Music of the Sensual

In his life-long work The Prelude, William Wordsworth makes use of musical language when describing the sublime, nature and most notably, the sensual. I have chosen to extract an excerpt from Book Four and to compare the 1805 and 1850 versions in terms of their depiction of music in the sensual experience of dancing:

1805 version (IV, 319-326):

…I had passed

The night in dancing, gaiety and mirth –

With din of instruments, and shuffling feet,

And glancing forms, and tapers glittering,

And unaimed prattle flying up and down

Spirits upon the stretch, and here and there

Slight shocks of young love-liking interspersed

That mounted up like joy into the head,

And tingled through the veins.

 

1850 version (IV, 311-319)

…I had passed

The night in dancing, gaiety, and mirth,

With din of instruments and shuffling feet,

And glancing forms, and tapers glittering,

And unaimed prattled flying up and down;

Spirits upon the stretch, and here and there

Slight shocks of young love-liking interspersed,

Whose transient pleasure mounted to the head,

And tingled through the veins.

Though side by side, the versions look nearly identical, I want to illuminate one key difference in the penultimate line of each of the versions, first articulated as “[shocks] that mounted up like joy into the head” and then changed to “whose transient pleasure mounted to the head.” In the 1805 version, Wordsworth intentionally chooses to convey the motion of the sublime reaching his head in an almost orgasmic sense, while the later version becomes less about his experience and more about the motion of the pleasure that he is sure to classify as transient, just like the impermanence of music of sexual feeling. I prefer the 1850 version because of its exposure of the fleeting nature of pleasure in terms of musicality and sex.

More broadly, the language of music is portrayed here, namely in the mention of the “din of instruments” and the sonic implications of “shuffling feet,” as well as in the “slight shocks of young love-liking interspersed.” Here again, Wordsworth combines the language of music with the language of the sublime, especially in the mention of spirits. Perhaps he was aiming to capture the sensual in the musical by suggesting the interconnectedness of the two and the role that the sublime in turn plays. What happens when the sexual is removed from the musical? Does it lose its sublimity? I argue that it does, in so far as the sexual and the sublime are synonymous in music, and the removal of one inevitably means the removal of the other, leaving music tinny and shallow, without its multidimensionality that the sublime creates within it.

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~ by apocalypse122112 on September 6, 2012.

One Response to “Music of the Sensual”

  1. I really like how this post ties together the idea of the sensual/sexual and the sublime; a very original idea. I know you like the 1850 version better, but isn’t the sexual pleasure of dancing to music significantly downplayed in the phrase “transient pleasure”–a fleeting pleasure that has no enduring substance, that seems irrelevant and short-lived? I also wonder why music needs to express itself in the body, not just in the mind, and in the form of dancing. I wonder if the dancing motif appears in other sections of the Prelude and whether it is always connected to music–now there’s an original idea for a good term paper!

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