Diane Kelsey McColley. Poetry and Music in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. ISBN 0-521-59363-8 Cloth.
Bryan N.S. Gooch
University of Victoria

Gooch, Bryan N.S. "Review of
Poetry and Music in Seventeenth-Century England." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 (September, 1998): 18.1-9 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-2/rev_gooc.html>.

  1. Diane Kelsey McColley's Poetry and Music in Seventeenth-Century England is, in many ways, a useful and welcome book for it stands as another contribution to the still relatively slim ranks of studies of the relationships between literature and music. While her title suggests inclusiveness across the century, the literary focus of the volume is more limited, falling chiefly on Donne, Herbert, and Milton, with other poets considered briefly along the way and Marvell and Dryden forming a somewhat distant rear-guard. The musical considerations are also rather circumscribed, dealing largely with Tallis, Tomkins, Weelkes, Byrd, and Gibbons, with Purcell managing a few references in the early pages and a stronger presence (largely and logically, with Dryden) at the end. The emphasis is on analogous literary and mainly polyphonic musical pieces rather than on settings of the poems chosen for discussion, and McColley gives particular (and helpful) attention to the ecclesiastical and political contexts (centering largely on Cambridge) and seeks, especially, to examine correspondences between text and music in terms of polyphonic structure -- vertical alignments -- as well as metre, sound (word painting), and other usual issues. Also key to the approach is McColley's attempt to consider the ways in which music (often, particular works) influenced -- or might have influenced -- the poets and certain texts.

  2. The arrangement of the book is straight-forward. Following a short introduction, which must be read carefully if one is to be sensitive to McColley's approach, the first major chapter, "Nature's voice: concent of words and music," outlines the central theoretical and artistic issues, including mimesis, structure, expression, and modality, and explains clearly why, for instance, the design of the windows in King's College Chapel (see 31 ff) offers an apt and vivid analogy when looking at, say, Herbert's Trinitae Sunday or Taverner's Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas. Immediately apparent in this chapter are the utterly commendable range of McColley's scholarship and knowledge, her discursiveness and ability to cut down usual artistic boundaries (demonstrating clearly not only relationships but why a consideration of one art can be illuminating in coming to terms with another), and her willingness to provide definitions and explanations which help the reader whose background is largely literary come more easily to understand the technical side of the musical discussion. While the musicologist may find certain of her amplifications (e.g., the description of the traditional collegiate choir, or the outline of the modes) somewhat gratuitous -- and the same comment might be made regarding the inclusion of certain literary explanations -- the point is that this volume can be read with some ease by a fairly wide audience. Her literary and musical examples, too, are numerous and helpful, though perhaps one's ear and eye might on occasion suggest slightly different readings. For example, is there not really an aural as well as visual droop, even given the final accents, in Herrick's "Divination by a Daffodil" (see 18), and is the move to a triple rhythm on "Father" in the Te Deum of Byrd's Great Service (see 42, Ex. 4) complete in view of the preservation, in the two tenor lines, of the original metre (mm. 7-8)? In the latter case, McColley is right in going on to mention a way in which a hemiola can function, though she might have developed her point in view of her illustration. However, such questions will arise infrequently, and one is struck by the ease with which she moves among her examples and particularly by her evident capacity in the choral music of the century, with which she is clearly and fondly familiar.

  3. The second chapter, "The continuity of the arts and the church music controversy," both takes the reader further into structural and harmonic issues and outlines the growing controversy surrounding the place of polyphonic choral pieces within the services. Here again the architecture of King's Chapel and design of its windows comes to the fore (see 54-55), with some repetition of points noted earlier (cf. 31), along with some discussion of the music in King's and in Ely Cathedral, and the suggestion (61) of a clear analogy between the design and decoration of the Chapel and the work of Herbert. The chapter takes the reader through the developments in church music, including the situation during the interregnum; remarks about the work, for instance, of Tavemer, Tallis, and Byrd are sensitive and insightful, as is the documentation of the arguments (Hooker, Cartwright, et al, come into play) over the continuation of elaborate musical handling of biblical/liturgical texts. Though she does develop her points later, one might wish in this section (see 78) for greater detail about the way in which harmonies of poetry bear relation to the vertical harmonies of polyphony, especially in view of the weighting given to choral works.

