Poem (1808)

NATURE’S MUSIC.

consisting of

EXTRACTS FROM SEVERAL AUTHORS;

with

PRACTICAL OBSERVATIONS,

and

POETICAL TESTIMONIES,

in honour of

THE HARP OF ÆOLUS.



The motives for printing this pamphlet will, I hope, be as obvious and simple as the instrument of which it treats. I wish for nothing but to show, that men, wiser and abler than myself, have deemed it not unworthy of their particular notice; and at the same time, to convey information to those who may never have turned their thoughts to the subject. I am no musician. I dictate nothing; but, on the contrary, should be much obliged by receiving additional information, or hints for improvement.

ROBT. BLOOMFIELD.



NATURE’S MUSIC.

If we look into Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary, we find that ‘Æolus, the King of Storms and Winds, was the son of Hippotas: he reigned over Æolia [1] ; and because he was the inventor of sails, and a great astronomer, the poets have called him the God of the Wind. It is said that he confined in a bag, and gave Ulysses, all the winds that could blow against his vessel when he returned to Ithaca. The companions of Ulysses untied the bag, and gave the winds their liberty. Æolus was indebted to Juno for his royal dignity, according to Virgil.’

I am not disposed to covet the powers of this poet-made god, except in one particular, that of confining the wind in a bag; which would be extremely convenient on a sultry summer’s day, when not a breath of air is in motion: for, in the confined situation in which I live, surrounded almost by buildings which have started literally out of the earth they cover, I often feel regret that, when my friends call, none but Æolus himself can oblige them with the vibration of a single string. But let them take the instrument to their villas, far from the smoke of London, and, though some may be found who will exclaim—

‘Most musical, most melancholy;’ [2] 

I think there will be a far greater proportion who will conceive in its tones the spirit of an anthem, and all the genuine fervour of praise. Yet it is equally true, that I have been jocosely told that Eolian harps are only adapted to send lazy people to sleep, and to give the unguarded a crick in the neck.

A satisfactory account of this instrument may be found in Sir John Hawkins’s ‘General History of the Science and Practice of Music,’ published in 1776, in five volumes, 4to.

In a preliminary discourse I find the following information:

‘The Harp of Æolus, as it is called, on which so much has been lately said and wrote, was constructed by Kircher above a century ago, and is accurately described in his Musurgia Universalis.’ [3]  And in vol. iv. p. 218, Sir John makes the following remark, together with a translated extract from Kircher’s work:

‘In book ix, in a chapter entitled De Sympathia, &c. Kircher mentions a contrivance of his own, an instrument which a few years ago was obtruded upon the public as a new invention, and called the Harp of Æolus, of which he thus speaks:

As the following instrument is new, so also is it easy to construct, and pleasant; and is heard in my museum to the great admiration of every one. It is silent as long as the window in which it is placed remains shut, but, as soon as it is opened, behold an harmonious sound on the sudden arises, that astonishes the hearers: for they are not able to perceive from whence the sound proceeds, nor yet what kind of instrument it is, for it resembles neither the sound of a stringed, nor yet of a pneumatic instrument, but partakes of both. The instrument is made of pine wood; it is five palms long, two broad, and one deep; it may contain fifteen or more chords, all equal, and composed of the intestines of animals.

The method of tuning it now remains, which is not, as in other instruments, by thirds, fourths, fifths, or eighths; but all the chords are to be tuned to an unison, or in octaves. It is very wonderful, and nearly paradoxical, that chords thus tuned should constitute different harmony. As this musical phenomenon has not as yet been observed by any one that I know of, I shall describe the instrument very minutely, to the end that it may be searched into very narrowly, and the effects produced by it accounted for; but first I shall show the conditions of the instrument, and where it ought to be fixed.”

These conditions differ from modern usage; and it is worthy of remark that the length of Kircher’s harp (if he called it a harp, for the name seems to be more modern) was but five palms, or fifteen inches; which is not more than half the usual width of our common sashes. That a greater length of string gives a sonorous and organ-like tone to the instrument I know by experience, and therefore conclude that its power and compass are thereby proportionably increased. Perhaps it is not impossible, or unlikely, that improvements may still be made, and its powers called forth in a much higher degree. Kircher goes on to describe a method of conducting the air through the strings of his instrument by means of what he terms valves, or boards so placed as to concentrate the breeze. This method I think too cumbersome and difficult to be practised in a dwelling-house, except a window could be set apart on purpose: but perhaps would answer in a garden, or open situation. I have made no attempt hitherto to reduce it to practice: but as this is intended to be a book of extracts, I shall proceed to another pleasing and circumstantial account of the Eolian harp, to be found in Jones’ ‘Physiological Disquisitions,’ page 338.—1781. [4] 

‘It was observed above, that as action and reaction are equal, the effect is the same, whether the sonorous body strikes the air, or the air strikes the sonorous body. In the case of a musical pipe this is plain enough; but it was not so well known, nor could it be so familiarly proved, till of late years, that the air can begin of itself to produce the effect, and fetch music out of a string, as a string fetches music out of the air. We have now a curious illustration of this fact from the instrument called an Eolian harp. How far the ancients were masters of this experiment is uncertain; but it has long been known that the wind would bring musical sounds from the strings of an instrument. In the Jewish Talmud, where we should scarcely expect to find any thing valuable in philosophy, the wind is reported to have brought music out of the harp of David; which, as it is there said, “being every midnight constantly blown upon by the north wind, warbled of itself”. [5] 

The same effect has been alluded to by some of the poets, particularly by our own English poet, Spenser, where, speaking of the visionary harp of Orpheus, he has the following lines:

“I saw an harp strung all with silver twine;
At length out of the river it was rear’d,
And borne about the clouds to be divin’d;
Whilst all the way most heavenly noise was heard
Of the strings stirred with the warbling wind.”

