Aeolian Harps and the Romantics


Aeolian Harps

  • This page is solely devoted to the Aeolian harp and its counterparts: the harp itself, historical background, and how it is discussed throughout Romantic Poetry. In addition, it explains the literary allusions regarding its transcendence; and, in using visual aids, helps to show how the Aeolian Harp realistically appears.

Picture courtesy of Robert A. Corrigan. Click on Pic for his site

What is an Aeolian harp?

  • An aeolian harp or wind harp is a stringed instrument played by the wind. It is named after the Greek god of wind, Aeolus. ( ( “It is usually a long, narrow, shallow box with soundholes and 10 or 12 strings strung lengthwise between two bridges. The strings are the same length but different thicknesses and are all tuned to the same pitch; the wind makes them vibrate in successively higher harmonics.” According to (Nancy’s Musical Meanderings), there are two types of Aeolian harps. One kind is meant to be placed on the window sill and the other is made to stay outside. The one made for outside is often larger and considered to be a piece of art. You can purchase the latter kind of aeolian harp here. It explains, “It was intended to be played not by human hands, but by the God of Wind himself. Its melodies and harmonies were not those chosen by humans, but were held to be the improvisations of Nature itself.”


(Image from:

external image intro_soundclip.jpg

(Courtesy of

History of the Aeolian harp

  • According to ( the first known Aeolian harp was constructed in 1650 by Athanasius Kircher (1601–1680). Carl Engel, in his article “Aeolian Music,” describes Kircher’s original Aeolian harp that “consisted of a square box mounted with fifteen thin catgut strings” (Engel par. 9). Engel traces the roots of the wind harp to long before Kircher. While Engel does credit Kirchner with creating the most recent form of the Aeolian harp, which is commonly referred to in Romantic poetry, he does not believe that Kirchner invented the instrument. Engel theorizes that it is “highly probable that the Egyptians, Greeks, and other nations of antiquity constructed some kind of Aeolian harp” (Engel par. 1). Engel backs up this theory of its earlier existence by showing that the instrument is featured in the Bible. It is believed that King David suspended his harp in the air and at midnight the north wind blew through these strings causing the harp to play by itself. According to Engel, “this so-called harp, the Hebrew kinnor, was probably a species of lyre, small and easily portable” (Engel par. 6). See picture below for a more dramatic version of this harp.
    King David and his harp.

(Image courtesy of Tony Morosco, Creative Commons)

The Aeolian Harp in Music of the Romantic Period

  • The Aeolian harp was recognized and referenced in the music of the Romantic period as well as in the literature. Frederic Chopin’s Étude Op. 25, No. 1 is a beautiful piano piece that involves dexterous digits for it is often referred to as the “Aeolian Harp”. This name was coined by Robert Schumann who believed the piece to sound strikingly similar to that of the wind instrument. ( Below is a clip of Chopin’s Étude performed by Miguel Campinho.


The Aeolian Harp in Literature of the Romantic Poets

  • Nature consists of the physical manifestations of a greater truth. Through nature, humans get a glimpse of this permanent, transcendent power that does not have a physical form. The physical object is merely a representation of this power. Therefore, the Aeolian harp, is a device that translates truth. The Aeolian Harp by Coleridge shows that as the breeze flows through the harp, the speaker experiences this transcendent power. The speaker becomes like an Aeolian harp, allowing his “indolent and passive brain” to feel the beauty of the music and take over his body. As the wind passes through the harp, this greater power flows through the speaker. In his article entitled, “Romanticism and the materiality of nature,” author Kurt Fosso writes that there is a “divide between material nature’s otherness and the perceiving mind’s uncanny alienation” (Fosso par. 7). Humans can only experience moments of this “otherness,” and one way to do this is through the Aeolian harp.

  • This intangible power is a popular theme in Romantic poetry. The search for a greater truth only yields momentary satisfaction, leaving Romantics confined to the limitations of their humanity. This puts poets in a difficult, and at times, frustrating situation, for as Fosso writes, “physical proximity to nature reveals the observer’s epistemological distance from nature” (Fosso par. 2). In the passages that follow, it is evident that the Aeolian harp and the search for a greater power had an undeniable presence in most Romantic poetry.

Examples of Specific Works Portraying the Aeolian Harp

  • Listed below are some representative works of the Aeolian harp in Romantic poetry. The most clear and characteristic poem is first, followed by others that further enforce the transcendent power represented by the harp. The references to the Aeolian Harp are bolded throughout the examples.

