Modernism’s Melos

Excerpt from Daniel Albright

Melody has been a suspect word for a long time. It has a bland, watery sound: melody is Bellini, music is Beethoven; melody is Irving Berlin, music is Schoenberg. Even in the world of Italian opera, where it seems to reign supreme, there is a certain distrust of melody.When Verdi was advising the prima donna of his ambitious new opera Macbeth (1847) on how to sing the sleepwalking scene, he told her, “Everything is to be said sotto voce and in such a way as to arouse terror and pity. Study it well and you will see that you can make an effect with it, even if it lacks one of those flowing, conventional melodies [canti filati, e soliti], which can be found everywhere and which are all alike.” No one, it seems, wants to be a mere tunesmith.


In the domain of poetry, too, if you write flowing, conventional melodies, you’re usually not doing too well. Though he doesn’t refer to them as such, Northrop Frye is clearly thinking of these melodies when he writes, “Musical usually means ‘sounding nice.’…The term musical as ordinarily used is a value term meaning that the poet has produced a pleasant variety of vowel sounds and has managed to avoid the more unpronounceable clusters of consonants that abound in modern English. If he does this, he is musical, whether or not he knows a whole note from a half rest.” The poetics of Modernism valued music highly, but only insofar as the music had a certain strangeness to it. One of the tenets of Pound’s Imagism was “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” This is in some ways an unremarkable wish: A hundred years before Pound’s time, Keats had been equally eager to emancipate poetry from the tick-tock of Pope’s rhythm:


a sc[h]ism

Nurtured by foppery and barbarism,

Made great Apollo blush for this his land.

Men were thought wise who could not understand

His glories: with a puling infant’s force

They sway’d about upon a rocking horse,

And thought it Pegasus.


(“Sleep and Poetry”)


Keats of course is writing in heroic couplets, Pope’s own favorite verse form, but the caesura doesn’t mechanically alternate (as Pope’s caesuras tend to do) between the fourth syllable of the line and the sixth; Keats puts the caesura in some quite odd places, even in the middle of a foot (“His glories: | with a puling infant’s force”). Keats might not have liked Pound’s verse, if he’d lived to read it, but I doubt that he would have quarreled strongly with the third tenet of Imagism.

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