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.”[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]


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. 

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21 Responses

  1. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Your essay matches my primary belief in “real” classical poetry with rhyme as the primary key and meter the accompaniment.

  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    This is a perceptive and thoughtful essay that makes excellent points about poetic composition. Mr. Illingworth’s comment that some modern practitioners “insist that they can dispense with the normal rules of poetry and still end up with something that can be called ‘poetic’ at the end” is quite correct, but things have gone much farther than that.

    I had a colleague at work who insisted that the smashing of a dinner plate on the floor during a poetry reading was a poem, simply by virtue of the fact that the smasher identified his action as such. I attended a reading where the “poet” scattered multicolored confetti in the air above his head as he recited a meaningless and incomprehensible babble of words. Performance artists (if they use words at all) routinely indulge in gestures and poses that have nothing at all to do with poetry in the accepted sense. In short, matters have progressed way beyond disregard of meter, or coherent communication.

    This phenomenon goes beyond the limits of poetry, and has affected all the arts and even the world of scholarship. I recall a professor in the audience at the MLA conference some years back, who objected to a paper that had just been presented. Her complaint was this: “Your prose is UNPROBLEMATIC! You present everything too clearly, too intelligibly, too straightforwardly! That kind of scholarship is oppressively coercive! It leaves no room for playful chaos!” Several other idiots in the audience seemed to agree with this woman, so I assume that the hatred of order, symmetry, and intelligibility are now at epidemic levels in modern society.

    I would add the following to Mr. Illingsworth’s commentary. The “enemies of classical poetic styles” have been our enemies for a very long time, going all the way back to the original proponents of the modernist and free-verse revolutions. Some of them had conflicted motivations, and some did produce good poetry, but the basic impetus of these aesthetic movements was to wreck the inherited norms of classic poetry. It was part of a generalized rebellion against and rejection of received norms. The hostility of that time is alive and well today. As I recall a fanatical poet once screaming at his audience: “The sonnet is IMMORAL!”

    You can only make a moral condemnation of a genre if you are in the grip of a strange Categorical Imperative.

  3. C.B Anderson

    I really enjoyed this essay, A.J. It did not so much open my eyes as confirm thoughts and ideas already present in my mind. I don’t know what music and poetry really are, but I do know that they both affect the human consciousness both viscerally and cerebrally. That’s just how it is, and we should never, therefore, undervalue their importance. Both are measured languages, and, boy, do we humans love to measure things.

  4. Margaret Coats

    Despite its valuable overall perspective, this essay is marred by several ridiculous generalizations.

    “The central preserve of poetry, as something separate from music, is its metrical form.”

    Nonsense. Doesn’t anyone reading this play an instrument? Haven’t we listened to an orchestra or even a piano? The difference between poetry and music is words, or if you like, language.

    “The use of meter is the necessary musical language of poetry, without which we cannot have poetry at all.”

    Absolute nonsense. Are the Hebrew psalms not poetry at all? This is not a peripheral example. The Psalms loom very large among influences on English poetry, despite their lack of meter. Oceans of ink have been spilled in trying to discover their meter, but their poetic language is parallelism, whether in the original Hebrew, in the Latin through which they were regularly recited for centuries, or in English translations. The best Psalm criticism devotes itself to the describing the varied marvels of parallelism, which simply is not meter.

    “It is impossible to separate poetry from metrical form for most of history.”

    Absurd. Illingworth would hardly dare say so in France, where poetry has been syllabic, not metered, for much of its history, including the time during which it had the most influence on English poetry. Or in Japan, where classic poetry is also syllabic, not metrical. The very recent influence of Japanese syllabic form in English poetry represents a valuable poetic discipline. It is only when the syllabic form is ignored, in favor of nebulous qualities, that the influence is baneful.

    And let us not forget how the history of English poetry began, with Anglo-Saxon alliterative lines, or rather, pairs of half-lines, composed and undoubtedly recited with regard to principles that did not emphasize accentual meter. These lines often display a regular accentual pattern, but that is hardly metrical form.

    The Illingworth essay is not about poetry, but about English poetry, mostly in fairly recent centuries. It is not about music, although it is correct to say that accentual meter can be called the music of classic English poetry. Just tone it down and don’t make pretentious claims.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I think Mr. Illingworth is using the term “meter” in a very broad sense, to mean any kind of consciously imposed form. This would include not just the measured foot of verse, but also quantitative, syllabic, rhythmic, strophic, or any other organizing pattern or principle. In retrospect, it might have been better for him to say “order” rather than meter. But he is right to point out that an undeniable mark of modern approaches to poetry has been their deliberately “anti-order” intent.

      • Margaret Coats

        Joe, if any “organizing pattern or principle” is meter, I rest my case about pretentious claims. And I agree with you that is probably what Illingworth means. Too bad it wasn’t stated explicitly in this brief essay that expends plenty of words on qualifications of what the author says.

        And be practical. I once submitted to Evan Mantyk a translation of beautiful irregular lines by French modernist Charles Peguy. I admired Peguy’s musical principles in this particular piece, and did my best to reproduce them in English. Evan acknowledged the beauty of the poem, but rightly rejected it as unmetered. “Meter” needs to have a practical meaning, or discussion of it, and publication of metered verse, is hardly meaningful.

    • Alexander Illingworth

      Dear Margaret,

      Thank you for your helpful thoughts regarding the essay.

      I am very happy to admit there may be notable exceptions to what I have argued. I for one adore the Psalms, and of course you are right that the most notable translations in English are not metered. That said, they are often translated with the view towards being set to music, or have been set to music in any case, as reflects their original intention in the Hebrew, and as I write in the essay music has its own meter of a kind.

