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The Poetic Use of Musical Forms

Author(s): Calvin S. Brown, Jr.

Source: The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Jan., 1944), pp. 87-101
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Musical Quarterly

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INCE MANY TERMS have exact meanings in music, and also ex-
tended, symbolical, or sometimes merely vague general or
literary applications, the study of musico-literary relationships has
been considerably obscured by those who play fast and loose with
their terms, "calling in ambiguity of language to promote con-
fusion of thought." Two words will easily illustrate the difficulty:
both harmony and melody are often applied, in a very inexact
way, to the sound of poetry, and conclusions about the connec-
tions between poetry and music are sometimes drawn from the
alleged existence of these elements in both arts. With most writers,
however, the two words, as applied to poetry, are interchangeable.
It is clear that, if they mean the same thing, they are not being
used in their musical sense, and any parallels drawn between the
arts on the basis of such a terminology are at best only bad puns.
In this article any term that has a technical meaning in music will
be consistently used in that specific sense only.
Before attempting to deal with the poetic use of musical forms,
it is necessary to examine the materials and structural devices of
music by means of which these forms are built up, and to see to
what extent they have equivalents in poetry. It is immediately
obvious that music and literature are alike in one fundamental
characteristic in which they differ from painting, sculpture, and
architecture: they extend and develop in time rather than in space.
By this very fact they have certain general processes in common:
for example, they require of their audience both memory and
anticipation. At any given instant a sonata or sonnet is meaning-
less, and only by a juxtaposition of instants in time can form or
meaning be built up. The great gulf between the temporal and the
spatial arts becomes immediately apparent when we remember
that a painting or statue is complete at any instant, but any given
square or cubic centimeter is meaningless, and only by the juxta-
position of these bits in space can a form or meaning be built up.
Thus far the similarity between music and poetry is close, but

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88 The Musical Quarterly
the materials that are juxtaposed differ considerably. It is worth
enquiring what poetic equivalents can be found for the funda-
mental musical materials: rhythm, harmony, melody, and timbre.
Rhythm, of course, exists in both arts, both in the recurring beat
of the measure or foot and in the larger groupings of phrase,
theme, section, and movement, or line, sentence, stanza, and book.
However, music offers as much variety as literature in the larger
rhythm, and a far greater variety in the smaller. A given poetic
foot is susceptible of only a few variations, but it would be easy
to write a thousand rhythmic variations within, say, one measure
of C time. Also, there is a difference of emphasis between the two
types of rhythm, which makes the various attempts to treat scan-
sion by means of musical notation entirely unconvincing. For ex-
ample, iambic rhythm can be made into 2 time only by a division
that pretends it is really trochaic, and the attempts to treat it
as 3 time involve the further falsification of treating the accent
as a matter of quantity. The triple rhythms of poetry work better
from a musical point of view, although the frequency of the
spondee is disconcerting. But perhaps the best evidence that there
is a real difference between musical and poetic rhythm lies in the
fact that, when a poet actually bases a work on musical time, it
immediately strikes us as something different from ordinary poetry.
So it is with the drum-beat of Browning's "Marching Along" and
the C time of Chesterton's "Lepanto" and Vachel Lindsay's "The
Congo". In spite of the differences between poetic and musical
rhythm, however, we may say that poetry is not at a loss for
devices through which to approximate the rhythmic elements in
musical forms.
Melody, on the other hand, can be only vaguely hinted at in
literature. When the word is applied to poetry, it is often merely a
term of general approval for the sum total of sound effects. There
is, of course, a certain natural inflection of the voice in reading,
and there are tendencies to vary the pitch in accordance with par-
ticular ideas, rhythms, and emotions, but individual variations in
these matters are so great that the poet has little control over them
and no assurance that any two readers will use anything like the
same pitch relationships.' Hence, if it be ever legitimate to speak
1 Such a composer as Arnold Schoenberg has attempted-in Pierrot lunaire and
the "Ode to Napoleon"-to make good this deficiency by indicating in notation the
pitch-line to be followed by the Sprechstimme.-Editor.

