Romantic Circles Gallery
Physiological Disquisitions, Plate IV
The engraving depicts an Aeolian harp (the topmost image); it also includes several scientific diagrams indicating how the harp might function.
Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison
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ProvenanceThis book primarily contains text (626 pages), with black and white plates infrequently interspersed.
Exhibition HistoryA review of Physiological Disquisitions, taken from The Critical Review, is excerpted below:
In 1754 our author was married to the sister of the Reverend Brook Bridges, whom he assisted as curate at Wadenho; and in this situation he drew up a work which had once an extensive circulation—the Catholic doctrine of the trinity; and entered, through the very honourable liberality of his friends, into a course of philosophical experiments, which formed the basis of his philosophical works, published in 1762 under the title of an essay On the First Principles of Natural Philosophy, and which, in 1781, were enlarged, and given to the world under the name of Physiological Disquisitions. The publication of the former volume introduced him to the notice of the late Earl of Bute—a man who, whatever may have been his political demerits, is entitled to the highest encomiums for the encouragement he was at all times ready to afford to learning and science: and it is pleasing to record that this nobleman gave an order to a mathematical instrument-maker to furnish our author with all such instruments as he might find necessary in the course of his experiments. ("Art. V" 400-401)
Parts DescriptionPlate IV of Jones’s Physiological Disquisitions
Edition and StateAll are black and white plates.
Printing ContextThe plate appears as an illustration in William Jones’s Physiological Disquisitions. John Lodge (17??-1796) was the engraver. The publishers of the text were: J. Rivington and Sons (St. Paul’s churchyard), G. Robinson (Paternoster Row), D. Prince (Oxford), Meff. Merrils (Cambridge), W. Keymer (Colchester), Mrs. Drummond (Edinburgh), W. Watson (Dublin).
Associated PlacesNorthamptonshire. University College, Oxford. Suffolk.
Associated TextsPhysiological Disquisitions (1781)
SubjectThis image visually depicts the working of sound using the Aeolian harp—an instrument significant to the Romantic imagination—as the primary model.
ThemeThe senses. Aeolian harp. Natural philosophy.
SignificanceIn William Jones’s text, he argues for a better understanding of the function of the Aeolian harp, an instrument that caught the imagination of the Romantic poets. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes in his poem “The Aeolian Harp” (1795), the harp was placed in a window with the sash mostly lowered so that the funneled air would play over the strings: “And that simplest lute / plac’d length-ways in the clasping casement, hark!” (13-14) Coleridge asks us to “hark!” because the Aeolian harp, strummed by the wind, produces myriad sounds that seem inexplicable and otherworldly. Philosophers were unclear for much of the eighteenth century as to how the harp actually functioned; the mechanical and acoustic reasons behind the sounds it produced were not truly understood until well into the beginning of the next century. Coleridge, however, offers an explanation in the text of his poem that is itself taken from natural philosophy:
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,Coleridge here ascribes a coeval quality to sound and light. While this may seem the overwrought working of a Romantic imagination, his ideas are influenced by William Jones’s text, which uses similar metaphors to explain how the harp works:
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where—
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill’d;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument. (29-34)
I shall offer for solving this wonderful effect . . . the analogy between light and air. And first I lay it down, that music is in air as colours are in light . . . That as colours are produced by inflections and refractions of the rays of light, so musical sounds are produced by similar refractions of the air. There is no reason to suppose that air is homogenous in its parts, any more than light: and if air consists of heterogenous parts, they will be differently refrangible according to their magnitudes, and excite different sounds, as they are accommodated to different vibrations and capable of different velocities; as the parts of light which are differently refrangible give different colours. (Jones 341-42)Both Jones and Coleridge use this same analogy to describe the way that sound “refracts” through the harp’s strings. Jones’s use of the harp in a physics text ensconced the harp as an instrument inseparable from the early science of acoustics.
