The Eolian Harp

Ronald L. Ecker

The Eolian harp, a musical instrument designed to be played by the movement of wind upon its strings, is one of the most significant symbols ever to appear in the Romantic literature of England. The wind harp achieved its popularity in Romantic poetry largely because of its symbolic relationship with the forces of Nature. In a very general way, however, the symbol may be seen to encompass several salient characteristics of the Romantic temper.

A Neoclassicist might well view the literary approach of the Romantic much as Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) describes the sound of the Fairy's arrival in "Queen Mab" (1.52-4):

'Tis wilder than the unmeasured notes
Of that strange lyre whose strings
The genii of the breezes sweep.

Mystery, individuality, variety of form, and a "spontaneous overflow" of the feelings are indeed among those things fundamental to the Romantic spirit in its rebellion against the rigid formalities of classical tradition. Thus a general comparison can be easily drawn between this new expressive freedom in poetry and the protean music of an indiscriminate harp--music ranging from a discordant burst of Aeolus' "mad spleen" to a sensuous lay in which

Wild warblings from the Eolian lyre
Enchantment softly breathe, and tremblingly expire.
("Ode to Apollo")

In addition to broader implications, the harp symbol can also be applied to specific poetic themes. The problem of impermanence, for example, is a frequent concern in Romantic poetry. And of the transient aspects of life the Eolian harp, with the fleeting, ever-changing quality of its music, serves as an excellent symbol. In the poem "Mutability," Shelley asserts that we exist much as passing clouds--

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulatiojn like the last.
Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but mutability.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound
by Joseph Severn

This notion of mutability is utilized in similar fashion in "The Eolian Harp," a most significant early poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1854). Coleridge, however, is here particularly concerned with mutability in reference to the reflective workings of the mind. Listening to the music of the wind harp placed in the window, the poet is reminded of the desultory flow of thought, the aimless stream-of-consciousness, that so often occupies his mind in moments of tranquility:

Full many a thought uncalled and undetained,
And many idle flitting phantasies,
Traverse my indolent and passive brain,
As wild and various as the random gales
That swell and flutter on this subject lute!

These lines, written in 1795, point forward to the personel subjectivism that was to reach such heights in the great poetic works of the Romantic Movement. More importantly, however, this poem is a first instance in which the symbolism of the harp is applied to the reflective mind itself. Highly comparable to Coleridge's passage is one from Shelley's "Mont Blanc," composed over twenty years later:

My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things around.

Considering the English Romantic's assessment of the powers of Nature, it is hardly surprising that he should thus identify his own mind with a musical instrument so respondingly sentient to stirring winds. The Romantic appreciation of Nature received its finest expression, of course, in the poems of William Wordsworth (1770-1850), who sincerely felt that "A gracious spirit o'er this earth presides, / And o'er the heart of man," and who recognized

In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

It is with this same reverent attitude toward Nature that Coleridge, in "The Eolian Harp," asks his "unhallowed" question:

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic harps diversely framed,
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?

The influence of Neoplatonic philosophy is quite evident in this passage. Speaking symbolically in terms of harp and breeze, Coleridge's implication is that each being is but a single part of the world-soul or over-spirit that emanates from the One. It is interesting to note that Coleridge for the moment feels he has ventured too far, for he then retracts "these shapings of the unregenerate mind," and concludes the poem vowing to forsake "vain philsophy's aye-babbling spring."

However sincere Coleridge's recantation may seem, his remarkable poem clearly intimates the dynamic mysticism that was soon to pervade the imagery of Romantic nature poetry. For the Romantic poets were soon expounding their reactions to natural beauty in terms of transcendent experience, of ecstatic union with the Ultimate Reality. Expression of this supposedly ineffable union was, of course, a very formidable challenge to these poets, and one that they sought to meet by interfusing mystical imagery with that of music. And in this poetic interfusion the symbolism of the Eolian harp is almost invariably present.

According to Neoplatonism, the first step in reaching the spiritual ecstasy--that state in which the soul is momentarily liberated from the flesh and reunites with the One--is a kind of contemplative quiescence or forgetfulness of body. The idea is expressed quite simply by Wordsworth in "Tintern Abbey":

. . . we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul.

The Romantic, then, must contemplate the awesome grandeur of Nature with "the lyre of his soul Eolian tun'd," for that blessed state he seeks is

Unearthly minstrelsy! then only heard
When the soul seeks to hear; when all is hushed,
And the heart listens! ("Place of Retirement")

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth
by Benjamin Robert Haydon

In Book III of "The Prelude," Wordsworth describes how he began mounting to "community with highest truth" by beholding Nature with all his senses "obedient as a lute / That waits upon the touches of the wind." This same simile is used by Shelley in "Alastor," as he calls upon the great "Mother of this unfathomable world" to inspire him with truth, "to render up the tale / Of what we are":

. . . serenely now
And moveless, as a long-forgotten lyre
Suspended in the solitary dome
Of some mysterious and deserted fane,
I wait thy breath, Great Parent, that my strain
May modulate with murmurs of the air,
And motions of the forests and the sea,
And voice of living beings, and woven hymns
Of night and day, and the deep heart of man.