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The Poetic Use of Musical Forms 89

of the "melody" of a poem, the term should be applied only to one

specific reading.
A consideration of harmony (under which heading, for present
purposes, we may also include counterpoint) brings us immediately
to one of the almost insuperable difficulties of the poet who strives
to adopt musical forms. This is the element of simultaneity. Even
the musically illiterate can follow both "Humoresque" and
"Swanee River" when they are sung together, or can listen with
full comprehension to a rendition of "Three Blind Mice". So far
as I am aware, however, it is impossible to read two things at once,
and it is a strain rather than a matter of esthetic enjoyment to
follow two conversations simultaneously. Except for words writ-
ten to be sung, I know of only one attempt at true counterpoint
in poetry, and it is a bad failure: Sacheveral Sitwell ends a poem
entitled "On Hearing Four Bands Play at Once in a Public
Square"2 with a passage written in four parallel columns appar-
ently intended to be read simultaneously. In general, however,
poets have admitted the impossibility of securing the simultaneous
handling of different themes, and have sought some substitute
more in keeping with the nature of poetry. The most systematic
search for something of this kind has been made by Conrad Aiken,
and his theories of contrapuntal effects in poetry make very inter-
esting reading.3 Briefly stated, his idea is that recurrent sections,
each having its own characteristic feeling-"emotion-masses", he
calls them-will affect each other by their sequence and juxta-
positions. He explains how this principle is applied in his two long
poems, "The Jig of Forslin" and "Senlin". It is interesting to note
that, though he is attempting to find a substitute for counterpoint,
what he has actually done is to use a different structural device
of music, since an identical principle is found in the relationships
of repeated sections and episodes in the larger musical forms, espe-
cially in the later symphonic development that carries themes over
from one movement to another. Aiken has simply admitted that
harmony and counterpoint are impossible in poetry, and has sub-
stituted repetition, variation, and antithesis, themselves important
structural features of music, in an attempt to suggest contrapuntal
effects. If the rapid alternation of two themes can be regarded
2 Sacheveral Sitwell, "The Thirteenth Caesar and Other Poems" (Grant Richards:
London, 1924), p. 46 ff.
3 "Poetry: A Magazine of Verse", XIV, 156.

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9o The Musical Quarterly
as counterpoint, the purest literary examples occurred before the
device was known in music, for some of the skaldic poets "were
accustomed to interweave strands of sentences, giving first a part
of one, then a part of the other, then reverting to the first."4
Timbre, though less important musically than rhythm, melody,
or harmony, cannot be ignored. It exists in poetry in passages
dominated by single sounds or groups of sounds, and especially in
vowel sequences. I suspect that when the words "melody" and
"harmony" are applied to poetry, it is frequently timbre that is
actually meant. At any rate, we realize the great contribution
made by the tone of the vowels in such lines as "Ancestral voices
prophesying war"5 and "Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the
golden bowl be broken."6 An interesting example of poetic sound
used in deliberate imitation of musical timbre is Verlaine's Chanson
d'Automne,7 with its opening stanza:
Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l'automne
Blessent mon coeur
D' une langueur

In general, however, effects of this type place the poet under such
restrictions that he cannot sustain them long enough to use them
as structural features, and they remain merely as occasional orna-
ments: Verlaine's poem has only three stanzas, but the suggestion
of violin timbre weakens in the second stanza and is entirely aban-
doned in the third.
We may distinguish between the materials of music already
mentioned and the structural devices of tonality, tempo, balance
and contrast, and repetition and variation. Tonality is essential for
setting off contrasting sections and giving to each its individuality,
but there is nothing quite analogous in poetry. Writers attempting
sonata form may ignore key relationships entirely, or they may
use shifts of meter, subject matter, or general mood, but none of
these makeshifts is an unmistakable equivalent of tonality. Even
the obvious difference between major and minor can be only
hinted at by the poet.
4 E. V. Gordon, "An Introduction to Old Norse" (Oxford University Press,
1927), Preface, p. xli. An excellent illustration is given.
5 Coleridge, "Kubla Khan", line 30. 6 Ecclesiastes: 12: 6.
7 Conveniently found in "The Oxford Book of French Verse", p. 463.

