The New String
At a time he believed he was on his death-bed, priest-poet John Donne wrote the following verse:
Since I am comming to that Holy roome,
Where, with thy Quire of Saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy musique; As I come
I tune the Instrument here at the dore,
And what I must doe then, thinke here before.1
Donne imagines his life as preparation or 'tuning up' for a concert which has yet to be played, a music-making that is yet to happen. He takes a traditional image of Heaven; the choir of saints making music before God in praise and worship, and gives it a new depth. For he does not say "I am coming to that holy room, where… evermore… I shall play thy music", but, "I shall be made thy music".
He imagines the soul as both the instrument and the music. We have an instrument to tune but we are ourselves a note or perhaps a motif to be sounded within the wider harmonies of a larger music. How did Donne arrive at this notion? What lies behind it, and is it taken up and developed by other Christian writers?
Donne had certainly meditated richly on music and found in it a helpful analogy for the mystery of God's power as both creator and redeemer. Like his fellow priest-poet George Herbert he possessed and played stringed instruments and found a parallel between the collaborative and sympathetic resonance of all the parts of a well made instrument and the order and beauty of the world around us:
God made this whole world in such an uniformity, such a correspondency, such a concinnity of parts, as that it was an Instrument, perfectly in tune: we may say the trebles, the highest strings were disordered first; the best understandings, Angels and Men, put this instrument out of tune. God rectified all again, by putting in a new string… the Messias, and onely by sounding that string in your eares, become we musicum carmen, true musick. true harmony, true peace to you.2
Here it is not simply the individual soul, but the whole cosmos with all its living creatures which is the musical instrument "perfectly in tune". Within this single simple image Donne conveys three essential Christian ideas; firstly the original goodness of all creation, every part of which is intended to support the other and sound the praise of God. Secondly, Donne frames the idea of fall or evil as being not a separate force in itself, but a dis-ordering of what is essentially good. Evil is therefore something which needs to be re-ordered and redeemed, not annihilated. And finally is this: that in Christ the Christian hears the key-note, tuned by God himself. By carefully listening to this note we can I gradually re-establish both inner spiritual, and outer cosmic harmony.
The presence in the cosmos of the "new string" the Messiah, does not intrude on or threaten what is already there but is a means of establishing harmony. He is both a measure of the order in creation and a means and promise of redemption. Donne, like Shakespeare, was deeply aware of the interconnections between inner and outer nature, between the microcosm of our humanity and the macrocosm of the universe. When he spoke of the characteristic Christian experience of self examination leading to repentance and renewal he uses just this musical metaphor to describe what happens:
So when a naturall man comes to be displeased with his owne actions...though his naturall faculties be the Instruments in these actions, yet the Holy Ghost sets this Instrument in tune and makes all that is musique and harmony in the faculties of this naturall man.3
So in looking at the poem with which we opened we can see how much was meant by that little phrase, "I tune my instrument here at the door." But what of the rich phrase "I shall be made thy music," with its note of hope looking forward to a transformation for us and for our world? Time and again when Christian writers and poets need to express that human hope which does not capitulate in the face of death and that longing for a better ordering of our relations with ourselves, each other and the world, it is music which helps them find that expression and flesh out those hopes. “What happens next,” says Seamus Heaney in his beautiful poem “Rainstick,” is discovering “a music you never would have known to listen for."
Another contemporary Irish poet, Michael O'Siadhaii, has developed Donne's death-bed metaphor in the light of his love of jazz and blues, introducing into Donne's images of tuning and harmony the further idea of improvisation, freedom within form, a music made both by listening and by creating. Writing from within the Irish situation and with a keen sense of some of the darkest conflicts of the 20th century, O'Siadhail finds in music, especially in polyphonic music, an image which may help Christians live with and hear each other, in addition to living with and hearing people of other or no faiths at all. So he writes of the experience of jazz improvisation:
…To play is everything… broken tempos of anguish seem to feed our joys; unexpected cadences, a tale of twelve bar blues…
…The stamp of one voice; Then pure concert as an ensemble improvises, Hearing in each other harmonies of cross-purpose As though being ourselves we're more capacious.4
In “Motet,” a meditation on the terrible role in world history played by the colonial powers of "white-burdened Europe," he rejects the monocultural "one voice" of colonialism and substitutes for it the notion that "All things share one breath." And while he is speaking in terms of a fundamental unity of human experience and culture, it should be even more true within the body of the church that such listening will lead to a better awareness of the “cross purposes” for which we have been called. For the Christian believer, this note resounding through all music is the voice of God touching the strings of humanity in the flesh of Jesus Christ; the conclusion of O'Siadhail’s poem likewise seems to echo Donne's notion of the "new string," the listened-for note that helps make sense of all the others, what he calls the cantus firmus.
…We listen clash and resolve, webs and layers of voices. And which voice dominates or is it chaos? My doubting earthling, tiny among the planets Does a lover of one voice hear more or less?
…Among the inner parts something open, something wild, a long rumour of wisdom keeps winding into each tune: cantus firmus, fierce vigil of contingency, loves congruence.5
May it be that in sharing our love of music and improvising in this world together we may all begin to make a new "music of compassion" and find together "Love's congruence" in tune with that “new string.”
A version of this essay appeared in Issue 15 of Faith Initiative Magazine in the UK.
Editor's Note: As a musician, Guite moves easily from rock ’n’ roll to traditional jazz to folk, including hybrids of all three. His album The Green Man, is out on Cambridge Riffs and iTunes. His blog may be found here.
1. “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness.” Poems of John Donne, vol I. E. K. Chambers, ed. London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896. p. 211-212. The full text of the poem may be found here.
2. Sermons, vol. II. Potter and Simpson, ed. University of California 1955 p.170.
3. Ibid., vol.VII. p.222.
4. “That in the End,” in Our Double Time. Bloodaxe, 1998: p.96.
5. “Motet” in Hail! Madam Jazz. Bloodaxe, 1992: p.123
Malcolm Guite is a priest, chaplain and teacher at the University of Cambridge. He is also a poet and singer-songwriter. He has published two collections of poetry: Saying the Names (2002) and The Magic Apple Tree (2004). He is also the author of What Do Christians Believe? and Faith, Hope and Poetry. His essay on literature and incarnation is included in Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts.