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Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 by William Blake 1757-1827

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel 1910 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02686

From “Peter Quince at the Clavier” by Wallace Stevens.

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound
And thus it is that what I feel
Here in this room, desiring you

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk
Is music.

Time and again, I’ve found that something I’ve felt and have tried to articulate has already been beautifully captured in one of Stevens’ poems. My last blog post on music touched upon this, the sense that music is more feeling than sound–the way you feel as you play and the music moves through you,  and the way you feel as you listen to and are played upon by the music.

This poem is more about desire than music or feeling, however, or perhaps more about how desire plays out on a palette of color and sounds and rhythms. Stevens has been called a “musical imagist,” but he also notes the close correspondence between poetry and painting. In particular he’s known for his idea of the “Supreme Fiction”–how the mind/imagination “creates” reality.

When you read the poem posted in full below, you may not fully understand or appreciate all it implies as it references Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night Dream and relates the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders). But the feeling of the images–the sounds of the words and the colors and shapes of the images as they sweep through your mind–is dreamlike and moving in a way that speaks to some truth that lies just below consciousness. As dreams often do.

Music is like that too. We feel its “truth” although we may not be able to articulate it.

There’s a new book out called “The Jazz of Physics” by Dr. Stephon Alexander. He writes about how the structure of the universe is like a musical composition, both arising from a “pattern of vibration.” I haven’t read the book yet but a review in the New York Times by Dan Tepfer concludes with this quote: “[T]he reason why music has the ability to move us so deeply is that it is an auditory allusion to our basic connection to the universe.” Tepfer sums up: “This not only feels true; it is what musicians live for.”

Dr. Alexander may be on to something. One of the most beautiful verses in the Bible refers to the creation of the universe as “when the morning stars first sang together.”

We humans have been alluding to a powerful connection between music and the universe for a long, long time. Is it any wonder we feel music more deeply than sound?

Stevens’ poem in full.

Peter Quince at the Clavier
I
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna:
Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt
The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.

II
In the green water, clear and warm,
Susanna lay.
She searched
The touch of springs,
And found
Concealed imaginings.
She sighed,
For so much melody.
Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
The dew
Of old devotions.
She walked upon the grass,
Still quavering.
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Yet wavering.
A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned–
A cymbal crashed,
And roaring horns.

III
Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.
They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;
And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.
Anon, their lamps’ uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.
And then, the simpering Byzantines,
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.

IV
Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives,
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of Winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.
Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scrapings.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.

 

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