      I am very happy to consider syllabic verse a form of meter. I was recently reading about the verse form of Saint Ephraim the Syrian, whose syllabic verse is called “Mar Ephraim’s meter” in Aramaic. I do primarily have English verse in mind in writing this, and variations on the point being made may be required across languages, but to me I think my main point stands. Certainly it was not my intention to come across as pretentious, but only so much can be said in a few thousand words. Perhaps one of these days I will prepare something longer which explores the subject in greater detail.

      If my words have been offensive or truly foolish in your sight then please forgive me.

      • Monika Cooper

        I love Ephraim the Syrian and did not know about the syllabic aspect of his verse (I only read him in translation). I’m intrigued. What can’t be missed, even in translation, of course, are his wonderful layers of parallelism, built into pearls.

  5. James Sale

    Some good and important points in this, though I hear what Margaret is saying – we can become too enthusiastic to our own cause and it can lead us to claiming too much! Ficino said, “… poetry is superior to music, since through the words it speaks not only to the ear but also directly to the mind. Therefore its origin is not in the harmony of the spheres, but rather in the music of the divine mind itself, and through its effect it can lead the listener directly to God himself.” I like that a lot, although not everyone will agree, and particularly atheists won’t. Let’s keep the dialogue going.

  6. Mike Bryant

    My two cents… because Hebrew was written in consonants it is difficult to know the actual pronunciation and stresses in the Hebrew Scriptures. There has been a great deal of study into the possible metrics of poetry in the Scriptures. I found this article…
    very long and very interesting. Of course parallelism is the main, and the most amazing, feature of Hebrew poetry, but the author makes a compelling case for metrics being the basis of Hebrew poetry.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking perspective on a very interesting subject.

    • Margaret Coats

      Mike, you can find MORE than seventy times seven arguments on Hebrew metrics, and we must forgive them all. I hope you recognize this bit of raw language as figurative (but not metrical) poetry from the Word Incarnate.

      The renowned Father Lucien Deiss actually gave us the Psalms in his version of Hebrew metrics, enabling us to sing them in French or English just as King David did. When I tried his Psalm 1, I found it wrecked the upbeat ending as I know it from the Masoretic text. The Masoretes lived long after David, but they provide us with a vast array of knowledge about pronunciation and word accent and how to read whole passages. I trust them to convey Hebrew tradition better than more modern metrical theorists with agenda to sell.

      • Mike Bryant

        Yes, I understand the Masoretes had several different systems to try to get to the correct pronunciation of the Scriptures before one was settled on. As for Elcanon Isaacs, also a Hebrew traditionalist, I think he wrote his scholarly work around 1918 so I’m pretty sure he isn’t trying to sell anything! 🙂

  7. Mike Bryant

    Random thoughts…
    Our problem might be exactly what we are talking about when we use the word metrical. At Wordnik, the second definition of “metrical” is “of or relating to measurement.” C.B. said, speaking of poetry and music, “Both are measured languages, and, boy, do we humans love to measure things.”
    In modern usage, of course, it primarily refers to metrical poetry, but if we could sit and listen to David sing or recite his verses I am certain we would hear that countable rhythm in all its glory. Since David was only a few generations from Adam, it makes sense that Adam also spoke Hebrew. If God gave Adam Hebrew, then Hebrew must contain all the dynamics and subtleties of every other language that arose from it.

  8. Paul Freeman

    Rugby was created by a pupil at Rugby school breaking the rules of football, but I don’t see anyone calling for a ban on the sport of rugby.

    • Mike Bryant

      I must’ve missed the part where anyone asked for a ban on anything…

    • Joshua C. Frank

      I don’t see where he’s calling for a ban on anything either. All he’s saying is that without meter, it’s not poetry. A short story isn’t poetry by this or any definition of poetry (unless you make the word mean whatever you want it to mean), but that doesn’t mean ban the short story. In fact, I enjoy short stories quite a bit.

      With the rugby analogy, if the majority of the football world (I assume you mean European football since you’re British) were insisting that not only is rugby football, but classical football is outmoded, then people who enjoy classical football would say that it and it alone should be called football. They wouldn’t be banning rugby, they’d be saying: call it rugby, not football.

  9. Cheryl Corey

    I don’t feel qualified to comment on the substance of the essay, but we’re very fortunate that SCP provides a forum to have these lively and passionate exhanges. In my opinion, it’s the closest thing we have to being at a good old-fashioned literary salon.

  10. Evan Mantyk

    Thank you, Mr. Illingworth, for a brilliant and eloquent essay. Out of music and order we have true poetry. Out of disorder and ugliness we get much of what passes today for poetry, but is arguably not. Incidentally, I decided to look up the definition of meter in an 1828 Webster Dictionary and it had the below definition. An interesting little bit of Americanizing commentary in there (no offence intended) that you would never find today…

    ME’TER, noun [from mete.] One who measures; used in compounds, as in coal-meter, land-meter.

    ME’TER, noun [Latin metrum.]

    1. Measure; verse; arrangement of poetical feet, or of long and short syllables in verse. Hexameter is a meter of six feet. This word is most improperly written metre. How very absurd to write the simple word in this manner, but in all its numerous compounds, meter as in diameter, hexameter, thermometer, etc.

    2. A French measure of length, equal to 39 37/100 English inches, the standard of linear measure, being the ten millionth part of the distance from the equator to the North Pole, as ascertained by actual measurement of an arc of the meridian.


  11. Mike Bryant

    Mr. Illingworth, welcome to SCP!
    I’d like to add my thanks and appreciation to those already expressed here. I’m looking forward to your next post.


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