By Caroline Winter
I’ve long been fascinated by two Romantic objects that figure prominently in poetry and prose: the Aeolian harp and the Claude glass. The Aeolian harp is a stringed instrument that is placed in an open window so that the strings vibrate with the wind, sort of like a sideways guitar.
Image source: http://chestofbooks.com/reference/American-Cyclopaedia-V1/Aeolian-Harp.html
The instrument is widely recognized for its poetic significance. Coleridge’s poem “Eolian Harp” is probably the clearest example of the harp in Romantic poetry. The poet calls it “that simplest Lute, / Placed length-ways in the clasping casement” (l. 13–14), and spends some time describing the sound it makes:
… And now, its strings
Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes
Over delicious surges sink and rise,
Such a soft floating witchery of sound
As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve
Voyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land,
Where Melodies round honey-dropping flowers,
Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,
Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untamed wing! (l. 18–26)
The harp is also an object of metaphysical contemplation for the poet, who muses,
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all? (l. 45–49)
Percy Shelley also draws upon the harp’s metaphorical power in his “Ode to the West Wind,” in which the poet calls upon the wind to sound him:
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one! (l. 57–62)
This instrument is an important object for Romantic poetry, but what does the “soft floating witchery of sound / As twilight Elfins make” actually sound like? What does Coleridge mean by “long sequacious notes” and the sound of “honey-dropping flowers”?
I tried to find a harp that I could listen to, maybe one that I could buy, but was disappointed to discover that Aeolian harps are actually quite hard to come by these days. I found only one eighteenth-century specimen on eBay, selling for about $900 CAD.
Image source: http://www.ebay.com/itm/AEOLIAN-HARP-XVIII-sec-ARPA-EOLIA-old-antique-antica-alte-ancienne-harpe-harfe-/222092039084
There are, however, videos online demonstrating what modern wind harps sound like, and even plans for building your own.
The Claude glass or Lorrain mirror is another Romantic object that is important for literary studies. It is named after Claude Lorrain, a landscape painter who influenced Ann Radcliffe’s descriptions of Gothic landscapes. It is a curved, tinted lens that, when held up to a landscape, rendered a more picturesque view, in keeping with the aesthetics of William Gilpin. It fit in the viewer’s hand, and was popular among tourists and sketch artists.
Image source: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=260196001&objectid=749980
In Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, for example, Emily steals out of the house to visit a pavilion she used to visit with her absent lover, Valancourt, and as she indulges in some melancholy memories around twilight, the flattened colour and indistinct lines of the landscape surrounding her is reminiscent of the view through a Claude glass:
“The lattices were thrown back, and shewed beyond their embowered arch the moon-light landscape, shadowy and soft; its groves, and plains extending gradually and indistinctly to the eye, its distant mountains catching a stronger gleam, and the nearer river reflecting the moon, and trembling to her rays.
Emily, as she approached the lattice, was sensible of the features of this scene only as they served to bring Valancourt more immediately to her fancy. ‘Ah!’ said she, with a heavy sigh, as she threw herself into a chair by the window, ‘how often have we sat together in this spot—often have looked upon that landscape! Never, never more shall we view it together—never—never more, perhaps, shall we look upon each other!” (Chapter XIII)
Reading this passage inspired me to see if I could find a Claude glass and experience this view of the landscape for myself, but discovered that Claude glasses are even harder to acquire than Aeolian harps. I even checked a few museum collections, including the British Museum, with no luck. Just as having access to an Aeolian harp would be invaluable to the study of Romantic poetry, being able to see the world as Romantic tourists saw it—as Ann Radcliffe saw it—would bring her novel to life and help us understand the picturesque aesthetic, which profoundly influenced Romantic literature as well as art.
Although neither of these objects is accessible to the average Romantic scholar, both would be fitting projects for a do-it-yourself enthusiast, or even a maker lab. Recreating and using these objects could even work as a class activity, with the right skills and resources. Seeing, feeling, and using objects like these would be a way to recapture the ephemeral contexts of Romantic literature, a way to experience the sights and sounds of the period.