Death and the Harp and the Maiden


Thoreau, coming upon the new telegraph lines that were going up around Concord in 1851, was drawn to both their practical and poetic qualities, and wrote several entries in his natural history notebooks that invoke a key metaphor of this blog—the harp or lyre. Fifty years after Coleridge, Thoreau is moved by the music of a vast aeolian telegraph-harp “girdling the earth,” and marvels at “the sound of a far-off glorious life, a supernal life, which came down to us, and vibrated in the lattice-work of this life of ours.”

The telegraph harp sounds strongly today, in the midst of the rain. I put my ear to the trees [i.e., poles] and I hear it working terribly within, and anon it swells into a clear tone, which seems to concentrate in the core of the tree, for all the sound seems to proceed from the wood. It is as if you had entered some world-famous cathedral, resounding to some vast organ. The fibres of all things have their tension, and are strained like the strings of a lyre.

What an awful and fateful music it must be to the worms in the wood…such vibrating music would thrill them to death.

Thoreau’s worms remind me of Vonnegut’s harmoniums, indigenous papery cave entities of Mercury in The Sirens of Titan, who subsist entirely on music, but who fall so much in love with new songs brought by humans that they inch toward the source from miles away, only to be overstimulated, thrilled to death, and die by the thousands.

When I play my guitar no one hears the music, except perhaps for some distant unknown creatures, already dead (ghosts of fleas, ghosts of maidens), moving slowly toward me from all directions.

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One Comment on “Death and the Harp and the Maiden”

  1. John Pulver Says:

    The images are haunting as if the telegraph lines which have now become fiber optic cables allow us to
    communicate with strange and mysterious creatures that inhabit a heaven-like reality unreachable by us, and we do not know how deeply we affect them. Do they delight in our messages, or do they crash upon rocks when moving toward our songs?

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