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The Poetic Use of Musical Forms 91

Variations of tempo are less susceptible of literary imitation,

since any individual's rate of reading tends to vary only within
narrow limits. Even between different readers (if we ignore the
semi-illiterates who read very slowly because of technical difficul-
ties) there is no such difference as that between a Largo and a
Presto movement. At best, the range of tempi available is about
equal to that between Andante and Allegro, and even this much
is usually left entirely to the discretion of the reader. Some writers
of literary sonatas have placed tempo indications before the dif-
ferent movements, in imitation of the composer's practice, but it
is very unlikely that their readers have ever been governed by
these directions.
Balance and antithesis are the musical devices most amenable
to poetic use, for the very obvious reason that they are not specif-
ically musical devices, but are fundamental to both arts. No
musical form can exist without them, and we see them as the basis
of biblical poetry, of the sonnet, of all stanzaic forms, and, in an
intellectual and emotional rather than a purely mechanical sense,
of all literature.
The primary difficulty for the poet among these structural
elements of music lies in repetition and variation. These are, of
course, essential literary principles. They may be most clearly
seen in such verse forms as the triolet, ballade, villanelle, rondeau,
etc., but repetition, either identical or with a difference, is im-
portant in all poetry. The sub-plot of Elizabethan drama, for ex-
ample, is simply a variation on the main plot. The difficulty,
however, is not one of kind, but of degree, since music can tolerate
repetition more easily than poetry. It is true that in the opening
of Book II of the "Iliad" a substantial passage is used three times
within a compass of forty-seven lines, but such repetition is for-
tunately rare in poetry. In music, on the other hand, it would not
be at all remarkable, and the frequency of repeat-marks in scores
is ample testimony to the amount of unchanged repetition that
music allows, or, in most forms, even demands. The reason is
fairly plain. "All arts constantly aspire towards the condition of
music" (Schopenhauer8 said it well before Pater9) because, in
music, form and content are indistinguishable. A speech or idea
8 Arthur Schopenhauer, Schriften iiber Musik (Deutsche Musikbiicherei, Bosse:
Regensburg, 1022), Band 4o, p. I59.
9 Valter Pater, "The Renaissance" (Jonathan Cape: London, 1928), p. I32.

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92 The Musical Quarterly
repeated in different words gives an impression of prolixity, but
a musical theme "divided", augmented, diminished, transposed,
reharmonized, reorchestrated, or varied in any possible way seems
to be more of a new thing than a repetition. Even unchanged rep-
etition is far more tolerable in music than in poetry, probably
because a theme is simply itself and must be fixed in the memory
by repetition, whereas a literary idea is something apart from the
words in which it is presented, and one can-and does-retain the
idea without necessarily having any clear recollection of the form
of its statement. Hence the poet will usually repeat, either exactly
or with variation, only small parts of his work, while the composer
will often construct the major portion of his product out of repeti-
tions and variations. We shall see later how embarrassing this
difference in method is to poets who set out conscientiously to
follow musical forms.
Having examined the materials and devices by which musical
forms are constructed and their poetic equivalents (as far as such
equivalents exist), we are now in a position to investigate the poets'
use of the principal musical forms. The rondo is the one most
closely related to ordinary poetical structures. This form is really
older in poetry than in music: any poem with stanzas and a chorus
is in rondo form if only the chorus begins the poem. Burns's "Green
Grow the Rashes, O" is a perfect example, since the chorus alter-
nates throughout with the different stanzas in the regular pattern
of ABACADA, etc., concluding with A. The music of such a
song is, of course, not a rondo, since the same melody serves for
each of the different stanzas. In poetry more sophisticated than
the folk-song, the repeated element will either be reduced to a
much shorter compass than that of the episodes, or it will be varied
at each repetition-a device also common in the musical form. An
excellent example of the shortened principal subject occurs as far
back as the Pervigilium Veneris,l? which has the opening line,
"Cras amet qui numquam amavit, quique amavit cras amet," re-
peated at intervals throughout the poem and also used for the
conclusion. The poetic form now known as the rondeau (not the
rondeau of the I3th- 5th centuries) reduces the repeated part to
half a line and, in the best examples, varies its application at each
recurrence. Two poems in which the balance between the principal
10 Conveniently found in "The Oxford Book of Latin Verse", pp. 375 ff.

