What If We’re All Self-Playing Harps?


On Poetry

Wind Harp, a twenty-eight-meter Aeolian harp and public sculpture designed by Lucia and Aristides Demetrios and constructed in 1967 on a hilltop industrial park in South San Francisco. Photograph by Jef Poskanzer, 2005. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, CCO 2.5.

Right after ChatGPT was made publicly available, people kept sending Nick Cave algorithmically generated song lyrics in the style of Nick Cave. At first, he tried to ignore them, but they kept arriving. Dozens of them. After reading one that featured a chorus with the refrain “I am the sinner, I am the saint / I am the darkness, I am the light,” Cave felt compelled to respond with an open letter published on his personal website. “This song sucks,” the former punk musician begins. Real songwriting arises from the “internal human struggle of creation,” a process that “requires my humanness.” “Algorithms don’t feel” and cannot participate in this “authentic creative struggle.” Therefore, ChatGPT’s poetry will forever suck, because no matter how closely the lyrics replicate Cave’s own, they will always be deficient.

In Cave’s weltanschauung, as laid out in the letter, the machine is a priori precluded from participating in the authentic creative act, because it is not, well, human. If this argument sounds hollow and slightly narcissistic, that’s because it is. It follows a circular logic: humans (and Nick Cave) are special because they alone make art, and art is special because it is alone made by humans (and Nick Cave). His argument is also totally familiar and banal—a platitude so endlessly repeated in contemporary discourse that it feels in some way hard-baked into the culture. According to historians of ideas (see Arthur Lovejoy, Isaiah Berlin, Alfred North Whitehead), this thesis took form sometime in the second half of the eighteenth century. A brief and noncomprehensive summary: to preserve human dignity in the face of industrialization, philosophers and poets, who were later called the Romantics, began to redraw ontological boundaries, placing humans, nature, and art on one side, and machines, industry, and rationalism on the other. Poets became paragons of the human, and their poems examples of that which could never be replicated by the machine. William Blake, for instance, one of Cave’s heroes, proposed that if it were not for the “Poetic or Prophetic character,” the universe would become but a “mill with complicated wheels.”

These may have been radical ideas in the late eighteenth century, edgy ripostes to an Enlightenment discourse that had grown stale with its own self-assurance. But two centuries later, the versions of this argument that we have seen play out in response to corporate-manufactured AI hype come across as stale, self-aggrandizing, and distinctly conservative. It also does a disservice to Romanticism’s intellectual legacy, which offers a far more nuanced conception of creativity than Cave’s. In fact, within the Romantic canon there is a metaphor concerning how poetry is made that casts the poet not as an emoting, suffering, conscious being set apart from the inanimate world but as an instrument that takes sensory input and translates it, via some internal mechanism, into poetry. In other words, a kind of machine.


The story behind this metaphor begins on a summer’s day in 1795, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge traveled to the town of Clevedon to visit his fiancée, Sarah Fricker, in a seaside cottage where they would, later that same year, spend their honeymoon, and begin their lives together as a very unhappily married couple. One evening, the pair was sitting in the drawing room, admiring the clouds as they changed color with the setting sun, when Coleridge looked at Sarah, and felt, for a rare moment, content and at ease. It was only fleeting, though, because the next moment, Coleridge’s calm was interrupted by an odd melody emanating from a wooden box lodged in the window. It looked like a rectangular acoustic guitar with no fretboard, set on the windowsill, the sash pulled down to just above the strings. When the evening breeze blew, it passed through the box and out came an otherworldly music.

This wind-powered instrument was called an Aeolian harp. It functioned somewhat like a wind chime, but with strings: if the wind hit the strings with just the right amount of pressure, they would sing out all on their own. The harp got its name from Aeolus, the Greek god of winds, and it appeared in many ancient myths. Hermes is said to have invented the lyre after hearing a breeze make music while blowing through the sinews and bones of a decomposing tortoise. King David, when still a shepherd, would listen to his harp at night as it was played by the northern wind. The phenomenon was later harnessed by a German Jesuit and polymath named Athanasius Kircher, who, in 1650, described a design for a “self-operating harmonic device“ in his book Musurgia Universalis. (He also invented a device capable of composing millions of church hymns by combining randomly selected musical phrases. These contraptions were housed in the Kircherianum, his personal museum in Rome, whose rooms were filled by the haunting sounds of his musical automatons, as well as other curiosities like vomiting mechanical crabs and cats dressed up as cherubs.) Kircher’s self-playing harp remained an obscurity until the mid-eighteenth century, when the Scottish composer James Oswald, who had read the ancient Aeolian myths, built his own version of the self-playing instrument. His harp was compact and could be placed easily in a window. He sold many from his London shop, and soon other instrument-makers began copying him. By the end of the century, the Aeolian harp was an aspirational lifestyle gadget among England’s emerging middle class—a kind of home-entertainment system, the Bose speakers of its time.

And yet the harp remained somewhat enigmatic and mysterious, too. Few understood the scientific principle according to which the Aeolian harp produced its music. Sometimes when the wind blew strong, it would make no sound. And other times, when there was seemingly no breeze, the strings would hum to life. Many imagined that the harp contained some inner life. One scientist published a study hypothesizing that the harp broke down the wind into its sonic constituents, in much the same way that a glass prism breaks white light into color. There were meteorologists convinced that, if they listened to it the right way, the Aeolian harps song could predict the weather.

That summer evening in Clevedon, Coleridge was overcome by this Aeolian mystery. As the breeze blew and the harp issued forth its sounds, the groom-to-be meditated on how the passive harp was nevertheless capable of producing music. Coleridge then began to wonder whether he was also just an instrument, like the harp, and that his verses were not composed through free will or human drive but just the product of sensory inputs interacting in some way with his brain. The idea struck Coleridge powerfully, prompting him to write a poem called “The Eolian Harp,” which is structured like the galaxy-brain meme, escalating in philosophical profundity with each stanza until it reaches its crescendo:

     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?