From The Aeolian Harp

-written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1795 and to Sara Fricker, his wife

-Stanza 2 to 4*
“And that simplest lute,
Placed length-ways in that clasping casement, hark!
How by the desultory breeze caressed,
Like some coy maid half-yielding to her lover,
It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs
Tempt to repeat the wrong! And now, it’s strings
Boldlier swept, the lond 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!
O the one life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so filled;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.

And thus, my love! as on the midway slope
Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon,
Whilst through my half-closed eye-lids I behold
The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main,
And tranquil muse upon tranquility;
Full many a thought uncalled and undetained,
And many idle flitting phantasies,
Traverse my indolent and passive brain,
As wild and various as the random gales
That swell and flutter on this subject lute!

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?”

From Hymn to Intellectual Beauty

– by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in 1817
-from stanza 3*
“Thy light alone – like mist o’er mountains driven,
Or music by the night wind sent
Through strings of some still instrument,
Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.”

From Dejection: An Ode

-by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1798
-from stanza 5*
“O pure of heart! thou need’st not ask of me
What this strong music in the soul may be!”

“Joy is the sweet voice, Joy the luminous cloud-
We in ourselves rejoice!
And thence flows all that charms or ear or sight,
All melodies the echoes of that voice,
All colours a suffusion from that light.”

-from stanza 7*
“Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,
Reality’s dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that ravest without,
Bare crag, or mountain-tairn, or blasted tree,
Or pine grove whither woodman never clomb,
Or lonely house, long held the witches’ home,
Methings were fitter instruments for thee,
Mad Lutanist! who in this month of showers,
Of dark brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,
Mak’st Devils’ yule, with worse than wintry song,
The blossoms, buds, and timorous leaves among.”

From Ode to the West Wind

-by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in 1819
*from canto five
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!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

(all text is as printed in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th Edition, 2nd volume, 2006)

Emerson and the Aeolian Harp

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson is another poet that addresses the Aeolian harp in his works. Emerson uses the physical form of the Aeolian harp played by an Orphic poet, whose name is derived from Orpheus, an ancient Greek hero who sang and played the harp so well that it could charm the divinities of the underworld. By using the physical form of the harp, he symbolizes a melodious and lyrical connection between the Orphic poet, the harp, and the Over-Soul. The Over-Soul is essentially when man accepts “the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature” and when he finds his center, the “Deity will shine through him.” This celestial light is known as the Over-Soul. The man will no longer lead “a spotted life of shreds and patches, but he will live with a divine unity.” Emerson, in his poetry, suggests that a harmonious relationship with nature and the Over-Soul maybe be achieved by individuals who are willing to listen to the message of the Over-Soul in nature through sources such as the Aeolian harp. Emerson views the harp as not only an instrument, but as a symbol of beauty, wisdom, and divine harmony. The music of the Aeolian harp is not tainted by human’s impurity because is it produced by nature. Emerson once stated to Moncure Conway, “A single breath of spring fragrance coming into his open window and blending with strains of his Aeolian harp had revived in him memories and reanimated thoughts that had perished under turmoil of the times.” Emerson, in his last book of poetry entitled Selected Poems, writes from the point of view of the personified instrument. This particular Aeolian harp mentioned in this poem, is refusing to be played by the hand of a human.

From The Maiden Speech of the Aeolian Harp

-by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Keep your lips or finger-tips
For flute or spinet’s dancing chips;
I await a tenderer touch
I ask more or not so much:
Give me to the atmosphere.

Pictures of Aeolian Harps Today

Aeolian Harp by the Ocean

Modern Day Wind Harp

(Image 1 courtesy of Lysha, Creative Commons; Image 2 Courtesy of M. Kelly, Creative Commons)

Online sources:

Caracci, Annibale. Polyphemus c.‘s%
20Ideas/Paintings/Paintings.htm (thumbnail picture of Aeolus)

Cavanaugh, Cynthia A., “The Aeolian Harp: Beauty and Unity in the Poetry and Prose of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” 1997. 7 December 2007.

Engel, Carl. “Aeolian Music.” The Musical times and Singing Class Circular 23 (1882): 479-483. 5 November 2007

Fosso, Kurt. “Romanticism and the Materiality of Nature.” Studies in Romanticism 44 (1996): 7 pgs. 5 November 2007

Lysha. “Aeolian Harp.” 3 December 2007. Retrieved through

M. Kelley. Aeolian Harp.” 3 December 2007. Retrieved through

Morosco, Tony. “Types of Harps.” 25 November 2007. Retrieved through

Interesting and Informative links:

Libby Nelson, Kathryn Kummer, Michelle Hector, Jessica Delli Santi, Jennifer Brown, and Fred Melchiore