Spenser’s Ruins of Time, III. 2. [6] 

The author of the Principles and Power of Harmony ascribes the invention of what we now call the Eolian harp to Father Kircher; and it may be found in his Phonurgia, p. 148. [7]  In Mersennus, [8]  who endeavoured to pick up every thing the world could afford him, I see nothing of it. To the best of my knowledge, it was not taken from either of these authors when it was revived of late years in England. When Mr. Pope was translating Homer, [9]  he had frequent occasion to consult the Greek commentary of Eustathius; where he met with a passage, in which it was suggested that the blowing of the wind against musical strings would produce harmonious sounds. [10]  This was communicated to Mr. Oswald, [11]  a master of the violoncello, from North Britain, and an ingenious composer in the Scotch style, who himself gave me the following account many years ago, when I was under him as a practitioner in music. When he had received the hint of Mr. Pope’s discovery in Eustathius, he determined to try whether he could reduce it to practice. Accordingly, he took an old lute, and put strings upon it; he exposed it to the wind in every manner he could think of; but all without effect. When he was about to give the matter up as a mystery or a fable, he received some encouragement to a farther trial from an accident which happened to a harper on the Thames; who, having his instrument with him in a house-boat, perceived that a favourable stroke of the wind brought some momentary sounds from the strings, as if they had been suddenly touched after that manner, which, from the genius of this instrument, is called arpeggio. The man was alarmed with the accident, and made many trials to procure a repetition of the same sounds from a like turn of the wind, but could never succeed; the music was vanished like an apparition. Upon this ground, however, Mr. Oswald persevered; and it came at last into his mind, that perhaps the strings ought to be exposed to a more confined current of air. With this view he drew up the sash of his chamber-window, so as to let in a shallow stream of air, and exposed his lute to it. In the middle of the night the wind rose, and the instrument sounded; which being heard by the artist, he sprang out of bed to examine all the circumstances of its situation, and noted down every thing with the most scrupulous precision; after which, as the principle was now ascertained, he never failed of the effect. [12] 

The construction of an Eolian harp is very simple. Nothing more is necessary than a long and narrow box of deal, with a thin belly, and eight or ten strings of catgut lightly stretched over two bridges, placed near the extremities, and all tuned in unison. When it plays, the unison itself is plainly heard as the lowest tone, and the combinations of concords, though consisting chiefly of the harmonic notes, are by no means confined to them, but change, as the wind is more or less intense, with a variety and sweetness which is past description. I know not how to account for the compass of its notes on the principles of the harmonics but by admitting a new species of sounds, which I call harmonics of the harmonics; or, secondary harmonics. The sharp seventh is very commonly heard, which, if deduced as an harmonic, must be of the second species, as the 17th of the 12th; as also the 9th, which is as frequently heard, may be taken for the 12th of the 12th; and thus perhaps we may account for all its varieties.

If we consider the quality of its harmony, it very much resembles that of a chorus of voices at a distance, with all the expressions of the forte, the piano, and the swell; in a word, its harmony is more like to what we might imagine the aërial sounds of magic and enchantment to be, than to artificial music. We may call it, without a metaphor, the music of inspiration.

With respect to the peculiar nature and causes of this phenomenon, I dare not promise entire satisfaction from my own speculations, being well aware of the difficulty. The principles I shall offer for solving this wonderful effect are founded on the analogy between light and air.

1. And first I lay it down, that music is in air as colours are in light. When any body inflects the rays of light, or refracts them, it does not give the colours that are seen, but it makes the light give them; so a sonorous body does not give musical sounds, but makes the air give them.

2. That as colours are produced by inflections and refractions of the rays of light; so musical sounds are produced by similar refractions of the air. There is no reason to suppose that air is homogeneous in its parts any more than light; and if air consists of heterogeneous parts, they will be differently refrangible, according to their magnitudes, and excite different sounds, as they are accommodated to different vibrations, and capable of different velocities; as the parts of light which are differently refrangible give different colours. The parts of air most refrangible will excite the most acute sounds, and the smallest parts will be most refrangible. [13] 

3. That as light shows no particular colour but by means of some other intervening body to separate and modify its rays, so the air yields no particular musical tone without the assistance of some sonorous body to separate its parts, and put them into a vibratory motion.

