Potkay, "Captivation and Liberty in Wordsworth's Poems on Music"

"Soundings of Things Done":
The Poetry and Poetics of Sound
in the Romantic Ear and Era

Captivation and Liberty in Wordsworth's Poems on Music

Adam Potkay, The College of William and Mary

  1. In 1818 Hazlitt called poetry "the music of language, answering to the music of the mind" (23).[1]  Within the next twenty years, as melomania swept across the Atlantic, American readers found the music of language in Wordsworth's stanzas. Let me here single out the anonymous essayist on Wordsworth in Richmond, Virginia's Southern Literary Messenger for December 1837.[2]  Setting out to write on Wordsworth's Sonnets dedicated to Liberty,[3] he gets waylaid by general considerations of Wordsworth's "eminently lyrical" genius. "There is no poet," he writes, "who seems to have a more exquisite ear for the musical qualities of language, which he selects and combines for his varied purposes, with an instinctive sense of melody and harmony truly admirable." As an example of Wordsworth's "music-breathing mellifluence," the essay quotes "The Solitary Reaper" in its entirety, asking of it: "Is not this the very music of language?  Do not these words float in airy waves, until the sense is charmed and lulled into delicious reverie, as by the 'lascivious pleasings of a lute'?" This last phrase comes from the opening soliloquy of Shakespeare's Richard III, in which Richard conjures the once forward-marching figure of "War" who now "capers nimbly in a lady's chamber / To the lascivious pleasing of a lute" (1.1.9-13). The quotation, which appears to drift into our reviewer's reverie, aptly recalls him to a sense of purpose: "But we have been irresistibly seduced into these general remarks. We must now proceed to the more immediate subject of this paper." He then turns, dutifully, towards a discussion of Wordsworth's sonnets, in which the poet is said to "speak with the voice of a sage" in inculcating "the cause of freedom and of man." In short, our Richmond reviewer, having briefly succumbed to the siren-call of Wordsworth's music, regains his liberty and turns to his task of popularizing Wordsworth's sonnets on behalf of "an erect and republican spirit."

  2. Emerging from this review is a theme that I'd like to develop in this paper: the Orphic power of music to seduce and distract—to wring the will of its freedom—in a way that is not incompatible with civic liberty. To flesh out this theme, I'll look at two poems from Wordsworth's 1807 Poems, in Two Volumes: the entrancing "Solitary Reaper" and the poem in which Wordsworth directly addresses the allurements of sound, "The Power of Music." In these poems, "the music of harmonious metrical language"[4] mimics the power of vocal or instrumental music to distract from both meaning and purposeful activity. But music, for Wordsworth, is no mere drug; still less is it a threat to society. Although sound may induce reverie, it nonetheless brings individuals together, apart from an over-busy world. The immersion of musical pleasure serves as a counter-force to the commercial spirit over which Wordsworth no less than many of his American reviewers worried. It is a commonplace from Shakespeare's best-known plays of Rome and Venice that the unmusical person is a threat to the state: in The Merchant of Venice, for example, Lorenzo, while addressing "the sweet power of music," contends: "That man that hath no music in himself, / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, / Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils" (5.1.79-85).[5]  Wordsworth's concern with the unmusical man is not, however, with the restiveness of faction, but rather with the restlessness and isolation of economic man. Absorption in melody and rhythm make for solidarity in a present moment that is political insofar as it harkens back to an imaginary past of primitive equality and ahead to a future of equality restored.

  3. Before I elaborate this argument, let me first glance at the metrical structures of Wordsworth's poems on music—their own music, as it were. Each is based on a different kind of ballad stanza. "The Power of Music" is written in a form not always recognized as such: the anapestic or iambic-anapestic tetrameter found in eighteenth-century amorous and comedic ballads by, among others, Matthew Prior, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and William Blake.[6]  Wordsworth experimented with an anapestic ballad stanza of alternating tetrameter and trimeter in the 1798 Lyrical Ballads ("The Convict"); for the 1800 edition Wordsworth settles on a Prior-like iambic-anapestic tetrameter stanza for "Poor Susan," "The Two Thieves," "Rural Architecture," and "A Character, in the Antithetical Manner."[7]
  4. The more familiar type of ballad stanza, with its alternating line lengths of 8 and 6 syllables (and/or 4 and 3 stresses) is one that Wordsworth rarely employed in its standard form.[8] He more often modified it for his purposes, as, for example, in "Lines written in Early Spring."[9]  Wordsworth works both within and against the phonic expectations of the form, and does so with a craftsmanship that involves by his own account "a more impressive metre than is usual in Ballads" (Prose Works 150). The modified ballad stanza of "Lines written in Early Spring," a stanza of 8, 8, 8, and then 6 syllables, draws attention to the last line by having it come up short. The thematic surprises of this poem unfold in stanzas that end on notes of mystery—what are those "sad thoughts"? What "has man made of man?" These successive mysteries unfold in curtailed lines of six rather than eight syllables, so that as we come to the end of each stanza, we have a rhythmic as well as semantic sense of something missing.  

