06 April 2006


[from Sound and Form in Modern Poetry by Harvey Gross]

Syntax, the order of words as they arrange themselves into patterns of meaning, is the analogue to harmony in music. Like harmony, syntax generates tension and relaxation, the feelings of expectation and fulfillment that make up the dynamics of poetic life. Suzanne Langer remarks:

The tension which music achieves through dissonance, and the reorientation in each new resolution to harmony, find their equivalents in the suspensions and periodic decisions of propositional sense in poetry. Literal sense, not euphony, is the “harmonic structure” of poetry; word melody in literature is more akin to tone color in music. (1)

Syntax gives us the arc of “literal sense,” the articulations of meaning. Like harmony in music, syntax makes connections, strengthens ideas, and relates thematic material. Eliot himself emphasizes that music in poetry does not inhere in word melody and tone color, but in the harmony of meanings and connections:

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that all poetry ought to be melodious, or that melody is more than one of the components of the music of words. . . . The music of a word is, so to speak, at a point of intersection: it arises from its relation first to the words immediately preceding and following it, and indefinitely to the rest of its context; and from another relation, that of its immediate meaning in that context to all the other meanings which it had in other contexts, to its greater or less wealth of association. (2)

The reverberation of words, their semantic resonances, are the shifting tones in the harmony of intersections and associations.

Eliot’s syntax carries the bass line of his prosody. Through a deliberate and idiosyncratic use of repeated grammar and repeated words, Eliot achieves qualities common to both music and poetry—the feelings of arrest and motion, of beginnings and endings, of striving and stillness.

(1) Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (Cambridge, MA, 1942), p. 261.
(2) T. S. Eliot, On Poetry and Poets (New York, 1957), pp. 24-25.

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