4. That as light is refracted into colours, not only on dioptric principles, by passing through a prism of glass, or some other refracting medium, but also by passing near the edge of some solid body which inflects it out of its course; so is the air subject to be refracted by a similar inflection. It would require much time and observation, more than I have had leisure to bestow, to expand this principle into a theory, and confirm it by proper experiments; but the fact seems clear, that sound is produced, and that air becomes vocal on this principle of a refraction. As the Eolian harp plays by an inflection of a current of air over the edge of an aperture, so the column of air in an organ-pipe becomes vocal by means of a shallow current which strikes against the edge of the aperture, and is thence inflected into the cavity of the pipe. In the German flute also, the breath gives the tone by passing over the edge of the aperture; and according to its intensity, it produces higher or lower tones as the wind does in the Eolian harp. It would be endless to pursue this effect under all the various shapes in which it appears to us. It is sufficient for our purpose, that we have many instances in which air becomes vocal and musical by suffering a kind of refraction against the edge of some solid bodies; for this is the case with the Eolian harp; the wind passes to the strings of the instrument by the edge of an aperture; whence it is inflected partly at a greater, partly at a lesser angle; and that portion of the current of air which makes a different angle with the plane in which the strings lie, excites a different tone.

This hypothesis for the solution of Eolian sound, by a refraction of the air, is recommended by an experiment, which demonstrates that such a relation between air and light, as we have here supposed, is not imaginary. For as light when refracted affords us seven colours, and no more; so the air yields seven degrees of sound within the system of the octave; of which all successive sounds, however multiplied, are but repetitions. I met with this comparison in an ancient English author; but the sagacity of Newton hit upon it in his optical experiments, and he has carried it much further, by showing us that the analogy extends even to the respective intervals of each. The prismatic spectrum, under his accurate examination of it, was found to exhibit the same degrees with the series of tones and semitones in an octave; but they do not answer to the degrees of the octave either in a flat or sharp key, as these keys are commonly now used; because the third is minor and the sixth major. However, these degrees of the optical octave may be justified, and the old masters have composed according to them; of which we have an instance in the old creed of Tallis; [14]  and there are many others. The diatonic scale affords us two octaves with the minor third, which differ in their degrees; the one from A to A, with the minor third and minor sixth; the other from D to D, with the minor third and major sixth. This latter has the advantage in two respects: First, It is more simple and natural, because the two tetrachords which make up the octave are similar; that is, they both have the hemitone in the same place, as it happens in the two tetrachords of the major key. Second, It leads to a greater variety of modulation; and though the harmonies by some are accounted harsh, yet, in my opinion, they are more stately and pleasing than in the flat key with its two dissimilar tetrachords, as now managed by modern masters; who have entirely dropped the other form, though it has excellencies peculiar to itself, and therefore deserves to be retained.

The analogy between sounds and colours is very strict, and may be carried very far. In the order of the seven colours, three of them are simple and primary, the red, the yellow, and the blue; so in the seven degrees of the octave, there are three principal tones which constitute its harmony, the unison, the third, and the fifth; and these have the same places in the series as the three simple colours have in the prismatic spectrum; red is in the place of the unison, yellow in the place of the third, and blue in the place of the fifth. All harmony, though the parts are ever so many, is made up of these three sounds, as all hues are composed of those three colours.

Upon the whole, the Eolian harp may be considered as an air-prism, for the physical separation of musical sounds. The form of it may be improved, so as to give a farther illustration to the principles I have adopted. Instead of fixing the strings to the outside, I dispose them upon a sounding board, or belly, within side a wooden case, and admit the wind to them through a horizontal aperture, so that the affinity of the instrument to an organ-pipe appears at first sight; and thus it becomes portable and useful any where in the open air, instead of being confined to the house; which is a great advantage; and it is probable this new form may lead hereafter to some new experiments.

No person of a musical ear can listen to the Eolian harp without discovering that the sound varies with the intensity of the wind. The unison with a sudden gust will change immediately into the octave on the same string; which happens in other instruments: the common and German flutes give the octaves with a more intense blast of the breath. What seemed to me most inexplicable of all was this, that if the Eolian harp is exposed to the air with a single string, that string, without any change in its situation, will be heard to sound all the harmonic notes, which are seven or eight, besides the unison; and several of them will be heard at the same time. When many strings, which the wind meets at different angles, sound together, we have not only the harmonics of the unison variously produced, but harmonics of the harmonics, as above mentioned.’

Mr. Jones has given plates to illustrate his subject, and mentions, in a note, that, of his portable harp, he sent a model, on a small scale, to Messrs. Longman and Broderip, with orders for its being constructed for sale. Although I have never seen one of that construction, I readily perceive the advantages which he ascribes to them, and hope some day to prove it by experience.

The harps I have hitherto made have been, though of greater length, on the same principle with those seen at the music shops; but, where circumstances would admit of it, I have endeavoured to divide the strings into separate octaves. I have however proved, at least to my own satisfaction, that the top, or covering board, is of little use, if any, and that the strings ought to catch the wind in an inclination more approaching to a perpendicular than to a horizontal level. For this reason, I suppose, I find the instrument, when placed with the strings towards the window, always performs better than in the usual position.

