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The Poet’s Song

“At a Solemn Music”


1 Blest pair of sirens, pledges of heaven’s joy,
2 Sphere-borne harmonious sisters, Voice, and Verse,
3 Wed your divine sounds, and mixed power employ
4 Dead things with inbreathed sense able to pierce,
5 And to our high-raised phantasy present,
6 That undisturbed song of pure concent,
7 Ay sung before the sapphire-coloured throne
8 To him that sits thereon
9 With saintly shout, and solemn jubilee,
10 Where the bright seraphim in burning row
11 Their loud uplifted angel trumpets blow,
12 And the cherubic host in thousand choirs
13 Touch their immortal harps of golden wires,
14 With those just spirits that wear victorious palms,
15 Hymns devout and holy psalms
16 Singing everlastingly;
17 That we on earth with undiscording voice
18 May rightly answer that melodious noise;
19 As once we did, till disproportioned sin
20 Jarred against nature’s chime, and with harsh din
21 Broke the fair music that all creatures made
22 To their great Lord, whose love their motion swayed
23 In perfect diapason, whilst they stood
24 In first obedience, and their state of good.
25 O may we soon again renew that song,
26 And keep in tune with heaven, till God ere long
27 To his celestial consort us unite,
28 To live with him, and sing in endless morn of light.

In “At a Solemn Music,” Milton invokes music and poetry to describe their power to

remind and imbue us with divine images and experience. Lines 1-16 of the poem describe the

power and splendor of heavenly singing, accumulating energy as they engage with the image of

God and with the themes of time and song. In these lines Milton connects present and eternity,

earth and heaven, art and divine encounter.

In the first few lines, Milton combines metrical devices to set the poem off to a slow,

stumbling start. Though the poem is written, for the most part, in iambic pentameter, all of the
first four lines break rhythm by starting with a stressed syllable (“Blest,” “Sphere,” “Wed,”

“Dead”), and the first 3 lines break meter by containing eleven syllables instead of ten. The

rhythm within the lines is irregular and erratic, frequently encumbered by laborious syntax like

“inbreathed sense” (line 4). While the rest of the poem maintains mostly a couplet rhyme

scheme, the rhymes of the first four lines are alternating. All this changes at line 5, when each

line consistently starts with an unstressed syllable and becomes a perfect iambic pentameter by

line 7. Particularly because of the slowness of the preceding lines, the brisk pyrrhic “And to” at

the beginning of line 5 is doubly effective in accelerating the poem into a regular rhythm that

builds up to the first climactic moment in line 8.

With reverence and awe, line 8 introduces God for the first time. Its meter converges

from the poem’s basic pentameter to a mere trimeter, making the line the culmination of the

lyrical energy that led up to it. However, though the lines surrounding line 8 are loaded with

resplendent description, line 8 obliquely refers to God, “To him that sits thereon,” and then

refrains from giving any further detail of him. In addition, the line breaks off. Not only does it

lack two metrical feet, but it also does not adequately consummate the couplet rhyme with the

previous line. The anticipated depiction of God has been truncated.

This failure to represent God, paradoxically, is a tacit proclamation that such a supreme

being is inexpressible with words and cannot be contained in poetry. Apart from his inability to

articulate a description of God, the poet also aims to shield the reader from God’s glory. When

Moses first encountered the burning bush, the prophet hid his face in fear- God’s image is so

overwhelming that no one can experience it without perishing. Because the poet cannot

represent God and the reader cannot encounter God, line 8 only leaves us with a white space in

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which we contemplate the unspeakable sublime. The white space expresses and embodies fear,

respect, and overwhelming awe.

The swelling momentum of the poem carries over into lines 9-16, where Milton describes

the singing in heaven with imagery that overloads the senses visually (“bright,” “burning”),

aurally (“shout,” “loud”), and conceptually (“host,” “thousand”). At the same time, he uses

imagery that is much more subtle, quiet, and subdued (“solemn,” “devout”). In line 9, the

oxymorons “saintly shout” and “solemn jubilee” exemplify these opposing images. This contrast

does not produce a cacophonous clash, but rather, the disparate poetic tones come together in the

same way that musical notes of different tones interplay to produce and complete harmony. The

variety of differing images, feelings, and tones form a complex and euphonic mosaic of ecstasy

and bliss.

Throughout these lines, the energy continues to build. Line 12 accelerates by starting

with a pyrrhic (“And the”) which finds release in the trochaic beginning of line 13, specifically

with the stressed word, “touch.” Milton’s choice of the word, “touch,” as opposed to a more

vigorous or active word like “play” or “strum,” communicates a deliberate gentleness that feels

natural, graceful, and effortless. This touch is charged with power and anticipates the defining

climax reached in lines 15 and 16.

