A Dictionary of Literary Symbols

By Michael Ferber | Go to book overview

A Dictionary of Literary Symbols
A
Absinthe
see Wormwood
Adder
see Serpent
Aeolian harp The aeolian harp (or lyre) or wind harp was invented by the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher and described by him in 1650. It is a long, narrow wooden box with a thin belly and with eight to twelve strings stretched over two bridges and tuned in unison; it is to be placed in a window (or a grotto) where the wind will draw out a harmonious sound. (Aeolus is the Greek king in charge of the winds; he first appears in Homer's Odyssey 10.) In the next century James Oswald, a Scots composer and cellist, made one, and it soon became well known.
It just as soon became an irresistible poetic symbol, first in English, then in French and German. James Thomson described the harp in The Castle of Indolence: “A certain Musick, never known before, / Here sooth'd the pensive melancholy Mind; / Full easily obtain'd. Behoves no more, / But sidelong, to the gently-waving Wind, / To lay the well-tun'd Instrument reclin'd; / From which, with airy flying Fingers light, / Beyond each mortal Touch the most refin'd, / The God of Winds drew Sounds of deep Delight: / Whence, with just Cause, The Harp of Aeolus it hight” (1.352—60). Thomson also wrote an “Ode on Aeolus's Harp.” It was already so well known by the 1750s that the opening line of Gray's “Progress of Poetry” — “Awake, Aeolian lyre, awake” — was misconstrued; Gray added a note quoting Pindar's “Aeolian song” and “Aeolian strings” to make clear that he was referring to a mode of Greek music, not the wind harp. (To the ancients, however, “Aeolian lyre” might refer to Sappho and Alcaeus, whose lyrics were in the Aeolian dialect of Greek.)
In poetry any harp can become an aeolian harp if suspended in the open air. Alluding to Psalm 137, where the exiled Jews “hanged our harps upon the willows” by the rivers of Babylon, William Cowper ends his long poem “Expostulation” by calling on his muse to “hang this harp upon yon aged beech, / Still murm'ring with the solemn truths I teach” (718—19).
Among the English Romantics the wind harp became a favorite image, capable of many extensions. In “The Eolian Harp, ” perhaps the most extended poetic treatment of the subject, Coleridge is prompted by the harp's “soft floating witchery of sound” (20) to consider “the one Life within us and abroad, / Which meets all motion and becomes its soul” (26—27), and then speculates: “And what if all of animated nature / Be but organic Harps diversely fram'd, / That tremble into thought, as

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A Dictionary of Literary Symbols
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • A Dictionary of Literary Symbols *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments viii
  • Abbreviations ix
  • Introduction 1
  • A Dictionary of Literary Symbols 7
  • Authors Cited 249
  • Bibliography 259
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