Strings covered with silver wire I have tried in various ways, but am not prepared to say whether they perform their part. Perhaps the metallic covering is not adapted to the action of the breeze. Strings covered with oil will not sound. Silk strings will give a most delicate tone, but I never yet could make them stand to their tension.

I have tried catgut about the size, or larger than the third string of the violin, but being strained to only the width of a common sash, they appeared to want length in proportion to their diameter, and therefore I conclude, that could such strings be placed at the length of eight or ten feet, so as to catch a current of wind, the effect would be increased proportionably. But as I am no musician, I advance this conjecture with diffidence, remembering that I have been repeatedly disappointed in my expectations, and as often found results that have been beyond my comprehension.

Dr. Smollet, in the heyday of his strange imagination, has given the following description of this instrument in his Count Fathom, vol. i. [15] 

‘Some years ago, a twelve-stringed instrument was contrived by a very ingenious musician, by whom it was aptly entitled the harp of Eolus; [16]  because, being properly applied to a stream of air, it produces a wild, irregular variety of harmonious sounds, that seem to be the effect of enchantment, and wonderfully dispose the mind for the most romantic situations.

The strings no sooner felt the impression of the balmy zephyr, than they began to pour forth a stream of melody more ravishingly delightful than the song of Philomel, the warbling brook, and all the concert of the wood. The soft and tender notes of peace and love were swelled up with the most delicate and insensible transition, into a loud hymn of triumph and exultation, joined by the deep-toned organ, and a full choir of voices, which gradually decayed upon the ear until it died away in distant sound, as if a flight of angels had raised the song in their ascent to heaven.

Yet the chords hardly ceased to vibrate after the expiration of this overture, which ushered in a composition in the same pathetic style; and this again was succeeded by a third, almost without pause or intermission, as if the artist’s hand had been indefatigable, and the theme never to be exhausted.

His heart must be quite callous, and his ear lost to all distinction, who could hear such harmony without emotion.’

I question whether this music, which Smollet so truly describes, was ever, or ever will be used for the villanous purpose which he has recorded in his novel. It deserves much higher employment. It will be observed that Smollet deemed the thing of modern invention, and as he died, I believe, in 1771, five years before the publication of Sir John Hawkins’s work, [17]  the latter was right when he calls it ‘an instrument which has been obtruded on the public as a new invention,’ &c. and did justice to Kircher, the oldest claimant on the subject.

The following observations appeared a few years since in a periodical work, and are, I believe, from the pen of Charles Bucke, Esq. [18] 

‘As nothing can be deemed natural but what proceeds from the actual principles of nature, we may safely pronounce the Eolian lyre to be the only natural instrument of emitting harmony. Other instruments, sending forth sounds by the assistance of the fingers, or by some other mechanical means, may be consequently termed artificial. This affords another instance of the truth of the old-established adage, that Simplicity is the nearest relative of Beauty, since the Eolian harp is the “most musical, most melancholy,” and most bewitching of all melodies.

Of the antiquity of this instrument it is difficult to decide: it had slept about a hundred years when it was accidentally discovered by Mr. Oswald.

It has been asserted (by Sir John Hawkins in his History of Music, v. iv. b. 2. c. b. p. 221, and by Mr. Jones in his Physiological Disquisitions, p. 338) that this instrument was invented by Father Kircher, and this statement has been generally adopted as true: it appears however that Kircher was not the inventor; neither does he himself assume that merit; but says, in express terms, that the reason he is so particular in enlarging upon it is, because no one had given any description of it before (De Sympathiae et Antipathiae Sonorum ratione, b. ix.).—The knowledge of the operation of air upon strings is doubtless of very high antiquity; allusions are made to it in the Talmud and Eustathius, and an anecdote from Lucian will sufficiently illustrate the remark.

“When the Thracian Bacchanals tore Orpheus piecemeal, report says, that his harp was thrown into the river Hebrus, with his bleeding head upon it. The harp, touched with the wind, breathed forth a solemn strain. Still swimming down the Egean sea, the mournful concert arrived at Lesbos, where the inhabitants, taking them up, buried the head where now stands the Temple of Bacchus, and suspended the lyre in the Temple of Apollo.” [19] 

Descending to a later period, we find Ossian observing the same enchanting effect:

“The blast came rustling through the hall, and gently touched my harp;—the sound was mournful and low, like the song of the tomb.” Darthula. [20] 

Again in Berrathon.

“My harp hangs on a blasted branch; the sound of its strings is mournful. Does the wind touch thee, oh harp! or is it some passing ghost?” [21] 

It were impossible not to believe the romantic circumstance of the statue of Memnon, which

. . . . . . . at the quivering touch
Of Titan’s ray, with each repulsive string
Consenting, sounded through the trembling air
Unbidden strains, [22] 

when supported by such authorities as Pliny, Juvenal, Pausanius, and Strabo: the fact is too well authenticated to be doubted.

The art by which it was managed still remains an enigma, notwithstanding many ingenious solutions. We are to consider, in the first place, that sounds were not emitted from the mouth of that statue in the morning only; authority states that they likewise proceeded at other times; the morning was, however, the more favourable, as the breezes which rise at the dawn of day from the Nile might catch certain strings artfully placed in the throat of the image, and cause them to send forth those plaintive melodies which the ancients so frequently mention.

