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“Blest pair of Sirens … Voice and Verse”: Milton’s Rhetoric of Song

From: Milton Studies
Volume 54, 2013
pp. 81-106 | 10.1353/mlt.2013.0002

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In his three Latin epigrams penned in commendation of the singer Leonora Baroni, Milton marvels at the power and beauty of the soprano voice. Leonora is, he writes, a “liquid-voiced Siren” (liquidam Sirena) who “lays the spell of her song upon both men and gods” (Atque homines cantu detinet atque Deos). The sound of her voice is such that Milton can only conclude that God must be present within it or, if not God, an angelic spirit who “is moving mysteriously in [her] throat” (Per tua secreto guttura serpit agens) as Leonora ravishes her hearers (“Ad Leonoram,” 6). These poems constitute only one moment among many in Milton’s writings that attest to the affective potency of song. In Il Penseroso, Milton’s speaker imagines himself “Dissolve[d] … into ecstasies” (164) by “full voic’d” (162) anthems. In Of Education, he commends song for its ability “to smooth [dispositions and manners] and make them gentle from rustic harshness and distempered passions” (638). And in Ad Patrem, Milton credits Orpheus’s song, not the music of his lute, for his ability to captivate the natural world (84). However, while Milton’s epigrams to Leonora likewise tap into popular early modern discourses linking song and rhetoric, these poems also stand out for their attention to Leonora’s performance and the physiology of her singing body, as she “breath[es] peace into [the] diseased breast[s]” (aegro spirans sub corde quietem) of her hearers with her “heart-stirring song” (Flexanimo cantu) (“Ad eandem [1],” 11–12). In so doing, they invite us to attend to song as an acoustic, embodied, and gendered rhetorical practice in Milton’s writings.

Although scholars have long been attuned to the centrality of music and song in Milton’s texts, most work in the area has concentrated on the sonority of Milton’s prosody—the “musical delight” of his “apt Numbers” and “fit quantity of Syllables” (PL, “The Verse,” p. 210)—rather than treating song as an embodied affective musical phenomenon. Even the most musically focused studies, notably by Diane McColley, Louise Schleiner, and Judy van Sickle, dwell primarily on the musical influences that shaped Milton’s treatment of song, probing, in van Sickle’s words, “how songs become embedded in the rich texture of Milton’s language.” Such interventions have greatly enriched our understanding of musical-textual relations in Milton’s writings and have helped to elucidate his close engagement with early modern musical discourses and his dexterous appropriation of vocal genres and musical modes. Joseph Ortiz and Erin Minear have helped to shift these debates in a new direction by highlighting the implications of reading Miltonic music as sensuous, reverberating sound. More work needs to be done, however, in order fully to appreciate the significance of the materiality and acoustic impact of song as performance in Milton’s writings.

This critical imbalance is reflective of broader patterns within early modern studies. We experience songs from the period not only as readers, but also as audience members and, in some cases, as singers. Yet literary scholarship on song is weighted toward what Leslie Dunn and Nancy A. Jones call its “verbal and textual dimensions.” When a critic encounters a song in a sonnet sequence, romance, and even a masque or play, the tendency is to engage with it as poem rather than as musical performance. Musicologists likewise too often overlook the sonic and visual facets of early modern vocal repertoire in favor of the abstract musical work and the notational framework of its score. Such patterns can in part be attributed to disciplinary trends and modes of training that can hinder a full integration of historically situated textual, musical, and performance analysis. Less tangible, but no less significant, methodological challenges arise from the transience of live performance (accentuated further in the case of early modern songs by a temporal distancing of nearly four centuries), as well as from the emotional transcendence prompted by the experience of a musical event.

In an influential essay, musicologist Carolyn Abbate confronts this issue by elucidating the significance of drastic—as opposed to gnostic—responses to music. The latter term evokes the familiar territory of the critic: engagement with a work...



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