Words After Music: A Musical Reading of Scott's "Night Hymns On Lake Nipigon"

By Carolyn Roberts

On May 17,1922, when Duncan Campbell Scott delivered his Presidential Address "Poetry and Progress" to the Royal Society of Canada, he asked his audience to pardon him for making a short digression on the subject of music. Echoing Walter Pater's famous dictum "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music"),1 Scott declared that "all other arts strive towards the condition of Music", because music is "the art of perfection" and "truly the art of the future" to which men will come "more and more as the art which can express the complex emotions of life in terms of purest beauty."2 Man's highest achievement is, according to Scott, "the crowning mastery of poetry and music", for "we find it true of all peoples that these two arts are the cap stones of their civilizations."

Music is the great nourisher of the imagination, and the prevalence of great music means the production of great verse . . . I may quote the remark of Coleridge, made in 1833: "I could write as good verses as ever I did if I were . . . in the ad libitum hearing of fine music, which has a sensible effect in harmonizing my thoughts, and in animating and . . . lubricating my inventive faculties.3

Scott, like Coleridge, could say that music animated his inventive and poetic faculties. Many of his poems were written under the direct stimulation of specific musical models. In "Variations on a Seventeenth Century Theme", as Scott himself said, he

. . . followed closely the model set by musical composers, and the "Variations" may be compared, in intention at least, to Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Handel, where the succeeding pieces have unity in variety, but are not slavishly influenced by the theme.4

Much of Scott's poetic imagery was also drawn from musical models. In "An Impromptu" (1906), for instance, he orchestrated the sounds of the Canadian forest, comparing them to the timbres of various musical instruments:

A vireo turns his slow
Cadence, as if he gloated
Over the last phrase he floated;
Each one he moulds and mellows
Matching it with his fellows:
So have you noted
How the oboe croons,
The canary-throated,
In the gloom of the violoncellos
And bassoons.5

There can be little doubt, then, that Scott was in a position to discuss music and use musical models with authority. He was not only a distinguished poet, but an accomplished amateur musician as well. His knowledge of music and musicology, based upon actual experience as a piano performer, was wideranging and precise; there are few scholars of Canadian literature who would quarrel with A.J.M. Smith's assessment of Scott's work as "the poetry of a musician."6  This statement is a succinct and accurate summation of Scott's creative output, for an interest in the fusion of poetry and music was a constant feature of his literary career.

    Surprisingly, however, few of Scott's musico-literary endeavors have elicited a comprehensive critical response. In Leading Canadian Poets (1948), for instance, Pelham Edgar drastically underestimates the contribution of music to Scott's poetry when he says that although Scott was a "type of poet, rare in our literature, who is capable of thinking musically, . . . it is not often of course that Scott writes systematically and at length in this way."7  Similarly, in his biographical and critical study Ten Canadian Poets (1958), Desmond Pacey dismisses "A Blackbird Rhapsody" (1935) as "a decorative, ecstatic, but somewhat diffuse poem"8 without acknowledging that diffuseness is one of the qualitites of the rhapsody as a musical form. An exception to most published criticism is Highways of Canadian Literature (1924) in which Logan and French analyze the ten sections of "Variations on a Seventeenth Century Theme" in some detail. Here, they argue that the variations are "such niceties in imitation of the forms of music that they should be properly indicated with form or tempi nomenclature."9  Given the accuracy of their observation, it is unfortunate that they were not able to draw upon Scott's remark, not published until 1951, that the "Variations" may be compared to Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Handel. E.K. Brown quotes this statement in his "Memoir," but does not take advantage of this opportunity to update an observation he had made about the "Variations" several years earlier, when he had been content to say only that "the analogy with music is evident."10

     Clearly, Scott's poetry demands a close analysis of his explicitly musical poems. A modest beginning to such a study is the following examination of one such work. Poems by Scott in which music plays a significant role may be divided into three categories. On the most general level are those which pay tribute to a composer, musician or artist. These include such works as "The Reed Player" (1883), dedicated to the poet Bliss Carmen, "The Piper of Arll" (1898), "Lines in Memory of Edmund Morris" (1916) and "On the Death of Claude Debussy" (1921). Throughout his career, Scott also frequently employed music as a thematic motif. Many of his narrative poems, such as "Senza Fine" (1921), "Powassan's Drum" (1926), "The Spider and the Rose" (1935) and "Veronique Fraser" (1945), fall into this category. But the most numerous of Scott's musico-literary experiments are those in which he attempted to adapt musical techniques and structures to poetic form. It is one of Scott's earliest and most successful works in this category that is examined here: "Night Hymns on Lake Nipigon" (1905).