Whatever be its age, it is a most enchanting instrument, and bringing out all the tones in full concert, sometimes sinking them to the softest murmurs, and feeling for every tone, by its gradations of strength, it solicits those gradations of sound which art has taken such various methods to produce. [23] 

The influence of this instrument upon the heart is truly pleasing: it disposes the mind to solemn, tender, and pathetic emotion; and, winning upon the imagination, strikes the heart with its simplicity, and leaves it resting in all the pure delights of a pleasing melancholy.

SONNET.

Music of nature! emblem of each sphere!
How sweetly tranquil does my pensive soul,
At dewy eve, thy warbling murmurs hear,
When sooth’d to tenderness thy measures roll;
Sometimes more loud, and now yet louder still,
Sometimes more distant, and again more near,
Waking soft echoes, and, with magic skill,
Swelling the eye with a luxurious tear.
Delightful flutterings! hovering toward the sky,
Ten thousand Sylphs, on lightest pinions borne,
To realms ethereal on your murmurs fly,
And waked to melancholy feelings, mourn,
Nature’s best music! since thy simple strain
Lulls to repose each transitory pain.’ [24] 

I subjoin an interesting extract from the French voyage undertaken in search of the unfortunate Pérouse, which, though it has nothing to do with the vibration of a string, is at the same time so strictly nature’s music, that it deserves a place where we are following the vagaries of Æolus. When at the Dutch island of Amboyna, in September, 1792, the author says, [25] 

‘Being upon the beach, I heard the sound of wind instruments, the harmony of which was sometimes very just, and blended with dissonances by no means displeasing. Those fine and harmonious sounds seemed to come from such a distance as to make me believe, for some time, that the natives were entertaining themselves with their music, on the other side of the road, and near five thousand toises from the place where I stood. [26]  My ear was much deceived as to the distance, for I was not fifty toises from the instrument. It was a bamboo, at least sixty feet in height, fixed in a vertical position, close to the sea. Between every joint was a hole near an inch and two-tenths long, and somewhat above half an inch broad. These holes formed so many mouths, which, by the action of the wind, emitted agreeable and varied sounds. As the joints of this long bamboo were very numerous, care had been taken to pierce it in different directions; so that, from whatever point the wind blew, it always meets with some holes. The sound of this instrument more nearly resembles that of the harmonica than any other to which I can compare it.’

Can it be wondered at, that the harp of Æolus, affording music as wild and as ungovernable as imagination itself, should at all times have been a favourite with the poets? And if ten men are enamoured of the same thing, and describe it with a feeling mind and appropriate language, can it be wonderful that their verses should exhibit a similarity? For myself, I have always been drawn irresistibly to esteem that description the most true and most delightful, which Thomson has given in his ‘Castle of Indolence,’ which is therefore placed first of the poetical testimonies which I have been able to collect.

A certain music, never known before,
Here lull’d the pensive melancholy mind,
Full easily obtain’d. Behoves no more
Than sidelong, to the gently waving wind,
To lay the well-tuned instrument reclined;
From which, with airy, flying fingers light,
Beyond each mortal touch the most refined,
The God of Winds drew sounds of deep delight:
Whence with just cause the harp of Æolus it hight.
Ah me! what hand can touch the strings so fine?
Who, up the lofty diapason roll
Such sweet, such sad, such solemn airs divine;
Then let them down again into the soul?
Now rising love they fann’d; now pleasing dole
They breathed, in tender musings, through the heart;
And now a graver, sacred strain they stole,
As when seraphic bands an hymn impart,
Wild warbling nature all, above the reach of art. [27] 

Thomson has likewise written the following lines on the same subject, and there is little doubt but he felt what he wrote.

ODE ON ÆOLUS’S HARP.

Ethereal race, inhabitants of air,
Who hymn your God amid the secret grove,
Ye unseen beings, to my harp repair,
And raise majestic strains, or melt in love.
Those tender notes, how kindly they upbraid,
With what soft woe they thrill the lover’s heart;
Sure from the hand of some unhappy maid
Who died of love, these sweet complainings part.
But hark! that strain was of a graver tone:
On the deep strings his hand some hermit throws;
Or he, the sacred Bard [28] , who sat alone
In the drear waste, and wept his people’s woes.
Such was the song which Zion’s children sung,
When by Euphrates’ stream they made their plaint ;
And to such sadly-solemn notes are strung
Angelic harps, to sooth a dying saint.
Methinks I hear the full celestial choir
Through heaven’s high dome their awful anthem raise:
Now chanting clear, and now they all conspire
To swell the lofty hymn from praise to praise.
Let me, ye wandering spirits of the wind,
Who, as wild fancy prompts you, touch the string,
Smit with your theme, be in your chorus join’d,
For till you cease, my Muse forgets to sing. [29] 

That very extraordinary young man, the late H. K. White of Nottingham, has left us the following sonnet:

ON HEARING THE SOUND OF AN

EOLIAN HARP.

