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  • "Keep Your Measures":Herrick, Herbert, and the Resistance to Music
  • Andrew Mattison

Seventeenth-century poets represent music as active, powerful, and variable; it can sicken and cure; it can represent decadence and worldliness as well as redemption and grace. That variability of the figuration of music makes poetic references to music more difficult to interpret than are other, similar figures. Robert Herrick's several epigrams addressed "To Musick" provide a useful example; the poems describe music's effects on the body and the mind not in terms of a particular instrument or musical style, but simply as music. When "To Musick, to becalme a sweet-sick youth" asks music to "Bind up [the youth's] senses with your numbers," the physicality of the image makes it a sensual one, even as music threatens the senses, which are thus doubly vulnerable. It is not immediately clear, however, on what level that sensuality is operating. Is the image a representation of the physical reaction to music, or is the physical reaction itself part of a metaphor describing something far more abstract? The trope governing the addressee and thus the poem is not immediately obvious. It could be personification, in which case the binding itself is metaphor but the effect on the senses is intended to be literal, if hyperbole. It could also be prosopopoeia—the presentation of an abstraction as person—in which case that physical effect on the senses is itself part of a larger trope. If the first possibility is correct, then the image is essentially a mimetic one, even though it uses a metaphor to make its point; the youth's body is intended to be represented as real.1 If my second suggestion is right, however, then any mimesis is far more indirect, and the poem becomes a tribute to the figure itself.

The range and importance of metaphors of music in the period complicate the interpretation of any given instance. When George Herbert wishes in "Deniall" that his mind and God's grace "will chime," he is relying on the same figural flexibility of music that informs Herrick's epigrams. I will argue in this essay that, though the two are starkly different, the difference is superficial. Both poets' invocations of music contain a density of metaphor that makes them turn away [End Page 323] from mimesis—in this case, from the representation of music as it is heard—and toward a peculiarly literary phenomenon in which the traditional qualities of music are used to build a figure that is ultimately distinct from music. They do so because the musical figures present in these poems can only function as their authors need them to—a function caught up in the development of the lyric genre itself in the seventeenth century—if they refer to an idealized music that can never be present to the ear. The figure of music as we will see it here is a defense of poetry; it works to identify what heard music cannot do, so as to reveal poetry's place in the world.

Whether Herrick's idea of music that can "Bind up [one's] senses" can be the same idea as Herbert's harmony between the soul and God is one question; what relationship either of them might have to music as performed and as heard is another. It is important, I think, to place both of these questions in the context of the relationship between music and poetry, and indeed both poets do so: Herbert puns on music's "measures" and poetry's meters, while Herrick alludes to music as "numbers," which often refers to poetic verses. In that context, these figures of music address not only the status of music but of poetry, and particularly the lyric genre. The roots of lyric poetry as a self-aware, self-defining genre lie in this period; the word itself, according to Gérard Genette, was given its modern definition at this time.2 I believe that the musical metaphor is integral to the development of the genre, in particular to the working out of the function of sound in lyric. For its own power of sound, lyric needs to distance...