     "Night Hymns" has long been recognized as one of Scott's outstanding poetic achievements — according to Roy Daniells, it is probably "the best" of the group of poems upon which Scott's reputation rests — ,11 but no analysis of it from the musico-literary point of view has been previously attempted. As in the case of Scott's "Variations on a Seventeenth Century Theme," there is evidence to suggest that "Night Hymns on Lake Nipigon" was based upon musical models. Writing a poem about the singing of Latin hymns in the darkness of a northern midnight, Scott complemented subject with form in "Night Hymns" by finding poetic structural equivalents for the musical form of the hymn. He did this by means of several devices. The most fundamental was his use of the Horacian Sapphic stanza, a metre traditionally used by both classical and post-classical poets for the writing of odes, hymns12 and other verse forms intended to be accompanied by music. Isaac Watts, for instance, the creator of the modern English hymn ("O God, our help in ages past" and "When I survey the wonderous Cross"),13 used the Sapphic stanza in "Day of Judgment: An Ode Attempted in English Sapphics":

When the fierce north-wind with his airy forces
Rears up the Baltic to a foaming fury;
And the red lightning, with a storm of hail comes,
             Rushing amain down . . . .14

It is interesting to note that Swinburne also used the Sapphic stanza to suggest a musical form, although not the hymn:

A roundel is wrought as a ring or a starbright sphere,
With craft of delight and with cunning of sound unsought,
That the heart of the hearer may smile of to pleasure his ear
          A roundel is wrought.15

As both these examples illustrate, the Sapphic stanza consists of four lines, the first three of which are called Lesser Sapphic lines and generally follow the metric pattern:

                                           l u l l l    u u l u l u

These are followed by one short Adonic line usually consisting of:

                                           l u u l u16

Horace did not invent the form, but rather based his metric pattern upon models found in the works of the Greek Iyrical poetess Sappho. Nevertheless, he used it extensively throughout his Odes,17 and it was the Horacian version which provided the model for subsequent Roman and European poets. Of course, in modern adaptations of any classical metre, stress is substituted for quantity. The length of the Lesser Sapphic lines may be extended, but other features of the Horacian pattern, such as the distribution of caesure and sense-pauses,18 have been generally retained.

     In "Night Hymns," Scott's brilliance lies in the fact that he has united this tradition of using the Sapphic stanza to write odes, hymns and other musical verse forms with the familiar Latin hymn "Adeste Fideles," itself quoted at the central point of the poem, the last line of the fifth stanza:

Now have the ages met in the Northern midnight,
And on the lonely, loon-haunted Nipigon reaches
Rises the hymn of triumph and courage and comfort,
            Adeste Fideles. (39)

      Although it may at first glance appear that the rhythm of "Adeste Fideles" and the Sapphic stanza are unrelated, in "Night Hymns" Scott has made a connection between them. Minus the anacrusis or up-beat, the rhythmic pattern of the opening phrase of the hymn "Adeste Fideles" is identical with the metric pattern of the short Adonic line which ends each Sapphic stanza.19  Thus, each verse of "Night Hymns" concludes with a short Adonic refrain: "Whispers before us," "Then have they vanished," "Lapses in blackness," and "Adeste Fideles." The metric motif of the Adonic refrain, which consists of a dactyl and a trochee, is extended in Scott's Lesser Sapphic lines. Instead of following the traditional Lesser Sapphic pattern, they consist of four dactyls and a trochee, as in "Thunder is travelling slow on the path of the lightning." As a result, most of the lines in this poem begin with a stressed foot.

    To the modern ear, this might initially sound unmusical. But in "Night Hymns," Scott has identified "Adeste Fideles" with medieval plainsongs, "the sacred ancient hymns of the churches . . . fashioned when the faith brooded in darkness."20  Christian hymnology borrowed extensively from Horacian metric patterns;21 the following poem establishes a connection between the medieval plainsong, the Sapphic stanza and the hymn:

Father, we praise Thee, now the night is over;
Active and watchful, stand we all before Thee;
Singing, we offer prayer and meditation:
            Thus we adore Thee.

Monarch of all things, fit us for Thy mansions;
Banish our weakness, health and wholeness sending;
Bring us to heaven, where Thy saints united
             Joy without ending.

All-holy Father, Son and Equal Spirit,
Trinity blessed, send us Thy salvation;
Thine is the glory, gleaming and resounding
             Through all creation.22

This Latin hymn, written in classical Sapphics and presented here in translation, is ascribed to St. Gregory the Great (540-604), the same Pope Gregory I who is generally accredited with completing the classification of modes into what is called Gregorian chant.

