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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 6 (2000) No. 2

Poetry and Music in Seventeenth-century England. By Diane Kelsey McColley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. [xvii, 311 pp. ISBN 0-521-59363-8 $59.95.]

Reviewed by Andrew R. Walkling*

1. “...these holy mysteries...”

2. “...by thought, word, and deed...”

3. “We do not presume to come...”


1. “...these holy mysteries...”

1.1 Coming as it does from a scholar with an established reputation in the world of Milton studies, Poetry and Music in Seventeenth-century England represents a bold step for Diane Kelsey McColley. Trained as a literary specialist, and possessed of a well developed though distinctly amateur appreciation for music, McColley seeks to integrate her personal and professional interests into a study designed to illuminate the connections between seventeenth-century poetry and music for readers from a range of disciplinary backgrounds. Despite the potentially daunting nature of this task, she has produced an impressive work of interdisciplinary criticism. McColley is informed and knowledgeable about most of her subject matter, and her critical eye—and ear—attest to her long and distinguished scholarly career. More importantly, perhaps, this book represents the kind of unabashedly interdisciplinary study—driven by both academic expertise and personal affinity—that many scholars labor after, and as such can teach us much about both the opportunities and the problems that such an endeavor presents.

1.2 After an introductory chapter outlining the palette of techniques applicable to the evaluation of musical and poetic language, McColley proceeds to a discussion of the historical and liturgical setting for the devotional arts in the early seventeenth century, with a particular focus on the so-called church music controversy as a metaphor for the widening ideological gulf between Puritans and high Anglicans in the decades leading up to the eruption of civil war in the 1640s. This is followed by three chapters examining the poetic output of John Donne, George Herbert, and John Milton, and the place of musical gesture and idea in the structures, language, tone, and rhetoric of their work. A final chapter addresses what McColley perceives as the change in poetic uses of musical language after 1660 and especially in the St. Cecilia odes of the 1680s and 1690s. Three appendices seek to address lacunae in the expertise of various constituencies among the book’s audience, providing a guide to the readings, images, and anthems of the major feasts of the church year, a chronology of events in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and a glossary of technical terms relating to musical analysis and the Anglican liturgy (definitions are provided, for example, for “anthem,” “cross-relation,” “homophony,” “Magnificat,” and “theorbo”). McColley also includes a selective discography and a more extensive bibliography.

1.3 McColley’s argument centers on the premise that the language and structure of poetry is profoundly musical, and that the poets of the early seventeenth century, immersed in a culture of liturgy, devotion, and spiritual sensuality, responded to the music all around them by incorporating musical gestures and idioms into their writing. Such musical variables as pitch, harmony, rhythm, tempo, even voicing, can be traced into poetry and provide, she suggests, a means of comprehending more fully the texture and nuance of the words, thereby opening new avenues of understanding and a more expansive appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of high art. The “concinnities” between poetry and music are revealed in a number of ways. On a basic level, a poem can be about music, employing music as metaphor or as subject. Music can also manifest itself in the sound of poetry, directing the rhythms and cadences of speech in order to infuse the text with greater meaning or sensitivity. But, according to McColley, music can also play a structural role in poetry, enhancing the semantic complexity of a text by sounding partials of meaning and association to the fundamentals of the words on the page. “Like pitches,” McColley argues, “words are complex and mutually responsive,” (p. 173) noting that poetry’s “verbal harmonies, both audible and cognitive, resemble the composition of Renaissance polyphony; though reading linearly, one is conscious of an extraordinary density of verbal resonances that form vertical harmonies” (p. 78).

1.4 Carrying off such an enterprise requires considerable deftness and skill, and different readers will find the book’s challenges more or less rewarding according to their own interests and abilities. Because McColley comes to the project with a distinguished career in literary analysis, supplemented by a solid liturgical background and a good ear for music, she is well equipped to guide non-specialists through her discussions of musical form and the early seventeenth-century repertoire. What is perhaps less clear is how much musicologists stand to benefit from her readings beyond a general understanding of the musicality of English poetry. To that end, it seems appropriate to explore how McColley configures and executes her readings, what her perspective brings to an understanding of seventeenth-century music, and to what specific considerations her material and critical predilections may be attributed.

2. “...by thought, word, and deed...”

