Variations on a Theme: Musicality and Mutability in Wordsworth and Christina Rossetti

Variations on a Theme:
Musicality and Mutability in Wordsworth and Christina Rossetti


By William Wordsworth

From low to high doth dissolution climb,
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes, whose concord shall not fail;
A musical but melancholy chime,
Which they can hear who meddle not with crime,
Nor avarice, nor over-anxious care.
Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt like frosty rime,
That in the morning whitened hill and plain
And is no more; drop like the tower sublime
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
His crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of Time.

By Christina Rossetti

She sat and sang alway
By the green margin of a stream,
Watching the fishes leap and play
Beneath the glad sunbeam.

I sat and wept alway
Beneath the moon’s most shadowy beam,
Watching the blossoms of the May
Weep leaves into the stream.

I wept for memory;
She sang for hope that is so fair:
My tears were swallowed by the sea;
Her songs died on the air.

Given the developments of the past century in informal poetry with its emphasis on typography, it is sometimes easy to forget that the origins of poetry, at least in Ancient Greece, were not only oral, but also choral; they were musical. This was not so much the case in the 19th century, when Romantic developments in the theory and practice of both poetry and music went hand in hand. These developments were revolutionary in the sense that they were antithetical reactions, in literature, to Enlightenment thought and industrialization and, in music, to the formal rigidity of Classicism. The 18th century had kindled an intellectual fascination with orality, an example of which is the controversy of James Macpherson’s Ossian poems; this fascination laid the cultural groundwork for Worsdworth’s and Coleridge’s poetic agenda, as is expressed in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth characterizes the poet as “singing a song in which all human beings join with him,” and further maintains that his poetry is revolutionary in its attempt to use “language really spoken by men.” Both in the broader historical milieu and in these quotations from Wordsworth’s Preface there is an observable intersection of cultural change, poetics, and musicality in the 19th century. Musical Romanticism developed more fluidly into 20th century Modernism than literary Romanticism, which developed into the Victorian period before evolving into Modernism. In a sense, the Victorian literary period interrupted the correspondence between and mutual development of music and poetry in the 19th century. Because of this, a comparison of the different ways Romantic and Victorian poets use musical tropes in their poetry is a particularly suitable study for examining how Victorians conceived of mutability and immutability in the aftermath of their Romantic predecessors. This short essay will perform a close reading first of William Wordsworth’s sonnet Mutability, whose title and significant use of musical metaphors make it an apt choice for this study, and then one of Christina Rossetti’s Songs, which is also an appropriate choice for the same reasons as Wordsworth’s poem.

William Wordsworth’s sonnet, Mutability, articulates the paradox of poetry as a living, changing eternality. From the static truth of each individual word, to the movement of each line, to the pulsing totality of its sonnet form, the poem embodies the organic tension that animates and perpetuates poetry as an aesthetic signification.  Wordsworth crafts the technical elements of the sonnet, such as its meter, rhyme scheme, and diction, in such a way to reify its imagery and thematic elements.

The meter in Mutability reflects the axiom in the middle of the sonnet’s second quatrain that “Truth fails not” (line 7). The poem does not fail in its adherence to iambic pentameter. Maintaining metrical “concord” (3), anapests are substituted for iambic feet only in three instances of the second and last line of the sestet: “And is no more; drop like the tower sublime” (10) and “Or the unimaginable touch of Time” (14 bold added to indicate stress). This metrical constancy gives the poem a metronomic rhythm like that underlying a scale of music. It underscores a certain immutability specific to poetry that finds its way meritoriously into the poetic canon.

The “outward form” (7) of a sonnet arguably is its fourteen-line rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme of Mutability “melts” (8) away in its sestet. The two Petrarchan quatrains introduce a traditional ABBA, ACCA rhyme scheme. The sestet, however, dissolves into a less-ordered DAC, DCA. Despite this dissolution of rhyme, Wordsworth’s sonnet begins and ends with an A rhyme, “climb” (1) and “Time” (14), like a scale of music that begins and ends with the same note.

