“Stop all the clocks” vs. “Lock up the living day”

In the 1590s, the poet Michael Drayton wrote Peirs Gaveston, Earle of Cornwall, a long poem about a 14th-century courtier who was the favorite and probable lover of Edward II (and whose first name is usually spelled Piers). Most of the poem is in Gaveston’s voice, but a few pages from the end, Drayton imagines King Edward mourning Gaveston in extravagant, almost histrionic terms:

O heavens (quoth hee) lock up the living day,
Cease sunn to lend the world thy glorious light,
Starrs, flye your course, and wander all astray,
Moone, lend no more thy silver shine by night.

Drayton’s Edward goes on to make similar demands upon the earth, the sea, the air, the wind, beasts, birds, fish, worms, meadows, mountains, groves, fountains, furies, spirits, ghosts, gods, devils, men, eyes, head, heart, hands, poets, and shepherds. Drayton seems to have been a big fan of the catalog as a rhetorical device. It’s possible that he sent his rhetoric over the top as a way of commenting on the character of Edward II, whose judgment seems to have been strongly colored by his emotions; it’s also possible that Drayton himself relished the sound of emotional extremity.

The stanzas remind me of W. H. Auden’s 1936 poem “Funeral Blues.” There, too, a poet mourns by making a somewhat absurd catalog: the speaker orders the silencing of clocks, dogs, telephones, pianos, and instructs airplanes, doves, and traffic police to join him in mourning. Auden seems to have been playing with the effect of hyperbole more consciously than Drayton did, and seems aware of the sense of irony that hyperbole naturally induces in readers. Can one be taken seriously, even in extremity, if one talks so absolutely? In the moment of bereavement, does one want to be taken seriously?

Auden’s fourth and final stanza reads as follows:

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

John Fuller, whose commentaries on Auden’s poems are usually comprehensive, makes no reference to Drayton as a possible source for Auden, and the echo might of course be coincidental. But before Auden’s day—in fact, until very recently—there weren’t all that many elegies for gay lovers, and it seems possible to me that Auden had Drayton’s example in mind.

Figures of song

If a writer describes a dog as saying woof, the word woof is onomatopoeia: the word not only references the sound a dog makes but also reproduces it. Onomatopoeia is one of the earliest figures of speech children learn, and is only one of many ways to use language's musical aspect to evoke things and even ideas. The back of my old copy of Smyth's Greek Grammar has an extensive catalog, including repetition, rhyme, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, and many more. Figures of speech are what distinguish artful use of language from merely referential use of it. What do you call it, though, when a thing or idea in the real world is reproduced in music? Strictly speaking, perhaps the answer should be "language," but that completes the circle without answering my question. It may be easier to explain what I mean with examples.

The most straightforward way to represent something in music is to dub it in. In the age of sampling, a musician can easily insert the sound of, say, a telephone ring or a clock alarm. "The Big Picture," by Bright Eyes, for example, starts with an extended recording of a car trip, including jingling keys, the reassuring clump of a car door slamming shut, and an ignition turning over.

The Big Picture (sample)

At the next level of artistic transformation, the phenomenon that I'm talking about closely resembles onomatopoeia. At the end of The Clash's "Somebody Got Murdered," a single drum stroke seems to be meant to sound like a gunshot.

Somebody Got Murdered (sample)

In Radiohead's "Videotape," the limited progression of piano chords repeated throughout the song suggest the rotation of a videotape, and the rhythm that the drum track settles into by the end sounds, at least to me, like the slap and flutter of the loose end of a tape circling on an old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder (or of the loose end of a reel of film turning on a projector)—so that the song manages to evoke the recording technologies of two different eras.

Videotape (sample)

Some of these "figures of song" represent the real world more abstractly. Regina Spektor's "On the Radio" is busy with words, and one of the song's pleasures is the way the words tumble over and into one another. When Spektor describes hearing the song "November Rain" twice during a single radio broadcast, however, she breaks her own talky rhythm by stretching out the word "sleep" in the short line "because the DJ was asleep" so as to reference the DJ's snooze. Note that she doesn't repeat herself to reference snoozing; her allusion, more abstractly , is to the way a sleeper's oatmeal boils over, or the way a sleeper's pencil flatlines if she drifts off while taking notes.

On The Radio (sample)

The most sophisticated example I can think of is in the refrain of Belle & Sebastian's "The Blues Are Still Blue," when Stuart Murdoch sings that when he meets up again with the girlfriend he has left in the launderette, "the black will be white and the white will be black, but the blues are still blue." The melody meanders up and down during the first part of the refrain, reproducing the circling motion of a laundry machine. But when Murdoch sings the words "The blues are still blue," the vocalists accompanying him sing all the words at a single pitch, reinforcing the concept of blue's identity with itself.

The Blues Are Still Blue (sample)

To call something like this "onomatopoeia" seems a little Procrustean. The sound of laundry isn't being mimicked; the melody is tracing the shape the laundry makes, and then the accompanying voices are tracing that of identity. It seems like another terminology is called for; maybe a musicologist will steer me to it?