  5. This modified ballad stanza returns as the first half of the 8-line stanza of "The Solitary Reaper," where it is followed by two tetrameter couplets. "The Solitary Reaper" is arguably as much about its own stanza-music as about anything else: form here is almost co-extensive with content. The poem testifies to the power of metrical arrangement and long vowels ("profound"/"sound"; "bore"/"more") to distract pleasurably from the very words that formulate a speaker's response to a song with no known meaning. Material signifiers gain aria-like ascendancy over immaterial meanings. "The Solitary Reaper" is, like "Early Spring," a poem of "semantically rich craft," as Susan Wolfson has shown (111-13). The careful reader may trace the junctures of sound and sense in the poem's stanza structure: here, for example, we first stop short on the hexasyllabic line, "Stop here, or gently pass," our progress further impeded by its opening trochee. But thinking through the poem's artifice is only one way into it, and on the poem's own terms it is not necessarily a better path than the one pointed to by the rhetorical question of the Southern Literary Messenger: "Do not these words float in airy waves?" As words convert to waves, their very signification is what gets left behind. It is hearing the word "sound" as sound that appears to have attracted Dorothy Wordsworth to the end of the poem's first stanza: she writes, "There is something inexpressibly soothing to me in the sound of those two Lines . . . I often catch myself repeating them in disconnection with any thought" (Letters 650). The poem's overflowing sound invites the evacuation of sense. The Beau Monde reviewer of Wordsworth's Poems of 1807 strikes a chord with his bald assessment: "Solitary Reaper and Stepping Westward are poems both innocent of all meaning" (Reiman 1:43).

  6. But of course there is also a false note in this review. The poem means at several different levels, and this reviewer helps us to see one of them by adverting to the sequence of poems in Wordsworth's 1807 volumes. "The Solitary Reaper" is followed by "Stepping Westward," another poem about "a sound"—here, "Of something without place or bound." It is preceded by "Rob Roy's Grave," a poem still more clearly about the sound of liberty. "Rob Roy's Grave" ends with an image of the faces of the Scottish poor that "kindle, like a fire new stirr'd, / At sound of ROB ROY's name"—that is, at the name of their Robin Hood-ish hero, a man whom we are told "didst love / The liberty of Man," who "battled for the Right," who protected "the poor man" from the depredation of the rich. The name stirs in herdsmen and reapers sentiments of loyalty and liberty, and in the narrator nostalgia for the old days in hope that they will become the future days. The reviewer who called "The Solitary Reaper" "innocent of all meaning" did so in relation to what he perceived as the criminal or radical tendencies of this first piece in Wordsworth's sequence of Scottish poems, which he nervously dismissed: "the strains of this poem might be dangerous if it were not so foolish." But within a poetic sequence no poem is innocent of the poem, and so here the "dangers," that have come before.   Sound carries, and with it meaning.[10]  For the sequential reader of Wordsworth's 1807 Poems, the sound of liberty overflows into the sound of the reaper's song, as well as into the speaker's reflection on time, the unspecified lost thing—call it freedom—"that has been, and may be again."[11]  Meaning may retreat in reverie, but like the repressed it always returns.  Wordsworth's poems ask us to negotiate between surrender to musical form and the recuperation of meaning both within and between the individual pieces he ordered with care.

  7. The last piece I would consider, "The Power of Music," suggests the social meaning of music's suspension of practical sense. Music here figures as a fiddler who captivates a humble London crowd. In Wordsworth's Poems, in Two Volumes "The Power of Music" follows another poem of London life, "Star Gazers," but in his 1815 Poetical Works it is placed in the "Poems of the Imagination" after a poem with which it is more closely connected: "Poor Susan" from the 1800 Lyrical Ballads. Both "Poor Susan" and "The Power of Music" are written in the ballad stanza of iambic-anapestic tetrameter, a showy meter associated with comic ballads that Wordsworth generally reserved for his lighter compositions and, in the case of these two poems, his treatment of urban themes.  "Poor Susan" and "The Power of Music," which may best be described as tragic-comic, both address the power of song—the thrush's song or the fiddler's—to distract from the dreariness of labor, poverty, and urban displacement. (Wordsworth's Highland reaper, by contrast, is distracted—as we the readers are distracted—only from her labor, the "reaping" that ever gives way to "singing.") 

