The Silent Voice of Poetry

The New Statesman 16 (15 Jan. 1921): 448-449

The Iliad and the Odyssey were obviously sung before they were written, and, partly perhaps because of this, it is often urged that no poetry actually is poetry, until its syllables are being clothed in audible human utterance; even as music exists as form, perhaps, on the score, but not as music, until the air is actually vibrating with sound. The analogy is a false one, for the voice of poetry is a silent voice, and its silence is ever deepening with the development of language and civilisation. This is not to say that the voice is less melodious or less insistent than before; to the contrary its silence is nothing but a sinking further and further into the soundless depths of imagination.

There is a natural stress of speech – a modulation of tone that creeps instinctively into the voice of the speaker and varies with the meaning and order of the words he uses. If you are in a passion, when you speak, your stress will be a passionate one; even if you only write the sentences, the same stress will still be faintly audible – indicated in some way by the order in which you have arranged your words. If your passion is a deep and sustained one, it is more than likely that you will be speaking or writing great prose. Similarly, if you have a beautiful idea and can express it in all its fullness, you will inevitably write beautiful prose; you might, of course, be able to impart the mere intellectual framework of your idea in harsh, clumsy sentences; but this would not be complete expression any more than a skeleton is a complete man. For in literature to “say what you mean” is nothing less than to impart your whole state of mind, and for this you will need every single one of the innumerable associations that cluster faintly round each word you use, and you will need them in their right places. This natural stress according to the content of the words is the main music of prose. Speak it or write it, it is one continuous, ever-varying rhythm that comes wiling up naturally with the words themselves. Where the rhythm seems not to vary but to recur, it is because the writer’s state of mind is a recurring one; the prose-rhythm of a great artist like Sir Thomas Browne is a continued echo, as it were, of the rhythm of his whole life and thought.

The music of poetry is quite a different thing. It is not a rhythm at all but a kind of elusive discrepancy between two rhythms. Some rigidly regular metrical form is taken, such as the iambic pentameter

˘ – ˘ – ˘ – ˘ – ˘ –

and on to this, as on an iron frame, is fitted a soft fabric of words already woven in a rhythm of their own – that natural speech – or prose – rhythm of which I have already spoken. The two rhythms clash, and overlap, and subtly intersect in such a way that one delicate, unreal echo is struck out from their jarring; and this is the main music of poetry. Rhyme, alliteration, assonance and the rest – these too, of course are the music of poetry, but they are nothing by themselves, being as characteristic of the gender-rhyme as they are of the perfect lyric.

This fundamental base-music of poetry is heard best in blank-verse; for blank-verse, having no rhymes to tinkle their own music in the ear and mark more definitely the metre’s rise and fall, is less than nothing without that pedal-note. The music of good blank-verse, then, is the elemental music of all poetry, and the finer the lines, the more infinitely subtle and elusive that music is. So much so that it is as impossible to utter it, as it is to sing or whistle a chord; and “Paradise Lost” can really be read aloud only a little more successfully than Chopin’s 20th Prelude could be played on the ’cello – unless, of course, the hearer already knows almost by heart the lines to which he is listening. “Paradise Lost” can be read aloud in three ways: it can be read simply as prose – a strange, sonorous kind of prose with a strong, lop-sided rhythm, or it can be read as a kind of monotonous maunder with the rhythm of a not-very-lame man’s walk:

Of m´an’s first di´s obe´d ience a´nd the fr´uit…

or – if the reader can read poetry – it can be read as something between these two; and the finer the reader he is, the nearer he will keep to the tortuous central path between these two extremes. But even if he is the most splendid reader that humanity is capable of producing, the meaning in the sound of his voice will never be able to reach that exactly central point between the two rhythms – the vanishing point, where their whole impalpable music lies. Only an imaginary voice can do this; for more than sounds went to the creating of that music, and it takes more than an ear-drum to hear it.

How is it, then, that the old Scottish minstrels used to sing their ballads – not hang them up on the dining-room wall and go to sleep – that the Iliad and the Odyssey were sung long before they were written? The voice of what we still regard as the world’s first and greatest poem was so far from being a silent one, that it had no other existence save as it fell from the lips of some rhapsodist.

Firstly, there is a difference almost of kind between the hexameter and our modern European metres. The one was a generous, plastic rhythm with almost enough variation inside its own limits to allow the poet to ring his changes on the emotions without superimposing a second rhythm at all. In any case, of course, we today know practically nothing of the natural speech-rhythms and stresses, into which the voices of Homer and his contemporaries fell, when they were talking, so that our appreciation can feed only on the music that comes from a variation within the rhythm rather than one around and about it. And so deep-mouthed is this music that it is difficult to believe that any further subtleties of cadence could ever have added any beauty.

