The Poem

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“Stanzas for Music” is a brief lyric poem of sixteen lines, one of five that Byron wrote with the same title. As its title suggests, it was written to be set to music, and its musical qualities have bearing upon its theme and structure.

The poem is written as an address by the poet to a person with whom he is infatuated. It is couched in feminine references and is most conveniently discussed as a love lyric to a woman, but it is important to note that the gender of the addressee is never specified. For that matter, the word love is never mentioned. The tone of the poem is one of adoration, and the poet carefully chooses words and images to evoke emotions that transcend feelings of simple affection. In the first two lines, for example, he creates a persona for his addressee by comparing her favorably to “Beauty’s daughters.” By alluding that she is more enchanting than the children of a personified ideal, he endows her with a godlike presence. He reinforces this apotheosis through the application of synecdoche, the use of a part or element to suggest a whole. The only aspect of the addressee that the poet describes is her voice, and just as readers are able to infer the totality of the Old Testament God from his manifestation as a disembodied voice, so can they envision a being of divine nature from the phenomena for which the woman’s voice alone is responsible.

The poet conveys the majesty of his subject by comparing her effect upon him to the effect of a supernatural influence upon the ocean. He attributes “magic” to her and imagines that she has the power to leave the ocean “charmed” to stillness. Throughout the poem, the poet treats these powerful subjective impressions as objective reality: The woman has “magic” because her effect upon him can be understood in terms of natural phenomena that are beyond ordinary human control.

The poem is rich with sensory images. The poet begins by comparing the woman’s “sweet voice” to “music on the waters” whose sound causes the waves to pause. In the absence of their sound and movement, a striking visual tableau presents itself: an ocean whose waves “lie still and gleaming” as “the midnight moon is weaving/ Her bright chain o’er the deep.” The sensuality of these images notwithstanding, their impact on the poet transcends the physical and achieves a spiritual quality. As he tells the woman, “the spirit bows before thee,/ To listen and adore thee.” Ultimately, the poem is a paean to a person who inspires near-religious veneration in the poet.

Forms and Devices

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In “Stanzas for Music,” there is a fundamental tension between form and content that contributes to the poem’s effect. The poem was written to be set to music; this fact is evident from its songlike structure. Its sixteen lines are broken into two stanzas of eight lines apiece. Each stanza is thus composed of a quatrain followed by two rhyming couplets, not unlike a song in which each verse is followed by a chorus. The poem is composed with musical precision and balance: It begins with a subjective observation, supports this observation with objective description, and concludes with an image that synthesizes its subjective and objective elements. The theme of the poem, however, refuses to be contained within such a tidy structure.

The poet hopes to elaborate the overwhelming emotion his subject excites in him through a series of similes that evoke the awe and splendor of the natural world: “like music on the waters/ Is thy sweet...

(This entire section contains 476 words.)

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voice to me:/ When, as if its sound were causing/ The charmed ocean’s pausing.” Similes, though, are at best only approximations. They suggest equivalence through powerful comparisons, but they do not fully capture the uniqueness of what is being compared. There is an ineffable quality to the woman that resists definition, and it is this quality which earns the poet’s adoration.

The tension between the poem’s form and content is mirrored in Byron’s use of nature imagery. Like other poets of the Romantic era, Byron often described his characters and their endeavors in terms of the natural world in order to elevate and exalt them. The Romantics saw the natural world as a secular manifestation of the divine that superseded theological interpretations of godliness. A good example can be found in the third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, in which Byron uses the inexorable and immutable ocean to symbolize the tide of time upon which human destiny is borne. When Byron uses natural phenomena to describe the influence of the woman addressed in “Stanzas for Music,” he transfers their divinity to her. Indeed, he suggests that she transcends their divinity because she can arrest them in their course. By implying that her voice can quell the winds and still the waves, he attributes awesome power to her. Nevertheless, her command over nature is depicted as gentle, rather than violent. In response to her voice, “the lull’d winds seem dreaming” and the swelling ocean’s “breast is gently heaving,/ As an infant’s asleep.” Her effect upon nature at its most volatile is that of a mother to a sleeping newborn child. Hence the poet’s adoration of her, through “a full but soft emotion” that differs from simple worship or respect for nature’s majesty. Although powerful forces underlie the poem’s imagery, its mood is one of tranquility and serenity.