Eruptions and transformations: volcanoes in poetry and songs

Volcanoes, plate tectonics and Roman gods – not necessarily your standard subjects for poems or songs… Read on to discover where the word ‘volcano’ comes from, and what volcanoes have come to signify in literature and music – and have a go at writing your own volcano-inspired poetry!


Volcanoes take their name from Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. In Roman mythology and the literature and other art inspired by it, Vulcan is associated with thunder and the destructive and creative potential of fire. Because of these connotations, in Renaissance love poetry Vulcan often stands for the ‘burning’ of passion, as in this sonnet by lyonnaise poet Louise Labé (circa 1524-1566), which is the last in a collection of love poetry (published in 1555) dedicated to women readers:

 

[Original version]

Ne reprenez, Dames, si j’ai aymé:

Si j’ay senti mile torches ardentes,

Mile travaus, mile douleurs mordentes:

Si en pleurant, j’ay mon tems consumé,

 

Las que mon nom n’en soit par vous blamé.

Si j’ay failli, les peines sont presentes,

N’aigrissez point leurs pointes violentes:

Mais estimez qu’Amour, à point nommé,

Sans votre ardeur d’un Vulcan excuser,

Sans la beauté d’Adonis acuser,

Pourra, s’il veut, plus vous rendre amoureuses:

En ayant moins que moy d’ocasion,

Et plus d’estrange et forte passion.

Et gardez vous d’estre plus malheureuses.

 

[English translation]

Sisters, do not reproach me that I’ve felt

such love it makes a thousand torches burn,

had a thousand cares, a thousand sorrows turn

my days to days that tears consume and melt.

 

Rough words like yours shouldn’t burden my name with guilt;

if I’ve failed, you’ll know I feel all the pain I earn.

So stop sharpening those needles. Someday you’ll learn

how high Love flames every time it burns heartfelt,

even if there’s no Vulcan as an excuse,

no beauty like Adonis’s to accuse.

On a whim, Love can force you to burn until —

even with less occasion than I have —

you’ll suffer a stronger, and a stranger, love.

So watch out — you could be far more unhappy still.

(translation by Annie Finch)

Quoted from: Louise Labé, Complete Poetry and Prose: A Bilingual Edition, ed. Deborah Lesko Baker and with translations by Annie Finch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006)

Labe picture

Further poems about or inspired by volcanoes, from all kinds of periods, languages, and cultures, can be found here.

So what about volcanoes in music? As well as playing on the imagery and sound patterning in similar ways to poetry, songs can reproduce through sonic or kinetic anaphones (when music mimics ‘real’ sounds or movements, respectively) the unpredictable explosions of a volcano, or it might be surprisingly placid.

Icelandic musician Björk has often taken inspiration from the volcanic landscape of her homeland in her music. In the song ‘Crystalline’ from her 2011 album Biophilia, she creates a sense of tectonic movement, creation, and disruption through the building textures in the verses and explosive drum’n’bass chorus:

On the same album, the song ‘Mutual Core’ explores the parallels between plate tectonics and romantic relationships (reminiscent, in an oblique way, of Labé’s linking of Vulcan to burning desire)…

Of course, as these songs (and videos) show, music in itself can create ‘volcanic’ emotional effects. Alternative rock trio The Presidents of the United States of America play with the joyful artistic potential of volcanoes in this song from 1995:

 

YOUR TASK:

Write a poem or short story using volcanic themes for inspiration. Try your hand at a sonnet (look at the ‘rules’ about structure and rhyme schemes here), a haiku, or make up your own form (see Brian Bilston for inspiration: could you write a poem in the shape of a volcano?)

Then: why don’t you see if you can turn your poem into a song? Or write some different words, and think about what music would fit them well (or contrast with them in interesting ways).


Jenny OliverDr Jennifer Oliver is a specialist in the literature and culture of early modern (or renaissance) France, particularly the sixteenth century. Jennifer first came to St John’s to study French Sole as an undergraduate, having previously studied at a state school, and later wrote a PhD on the theme of shipwrecks in renaissance French literature. She is now researching how a range of early modern French writers thought (and worried!) about innovations in technology and their impact on the natural world. She is also a musician, playing in two local bands (Lucy Leave and Death of the Maiden) and enjoys finding connections between the creative processes involved in songwriting and performing and the ones she uses in her research and teaching.