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The Poetic Use of Musical Forms 93

and episodic themes is more nearly kept are Hebbel's Requiem,"

Seele, vergiss sie nicht,
Seele, vergiss nicht die Toten!

and Nietzsche's Der Herbst,l2 with the principal theme

Dies ist der Herbst: der-bricht dir noch das Herz!
Fliege fort! fliege fort!

These poems, however, are not imitations of a musical form, but

simply applications of a literary form based on the same esthetic
principle. Except for the fact that the repeated subject does not
begin the poem, many ballads of the type of Rossetti's "Sister
Helen", with a varied refrain, would fit into this pattern. A peculiar
literary hybrid between the rondo and the theme and variations
consists of two contrasting themes that alternate regularly but are
varied at each reappearance. Conrad Aiken's morning song of
Senlin8l is a good example, and an even better one by the same
author is found in the reflections of a man at a concert, in which
the constant chatter of his companion alternates with the stream
of ideas suggested by the music whenever he gets a chance to listen
to it.4
The theme and variations proper is not rare in poetry, but it
is almost always a conscious musical borrowing. One is certainly
tempted to believe that Milton, in Eve's morning song in "Paradise
Lost",15 was consciously using a musical device when he gave a
series of the beauties of nature and then repeated it in the form of
a negative variation. Tieck left no doubt on the matter when he
wrote a series of verbal entr'actes for his play, Die Verkehrte
Welt,s6 after using a verbal "Symphonie" for a prelude. The last
of the entr'actes is a "Menuetto con Variazioni" composed of a
statement of a theme, followed by three variations on it. The
usual method of the poetic theme and variations is identical with
that of the musical form: a theme is given out simply and directly,
and then followed by a series of reworkings in different moods,
11Will Vesper, Das zweite Buch der Ernte (Langewiesche-Brandt: Ebenhausen
bei Miinchen, n.d.), pp. 183 f.
12 Fr. Nietzsche, Gedichte (Insel-Verlag: Leipzig, n.d.), pp. 6 f.
s Conrad Aiken, "Selected Poems" (Scribner's: N. Y., 1929), "Senlin: A
Biography", II, ii, pp. I72 ff.
14 Ibid., "The Jig of Forslin", V, iv, pp. 54 ff.
15 IV, 641 if.
16 Ludwig Tiecks sammtliche Werke (Vienna, I8I8), XIII, 5-54.

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94 The Musical Quarterly
emphases, and sometimes meters. From the numerous examples of
this method, Mme. Merens-Melmer's Theme et Variations,l7 Grace
Hazard Conkling's "Variations on a Theme",'8 and Richard Plat-
tensteiner's Wasser-Lied19 and Wolken-Symnphonie20 (each with
the subtitle "Variationen eines bekannten Themas") may be men-
tioned. Perhaps Theophile Gautier's Variations sur le Carnaval
de Venise21 is more familiar than any of these, and it has the added
interest of being based on a tune indicated in the title and imitated
rhythmically in the first line of the second variation.
The musical custom of taking themes from other writers and
using them as bases for sets of variations has even been used in the
"Glosse" of the German Romantic poets and in Sacheveral Sit-
well's sets of variations22 on lines from Herrick, Pope, Peele, and
Milton. These variations bring up the problem of length. By using
more notes of smaller time-value than those of the original theme,
the composer gives a more elaborate treatment without extending
the time of performance. The logical poetic counterpart of this
method is to fill in more detail, but since there can be far less
difference in the duration of words than in that of musical notes,
the result is always a lengthening of the treatment and a con-
sequent disproportion between the theme and its variations. If we
accept Combarieu's statement23 that in music the speed of per-
formance gives a theme its definitive character, while in poetry the
character of the idea determines the speed of its performance, we
see that this difficulty is fundamental. It is apparently also in-
evitable. Similarly, the difficulty of maintaining interest through a
set of variations is much greater in poetry than in music. This
problem, however, has been beautifully solved in what is prob-
ably the vastest and at the same time the most successful use of the
theme-and-variations form in literature, Browning's "The Ring
and the Book". This poem is simply a theme stated in the first
book in the account of some documents relating to an old trial for
17 M. Merens-Melmer, Sous la Signe de la Musique (Paris, 1926).
18 G. H. Conkling, "Ship's Log and Other Poems" (N. Y., 1924), pp. 131 f.
l' Richard Plattensteiner, Musikalische Gedichte (Heinrich Minden: Leipzig, 1927),
p. 21.
20 Ibid., pp. 52 ff.
21 Th. Gautier, Emaux et Camees (Paris, 1852).
22S. Sitwell, "The Cyder Feast and Other Poems" (Duckworth: London, I927),
passim, and "The Hundred and One Harlequins" (Grant Richards: London, 1922),
p. 48 if.
23 Jules Combarieu, Les Rapports de la Musique et de la Poesie (Bailliere: Paris,
1893), p. 239-

