Coleridge and the Sound of Music in the Conversation Poems
Methinks it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so filled,
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on its instrument.
(‘The Eolian Harp,’ 30-33)
As I read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s conversation poems for the first time, in particular ‘The Eolian Harp,’ ‘The Nightingale,’ and ‘Frost at Midnight,’ the frequent pairing of nature and music struck me as intriguing. Throughout these poems, Coleridge examines the relationship between the organic world and musical sounds, and uses music to further illustrate and explain the composition of natural scenes. His diction indicates a focus towards melodious inclinations, such as the sound of “Nature’s sweet voices” (‘The Nightingale,’ line 42), or when “the sunbeams dance” (‘The Eolian Harp,’ 37), or even the “trembling hues” (‘The Nightingale,’ 3) which evoke thoughts of wavering, hesitant notes in a song. Even the peaceful silence becomes connected with music, as the above opening quote shows, suggesting that just as “the stilly murmur of the distant sea / Tells us of silence” (‘The Eolian Harp,’ 11-12), so can musical harmonies.
The notion of harmony and silence is a key piece of the puzzle in trying to understand Coleridge’s fixation with communication and unity. The conversation poems are both idealistic and frustrated; they encapsulate Coleridge’s desire for perfect communication and a connection to the natural world, as well as recognizing the challenges surrounding these wishes. A possible link between sound and silence is the idea that continuous noise is, in fact, rather similar to silence and that through this medium of constancy, one can reach a full imaginative understanding of the self’s relationship to nature. I do not think, however, that it is satisfactory to simply say Coleridge believed that silence in nature created the means for perfect communication and, that in silence, we have reached complete imagination. Rather, I interpret Coleridge’s use of music to describe nature as a form of equilibrium between sound and silence, as well as an indication of the power of communication without words, and the lessons we can learn from that.
Music forms a balance between sound and silence – much like Coleridge’s use of the tripartite structure in the conversation poems, which creates a type of unusual symmetry. The tripartite structure links the first and third parts in their reflective qualities; these parts are necessary to each other, just as Coleridge implies sound and silence are. In order for there to be sound, there must be a pre-existing condition of silence, as seen in ‘The Nightingale’ when the nightingale’s song pierces the silent scene. Just as the transition to the third part of the tripartite structure involves an alteration or change on the part of the speaker, similarly the music in the conversation poems stimulates a change in the speaker’s feelings. “Rhythm in all thought” (‘The Eolian Harp,’ 29) develops and the nightingales’ natural songs fill “the air with such an harmony, / That should you close your eyes, you might almost / Forget it was not day” (‘The Nightingale,’ 62-62). Nature can communicate without words, just as music can, and through his pairing of music and nature, Coleridge suggests that perhaps non-verbal communication can be more successful than verbal. Music is transformative, just like Coleridge’s tripartite structure, and it has the power to maintain memories, such as the church bells in ‘Frost at Midnight’ that “stirred and haunted me [the speaker] / With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear” (31-32), as well as enforce the link between the visual and auditory essences of nature.
As the speaker becomes aware of the power of “the one life within us and abroad, / Which meets all motion and becomes its soul, / A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,” (‘The Eolian Harp,’ 26-28) the reader thus becomes cognizant of the communicative power of both vision and sound, and its effects upon our natural soul. When the speaker’s baby in ‘The Nightingale’ does not have the words to explain his distress, it is only the moon that can calm him. The “yellow moonbeam” and “these [natural] songs” (105, 108) affect the baby, and this is why, in ‘Frost at Midnight,’ the speaker wishes to his son that “thou see and hear / The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible / Of that eternal language” (58-61). Music, as an auditory sensation, is harmonious, and can be found in the most pleasing elements of nature. Coleridge’s use of music to describe the beautiful natural world, that he wishes people to know and to understand, implies that just as music contains harmonies, so can our relationships with nature. Music serves as a unifier between nature, humans, and communication, and Coleridge’s employment of it suggests that we can become one with nature if we understand the delicate equipoise between sound and silence and how that affects our soul.
Zoe Baker-Peng is an undergraduate student at Barnard College. This post appears as part of the series “On First Looking into…”