“Understanding What It Means to Understand Music”:

Barbara Guest and Wittgenstein: Reading into Wittgenstein

into Two Poems of Unusual Consequence and Vibrancy


by Robert Mueller


“Understanding what it means to understand music.”  This sentiment from Barbara Guest’s poem “Dissonance Royal Traveller” (Defensive Rapture, Sun & Moon Press, 1993) could have easily been a remark of Wittgenstein’s.  For to phrase the project in this way, as not merely understanding music but understanding what that means, is to echo the characteristic Wittgensteinian emphases in the study of language and experience.  Thus, if we want to determine the criteria for understanding music, we need to look at what this means in linguistic practice, we need to look at the language-game of music.  We need to ask how people react to music, for instance, what goes on in the encounter, from where does a passage of music come, in what situations.  Music as a language-game, as a game that will shed light on how language works.  Indeed, as Wittgenstein says, understanding a musical theme is more like understanding a sentence than we think.[1]  Understanding, epistemologythese are the prey in Guest’s hunt for musical quiddity.


We can better see why Wittgenstein is interested in music if we consider its relevance to one of his central insights, and that is the realization that our ordinary language, just as it is, adequately and solely constitutes human experience.  What this suggests is that experience, or most kinds of experience, are not pre-constituted in the mind as mental processes.  Wittgenstein took great pains to exorcise this illusion of certain kinds of inner intention.  He looked at meaning and understanding from every possible angle and showed that they are not so piloted in inwardness, that as processes, and as facts, actions, they are outwardly expressive; being shareable, they are shareable.  Thus Wittgenstein states, “Nothing is more wrong-headed than calling meaning a mental activity.”[2]  It is not as if we begin with inner pictures of reality, and then produce our sentences.  If we say a rose is red in the dark, it does not follow that we have a mental image of a red rose in the dark.  How can we, for the rose is invisible?[3]  We say the rose is red.  Significantly, it is music that places the difficulty, in a remark of Wittgenstein’s.  He says (and I paraphrase): “Say a sentence and think it; say it with understanding.  Now do it without saying the sentence.  Sing a tune with expression.  Now express it without singing.”[4]  It is not natural to do so; it is not part of the language-game.  Insofar as hearing or performing music is not well-described when described in terms of inner processes, so our understanding of sentences does not necessarily depend on those same inner processes.


Music is a language-game.  Think of hearing music as a practice, as a learned activity, and as a form of life in which the significance of a musical phrase is determined by its use.  This “use,” for Wittgenstein, is undoubtedly important; use is the chief criterion for meaning.  We can also add related criteria: context or surrounding circumstances, and mastery of the language.  In this last criterion, to say that we know what something means is simply to say that we understand English, or that we understand music in its different modes.


What I now want to say is that for Barbara Guest understanding what it means to understand music is, in effect, participating in a language-game, looking at these criteria of meaning.  So she is in the poem.  She enters the poem, “Dissonance Royal Traveller,” by entering into this language-game.  She unveils her usual sky-pattern of images and phrases and interpolates references to music.  The pattern supplies the context.  And within it, for the most part, there is an absence of complete sentences.  Therefore none of the hard logical effort that does not help toward understanding, but instead an associative dynamic.  The words at times echo one another loosely, or even remotely, and at times they supply what the poet is looking for when she proposes understanding what it means to understand music; they supply a context for this activity:


in the middle the world is brown;

on the opposite side of the earth

an aroma of scarlet.


this accompanies our hearing music;

the sleeve of heaven

and the hoof of earth

loosed from their garrison.


To be sure, the “this” which accompanies our hearing music is indefinite and has various referents.  I would just like to point to one, the aroma of scarlet on the opposite side of the earth.  This is a context for hearing music, a context of spirituality, of solemn church modes.  Thus, for me, scarlet suggests the cloth worn by state or religious officials, the judge’s scarlet or the scarlet of the Roman cardinals.  Let us look at what comes next in this development of context: the angelic sleeve of heaven and the diabolical hoof of earth.  This sounds like spiritual warfare.  The sleeve of heaven is a token placed by the Christian knight on his armor, just as the knight of Romance when dressed for battle would bear the removable sleeve of his lady.  These associations (church modes, spirit, Medievalism, tokens) are clearly historical, even anachronistic, but (Guest insists) they accompany, they surround, our hearing music.  They are circumstances, invitational props.  They suggestively direct the path of music.  Of course, when we think of aroma, we think of coffee, and Wittgenstein’s problem of how to describe the aroma of coffee.  But music also has an aroma, an atmosphere, which we approach indirectly, through context and through language proficiency.