So ravishingly soft upon the tide
Of the infuriate gust it did career,
It might have sooth’d his rugged charioteer,
And sunk him to a zephyr,—then it died,
Melting in melody,—and I descried,
Borne to some wizard stream, the form appear
Of Druid sage, who on the far-off ear
Pour’d his lone song, to which the surge replied:
Or thought I heard the hapless pilgrim’s knell,
Lost in some wild enchanted forest’s bounds,
By unseen beings sung; or are these sounds
Such as, ’tis said, at night, are known to swell
By startled shepherd on the lonely heath,
Keeping his night-watch sad! portending death! [30] 

Mr. Mason thought a harp, which appears to have been constructed by his own hands, worthy of an ode; and a note attached to the piece is worth remarking, as its statement of the question of its invention agrees with that given by Sir John Hawkins.

ODE TO AN ÆOLUS’S HARP. [31] 

sent to miss shepherd.

Yes, magic lyres now all complete,
Thy slender frame responsive rings,
While kindred notes, with undulations sweet,
Accordant wake from all thy vocal strings.
Go then to her, whose soft request
Bade my blest hands thy form prepare;
Ah go, and sweetly sooth her tender breast
With many a warble wild and artless air.
For know, full oft, while o’er the mead
Bright June extends her fragrant reign,
The slumbering fair shall place thee near her head,
To court the gales that cool the sultry plain.
Then shall the Sylphs and Sylphids bright,
Mild Genii all, to whose high care
Her virgin charms are given, in circling flight
Skim sportive round thee in the fields of air.
Some, fluttering through thy trembling strings,
Shall catch the rich melodious spoil,
And lightly brush thee with their purple wings,
To aid the Zephyrs in their tuneful toil;
While others check each ruder gale,
Expel rough Boreas from the sky,
Nor let a breeze its heaving breath exhale,
Save such as softly pant, and panting die.
Then, as thy swelling accents rise,
Fair Fancy, waking at the sound,
Shall paint bright visions on her raptured eyes,
And waft her spirits to enchanted ground;
To myrtle groves, Elysian greens,
In which some favourite youth shall rove,
And meet and lead her through the glittering scenes,
And all be music, ecstasy, and love.

Mason’s Poems, fourth edition, 1774. [32] 

______

Most pleasant warble thy wild flying notes,
Sweet, simple instrument!—O, I could pause
Beneath some thick-wove canopy of elms,
To hear thy music e’en from morn, till night
Should spread her thickest veil: ah! then ’tis sweet
To hear thy soft sighs melancholy breathe
As the mild zephyr flutters o’er thy strings
On silken pinions . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . Hark! now a pensive lay,
That wakes the soul to sympathy and love,
Steals on my watchful ear! It dies away
In soft faint murmur . . . . now again ’tis high!
And, swelling loud and louder, in bold notes
Peals forth the anthem, or the choral song
Of steel-clad heroes. Now so sweet the sound,
That fancy thinks no mortal touch can make
Such harmony divine—but deems they flow
From the full choir of celestial harps,
Attuned by seraphs in the realms of love,
To praise their Maker! . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . Ah! were it mine to dwell
Far, far retired from the busy throng,
In vine-clad cottage—or at noon or eve,
Thy murmurs mingling with the moss-fringed brook
Should lull my soul to happiness and peace!’

Goodwin. [33] 

Mr. Dibdin, amongst the multiplicity of his excellent songs, has one entitled ‘The Eolian Harp,’ the music to which is a fine imitation of the wild notes of the instrument: the first verse of the song runs thus:

Amphion’s lute and Orpheus’ lyre
Pleased amateurs of yore;
Loud harps our amateurs inspire,
And those are heard no more.
Harps that assist each female charm,
The snowy hand, the rounded arm;
That turn with more than mortal grace
The stately neck and lovely face,
As rapidly the fingers trace
Each natural, flat, and sharp.
But, more the senses to ensnare,
Give me the soft melodious strain
That gently floats upon the air,
That all can feel, but none explain,
Sounds that the ear so smoothly greet
From the celestial self-play’d sweet
Eolian Harp. [34] 

A lady of the present day, whose writings continue to interest and amend the heart, once turned her attention to the instrument of which we are treating, and has given us

STANZAS

written under aeolus’s harp.

