I search for old examples of the word "song" together with "poetry," in order to prove my own point to myself or to somebody else (then wondering why and who but pausing too briefly over it and pushed along by my own momentum, which has to be partly anxiousness stimulated by the sight of a thin old man pulling a Subway wrapper out of a bin – there are too many – like the children of Jude the Obscure, “The children were past saving, for though their bodies were still barely cold it was conjectured that they had been hanging more than an hour“ -- there are so many "past savings" here, mad, mad, lying on shirts, rocking on top of electrical boxes -- the box was under a mesquite tree -- in a desert at a hundred and ten nobody is mad enough to sit in the sun; you would have to be sane and stubborn --) -- that the conflation of poets with singers used to be normal and now it isn't.
“Sing, Heav'nly Muse,” says Milton in 1664, “I thence | invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song.” He abducts, with the word “Heav'nly,” the pagan Muse from Homer and upgrades it to a new technology of worship, a habit that Alexander Pope continued after him in 1715 when he translated the opening lines of the Iliad: “Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring / Of woes unnumber'd, heavenly goddess, sing!”
Milton could read his Homer in Greek but if he had looked at a translation then it would probably have been Chapman (c. 1559 - 1634), who starts his own Iliad with the more commanding word “resound.”
Achilles’ bane full wrath resound, O Goddesse, that imposd
Infinite sorrowes on the Greekes, and many brave soules losd
From breasts Heroique—sent them farre, to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their lims to dogs and vultures gave.
His Muse, in the opening lines of the Odyssey, will not sing, she will inform. “The man, O Muse, inform.” "Inform" is sort of accurate according to the Rev. Lovelace Bigge-Wither, author of A Nearly Literal Translation of Homer's Odyssey Into Accentuated Dramatic Verse (1869), who chooses “tell.” “Tell me, oh Muse.”
The man, O Muse, inform, that many a way
Wound with his wisdom to his wished stay;
That wandered wondrous far, when he the town
Of sacred Troy had sack'd and shivered down
Alliteration, I think as I look at those lines, is the sign of oral transmission. In prose it is like a pawprint from an animal that has gone past. Chapman's Muse doesn't sing but his poet sings. “To hear a poet sing the sad retreat | The Greeks perform'd from Troy.” Why does his “sack'd and shivered” town sound familiar? The anonymous Pearl Poet used the same seesaw before him in Gawain and the Green Knight: “troye […] brittened and brent.”
(Adrian West recently blogged about the artistic excitement of women being hurt. Troy, too, beaten, bashed, always popular.)
In 1961 Robert Fitzgerald brought the opening of the Odyssey closer to Milton -- “Sing in me, Muse” -- an observation that, if you take it on its own, with no other examples around to modify the idea, contradicts the point I was trying to make earlier; and the substitution of the word “sing” for “make poetry” has not been falling out of use for at least the past hundred years, because, look, it was being used in 1961 while Bigge-Wither in 1869 completely ignored it. John Donne, in The Triple Fool (1633), distinguishes between poems made silently and poems sung aloud.
I am two fools, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
In whining poetry ;
But where's that wise man, that would not be I,
If she would not deny ?
Then as th' earth's inward narrow crooked lanes
Do purge sea water's fretful salt away,
I thought, if I could draw my pains
Through rhyme's vexation, I should them allay.
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.
But when I have done so,
Some man, his art and voice to show,
Doth set and sing my pain ;
And, by delighting many, frees again
Grief, which verse did restrain.
To love and grief tribute of verse belongs,
But not of such as pleases when 'tis read.
Both are increasèd by such songs,
For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fools, do so grow three.
Who are a little wise, the best fools be.