Establishing this context is not all.  There is a further procedure, which Wittgenstein would call studying grammar.  The grammar of the situation for Guest is something like what accompanies our hearing music, and it is natural to think to, to share in the guise of, two operative terms, namely, consonance and dissonance.  Guest thinks these terms.  They become these terms, thematized, as analogy and image.  Hence the phrase “consonant as water,” or water with its listening oars into which music disappears.  The comparison to water is apt because water, like music, is a phenomenon, and eludes mentally-based description.  Water as it slips does not afford a logical picture in the mind.  Water as it slips adds to the atmosphere of understanding music.  As we have shown, the order of the scarlet wedding, the ceremony of heaven and earth, is another part of this atmosphere.  Collectively, these images create a continuum of consonance, a kind of changeable order which will change once again once the contrary, dissonance, makes its mark:


dissonance may abandon miserere

on bruised knee hasten to the idol.


Thus the solemnity of the sacred masses, the “miserere,” accompanies our hearing music but only by way of a countervailing anticipation of dissonance with its own heathen idolatry.  This is a shift, startling and transforming, a shift in musical practice, a shift in what it means to understand music.  This is perhaps revolutionary.


What we have in “Dissonance Royal Traveller,” I would thus assert, is a sensitive explanation of music which bypasses a priori formulations.  Music is not a feeling in our minds.  It is its place in the history of its practice.  What does music express?  It expresses itself, to quote Wittgenstein,[5] its own structure, its own evolution.  Music takes place in a stream of activity.  Its foundation is an outer process, a procession before the mind, and a rapidly approaching conviction of dissonance.


Up to this point the epistemology, as I would call it, is on par with Wittgenstein’s.  But what happens in the poem’s magnificent ending?


the horse in cardboard jacket

                      flagrant the ragged grove


                                    red summit red.


          dissonance royal traveller


                                    altered the red saddle.


The phrase “red summit red” in fact alludes to one of Wittgenstein’s remarks, uncharacteristically imagistic, which I quote in its brief fullness:


Imagine red regarded as the summit of all colours.  The special role of the triad in our music.  Our lack of understanding of the old church modes.[6]


This is one of many remarks by Wittgenstein on the color red wherein he imagines, among other things, that red cannot be pointed out to someone without that person’s prior knowledge of the language, of what the word color means, for example.  Thus despite the sensual immediacy of our encounter with “red,” our knowing red is a learned activity based on linguistic practice just like anything else.  So it just might be possible, against all expectation, to speak about a historically based ascendancy of one color, the summit of all colors, just as we do about musical styles, the disappearance of old church modes.  Agreement on what is red and the knowledge, the mere knowledge of red, are epistemological problems and are grand in the conclusions of Guest’s poem.  They are a part of understanding what it means to understand music, but not so fast.  Hence the allusion to Wittgenstein, to the old church modes, and to the role of the triad.  The practice of music in its passing is what Guest sees as being abandoned by dissonance; the “old” practices that secure what music is, that express what we mean by music, these are abandoned by new modes that are magnified and kept in motion (“dissonance royal traveller”).  The subject forms, and the partial account of what music means for its understanding, do not go away; they become subject to play, to the rule and grammar of dissonance, which they weepingly breast and shift to the side.


Until this resumptive point, Guest has been a tactful music theorist, but that has changed by virtue of her bringing in color, which offers a problematic distinction: between the color red, and a something that is red.  The color red persists even if the red object is destroyed.  Red is an ideal form, and so on.  Now Wittgenstein, in privileging ordinary language, cedes to a gap between language and the structure of reality.  There is a limit to what language can do.  In the crushing final line of the poem, I would assert, Guest crashes through this barrier; she states, “altered the red saddle.”  There is an acting upon the object, and red is an inseparable component of this object.  Meanwhile dissonance, an aspect of music, contributes to this charge.  Thus Guest redefines music as an accretion of thingness, the truth of its being what it is.  And what music means is merely the position of its vector in its own unfolding.  In certain states, in certain contexts, music is known, music is apprehended as something different, as a reality reconstituted.





Water, water everywhere

Flask bartered, cuff

Demitting radiance sceptre

To be gleaned, in a trice!