2.1 McColley’s readings of Donne, Herbert, and Milton form the conceptual heart of the book, and illustrate the variety of ways in which musical rhetoric can be discovered in poetic texts. Chapter Three explores the “polyphony” of John Donne’s poetry, in particular Songs and Sonets and the multi-part poem La Corona (1607). McColley creates sustained, polysemous readings of her subject in order to show how, for example, the Songs and Sonets, “by combining lightness and seriousness, tenderness and tough wit, directness and ironic allusion, incorporate the expressiveness and dramatic tension supplied by multiple simultaneous musical lines” in contemporary settings of songs and madrigals (p. 108). In the process, she casts new critical light on Donne, as in her brief analysis of A Valediction Forbidding Mourning (pp. 97–8) and her reconsideration of Donne’s “spiritual sincerity” (pp. 132–3).

2.2 Chapter Four examines George Herbert’s use of “word-tuning”, asserting that even “Herbert’s simplest words.. .have infinite particles that resonate with each other and with the matter of light and sound in a wonderful plenitude of concinnities” (p. 139). In analogizing the mutual resonances of (homophonically, semantically, etymologically) related words as musical partials and overtones, McColley concludes that “like pitches, words are complex and mutually responsive” (p. 173). Although some aspects of these readings can seem a bit strained (e.g., p. 162), on the whole, McColley makes a compelling case, drawing connections with Thomas Weelkes’s Gloria in excelsis Deo (pp. 164–5) and John Amner’s O Ye Little Flock (p. 169) to show how Herbert is like a composer in providing interest to his text through an “innovative reworking” (p. 169) akin to Weelkes’s and Amner’s own unconventional settings.

2.3 Chapter Five provides a discussion of John Milton’s poetry and musical background with an eye to his use of “voicing,” turning again to Amner’s O Ye Little Flock to demonstrate how Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity “is as diversely voiced and proportionally cadenced as a verse anthem” (p. 187). This chapter seems more exploratory and tentative (particularly in its discussion of At a Solemn Musick, pp. 192–9) and is somehow less satisfying than the preceding two, giving the impression that it may have been the earliest written of the three. In McColley’s discussion of Paradise Lost (pp. 202–15), for example, the compelling analogies between musical and poetic craft used to analyze Donne and Herbert are sublimated to a more traditional study of the poem’s extensive use of musical references and rhetoric.

2.4 This is not to suggest that McColley’s interpretation of Milton is inferior; indeed, in these three chapters, as in Chapter Two, with its discussion of the liturgical year and its cycle of anthem texts in the light (pardon the pun) of the stained-glass windows of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, McColley consistently provides readings that are original, provocative, and intellectually satisfying. Given the nuance and sensitivity of these readings, then, Chapter Six—the concluding chapter of the book—comes as something of a surprise. Having explored the intrinsic musicality of early- and mid-seventeenth-century poetry, McColley seeks to demonstrate the decay of this mode after the Restoration, using as her chief evidence John Dryden and Nicholas Brady’s respective 1687 and 1692 odes for St. Cecilia’s Day. Following the lead of such diverse commentators as Nicholas Temperley and Roger North, McColley argues that from mid-century on, “poems and music ... turned from the music of praise to the praise of music—primarily instrumental music” (p. 219). In McColley’s formulation, the human voice as the primary musical vessel of divine harmony is replaced with a cacophonous hierarchy of wooden and metal instruments, culminating in Cecilia’s “sacred ORGAN”, but nevertheless assisting in a loss of internalized spirituality “at a time in poetic history when faith and intellect were going separate ways, as were words and music” (p. 228). “Dryden’s and Brady’s words,” she avers, by way of example, “while delightful, are not in themselves musical...Though they praise music as a creative principle, they also move away from the relation between words and music conceptually” (p. 233).

2.5 Leaving aside the obvious fact that the texts McColley has chosen—odes to St. Cecilia—would naturally be much more directly “about” music than the earlier poems she has examined, we would do well to interrogate the implicit assumption that the Restoration somehow embodies a degradation from a presumed “golden age” of English poetry and church music. Certainly, change did occur after 1660, but it did not come as quickly, or as decisively, as McColley would have her readers believe. Moreover, simply to argue that music and poetry were drained of their intellectual and spiritual content bespeaks an incomplete understanding of the wealth of musical and literary creativity in the latter period. My intention here is not to mount a defense of Restoration culture; rather, this issue provides an opportunity to explore some underlying considerations relating to the acquisition of interdisciplinary expertise and to consider how McColley’s book, in particular, can be more fully understood.

3. “We do not presume to come...”

