The greatest poems about music and singing selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Music and poetry were once natural bedfellows, with many ‘poems’ being sung to music for entertainment at feasts and royal courts, or in local taverns. If, as Walter Pater said, all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music, then it’s little surprise that so many poets have tried to write poetry that is ‘musical’ in some sense. Here are ten of the best poems about music, song, dance, instruments, and the like.
Anonymous, ‘When the Nightingale Sings’. This medieval poem dating from the early fourteenth century begins, in Middle English,
When the nyhtegale singes,
The wodes waxen grene,
Lef ant gras ant blosme springes
In Averyl, Y wene …
In modern English: ‘When the nightingale sings, the woods grow green, leaf and grass and blossom spring in April, I believe’. This happens across England, ‘Bituene Lyncolne ant Lyndeseye, / Northamptoun ant Lounde’ (‘Lyndesey’ or Lindsey probably refers to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the north of England, what is now East Yorkshire).
Sir Thomas Wyatt, ‘My Lute Awake!’.
My lute awake! perform the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste,
And end that I have now begun;
For when this song is sung and past,
My lute be still, for I have done.
As to be heard where ear is none,
As lead to grave in marble stone,
My song may pierce her heart as soon;
Should we then sigh or sing or moan?
No, no, my lute, for I have done …
Here, the Tudor poet Sir Thomas Wyatt – who served as a diplomat at the court of King Henry VIII – calls on his lute – the stringed instrument more or less synonymous with Tudor music – to help him ‘perfourme the last / Labour’ that he wishes to perform. Why? Because a woman has spurned Wyatt: ‘she’ repulses his ‘suyte and affection’.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 8.
Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy:
Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,
Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear …
In this sonnet, which begins ‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly’, Shakespeare tries to persuade a young man to marry and have children. Why are you sad when you hear music, he asks? Since you yourself are as beautiful and harmonious as music, why are you sad when you hear actual music? This is wrong, Shakespeare goes on to argue, because sweet things should be in agreement with other sweet things, joyful things with other joyful things – and since you and music are both beautiful, it is wrong that you should be made sad by music.
John Dryden, ‘Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Music’.
’Twas at the royal feast, for Persia won
By Philip’s warlike son:
Aloft, in awful state,
The godlike hero sate
On his imperial throne.
His valiant peers were placed around;
Their brows with roses and with myrtles bound:
(So should desert in arms be crowned.)
The lovely Thais, by his side,
Sate like a blooming eastern bride,
In flower of youth and beauty’s pride.
Happy, happy, happy pair!
None but the brave,
None but the brave,
None but the brave deserves the fair …
This 1697 ode by one of the seventeenth century’s most influential poets was written in honour of St Cecilia’s Day – Cecelia being the patron saint of music. Handel later set Dryden’s words to music.
Percy Shelley, ‘To—’.
Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken …
Better known by its first two lines, this eight-line poem by one of the greatest of the Romantic poets sums up one of the truest things about music: its ability to be recalled in our memories long after hearing it.
Walt Whitman, ‘I Hear America Singing’.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck …
Although Whitman was a pioneer of free verse and often wrote long, expansive poems, ‘I Hear America Singing’ is just eleven lines long, though Whitman crams a lot into those eleven lines. What better way to continue our brief introduction to America’s best poets than with a poem by one of American poetry’s pioneers, praising the many different people in his nation and the various songs they sing?
Robert Browning, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’.
And I chiefly use my charm
On creatures that do people harm,
The mole, and toad, and newt, and viper;
And people call me the Pied Piper.
(And here they noticed round his neck
A scarf of red and yellow stripe,
To match with his coat of the self-same cheque;
And at the scarf’s end hung a pipe;
And his fingers, they noticed, were ever straying
As if impatient to be playing
Upon this pipe, as low it dangled
Over his vesture so old-fangled.) …
The story of the German piper who lures rats away from the town with his music dates from the Middle Ages, but it was the Victorian poet Robert Browning’s version that would become the definitive poetic telling in English. Okay, so the piper is a rat-catcher and we are dealing with a poem about rats rather than mice, but we couldn’t resist this classic rodent poem …
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘A Musical Instrument’.
What was he doing, the great god Pan,
Down in the reeds by the river?
Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
With the dragon-fly on the river …
Focusing on the piper-god from Greek mythology, Pan, this poem by one of Victorian literature’s most popular poets tells of how the god of shepherds fashions a flute from the reeds in a river, and starts to produce enchanting music. Arthur Machen borrowed the title of his 1894 novella The Great God Pan from Barrett Browning’s poem, where it recurs a number of times.
Walter de la Mare, ‘Music’. Music can put us in touch with the past – our deep past, as Walter de la Mare suggests in this short poem. Music makes the lovely things in the world even lovelier, and connects us to the spiritual and numinous aspects of the world.
Elizabeth Bishop, ‘I Am in Need of Music’. This sonnet by one of the twentieth century’s greatest American poets reflects on the ‘magic made by melody’, the healing power that music has over our emotions. The imagery in the sonnet’s closing sestet is like a visual description of the sensual power of music, which at its best seems to transcend the traditional senses.
Continue to explore classic poetry with our pick of the best poems about clothes, these classic poems about villages, and these great kissing poems. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.