“Pallor,” appearing in Quill, Solitary  Apparition (The Post-Apollo Press, 1996), is three legs down the trace.  Of a water, inseparable, it finds a stream-line.  We are appalled to bale its appearance.  “Pallor” is a gigantic poem, and it serializes the impediments of counting on water in “Dissonance Royal Traveller.”  How is understanding water?  It is counting on water, it is insistence of dissonance, and it is truly.


Thus, a paragraph of an earlier draft, prior to my reaching the locus amoenus of Plato’s Nomoi or Laws.  So appropriate to come this way, for the big talker of that latest of Plato’s dialogues, the accultured Athenian, comes to the curious belief-belife that the constitution of the just society is not finally the work of the legislator.  Great pains are taken in the course of the lengthy discussions to establish that the state, if it is to survive as such, and so the actions of its leaders and important officials, must be grounded on certain virtues and on a knowledge of the most important things, the nature of justice, of goodness and of the soul among them; and to determine which is the most important of these criteria, and in what way, and how the vital basis of the enactment and execution of “laws” is to be found and acquired.  It is arguable, though not entirely clear, that in the mind of the principal in the dialogue, the Athenian, it is the poet, or someone like the poet or some similar source from within the emerging just and well-grounded cultural construct, who by means of enlightenment and education brings about the desired result; by leading and guiding the participants in the experiment of forming a new polity that is the very experience of human actions, and doing so by being the principal lights for all participants and actors who in such a situation would otherwise have a difficult time of it.  Perhaps it is the author’s own Laws that might be imagined by the Athenian speaker, the one advocating the process, as performing this kind of “poetic,” guiding function.  Sheer determined instruction and analysis are not it at all, in other words.  That is to say that there is, in the hoped-for learning of just practice, a charm, a particular charm, that begins with exuberance and that supplies throughout some measure of the beautiful in the superabundant goodness that the good legislator would embody, should there be any hope the emerging state will thrive.


And thus leading and enlightening Plato would seem to anticipate the anguished concern registered by the less confident poet Mallarmé, in “L’Azur,” having to do with an apparent inability to “attifer la sanglotante idée.”  The poet Barbara Guest shows no such fear.  She is thoroughly at ease with the foundations of orderliness and best culture.  Remark her signature poem, “An Emphasis Falls on Reality,” where she deftly processes, realizes and nuances the long-celebrated Platonic theory of forms.  The concept-tossed “apparition” in line 10 of that poem returns, nobly and crucially, in Quill, Solitary  Apparition, where the contemplation of Plato’s discourse concerning the ideal registers hints of a still further revised sunrise by way of the reference, in “Pallor,” to Mallarmé’s “L’Azur,” and therewith startles, upon the recapture of Mallarmé’s own remarking of the poet who famously apprises the reader of a delicate situation:


C’est l’Ennui! l’œil chargé d’un pleur involontaire,

Il rêve d’échafauds en fumant son houka.

Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,

Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!


The lead poem of Guest’s collection, “Finally, to the Italian Girl” (possibly Dante’s Beatrice), starts within this provenance:


                     “O foemina delicata”    (Baudelaire)

touched naught


                        herself the coronet

            being gleamy


If the curiously crowned, curiously proclaimed goddess and legislator is indeed “gleamy,” her coloration for the presentiment of pallor is muddy.  Which suits Barbara Guest and her readers just fine, verged as they are on an exitation of modernity; though it would not suit Mallarmé, haunted thricely and a fourth time by azure, and thricely it would seem by Satan the thrice-greatest, as much as Mallarmé had thought to get beyond that affliction of ennui.


It is so easy to bubble and simmer with respect to the third and the fourth, but we have to do it since the poet of  “Pallor” is so sided on the (non)concept that “water is missing the fourth chord.”  Of course, in one sense this is an urging of our actant to construct a “fourth wall” and thereby construct experience and refigure the markings on the wall of Plato’s cave à la Guest’s earlier poem; but what else might it be?  For the moderns, it is always something else.  This is not a making light of Plato’s coming out to the Forms and to true understanding; it is simply a telling of “[w]ithdrawal from the conceptual line,” a derivation, or moving away from the clear stream, or moving away from shore, to “‘somewhere other than observable water’,” but not just the idea of water, or even the matter of water circumfusing a tyranny of the idea, as such that would for Mallarmé have supplied safe harbor if ennui had not turned.


(My own conceptual, nonconceptual line may or may not deliver the poem.  It is in fact the case that the sites of Guest’s poem are beautiful and open and myriad.  Dropping, and plucking, lines are of the essence, and let the stages do the rest.)