This overlay of Romantic vision with natural philosophy is emblematic of the eighteenth-century approach to science; natural philosophers were
Not really interested in science as we know it, but in metascience, that is, the fundamental relationship between man and nature that makes science possible. They wanted to study the whole of nature rather than its parts, because they believed that any part could be known only after the whole was understood. (Hankins and Silverman 86)This holistic vision is uniquely attuned to instruments such as the Aeolian harp, which promises a gateway to an understanding of the breath of life. Indeed, the harp was often described as both an instrument to capture the breath of God or Nature, and as metaphor for the “poet’s soul waiting to be touched by the wind of inspiration” (Hankins and Silverman 88).
Shelley used the same analogy in his “Defense of Poetry,” stating that:
Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in a lyre, and produces not just melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds and motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them. It is as if the lyre could accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them, in a determined proportion of sound; even as the musician can accommodate his voice to the sound of the lyre. (Shelley 2)Though Shelley indicates that the Aeolian harp is an apt metaphor for man, he is careful to draw a distinction between the melody of the harp and the harmony of human creation. Shelley is more accurate than he could know in describing the ideal actions of the poet, as he describes almost exactly an additional acoustic concept associated with harmonics:
Another mode of producing these harmonic sounds by sympathy is too curious to be omitted. If we take two strings, of the same material and equally stretched, and the one only one-third of the length of the other; if we strike or sound the shorter string, the other one will be set a vibrating by the intervention of the air, and it will vibrate in three loops, each equal to the shorter string, each, of course, performing the same number of vibrations in a given time. ("Art. VI" 492)The string, though it is untouched, vibrates in sympathy with the string that is touched. This phenomenon would understandably be interesting to those who, like Shelley, associated creativity and social harmony with actual (musical) harmony. A creative individual in harmony with the world around them would absorb surrounding vibrations and then function in a parallel and harmonious way, thus contributing to the production of a harmonious society. By aligning the harp with the Romantic poet as well as with theological, acoustic, and musical concerns, the Romantics created a potent symbol for the Romantic imagination as it strove to articulate connections in the realm of the senses. This same impulse generated the Romantic desire to describe music in more than literal, scientific terms—even in metaphors concerned with the ways in which society functioned and achieved harmony.
This may give us a new way to think about Shelley’s claim that sculptors, painters, and musicians could not achieve the same kind of artistic and spiritual elevation as poets. Though Shelley’s argument primarily concerns the tools that these different kinds of artists use, with the language of the poet being superior due to its intangibility and potential limitlessness, he uses another musical analogy to prove the point, likening sculptors, painters and musicians to guitar players, and the poet to a harp player (Shelley 7). Though we could attempt to explain this analogy by noting that the harp has more strings than a guitar, and thus more musical possibilities, Shelley is capitalizing on a further contrast between them: the harp presents more opportunities for multiple resonances. Since the strings of the harp are plucked, they may set other strings around them vibrating in sympathy, more so than a guitar. These multiple vibrations allow for greater resonances, both culturally and poetically, of the kind that Shelley claims for poets.
Bibliography"ART. VI.-A Treatise on Sound." The Quarterly Review 44.88 (1831): 475-512. Print.
"Art. V.-The Theological, Philosophical, and Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. William Jones, M.A.F.R.S. to which is Prefixed, a Short Account of His Life and Writings." The Critical Review, or Annals of Literature 35 (1802): 399-406. Print.
Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers. Ed. George C. Williamson. 5 vols. London: G. Bell, 1925-1927. Print.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "The Aeolian Harp." The Poetical and Dramatic Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. [William G. T.] Shedd. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1854. Print. Vol. 7 of The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 7 vols. 1854-68.
Hankins, Thomas, and Robert Silverman. Instruments and the Imagination. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995. Print.
Jones, William. Physiological Disquisitions. London, 1781. Print.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defense of Poetry. Ed. Albert S. Cook. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1903. Print.
Long TitlePlate IV. Black and white plate.