Come ye whose hearts the tyrant sorrows wound;
Come ye whose breasts the tyrant passions tear,
And seek this harp,—in whose still-varying sound
Each woe its own appropriate plaint may hear.
Solemn and slow yon murmuring cadence rolls,
Till on th’ attentive ear it dies away,—
To your fond griefs responsive ye, whose souls
O’er loved lost friends regret’s sad tribute pay.
But hark! in regular progression move
Yon silver sounds, and mingle as they fall;—
Do they not wake thy trembling nerves, O Love,
And into warmer life thy feelings call?
Again it speaks;—but shrill and swift, the tones
In wild disorder strike upon the ear:
Pale Frenzy listens,—kindred wildness owns,
And starts appall’d the well known sounds to hear:
Lo! E’en the gay, the giddy, and the vain,
In deep delight, his vocal wires attend,—
Silent and breathless watch the varying strain,
And pleased, the vacant toils of mirth suspend.
So, when the lute on Memnon’s statue hung,
At day’s first rising strains melodious pour’d,
Untouch’d by mortal hands, the gathering throng
In silent wonder listen’d and adored.
But the wild cadence of these trembling strings
The enchantress Fancy with most rapture hears;
At the sweet sound to grasp her wand she springs,
And lo! her band of airy shapes appears.
She, rapt enthusiast, thinks the melting strains
A choir of angels breathe, in bright array,
Bearing on radiant clouds, to yon blue plains,
A soul just parted from its silent clay.
And oft at eve her wild creative eye
Sees to the gale their silken pinions stream,
While in the quivering trees soft zephyrs sigh,
And through the leaves disclose the moon’s pale beam.
O breathing instrument! be ever near
While to the pensive muse my vows I pay;
Thy softest call the inmost soul can hear,
Thy faintest breath can Fancy’s pinions play.
And when art’s labour’d strains my feelings tire,
To seek thy simple music shall be mine;
I’ll strive to win its graces to my lyre,
And make my plaintive lays enchant like thine.

Mrs. Opie. [35] 

After the foregoing descriptions, who could hope to illustrate poetically the properties of this instrument in a new way? [36]  and yet I have seen other pieces, of uncommon merit, on the same subject; and one particularly from the pen of a lady, [37]  which I omit with unfeigned regret. Its insertion here would be the most unpardonable self-praise. Its omission will be excused by the party, and there are several others in the like predicament.

I therefore know of nothing which would form so appropriate a close to this collection as the following verses, printed at the end of an edition of ‘Bruce’s Poems on several Occasions.’ Edinburgh, 1796.

ON HEARING AN EOLIAN HARP

AT MIDNIGHT.

by mr. c——, a young gentleman who died

of a consumption a few days after

writing them.

1.
Ye heavenly sounds! enchanting notes!
That swell the whispering breeze;
Say, whence your soft complaining airs,
Your magic power to please!
2.
Are ye some fairy, tiny voice,
That by the glow-worm’s light,
At lonely hours, your vigils keep,
Unmark’d by mortal sight?
3.
Are ye some nymph of ancient time,
Like Echo’s hapless maid,
In plaintive songs, that woo’d your love
Till changed into a shade?
4.
Or are ye Ossian’s passing ghost,
That thus the midnight cheers,
And to the fair Malvina turns
The tale of other years?
5.
Sweet sounds! that melt the soul to love,
My senses captive take,
Soft as the Cygnet’s dying voice
That’s wafted from the lake.
6.
Oh! cease not to my list’ning ear,
Still tune your heavenly lay,
And by your strains my raptured soul
To paradise convey. [38] 

Notes

[1] [Bloomfield’s note:] This Æolia was either a country of Asia Minor, near the Ægean sea, or the seven islands lying between Sicily and Italy, now called the Lipari islands, which Virgil calls the kingdom of Æolus, the God of Storms and Winds. BACK

[2]Line 62 of John Milton’s Il Penseroso (1645), also quoted by Coleridge in ‘The Nightingale; a Conversational Poem’. BACK

[3] [Athanasius Kircher, Musurgia Universalis, 2 vols (Rome, 1650).] BACK

[4] [William Jones (1726–1800), Physiological Disquisitions: Or, Discourses on the Natural Philosophy of the Elements (1781).] BACK

[5] [Jones’s note:] Talmud in Berac, folio 6. BACK

[6] Edmund Spenser (1552–99), The Ruines of Time (1591). BACK

[7] Athanasius Kircher, Phonurgia Nova (1673). BACK

[8] Marin Mersennus (1588–1648), whose work Harmonie Universelle (1636) described the harmonics of vibrating strings. BACK

[9] Alexander Pope’s translations of The Iliad (1715–20) and Odyssey (1726). BACK

[10] Eustathius of Thessalonica (c. 1115–9/6) mentioned the fact in his Commentary on Homer, first printed Rome, 1542–50. BACK

[11] James Oswald (1711–69). BACK

[12] [Jones’s note:] That the effect of the Eolian harp must often have been heard by accident seems undeniable from what I was lately informed of by Mr. Stanley, composer to his Majesty [Charles John Stanley, 1712–86, Master of the King’s Musicians under George III]; that two wires, stretched across an area before a house at London, had been heard to make very fine music, equal to the best Eolian harp. BACK

[13] [Jones’s note:] This notion concerning the different degrees of subtilty in the parts of air occurred to Mr. Derham [William Derham (1657–1735)]; who argued, that as sound moves near 1200 feet in a second, and the most violent wind not more than sixty miles in an hour, which is at the rate of eighty-eight feet in a second, the particles of air which communicate sound must be more subtile than those which constitute the winds. See Hales’ Doctr. Son. p. 47. [William Hales (1747–1831), Sonorum Doctrina Rationalis et Experimentalis (1778)]. If wind acts by the grosser parts of air, and sound by the finer, this may be a reason why they do not interfere nor disturb one another’s motions.*

[Bloomfield’s note:] * The following is taken from an old book published before Sir Isaac Newton received the honour of knighthood.

