. On the Musical Language of Poetry In Defense of the Classical Style . by A.J. Illingworth The historical connection between music and poetry is no secret. Homer, in the first line of the Iliad, instructs his muse with the word ἄειδε, “sing!” which itself is connected to the root of our English word “ode.” Over time, of course, music and poetry took slightly different paths such that we can now speak of them separately, though the overlap is still very much present, and I would not like to say that songwriters are not poets, or that there is not a poetry to music, or a music to poetry. Quite the contrary, the nature of that ongoing connection is central to my thesis here. The central preserve of poetry, as something separate from music, is its metrical form. Music has meter as well, but it looks very different from that of poetry. In music meter refers to time, beats per measure, and note length, which in some ways parallels the ancient metrical poems which were also based on quantitative length. In English poetry, however, it is the accent which is king, and so a metrical composition looks quite different to what you will find in Latin and Greek. It is the use of meter, I argue, that is the necessary musical language of poetry, without which we cannot have poetry at all. It was impossible to separate poetry from metrical form for most of history. The idea of “free verse” and the use of nonstandard meter does not seem to emerge until the mid-to-late 19th century in a meaningful way. Exceptions exist of course (for example, one finds prose poetry to be quite popular at least a century before) but these are exceptions rather than the rule. One sees parallels to this shift in music as well, with a deliberate movement away from the laws of harmony, melody and counterpoint towards new “modernist” styles around the same time, which culminates in the modern academic compositions which prioritize innovative form over quality of sound, and “pop” music, which prioritizes rhythm and the bodily response, which Scruton has rather less charitably described as “noise.” In any case, the movement away from the “classical” forms of music and poetry seem to me to come from the same place—the loss of our human aesthetic language. It seems that for philosophers there is an “is/ought” style of problem to be overcome. To put it in simple terms, even if we could establish that metered poetry sounds better to the human ear, or is more aesthetically appealing to the mind, this alone would not be a sufficient reason to say that poems ought to be written metrically. Various solutions to this kind of problem have been suggested. Searle’s theory of promises might be one way to look at the matter. When one goes out to play a game of football, one essentially makes a promise that one will abide by the rules, and it would be ridiculous for a player, say, if the other team had scored a goal, to insist that one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ and consequently that there is no goal. Equally, we might say, if we wish to “play the game” of poetry, then we ought to abide by its rules, which include metrical verse. This, however, runs into a number of problems, the chiefest of which is simply that we don’t seem obliged to make any promises at all. If I do not wish to “play the game,” or if I wish to invent my own game, there doesn’t seem to be anything stopping me from doing so. Consequently, we will need a better answer than that offered by Searle. I think this better answer lies in the nature of ordinary language. Music has been compared to a language by many philosophers, and since it is out of music that poetry has emerged, it necessarily shares with music the quality of being an art of sound. Both poetry and music organize material to create this art. In poetry this is raw language, whereas in music this is raw sound without any necessary reference to semantics. Both seek to communicate and both seek to evoke a response in the one experiencing the art. In this sense, there are clear analogies to our ordinary language of communication. If music and poetry have this linguistic power, then they have the power to express truth. Now languages have rules. One can choose, of course, not to follow the rules of a language, but in doing so our language becomes pure nonsense. Let’s say I have a sentence: “Longfellow’s Evangeline is sublime.” Here I have a clear sentence which follows grammatical rules, with a meaning. I could bend (and break) some of the rules of grammar and write “Longfellows Evangelines sublime.” The sentence is more clunky and loses some clarity by being parsimonious with the rules of language, but we still have a sentence which we can make sense of. Now, if I took this further and jumbled up the word order and the lettering to: “Songlelfowll emilbus si Gevanlenies,” then suddenly I have utter nonsense. I have refused to “play the game” of language at all, and consequently what I have is a nothingness. It cannot be described as having any sense whatsoever. Further, if I tried to insist that all my sentences could be constructed like this, I would be considered a fool. I submit that this is exactly what the enemies of classical poetic styles are doing. They are trying to insist that they can dispense with the normal rules of poetry, and still end up with something which can be called “poetic” at the end of it. Now of course there may be some legitimate reasons for bending rules and deviating from the norm from time to time. Even folly has its place and it can teach us a lot. One is often put in mind of Shakespeare’s Fool in King Lear, who is the only character who can speak any meaningful truth to his tragic master. We cannot claim that all instances of rule-breaking or free verse are unpoetic. However, when fools assume the throne, then there is disaster in a kingdom. Any deviation into folly must always necessarily return to its proper place. So, I am not saying that the classical rules of poetry are absolute, but it does seem to be the case that an insistence on not using them is a form of madness. By analogy to our ordinary language, the meter and rhyme of poetry is the meta-language of poetry. A line is like a sentence, its meter is the beauty of its expression. We can choose not to use this language, but we risk either never being understood, or being mad. It seems in some sense normative, then, to use this meta-language. In the same way that sentences which fail to follow the rules of grammatical expression are nonsense, poems which fail to follow the rules of poetic expression are unpoetic. There is a remark about rhyme, recorded of Alexander Pope, which captures the essence of my thesis (expanded to include meter) rather well: I doubt whether a poem can support itself without it, in our language; unless it be stiffened with such strange words as are likely to destroy our language itself. . 1. R. Scruton, “The Tyranny of Pop Music”, BBC Radio 4: A Point of View (Nov. 2015) 2. J. Searle, “How to Derive ‘Ought’ from ‘Is’” in The Philosophical Review 73.1 (Jan 1964) 3. R. Scruton, Understanding Music (Continuum, 2009), pp. 4-5 4. J. Spence, Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters, of Books and Men (Murray, 1820), p. 200 . . A.J. Illingworth is an English philosopher. He studied Philosophy and Theology at the University of Oxford, and now works as a teacher of philosophy. His interests include virtue ethics and the philosophy of religion, as well as the aesthetics of music.