Brain Pickings

Edna St. Vincent Millay on the Love of Music

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“Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is.”

“Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts,” Susan Sontag exclaimed. Anaïs Nin found in it “the mystery of our secret life.” And though science may have attempted to decode how music tickles our emotions and enchants our brains, its magic remains utterly ineffable to most of us — all but the most poetically perceptive. From The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library) — the same magnificent out-of-print tome that gave us Millay’s stirring love letters to Edith Wynn Matthison — comes this lyrical meditation on the mesmerism of music, found in a September 11, 1920 letter to her friend and literary comrade, Allan Ross MacDougall, who also edited the anthology of missives. Exquisitely beautiful both in sentiment and in its mastery of language, the passage captures Millay’s unrelenting devotion to beauty in all its forms:

I can whistle almost the whole of the Fifth Symphony, all four movements, and with it I have solaced many a whining hour to sleep. It answers all my questions, the noble, mighty thing, it is “green pastures and still waters” to my soul. Indeed, without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is. I find that lately more and more my fingers itch for a piano, and I shall not spend another winter without one. Last night I played for about two hours, the first time in a year, I think, and though most everything is gone enough remains to make me realize I could get it back if I had the guts. People are so dam lazy, aren’t they? Ten years I have been forgetting all I learned so lovingly about music, and just because I am a boob. All that remains is Bach. I find that I never lose Bach. I don’t know why I have always loved him so. Except that he is so pure, so relentless and incorruptible, like a principal of geometry.

Pair with another love letter to Bach, the solar system set to music in perpetual homage to the great composer.

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