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9 - Théodore de Banville and the Mysteries of Song

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 September 2013

David Evans
Affiliation:
University of St Andrews
Phyllis Weliver
Affiliation:
Associate Professor of English, Saint Louis University
Katharine Ellis
Affiliation:
Stanley Hugh Badock Professor of Music at the University of Bristol
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Summary

In his collected essays (1967–2004), Steven Paul Scher complains of the ‘metaphorical impressionism’ of literary scholars who happily apply musical terms to works of literature in all manner of incoherent and inappropriate ways. He warns against ‘vague analogies and all too loose parallels formulated in the deceptive guise of imprecise metaphors’, and argues that ‘the terminological inexactitude as reflected in traditional usages should not be tolerated’. Examples of this ‘terminological chaos’ abound in literary criticism, such as the various different uses of the term ‘counterpoint’, the application of the terms ‘harmonious’ or ‘melodic’ to a wide variety of different verbal effects, or the restriction of terms such as ‘musical’ or ‘rhythmic’ to regular, metrical or repetitive structures, to the exclusion of irregular forms. For Scher, this risks becoming ‘a curse that will simply remain with us, forever impeding honest efforts to evolve a clearly defined set of critical terms designed to eliminate the distorting vagueness’. ‘Ideally’, he argues, ‘the adjective “musical” should be left to poets.’

Yet it may be thanks to the quasi-obsessive use of musical terms by poets themselves that their readers feel compelled to employ a similar lexicon in response to their texts. Indeed, an imprecise musical vocabulary seems particularly well suited to discussing those equally imprecise, non-semantic aesthetic effects which poetry, as countless generations of writers, readers and critics would have it, is supposed to arouse.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2013

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