A Song of Ink: Reading Music and Literature

In high school, I was blessed to have a choir director who loved literature and picked songs that were adapted from famous poems. I was reminded of that this morning when, instead of turning on Pandora, as is my habit, I followed the inclination of my ear to YouTube to look up old choir songs. Over a hot cup of coffee, I dug up song after song from the depths of my memory bank. The easiest to remember? The ones I resonated with the most? Almost exclusively based on poetry. During my little jaunt down memory lane, I was reminded of and inspired by the ways that literature and music can be interconnected in a deeply personal way for me as both a singer and a student of literature.

For example, in the graduate class I took on British Literature, we were reading Yeats, and I happened to stumble across “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” for the first time. As I was reading, I heard the music of the poem, which may just sound like precocious English-major talk, but I literally mean that I heard music. It grew louder and louder in my head, and by the end of the poem, I thought to myself, “I have never read this before, but I can feel this poem inside of me somewhere.” I knew it must be a choir song, and when I looked it up, the pieces clicked: I knew the song from my freshman year of high school, when I spent a mere two weekends learning and performing it at regional and state choir. Reading the poem amazingly called up that minor memory from seven years earlier, and when I found the right version on YouTube, tears started streaming down my face without my consent. The entire experience was surprising and visceral and raw and– I thought– quite profound. This was not an isolated incident by any means: I’ve had several “discoveries” of old choir songs throughout my English studies. I’ve been surprised over and over again by the way the words to long-ago poem-songs come back to me, the way that I feel them bubbling out from within me from a source that I cannot see, a source I often forget is even there.

Reconnecting with these songs has shown me that musical interpretations of literature can be foundational to the way I approach texts. If I have first encountered a literary text through a musical interpretation of it, the music will automatically determine how I interpret the literature by itself. A great example of this is knowing the musical Les Miserables inside and out before I ever cracked the book open. There’s no way you can’t “hear the people sing” when your introduction to Hugo’s tome is the tear-jerker musical. The brain is a beautiful mechanism, and it tries its best to connect the pieces of the new information you give it to what it already knows. In the situations where I learn the music first and then read the text, I naturally interpret the text the way the music suggests I should.

However, in cases like Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” or Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”– poems that I was familiar with long before I had ever learned the music– hearing a musical adaptation changed my approach to the texts, making my interpretation and my experience of the literature much, much richer by providing a new way to see it (well, hear it). In these scenarios, I have experienced literature intellectually through study, but I’ve also experienced it physically– through my voice– AND socially– because it was part of a shared choral experience that was performed for an audience. Not many literature students get to have that kind of holistic and emotionally-charged interaction with the texts they study. I count myself as one of the lucky ones.

And more, it has made my life exponentially richer to have these poems memorized. Available at the prompting of an awe-inspiring sunset or a looming major decision, these poems are with me wherever I go. In a deeply intimate way, the poems have shaped my life the way that every good English major hopes that great literature will.

Below are links to a few truly exquisite choral renditions of poems you’ve probably read before and then some more obscure ones that I couldn’t leave out. I earnestly encourage you to read them and then listen to someone else’s artistic interpretation. You might be surprised to learn something new from a song made out of ink.

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats

“Crossing the Bar” by Lord Alfred Tennyson

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

“Faery Songs” by John Keats

“I Am Not Yours” by Sara Teasdale

“Things That Never Die” by Charles Dickens


If you know of more, please send them my way. I’m building up a list!

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