The poem’s constancy of meter contrasted with the melting effect of its rhyme scheme in the sestet echoes formally the turn of the poem that occurs in the crease between the second quatrain and the sestet: “Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear / The longest date do melt like frosty rime” (7-8). Although the “outward form” of the sonnet—its rhyme scheme—begins to dissolve, the sonnet’s “Truth” as represented in its rigid iambic pentameter “fails not” until it faces “the unimaginable touch of Time” (14) at which point anapests replace two of the five iambs; the formal properties of Mutability embody its thematic elements.

The use of a musical trope in the sonnet’s first quatrain picks up the feeling of a metronome’s beat, initially effected by the poem’s steady meter:

“From low to high doth dissolution climb,
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes, whose concord shall not fail:
A musical but melancholy chime.” (1-4 emphasis added)

In this quatrain, mutability is likened to movement up and down on a scale of music. The emphasis is upon the musical equality with which “dissolution” (1) both “climb[s]” and “sink[s]” (2). The quatrain’s argument is that change, like a scale of music, finds its inherent worth in its capacity for motion and life; change, regardless of that which it modulates from, ought to be valued, for it is indicative of life in an object.

The next quatrain, however, strikes a dissonant note, which turns the sonnet’s quatrains into its sestet. Change is no longer glorified but disparaged with the introduction of the image of a matutinal frost melting away at mid-day:

“Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt like frosty rime,
That in the morning whitened hill and plain
And is no more.” (5-8)

Thus, Wordsworth’s use of imagery parallels his employment of a contrasting meter and rhyme scheme to enhance the tension between the value of permanence and transience in poetry.

The musical, then seasonal images of the first nine lines, which respectively represent the value of a living change and a lasting permanence, give way to a third image which synthesizes elements of the previous two. This last image is of a crumbling, yet regal tower that disintegrates with the force of a shout:

[Truth’s outward forms]…“drop like the tower sublime
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
His crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of Time.”

We see in these five lines a “tower sublime / Of yesterday” (10-11), “a crown of weeds” (12), and a royalty of a bygone day; royalty, towers, and crowns are antique symbols of permanence. However, the enjambment between a “tower sublime” and “Of yesterday” punctuates the obsoleteness of the tower’s sublimity. Furthermore, these symbols of permanence are wrecked by a simple “shout” and the “unimaginable touch of Time.”

Even though Wordsworth ends the poem with an image of the mutable toppling the symbolic eternal, the poem still stands before the reader’s eyes in the timeless form of a sonnet—a witness to the type of poetic permanence which, “bears the longest date” and yet “fails not.” Wordsworth uses the formal elements of the sonnet to echo the tension between the roles played in poetry by unfailing Truth and the oft-opposing vivacity of its protean forms. Mutability is a poem that balances both the melting or crumbling of formal elements, which often lends life to a poem, and the adherence to them, which imbues the poem with permanence by situating it within a timeless poetic tradition; Wordsworth Mutability is an attempt to create a sonnet that harmoniously strikes a balance between the vivid realities of the transient present and the immutable poetic traditions which have immortalized past poets.

Christina Rossetti’s poem, Song, expresses a traumatic division in the person of the speaker. This rift in voice is directly connected to music, aesthetic expression, and the natural environment in which it is constructed. Christina Rossetti artfully effects and splices the two personae of the poem’s speaker by working the thematic division of voice into the formal structure of the poem—into the poem’s meter, rhyme scheme, and stanza structure.

Song begins with the indication of an omniscient speaker, remarking upon a female subject: “She sat and sang alway” (1). The poem’s title and first line signal the importance of song, vocally expressed music, for the poem; they also, however, accent the fact that the poem has circumscribed only a small area of musicality for itself. The abstract description of the female in first line becomes more concrete in the second. The reader or listener is given the setting for the woman’s perpetual sitting and singing. Where does she perform this static act of aesthetic expression? “By the green margin of a stream” (2). The setting for her song is one of Nature: the green bank of a stream. The word “margin,” however, is significant in several ways. Etymologically, it comes from the Latin word margo, marginis, f, meaning “an edge or brink,” but this Latin word is simply a nominalized form of the verb mergo, mergere, mersi, mersum, which means “to immerse” or “to overwhelm.” Thus, it only comes to mean an edge or boundary by being a place where immersion does not occur; it means the opposite of its etymological derivative. Boundaries come into being from the lack of them. This aspect of the word will be more significant in the later stages of this analysis. However, the word also obviously denotes the margin of the page, and thereby brings the printed world of the poem uncannily close to the verdant, natural world of the woman singing; it forces a recollection of the origins of poetry, but does so in a way that creates a dichotomous boundary and division.