The subject matters of “Dissonance Royal Traveller” are dissonance and consonance, and discord, and thus they are music, for those who may understand.  In Plato’s Laws, which we are left to take as a derivation by an older and wiser author from his earlier Republic, that those who may understand will have the opportunity to understand requires royalty.[7]  And, if Book III of the Laws is any indication, the formula for acquiring the natural royalty that is so vital to itself the very preservation of human culture, and of music, is remarkably simple:


  ATHENIAN:  Well, then, to follow up the thread of our argument, we say that what then destroyed that mighty power [Argos and Messene] was the greatest folly, and that it inevitably produces the same results today.  This being so, then, a legislator’s aim must be to create all the wisdom he can in a community, and with all his might to eradicate unwisdom.

   CLINIAS: Yes, manifestly.

  ATHENIAN: Now what type of folly may fairly be called the greatest I should certainly say that I am on the point of describing, but you must consider whether you agree with the observation.

   CLINIAS: What type do you mean?

   ATHENIAN: That of a man who hates, not loves, what his judgment pronounces to be noble or good, while he loves and enjoys what he judges vile and wicked.   It is this dissonance between pleasure and pain and reasoned judgment that I call the worst folly, and also the greatest, since its seat is the commonalty of the soul, for pain and pleasure are in the soul what the populace or commonalty is in a community.  Accordingly, when the soul sets itself at variance with knowledge, judgment, discourse, its natural sovereigns, you have what I describe as unwisdom, alike in a community where the commons rebel against magistrates and laws, and in one individual man when fair discourse is present in the soul, but produces no effect, but rather the very contrary.  These are the types of folly I would pronounce the gravest dissonances in community or individual citizen, not the follies of professionals—if you take my meaning.

   CLINIAS: Indeed we do, sir, and we grant your point.

   ATHENIAN: Then let us take it as definitely settled, and proclaim our conviction that no function of government may be entrusted to citizens who are foolish in this sense.  They must be reprehended for their folly, though they were the most expert of calculators, and laboriously trained in all curious studies and everything that makes for nimbleness of mind, while those of the contrary sort should be styled wise, even though, as the proverb puts it, they can ‘neither read not swim,’ and it is to them, as the men of sense, that our magistracies should be given.  How, indeed, my friends, can there be the barest particle of wisdom where there is no concord?  ’Tis a flat impossibility, whereas the fairest and greatest of consonances may very properly be called the greatest wisdom.  In this wisdom he who lives by rule has his share, while he who is without it will invariably be found to be a waster of his substance and no savior of society but the very reverse, all because of his folly in this respect.  Well, as I just said, let this stand as our recorded conviction.


(Laws, Book III, 688e-689e.)[8]  Harmony within translates to harmony without.  The state, the community, the very hope of life worth having, all rest on the goodness of the soul, as if this living community were an individuality with a soul, and indeed it is; and insofar as laws—establishment, enactment, preservation of them—are the task at hand for the enquiring speakers, the person and persons who embody these virtues towards the laws would happily possess the goodness of the soul, a goodness and empowerment which, as has been demonstrated (in Book II), comes about by beautiful education, that is to say, education in music!  The bars and struts of a moral foundation are the discord (or dissonance) and concord (or consonance) of music, and the fortunate would be a kind of harmony: for Plato, whether too forcefully or not too forcefully projecting concord at the expense of dissonance: for Barbara Guest, some realization perhaps some definition of music which I would forthrightly suggest neither you nor I would be able to or would want to explain in so many words, but which lies in the pleasure we seek in at least the two poems “Dissonance Royal Traveller” and “Pallor.”


Now for us cleanly there is the regard to throw it forward that the fourth chord is the musical or poetic judgement of the informed and informing citizen above the age of sixty.  The discussion in Book II of Plato’s Laws regarding musical training is tricky, or if not tricky evasive, and the age markers slide up and down, but suffice it to say that musical training of the sort that will lead ultimately to a situation of political justice requires the presence of experienced choristers.  The interest in music foremost as charged concept and then as recurring theme in Barbara Guest’s poetry suggest a fit with Plato’s own highly charged emphasis in this text.  As far as our reading of “Pallor” is concerned, however, we must at least bear in mind that the Athenian does not talk of four “chords” but of four “choirs,” referring to the coros or dancing at which body and music and poetry meet, at which they meet in the ennobling education of the soul, of soul emerging at site of body in form.  The cordh cognate to our “chord” is the string of the lyre, the lyre of which combination of said strings produces, in our sense, “chords,” and so too, by extension, harmony and hearts and bodies and (found in and founded upon that harmony) cherishable minds.


