Friday, March 25, 2011

Sound and Sense in Wordsworth

In one of my favorite Chesterton essays, "Sound and Sense in Poetry," GKC analyzes a single phrase from Paradise Lost: "Like Tenerife or Atlas unremoved." He shows the equal importance of sound and sense by trying two experiments. First, the line is not as effective if another geographical location is substituted: "Like Beachy Head or Atlas unremoved." The sound of "Tenerife" clearly lends gravitas to the line. On the other hand, he shows that the sounds alone do not create the effect, by suggesting an experiment in which the reader thinks different connotations for certain words. When we read the line thinking about a mountain in the Atlantic and a giant who holds the earth on his shoulders, the line conveys the impression of unfathomable strength. When we read it thinking, on the other hand, of a bottle of Tenerife wine and a book of maps, the line suddenly indicates merely the mundane details of poor housekeeping.

My own skills with poetry are far inferior to Chesterton's, but I have been noticing some interesting contributions of sound to meaning in Wordsworth's The Prelude. For instance, in the words "where the pipe was heard / of Pan, Invisible God, thrilling the rocks / With tutelary music, from all harm / The fold protecting," surely the word "tutelary" was chosen for its sound's imitation of the tooting of Pan's pipe. In fact, we don't really need the word's meaning since the next phrase tells us Pan is protecting the sheep with his music. A few lines later, speaking of another shepherd's music, Wordsworth says, "At sunrise ye may hear / His flageolet to liquid notes of love / Attuned, or sprightly fife resounding far." After all those liquid l's in the middle, the words "sprightly fife" sound sprightly indeed.

Sometimes the effect involves rhythm. Immediately after the lines about the shepherd's music we read this: "Nook is there none, nor tract of that vast space / Where passage opens . . . ." Try reading those words and saying "vast space" as quickly as you say everything else. Impossible! The slow conglomeration of consonants in "vast space" paint a rhythmic picture of a vast space. Come to think of it, the sound of the word "nook" paints the image of a small space.

The examples go on and on. The words "strict time" must be said in strict time. The "brawling beds of unbridged streams" recall the onomatopoeic b's of the "babbling brook" without resorting to the cliche. The aspirant consonants in "through thick fog" give the impression of distant sounds heard through thick fog. The accumulating accented syllables at the end of the phrase "vulgar passions that beat in on all sides" suggest the sound of incessant beating ("Beat In on All Sides"). And doesn't the rhythm of the phrase "with one and yet one more last look" naturally slow down in imitation of the traveler reluctant to leave a beautiful place?

Reluctant to leave The Prelude, I enjoyed taking this one last look back and writing about the beauty of some of its music.

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