Thematic Guide to British Poetry

By Ruth Glancy | Go to book overview
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Music

Music and poetry have always been closely linked. Most poetry is considered “lyric” poetry (rather than dramatic or narrative poetry), taking its name from the lyre, a musical instrument originally used to accompany poetry. In ancient times, all poetry would have been sung, but songs are now usually considered inferior poetry. The great age of the poem set to music was the Renaissance, especially the reign of Elizabeth I, when music as entertainment was highly prized, and secular rather than religious songs became popular with contemporary poets and musicians. Thomas Campion was both, and he wrote many fine songs, such as “When to her lute Corinna sings” (1601), which neatly captures the relationship between the player and the song. Intended also as a love song, the poem credits Corinna's voice with bringing to life the sound of the lute. When she sings of happy things, the strings revive; when her song is sad, “ev'n with her sighs the strings do break.” In the second stanza the poet compares himself to the lute; as Corinna plays upon the lute and governs its moods with her own, so she plays upon the emotions of the poet. “If she doth of sorrow speak,/Ev'n from my heart the strings do break.” We do not need a musical setting to appreciate the deftness of Campion's comparison as he plays upon the idea of lute strings and heart strings breaking.

More usual in poetry about a woman playing a musical instrument is the poet's identification of his body with the instrument, rather than his mood. The poet envies the lute or harp whose strings are being so gently caressed by delicate fingers. Shakespeare's Sonnet 128, “How oft, when thou my music, music play'st” (1609) addresses a woman playing a harpsichord rather than a lute. The poet envies the keys “that nimble leap/ To kiss the tender inward of thy hand.” He would exchange his lips for

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