Now, a poetry, which is one recurring but plastic rhythm, is naturally far easier to compass with the speaking voice than a poetry which is an elusive mean between two rhythms. Much less of its magic will be lost in physical utterance, so that the listener will receive nearly as much as the reader. Thus, metre’s gradual change with the development of language from reliance on a mechanical quantity to reliance on unutterable reverberations of human stress and accent is, I believe, one reason for the decline of the Epic. It is so much easier to listen than to read for hours at a time. Appreciation itself involves an effort, and, while the listener can lull his tired faculties in the mere boom of the reciter’s voice, until his imagination is ready to dance again to the whole music of the words and shut up the book for good. Modern metres, to be fully appreciated, must be read, and heard only with the inward stress and accent – unutterable, that is, except by an imaginary voice ringing in the reader’s head. How very difficult it is to conceive of a rhapsodist handling “Paradise Lost”!

It is noticeable that in early England – so long as there were more minstrels than MSS – the old unrhymed, alliterative metre – another plastic rhythm – held sway. Beowulf is fine stuff to shout; for here again it is the rhythm itself that varies, not the interplay of a natural human stress and a mechanical rhythm-stress. Later on, MSS became more plentiful, and metre began to change. Chaucer’s many thousands of new iambic pentameters were nearly contemporary with the advent of printing, and it may well have been this, when it came, which set the final seal on their success as an experiment.

As the piano is an improvement on the spinet, so undoubtedly the printed word, and especially the well-printed word, is an instrument that plays more subtly on the imagination, and less crudely on the emotions, than the spoken word. Now, “subtlety” is a word beloved of aesthetes and shunned by artists; what exactly does it mean? Let us say that the function of poetry – and indeed of all art – is to produce a state of mind compact of imagination and emotion – that the stimulus must arrive at the imagination through the senses, but that the sooner it can get through<, and the less disturbance it causes in its passage, the better. By subtlety, then – the subtlety, for instance, that is added to a poem by clear and beautiful printing – I mean – not any preciosity – but a kind of cleanness, an oiling of the surface that will, as it were, hurry the artist’s message through the senses – straight to the imagination. For imagination, after all, is the salt of appreciation – in music no less than in poetry – “Imagination” in Coleridge’s sense of the word – not a series of tangible thoughts or images in the brain, but a certain high consciousness, diffused, of the universal issues that are suggested by the artist’s partial presentation. But the human voice is a coarse instrument, which confuses the effect; it is so like music, in sound, that the ear will revel instead of the imagination, and so unlike music, in general shape, that the real musical imagination – or musician’s imagination – will never once be stirred by it.

Music itself, which has no intellectual content, suggests no memories or visual images, relying solely on the ear as a path to the imagination – music itself can, by the musical, be read and appreciated without being heard. Poetry, of which at least half the force lies in a content nearly, but not quite, separable from the mere sound of its words, is a score that need never be orchestrated. A spoken poem may be a beautiful and moving event, and so may a sung poem, but they are neither of them quite pure poetry, they are another art-form altogether, especially the latter, which now has three instead of two rhythms to be compromised over by the singer’s voice!

The “form” of a line of poetry – both intellectual and phonetic – that is the blend that it leaves both of associations in the mind and of syllables in the ear, cannot be properly grasped, unless the whole line is flashed on the mind at once. Eye and ear must hear and see the last word in the line, even while they are resting on the first. For poetic form is a compromise. Musical form has only one objective physical dimension, and that is in time – sound following sound; pictorial form has only one physical dimension, and that is in space, line beside line and colour beside colour. Poetic form – external form, that is – has a little of both dimensions, appealing, as it does, through both eye and ear; but its history is a gradual march towards greater reliance on the latter. The furthest point it has reached in this direction is marked perhaps by the rhyme-sheet, which is hung up on the wall in exactly the same way as a picture. Apart from these, however, the whole art of poetry-printing has recently been making great strides. Good printing, in itself, is no more an affectation than a good piano; for in order to be really good, the printing must never be a mere excuse for providing the rich dilettante with a supernumerary and rather feeble kind of pleasure, but a craftsman’s honest attempt to thin away the dull barriers between the poem and the appreciator – to scale off, as it were, some of the flesh-film from imagination’s eye.

Yet I am far from suggesting that poetry’s true home is the wall-paper; for poetry has its own vital characteristics, which are no more those of visual art than they are those of music. I have only tried to make it clear that they are not those of music, and that the voice of pure poetry is a silent voice.

Owen Barfield
Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.