Summary and Analysis
“Upon Julia’s Voice,” by the English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674), is a work that imitates the very sorts of beautiful sounds it praises. Alliteration, for instance, is strongly emphasized in the poem’s opening line (“So smooth, so sweet, so silv'ry is thy voice”) in ways that make the line itself obviously musical. Yet the alliteration is also combined with anaphora (repetition of the same word or words at the beginnings of phrases or clauses, as in “So . . . , so . . . , so”), and the words just quoted also display assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds (in this case the long “o” sound). In all these ways, then, the opening line of Herrick’s poem displays the kind of musical qualities it celebrates.
In line 2, however, the speaker shifts from employing language suggesting mellifluous sounds to alluding to the implied screams and shrieks of “Damned” souls in hell. If Julia’s voice seems almost heavenly, it seems so partly because it contrasts with the tormented squeals and yells of eternally tortured souls. Yet, to make matters even worse, the damned cannot even hear Julia’s voice. The speaker of the poem imagines the possibility of their hearing her, but only to deny that prospect. If they could hear her, they would themselves “make no noise”: their suffering might be soothed and, in at least this small way, diminished. They are doomed, however, not to experience even this kind of relief. If anything good can be said about their situation, it is that at least they do not know about the beautiful sounds they are missing.
Lines 2-3, then, implicitly contrast the privileged position of the speaker with the pitiable position of the damned. They cannot hear Julia, but the speaker not only can hear her but also, apparently, has. They would listen to her if they could, but by definition they are unable to do so. Ironically, neither are Herrick’s readers actually able to hear Julia. We thus resemble the damned if only because we are denied the same pleasure (of literally hearing her) that they are also denied. We, however, have access to the next best thing: the speaker’s own poetry, which, in discussing Julia’s voice, partly imitates that voice’s beauty. It hardly seems a surprise, for instance, that in line 4 the speaker once again returns to a strong emphasis on alliteration: “Melting melodious words to Lutes of Amber.” Four different consonant sounds are heavily stressed and combined in this line, so that the final impression left by this poem is one of extreme musicality.
Another aspect of the poem’s music involves its highly regular iambic rhythm. An “iamb,” in English meter, consists of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable, as in “rebel.” Herrick uses iambic meter throughout the poem until he arrives at the very last line. In that line, the first syllable is accented, rather than the second (“Melting”), as if the poet wanted to introduce at least some minor variation into the meter of the poem so that its music would not sound utterly predictable and literally monotonous. In the last two lines, the use of so-called “feminine” rhymes—in which an extra, unaccented syllable is added to the usual ten-syllable line (as in “chamber” and “Amber”)—also makes the poem seem a bit unpredictable and varied, so that its sound effects are more subtly diverse than one might have anticipated from reading just the first two lines.
In all these ways, then, the poem is a work that extols attractive sounds while also making them itself.