I have written earlier about how poetry and music were often historically connected. Today we think of poetry as apart from music, but in earlier times poetry was often sung or chanted to musical accompaniment.
Music, in relation to poetry, is very interesting. Music is, in a way like the sense of touch. one may feel that something is cold or hot or neutral, but one does not know what, precisely, is causing the sensation, unless and until one looks.
Similarly, there are many works of music written about things or on specific themes, but without an added title we would really have no idea what a given work was about. From the sound of the music we would feel it to be sad or peaceful or happy or forceful, But beyond that we would be lost.
Take for example the lovely work “The Swan,” from Carnival of the Animals, by Saint-Saens. Knowing it is about a swan, as we listen to it we may see in the mind a swan gliding peacefully across smooth water. But if it were called something else — something that also fit the peaceful softness of the music — we would likely see that “something else” instead.
A written title, then, adds “eyes” to the sensory-emotional impact of the music — it adds a visual impression. And if we set words to the music, describing a swan as it glides smoothly along, we make the picture even more definite.
Now let’s reverse the process: Imagine that we have a poem about a swan. We can see what is depicted in the poem, but that seeing is somewhat deficient in feeling. Feeling may not be absent, but we will not realize how deficient it may be until something is added. Add the music to the words, however, and their effect is magnified many times over — suddenly there is a strongly felt “emotional” aspect to the words that is provided by the musical background.
That, of course, is precisely the reason for a musical score in a movie. It adds a sensory-emotional context to what is seen on the screen. Think of some of the most effective scenes from great movies, and you will simultaneously hear in your head the bit of musical soundtrack that went with that scene, whether it is Luke Skywalker standing against the twilight sky near his desert home, thinking of his future, or Scarlett O’Hara vowing she will never be hungry again. Who, in fact, can even think of Gone With the Wind without hearing that sweeping musical background?
That is the way it is with poetry. Think of William Blake’s poem Jerusalem:
And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen?
It is an interesting and effective poem. It does what Blake intended it to do. But if you have ever heard it sung by an English choir with the full backing of a thundering pipe organ, you will feel reverberating through all your being that when Blake says,
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
he means business! And it is no wonder that it was sung by others who similarly meant business, such as the National Union of Womens’ Suffrage societies, who used it as a kind of anthem at certain of their meetings. And even today it is a kind of unofficial national anthem of England, so effective did it become when set to the stirring music of Hubert Parry.
To say that the effect of Blake’s words becomes enhanced when set to Parry’s music is in no way to belittle Blake. He was a remarkable poet. But music adds a depth that is not felt to be missing until one hears a poem set to just the right music.
Think of the lines,
Uncounted diamonds lie in stony caverns,
Unnumbered pearls within the sunlit sea…
They are pleasant enough, but when set by Rimsky-Korsakoff to the tune popularly known as “Song of India,” they become more than they are in themselves, they become absolutely enchanting. That is the effect good music can have on words.
We must keep in mind, however, that just as good music may enhance a poem, bad music will ruin it. It is surprising, however, that even mediocre poetry may be elevated by the addition of good music.