  4. Chapter three brings one to Donne -- "Tuning the instruments: Donne's temporal and extemporal song" -- and McColley's opening challenge that he is often not thought of as "a musical poet." That, surely, is answered by reading his works aloud -- by really listening, as one must do, for instance, with Hopkins, as I have noted elsewhere. Donne's music is often deliberately dissonant, a characteristic in accord with mannerist tendencies which he so frequently displays in other ways. All the senses come together in Donne, whether in secular or religious pieces: he is not simply a poet for the mind. McColley's discourse is nonetheless once more detailed and helpful, noting that Donne, revealing musical links, regularly employs themes found in contemporary madrigals and ayres while breaking with convention (see 105) in his insistence on equality in love. She also deals intriguingly with some of the conceits (e.g., the development of the background to the famous image of the compass in A valediction forbidding mourning is apt) and his prosody, offering consideration of a wide range of examples, including La Corona, and suggesting musical connections as she goes, though A Hymn to God the Father deserves more than the brief notice it is accorded (see 130-32): a careful look at settings by Hilton and Humfrey would not be out of place here.

  5. George Herbert, confessed lutenist, lover of choral music, and composer, is the central figure of the fourth chapter, and McColley remarks on his musical background -- on what he might have heard during his time at Trinity (Cambridge) and, later, at Salisbury Cathedral. Here, too, she considers, in dealing with poetic examples, vertical as well as linear alignments and dwells on Herbert's careful choice of words. His sense of church music, she asserts, was choral and communal (see 149 ff.), and she comments particularly on the Antiphons, suggesting that the first especially prompts musical setting with its suggestions for word painting. Among the composers singled out for musical analogues are Tomkins and Gibbons, along with Amner, Hooper, Gibbons, and Weelkes. The discussion is clear and thoughtful, though the reader might regret not finding some concentration on the contemporary settings (of Herbert's poems) to which she alludes on 136.

  6. Milton, in the fifth chapter, is portrayed -- rightly -- as having a musical sensitivity beyond any influence his father (who was a composer) might have had (some of the elder's works receive pertinent comment), let alone the music the younger might have heard in Cambridge, at Horton, or in Italy. Here is a master of the music of words, a writer of song, who believed, with Mazzoni, in the musical basis of poetry (see 184). Of central interest are On the Morning of Christ's Nativity (seen as somewhat analogous to a verse anthem, and Byrd, Tomkins, and Amner are pertinent in this context), At a Solemn Musick (Byrd and Weelkes figure again), the musical influence of his sojourn in Italy, and Paradise Lost, in which there are many specifically musical references apart from an overall overwhelming display of vocabulary, reinforced by sensitive prosody, the effect of which, one might reasonably suggest, is compellingly aural and visual/tactile. But if Milton sought to describe the music of Heaven (from which polyphony and ceremonious tone had not been banished as it had in England -- more or less, except for private houses -- during the Puritan years), he also saw it as part of the fallen world (PL, I, 710-12, 754) -- possibly nostalgic unwillingness presaging Mammon's potentially envious remark about "Forc't Hallelujahs" (II, 240, noted on 207) of the cast-out troop to give up former celestial joys? Here is a point which, given the nature of the discussion, rather begs for comment. Curiously, Comus (i.e., A Mask atLudlow) receives only four brief references in the entire book (the last, 264, n. 12, acknowledging for the first time Henry Lawes' participation and then only by virtue of his surname). Even Paradise Regained gets rather short shrift at the end of the chapter. Nonetheless what the reader does find is lucid and engaging both in terms of literary criticism and the references to music, allusions, parallels to liturgical material, and so on.

