Poems are often thought of, first and foremost, as depictions of visual scenes: the view of a landscape, the portrait of a person, the sight of something arresting and unusual. But sound, too, plays an important part in the music and rhythm of poetry, and many poets have written poems specifically addressing the experience of hearing sounds, whether it’s a strain of music or the sounds found among nature. Here are some of the very best poems about sound, hearing, noise, and related phenomena.
Alexander Pope, ‘Sound and Sense’. Pope (1688-1744) often wrote in a didactic manner, passing on his wit and wisdom to the reader through longer works such as An Essay on Man and An Essay on Criticism. Here, he offers a short piece of advice about writing good poetry, reminding us, ‘The sound must seem an echo to the sense’. What better poem to head this selection of classic poems about sound? Makes sense:
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
’Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar;
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.
Hear how Timotheus’ varied lays surprise,
And bid alternate passions fall and rise!
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘The Sound of the Sea’. The sea moans round with many voices, for Tennyson; the sea moans for Christina Rossetti. Poets have often tried to capture the insistent sounds of the sea with its crashing waves and gentle ebb and flow. Here’s Longfellow’s attempt:
The sea awoke at midnight from its sleep,
And round the pebbly beaches far and wide
I heard the first wave of the rising tide
Rush onward with uninterrupted sweep;
A voice out of the silence of the deep,
A sound mysteriously multiplied
As of a cataract from the mountain’s side,
Or roar of winds upon a wooded steep.
So comes to us at times, from the unknown
And inaccessible solitudes of being,
The rushing of the sea-tides of the soul;
And inspirations, that we deem our own,
Are some divine foreshadowing and foreseeing
Of things beyond our reason or control.
Walt Whitman, ‘I Hear America Singing’. This poem sees Whitman celebrating the various ‘carols’ or songs he hears his fellow Americans singing as they go about the work: the mechanics, the carpenter, the mason, the boatman, the deckhand, the shoemaker, the hatter, the wood-cutter, the ploughboy, the mother, the ‘young wife at work’, the seamstress or washerwoman. These various workers are offered to us in turn in a way that rhapsodises but doesn’t quite romanticise: Whitman’s exuberant free verse is full of joy and energy, but he doesn’t sentimentalise these trades. Whitman begins:
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 …
Emily Dickinson, ‘Of All the Sounds Despatched Abroad’.
Of all the Sounds despatched abroad
There’s not a Charge to me
Like that old measure in the Boughs—
That Phraseless Melody—
The Wind does—working like a Hand –
Whose fingers comb the Sky—
Then quiver down—with tufts of tune—
Permitted Gods—and me—
So begins this fine by poem by the prolific nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson, which praises the sound of the wind: its musicality, its almost mystic quality. Only Dickinson could come up with the idea of the wind as a hand, whose fingers ‘comb the Sky’.
Thomas Hardy, ‘The Voice’. This is one of the most celebrated of Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’ which Hardy wrote following the death of his first, estranged wife Emma. Emma’s death caused Hardy to revisit their life together, especially the early years of their marriage in the 1870s. This poem sees Hardy recalling Emma’s voice, wistfully wishing to see her again as she was when they first knew each other. It begins:
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
Click on the link above to read the full poem.
Robert Frost, ‘The Sound of Trees’.
Robert Frost (1874-1963) is regarded as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century. And yet he didn’t belong to any particular movement: unlike his contemporaries William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens he was not a modernist, preferring more traditional modes and utilising a more direct and less obscure poetic language. He famously observed of free verse, which was favoured by many modernist poets, that it was ‘like playing tennis with the net down’.
Many of his poems are about the natural world, with woods and trees featuring prominently in some of his most famous and widely anthologised poems (‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, ‘Birches’, ‘Tree at My Window’).
And this is another example. Why do we find the sound of the trees so restful when we are otherwise put out by so many sounds found among nature? Frost here focuses on the sounds of the trees that surround us.
James Joyce, ‘I Hear an Army’. James Joyce is known for his fiction, especially his novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, but he also wrote a few poems, even though his poetry is nowhere near as famous or important as his prose work. But one of his poems, ‘I Hear an Army’, even appeared in the inaugural anthology of the imagist poets, Des Imagistes, in 1914. In this poem, Joyce describes the sound of an army charging:
I hear an army charging upon the land,
And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees:
Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,
Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the charioteers.
They cry unto the night their battle-name:
I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling laughter.
They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame,
Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil …
W. H. Auden, ‘O What Is That Sound’. This is not only one of the finest poems about sounds, but a fine war poem, belonging to Auden’s productive 1930s period. Taking the form of a question and answer between two speakers, and drawing on the ballad form, the poem gathers pace and menace as the sound of the advancing soldiers with their banging drums comes nearer and nearer…
W. S. Merwin, ‘Hearing’. Merwin (1927-2019) was a prolific American poet, who penned this beautiful reminiscence of time spent among the hissing and roaring of a waterfall which provides the poet with a deep encounter with the natural world.
Simon Armitage, ‘The Shout’. This poem from 2002 by the current Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom takes a memory from the poet’s schooldays and then turns on a tragedy or incident which brings the earlier memory into clearer focus. Here, the speaker of the poem is remembering a school exercise that involved him and another boy who had to walk further away and keep shouting, until he was out of earshot. Twenty years on, and in Australia – just about as far away as it’s possible to get from Yorkshire where Armitage grew up – the poem takes a surprise, tragic turn, as Armitage tells us he can still hear the boy whose face he has long forgotten.