     By beginning each line of "Night Hymns" with a strong stress, Scott has used a metric pattern which is in accordance not only with the metric pattern of the Sapphic stanza, but also with a rhythmic feature of the Gregorian chant. The freely flowing Gregorian chants, or medieval plainsongs, were characterized by rhythms unsubjugated by the modern tyrannies of measures or regularly reoccurring beats. Instead, they took their musical accents from the verbal stresses of the text. Because Gregorian chants were set to Latin texts, they usually began with a strong stress, both verbal and musical. In order to reflect this musical rhythm in poetic metre, Scott avoided using iambic or anapestic feet in "Night Hymns." These metres contain up-beats, and would have been incompatible with the period and style of music, the medieval Latin hymn, which Scott was attempting to recreate here.

     For Scott, the manipulation of metre was clearly a major poetic device. "You could find plenty to say about metre," he wrote apropos of his own work, "and I have invented not a few new stanzas."23  In "Night Hymns," Scott has drawn particular attention to rhythm and metre, emphasizing the conjunction between the rhythm of one activity and that of another:

Soft with the silver drip of the regular paddles
Falling in rhythm, timed with the liquid, (39)

This image may be regarded as a metaphor for the rhythmic and metric conjunction Scott has created between music and verse.

    Scott achieved a certain rhythmic similarity between "Night Hymns" and the medieval hymn-tunes by using the metric pattern of the Sapphic stanza. He did so by means of several other devices as well. He often inverts normal word order, as in

Sing we the hymns of the churches . . .


Then have they vanished. (38)

Not only does the inversion of normal word order ensure an initial strong stress, but it reinforces the affinity between "Night Hymns" and a text written to be accompanied by music. Inversion is a device frequently found in song texts, including the familiar English translation of "Adeste Fideles:"

O come, all ye faithful, . . .

A strong initial stress may also be produced within a phrase through the use of hyphenated words:

Presses her prow in the star-gleam, . . . (38)


And on the lonely, loon-haunted Nipigon reaches. . . (39)

Because Scott has used hyphenation to give strong initial stress to grammatical phrases which coincide with metric feet, the overall dactylic-trochaic pattern used throughout the poem is reinforced. Moreover, Scott gives parts of "Night Hymns" a chant-like monotoneity reminiscent of the medieval plainsongs by writing long lists suggestive of the church liturgy:

Gathers her voice in the quiet and thrills and whispers, (38)


Rises the hymn of triumph and courage and comfort,
            Adeste Fideles.

A similar effect is obtained through the use of extended patterns of alliteration:

Here in the midnight, where the dark mainland and island
Shadows mingle in shadow deeper, profounder, . . . (38)

In addition to reproducing the rhythmic patterns of the medieval hymntunes, Scott has also used the Sapphic stanza to recreate more general musical effects. The Adonic line which concludes each Sapphic stanza contributes substantially to the musical momentum of the poem. In effect, each Sapphic stanza ends with a rhythmic refrain, imparting to the poem as a whole a distinctly song-like or musical quality. This impression is sustained by the organization of each stanza into a complete syntactical unit, or verse. Scott has retained the traditional feature of writing each Sapphic stanza as a self-contained unit ending with a full-stop or colon.24

     The self-sufficiency of each Sapphic stanza has been used to musical advantage in other ways as well. In the following stanza, Scott has recreated in verse the effects of two other forms of musical rhythm, the dynamic and the harmonic:

Each long cadence, flying like a dove from her shelter
Deep in the shadow, wheels for a throbbing moment,
Poises in utterance, returning in circles of silver
           To nest in the silence. (39)

Both the metaphor of light and the alternation of short and long phrases build verbal tension, much as in a musical work tension is created both dynamically, by means of a melody of ascending notes sung crescendo, and harmonically, by means of a series of chords climaxing in a cadential resolution. In this stanza, musical resolution is paralleled by the long concluding phrase which both syntactically and metaphorically comes "To nest in the silence."

     Just as this one stanza builds to a musical climax and resolution, so also does the poem as a whole echo musical structures. On the level of content, Scott has written contrapuntally, simultaneously describing two events: the singing of "Adeste Fideles" and the approach of a summer thunderstorm as it overtakes the carolling canoers. Counterpoint in music develops tension which must be resolved; similarly, in "Night Hymns" the tension created by Scott's conceptual counterpoint is released in the climactic fortissimo of the final stanza:

Back they falter as the deep storm overtakes them,
Whelms them in splendid hollows of booming thunder,
Wraps them in rain, that, sweeping, breaks and onrushes
              Ringing like cymbals. (39)

The metaphors "booming thunder" and rain "Ringing like cymbals" are orchestral, and conclude "Night Hymns" on an arguably Wagnerian note. Scott's final Wagnerian thunder and cymbals form the perfect cadence to his metric recreation of medieval plainsongs, to his description of an approaching cataclysm, and, most of all, to the musical character of the poem as a whole.25


  1. Walter Pater, "The School of Giorgione," The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (London: Macmillan,1910), p. 135.[back]