The four choirs, then, of the community in its beautiful formation and musical training are choirs slotted into phases by age, whereby the first choir, the choir of boys, is sacred to the Muses (Book II; 664c); the second choir, of men under thirty, is sacred to Apollo the god of healing (Book II, 664c); and the third choir, ages thirty to sixty, is sacred to Dionysus (Book II; 664d-667c and following).  Songs, or choric songs, the Athenian seems to say, regulate the education toward goodness for, in the first place, the choir of boys, and it is apparent that they do so on two grounds.  First, boys cannot help moving, so choric songs direct and train their movements while the melodies provide the pleasure that excites their movement in the first place.  Secondly, the songs are “good” songs, the same good songs that are sung by the choir of young men, dedicated to Apollo, and the choir of middle-aged to older men, dedicated to Dionysus, and the continuity of the choric song practice, which is the practice of the harmonizing and concord of body and soul, thus ensures the maintenance of goodness in the continuing life of the happy state from generation to generation.  Now the “men” in the third phase, from age thirty to age sixty, need the extra symposial pleasure of banqueting and drinking in order to cheer up and feel like joining in the singing, while the singing is the production of goodness for dancing and singing enthusiasts of all ages, and of goodness for a state or polity that wishes to remain a state, that will not disintegrate or become prey to conflict, that will be a standard against evil-doings and corruption.  But the Dionysian symposiasts are not just drinkers and singers (they are permitted the greatest consumption of wine), but more importantly they are educators and leaders (see, e.g., Book II, 670c-671a).  The training of boys and men in their respective coroi would seem to include the training of the legislator himself, so that the Dionysus-adhering music teacher and poet would seem to have a claim of priority in the establishing of a just polity.  Not only that, but the best musician/poet is also the best drinker, being a drinker who understands and practices moderation, and is therefore in great demand and is greatly needed for curbing and guiding the rest of the Dionysus-adhering citizens who are not so inspired and who are thus prone to drinking to excess (and, we may imagine, dancing and singing rather too boisterously) (Book II, 671a-e).  We alluded above to the slipperiness of Plato’s character leading the colloquy; and so at this point in the argument it is significant and not uncalculated that the Athenian blurs his dancer categories a bit, or continues to do so.  More and more as the Athenian describes these musical teachers, more and more does he advance the levels of their experience and age, until finally it would appear that among these educators and princes of music and drinking are those who are beyond the age of sixty (Book II, 671e).


All well and suggestive, but what of that fourth coros, Barbara Guest’s “Fourth Chord” in one of its guises, that Plato’s speaker has passed by (a few moments earlier in the dicussion) with only brief official mention and without reference even to its being a coros?


Men of more advanced age, who are naturally no longer equal to singing, will be left to tell stories about the same types of character in inspired accents.    (Book II; 664d)


This is all the Athenian says here about this other group, and the brevity is a little odd and no doubt sly.  The “stories” told by these “storytellers” (muqologoi) are about [the same] ethical “character(s)” (hqea) and are told in a divine tone of voice (qeia fhmh).  Not bad for a poet no longer equal to singing.  These are some well-gathered intimations, it seems to me, burning themselves into the harmonizing and the drinking.  This is the most splendid role for people like the Athenian and his companions, the most urgent place for the distinguished and knowledgeable, a role equal to that of being the guarantors and crucial source of correct inspiration for the preserving and teaching process that is enacted not by the younger generations but by the younger generations strictly in their capacity as the first three choirs; and as such these superbly educated defenders via “qeia fhmh” are the enablers of goodness through music and poetry, the goodness that is the only, truly efficacious goodness, the goodness that goes along with the “concord” of body and soul.  As Plato’s speaker with remarkable foresight surmises, it is not a question of educating the children, but rather of educating the children in the right way, which is by the right kind of music, the kind possessing the power of casting a “spell” over their souls (epwdai tais yucais) (Book II; 659e).  And, of course, it is by means of this state of affairs that the Athenian would seem to have felt (a bit earlier659d) how the education of the children rests on a rule “approved as truly right by the concordant experience of the best and oldest men” (kai tois epieikestatois kai presbutatois di¢ empeirian xundedogmenon ws ontws orqos estin).  The “harmonious” opinion of the men who are over the age of sixty, or at least those with great experience, guarantees the right education of children, primarily dancing and singing according to the right principles, but what dancing!  As to their “concordant” experience urging their presence as chorus masters, the Greek suggests rather that they reach a “shared inference,” that the arbiters of just aesthetics “are in agreement” on what is right; A.E. Taylor’s translation, with the phrase “concordant experience,” while sloppy, has a happy suggestiveness.


