that Hemans echoes Wordsworth, though "the vision of the days to be" certainly invokes the idiom of the early stanzas of the "Intimations" Ode. Since The Sceptic is likely a response to Byron see Sweet and Taylor , it is interesting to speculate on Hemans's possible invocation of the idiom of Byron's nemesis, Wordsworth. At the very least, her clear syntax serves as a foil, in Empson's phrase see n.

But for might mean "except for" or, more in keeping with the context and standard editorial commentary , "only through" Shelley's Poetry and Prose 99n4.


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Agnew, Vanessa. Chandler, James. James Chandler and Maureen McLane. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, Cohen, Murray.

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Culler, Jonathan. Eliot, George Mary Ann Evans. The George Eliot Letters. Gordon S.

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Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity. Hemans, Felicia. Nanora Sweet and Barbara Taylor. Keats, John. John Keats. A Longman Cultural Edition. Susan J. New York: Longman, Langan, Celeste. Romantic Vagrancy. Richards, I. Principles of Literary Criticism.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Donald H.

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Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: Norton, Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. Oxford: Clarendon P, Except for The Prelude, references to Wordsworth's poetry are by line number to this edition. The Prelude. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. The material for the history of the Orpheus myth is drawn from literature, visual arts, history of religion, folklore, music history, and philosophy.


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Since the myth has been repeatedly interpreted by artists and thinkers this material requires an initial hermeneutic perusal which constitutes the first phase of the method. Analysis of the cultural genus to which this material belongs is necessary to determine whether the story should be read as a myth proper or some other type. The use of philosophy of myth is crucial here and, since myth must be defined in relation to art and philosophical thought itself, such an examination perforce becomes also a study in aesthetics, as well as a reflection on basic problems in philosophy.

And, finally, this analysis should yield a philosophical grasp of what the Orpheus myth means in terms of a particular conception of music's powers. From what has been said it is clear that the book is to a large extent an exercise in the history of ideas. Yet it is not undertaken solely with the archivist's purpose in mind.

The motivating belief behind it is that knowledge of history is necessary for any attempt to "get to the truth" of any matter. This is true of philosophy even more than of historiography.

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What may seem at one time or another to be an immediate effect of music is in fact mediated by a complex history of prior beliefs about its powers. The philosopher's task is to know what the powers of music are—which means also knowing what powers it has been endowed with in the past. The argument presented in this book can be divided into three mutually connected planes, corresponding to the three questions posed above. The first plane has to do with the external history of the Orpheus myth—primarily its manifestations in the history of music.

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The second plane goes deeper into this history and shows how the myth evolved qua myth. The third plane spells out the joint music-philosophical implications of the first two. The title of the next chapter, "Shaman, Mystagogue, Hero," encapsulates the trajectory of the Orpheus myth from the archaic to early classical period in Greek culture. During this time Orpheus becomes a symbol of the universal powers of music.

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