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The Poetic Use of Musical Forms 95
murder, followed by ten variations, each giving an account of the
same facts from the point of view of a different person involved
or interested in the case, and concluded by a coda (the last book)
which is in itself a set of similarly constructed variations on the
theme of the outcome of the trial and the execution of Guido and
his confederates. Browning, with his great interest in music, must
have been fully conscious of the method he was following, and
thirteen lines before the end of the poem he implies as much when
he writes:
So may you paint your picture, twice show truth,
Beyond mere imagery on the wall-
So, note by note, bring music from your mind,
Deeper than ever the Andante dived...

The secret of Browning's success is that, by concentrating on the

characters rather than the events, he has made each variation a new
revelation of the implications of his theme-as it is in music-
rather than another rehashing of an oft-repeated story. In spite
of such occasional successes as this, however, we must admit that
variation is a more effective poetic device when used incidentally
as a part of some other form than when employed as the primary
basis of a work.
The unelaborated ABA form is another typical musical struc-
ture that has been attempted by poets, especially in verses dealing
with musical compositions in the same form. Thus in the Polish
poet Ujejski's eleven poems24 based on compositions of Chopin,
we find the ABA form wherever the music calls for it, and also a
very exact imitation of such musical features as the characteristic
rhythm of the mazurka. In spite of the attempt to follow the music
as closely as possible, however, Ujejski clearly feels that poetry
will not allow the long repetitions of the musical form. In his
poem on Chopin's "Funeral March", for example, though the
music of the third section is an exact repetition of that of the first,
Ujejski returns in his third section to the rhythm of the first, but
develops its idea to a climax. We see a similar use of variation for
the final section in Robert Underwood Johnson's poem25 on
Chopin's "Fifteenth Prelude" and in d'Annunzio's Sopra un
24Poezje Kornela Ujejskiego (Biblioteka Pisarzy Polskich, Tom 43), (Brockhaus:
Lipsk, i866), "Tlumaczenia Szopena".
25 R. U. Johnson, "Songs of Liberty and Other Poems" (Century: N. Y., I897),
pp. 20 ff.