Such are the powerful events that the “fourth choir” guarantees.  Such is the heredity.  At the end of “Pallor,” the fourth chord, which that excellent of quality, “water,” lacks, is now achieved, or imagined so, as a kind of “institution” much like Plato’s “institution” of the [four] choirs founding the potentially just society; only here, by way of what I would say is a qualified aesthetic interest, the refinement and incision is not that of concord but of dissonance, perhaps a slight muddiness infiltrating the bland water, an application of rouge that is unaccountably pallor; except what is pallor?


                                  pallor crept in

                              what is rouged in its    made-up history





   flown into a storm:   torments clear color






reaches into the numb structure sleeve mud color

           ( pygmy fountain eelings are young)   INSTITUTES



                                            THE FOURTH CHORD.




I am not being cute: it is simply not advisable to attempt to parse all the meanings flashing here.  Resolved, however, that the remarking of “fountain eelings” into “feelings” comes about in many ways, and is spoken for with reference to the muddy or dissonant “fountain” instanced at the top of this the poem’s last page, “A fountain returns this dissonant chord— ”.  Once again, though we may interpret variously, we see how the ending passage recurs and illuminates, brings us back to the psychoanalytic incision/excision of the poem’s second page—


  where the planter drops a knife            he excises


                                  the blocked harbor:





( miscellany of clouds — )



—and to what just seems to be a noteworthy extension of italicized “pallor” (as quoted above from the poem’s last page) to trembling, stirring, shaking; that is to say, through dialectical disturbance of concord and dissonance shaking the water, muddying it a bit, adding dimension, adding a fourth chord, stirring or shaking.  In its clear, conceptually pure phase, water is as “harbor,” is as safety and routine and ennui, and is blocked.  Against this trapping is required “pallor” as the making up of new consistency, history “rouged,” of actions, existence, less of harbor.  So pallor has the pale side of the Platonic apparition or invisible reality and clear color by its self-named mixing; and then also this wan pallor has the in-mixing opposite muscular and ruddy side of this tremor-stirred dissonance and plenty—configured, let us suppose, in Pallas Athena, Queen of the Air, and of Clouds.


Perhaps the feeling is that what we would want to do today is get out from under the empire and grips of structuralism to, among other things, a comparative mythology that is part structural and part fantastical; and therein (in structure and merriment and imagination and (some) exaggeration) lies the attraction to Barbara Guest of John Ruskin.  It is no accident; Mr. Ruskin celebrates Athena, celebrates the mythologies.  And he does so spiritedly in the published University College lectures of March 1869, where he “moralizes” the potency of Athena for her Greek emulants as Queen of the Air, but seems as much interested in the Hermes and Athena pair (we know him as Mercury), our adoptable favorites the mythicae potestates claraeof air, clouds and transmission from and betweenof (perhaps) water.  Why is all this so strong?  In Barbara Guest’s “Pallor,” second page (p. 38), “azure,” italicized twice, pours down its emphasis, as the American equivalent and cognate of blue sky, French “l’azur,” so haunting to Mallarmé.  Mercury, with clouds, is in on “azure delicately blotted,” and the poem chimes on fountains, so earth to sky, but as a humanities veneration, why the water is muddied to surrender to the institution of the fourth chord.


But the passage that inspires the poem “Pallor,” for me, is not in the lecture proper, but is Ruskin writing from the Swiss, in the preface to The Queen of the Air:


This first day of May, 1869, I am writing where my work was begun thirty-five years ago, within sight of the snows of the higher Alps. [footnote reference omitted]  In that half of the permitted life of man, I have seen strange evil brought upon every scene that I best loved, or tried to make beloved by others. [footnote reference omitted]  The light which once flushed those pale summits with its rose at dawn, and purple at sunset, is now umbered and faint; the air which once inlaid the clefts of all their golden crags with azure is now defiled with languid coils of smoke, belched from worse than volcanic fires; their very glacier waves are ebbing, and their snows fading, [footnote reference omitted] as if Hell had breathed on them; the waters that once sank at their feet into crystalline rest are now dimmed and foul, from deep to deep, and shore to shore.  These are no careless words—they are accurately—horribly—true.  I know what the Swiss lakes were; no pool of Alpine fountain at its source was clearer.  This morning, on the Lake of Geneva, at half a mile from the beach, I could scarcely see my oar-blade a fathom deep.[9]


The preface of The Queen of the Air is, of course, that text’s side cover:


     and to find on the book’s cover, on its aisle


                            the river’s synonymous curve.