  8. In an irony that unfolds during the course of "The Power of Music," the street-corner fiddler is identified in the poem's opening line as "An Orpheus! An Orpheus!," as though he were an avatar of the legendary pre-Homeric poet with the power to civilize animals or brutal humans. Horace, in his Ars Poetica, recounts: "While men still roamed the woods, Orpheus, the holy prophet of the gods, made them shrink from bloodshed and brutal living; hence the fable that he tamed tigers and ravening lions; hence too the fable that Amphion, builder of Thebes's citadel, moved stones by the sound of his lyre" (ll. 391-96, Loeb trans.).[12]  The familiarity of Horace's lines is attested by their appearance in the homely verse of William Brimble, described on his title page as "of Twerton, near Bath, Carpenter":

    Let hist'ry boast fam'd Amphion's powerful call,
    When stones came dancing to the Theban wall,
    Leap'd from their beds right angl'd, smooth and strait,
    And in harmonious order rose in state . . . .
    How Orpheus' power, nor rocks, nor trees withstood,
    But follow'd to his harp a dancing wood;
    How savages of fierceness was disarm'd,
    And from their currents listning rivers charm'd . . . .
    Still music's power, unrival'd, stands confess'd,
    And fiercer foes can charm than savage beast.
  9. Brimble thus begins a couplet ballad the narrative of which is largely summarized in its title: "On TWO MUSICIANS of BATH being attack'd by a Highwayman, who, on their presenting a FIDDLE, rode off without his Booty"—the comic twist being that it is not the fiddle's music that deters crime but rather the notorious poverty of fiddlers (Poems, 11-13). The mock-Horatian strain of a ballad such as Brimble's—as well as the rude artfulness of its making—may lie behind the opening lines of Wordsworth's poem on music's power: 

    An Orpheus!  An Orpheus!—yes, Faith may grow bold,
    And take to herself all the wonders of old;—
    Near the stately Pantheon you'll meet with the same,
    In the street that from Oxford hath borrowed its name.
  10. Orpheus is alive and well, but not in the Pantheon, the masquerade-hall named after the Roman seat of all the old gods,[13] but rather on the street, among those whose unsophisticated receptivity is offered as something of an ideal:

    What an eager assembly!  what an empire is this!
    The weary have life, and the hungry have bliss;
    The mourner is cheared, and the anxious have rest;
    And the guilt-burthened Soul is no longer opprest.
    For his services, the fiddler commands a fee, and the sign of the faithful is that they give all they have:
    He stands, back'd by the Wall;—he abates not his din;
    His hat gives him vigour, with boons dropping in,
    From the Old and the Young, from the Poorest; and there!
    The one-pennied Boy has his penny to spare.
  11. The poor boy gives his all to the fiddler who enchants him for a brief while: the image is like a bell that tolls us back to the new historicist critique of Romantic writing. This scene invites a Marxisant objection not only to "The Power of Music" but also to Wordsworth's larger corpus of poems on the pleasures of sound. Somewhere, someone must, I suspect, have written or lectured on this poem in search of a victim, and from a certain angle victims are here a-plenty. The poor boy parting with his coin may seem a comment on art's ability to mystify material relations, to distract the poor from their needs and rights. Music is here the opiate of the masses.[14]  Just as the fiddler stupefies his audience with sound so would Wordsworth stupefy his in poetic numbers, blinding them to revolutionary imperatives.

  12. From a certain point of view these objections are unanswerable. But at least for a moment we might consider a different point of view, which I believe to be Wordsworth's, according to which the blessing of verse as well as violin is precisely the ability to forget about money and the economic base of all relations—about "getting and spending," to quote from the 1807 Poems' best known sonnet. Music brings together a community in pleasure that matters more than the material. However, the power of music is lost on a genteel audience that believes only in acquisition. This audience enters Wordsworth's poem as the adversarial figures of the poem's final stanza—though it has been present all along in the poem's early nineteenth-century and a fortiori its contemporary-academic readership. The "you" of its final stanza cuts several ways, and it includes us:

    Now, Coaches and Chariots, roar on like a stream;
    Here are twenty souls happy as Souls in a dream;
    They are deaf to your murmurs—they care not for you,
    Nor what ye are flying, or what ye pursue!
  13. The fiddler's street-corner auditors don't care because they alone in this scene are absorbed in present pleasure; all around them, busy worldlings fly from the past or pursue an uncertain future.[15]  And, to illustrate that flight through formal means, Wordsworth trots his reader along through the headlong rhythms of anapestic verse. Wordsworth's meter here does not, as in "The Solitary Reaper," reproduce a sense of his lyric speaker's entrancement; rather, it exhibits its own theatrical power to whisk us past the scene it describes. As we come to the end of the poem's comic prance we are left with a criticism of the pace we've pursued.   

