Inspirazione! : The Singer and the Poet

The celebrated poets from Homer to whoever first incanted the Epic of Gilgamesh were not writers in the modern sense, putting words on a page. They were performers of stories and poems, most often with music. They were, in simple fact, singers. Virgil’s Aeneid, written in the first century B.C., begins Arma virumque cano: “Of arms and the man I sing.” Since those ancient times, poets of all kinds have equated song with story and singer with poet.

Poets celebrate the ability of the singer to affect others’ emotions perpetually, as William Wordsworth put it in “Solitary Reaper”: “The music in my heart I
bore, / Long after it was heard no more.” They acknowledge the power of song to affect social and political change, as in this excerpt from “Ode” by Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy:

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of
dreams . . .
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.

And they speak of the power of song to inspire, as in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Speaking of the “stately pleasure-dome,” the poet recalls a vision of a damsel with a dulcimer:

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould
win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!

Yes, many times and in many ways, the beauty and power of the singers are celebrated in poetry. The Epic of Gilgamesh is said to be the oldest written poem but contains no direct references to a singer in the text. The power of the sacred singer, the incantation priest, is referred to, however, in another hymn of this period, attributed to Ashurbanipal: “The incantation priests bow down under thee in order to cause signs of evil to pass away.”

Most notable in the Middle Ages were the poet/singers found in the Arabic and Byzantine music of eighth-century Spain. These artists included a singer who was said to be so repellent in appearance that he sang veiled and also the singer and voice teacher Jamila, a woman who learned the famous foreign melodies but wrote her own poems and even opened her own school of singing.

Dante’s Divine Comedy of the fourteenth century includes many, many references to singers. For example, in his “Dream of the Siren”:

When in this wise she had her speech unloosed,
She ‘gan to sing so, that with difficulty
Could I have turned my thoughts away from her.
“I am,” she sang, “I am the Siren sweet
Who mariners amid the main unman,
So full am I of pleasantness to hear.”

And in “Virgil’s Departure. Beatrice. Dante’s Shame.”:

But when I heard in their sweet melodies
Compassion for me, more than had they said,
“O wherefore, lady, dost thou thus upbraid him?”
The ice, that was about my heart congealed,
To air and water changed, and in my anguish
Through mouth and eyes came gushing from my breast.

While opera was getting off the ground in seventeenth-century Italy, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a nun poet and dramatist in Mexico. In “Letras para cantar” (“Lyrics for Singing”) she wrote of the “two-fold weapons” of beauty and singing:

Narcisa’s sweet voice gently pierced the air . . .
The blending is so complete
That no one can ever be certain
Whether beauty is in the voice
Or harmony in the eyes.

Goethe wrote his 1795 poem “The Minstrel” about an old singer who speaks of singing as its own reward:

I sing, like birds of blithesome note,
That in the branches dwell;
The song that rises from the throat
Repays the minstrel well.

About the same time, Sir Walter Scott came out with his long narrative poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

The old man raised his face, and smiled;
And lighten’d up his faded eye,
With all a poet’s ecstasy!
In varying cadence, soft or strong,
He swept the sounding chords along:
The present scene, the future lot,
His toils, his wants, were all forgot:
Cold diffidence, and age’s frost,
In the full tide of song were lost;
Each blank in faithless memory void,
The poet’s glowing thought supplied;
And, while his harp responsive rung,
‘Twas thus the LATEST MINSTREL sung.

Perhaps the greatest example of a poet in the nineteenth century who embodies a love of song and singer is the man who said that were it not for opera, he would not have written Leaves of Grass: Walt Whitman. Following is an excerpt from one of his singer-related poems from that collection, “The Singer in the Prison”:

A hush and pause fell down, a wondrous minute,
With deep, half-stifled sobs and sound of bad men bow’d, and moved to weeping . . .
—A wondrous minute then—But after, in the solitary night, to many, many there,
Years after—even in the hour of death—the sad refrain—the tune, the voice, the words,
Resumed—the large, calm Lady walks the narrow aisle,
The wailing melody again—the singer in the prison sings. . .

Here is my favorite of Whitman’s, a simple and direct appreciation that a singer is worthy subject for a poem, “To a Certain Cantatrice”:

Here, take this gift!
I was reserving it for some hero, speaker, or general,
One who should serve the good old cause, the great idea, the progress and freedom of the race,
Some brave confronter of despots, some daring rebel;
But I see that what I was reserving belongs to you just as much as to any.

Finally, there are many wonderful poems for young singers, including William Blake’s “Piping Down the Valleys Wild” and Wordsworth’s previously mentioned “The Solitary Reaper.” Last, but not least, is a poem about a non-human singer whose story may cheer a discouraged singer of any age—British poet Jean Ingelow’s “The Singing Lesson”:

A nightingale made a mistake;
She sang a few notes out of tune;
Her heart was ready to break,
And she hid away from the moon.
She wrung her claws, poor thing,
But was far too proud to weep;
She tucked her head under her wing,
And pretended to be asleep.

A lark, arm-in-arm with a thrush,
Came sauntering up to the place;
The nightingale felt herself blush,
Though feathers hid her face;
She knew they had heard her song,
She felt them snicker and sneer;
She thought that life was too long,
And wished she could skip a year.

“O nightingale!” cooed a dove;
“O nightingale! What’s the use?

You bird of beauty and love,
Why behave like a goose?
Don’t skulk away from our sight,
Like a common contemptible fowl;
You bird of joy and delight,
Why behave like an owl?

“Only think of all you have done;
Only think of all you can do;
A false note is really fun
From such a bird as you!
Lift up your proud little crest,
Open your musical beak;
Other birds have to do their best,
You need only to speak!”

The nightingale shyly took
Her head from under her wing
And, giving the dove a look,
Straightway began to sing.
There was never a bird could pass;
The night was divinely calm;
And the people stood on the grass
To hear that wonderful psalm.

The nightingale did not care,
She only sang to the skies;
Her song ascended there,
And there she fixed her eyes.
The people that stood below
She knew but little bout;
And this tale has a moral, I know,
If you’ll try to find it out.

The relationship of poet to singer has changed over the years. But whatever performance practices dictate, when we sing, we become the poet. We must be on the inside of the mind who created those words—just as when we study music, we try to have some sense of why a composer chose to make a note high or quiet or syncopated.

The poem is not an accompaniment. The poem is the song. And, as singers, we speak for the poet. And quite often, happily, the poets speak for us.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at