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

2

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

3

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 closelyrelated 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

4

“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 21 22 23 [sin] Jarred against nature’s chime, and with harsh din Broke the fair music that all creatures made To their great Lord, whose love their motion swayed 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

5

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 lifegiving 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.

6