Wednesday, July 11, 2012

David H. Cormier: “Reverberating Song”

David Cormier
Saint Louis University

Book Review

Erin Minear, Reverberating Song in Shakespeare and Milton: Language, Memory, and Musical Representation.  Ashgate Publishing (Surrey, UK & Burlington, VT, USA, 2011), 296 pp.  ISBN: 978-1-4094-3545-7.  $104.95 (USD).

1> This most recent contribution to an ongoing discussion about how the aural shows up in the written will satisfy scholars looking for a detailed and expansive examination of not only reverberating song, musicology and affect theory, but also silence, cacophony, harmony and discord in the works of William Shakespeare and John Milton.  The connection between Shakespeare and Milton, though, is tenuous.  While Minear does deploy several examples and makes some interesting observations regarding their relationship, the judicious reader might need more evidence to justify a comparison between these disparate authors.

2> Reverberating Song in Shakespeare and Milton: Language, Memory and Musical Representation begins with an overt textual connection among Shakespeare, Milton, and music in one of Milton’s most musical poems, L’Allegro: “Sweetest Shakespeare, fancy’s child / Warbl[ing] his native woodnotes wild” (1).  This sets the stage for a book that will argue that “Shakespeare and Milton reproduce not the specific formal or sonic properties of music, but its effects” (2).  Minear goes on in her introduction to discuss at length how music was understood in England in the early modern period as harmony, noise, contradictory “lascivious sounds” and “ordered workings” (3); divine, scientific “musical cosmos” (2) and mathematical arrangement.  Minear’s interests in Shakespeare’s works, however, concern specifically the relationship between words describing music and sounds and music itself.  Minear is also interested in how Milton responded to Shakespeare’s conception of music, sound, and memory and how he eventually diverted from it.  According to Minear, Milton eventually saw music’s allure and its ability to soothe (a threatening action for Milton) as a potentially illusionary return to lost Paradise (12).

3> Chapter one tackles The Merchant of Venice and the concept of “creeping music” (17).  Here Minear argues that Shakespeare portrays musical moments in a way that imitates his language and dramaturgy (17).  The chapter opens with a detailed historical discussion about the nature of music in early modern England and its association with language.  What, Minear asks, was the relationship between sound and word in music?  She answers this question with an exploration of these elements in Merchant.  Minear, however, is not ignorant of the many differences that exist between music and language.  She is cognizant of these distinctions while at the same time drawing attention to the ways Shakespeare blurs them through “patterns of alliteration, assonance, and rhyme” (29-30).  Further explored in this chapter is the effect music has, or should have, on listeners, including feelings of ambivalence about the positive work of music on the soul, a fear that its sweetness could seduce (39).  The chapter ends with a look at the creeping nature of music in Shakespeare that waylays the hearer.  In the case of Merchant, Portia’s song—which Minear argues alludes to the correct choice of lead through rhyme—gives “Bassanio an unconscious mind” (52).

4> Chapter two deals with “sonic echoes” and their impressions, connecting the ballad with the lyricism of Shakespeare’s words (53, 56).  Minear begins this chapter with a discussion of Othello and moves among other plays: Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, The History of King Lear, The Merry Wives of Windsor, As You Like It.  Echoes, Minear argues, serve as a model for memory.  Long after the sound is gone it can be recalled in the mind.  The echoing of the baying of the dogs in Titus Andronicus is used to illustrate this point.  The chapter ends with an extended examination of the use of sound, music, hollowness, and silence in Othello.

5> Chapter three, “‘Re-speaking Earthly Thunder’: Hamlet’s Sonic Phantoms,” explores how the association between music and the divine changes into an association between music and the ghostly, or otherworldly (89).  Minear looks at the relationship among noise, music, and the cacophony of war.   In Hamlet, speech “and song, ballad and play bleed into one another” (110).  Hamlet is a play in which the characters struggle to fill silence.  Silence is perhaps so threatening that even the dead come back to fill it.