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96 The Musical Quarterly
Adagio di Brahms.26 It is not uncommon for a poet who takes a
composition in ABA form as his subject simply to ignore either
the first or the third section of the music. The sonnet, being a two-
part form, tends especially to produce this result. Thus Mary
Alice Vialls, in a sonnet27 on the Tannhiuser Overture, begins
with the middle section of the music. Another sonnet28 of hers,
on Chopin's Nocturne, Op. 37, No. I, violates its subject entirely
by a refusal to repeat the A section. She makes the first subject
of the nocturne (an accompanied melody in G minor) a question-
ing of pilgrims struggling along the barren track to eternal death,
and in the sestet of her sonnet she interprets Chopin's second sub-
ject (a chorale-effect with close harmony in E-flat major) as advice
to return to the fold and to faith. Her poem ends here, for the
double reason that it is a sonnet and that, if she were to follow
the music in its return to the first subject, her edifying moral
would be entirely reversed. Poets not writing on musical subjects
seldom employ the ABA form except by reducing the A theme
until it is insignificant in comparison with the B theme, which
then forms the real body of the poem. We see this practice in
Baudelaire's Hymne,2 "A la tres-chere, a la tres-belle", which
has the first and last stanzas almost identical, while the intervening
three give the main substance of the poem. Even further reduc-
tion of the opening subject is seen in Keats's "Lines on the Mer-
maid Tavern", "Bards of Passion and of Mirth", and La Belle
Dame sans Merci, and in Poe's "Dream Land". It is interesting to
note, in passing, that when composers take their subjects from
poetry they frequently seem to feel that musical treatment de-
mands an ABA form which the poem has not supplied. Thus,
when Schubert came to make a vocal setting of Matthias Claudius'
Der Tod und das Midchen (which consists of two stanzas, the
first spoken by the girl and the second given in reply by Death),
he used the theme of Death's stanza for a short prelude. Similarly
Liszt, in his three piano solos (originally written as vocal settings30)
on sonnets of Petrarch, violates the sonnet form by using a free
26Poesie di Gabriele d'Annunzio (Milan, I896), pp. 46 f.
27 M. A. Vialls, "Music Fancies and Other Verses" (Constable: Westminster,
1899), pp. 7 f.
28 Ibid., p. I.
29 Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal (Genie de la France series), (Hilsum: Paris, n.d.),
pp. 174 f.
sPF. Niecks, "Programme Music in the Last Four Centuries" (Novello: London,
1906), p. 293.

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The Poetic Use of Musical Forms 97
ABA structure. All things considered, we may conclude that the
simple ABA form is obvious in music, but difficult to handle in
poetry--so difficult, in fact, that it is seldom attempted except
under musical suggestion, and even then is often abandoned.
A vast expansion of this simple structure gives sonata form.
Since the beginning of what has been called "the romantic con-
fusion of the arts", writers have been attracted by the idea of the
symphony in words and have produced many poems including the
word symphony as a part of the title. However, the word has a
general as well as a technical meaning, and it is clear that many
poets writing "symphonies" have either no idea of what the musi-
cal form is or no intention of following it. It is probable that
Gautier, when writing his Symphonie en Blanc Majeur,3 actually
did not understand the musical implications of his title. At any
rate, the attempt to combine poetic, musical, and visual arts could
hardly have allowed him to follow the strict musical form. What
he actually wrote was eighteen four-line stanzas very effectively
calling up the idea of manifold whiteness, but having no possible
connection with the symphony. And we can certainly see that
the word sonata is utterly meaningless in Lamartine's comment
on one of his own poems:
J'ecrivais encore de temps en temps, mais comme poete, non plus comme
homme. J'ecrivais les Preludes dans cette disposition d'esprit. C'etait une
sonate de poesie. J'etais devenu plus habile artiste; je jouais avec mon

There are many poems, however, which indicate by a division

into movements that they are attempting a poetic use of sonata
form. Conrad Aiken, John Gould Fletcher, Grace Hazard Conk-
ling, John Todhunter, Henry Van Dyke, Arsene Houssaye, Mme.
Merens-Melmer, A. E. J. Legge, and Richard Plattensteiner are
among the authors of such poems. With the exception of Legge
and Aiken, however, these poets all have a mistaken idea of the
scope and the dignity of the form. They seem to think of a
symphony as a thing to be tossed off during an idle week-end,
and to associate it with the slighter forms of lyric poetry instead
of with equally ambitious literary forms, such as the tragedy and
the epic: a leisurely reading of almost any of their "symphonic"
poems will require between two and seven minutes. It is note-
31 Conveniently found in "The Oxford Book of French Verse", pp. 420 ff.
32 Note on the Isth of the Nouvelles Meditations Poetiques.