We have made music, language (and training) less clear, less fixated on the xumjonia of Plato’s text; yet we have done it while drawing from thatPlato’sfountain, and by muddying and disturbing, by adding a dissonance factor.  Joyce, clearlyor obscurely, is one source, and his “swerve,” distantly echoing Lucretius or even Mark Twain (who knows?), reroutes the empowering “riverrun,” providing something like a Mississippi River clarity (before that muddy insight was clammed up).  Ruskin, in this passage, is in Barbara Guest’s charge; and in enclasping the de-crystallization of the Alpine sourceNietzsche-proving in her transvaluation of the meritworthy Ruskin sorrowshe once again lays claim to what it is to charm in music. Once again she flames it, the alteration through dissonance accomplished by way of appeal to “red summit red”; once again she is in control and appeal; she once again looks back to dissonance and music, as she asserts “[t]he light which once flushed those pale summits with its rose at dawn, and purple at sunset.”  The sharp phrases from the end of “Dissonance Royal Traveller” we now see may have had more significance than we thought, more than we thought of “flagrant the ragged grove” schirring toward “Pallor” in that something, watery to explain, unobservably, that something that allows this curious pure and not so pure pallor:


                          another persona the raggedness



                                         pallor crept in

                                    what is rouged in its    made-up history


L’azur no longer haunts, not in this dispensation, not in this institution of the fourth chord.  A red summit, unexpectedly gleaming with an unexpected red glowing, arises amid forbidding azure, whose mottled interference due to Mercury of the clouds and of thievery rescues the stolen delights, whose interference due to Mercury in league with Athena and all her influence of intelligence tempering and educating the experience of delight, rises to the experience of delight and fleetly treading culture.


The triumph of “Pallor” (however guarded, and bearing in mind my assumption for present purposes that the poem triumphs uniquely, whereas in fact it is part of a book-length sequence) lies in the realization of the nature of water as to “its fourth chord” in the context of classically mythological resonance and high imagination.  Thus the poem harkens to discovery and dissemination or dispersion, explained in one instance in terms of “Venus and errata.”  It is possible to see (at the bottom of page 43 leading to the poem’s last page) the dissonant bone-like structure, which is both vertebrae/spine structure and no doubt structure of music/musical staff with criss-crossing notes, to see this image as the birth of Venus-as-Aphrodite, in sea “foam” (αφροσ), “a fourth chord in the waist length hair.”  The dispersion, based, always remember, on the magic of dissonance, seems to be clapped on a concurrence of Athena Queen of the Air with Venus of Water, an arousal effectuated “mercurially,” creating the “abrupt dispersion,” the “flight into absence” (“Pallor,” p. 39).  Mercury, or Hermes, as thief, messenger, enabler, is cloud-god, dimming “azure,” softening it through discordance.  But how so Athena?  Because of her “fourth” attribute in Ruskin: “Temperance, (patience under trial by pleasure).”[10]  Potencies of Athena, working hand in hand, restate temperance for which you need pleasure, pleasure for which you need the intensifying pressure of temperance.  Despite Ruskin’s heavy-handed morality later in the talk (with Plato as escort), by which the music of Athena in league with Apollo figures as the sun-music of harmony and order in contrast with the degraded music of the “expression of ultimate vice … for ever sunk into discordance or silence,”[11] the fourth chord of water, in the form to which I am now speaking of educated musicality, is contrapuntal resumption reclarified of harmony and dissonance.  It is for this that the pallor dissembles, at first; and if for this aspect, if for rephased concordance, Mercury or Hermes draws, it is cloud in azure.  It is also muddiness in water, springing in its conceptual restitution from the idea of water, the “‘other than observable water’,” which is absence, “somewhere other than here,” because, for one, dissonance is the absence of harmony.  We resolve “fountain eelings” into “feelings” and “feelings” into “fountain eelings.”  We resolve absence into absence, and back again; and we do so because of, or because we are, pallor; we are intellectually resolved into airby attraction of “Pallas … the quivering or vibration of the air ….”[12]  In Plato’s Laws, the course of musical and ethical education comprises these tonalities as three phases presented as three choirs, the last two respectively dedicating their practices to Apollo and Dionysus.  Barbara Guest adds the appellation of “choir” or “chord,” the Fourth Chord, to the further advanced group.  The Fourth Choir are adherents of Athena.