  14. Wordsworth's critique is of commerce, luxury, and propulsion itself insofar as these things threaten the bonds that constitute community. Our Southern Literary Messenger author, writing in 1837—the year of Reed's American edition of Wordsworth, and also of a financial crisis in America—invokes Wordsworth's power to counter-act "the progress that luxury has made in these United States," and one feels the weight in this line of "progress" as well as of "luxury." He laments his countrymen's "vain efforts to emulate the ostentation and parade of European society, by which we have impaired our stern republican virtues" (710). In "The Power of Music," the people's temporary trance is hardly stern but it is a civic event or even a civic religion: they stand apart, together, in a concentrated present. In contrasting their ritual presence to the differance of purposive endeavor, Wordsworth seems to hearken back to an anecdote in Boswell's Life of Johnson: "'Sir, you observed one day at General Oglethorpe's, that a man is never happy for the present, but when he is drunk.  Will you not add,—or, when driving rapidly in a post chaise?'  JOHNSON. 'No, Sir, you are driving rapidly from something, or to something'" (3:5).[16]

  15. Those in chaises and chariots are in at least one way like political critics, of either the 1830s or our own day: they look before and after, and pine for what is not.  Music is now, while politics is always braced in time. But to understand Wordsworth fully is to understand him dialectically: for he too is a politician, not just an ear in a crowd. Some of Wordsworth's sympathetic nineteenth-century readers saw in Wordsworth's backward glances—to the idealized past of Rob Roy's Scotland, say, or perhaps to an absorbed crowd passed by on the street—a blueprint for a future that wouldn't need a future: that is, a utopia. As the American critic Edwin Percy Whipple wrote in 1844, Wordsworth's heart lies in "a period when universal benevolence will prevail upon the earth"; he "is emphatically a poet of the future . . . .  His England of a thousand years past is the Utopia of a thousand years to come" (381-83).  

  16. The final ironies of "The Power of Music" are political, involving both a transformation of the mythic role of Orpheus's music, and the narrator's detached view of the new Orphic role he describes. Traditionally, Orpheus had figured the benevolent ruler who brings order and hierarchy to the base elements of nature; he has stood for the ordering power of music, in opposition to the Dionysian power of music to whip maenads into a lascivious frenzy (Keilen 32-88). But Wordsworth's story is not one of social order imposed by an Orpheus figure on a discordant mob; on the contrary, this Orpheus, or Orpheus-Dionysus hybrid ("he abates not his din"), (re)calls his hearers to a once or future state of life and bliss outside the social order as it is presently constituted. This Orpheus supplies salubrious retreat from a commercial metropolis that has lost all sense of, to use two of Wordsworth's favorite words, being and breathing:

    That errand-bound 'Prentice was passing in haste—
    What matter! he's caught—and his time runs to waste—
    The News-man is stopped, though he stops on the fret,
    And the half-breathless Lamp-lighter he's in the net!
  17. Yet what the fiddler does to his passers-by is what Wordsworth does not do to his reader: immobilize, assuage, and band together ("O blest are the Hearers and proud be the Hand / Of the pleasure it spreads through so thankful a Band"). Wordsworth, rather, hurries us onward in anapestic strides, imaging successive auditors (the apprentice, the newsman, the lamplighter, et al.), and ending with "pursue!" There is irony, of course, in the apprentice's "time run to waste," for here Wordsworth pictures time redeemed, kairos rather than chronos. The irony, however, is not entire. The reader of "The Power of Music" is suspended, finally, between content and form, absorption and theatricality, arrest and bustle, civic unity and commercial profit. Our guide through this scene of captivity, who has simulated the liberty of motion, has perhaps shown us as well the freedom that may lie in music's chains, as well as the enchainment of a purely market liberty.[17]


1 Cf. Herder (1769) on poetry as "the music of the soul" (quoted in Abrams 93) and, ultimately, Plato on lyric poetry as the means of introducing harmony into the soul (Protagoras 326a, Republic 400c-403c).

2 The essayist is not identified in Jackson, Contributors and Contributions to The Southern Literary Messenger. The essay appears eleven months after Poe had been sacked as editor of the journal on account of heavy drinking.