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98 The Musical Quarterly
worthy that many kinds of suggestion are employed to produce
the musical illusion, but the use of musical form is among the
least of these devices. Many of the poems (several each of Tod-
hunter and Plattensteiner, for example) take specifically named
compositions in sonata form for their subjects, and a great many
more abound with general musical allusions. Some of the poems
contain recognizable themes and variations, or even ABA forms
and rondos, but since we have already considered these we must
focus our attention on the first movements, or any others that
clearly attempt to use sonata form. The first movements of these
poems tend to be, if anything, shorter than the others, although
in music their duration is usually greater than that of either second
or third movements. Yet we find Plattensteiner, who is conscious
of the difficulty of the undertaking and defends himself on the
grounds that he is not trying to interpret music in words, but
rather to create a verbal work which "im wesentlichen dem
geistigen Inhalt von Tondichtungen naher zu kommen sucht,"33
writing Ein Symphonisches Gedicht34 with a first movement of
only three lines. We find him further indicating the great difficulty
of transferring sonata form into verse by simply omitting the first
movements in two of his poems on symphonies.35 In none of his
twenty-one poems based on sonata form do we find a single move-
ment that accurately follows the form, and we find only one36
that effectively suggests it.
The difficulties are, of course, immense. Relationships of key
are of the utmost importance, and there is no real poetic equivalent
for them. The presentation of two important contrasting subjects
is easier, and several poets have succeeded thus far, and have even
made use of a concluding subject. Here, however, the difficulty
of repetition makes itself fully felt: the poet feels that he cannot
exactly repeat all that he has written up to this point, and if he
tries to vary his ideas he necessarily goes directly into the develop-
ment section. Development itself is difficult, partly because varia-
tions of rhythm and combination are so limited in poetry, and
partly because many such devices as orchestration, modulation,
and counterpoint are impossible. Even worse, after some sort of
3 R. Plattensteiner, Neue Musikalische Gedichte (Minden: Leipzig, 1928), Preface.
84 Ibid., pp. 36 f.
35Ibid., Brahms, IV. Symphonie, pp. 42-43, and Bruckner-Symphonie, pp. 46 ff.
36 Ibid., Kreutzer-Sonata, pp. 20 ff (First movement).

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The Poetic Use of Musical Forms 99

development has been achieved the poet will be confronted with

the recapitulation, and again the problem of repetition will arise.
As a matter of fact, very few poets get more than half way
through the exposition: they state two more or less contrasting
themes and let it go at that. If one attempts to follow the relation-
ship between the poem and the music in a work such as Tod-
hunter's "Beethoven's 'Sonata Appassionata' ",7 where a definite
effort is made to follow the form, one finds that, since this par-
ticular sonata does not have an exact repetition, the development
section is fairly clear. Beyond this point, however, nothing can
be done except to suggest confusion, with occasional recurrences
of the principal themes. The same thing may be seen in Grace
Hazard Conkling's "Symphony of a Mexican Garden",38 a poem
with tempo and key indications which are, as a friend recently
pointed out to me, identical with those of Beethoven's Seventh
Symphony. The first movement consists of a simple statement of
two different themes, with neither development nor repetition,
and this method is followed throughout the entire poem. Ex-
amples could be multiplied at great length, but the general con-
clusion is clear: poets find that sonata form cannot be made a
workable poetic scheme unless it is changed beyond recognition.
The relationship of movements constitutes another problem.
Again, the lack of tonality is important, but the use of different
meters, subjects, and general effects can successfully overcome
this obstacle. Other devices are also occasionally used, as when
Plattensteiner begins each movement of one poem39 with a strongly
alliterated passage, but gives each of these passages a different
dominating sound. Occasionally the so-called "cyclic" form, so
popular in later 19th-century symphonic works, is used, and recur-
ring themes tie the movements together, but since such a procedure
would be a normal tendency in poetry we cannot with any cer-
tainty attribute it to musical influence.
Conrad Aiken's poetic symphonies are particularly interesting.
In his article in "Poetry" he made it clear that he was not at-
tempting to borrow the actual structure of the symphony, but
rather to work out a sort of literary version of its effect and some
37 John Todhunter, "Sounds and Sweet Airs" (Elkin Mathews: London, 1905),
pp. 86 ff.
38 G. H. Conkling, "Afternoons of April: A Book of Verse" (Houghton Mifflin:
Boston, 1915), pp. I3 ff.
39 Musikalische Begebenheit, in Musikalische Gedichte, pp. 54 f.

