Sound in Poetry: Meaningful Music
Great poetry is composed to be heard, not just seen. The luscious, the lyrical, the edgy, the melancholy, even the jarring–all these sounds can make beautiful music in the hands of a master poet. When we read aloud and listen to great poems, we not only enjoy their sounds, whether lovely or powerful. We also receive more of their emotional tone and message through direct visceral experience. We can enjoy, even luxuriate, in the beautiful sounds of a well-crafted poem even when we don’t yet understand what it means, letting the sounds themselves lead us toward a fuller meaning.
Let’s listen to some great poetry and talk about some of the devices poets use to make their meaningful music.
Sound in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”
To begin noticing and appreciating sound in poetry, you can really start with any classic poem, since all great poems are valued for their sounds as well as their sense. Almost at random, I decided to begin our exploration of sound in poetry with Part I of a very famous poem, Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.”
In this section of the poem, the speaker calls on The West Wind, associated with Autumn, to blow away dead leaves and to scatter the seeds that may seem dead now, but will eventually sprout in the spring. Later in the poem it will become clear that the dead leaves are metaphors for the speaker’s state of life and mind. He needs renewal, and hopes the West Wind will blow away dead thoughts and disseminate the seeds of future productivity out into the world where, at the right time, they will grow and bloom.
For now, you can read just Part I, and go back to read the rest of the poem later, if you like. Now take a closer listen to lines 1 – 7. What sound effects do you hear?
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds. . ..
—from “Ode to the West Wind”
Even if you don’t absorb the meaning upon first reading, you can become captivated by the magnificent melancholy of the sound of the words. How is it done? In the first place, notice that Shelley uses the same beginning sound in words that are close together in line 1: “wild West Wind” and “breath/being.” This is called “alliteration.” (I used alliteration too, in paragraph 2 above. Did you spot it?). Alliteration calls our attention to the alliterated words and phrases. Also, it just sounds nice—if not overdone.
As you read aloud the lines again, which other consonant sounds stand out? You can hear, and feel with your tongue, how many times these lines use r’s and l’s—rrrrr and llll. Repeated consonant sounds that occur anywhere within nearby multiple words, not just at their beginnings, is called “consonance.” Consonance is used very often to create a mood or tone. What mood or tone do the sounds we noticed in “West Wind” convey to you?
Identical sounds occurring at the end of two or more words is called rhyme. Well-done rhyme is very pleasing to the ear, because our minds enjoy picking out the recurring pattern in the sounds. Rhyming patterns help to structure a poem, holding it together as a whole piece, and make it easier to remember. Also, like alliteration, rhyme calls our particular attention to the rhyming words.
“Ode to the West Wind” is written in a form called “terza rima.” Each stanza is three lines where the first and third lines end with a rhyme, and the second line provides the rhyme for the following stanza. (I will talk more about rhyme, meter, and stanza form in my next post, How to Read Poems Step 9.)
Coleridge’s Sonorous Xanadu
Let’s look at another very dramatic sounding poem, Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn.” Again, we’ll just be discussing the first several lines for now. You can read it for yourself here, or listen to Benedict Cumberbatch read it on YouTube. Go to 13.9 in the Cumberbatch recording to hear “Kubla Kahn.” (Later, go back and listen to him read the other poems on the recording. He has provided a nicely-chosen sampler of classic poems that all create very different sound presences.)
Can you find any of the devices Shelley used in “Ode to the West Wind” in these opening lines from “Kubla Kahn”?
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. —from “Kubla Kahn”
More Alliteration and Consonance
In these lines, alliteration is easy to spot: “Kubla Khan” and “dome/decree” in the first two lines, and “sunless sea” in the fifth. We can also see an intricate rhyme scheme, with rhyming pairs of words occurring in interlaced lines: ran/man, decree/sea/tree/greenery, ground/round, and rills/hills. “Kahn” is a “slant-rhyme” or “near-rhyme” of “ran/man.” That means it sounds very similar though not identically the same.
What about consonance? Coleridge infuses the passage with many “s” and “r” sounds (sssss and rrrrr), making the whole passage sound like an extended performance of the word “pleasure”—definitely a luxurious, if somewhat mysterious, sound.