The second half of the first stanza adds further physicality to the scene of our singing woman. She perpetually voices her song, “watching the fishes leap and play / Beneath the glad sunbeam” (3-4). These two lines complete the setting for the poem’s female subject; another one of her activities is revealed and a further description of her location is given. She is not only sitting and singing, but she is also “watching” (3), and she does so in what seems an always sunny and “glad” (4) day. It is worth noting, though, that her activities are passive and static and that the only dynamic movement in the stanza comes from the “fishes [who] leap and play” (3). Even in this first stanza, with its Romantic setting, there is already a rift, a marginal boundary, a sense that the female subject can only sit and watch and sing descriptively of the living world moving around her, a world from which she is marginalized.

The real division and rift occurs in the second stanza when the first person voice is introduced, derailing the first stanza’s indication of an omniscient speaker: “I sat and wept alway” (5). The subsequent parallel construction of the stanza further emphasizes this dichotomous division between the female of the first stanza and the first person speaker of the poem. This emphasis on the dichotomous division between the speaker and the woman becomes clear when one realizes how natural it is to rhetorically turn the first foot of the second stanza into a spondee; the first foot of the first stanza is more naturally read as an iamb. At the same time however, the parallel construction also aligns and identifies the first person speaker with the female that the speaker of the poem refers to in the first stanza. The temporal differences between the two figures, each of which is imbued with a perpetuity by the double use of the word “alway” (1, 5), is evidence of this alignment and identification. The first person speaker sits and weeps “beneath the moon’s most shadowy beam” (6), just as the woman in the first stanza sits and sings “beneath the glad sunbeam” (4). If the “alway” of each stanza means that each figure performs their respective activities in an eternal state of day and night respectively, then the first person speaker would have no ability to know or comment upon the woman of the first stanza. The unlikeliness of this interpretation, however, makes it more likely that the 1st person speaker is referring to her own diurnal and nocturnal activities.

The speaker’s replacement of singing with weeping coincides with the replacement of day with night, the “glad sunbeam” (4) with the “moon’s most shadowy beam” (6). Furthermore, this weeping is a weeping for “memory” (9); it is a weeping for “blossoms of May” (7), a mourning over the mutability and transience of the Romantic singing of the first stanza. The division of the speaker’s self into two dichotomous personae, the daytime figure of song and the nighttime figure of weeping, does not occur without prioritization. The privilege of authorship and speakership is given to the 1st person weeping voice, whereas the singing woman is repressed not only into the third person, but also into the past, the Romantic past of May with its blossoms. She is just a memory to be wept over. Moreover, as the third stanza makes clear, the activity of the woman in first stanza is less substantial than the activity of the speaker: the woman of the first stanza “sang for hope so fair” (10), but “her songs died on the air” (12), whereas the speaker “wept for memory” and her “tears where swallowed by the sea” (11). The ethereal, airy demise of the hope songs is immaterial and is an actual death. The salty tears’ ingested return to the salty sea is a communion with nature and not simply a dissipation. The first person speaker has a stronger and more substantial connection with the very nature that she mourns. This connection is also made clear in the second stanza, not only because is weeping a dynamic action, unlike the airy and marginalized song of the sunbeam woman, but also because nature’s action is actually the same as the speaker’s: “I sat and wept…watching the blossom’s of May / Weep leaves into the stream” (5,7,8). Thus far, the alignment and identification of the woman in the first stanza with the speaker of the poem has only been tenuously substantiated. The greatest evidence for this connection is in the very bones of the poem itself—the harmonious structure of its stanzas and rhyme scheme.

