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Comparative Literature Studies 40.4 (2003) 441-444

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After the Heavenly Tune: English Poetry and the Aspiration to Song. By Marc Berley. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2000. 420 pp. $59.

Marc Berley, with the competence to match his ambition, has synthesized a diachronic panorama of one of the fundamental issues in Anglophone (and indeed most) poetics: the aspiration to song and the role of this aspiration in the aesthetics of a given poetic tradition. [End Page 441]

The foundation stone of Berley's lengthy structure was laid in Classical Greece, by Pythagoras and Aristotle, and, above all, by Plato. To these thinkers we owe the dichotomy between practical music, the production of actual poetry, logically linked to song, and, second, speculative music, linked to mathematics and other abstract knowledge, that lifts man toward the divine, or terms by which the inspired bard may at least hear and approximate "heavenly tunes." The author carefully plots how this dichotomy was elaborated by ancient thinkers and how it was subsequently qualified and modified by Philip Sydney and by modern critics such as John Hollander.

The long second chapter on Shakespeare's poetics focuses on The Merchant of Venice and the theoretical import of speeches by Lorenzo and Jessica: "How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!/ Here we will sit and let the sounds of music/ Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night/ Become the touches of sweet harmony...Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubims; Such harmony is in immortal souls,/ But whilst this muddy vesture of decay/ Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it." Most convincing here is Berley's analysis of the interdigitation between music and love and how the dialectic between the two can be transcended. Other works of The Bard that figure large are Hamlet and the sonnets; they so teem with musicology that simply to follow the word "music" and its close congeners through all their contexts would yield a portrait of Shakespeare as, through his implications, a theorist of the music/poetry interface to rival Stevens and Plato.

In the (to me) most successful and engaging chapter, on "Milton's earthly grossness," Berley masterfully essentializes this particular Puritan vision, to wit: postlapsarian man cannot create heavenly tunes, but, through preparation (such as philological learning), personal purity and chastity, and, eventually, grace, coupled with recognition of his own sin, can at least hear divine sounds and can be inspired by them. After waiting and due silence ("They also serve who only stand and wait"), s/he can aspire to sing tunes that are close to if not fully consonant with divine music. Berley stands in understandable and justifiable awe of Milton's ability to combine a truly Christian humility with an ability to come as close as is humanly possible to a practice of divine music. Unlike Mohammad and William Blake and Isaiah, Milton did not presume to be a conduit for the divine word yet he equals these pretenders in the sublime quality of his output. As a specialist in Thoreau, I was personally rewarded by an increased understanding of the many roots and rootlets that lead back from our great original to the deep music of his Puritan predecessor. [End Page 442]

The long fourth chapter, entitled "Ditties of no tune" (after Keats), moves with verve and erudition from William Wordsworth's idea of the "awful burden" (of Romantic consciousness) and "the internal echo if imperfect sound," to the transition from (a) "struggling sounds" to (b) "intricate verse" and "passionate meditation" and a (c) renewed intimacy with Nature, to (d) verse that gives intimations of divine music even while contending with and including earthly discord. Berley then turns to Blake's songs of innocence and of experience and his aspiration, not inward (or I would say from-inward) harmony but an "indomitable roar." Welcome for this reviewer was the author's polemic against McGann and the widespread reductionist fashion of dealing, not with what the poetry is about or what it says to us and has said to...


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