Continuing my investigation of Dereck Attridge and Henry Staten, The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation, Routledge 2015.
Attridge and Staten are interested in John Milton’s At a Solemn Music as a vehicle for exploring the relationship between a poem and “the currents of thought and system of beliefs prevailing at the time if composition and original composition initial reception – currents and systems that might be quite foreign to us a readers now” (p. 57). The poem is explicitly Christian and was written for a Christian audience. Can it speak to contemporary secularists and, of so, how?
My interest is a bit different: it’s quite different from the other poems I’ve looked at in this series of posts – The Sick Rose, Lennox Avenue: Midnight, and I started Early. This poem has an actual argument. That the argument is grounded in Christian doctrine is of secondary interest to me.
The Poem: At a Solemn Music
|1||Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heav'n's joy,||A|
|2||Sphear-born harmonious Sisters, Voice, and Verse,||B|
|3||Wed your divine sounds, and mixet power employ||A|
|4||Dead things with inbreathed sense able to pierce,||B|
|5||And to our high-raised fantasy present,||C|
|6||That undisturbèd Song of pure content,||C|
|7||Ay sung before the saphire-coloured throne||D|
|8||To him that sits thereon||D|
|9||With Saintly shout, and solemn jubilee;||E|
|10||Where the bright Seraphim in burning row||F|
|11||Their loud up-lifted Angel trumpets blow,||F|
|12||And the Cherubic host in thousand choirs||G|
|13||Touch their immortal Harps of golden wires,||G|
|14||With those just Spirits that wear victorious Palms,||H|
|15||Hymns devout and holy Psalms||H|
|17||That we on Earth with undiscording voice||I|
|18||May rightly answer that melodious noise;||I|
|19||As once we did, till disproportioned sin||J|
|20||Jarred against natures chime, and with harsh din||J|
|21||Broke the fair music that all creatures made||K|
|22||To their great Lord, whose love their motion swayed||K|
|23||In perfect Diapason, whilst they stood||L|
|24||In first obedience, and their state of good.||L|
|25||O may we soon again renew that Song,||M|
|26||And keep in tune with Heav'n, till God ere long||M|
|27||To his celestial consort us unite,||N|
|28||To live with him, and sing in endless morn of light.||N|
Syntax and Form
Staten begins the discussion with this observation (pp. 58-59):
I first realized what a great poem this is when I concentrated on following its syntax from beginning to end, not worrying too much about what everything meant, but keeping a sense of how the phrase and clauses fit together – allowing myself to be carried by the rhetorical rush of the opening 24 line sentence, with its four line coda. The sheer architectural grandeur of this syntactic construction, in its interaction with the metrical lines and end rhymes, game me considerable pleasure. (I think, by the way, that it’s generally a good idea to approach new poems this way, by trying to get a feel for the flow of the language first, and for how this flow is organized into phrases, clauses, sentences, and verses, rather than trying to “understand” it right away. It’s much easier to understand the poem once you’ve clarified the syntax.)
I agree, let’s start with the “architectural grandeur” and the “flow of the language.” However, I parse that grandeur and flow a bit differently than Staten does.
In the interests of brevity let me just state how I think it goes. The poem has four sections. Three of them constitute that 24-line sentence Staten rightly holds in high regard and the fourth is the concluding coda.
The first section runs from the first line through the end of line nine (9). It begins with “a two-line apostrophe to Voice and Verse” (p. 59) and is, in whole, and invocation of and invitation to song. It ends by mention “the sapphire-colored throne/ To him that sits thereon.” The second section runs from line ten (10) through line sixteen (16) while the third runs from seventeen (17) to twenty-four (24). The second section moves from invoking song to depicting it (Staten notes in particular the rhymed couplets in 10-13). The poem shifts its attention to us, fallen mortals, in the third section:
That we on Earth with undiscording voiceMay rightly answer that melodious noise;
And then, in six lines (19-24) encapsulates the Fall. That ends the major arc of the poem.
And yet there is a four line coda in which the poet asks/hopes/wishes to “renew that song” and thereby “live with him, and sing in endless morn of light.” In his commentary, Attridge suggests that the coda is evoking “the Christian notion of the end of time and the Second Coming” (p. 63), a suggestion that Staten resists. This particular matter takes up much of their discussion, about which I will say only a very little, and that in the next section. Before even getting there, however, Staten asserts that the poem is (p. 60)
about an essential concern of human beings […] the desire to be ravished by the most ecstatic or absolute music. When this desire is put into a poem, it becomes a statement of what the poem itself aspires to be, the ultimate conceivable lyricism, the most ecstatic music.