The poem is three stanzas long, three quatrains. Each quatrain is composed of a line of trimeter, followed by two lines of tetrameter, and concluded with a line of trimeter. The poem’s ABAB rhyme scheme interlaces and balances out this crescendo/decrescendo stanza structure. The crucial characteristic of the poem, however, is how this structure maps onto the thematic development. The full diagram of the poems rhyme scheme is as follows, (first stanza) ABAB, (second stanza) ABAB, and (third stanza) CDCD. The fact that the second stanza, even though it introduces the first person voice and thereby creates a seeming division between the woman and the speaker, nevertheless maintains the exact same rhymes as the first stanza suggests that the two figures are one and the same. Furthermore, the final stanza capitalizes on the interweave of the CDCD rhyme scheme with the trimeter/tetrameter/trimeter stanza structure, effectively interweaving and unifying the two figures together into a single stanza that is a microcosm of the first two divided stanzas.

Both the Wordsworth and Rossetti poems have music and mutability at their core. Wordsworth uses musical idioms and metaphors in conjunction with the steadiness of his sonnet’s meter to revalue and revivify the destructive and erosive qualities of change. He complicates the issue, however, with his introduction of Truth having an existence separate from its “outward forms,” which are liable to melt, to crumble, and are mutable. This complication isn’t unexpected though, considering the musical terms he does use (“tone,” “scale,” “notes,” “concord”) are, in general, part of a theoretical musical discourse and not the “real [musical] language of men.” Rossetti, on the other hand, refrains from using music as a metaphor and simply allows it to organically exist as an activity of the woman in the poem. In fact, in narrowing the poems use of music to song, an oral and common musical expression, she actually accomplishes what Wordsworth theoretically claimed to attempt. Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, in her essay on Christina Rossetti for the Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites, notes this as well as her use of anaphora, which can be seen in Song:

“With simple diction of primarily one- and two-syllable words one might come across in everyday conversation or children’s stories, and a dreamy rhythm whose music is enhanced by anaphora (repetition of beginning phrases) and alliteration, the poem reads like a soporifi c spell that involves its reader in the experience it describes.” (170)

Although Rossetti doesn’t explicitly use music metaphorically, she does, however, make an explicit connection between the musicality of the sunbeam woman and a Romantic Nature setting. This connection is a subtle and complex critique of Romanticism; although the speaker of the poem is most easily identifiable as the figure in the second stanza, the weeping woman who mourns the loss of May’s blossoms, this first person speaker is identified and aligned by the poem’s very structure with the “other” woman, the singing woman. Diane D’Amico, in her essay on the relationship between Rossetti and Sara Teasdale, provides a fascinating quote from Teasdale about Rossetti, which both lauds and critiques Rossetti for the music of her poetry:

“Teasdale recognized the significance of Rossetti’s religious faith, she viewed her primarily as a ‘singularly self-sufficing’ woman dedicated to art: ‘In the loneliness of her own arrogant heart she made a shifting and exquisite music. . . . Her poems on love and death are finer, even, than her devotional poems.’” (402)

The rift in the speaker’s personhood in Rossetti’s poem, Song, is symptomatic of the torn historical position out of which Victorian writers arose. The acute and painful awareness of a past still part of oneself, as expressed by the daytime and nighttime figures in the poem, describes the character of the Victorian poet, many of whom had personal connections with their Romantic predecessors. Juxtaposing the musical elements of Rossetti’s poem with those of Wordsworth’s sonnet clarifies their respective approaches to the problem of mutability and immutability. Wordsworth uses theoretical musical terms and metaphors to further separate what is real or “True” from that which is changeable or destructible. Rossetti manages to maintain and acknowledge the legitimacy of this division in the torn and rifted person of her poem’s speaker; she artfully accomplishes this not only in the thematic development of the poem’s figures, but also in the formal development of the poem’s structure.

Works Cited


D’Amico, Diane. “Saintly Singer or Tanagra Figurine? Christina Rossetti Through the Eyes of Katharine Tynanand Sara Teasdale.” Victorian Poetry 32. ¾ (Winter 1994). West Virginia UP: 387-407.

Prettejohn, Elizabeth, comp. The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.

Robson, Catherine, Carol T. Christ, and Stephen Greenblatt. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.


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