Aeolian Harp

The aeolian harp (or lyre) or wind harp was invented by the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher and described by him in 1650. It is a long, narrow wooden box with a thin belly and with eight to twelve strings stretched over two bridges and tuned in unison; it is to be placed in a window (or a grotto) where the wind will draw out a harmonious sound. (Aeolus is the Greek king in charge of the winds; he first appears in Homer’s Odyssey 10.) In the next century James Oswald, a Scots composer and cellist, made one, and it soon became well known. It just as soon became an irresistible poetic symbol, first in English, then in French and German. James Thomson described the harp in The Castle of Indolence: ‘‘A certain Musick, never known before, / Here sooth’d the pensive melancholy Mind; / Full easily obtain’d. Behoves no more, / But sidelong, to the gently-waving Wind, / To lay the well-tun’d Instrument reclin’d; / From which, with airy flying Fingers light, / Beyond each mortal Touch the most refin’d, / The God of Winds drew Sounds of deep Delight: / Whence, with just Cause, The Harp of Aeolus it hight’’ (1.352–60).

 

Thomson also wrote an ‘‘Ode on Aeolus’s Harp.’’ It was already so well known by the 1750s that the opening line of Gray’s ‘‘Progress of Poetry’’ — ‘‘Awake, Aeolian lyre, awake’’ — was misconstrued; Gray added a note quoting Pindar’s ‘‘Aeolian song’’ and ‘‘Aeolian strings’’ to make clear that he was referring to a mode of Greek music, not the wind harp. (To the ancients, however, ‘‘Aeolian lyre’’ might refer to Sappho and Alcaeus, whose lyrics were in the Aeolian dialect of Greek.) In poetry any harp can become an aeolian harp if suspended in the open air. Alluding to Psalm 137, where the exiled Jews ‘‘hanged our harps upon the willows’’ by the rivers of Babylon, William Cowper ends his long poem ‘‘Expostulation’’ by calling on his muse to ‘‘hang this harp upon yon aged beech, / Still murm’ring with the solemn truths I teach’’ (718–19). Among the English Romantics the wind harp became a favorite image,capable of many extensions. In ‘‘The Eolian Harp,’’ perhaps the most extended poetic treatment of the subject, Coleridge is prompted by the harp’s ‘‘soft floating witchery of sound’’ (20) to consider ‘‘the one Life within us and abroad, / Which meets all motion and becomes its soul’’ (26–27), and then speculates: ‘‘And what if all of animated nature / Be but organic Harps diversely fram’d, / That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps / Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze, / At once the Soul of each, and God of all?’’ (44–48). Coleridge may have been influenced by the associationist psychology of David Hartley, according to whom sensation depends on ‘‘vibrations’’carried by the nerves to the brain, where new but fainter vibrations are created. Diderot, in D’Alembert’s Dream, has a similar but more explicitly musical model of sensation and memory, as does Herder, in Kalligone.Both Wordsworth and Coleridge used the metaphor of the internal breeze or breath responding to the inspiration of a natural wind. So Wordsworth begins the 1805 Prelude, ‘‘Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze,’’ where the breeze serves as a kind of epic muse; a little later he reflects, ‘‘For I,methought, while the sweet breath of Heaven / Was blowing on my body, felt within / A corresponding mild creative breeze, / A vital breeze . . . ’’ (41–44) and then likens himself to an aeolian harp (103–07). In ‘‘Dejection,’’ Coleridge compares himself to an ‘‘AEolian lute, / Which better far were mute’’ (7–8). Shelley has frequent recourse to the image (e.g., Queen Mab 1.52–53, Alastor 42–45, 667–68) and extends it in interesting ways. It is quietly implicit in Queen Mab 8.19–20: ‘‘The dulcet music swelled / Concordant with the life-strings of the soul.’’ He develops an idea in Coleridge’s ‘‘Dejection,’’ where the raving wind is told that a crag or tree or grove would make fitter instruments than the lute, by imagining that the winds come to the pines to hear the harmony of their swinging (‘‘Mont Blanc’’ 20–24); in his ‘‘Ode to the West Wind’’ he implores the wind to ‘‘Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is’’ (57). In his ‘‘Defence of Poetry,’’ Shelley explicitly likens man to an aeolian lyre, but adds‘‘there is a principle within the human being . . . which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody, alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them.’’ The aeolian harp enters French poetry with André Chénier’s Elégies (no. 22): ‘‘I am the absolute owner of my memory; / I lend it a voice, powerful magician, / Like an aeolian harp in the evening breezes, / And each of my senses resounds to this voice.’’ It appears as similes in the influential romantic novels Les Natchez by Chateaubriand and Corinne by Germaine de Sta¨el. In Germany, H¨olderlin in ‘‘Die Wanderung’’ (‘‘The Migration’’) makes the link Shelley makes: ‘‘and the forests / All rustled, every lyre / In unison / At heaven’s gentle touch’’ (trans. Sieburth). Goethe stages a brief ‘‘Conversation’’ between two Aeolian harps, male and female, and Schiller alludes to the harp in ‘‘The Dignity of Women.’’ The song of Ariel that opens Goethe’s Faust, Part II is accompanied by aeolian harps. Half a century later M¨orike writes ‘‘To an Aeolian Harp,’’ where the wind blows from the green tomb of ‘‘the youth I loved so much’’: ‘‘As the wind gusts more briskly, / A lovely cry of the harp / Repeats, to my sweet dismay, / The sudden emotion of my soul.’’ The Russian poet Tyutchev hears a harp at midnight grieving like a fallen angel; for a moment we feel faith and joy, ‘‘as if the sky flowed through our veins,’’ but it cannot last, and we sink back into ‘‘wearisome dreams’’ (‘‘The Gleam’’, trans. Bidney). In America, Emerson praises the one sure musician whose wisdom will not fail, the Aeolian harp, which ‘‘trembles to the cosmic breath’’ and which alone of all poets can utter ‘‘These syllables that Nature spoke’’ (‘‘The Harp’’). Thoreau wrote ‘‘Rumors from an Aeolian Harp,’’ a song from a harp, not about one, and in Walden he employs the metaphor several times. As a theme or allusion, the harp seems to have lingered longer in America than elsewhere, appearing as late as 1888 in a poem by Melville, ‘‘The Aeolian Harp at the Surf Inn.’ Kircher noted that several sounds may be produced by one string,suggesting that the string is to the wind as a prism to light, breaking up a unified motion or essence into its component parts. William Jones developed the theory that ‘‘the Eolian harp may be considered as an air-prism.’’ That idea may account for the connection between the aeolian harp and the ‘‘Harp of Memnon,’’ which was thought to be concealed within a colossal statue of an Egyptian pharoah and would sound when the first ray of sunlight struck it each morning. ‘‘For as old Memnon’s image,’’ Akenside writes, ‘‘long renown’d / By fabling Nilus, to the quivering touch / Of Titan’s ray, with each repulsive string / Consenting, sounded through the warbling air / Unbidden strains; even so did Nature’s hand / To certain species of external things, / Attune the finer organs of the mind’’ (Pleasures of Imagination 109–15). Amelia Opie mentions Memnon’s harp in her ‘‘Stanzas Written under Aeolus’ Harp.’’ Byron lightly alludes to Memnon, ‘‘the Ethiop king / Whose statue turns a harper once a day’’ (Deformed Transformed 1.531–32).At least two composers have written music ‘‘for’’ an aeolian harp: the Romantics Berlioz, in his Lélio (opus 14b), and Chopin, in his Etude opus 25,no. 1.

Work Cited:Ferber- A Dictionary of Literary Symbols

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