Magic Not Made By Melody

The best part of Elizabeth Bishop‘s sonnet “I am in need of music” is also the least intelligible.

Here is the sonnet:

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling fingertips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

Bishop completes most of the work, the argument of the poem, in the octave. In the first eight lines, she establishes the problem (a fretful unease) and names a remedy (melodious music). The poem itself is an attempt at fashioning a version of this remedy. For my taste, Bishop does the job too well. The abundant alliteration and internal rhyming draws too much attention to artifice. The reader, too soon, sees how the poet hopes to manipulate our senses–like a scary sound track preceding an event in an otherwise too ordinary scene at the movies.

The second stanza (the sestet) also suffers from this overwrought “magic made by melody”, but less so. Although contrived (one may easily surmise the unwritten questions Bishop must have asked herself in the composition of the stanza), the last six lines step away from the argument, away from the intellect and toward an ungrounded sensual gesture. Spells, breathing, sinking and floating, waves and pools, dreamy embraces–these are the impressions of melody on the poet’s sensual self, the remedy to her “bitter-tainted” unease. If these lines refer to nothing outside our subjective, soothing, sensual experiences, it’s still hard not to swoon over the “subaqueous stillness” and the “moon-green pool”.

The sestet works the “magic”, but (even so) I prefer the pivot at the end of the octave, an absolutely befuddling statement: “dream flushed to glow!” Here Bishop writes within herself; she is not watching in the self-critical mirror. In other words, one little ecstatic utterance escapes Bishop’s superb and exacting internal editor. I am fascinated with the phrase not only for its departure from the established course of the poem, but also because it sends me in search of some kind of sense, some kind of logic in the syntax that would explain it. How flushed? “Dream” as a noun or a verb? And “glow”? Why, of all things, “glow”? Yes, the phrase completes the rhyme and certainly leaves no guessing for where the caesura is employed, but beyond these mechanics of the form, what on earth did she mean? I am suggesting, of course, that Bishop did not know what she meant. She had some hints and the phrase is by no means in the wrong poem–the sonnet is packed with images of sleep, water and various auras, but there’s nothing here to paraphrase, and that’s the beauty of it.

“Dream flushed to glow!”: this is not nonsense; this is glossolalia. Just so, Milton’s Adam and Eve were found, before the sentence, already repenting (thanks to “prevenient grace”):

… sighs now breathed
Unutterable which the spirit of prayer
Inspired and winged for Heav’n with speedier flight
Than loudest oratory. (Paradise Lost XI:5-8.)

Sometimes, we do not know what we mean; sometimes, right then, there’s no truer language.


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