Marc Berley. After the Heavenly Song: English Poetry and the Aspiration to Song. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2000. xii + 418 pp. ISBN 0 8207 0316 8.
Hannibal Hamlin
The Ohio State University, Mansfield

Hamlin, Hannibal. "Review of Marc Berley, After the Heavenly Song: English Poetry and the Aspiration to Song." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.2 (September, 2001): 14.1-7 <URL:

  1. The "aspiration to song" is a trope so important for so many poets that it is hard to believe no one has explored it before. Previous studies by Hollander, Heninger, and Winn have explored the poetic treatment of musical ideas, but until now there has not been a full-length study of the poet as singer, the poem as song. Berley's work focuses on those authors "for whom the claim to song is an important trope that serves to define their conceptions of themselves as poets" (3): Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Whitman, Yeats, and Stevens. As with any book of this scope, readers may feel some poets have been unjustly excluded. Spenser is a questionable omission in the Renaissance. Berley claims that Spenser "advances no speculative discussion of his aspiration to be a singer" (68), yet it is hard to see where Shakespeare, who is included, does make such an advance, while the treatment of song in The Shepheardes Calender and in Book 6 of The Faerie Queene (Colin's piping to the Graces on Mount Acidale) seems highly "speculative" and very much about Spenser's own claims.

  2. The poet's "aspiration to song" is his desire to join in the celestial harmony, which requires that he tune the musica humana of his soul to the musica mundana of the cosmos (in the terms introduced by Boethius). Berley sees the history of poets' speculations about music as a continuing contest between the Platonic notion of "music" as the harmony of the soul and the universe, and the contrasting Aristotelian idea of "music" as the practical, audible noises made by poets and musicians alike. In medieval terms, the Platonic approach locates music in the quadrivium, as a branch of mathematics, while the Aristotelian locates it with the practical arts of the trivium, grammar, rhetoric, and logic. A third approach, taken by neo-Platonists like Ficino, combines elements of the other two: they accept Plato's goal of attaining the universal harmony by attuning one's soul, but shift the agency for this tuning from the individual to music itself. Through the "magic" of music "one may simultaneously lose control of oneself and be put into harmony by the heavenly power of earthly music" (45).

  3. Renaissance scholars will be interested in Berley's treatment of Sidney's Apology for Poetry, which he locates in the Aristotelian tradition. The Apology is "a remarkably compelling and influential defense of the rhetorical powers of the 'right poet'" (60). For Berley, this represents a limitation, though he notes that Sidney "also affirms a link between earthly poetry and heavenly music throughout his Apology" (51). This link is more in the nature of an unresolved inconsistency, however, and Sidney clearly distinguishes between divine poets like David and Solomon, who had a unique and no longer attainable status as prophets, and "right poets" like himself. Berley's reading is accurate as far as it goes, but as Anne Lake Prescott has pointed out, the Apology simultaneously undermines this distinction, especially in terms of the figure of David, who in the Renaissance was perceived as both prophet and poet, and who was a crucial model for Sidney (most notably in his Psalms, which Berley curiously omits from consideration).

  4. The centre of Berley's Shakespeare chapter is an insightful reading of The Merchant of Venice, focusing on Lorenzo's famous set-speech on music in 5.1. As so often with such speeches, critics have tended to read it out of context as representative of either the play as a whole or of Shakespeare's own beliefs (part of the now discredited "Elizabethan World Picture" that included also Ulysses' speech on degree in Act 1 of Troilus and Cressida). Berley argues persuasively that Jessica's response to Lorenzo ("I am never merry when I hear sweet music") is as important as his speech, and that "this antithesis -- between Platonic speculation [implicit in Jessica's response: without inner harmony, music is sour] and Neoplatonic magic [Lorenzo's notion of the "sweet power of music"] -- is a central theme in the play" (109). Berley's argument that Shakespeare is not espousing a particular philosophy, but rather exploiting alternative philosophies for dramatic purposes, adds another dimension to the important dynamics of this play -- between Jewish and Christian or male and female, for instance. Given this productive approach to the dramatic play of ideas in Merchant, Berley's attempt to attribute a generalized musical philosophy to Shakespeare in the rest of the chapter seems questionable. Although Berley acknowledges the problem that Shakespeare never writes "about himself directly," he suggests that his views can nevertheless be determined by carefully "aligning him…with certain of his many characters" (137). Yet Berley's argument about Merchant begins with his assertion, against many earlier critics, that "Lorenzo speaks for neither Shakespeare nor the play" (86). Readers may well feel that this applies equally well to Hamlet, Prospero, and the speaker of the Sonnets, whose words lead Berley to the dubious conclusion that "Shakespeare appears to have felt very confident about his status as a singer, divinely inspired by a God who tuned his musical cosmos" (139).

  5. Milton is a crucial figure for Berley's book, whom he argues saw his poetic task as "nothing less than to turn the trope of song into a literal truth: to hear and rejoin 'the heavenly tune'" (141). The problem for Milton, as Berley sees it, is that his Calvinist sense of "earthy grossness" (149) rendered any such task hopeless, since it was beyond man's ability to join the heavenly choir on his own merits. In early poems like "At a Solemn Music," "L'Allegro," and "Il Penseroso" as well as in Paradise Lost, Berley argues, Milton "celebrates the music of the heavenly spheres, but he emphasizes the human inability of his 'gross unpurged ear' to hear it" (154), an inability expressed grammatically, in careful conditional phrases that check Milton's presumptuous aspirations. This argument is a version of Stanley Fish's, in Surprised by Sin, that Milton builds into Paradise Lost a reading process whereby we are lured into a tempting but sinful proposition (such as the prospect of joining the heavenly song) only to be reminded that such a proposition is impossible in our fallen condition. Yet Milton may be more presumptuous than Berley allows. As Regina Schwartz has shown, for instance, the shifting pronouns at the end of the angelic song in Book 3 -- "thy Name/ shall be the copious matter of my song" followed by "Thus they in heaven" -- suggest the possibility that "Milton's song has merged with the angelic choir rather than replaced it" (83).

  6. Subsequent chapters offer insights on Romantic and Modern poets. Wordsworth's The Prelude initiates the Romantic response to Milton, attempting to define a secular version of Milton's heavenly song. Berley follows the "aspiration to song" through Shelley's "To a Sky-Lark" and Keats's major odes and then devotes a long chapter to the modern adaptation of this aspiration in Yeats and Stevens. Stevens is perhaps the most congenial poet to Berley's larger argument, since he himself articulated a philosophy of sorts in the essays of The Necessary Angel. Berley argues that Stevens is "the first poet to insist that poetry must exceed music" and appears to have more sympathy for Stevens' conception of "speculative music" than anyone else's, early or modern (311).

  7. The breadth of Berley's book is admirably ambitious, but it results in two problems that threaten to overshadow its many important insights. First, such an abundance of authors and works is offered that the reader is often hurried through poems that are more complex and ambiguous than Berley's larger argument will allow. The treatment of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn", for example, takes no account of the long critical debate about the ambiguity of the poem's final lines, an ambiguity that may reflect Keats's own ambivalence about the precise status of the urn's "cold pastoral." Second, although Berley rightly demonstrates that the trope of the poet as singer has consistently appealed to poets from Shakespeare to Stevens, his attempt to chart a continuous philosophical development that reaches its pinnacle in Stevens' notion of the "supreme fiction" seems forced and often anachronistic. Qualifications aside, however, After the Heavenly Tune is full of suggestive readings of major poems and will be welcomed by anyone interested in this important and heretofore neglected topic.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)