3 Henry Reed's first American edition of Wordsworth's poems (1837) contains two headings of "Sonnets dedicated to Liberty" ("Part First" and "Part Second"), 211-223, also included in Wordsworth's Poems, in Two Volumes (1807).

4 A phrase from the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, in Prose Works 150.

5 Cf. Caesar on the subversive potential of Cassius: "he hears no music" (Julius Caesar 1.2.204).

6 See, e.g., Prior, "Down-Hall: A Ballad" and "For his own Epitaph"; Montagu, "The Lover: A Ballad" (a poem much admired by Byron); John Cunningham, "Newcastle Beer"; Blake, "Chimney Sweeper" in Songs of Innocence.

7 The iambic-anapestic stanza, chiefly used for comedic verse in the eighteenth century, was applied to moralistic or didactic subjects in two poems that Wordsworth most likely read after completing "The Power of Music" and the 1807 Poems in Two Volumes: Scott's  "Hellvellyn," published in William Whyte's miscellany A Collection of Scottish Airs (1806-7)—a stanza from which Wordsworth singled out for praise in the Fenwick note to his own poem on the same topic, "Fidelity"—and Cowper's "Poplar Field," published in Southey's 15-vol. Works of William Cowper (1835-37), but not in eighteenth-century collections of Cowper's poems. Thus Adela Pinch may be mistaken in attributing the meter of "Poor Susan" to the moralizing model of "Poplar Field" (101).

8 Wordsworth used a strict ballad stanza for two pieces in the original Lyrical Ballads ("We are Seven" and "The Tables Turned"); four out of his five Lucy poems ("Strange Fits of Passion," "She dwelt among the untrodden ways," "I traveled among unknown men," "A slumber did my spirit seal"); three other poems in the enlarged 1800 Lyrical Ballads ("Lucy Gray," "The Two April Mornings," "The Fountain"); one poem in the 1807 Poems, in Two Volumes  ("To the Cuckoo"); and in a few later, minor works (e.g.. "George and Sarah Green").

9 In the 1798 Lyrical Ballads see also "Goody Blake and Harry Gill," "It is the first mild day of March," "Simon Lee," "Anecdote for Fathers," "The Thorn," and "Expostulation and Reply."

10 Peter Manning comments incisively on the importance of sequencing in Poems in Two Volumes and in particular in the section "Poems written during a Tour in Scotland" (258-68). I would question only Manning's claim that in "Rob Roy's Grave" Wordsworth defuses the radical charge of "liberty" by associating it with "traditional society" (264). Wordsworth's Beau Monde reviewer, by contrast, is clearly made nervous by the poem's "Jacobin" implication that the poor would be justified in violently seizing their rights, or having rights seized on their behalf.

11 Of course, Wordsworth's speaker briefly describes the lost thing not explicitly as freedom but simply as "some natural sorrow, loss, or pain." Inasmuch as this might (also) reflect the reaper's own pain, we might say of this poem what Adela Pinch says of an episode of The Vale of Esthwaite: "Hearing others' cries of pain produces a spontaneous music independent of the minstrel's will" (93).

12 Wordsworth's translations from Virgil's Georgics, dating back to his Cambridge years, include portions of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, although the line in which Virgil expresses Orpheus's power over brutes and the wilderness—he mourns, mulcentem tigris et agentem carmine quercus, "charming the tigers and moving the oaks with song" (Georgics IV.510)—is rendered by Wordsworth freely, "The solemn forest at the magic song / Had ears to joy" (Early Poems 642).

13 The Pantheon was built in 1770, designed by James Wyatt after the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. It burned in 1792 but was re-built. Later converted to a theater, and still later to a bazaar and warehouse, it was demolished in 1937.

14 This charge is still more applicable to Wordsworth's late poem, "The Power of Sound," in which music mitigates the sufferings of slavery and forced labor—and thus, by extension, helps to preserve these institutions (stanza 4, ll.49-64); even here, however, music as possible opiate is counter-balanced by music as the engine of "civic renovation" and "of Freedom" (ll. 65-71).

15 Cf. Coleridge's 1819 Philosophical Lectures: "Music . . . produces infinite [or 'infantine'] Joy—while the overbusy worldlings are buzzed round by night-flies in a sultry climate" (168).

16 Wu suggests that Wordsworth read The Life of Samuel Johnson in August 1800 (27).

17 I would like to thank Kim Wheatley and Erin Minear for their comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

Works Cited

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[Anonymous]. "William Wordsworth." Southern Literary Messenger 3:12 (December, 1837): 705-11.

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---. Poems, in Two Volumes, and Other Poems. Ed. Jared Curtis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.

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