The Celestial Twins: Poetry and Music through the Ages

The Celestial Twins: Poetry and Music through the Ages

The Celestial Twins: Poetry and Music through the Ages

The Celestial Twins: Poetry and Music through the Ages


"All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music, " wrote Walter Pater. The Celestial Twins, while recognizing many affinities between music and poetry, argues that poetry in Western culture has repeatedly separated itself from musical contexts and that the best poetry is a purely verbal art.

H. T. Kirby-Smith makes his case with wit and erudition, proceeding chronologically and citing numerous examples of specific poems -- from Latin, Old French, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, modern French, and English. He points out that ancient Greek poetry, including the epics, was part of a musical context. By contrast, almost no surviving Latin poetry was written for musical performance, but the meters of Latin poetry were borrowed from Greek musical meters. Similarly, in their own ways, Thomas Hardy, T. S. Eliot, and Langston Hughes all wrote out of musical contexts: Hardy from west-of-England songs and dances; Eliot from Wagnerian opera and late Beethoven chamber music; and Hughes from blues, jazz, andspirituals.

Although poets from Horace to Shakespeare to Dickinson have instinctively recognized the separation of music and poetry, there have also been well-meaning attempts to bring these allied arts back into close association with each other. But in Kirby-Smith's view, poetry of the highest order has always maintained a respectful distance from music, even while retaining some memory of musical rhythms and organization.


This is a book about poetry, not music. Originally titled "The Emergence of Poetry from Music," its purpose is to locate some of the more important moments in European literature when poetry and music went their separate ways and to show how poetry thenceforth developed as an independent art form. the question of whether there remain any relationships between poetry and music--like the question of just what makes a metaphor, or what free verse is--will never be settled to everyone's satisfaction. Contemporary views include a neoformalist extreme that simply dismisses the possibility (or desirability) of any residual connection; in the other direction are vague vestiges of nineteenth-century aesthetic confusion that assume that poetry is forever approximating musical expression--or that it ought to do so. Similar divisions, or attitudes, go back to ancient times. (For succinct historical treatments one may turn to entries in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Music and Poetry by James Anderson Winn and Scansion by T. V. F. Brogan.)

It has been common to speak of the "music" of poetry--and even of poetry that "sings"--and discussion of the relation of poetry to music is fraught with Baconian idols, making it difficult at times to employ terms that express precisely what one means. It is tempting, for example, to speak of "tonal" music to designate music that has no connection with poetry and that depends purely on the relation of sounds, or tones, to one another. But "tonal" has already been preempted for several other purposes. "Sonic" will not do. I am therefore left with "actual music," hoping that this will not irritate those for whom the "music" of poetry is as actual as any other.

The present study tries to mediate various conflicting claims, arguing that as a matter of historical fact all poetry can be connected directly or indirectly-- sometimes only very distantly--with a musical context, but that the art of poetry is an art of words (just as Mallarmé said it was). Merely to trace all the different ways in which poetry written in English owes something of its rhythm and form to music would require many more pages than I have devoted. To attempt a survey of the same for the literature of the West would . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.