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  • Poe's Silent Music
  • Rebeccah Bechtold (bio)
Charity McAdams. Poe and the Idea of Music: Failure, Transcendence, and Dark Romanticism. Perspectives on Edgar Allan Poe. Bethlehem: Lehigh Univ. Press, 2017. 155 pp. $85 cloth, $80.50 ebook.

That scarce awake, thy soul shall deem / My words the music of a dream," proclaims the speaker of Poe's "Serenade" to his love, Adeline [Works, 1:223]. In so doing, "Serenade," titled after a type of nocturnal music, highlights Poe's definition of the musical art in its highest form as an elusive, if still expressive, medium—what he would call the "indefinitiveness" of "true music," or "its ethereal, its ideal, its intrinsic and essential character," in his 1844 "Marginalia" [Writings, 2:153]. Charity McAdams's Poe and the Idea of Music reveals that this at-times vexed relationship between words and music, and the potential for connection to an otherworldly realm, recurs with startling regularity throughout Poe's writings. While scholars have long recognized the author's reliance on musical idioms, little has been published on what McAdams calls his "use of music purely in a literary space" [x]. Poe and the Idea of Music seeks to address this absence by providing an in-depth study of Poe's musical references in both his poetry and his short stories. McAdams's reconsideration of Poe through "the lens of word and music scholarship" offers readers an alternative approach to his writings, one less married to the strictly textual [x]. As she argues throughout her book, "Music as an idea becomes Poe's tool most closely allied with his conception of higher art literature" [127], and scholars can only come to appreciate the full tenor of Poe's romantic philosophy of art by attending more carefully to the sounds and silences of his works.

McAdams's case rests in part on her definition of "real-world music" in opposition to Poe's concept of what she calls "impossible music" [ix]. Referencing Richard Leppert's The Sight of Sound: Music, Representation, and the History of the Body [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1993], McAdams characterizes real-world music as "heard sound" with a "visible source" that "has the potential of being notated in the early nineteenth-century western tonal tradition" [2]. This real-world music, however, is "conspicuously absent" in Poe's work with the exception of two short stories, "The Spectacles" and "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather" [2]. More often, the musical references in Poe's writings provide examples of "impossible music" [ix], or [End Page E30] "that which evokes musical imagery without explicitly identifying music in a real-world sense" [80]. This somewhat forced distinction allows McAdams to track how such usage—which she variously describes as "unarticulated music" [66], "inaudible music" [85], and "liminal music" [125]—reveals the distance humanity has fallen from the heavenly. She notes in her introduction that "Poe's work assumes a prelapsarian world from which we are completely excluded, and music most clearly conveys and incorporates notions of dispossession, an attempt to escape from history and time and return to an undifferentiated and nontemporal past" [xii].

Poe and the Idea of Music thus traces throughout its six chapters the "rift between audible sounds and unarticulated music" [66]. This focus enables McAdams to consider the ways in which Poe plays with the idea of utterance in his poetry and prose. Poe, according to one of McAdams's more interesting claims, embraced music for its ability to make "sense of . . . the beyond" [129], and McAdams posits that this process of signification is never fully complete. She argues that Poe's protagonists may seek the celestial in this liminal music, but as music sheds its real-world features, it eventually descends into silence and denies Poe's characters aural access to the elusive beyond. While based on such intriguing claims, McAdams's examination of the author's poetry and prose unfortunately feels cumbersome at best, due in part to her chapters' failure to bring continually new insight to her thesis. McAdams devotes each chapter to a different kind of "unheard" and "heard" sound [76]. In the "unheard" sphere she locates music, the ethereal, the breath, the...


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