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  • The Origin of All Music
  • Jeffrey A. Savoye (bio)

In note 24 to “Al Aaraaf,” Poe says: “I met with this idea in an old English tale, which I am now unable to obtain and quote from memory:—‘The verie essence and, as it were, springeheade and origine of all musiche is the verie pleasaunte sounde which the trees of the forest do make when they growe.’” Concerning this note, more, perhaps, needs to be said than Mabbott’s simple statement that “the tale has not been identified” [Works, 1:124], particularly because Mabbott prints the note text again in Tales and Sketches as, in essence, a tale by Poe [Works, 2:4].

The question as to what “old English tale” Poe might have been recalling has prompted scholarly inquiry since at least 1864, when a brief comment by E. J. Norman about the edition of Poe’s poetry edited by James Hannay appeared in the London Notes and Queries [“The Sound of the Grass Growing,” 5 March 1864, 194]. Mr. Norman prints Poe’s statement as if by Mr. Hannay and asks: “To this note I would append a query, for the name of the book from which Mr. Hannay quotes?” A few years later, a letter from Jonathan Bouchier seeking this same source was also printed in the London Notes and Queries [4 May 1867, 354]. In the intervening years and from the whole readership of this journal, which was unusually steeped in the worlds and literature of times long past, no reply to either query was forthcoming.

The statement about the origin of all music itself, as Poe gives it, seems to have had some resonance, appearing as early as James Cooper Grocott’s An Index to Familiar Quotations in 1863 [(Liverpool: Edward Howell), 257] and as recently as R. Murray Schafer’s The Thinking Ear: Complete Writings on Music Education in 1986 [(Toronto: Arcana Editions), 167]. In his “Tree Talks—Part II: Some of Our Tree Friends,” Richard St. Barbe Baker quotes the sentence and unequivocally attributes it to Chaucer, without so much as mentioning Poe. (Baker repeats his statement in I Planted Trees [(London and Redhill: Lutterworth Press, 1944), 65]. Baker’s quotation is slightly different than what Poe renders, but the correlation is certain: “Chaucer once wrote: ‘The origine of all Musicke is the very pleasante sounde which the trees of the forest do make when they growe’” [see Home and Country (1935), 95]. Baker gives no more precise indication of his source, and no statement of this sort has been found among Chaucer’s writings. The most direct observation Chaucer makes about [End Page 96] the origins of music appears in “The Death of Blanche the Duchess” [The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), 344], but there the originator of music (or singing) is named Tubal (more properly Jubal), and it is the ringing of an anvil rather than anything in nature that serves as inspiration.

As so much searching for an exact source has proven fruitless, it may be necessary to resort to less direct possibilities. One somewhat distant reference is from Psalms 96:12: “Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice” (King James Version). Another suggestive idea may be traced back to “Dissertation on the Scottish Music” by King James, which includes the line: “The origin of music, in every country, is from the woods and lawns” [see The Poetical Remains of James the First, King of Scotland (Edinburgh: J. and E. Balfour, 1783), 197]. This line, which seems first to have appeared in print about 1735, was widely repeated for more than a century, although often unattributed, or misattributed to William Tytler, who edited the 1783 volume. It appears, for example, in The New Annual Register, or General Repository of History, Politics, and Literature for the Year 1784 [(London: Printed for G. J. J. and J. Robinson, 1785), p. 111 of “Biographical Anecdotes and Characters”]. It subsequently shows up in The Scotsman’s Library; Being a Collection of Anecdotes and Facts Illustrative of Scotland and Scotsmen, by James Mitchell, LL...


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