Pages:
368

The Celestial Twins

Poetry and Music through the Ages
A sweeping historical survey of the relation of poetry to music in Western culture

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"All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music," wrote Walter Pater. The Celestial Twins, while recognizing many affinities between music and poetry, argues that poetry in Western culture has repeatedly separated itself from music contexts and that the best poetry is a purely verbal art.

H. T. Kirby-Smith makes his case with wit and erudition, proceeding chronologically and citing numerous examples of specific poems—from Latin, Old French, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, modern French, and English. He points out that ancient Greek poetry, including the epics, was part of a musical context. By contrast, almost no surviving Latin poetry was written for musical performance, but the meters of Latin poetry were borrowed from Greek musical meters. Similarly, in their own ways, Thomas Hardy, T. S. Eliot, and Langston Hughes all wrote out of musical contexts: Hardy from west-of-England songs and dances; Eliot from Wagnerian opera and late Beethoven chamber music; and Hughes from blues, jazz, and spirituals.

Although poets from Horace to Shakespeare to Dickinson have instinctively recognized the separation of music and poetry, there have also been well-meaning attempts to bring these allied arts back into close association with each other. But in Kirby-Smith's view, poetry of the highest order has always maintained a respectful distance from music, even while retaining some memory of musical rhythms and organization.

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