Quite similar to this rather lofty passage is the adjuration Shelley delivers in a small fragment called "Zephyrus the Awakener":

Come, thou awakener of the spirit's ocean,
Zephyr, whom to thy cloud or cave
No thought can trace! speed with thy gentle motion!

The spiritual enlightenment that Shelley seeks is momentarily attained in "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," in which he speaks of awareness of Ideal Beauty, of the highest Good, which comes to him in fleeting moments of inspiration:

Thy light alone--like mist o'er mountains driven,
Or music by the night wind sent,
Through strings of some still instrument,
Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life's unquiet dream.

In the poetry of John Keats (1795-1821), this use of Eolian symbolism in the expression of mystical ideas can be found in Book I of "Endymion." To achieve a "fellowship divine, / A fellowship with essence," in which we become "full alchemized, and free of space," it is first necessary, Endymion explains, to contemplate "the clear religion of heaven" (line 780). Then--

. . . the airy stress
Of music's kiss impregnates the free winds,
And with a sympathetic touch unbinds
Eolian magic from their lucid wombs:
Feel we these things?--that moment have we stepped
Into a sort of oneness, and our state
Is like a floating spirit's.

In this particular passage, the last three quoted lines provide a quite exact description, while Keats' musical imagery is actually wasted in its overdone and rather meaningless entanglement with sexuality that precedes. Overall the passage compares rather poorly to a basically similar one offered by yet another major Romantic, Lord Byron (1788-1824), in "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" (Canto III. XC):

Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt
In solitude, where we are least alone;
A truth, which through our being then doth melt,
And purifies from self: it is a tone,
The soul and source of music, which makes known
Eternal harmony.

If ever the English Romantic could be justly accused of having their heads too far in the clouds, it is in their passages concerned with mystical experience. Soaring to the heights of spiritual transmutation, the Romantics now and then seem to border more upon the ludicrous than the sublime--and of any such ludicrousness the harp symbol, when it is used, would have to share the blame. Perhaps it should be remembered, at least, that the Romantics were far more figurative than dogmatic in their Neoplatonic ecstasies. But because these poets were so honestly inspired by natural beauty, and quite sincerely felt that there were indeed "religious meanings" to be found in Nature's awesome grandeur, it was quite inevitable that the ideas of the mystic found such copious expression in their poetry. And among the "modifying colors of imagination" with which these ideas were presented, the symbolism of the Eolian harp proved particularly efficacious.

While being so effective as a symbol in Romantic poetry, however, the Eolian harp ultimately met with a significant criticism from the very men who had used it. For the harp being now symbolic of the poetic mind itself, the Romantics recognized it as being an actual self-contradiction on their part. As the Eolian harp is an object of complete passivity, and can produce music only by the random effects of external impulses, the symbol excludes what the Romantics themselves emphasized as the most vital phase of poetic inspiration: the imaginative process. Tracing the early development of his imagination in "The Prelude," Wordsworth recalls that

. . . An auxiliar light
Came from my mind, which on the setting sun
Bestowed new splendor.

It is this "auxiliar light" of imagination that is absent in the wind harp. The harp strings are tuned to render an automatic response, but they are powerless to effect what Coleridge, in "Biographia Literaria," calls "that synthetic and magical power" through which the creative artist "diffuses a tone and spirit of unity."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

It is with this new realization that Coleridge, in "Dejection: An Ode," employs the harp symbol quite differently thanhe has done in the past. The cause of Coleridge's dejection in this poem is his fear that his is losing his "shaping spirit of imagination"--and in this fear he sees that no inspiration can come from the influence of Nature alone.

O lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
Enveloping the earth.

Thus Coleridge in his present dejection, viewing Nature now "with how blank an eye," does not speak of the wind as the once-assured begetter of music, but only as

The dull sobbing draft that moans and rakes
Upon the strings of this Eolian lute,
Which better far were mute.

In his late prose work "A Defense of Poetry," Shelley also felt a need to reevaluate the symbol of the Eolian harp. Defining poetry in its general sense as "the expression of the imagination," Shelley asserts that man is indeed like the Eolian harp in that he receives many impressions to which he responds--

But there is a principle within the human being . . . which acts otherwise than in a lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds and the motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them. It is as if the lyre could accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them . . . even as the musician can accommodate his voice to the sound of the lyre.

In any final evaluation of the Eolian harp as symbol, however, it must be remembered that no analogy can be flawless. And even though the harp symbol in the end could not be seen to encompass the workings of the creative imagination, its kinship to the Romantic mind remains a striking one. For the Eolian harp is indeed a symbol of effusive Romantic suggestiveness; and though it ultimately faltered through over-emphasis, it was nonetheless deserving of its popularity in the poetry of the Romantic Movement in England.

Eolian harp

A contemporary Eolian harp from
Soundscapes International

Other Links on Poets:

Dark Night of the Soul

The Idea of Work in Frost's Poetry

Religious Crisis in Hopkins' Terrible Sonnets

Copyright 1963, 2004 by Ronald L. Ecker

English 497
Professor Tatham
University of Florida
December 2, 1963

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