  7. As the sixth chapter rightly reveals, the Restoration brought a new age, and new styles were making their way to the fore; though, as I have again argued elsewhere, the music and poetry were marked by secularity and occasional art, it must be recalled that the young musicians trained in the reconstituted Chapel Royal often had, as primary material in the early years, anthems and services preserved from decades earlier, before the Puritan restrictions, and while French and Italian traits marked much new music, links to the previous age are clear; further, not all of Restoration religious composition gloried in music for its own sake: witness many of the anthems (both full and verse) of Purcell. While the last four decades saw many works, especially those connected with the St. Cecilia's Day celebrations, offered in praise of music, it is also fair to observe that there were still many which focused on Heaven itself (cf. 218-19) and displayed clear links with an earlier manner. The literary pieces which are central to this section are Marvell's brilliantly tonal (in every sense) Musick's Empire, Dryden's A Song for St. Cecilia's Day (1687), set by Draghi, who is mentioned only on 272, n.3, and Brady's Ode on St. Cecilia's Day (1692), set by Purcell. McColley sees Marvell as musical in the way Herbert is (221), and her discussion is persuasive: however, she does not (233) view Dryden and Brady in the same light. Their odes, she suggests, are not essentially musical, though, she observes, they are for and about music. Some readers will, with respect, choose to disagree, finding the texts enchanting and sensitive beyond their literal and occasional obligations, though Brady, in the end, cannot really seem to stand up in a contest with Dryden. Even some really banal texts are currently familiar by virtue of good settings, and what saves the Brady Ode from some obscurity is Purcell's masterful treatment, to which McColley accords some -- though, I should venture to suggest, not enough -- attention. And, curiously, Dryden's late-life tour de force, Alexander's Feast, gets only brief mentions -- a glorious musical opportunity missed. Jeremiah Clark, who set that work, is accorded, like Draghi, only a single reference (on 231) and is left out of the Index completely. And if one laments the absence of extended discussion of the "Timotheus Ode," as it is sometimes called, so too one might regret the lack of consideration of Purcell's polyphonic choral music and the compositions of, say, John Blow. The description of how an organ works is useful to the lay reader -- the subject is germane, obviously, to the references to St. Cecilia and Marvell's view of the instrument -- but comes only shortly before the end of the text and leads to concluding paragraphs which do not seem, really, to draw the arguments of the book together.

  8. The text is followed by several appendices: 1) a list of "music, poems, and iconography for the church year," including references to the windows in King's College Chapel and in Avril Henry, ed., Biblia Pauperum; 2) "chronology" -- some major events and birth/death dates running from 1515 (the date of the windows of King's Chapel) to 1736-40 (the years of Handel's settings of Dryden's two odes for St. Cecila's Day and of Milton's L'Allegro. . .); and 3) a glossary of musical and liturgical terms. Notes to the main body of the text come next, and are followed by a discography (a helpful list detailing recordings of musical works mentioned in the book), a bibliography (divided into manuscripts, reference works, printed primary sources (from which Purcell's name and possibly other details have been omitted, though the edition by Walter Bergmann and Michael Tippett of the 1692 Ode (Brady) is there -- see 291), and secondary sources) and an index, marred, unfortunately, by at least a few omissions (including Jeremiah Clark (as noted above), the page reference for Thomas Campion's "When thou must home," a second page reference (231) for Dryden's Alexander's Feast, some page references to melisma (only 43 is noted), and references to some of the names listed on 73).

  9. Even given the reservations mentioned, though, and the view that this work might usefully have included at least some concentrated comment on some solo song (Campian is a candidate), McColley's volume is a readable, accessible, and useful contribution to the study of the relationships between poetry and music. Even those without a determined interest in music would do well to look at it for the insights it offers on the literary side. Her range is wide; her scholarship, extensive; and her criticism, thoughtful.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(BG, LH, RGS, 25 September 1998)