Mr. Isaac Newton demonstrates (in prop. 43, book ii. of his Principles) that sounds, because they arise from the tremulous motion of bodies, are nothing else but the propagation of the pulse of the air, and this, he saith, is confirmed by those great tremors that strong and grave sounds excite in bodies round about; as the ringing of bells, noise of cannon, &c.

And in another place he concludes, that sounds do not consist in the motion of any aether, or finer air, but in the agitation of the whole common air; because he found by experiments, that the motion of sounds depended on the density of the whole air.’—Harris’ Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, printed in 1704. R. B. [John Harris (1666–1719), Lexicon Technicum, Or, An Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences] BACK

[14] [Thomas Tallis (1505–85), the composer of choral music.] BACK

[15] [Tobias Smollett (1721–71), The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753).] BACK

[16] [Bloomfield’s note:] Most probably he alludes to Mr. Oswald, a better account of whom we have just given, by Mr. Jones. BACK

[17] [Hawkins (1719–89) was the author of A General History of the Science and Practice of Music (1776).] BACK

[18] [Charles Bucke (1781–1846), ‘Aeolian Harp’, Monthly Mirror, 14 (1802), 297–99. The quoted passage runs to the sonnet concluding ‘Lulls to repose each transitory pain.’] BACK

[19] [Bloomfield’s note:] To this incident Spenser alludes in a beautiful passage of his Ruins of Time. [Lucian of Samosata (c. 125–c. 180) relates the story in Remarks Addressed to an Illiterate Book-Fancier. Spenser alludes to it in The Ruines of Time, III, 2 (cited above).] BACK

[20] [The Poems of Ossian, tr. by J. Macpherson, 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1805), II, 33.] BACK

[21] [Ibid. p. 93.] BACK

[22] [Bloomfield’s note:] Akenside, b. i. [Mark Akenside (1721–70), The Pleasures of Imagination, I, 110–13.] BACK

[23] [Bucke’s note:] Acoustics, ch. i. BACK

[24] [Bucke, citing this poem, credits it only to ‘Anon.’] BACK

[25] [Jacques-Julien Houtou de La Billardière, Voyage in Search of La Pérouse: Performed by Order of the Constituent Assembly (London, 1800), p. 217.] BACK

[26] [A toise is a French unit of measurement equating to roughly 6 feet.] BACK

[27] [James Thomson, The Castle of Indolence (1748), stanzas 40–41.] BACK

[28] [Bloomfield’s note:] Jeremiah. BACK

[29] [Published 1748).] BACK

[30] [Henry Kirke White (1785–1806). The poem was published posthumously in The Remains of Henry Kirke White of Nottingham ... with an Account of his Life by Robert Southey, 2 vols (London, 1807), II, 59.] BACK

[31] [Mason’s note:] This instrument was first invented by Kircher about the year 1649. See his Musurgia Universalis, &c. After having been neglected above a hundred years, it was again accidentally discovered by Mr. Oswald. BACK

[32] William Mason (1724–97), Poems, 4th edn (York, 1774), pp. 27–28. BACK

[33] George Goodwin of Lynn, author of Rising Castle, with Other Poems (Lynn, 1798), pp. 101–2. BACK

[34] Charles Dibdin (1768–1833). The song was issued with sheet music as The Aeolian Harp, Written & Composed by Mr. Dibdin and Sung by Him in His New Entertainment Called Most Votes (London, 1802). BACK

[35] Amelia Opie (1769–1853). The poem, published in The Cabinet in 1795, was collected in Opie’s Poems (1802). In revised form it appeared in the third edition (London, 1804) at pp. 121–24. BACK

[36] [Note by J. Weston, editor of Remains, referring to Bloomfield’s ‘Aeolus’ in Poems from the Remains of Robert Bloomfield:] See Poetical Fragments, page 62. BACK

[37] [Note by J. Weston, editor of Remains:] Mrs. Park, whose tributary poem may now be introduced without any other sensation than that of tender regret, since both the writer and receiver are now beyond the reach of human praise or blame:

LINES ADDRESSED TO AN EOLIAN HARP,

constructed by the author of the
farmer’s boy.

What magic sweetness charms my raptured ear,
Like choirs of airy spirits heard on high?
Now as some cherub voice each note is clear,
Now swells into celestial harmony.
’Tis charmed zephyr wakes the varied sound,
As o’er each string he breathes a trembling kiss,
His viewless pinion wafts the music round,
Whose chords are ecstasy, whose close is bliss!
Oh, sweetly raise thy more than mortal tone
To him who gave thy frame melodious birth,
The Bard whom Nature greets as all her own,
And Virtue honours for his inborn worth:
For him, sweet harp! thy dulcet strains prolong,
Since pure and artless is, like thine, his song.
Maria Hester Park.
Hampstead,
March, 1806.

[Maria Hester Park (1760–1813), a singer, pianist and composer, was the wife of Bloomfield’s friend Thomas Park.]

BACK

[38] Michael Bruce (1746–67), Poems on Several Occasions (Edinburgh, 1796), p. 174. BACK

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