The Celestrial Twins
Poetry and Music through the Ages
A sweeping historical survey of the relation of poetry to music in Western culture
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.
"Its range is vast—from the ancient Greeks to T. S. Eliot—but though it is ambitious, it succeeds by not trying to be exhaustive. Kirby-Smith carries a lot of learning very lightly. . . . I should like especially to praise the author for his blessed clarity. The general is nicely balanced by the specific: representative individual poems get excellent readings, and in many instances, excellent translations. The book is well informed, but is not theory-ridden; instead of foggy jargon, we have genial common sense and graceful and witty prose."—Edward Doughtie, author of English Renaissance Song