6> Chapter four, “Playing Music: Twelfth Night and The Tempest,” is broken up into two distinct parts.  Part one looks at Twelfth Night as a play that uses “an irresistible attractiveness of … [a] kind of musical expression” that is “simultaneously mocking and heartbreakingly sincere” (140).  It is a play that “relocates music in speech” (131).  Minear gives a significant amount of attention to Feste’s performance of “Come Away Death” and the performative nature of singing, which she reminds the reader is always a type of “speaking in the voice of another” (136).  Part two looks at The Tempest.  Here, Minear argues for the orderly—the sailor’s panic is done in “incantatory” verse (141)—and harmonious nature of the violent storm that opens the play.  “The problem with music in The Tempest is not so much that its beautiful concords and affective power can be used to manipulative and even harmful purposes.  A larger problem involves the positively weird way that music in the play moves people”—the tendency of music and cacophony to move similarly—demonstrating how The Tempest brings “musica mundane—universal, philosophical harmony—to life” (145).  Finally, the chapter ends by pointing out the ways the “musical element of The Tempest quite literally usurps the dramatic” in the final moments of the play (161).

7> Chapter five begins the series of three chapters that touch on the works of Milton.  For Milton, music has a stasis-generating quality: it collapses temporality and “causes past and future to run together into an endlessly suspended present” (166).  Music dissolves boundaries (166).  This chapter also presents the relationship among Shakespeare, Milton, and music.  According to Minear, Milton saw Shakespeare as a poet of “fancy,” which was not only an allusion to fantasy and desire, but also to the musical genre known in the early modern period as fancy, that is wordless music (167).  The chapter looks at L’Allegro, Lycidas, “The Nativity Ode,” and finally “At a Solemn Music.”

8> Chapter six deals with Milton’s Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle and the degree to which it incorporates Shakespeare’s descriptions of music, which are “positioned [in this text] as verbal echoes of musical sounds” (201).  In particular, Minear looks at the Lady’s song and how it has the effect of stalling the linear progression of the narrative.  This delay occurs when the Spirit and Comus take time to praise the song.  Furthermore, the masque imitates a Shakespearean soundscape with its “eerie noises of the wood” (203).  The Lady’s song (and its echoes) attempts to reach her brothers, but also exerts a measure of control over her environment by making all reflect (205).  Minear sees Masque as a work that sets up Milton’s eventual “renunciation” of Shakespeare in a manner that pays tribute to Shakespeare (225).

9> Chapter seven, “‘Minims of Nature’: Describing Music in Paradise Lost,” deals with the nature of music in Hell, Paradise, and Heaven in Milton’s retelling of the fall of man.  Minear begins by looking at the role music plays in Hell—the Dorian mode to which the devils march and raise Pandemonium.  In Hell, as in the wilderness of Masque, music suspends time and “torments, both physical and mental” (233).  The music of Hell makes “if not a Heaven of Hell, at least a not-Hell of Hell” (234).  The chapter’s following section addresses music in Heaven where it is harmonious and proportional and sung in praise of God.  The final section addresses music and sound in Paradise.  There does not seem to be as much evidence for Minear, however, that sound and music play as significant a role in the prelapsarian garden as they do in Hell and Heaven.

10> The conclusion to Reverberating Song traces parallels between Paradise Regained and The Tempest.  In Paradise Regained, Satan serves as a demonic Ariel (Airy-el, “prince of air”) summoning tables and food, tempting with music and song.  Furthermore, Satan defends and promotes “art / and eloquence,” beautiful sounds and words.  Minear, however, sees the poem’s emphasis on the importance of the written as Milton’s final stance on the invisible fleeting existence of the aural.

11> Reverberating Song offers a close critical look at the role of sound and music in Shakespeare and Milton.  Minear’s methodology includes both historical and textual criticism.  Historically she looks at the cultural place of music and sound in the early modern period in England.  Textually she uses examples from a substantial range of the works of Shakespeare and Milton in order to show the similarities and differences between their use of music and sound in verse.  What this book ultimately offers scholars is a close examination of the often overlooked role of sound in early modern literature.

David Cormier is a PhD candidate in the English department at Saint Louis University where he is writing his dissertation on 17th-century English prison writing, suffering and existentialism.  His academic interests include the works of John Milton, the early modern period, prison studies, and rhetoric and composition.
APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, VOLUME FIVE (2012): ARTEFACTS

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