This passage also offers an example of another sound device: assonance. Assonance is repeated use of similar vowel sounds close together. Here, we see multiple uses of the short a sound, as in “cat,” and the ahhh sound, alternating with the long u (ooo) sound. These repeated vowels work with the s’s and r’s to reinforce the sense of Kubla Kahn as a place of luxuriant pleasure. What other sound effects in this passage stand out for you?
The Sound of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
Poems don’t have to rhyme in order to have distinctive and powerful sound effects. Take a look at the opening lines of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” for instance, to see how he achieves an intimate yet prophetic, chant-like sonorousness by using word repetitions with some of the other techniques we mentioned above, wholly without using rhyme or regular meter:
Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
—–from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
First, we notice a lot of alliteration: “flood-tide/face to face,” “half/high,” “crowds/costumes,” and “more/meditations.” Though Whitman doesn’t use rhyme, he has another way of knitting his lines together and conveying solemnity to readers: repetition of words and phrases. Examples are: “face to face” in lines 1 and 2, the word “curious” in lines 3 and 4, and “cross” in lines 4 and 5.
In some poems, this much repetition would sound amateurish, as if the poet couldn’t think of enough words to make the point. But Whitman uses these repetitions intentionally and artfully. In this, and many of his other poems, artful repetition achieves a serious meditative mood and pace in his verses, as well as a focus on the key ideas he is discussing.
Euphony and Cacophony
Many poems are crafted to sound euphonious, which means they are pleasant-sounding and lyrical. But sometimes the poet’s, or writer’s, purpose requires the sounds to be harsh, shocking, or cacophonous, which means discordant, jarring, or grating. Buzzle.com offers several examples of cacophony in Shakespeare’s MacBeth, such as the three witches’ famous speech “Double, double, toil and trouble” or the famous Lady MacBeth soliloquy, “Out, damned spot.”
Many folks point out Lewis Carrol’s nonsense poem “Jabberwocky” as a trove of cacophonous phrases: “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimbal in the wabe.” Go back to Benedict Cumberbatch’s recording, linked above, to hear him read it and decide for yourself whether this poem is truly cacophonous.
Hear the loud alarum bells–
Brazen bells! What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune . . .. —Edgar Allen Poe
In these lines, Poe is mimicking the sound of alarm bells, which must sound cacophonous to catch people’s attention. In this case, euphonious poetry would undercut Poe’s description.
The Melancholy Music of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”
To wrap up our exploration of beautiful sounds in classic poetry, I offer one of the most euphonious poems I have ever read, and a personal favorite: Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” You can read this short poem here . You can also hear a recording of the poet, Yeats himself, reading this poem on You Tube here. Yeats really exaggerates all the sound devices in the poem, making them easy to hear, but you might find his rendition a little over the top. The poem does not have to be performed so dramatically to be appreciated. I really like this alternative recording of the poem done by the man calling himself “Tom O’Bedlam,” here.
This poem illustrates beautifully how the sound of a well-made poem not only complements the meaning, but can extend it, by implying more than the poem says in words. The words tell us about the speaker’s longing to get away from his city life and escape to a solitary place where he can live a peaceful, simple life, embraced by beautiful nature. He repeats multiple times that he “will arise and go now.” But is he actually going to get there? The words don’t say so, but the poem’s sounds suggest to me that his departure is hardly imminent. Let’s take a closer look.
Sounds Themselves Can Add Meaning
In “Lake Isle,” we can recognize many of the sound devices we’ve seen in the other poems, especially consonance and assonance. The consonant sounds that dominate the poem are l’s and m’s; the vowel sounds that provide assonance in the poem are long, long o sounds, and long “a” sounds. These sounds are repeated so many times in this short poem, we can capture the overall mood of the poem just by chanting “lllllll”— “mmmm”—“aaaayyy”—“ooohhh” several times in succession.
Don’t these sounds make us feel a deep longing and the melancholy? These are not the happy, clattering, busy sounds of someone who is selling his city condo and packing his bags for the country. These are sounds of someone longing for a peace he cannot see how to reach. This is just one of hundreds of examples of how noticing the sounds a poem makes increases our appreciation for the craft, adds to our enjoyment, and helps us understand its meaning.
Poetry is made to be seen and heard. Take a few moments to listen to a great poem today. If you do, come back and comment here about your experience!
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.