Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #85: Orson F. Whitney on Poetry, Music and Silence

2.16.14 | | no comments

OFWhitneyWhat makes poetry work? Why is it different than fiction and other genres? I’m not sure any scientific answer is possible to this question, since it involves so many elements, many of which simply can’t be measured objectively. But this view hasn’t kept appraisers of literature from trying to say what makes poetry different.

Part of the difference is found in the “music” of poetry—its use of rhythm, rhyme and other features to connect to the reader or hearer of its words.

Orson F. Whitney was among those who tried to describe what makes poetry different, as part of his 1926 Improvement Era essay, Oratory, Poesy and Prophecy. This extract is from the beginning of the third part.

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Oratory, Poesy and Prophecy

by Orson F. Whitney

Poesy is the power by which we appreciate and sympathize with all that is good, pure, true, beautiful and sublime. That high sense of right which scorns all wrong; the sword and balance of Eternal Justice; the voice of Mercy pleading for the fallen; the tongue of Truth heralding salvation and reform; the oracle of Liberty proclaiming freedom to the oppressed; the thunderbolt of retribution that lays the tyrant low;—poesy is the Spirit of these things.

Beware, therefore, how you say that you do not like poetry, lest you paint your own portrait in uncanny colors, confessing yourself to be one of those of whom Shakespeare says:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus,—
Let no such man be trusted.

Poetry is music—the music of languages; but that is not all, nor most. It is the music of thought, the melody of sentiment, the harmony of the human with the divine; deep answering to deep, man’s soul attuned to and in unison with the mind and heart of the melodious universe. “All inmost things are melodious,” says Carlyle—”naturally utter themselves in song.” “It is a man’s sincerity and depth of vision that makes him a poet. See deep enough and you see musically, the heart of nature being everywhere music, if you can only reach it.”

Yes, there is such a thing as silent music. Keats knew it when he wrote his immortal “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” and gave us these beautiful lines:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter. Therefore, ye soft pipes, play on.

“Speech is silvern; silence is golden.” Silence we instinctively associate with profundity; not because the rule holds good in every case, but because it is a rule, notwithstanding the exceptions. Speech is on the surface; thought is in the depths. “The shallows murmur, but the deeps are dumb.”

The most powerful speakers—and all are not powerful that are so styled—are not the glib and fluent who generally have more words than ideas; but those who are deliberate, even halting, until aroused, when, like the cataract or the storm unchained, the impetuous torrent of eloquence, breaking from its fastenings, sweeps past every barrier, carrying all before it.

Improvement Era, v29 n7
May 1926, p. 628-629

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I don’t think Whitney is saying anything that others haven’t said before, but its certainly said with his characteristic style. But instead of his previous concentration on the symbolic and substantive characteristics of poetry, here he focuses on its musicality.

I especially like his description of poetic music:

It is the music of thought, the melody of sentiment, the harmony of the human with the divine; deep answering to deep, man’s soul attuned to and in unison with the mind and heart of the melodious universe.

That is certainly beautifully, perhaps poetically, put, although I’m not sure how it will help me identify these elements in a text, so I can determine that it is poetry. I do think that later he is better at capturing something important, when he talks about silence and music:

Yes, there is such a thing as silent music.… The most powerful speakers—and all are not powerful that are so styled—are not the glib and fluent who generally have more words than ideas; but those who are deliberate, even halting, until aroused, when, like the cataract or the storm unchained, the impetuous torrent of eloquence, breaking from its fastenings, sweeps past every barrier, carrying all before it.

This final description is certainly something I’ve heard before, if not experienced. Because of Mormonism’s focus on the untrained speaker, the everyday member who bear’s heartfelt testimony on Fast Sunday, I believe I have heard exactly such powerful speakers, whose silence often means more than anything they actually speak.

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