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We asked all of our contributors to tell us about their favourite lines of Milton and their experiences of reading his work.
At a Solemn Music
by John Milton
Blest pair of sirens, pledges of heaven's joy,
Sphere-born harmonious Sisters, Voice, and Verse,
Wed your divine sounds, and mixed power employ
Dead things with inbreathed sense able to pierce,
And to our high-raised phantasy present,
That undisturbed song of pure content,
Ay sung before the sapphire-coloured throne
To him that sits theron
With saintly shout, and solemn jubilee,
Where the bright seraphim in burning row
Their loud uplifted angel trumpets blow,
And the cherubic host in thousand choirs
Touch their immortal harps of golden wires,
With those just spirits that wear victorious palms,
Hymns devout and holy psalms
That we on earth with undiscording voice
May rightly answer that melodious noise;
As once we did, till disproportioned sin
Jarred against nature's chime, and with harsh din
Broke the fair music that all creatures made
To their great Lord, whose love their motion swayed
In perfect diapason, whilst they stood
In first obedience, and their state of good.
O may we soon again renew that song,
And keep in tune with heaven, till God ere long
To his celestial consort us unite,
To live with him, and sing in endless morn of light.
Instead of discovering this poem in a book, I first came across 'At a Solemn Music' as a piece of music. The occasion was a school concert: the 'mixed power' of the pupils, the teachers, and the parents produced both choir and full orchestra - not quite the 'thousand quires' of the poem, but almost certainly a 'harsh din'.
The poem's title may initially seem forbidding, and although the full text of the poem was printed before the music, I don't remember reading it first; instead, it was more a process of slowly becoming familiar with sections of the music, and gradually the words took hold too. The music was composed in 1887, over two hundred years after the poem was written, by the English composer Sir Hubert Parry - who is perhaps most famous for writing the music of Jerusalem.
Blest Pair of Sirens is composed on an even grander scale, and it is easy to imagine why these words would appeal to a composer: Milton celebrates both 'Voice and Verse', music and lyrics, as if the poem itself isn't complete until heard in song. And because I first discovered the poem in its musical setting, it is this that has stayed with me since, and seems an essential part of the poem: I cannot read the words without Parry's music coming back to me as an 'undisturbed song'.
Simon was born in York. He studied English at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he also sang in the chapel choir. Graduating in 2005, he worked for a year as a lay clerk in Peterborough Cathedral Choir, before returning to Cambridge to continue his studies at Christ's. Simon is currently reading for a PhD, and continues to sing at Jesus College and Peterborough Cathedral. He combines his interests in music and literature in his work, researching the influence of music on the poetry of the seventeenth century.
Milton and music
Plot Summary: Book VIII