  2. Duncan Campbell Scott, "Poetry and Progress," The Circle of Affection (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart,1947), p. 139.[back]

  3. Ibid., p. 132, p. 140. [back]

  4. D.C. Scott, quoted in: E.K. Brown, "Memoir," Selected Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott (Toronto: Ryerson,1951), p. xxx. [back]

  5. D.C. Scott, "An Impromptu," Selected Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott (Toronto: Ryerson 1951), p. 86. All subsequent quotations from Scott's poetry are taken from this edition. Page references will henceforth be given within the body of the text.[back]

  6. A.J.M. Smith, "Duncan Campbell Scott: A Reconsideration," Canadian Literature, 1 (Summer,1959), p.15. [back]

  7. Pelham Edgar, "Duncan Campbell Scott," Leading Canadian Poets, ed. W.P. Percival (Toronto: Ryerson,1948), p. 218. [back]

  8. Desmond Pacey, "Duncan Campbell Scott," Ten Canadian Poets: A Group of Biographical and Critical Essays (Toronto: Ryerson,1958), p. 160. [back]

  9. J.D. Logan & Donald G. French, Highways of Canadian Literature (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart,1924), p. 169. [back]

  10. E.K. Brown, "Duncan Campbell Scott," On Canadian Poetry (Toronto: Ryerson, 1944), p.140. [back]

  11. Roy Daniells, "Crawford, Campbell and Scott," in the Literary History of Canada, ed. Carl F. Klinck (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1966), p. 419. [back]

  12. Noel A. Bonavia-Hunt, Horace the Minstrel: A Practical and Aesthetic Study of his Aeolic Verse (Kineton: Roundwood,1969), p. 47. [back]

  13. Alex Preminger, ed., Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton: Princeton University, 1972), p. 358. For arrangements of these hymns by the Canadian composer Healey Willan, see: The Hymnary of the United Church of Canada (Toronto: United Church, 1930), Nos.86 and 662. [back]

  14. Isaac Watts, "The Day of Judgment: An Ode Attempted in English Sapphics," The Poetical Works of Isaac Watts, ed. Thomas Park (London: Stanhope,1867), I,108. [back]

  15. Algernon Charles Swinburne, "The Roundel," Representative Poetry (Univ. of Toronto Press,1946), II,638. [back]

  16. Horace the Minstrel, p. 46. [back]

  17. For a list of the Odes in which the Sapphic metre occurs, see: Horace, The Odes and Epodes, trans. C.E. Bennett (London: William Heinemann,1964), pp. xv-xvi. [back]

  18. See, Horace the Minstrel, pp. 46-52. [back]

  19. Throughout this paper, the term "rhythm" is generally used in relation to music, and the term "metre" used in relation to verse. If in music "rhythm may be defined as the way in which one or more unaccented beats are grouped in relation to an accented one" (Grosvenor W. Cooper and Leonard B. Meyer, The Rhythmic Structure of Music (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 6), then "what Cooper and Meyer call a 'rhythmic pattern' in music is what prosodists are wont to call a 'metric pattern' in verse. Recurrence of metric pattern is meter."
         Monroe C. Beardsley, "Verse and Music," Versification: Major Language Types, ed. W.K. Wimsatt (New York: MLA, New York University,1972), p. 240. [back]

  20. Scott could not have been aware that musicological scholarship subsequent to the writing of "Night Hymns" has found that "Adeste Fideles" is actually of relatively recent composition. Both words and music of "Adeste Fideles" have been attributed to John Francis Wade (d. 1786), and the hymn's date of composition set between 1740 and 1743. See Percy A. Scholes, The Oxford Companion to Music, 10th ed., ed. John Owen Ward (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), p. 18. The Latin hymn "Adeste Fideles" is still included, however, in the Paroissien Romain: Chant grégorien which contains "La Messe et L'Office pour les dimanches et les fêtes" of the Roman Catholic Church. See Paroissien Romain: Chant grégorien (Paris, Tournai, Rome: Société de Saint Jean L'Evangeliste,1954), pp. 1870-71. [back]

  21. Michael Oakley "Introduction," The Collected Works of Horace, trans. Lord Dunsany and Michael Oakley (London: J.M. Dent, 1961), p. ix. [back]

  22. St. Gregory the Great, "Morning," trans. Percy Dearmer (1863-1936), The Hymnary of the United Church of Canada, No. 540. [back]

  23. D. C. Scott, Some Letters of Duncan Campbell Scott and Others, ed. Arthur S. Bourinot (Ottawa: Arthur S. Bourinot,1959), p. 30. [back]

  24. Horace the Minstrel, p. 49. [back]

  25. The author wishes to acknowledge with gratitude the advice of D.M.R. Bentley.[back]