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Edgar Allan Poe on Music and Poetry

by Sherwin Cody

Poe always maintained that music and poetry are very near of kin, and in nearly all his greatest poems he seems to write in such a way as to produce the impression of music. As you read his verses you seem to hear a musical accompaniment to the words, which runs through the very sounds of the words themselves.

Poe explained that poetry and music are alike in that both obey absolute laws of time, and that the laws of time or rhythm in poetry are just as exact as the laws of time in music. He wrote an essay entitled "The Rationale of Verse," in which he demonstrated that all the rules for scanning poetry are defective. Every one knows that the ordinary rules for meter have numerous exceptions, but that if the rules were exact in the first place, there would be no exceptions.

Perhaps you know something about musical notes. If so, a simple illustration will show you what "feet" in poetry are. You have perhaps been taught that a "foot" in verse is an accented syllable with one or more unaccented syllables, and you scan poetry by marking all the accented syllables. In Latin, poetry was scanned by marking long vowels and short. Let us scan the first two lines of "The Raven":

  "Ónce up | ón a mídnight | dréary, || whíle I | póndered
      | wéak and | wéary,
  Óver | mány a | quáint and | cúrious | vólume | óf
      for | gótten | lóre."

Observe that most of the feet have two syllables each, while two have three. But if you read the lines in a natural tone you will see that you give just as much time to one foot as to another, and where there are three syllables they are short and can be pronounced quickly. Some syllables take more time to pronounce than other syllables; and to accent a syllable simply means to give it more time in pronouncing. In music, time is accurately represented by notes, and a bar of music always contains exactly the same amount of time, no matter how it is divided by the notes; for if you wish, in place of a half note you can use two quarter notes, or in place of a quarter note you can use two eighth notes. Represented in music, our lines will be as follows:

[Illustration: (music) Once up on a midnight dreary, as I pondered, weak and weary, O-ver man-y a quaint and cur-i—ous vol-ume of for- got-ten lore.]

We see this still further illustrated in a poem of Tennyson's, where a foot consists of but one long syllable, thus:

[Illustration: (music) Break, break, break, On thy cold grey stones, O sea!]

One of Poe's greatest poems, "The Bells," was written for the express purpose of imitating music in verse. The story of how it was first written is as follows:

Poe went one Sunday morning to call on a lady friend of his, Mrs. Shaw, who was something of a physician and had been very kind to his wife. It was a bright morning, and the church bells were ringing. For all that, Poe felt moody, and the church bells seemed to jangle.

"I must write a poem," said he, "and I haven't an idea in my head. For some reason the bells seem frightfully out of tune this morning, and nearly drive me distracted."

After he had been chatting with Mrs. Shaw for some time, he evidently felt in better mood, and the sound of the bells grew more musical; or perhaps their actual sound had stopped and his imagination suggested bells that were indeed musical.

As he kept on complaining about his inability to write a poem, Mrs. Shaw placed pen and ink and paper before him, first writing at the top of a sheet the title, "The Bells, by E. A. Poe." Underneath she wrote, "The bells, the little silver bells." Poe caught the idea, and immediately wrote the first draft of the following stanza. According to his habit he rewrote this poem many, many times. The original stanza began with the words Mrs. Shaw had written. Here are the verses as they may now be read in Poe's works:

  Hear the sledges with the bells—
    Silver bells!
  What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
    How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
        In the icy air of night!
    While the stars that oversprinkle
    All the heaven, seem to twinkle
        With a crystalline delight;
      Keeping time, time, time,
      In a sort of Runic rhyme
  To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
    From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
        Bells, bells, bells,—
  From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Mrs. Shaw then wrote the words, "The heavy iron bells." Poe immediately completed the stanza which now reads:

        Hear the tolling of the bells,—
          Iron bells!
  What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
        In the silence of the night,
        How we shiver with affright
     At the melancholy menace of their tone!
        For every sound that floats
        From the rust within their throats
          Is a groan.
        And the people—ah, the people—
        They that dwell up in the steeple,
          All alone,
        And who tolling, tolling, tolling,
          In that muffled monotone,
        Feel a glory in so rolling
          On the human heart a stone!
        They are neither man nor woman,—
        They are neither brute nor human,—
          They are Ghouls;
        And their king it is who tolls,—
        And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
        Rolls a paean from the bells!
        And his merry bosom swells
        With the paean of the bells!
        And he dances, and he yells,
          Keeping time, time, time,
        In a sort of Runic rhyme,
        To the paean of the bells,
          Of the bells.

The other stanzas were written afterward. There is music in these words; but do not think that the music is all. Underneath is the deep harmony of human suggestion, as in the lines,

  Feel a glory in so rolling
      On the human heart a stone.

Now let us see if we can represent by musical notes the meter in which this poem is written. We must remember that a punctuation mark at the end of a line often makes a complete pause, which is represented in music by a rest. In music a rest has the same effect in completing a bar as the corresponding note. Here are the first two lines:

[Illustration: (music) Hear the sledg-es with the bells, Sil-ver bells!]

In the two following lines the commas in the middle of the line stand for rests, like the punctuation at the end of the first line; or if we wish we can make the words "time, time, time," three longer notes. It all depends on how we pronounce them:

[Illustration: (music) Keep—ing time, time, time, in a sort of Ru-nic rhyme.]