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The Musical Quarterly
of its methods. His attempt at counterpoint is seen in its simplest
form in a poem originally published with the word counterpoint
in the title, and later included in "The House of Dust".40 This
poem deals with two persons, an old man and a young woman,
living in separate rooms, one above the other. Its entire effect is
based on a rapid alternation between one and the other as they
"pursue their separate dreams", and a constant interrelation is
kept between their totally different thoughts. A great number of
other individual musical procedures occur in Aiken's poems: the
general structure of the first four sections of Part I of "Senlin" is
AABA, and the use of rondo form combined with the theme and
variations in the same poem has already been mentioned. Recapitu-
lation is seen in two different forms in "Senlin" and "The House
of Dust": in the former the first and third sections of the final
movement (which has three sections) are derived entirely from
the first two sections of the poem, but the material is slightly
varied and is rearranged; in the latter the last of the seventy-five
pages is identical with the first. Aiken's theoretical discussion and
his constant use of musical imagery show that these and many
other primarily musical devices are deliberately imitated. The most
striking fact about his method, however, is that his poems are
based on that part of sonata form which is the despair of most of
its literary imitators-the development section. Aiken unobtru-
sively introduces various themes (in contrast to the formal exposi-
tion of a single theme) and then varies and recombines them, in
wholes or parts, throughout a poem. This method is particularly
followed with figures of speech. Thus we have underwater
imagery introduced early in "The Jig of Forslin":41
Now, as one who stands
In the aquarium's gloom, by ghostly sands,
Watching the glide of fish beneath pale bubbles,-
The bubbles quietly streaming
Cool and white and green . .poured in silver ...
He did not know if this were wake or dreaming;
But thought to lean, reach out his hands, and swim.

This is repeated, with changes in the adjectives, a page later, and

occurs again almost at the end of the poem. Other common
figures are those of music weaving its effects, twilight, and knife-
40 "Selected Poems", IV, iv, pp. 143 f.
41 I, i. p. 7.

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The Poetic Use of Musical Forms 01

murderer, and the bird falling by the side of a sheer tower, and
these are likewise repeated. The specifically musical process, how-
ever, is the constant changing and combining of these themes.
One excerpt will show three of them combined within four lines:
This is as if, in the going of twilight,
When skies are pale and stars are cold,
Dew should rise from the grass in little bubbles,
And tinkle in music among green leaves.42

Another quotation is interesting, not only as a combination of the

music and water themes, but as a statement of Aiken's reason for
choosing musical techniques to deal, as he largely does, with what
goes on within the mind:
Things mused upon are, in the mind, like music,
They flow, they have a rhythm, they close and open,
And sweetly return upon themselves in rhyme.
Against the darkness they are woven,
They are lost for a little and laugh again,
They fall or climb.43

A few scattered attempts at other musical forms, such as De

Quincey's "Dream Fugue",44 might be mentioned, but it seems to
me that in Conrad Aiken's work we really find the answer to the
problem of the use of musical forms in poetry. There are numerous
single poems here and there that attempt to use them, but only a
few poets have devoted themselves to the problem systematically,
and, judging by their productions, we can safely say that Aiken's
method is by far the most successful. It would seem, then, that we
are driven to the conclusion that the media and techniques of
music and poetry are so different that effective imitation of the
smaller musical forms is rare, and of the larger forms is close to
impossible, but that a poet who will accept the differences and not
try to push the musical analogy too far may successfully employ
many techniques suggested by a thoughtful study of his sister art.
42 HI, i, p. 28.
43 I, vii, p. i5. It is interesting to note, in connection with this passage, that Albert
Gehring ("The Basis of Musical Pleasure", N. Y., 191o) bases an esthetic of music on
the idea that its forms and methods of development are analogous to those of human
44 See C. S. Brown, Jr., "The Musical Structure of De Quincey's 'Dream Fugue' ",
in The Musical Quarterly, XXIV, 341 ff.

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