"Soundings of Things Done": The Poetry and Poetics of Sound in the Romantic Ear and Era
Captivation and Liberty in Wordsworth's Poems on Music
Adam Potkay, The College of William and Mary
1 Cf. Herder
(1769) on poetry as "the music of the soul" (quoted in
Abrams 93) and, ultimately, Plato on lyric poetry as the
means of introducing harmony into the soul
(Protagoras 326a, Republic 400c-403c).
essayist is not identified in Jackson, Contributors and
Contributions to The Southern Literary Messenger. The
essay appears eleven months after Poe had been sacked as
editor of the journal on account of heavy drinking.
Reed's first American edition of Wordsworth's poems (1837)
contains two headings of "Sonnets dedicated to Liberty"
("Part First" and "Part Second"), 211-223, also included in
Wordsworth's Poems, in Two Volumes (1807).
phrase from the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads,
in Prose Works 150.
Caesar on the subversive potential of Cassius: "he hears no
music" (Julius Caesar 1.2.204).
e.g., Prior, "Down-Hall: A Ballad" and "For his own
Epitaph"; Montagu, "The Lover: A Ballad" (a poem much
admired by Byron); John Cunningham, "Newcastle Beer";
Blake, "Chimney Sweeper" in Songs of
iambic-anapestic stanza, chiefly used for comedic verse in
the eighteenth century, was applied to moralistic or
didactic subjects in two poems that Wordsworth most likely
read after completing "The Power of Music" and the
1807 Poems in Two Volumes: Scott's
"Hellvellyn," published in William Whyte's miscellany A
Collection of Scottish Airs (1806-7)—a stanza
from which Wordsworth singled out for praise in the Fenwick
note to his own poem on the same topic,
"Fidelity"—and Cowper's "Poplar Field," published in
Southey's 15-vol. Works of William Cowper (1835-37),
but not in eighteenth-century collections of Cowper's
poems. Thus Adela Pinch may be mistaken in attributing the
meter of "Poor Susan" to the moralizing model of "Poplar
Wordsworth used a strict ballad stanza for two pieces in
the original Lyrical Ballads ("We are Seven" and
"The Tables Turned"); four out of his five Lucy poems
("Strange Fits of Passion," "She dwelt among the untrodden
ways," "I traveled among unknown men," "A slumber did my
spirit seal"); three other poems in the enlarged 1800
Lyrical Ballads ("Lucy Gray," "The Two April
Mornings," "The Fountain"); one poem in the 1807 Poems,
in Two Volumes ("To the Cuckoo"); and in a few
later, minor works (e.g.. "George and Sarah Green").
the 1798 Lyrical Ballads see also "Goody Blake and
Harry Gill," "It is the first mild day of March," "Simon
Lee," "Anecdote for Fathers," "The Thorn," and
"Expostulation and Reply."
Peter Manning comments incisively on the importance of
sequencing in Poems in Two Volumes and in particular
in the section "Poems written during a Tour in Scotland"
(258-68). I would question only Manning's claim that in
"Rob Roy's Grave" Wordsworth defuses the radical charge of
"liberty" by associating it with "traditional society"
(264). Wordsworth's Beau Monde reviewer, by
contrast, is clearly made nervous by the poem's "Jacobin"
implication that the poor would be justified in violently
seizing their rights, or having rights seized on their
course, Wordsworth's speaker briefly describes the lost
thing not explicitly as freedom but simply as "some natural
sorrow, loss, or pain." Inasmuch as this might (also)
reflect the reaper's own pain, we might say of this poem
what Adela Pinch says of an episode of The Vale of
Esthwaite: "Hearing others' cries of pain produces a
spontaneous music independent of the minstrel's will"
Wordsworth's translations from Virgil's Georgics,
dating back to his Cambridge years, include portions of the
Orpheus and Eurydice story, although the line in which
Virgil expresses Orpheus's power over brutes and the
wilderness—he mourns, mulcentem tigris et agentem
carmine quercus, "charming the tigers and moving the
oaks with song" (Georgics IV.510)—is rendered
by Wordsworth freely, "The solemn forest at the magic song
/ Had ears to joy" (Early Poems 642).
The Pantheon was built in 1770, designed by James Wyatt
after the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. It burned in 1792
but was re-built. Later converted to a theater, and still
later to a bazaar and warehouse, it was demolished in
This charge is still more applicable to Wordsworth's late
poem, "The Power of Sound," in which music mitigates the
sufferings of slavery and forced labor—and thus, by
extension, helps to preserve these institutions (stanza 4,
ll.49-64); even here, however, music as possible opiate is
counter-balanced by music as the engine of "civic
renovation" and "of Freedom" (ll. 65-71).
Cf. Coleridge's 1819 Philosophical Lectures: "Music
. . . produces infinite [or 'infantine'] Joy—while
the overbusy worldlings are buzzed round by night-flies in
a sultry climate" (168).
suggests that Wordsworth read The Life of Samuel
Johnson in August 1800 (27).
would like to thank Kim Wheatley and Erin Minear for their
comments on an earlier draft of this essay.