In the course of elaborating on that idea, which I find congenial, he mentions Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. The association is apt, and for a reason more specific than the thematic one Staten gives. Coleridge’s lines “Could I revive within me/ Her symphony and song” (Kubla Khan, ll. 42-43) have a logic that is similar to that in Milton’s line 25, “O may we soon again renew that Song”. Whether or not Coleridge was consciously or unconsciously echoing Milton is at best a secondary matter; what’s important is the logic. In both cases we have the desire to renew something that has been lost. Milton’s poem is explicitly Christian, while Coleridge’s poem is secular – though, of course, Coleridge himself was Christian.
But this discussion is carrying me away from what I’m up to in this section, which is architecture and the flow of language. I’m interested in rhyme, and the relation of rhyme to syntax (a concern that is central to my discussion of Kubla Khan ). The single most striking thing about Milton’s rhymes in this poem is the distribution of rhymed couplets. It is all rhymed couplets from line 17 to the end; six rhymed couplets. Notice that line 17 is the first line in the third section of the poem; this is where Milton turns our attention to us fallen humans here on earth. Up to that point he had been dealing with divine music “before the sapphire-coloured throne.”
The first 16 lines have five rhymed couplets, but they are not all together. We have two in lines 5-8 and three in lines 10-15. The ABAB rhyme of the opening four lines binds them into unit focused on the powers of song/poetry itself followed by five lines oriented toward the (divine) audience for that song. That concludes with line nine (9) ending line “jubilee”. Then we have the other three rhymed couplets followed by line 16. Line 16 ends with “everlastingly”, rhyming with “jubilee” in nine (9). That is to say, the rhyme scheme links the first two sections of the poem together by rhyming their final lines.
And then, as we have already seen, the last two sections of the poem consist of rhymed couplets. The rhyme scheme thus divides the poem into two movements. But this grouping, 16 + 12 (ll. 1-16, 17-28), is not aligned with the syntactic organization of the poem, 24 + 4 (ll. 1-24, 25-28). And yet the rhyme grouping is thematically motivated despite the fact that it cuts across the syntactic grouping. The first two sections focus on divine music, which is one thing, while the last two sections focus on the fallen state of humankind, which is something else.
On the face of it this would seem to be an important feature of how the poem is made, its techne. But its relation to meaning, whether explicated through minimal or virtuosic interpretation, is obscure. Just what is the relationship between the poems large scale architecture, the flow of its language, and its meaning? I don’t know. For the moment I am content to treat that architecture as a descriptive fact about the poem.
How Important is the Christian Doctrine?
Staten’s opening exposition downplays the importance of Christian doctrine in favor of a general emphasis on ecstatic music (p. 60-61):
This sort of ultimate lyricism is what every poet who dreams of writing a great poem, or the greatest poem, is reaching for. […] In Milton’s case, the Platonic/Pythagorean notion of the music of the spheres, the Christian imagery of God’s heavenly choir, provide the terms by which to imagine absolute music – as other poets have used Orpheus or Orpheus’ lyre – but it is unquestionably the quality of the music, and not the proximity to God, that is the object of the longing this poem articulates. God is brought in only as the sponsor or necessary condition of absolute music.
Attridge objects, for example (p. 69):
You regard music as the primary subject, and the harmonius relation between God and man as only a figure, there to enhance the praise of the ultimate in lyric beauty – not just music, but poetry, as well. […] I would say that, for Milton, this is far from the case: it’s precisely because music can be understood as figuring forth the most significant harmony of all, that between sinless humanity and an omnipotent deity, that it possesses to much value.
And later on (p. 71):
And if the poem’s main aim is, as I read it, to present as vividly as it can, through the vehicle of the most accomplished music, the loss of the perfect state of sinlessness and the longing for its return, an effect of this strategy is to make music a central figure for that state.
He thus argues that “music is sublated in a doctrinal narrative which, as we know, was deeply real to Milton” though it is not, of course, real to Attridge himself.
Staten admits that he is convinced (pp. 71-72):
I now feel that my reading was illegitimately “modernizing” the poem by down playing its strictly Christian dimension. I do think, however, that there’s a more complex story to be told here, that we don’t have the room for. I’m afraid our discussion leaves the impression that there’s a kind of pat orthodoxy to the sentiment expressed by the poem, whereas placed within a historical shift in the way that Christians understood Christianity, the shift that began with the Italian Renaissance. Even though Milton is a Puritan, and we associate the increasing sensuality of Christian art primarily with Catholic Italy, the desire for musical ecstasy that is expressed in the peculiarly sinuous syntax of this poem, and the peculiar vagueness of its relation to any specific Christian doctrine apart from the fall the reunion with God, strike me as very Baroque, in a way related to the way one might find the depiction of saints by Caravaggio or Bernini.