3.1 At a party not long ago, I was asked by a colleague from the sciences, one with a passing familiarity with the history of seventeenth-century England, whether the Restoration period was not one of far less creativity in the arts in comparison with the Elizabethan and early Jacobean age. This kind of assumption, I believe, bespeaks not so much the intrinsic “quality” of literary, musical, and artistic creativity in the two eras, but more the accessibility of those materials to a broad modern audience. To put it simply: one can hardly turn around in our own day without stumbling over a production of Shakespeare, whereas the theatrical works of John Dryden and his contemporaries are seldom performed, even by leading repertory companies. Shakespeare, it would seem, speaks to modern audiences in a way that Dryden does not, even though the popularity of the latter poet remained considerably greater for at least a century after his death. Similarly, the music of Tudor and Jacobean composers such as Tallis, Byrd, Dowland, Weelkes, Gibbons, Tomkins, and even Amner might be considered much better known to modern audiences than the output of Locke, Humfrey, Blow, Purcell, and Croft. The former, many of whose works are liturgical and a capella, are widely sung in church choirs and have been extensively recorded by leading ensembles over the course of many decades. Restoration composers, on the other hand, created works requiring more extensive musical forces, such as odes and symphony anthems, placing many of their choral compositions beyond the reach of modern amateur performing groups who, to quote McColley quoting Ralph Battell, “ha[ve] not wherewithall to be at the charge of these Aids and Ornaments to their Religious Worship” (p. 229). With the notable exception of Purcell, the works of Restoration composers remain largely unrecorded—and in many cases unedited—so that there has been as yet little opportunity for modern audiences or performers to develop a familiarity with this repertoire and begin to understand its breadth and rhetorical power.

3.2 This distinction goes to the heart of McColley’s own relationship with seventeenth-century music, a relationship that she openly acknowledges and which appears to have had a defining influence on the discursive form of her book. As a practicing Episcopalian and a member of her parish choir, McColley is well situated to have developed a familiarity with the English sacred music commonly available to modern amateur performing groups—that is, the music of the Elizabethan age and the early seventeenth century—and her blending of professional expertise in the literature of this period with amateur enthusiasm for its music serves her well in her treatments of Donne, Herbert, and Milton. It also provides her with a general roadmap to the composers of the period, their works, and available recordings (e.g., pp. 32–3 n. 35 and p. 37 n. 39). But in her treatment of the later seventeenth century she is compelled to fall back chiefly on her scholarly knowledge of literature, while bringing to bear only an imperfect understanding of the Restoration’s musical traditions and language. In discussing the 1687 St. Cecilia ode (pp. 226–8), for example, she omits any mention of Giovanni Battista Draghi’s striking musical setting of Dryden’s text: Draghi is passed over in a footnote citing Franklin Zimmerman’s 30-year-old dismissal of the composer’s talents (p. 272 n. 3), and McColley seems unaware of the 1995 recording of the work by The Parley of Instruments (Hyperion CDA66770). Moreover, her reliance on the special case of St. Cecilia odes is unfortunate, given the wide range of Restoration sacred, liturgical, and devotional music that could have been mined to enrich her discussion. The advent of a full-blown baroque culture in England after 1660 may well have elevated some performative and rhetorical characteristics of religious music toward an otherworldly sublime, but the human, reflective, and personal qualities McColley prizes can be found everywhere, from Humfrey’s setting of Donne’s late poem A Hymne to God the Father to Croft’s Burial Service to Purcell’s They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships or, in a more secular vein, his moving setting of Cowley’s poem If Ever I More Riches Did Desire. Had McColley considered some of these works as carefully as she does those of Tomkins, Weelkes, and Amner, perhaps some of her conclusions might have been different.

3.3 My purpose in raising these questions is not to suggest that such concerns prevent McColley’s book from being an important and largely persuasive study; rather, I think that the difficulties she encounters are instructive, as they illustrate some potential pitfalls of interdisciplinary scholarship. Indeed, despite its shortcomings, Poetry and Music in Seventeenth-century England is in many ways a model of what interdisciplinary work—or indeed any kind of scholarship—should be. McColley’s genuine love of the music and texts she examines is a persistent undercurrent in this book, and her willingness to submit her ideas to the scrutiny of a variety of specialists—even when, as in the opening chapter, her conclusions might seem a bit unoriginal, and her insights mostly on a local level—is laudable. Herein, I would submit, lies the greatest value of this work for musicologists, and ultimately it is this quality that determines the success of McColley’s endeavor. Reading the final pages, with their apostrophe to organs and parish choirs, one becomes aware that McColley’s book is, in a way, her own “song”: an intensely personal statement from a respected scholar, and a compelling demonstration of the extent to which an ear for music and an ear for poetry can be mutually enriching.


*Andrew R. Walkling (aw12@cornell.edu) is Visiting Scholar at the Society for the Humanities, Cornell University, and Associate Fellow of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the State University of New York, Binghamton. He is a historian of seventeenth-century England with an interest in the royal court, music, and theatre in the reigns of Charles II and James II. Return to beginning

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