Like line 8, lines 15 and 16 converge at a peak with a metrical contraction, this time into

seven syllables. In addition, both lines start with trochees to give them sudden emphasis and to

alert us to their momentous importance. Both textually and thematically, these lines lie at the

heart of the poem; the preceding and subsequent portions of the poem echo and reverberate with

the epiphany achieved in these lines. Milton illustrates this symmetry and centrality with line 15,

which, both rhythmically and textually, is a palindrome: “Hymns devout and holy psalms.” Its

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rhythm, falling ` ^ ` ^ ` ^ `, is symmetrical. The first word, “hymns,” is closely synonymous with

the last word, “psalms,” and the second word, “devout,” likewise folds roundly onto its closely-

related complement, “holy.” Just as all the words, with their meanings and stresses, pivot around

a centrality in line 15, the rest of the poem pivots around the focus of the themes established in

lines 15 and 16.

The brisk lightness of line 16, “Singing everlastingly,” is a joyful culmination to all the

divine excitement stirred up by the previous 15 lines. In addition, it brings finality in another

sense by closing up the rhyme with line 9. Though we had been expecting line 9’s

complementary rhyme since line 10, it is not until line 16 that we are satisfied in our rhyme

expectation. Thus, Milton imbues the description of heavenly singing throughout lines 9-16 with

a sense of anticipation. However, this line does not only conclude the previous portion of the

poem, but also serves as its crux; it presents the major themes of music and time that are dealt

with in the remainder of the poem.

Regarding the movement of time, the poem starts in the present tense, then shifts to past

tense, and finally looks to the future. In the past tense phase, the poem describes man’s fall into

original sin, while the following lines retrocede even further back in time to describe a pure,

prelapsarian Eden. Milton then correlates the harmonious and divinely-inspired music of

prelapsarian paradise to what we should aspire to on earth and to the state of perfection that we

will consummate in heaven. By delineating the significance of the present on the past and of the

past on the future, the poem reveals to us the interconnectedness of all time. And by moving

backwards in time, and jumping from present to past to future, the poem eliminates time’s linear

quality to create the effect of timelessness. For this reason, Milton gives critical importance and

positioning to the word “everlastingly” in the epiphany reached in line 16 and again to the words

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“endless morn” in the concluding line of the poem. “Endless morn” is itself an illustration of the

poem’s portrayal of time. It essentially means “endless beginning,” a paradoxical concept. But

in the logic of this poem, there is no paradox since all time is united and related, and all linear

orderings of time are meaningless and inconsequential.

Lying parallel to the binary opposition between time and eternity is that between heaven

and earth. The poem associates heaven with eternity and earth with time. Similar to his

treatment of time, Milton breaks down the distinctions between heaven and earth. Heavenly

bliss existed in the past on earth in the form of Eden, which in turn should point us towards the

future in heaven. Hence, heaven and earth echo each other. The synthesizing power of music

promises to harmonize and integrate opposing levels of existence and consciousness in a divine

fusion that eliminates the rift between the two worlds and time-dimensions.

Milton’s tendency to blend past, present, and future, heaven and earth, as well as his

general resistance to strict distinctions and dichotomies, is evident in the poem’s overall formal

structure. By choosing a stichic form for the poem, Milton conveys his intention that we see all

the poem’s elements as a continuous and complete whole. Due to a lack of organized stanzas,

the poem gives us no warning of a change in setting from heaven to earth, or change in time from

past to future. Enjambment precludes us from delimiting borders and distinctions and maintains

a constant feeling of flow and flux, particularly in the later lines of the poem:

20 [sin] Jarred against nature’s chime, and with harsh din


21 Broke the fair music that all creatures made
22 To their great Lord, whose love their motion swayed
23 In perfect diapason…

Somewhere in line 21, the tone changes from negative to positive, but it is difficult to pinpoint

exactly where and when this change takes place. The reader can view line 21 within the context

of either the gloom of line 20 or the rapture of line 22. Such formal devices blend the different

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physical, temporal, and emotional states of the poem and unite seemingly irreconcilable

oppositions of time and eternity, and earth and heaven, into a musical and poetic harmony.

Line 16’s association of singing with eternity, and thus with heaven, is the dominant

theme of this poem. It is the power of poetry to connect us with God. In the first line of the

poem, Milton calls music and poetry “pledges of heaven’s joy.” While “pledges” can mean

guarantee or assurance, it can also mean offspring or children. The notion of procreation appears

again in line 3 when the poet asks music and poetry to “wed [their] divine sounds” (emphasis

added). Line 4, which says, “Dead things with inbreathed sense,” alludes to the Biblical account

of creation: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his

nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7, KJV). Thus, music is imbued with the creative life-

giving power of God. Milton equates his poetry with the music and singing described in this

poem by modeling it after the Italian madrigal, a traditionally musical form. He sees his own

poetry as the music that brings man to divine revelation and experience.

“At a Solemn Music” is at once a poem, a song, and a prayer. For Milton, the distinctions

are not so categorical since all are motivated by divine inspiration and directed towards divine

experience. Through his vivid depiction of heaven in lines 1-16, he successfully composes a

spiritually enlightening song and devises an effective aesthetic argument in favor of the active

role of earthly art in connecting with God.