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Title: Poetic harmony
Original Title: Poétique harmonie
Volume and Page: Vol. 12 (1765), p. 848
Author: Louis, chevalier de Jaucourt (biography)
Translator: Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon [Simon Fraser University, afeenber@sfu.ca]
Subject terms:
Poetry
Original Version (ARTFL): Link
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URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0003.302
Citation (MLA): Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Poetic harmony." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2015. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0003.302>. Trans. of "Poétique harmonie," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 12. Paris, 1765.
Citation (Chicago): Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Poetic harmony." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2015. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0003.302 (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Poétique harmonie," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 12:848 (Paris, 1765).

Poetic harmony. There are three types of harmony in poetry: the first is style, that needs to match subject matter to ensure they have the right proportions between them. The arts form a kind of republic where everything must appear in its proper place. Look at the difference in tone between tragedy and comedy, lyrical poetry or the pastoral! etc .

If this harmony were missing in a poem, the latter would become a masquerade. It becomes a sort of grotesque parody.

When sometimes a tragedy lowers the tone or a comedy elevates its tone, it is to match the level of its subject matter, which changes from time to time. This very objection proves that the principle is correct.

Poetic harmony is essential; however it can only be felt and unfortunately authors do not always feel it sufficiently. There is often a confusion of genres. In the same piece, tragic, lyrical or comic verses can be found that are in no way justified by the thought they contain.

A delicate ear can recognize just by the type of verse that is used, the play from which it is taken. When you quote Corneille, Molière, la Fontaine, Ségrais, or Rousseau, the ear will not make a mistake. A verse by Ovid can easily be distinguished among a thousand of Virgil’s verses. It is unnecessary to name the authors; they can be recognized by their style, just as Homer’s heroes are by their actions.

A second type of poetic harmony consists in the relation between the sounds and words and the topic of the thought. Even writers of prose have to make this a rule and poets must obey it even more so. Therefore they do not use harsh words to talk about sweet things, or use pleasant words for hard and unpleasant ones. In their work sounds rarely contradict the spirit of the work.

The third type of harmony in poetry can be called artificial, unlike the two other species. Even though it is based on nature like the other two, it is only clearly noticeable in poetry. It is a certain art that not only chooses expressions and sounds appropriate to their meaning, it also matches them in such a way that all the syllables in a verse produced by their sound, number, and quantity, together produce another type of expression which adds to the original meaning of the words.

Poetry has different procedures to imitate different movements, and with a melody paints for the ears what it paints for the mind with words. It is a kind of musical chant characterized not only by the topic in general but also by each topic in particular. This kind of harmony pertains mostly to poetry and it is an exquisite point in versification. One only has to open Homer or Virgil to find almost everywhere the musical expression of most of the objects. Vergil never fails in this; it is noticeable in his work even when it is hard to say what it consists in. It is often so evident that it strikes the least attentive ears:

Continuo ventis surgentibus, aut freta ponti Incipiunt agitata tumescere, & aridus altis Montibus audiri fragor, aut resonantia longè Littora misceri, & nemorum increbescere murmur . [1]

In the Aeneid, where he talks about Priam’s feeble throw:

Sic fatus senior: telumque imbelle sine ictu Conjecit, rauco quod protinus aere repulsum, Et summo clypei nequicquam umbone pependit . [2]

We cannot omit this example, taken from Horace:

Qua pinus ingens, albaque populus Umbram hospitalem consociare amant Ramis, & obliquo laborat Lympha fugax trepidare rivo . [3]

When he wants to describe an athlete in combat, his verses rise up, bend, stand up, break down, hurry, stiffen and stretch out, to imitate and represent his movements.

Here is a hiatus, when he wants to describe a monster with fifty wide-open mouths:

Quinquaginta atris immanis hiatibus hydra, Intus habet sedem . [4]

When cries of pain lost in the air or the rattling of chains need to be painted:

Hinc exaudiri gemitus, & saeva sonare Verbera: tum stridor ferri, tractaeque catenae . [5]

Let me quote Despréaux’ verses:

The rosy canons in glowing health, Were growing fat in long and holy idleness. The first of the two verses is cheerful, while the other is slow and lazy.

Let me quote verses of languor :

Sigh, stretch out your arms and go to sleep [6].

But let me only address those who have a good ear; these examples of poetic harmony among so many others have not been cited for those whom nature has deprived of this pleasurable sensation.

Concerning harmony in verse, when it concerns composition ruled by measures and subject to fixed and positive rules, See Verse.

Notes

1. “From the first, when the winds are rising, either the sea’s straits begin to heave and swell, and on mountain heights is heard a dry crash, or the shores ring a confused echo afar and the woodland murmur waxes loud”. Virgil, Georgics, trans. by H.R. Fairclough (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999) 1.356-359. [Formerly http://www.theoi.com/Text/VirgilGeorgics1.html].

2. “So the old man spoke and threw his ineffectual spear without strength, which immediately spun from the clanging bronze and hung uselessly from the centre of the shield’s boss.” Virgil, Aeneid, bk. 2. [Formerly http://poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin.AeneidII.htm#_Toc53600931].

3. “Where poplar pale, and pine-tree high / Their hospitable shadows spread / Entwined, and panting waters try / To hurry down their zigzag bed”. Horace, Odes , bk. 2, 3. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0025.

4. “In the dark opening inside was seated a huge monster with fifty wide-open black jaws”. Virgil, Aeneid , bk. 6, v. 576-578.

5. “Hence groans are heard, fierce cracks of lash and scourge, Loud-clanking iron links and trailing chains.” Virgil, Aeneid, bk. 6, v. 548. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Verg.%20A.%206.568&lang=original.

6. Despréaux, Le lutrin , bk. 1.