He then goes on to point out how very differently St. Augustine thought about sacred music. Augustine devoted a chapter in his Confessions to worrying about it, suggesting that it would be best if music were banned entirely from worship but relenting on the grounds that “weaker minds” might be roused by the music itself. “For Milton, by contrast, the love of God appears to be indistinguishable from complete musical rapture” (p. 71). A century before Milton, Martin Luther was of a similar mind (see the passage I’ve appended to this post).
This makes sense to me. I agree, in this poem music is no mere figure. But let’s push on, just a bit. Here we have Leonard Bernstein talking to conducting students at Tanglewood about how he had to learn to bring himself under control. As a young conductor he once got so wrapped up in conducting that he was afraid he was having a heart attack :
I don't know whether any of you have experienced that [ego loss] but it's what everyone in the world is always searching for. When it happens in conducting, it happens because you identify so completely with the composer, you've studied him so intently, that it's as though you've written the piece yourself. You completely forget who you are or where you are and you write the piece right there. You just make it up as though you never heard it before. Because you become that composer.I always know when such a thing has happened because it takes me so long to come back. It takes four or five minutes to know what city I'm in, who the orchestra is, who are the people making all that noise behind me, who am I? It's a very great experience and it doesn't happen often enough. Ideally it should happen every time, but it happens about as often in conducting as in any other department where you lose ego. Schopenhauer said that music was the only art in which this could happen and that art was the only area of life in which it could happen. Schopenhauer was wrong. It can happen in religious ecstasy or meditation. It can happen in orgasm when you are with someone you love."
The students received all this in silence. Then someone in the back of the room raised his hand. “How do you train yourself to lose your ego?” Bernstein had nothing to say about training, but made a comment about relaxed concentration.
I have no idea how common such experiences are, but I am inclined to think that they are not uncommon and that they are subject to cultural influence (think of “down home” black church services). Over the years I’ve collected anecdotes of “altered states” that happen during music , for listeners as well as performers, and I’ve had experiences myself which lend credence to Bernstein’s account. Note that the will is important here: one cannot will these things to happen. And the will figures in Milton’s poem – he talks of “first obedience” in line 25.
Is that kind of experience behind this poem in one way or another? That is, we’re not talking only of Pythagorean numerical mysticism in Christian dress, but of concrete experience? I do not know. Milton can from a musical household. His father was a composer of some distinction and he was a skilled musician himself. The opportunity was there.
Let us imagine that such experience was real to Milton? What then? Such experiences are existentially compelling. They shake you. What do you make of them? We can psychologize them – it’s the brain doing something strange. But that route to rationalization is relatively recent, no older that William James on religious experience. Such psychologizing wasn’t available to Milton, nor for that matter, to Augustine. Without recourse to psychology, how do you account for such things?
At this point, of course, we are rather far from Attridge and Staten and their inquiry into minimal reading. But then, that’s where we ended up in the previous section as well, though by a different route. Whatever the poem’s techne, however it is made, there is something going on that is inaccessible to minimal reading and, I would assert, to any form of “reading” whatever.
Appendix: Martin Luther on Music
From a Forward that Martin Luther contributed to Georg Rhau's Symphoniae, a collection of chorale motets published in 1538:
I, Doctor Martin Luther, wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ! I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God. The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them.... In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits... Our dear fathers and prophets did not desire without reason that music be always used in the churches. Hence, we have so many songs and psalms. This precious gift has been given to man alone that he might thereby remind himself that God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling God. However, when man's natural musical ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift; we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace. A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.
 William Benzon, “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind, PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, Article 030915, Published to the web on 14 November 2003. http://www.psyartjournal.com/article/show/l_benzon-kubla_khan_and_the_embodied_mind. Download: https://www.academia.edu/8810242/_Kubla_Khan_and_the_Embodied_Mind
 Helen Epstein. Music Talks: Conversations with Musicians. McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1987. p. 52.
 William Benzon, Emotion & Magic in Musical Performance. Working Paper, 2015, pp. 32. URL: https://www.academia.edu/16881645/Emotion_and_Magic_in_Musical_Performance