In all fairness, and to be sure, in Ruskin’s list of the goddess’ air-qualities, as opposed to her virtues, there are five not four, and Athena’s emanation as Pallas vibration of the air is last and fifth, not fourth.  And, at the same time, one could surely find earlier and so so similarly forward-echoing instances of “pallor” in many a text, and uncover a plush semantics for pallor-sensitivities unjustly passed over here.  It is all a matter of literary sources, but not precisely: the literary sources are, in accurate and fully pleasuring terms, the points of reference for the reader’s response, infinitely many points of reference for infinitely many readers deservedly so.  Semantically open sites, the style-points of not the only modus operandi to occur to Barbara Guest but of an important one, register efficaciously like the devices of very few other poets, there being very few to compare.


“Pallor” has a finale, and the gathering locus classicus is Horace, a musician and reader of Greek texts such as you are not likely to find.  The Augustan Rome of Horace’s day was hardly a model republic, and neither is the United States of America of the last decade of the twentieth century.  Horace composed his great political odes, six of them, to start his monumental Book III of Odes.  He did not stop, and in the spirit of varying and enriching his world, dwelt in and dwelt rather upon a delicately organized sequence and range of topics, among them in Book III the figure of Mercury in the brilliant poem 11, and then a bit later the “fons Bandusiae” poem, poem 13 (Book III consisting of 30 poems).


In the “fons Bandusiae” poem, the scarlet blood (rubro sanguine) of a kid-goatwho has been bestowed to honor the “fons,” or “spring,” the “source” or “fount” of its associated riverwill by its donation tinge these cool waters, and will discolor the practice.  The “fons” itself, as we all know, is more radiant than glass (splendidior vitro), and is celebrated as the poem goes on meanwhile, forgetting about its disturbed waters, in the most beautiful and glowing terms.  But before we know it, before we forget it, the brow of the kid-goat is bursting with young horns (cornibus primis), whose goal in the world is war and love-hunting (venerem et proelia).  But the harmony and clarity and efficaciousness of Horace’s “fountain” remain undisturbed and inviolate, and for Horace there is a charm his charm which succors even the lost souls (e.g., pecori vago), even the lives crushed by a dangerous world.  Of such and not of such is our fountain.  It is too complicated and so widely opened for further reading, what Barbara Guest’s poem inverts to enliven the colors of the life-stream; but at least we may note the flight, displacement and ultimate violence, the untimely usurping of the flowers, and the also timely violence, of fountain drawn slowly for our “numb structure sleeve mud color” in contrast with “f … eelings … young,” of the fountain’s return of this dissonant structure, of a “made-up” Gestalt yet a thereness that absents and persists “… given the / legality of time and its execution” (and all we know as violent-turbled Americans about full noons) (“Pallor,” p. 43).  Horace’s noble spring is Guest’s noble fountain, a limiter and sender of her design, which she rounds down against the time-clock of Ruskin and Plato before him.  Mr. Wittgenstein has something up our sleeve; Ms. Guest has something of our rough.


[1]  Philosophical Investigations § 527.

[2]  Philosophical Investigations § 693.

[3]  Philosophical Investigations §§ 514-15.

[4]  Philosophical Investigations § 332.

[5]  Philosophical Investigations § 523.

[6]  Remarks on the Philosophy Psychology, vol. I, § 639.

[7] There is reason based, in effect, on common sense to believe the Laws to be the work of a period late in Plato’s life, but you can well imagine how iffy any kind of assertion might be regarding the timing of any one of these dialogues.  We may without much trouble, however, rely on narrational sense.  Thus it is the vantage of acquired time from which the thoughts of the Athenian character proceed in the Laws that provides us with the sufficient going papers for constructing a metaphorical and imaginative scheme by which to sort through the musical stages of individual and communal development.  Hence making way for the Fourth Chord, and hence for wisdom and a greater kind of insight, as I shall argue.

[8]  My text in English for Plato’s Laws is the translation by A.E. Taylor provided in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, edd. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961).

[9]  John Ruskin, Works, edd. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1905), vol. 19, 293.

[10] Ruskin 306.

[11] Ruskin 344.

[12] Ruskin 345.