Diffuse muses – Fiona Sampson on writers and music or art

Fiona Sampson

Filed under: Non-fiction

Fiona Sampson considers writers who are also artists or musicians

For a long time, I pretended my first life as a violinist had never happened. Some of this was old-fashioned pride: I got tired of the assumption that I was a failed, or at best an eternal student, fiddle-player. I also felt a kind of guilt: if I was starting so late as a writer, didn’t that make me an autodidact, someone whose ear and knowledge might be uninformed – or unformed? I’d come from a profession with a rigorous apprenticeship, after all; those hours of daily practice, that punishing round of rehearsal and performance, seemed so very specific compared to the private disciplines of reading and writing.

However, I didn’t feel guilty about abandoning music. That’s because I didn’t imagine I was. To me it seemed obvious that what I was doing now was simply a continuation of the musical life by other means. Poets often talk about writing as ‘taking dictation’, and I’ve come to understand that what’s meant by that is something like ‘writing by ear’. Yes, of course. But a sense of rhythm, phrasing and pacing the text, is fundamental to prose too. In fact, it’s an organisational principle, structuring exposition as well as generating the mnemonic patterns of verse.

It’s no surprise that song is somewhere near the heart of the special relationship poets, in particular, have with music. I suspect that’s because it not only reminds us that music and poetry are similar, but shows them working to the same end. I used to have the typical instrumentalist’s snobbery: it seemed to me that music with words was applied, rather than pure. But in those days I misunderstood something fundamental about the sound of poetic form. The sound-patterning of epics, from the Iliad to theKalevala for example, extends to their performance as song. The tradition of poet-composers thus embraces figures like Homer, the psalmist King David or Welsh Dark Ages bardd Taliesin. But that same sense of inseparable identity between words and music can also be found elsewhere. The madrigal tradition includes songs, like John Dowland’s ‘Weep You No More Sad Fountains’, which have entered the canon as both music and lyric. It was also among the earliest Western forms to be hospitable to through-composition: ‘madrigalism’, a kind of reverse onomatopoeia, tries to ‘act out’ individual words with music.

This Renaissance form illustrates the benefits of an education which brought one art as readily to hand as another for the talented aristocrat. But some polymaths are clearly more the product of personal creative drive than of circumstance. Anthony Burgess – whose work included symphonies and guitar quartets – may not have been as major a composer, or poet, as he was novelist, but music and language do come together in his fine verse translations of libretti (for Carmen and Der Rosenkavalier). Great poet-composers are as various, and as varied in their artistic intentions, as Hildegard of Bingen, Robert Burns, Rabindranath Tagore and, in England, Ivor Gurney.

Gurney, a Gloucester boy trained under Stanford and Vaughan Williams, was in many ways a product of the Three Choirs Festival. We might see this English cultural revival as an oddly self-conscious project, and it was just one of the ways in which the limits and possibilities of artistic activity were being explored at the time. It was, after all, the era of Modernism, in which genres were themselves being questioned and changed as musicians and artists across Europe reinvented national identities, for example, by bringing together traditionally divided vernacular and high art forms. Gurney’s own route from music to poetry may have been a personal quest for ‘beauty and a very good sense of form, and no swank’, as he wrote to Edmund Blunden in 1922, but in those opening decades of the twentieth century several writers worked across forms. Wyndham Lewis was also a painter, and Paul Klee also a poet. Had Isaac Rosenberg survived World War I, he might have become better known as a painter than a poet; but David Jones is renowned as both poet and artist, and Jean Cocteau, more wide-rangingly still, as writer, artist and film-maker.

It was a period of creative ferment; and in figures like Sven Berlin, Joyce Cary or Mervyn Peake we glimpse the shadow side of that ferment, a kind of chaos of the creative psyche. Gurney himself spent the last fifteen years of his life in a Dartford psychiatric hospital. Breaking the boundaries between art forms may be a risky, sometimes even a revolutionary, act. I suspect it’s no coincidence that, half a century before Modernism, writer-artists like John Ruskin, William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were equally profoundly implicated in radical cultural reappraisal. Perhaps writers who have the stamina and the formal imagination also to develop in other forms are more wedded to the principle of artistic exploration, whether by temperament or intention, than the rest of us. Or perhaps they are simply more courageous.

Related RSL Fellows

Fiona Sampson 2010