In other words, what if we’re all just self-playing harps?


There is something in this metaphor that seems distinctly un-Romantic. It figures the poet not as the paragon of humanness but an indolent plaything that generates verse via mechanistic and aleatory interactions with external forces. In fact, the intellectual origins of Coleridge’s Aeolian poetics are pre-Romantic. When composing “The Eolian Harp,” Coleridge was almost certainly inspired, at least in part, by the writings of the Enlightenment physician and philosopher David Hartley. In his major intellectual work, Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations (1749), Hartley proposed a harp-like theory of consciousness: vibrations in the environment generate sensations in the body, which then rattle around inside the body and generate ideas, which can then be expressed in language. It is a proto-neuroscientific theory—wherein consciousness is the product of sensations vibrating inside the human instrument—and many of Hartley’s Romantic critics accused him of reducing the human to mere mechanism. But Coleridge saw it differently. For him, Hartley’s vibrational theory suggested a vibrating, animate, poetic cosmos. The role of the poet was to tune into the cosmos and translate its many vibrations into beautiful verse, much like the harp translates the wind into music. Poetry was not dredging up internal, subjective emotion but attuning to one’s environment. To be harp-like, then, was to push past the boundaries of the human and to commune with the living universe, or what Coleridge describes in the poem as:

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 everywhere

This framing proved influential among Romantics. Shelley, in his “Defence of Poetry,” wrote: “Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind of an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody.” And Wordsworth, in the Prelude, muses how “the sweet breath of Heaven / Was blowing on my body, felt within / A corresponding mild creative breeze.” The Aeolian metaphor traveled, too, appearing as a motif in the writings of E. T. A. Hoffmann, Henry David Thoreau, and Thomas Hardy. So central was the harp metaphor to Romantic poetics that the literary critic M. H. Abrams proposed that “without this plaything of the eighteenth century, the Romantic poets would have lacked a conceptual model” for how poetry was made.

And yet these days, very few think of poets this way. More commonly, we think of Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators,” or Wordsworth’s spontaneous overflowers of powerful feelings. This may be partly because Coleridge later repudiated Hartley’s theory of vibrations, turning instead back to the faith of the Church of England. But it could also be because Aeolian harps grew obsolete. By the end of the nineteenth century, the same bourgeois households that had once entertained guests with the haunting tones of the harp were now listening to recordings on the gramophone. These new machines—which later gave way to record players, CDs, minidiscs, iPods, Spotify—decoupled music from its immediate performance and transformed into a reproducible, abundant, and eventually, almost superfluous commodity. Suddenly, any melody could be enjoyed over and over in private at the whim of the listener. There was no need to rely on the chance play of wind upon harp strings to have music in one’s house. The Aeolian harp was redundant, along with its metaphor. After all, what use is comparing a poet to an Aeolian harp if most of us don’t even know what it sounds like?

And even if you seek out an Aeolian harp to listen to, it is, I discovered, not so simple to find one. After reading Coleridge’s poem, I wanted to hear the harp in action, to help me understand why it provoked such a radical and idiosyncratic theory of creativity. I called around with little luck. The only people I could find with a lingering interest in Aeolian harps were a few esoteric wind-instrument makers and avant-garde composers. These people did not just have some passing interest in the wind instrument—they were passionate, as if the instrument, when heard, inspired some zealous appreciation, which of course made me even more curious. There was a woman I spoke to called Jodi who had been traveling the world and recording Aeolian emissions from bridge cables. Now, she was trying to structure the recordings into a “global bridge symphony,” which was tricky, because each bridge had its own phonic character. The Brooklyn Bridge, she told me emits a gentle, burbling tone. The Anzac Bridge in Sydney, though, is high-pitched and staccato. “A neurotic bridge,” Jodi said, as if she had communed with the bridge interpersonally. (This intimacy with the inanimate reached a peak in 2013 when she fell in love with a stone bridge in the South of France called the Pont du Diable. She asked permission from the mayor of the town to marry the bridge, and he assented, so, in the summer of 2013, she invited fourteen of her closest friends to witness her betrothal. She walked down the aisle to Nick Cave’s ballad “Into My Arms.”)

I asked Jodi if there were any bridges in Melbourne that I could listen to, considering that I couldn’t find any harps. “Melbourne is a quiet city,” Jodi said, ruefully. Our biggest bridges, the West Gate and the Bolte, have no cables. There was once a singing pedestrian bridge in the outer suburbs that had been built over a freeway. It didn’t have cables but metal balustrades, with many little decorative holes drilled into them. When the wind blew, as it almost always did due to the endless convoy of trucks that drove beneath it, the air would pass through those holes and generate a sound that residents described as being like that of a child being tortured. The holes were filled in and the bridge fell silent.

“Wait,” Jodi said, suddenly hopeful. “There is one small footbridge in the city that has cables. But I think they have been covered in plastic, so you’d need a stethoscope to hear it. Do you have a stethoscope?” I said I didn’t. “In that case, I really don’t know if there is anywhere I can send you,” Jodi said, apologetically, before hanging up.

A week passed and I had given up on hearing a harp when Ros, a composer who had constructed several large-scale Aeolian instruments on a fifty-five-acre property somewhere in the bush, called me up. I had emailed her weeks earlier and never heard back. She had been traveling, she said, but was back in town. “I have what you’re after,” she added. “A harp?”

That Saturday, I visited Ros at her house, which was, coincidentally, only a five-minute walk from my own. It was a blustery day. The cracks in the floorboards of my house whistled. The bin fell over and my cat scampered. Ros was waiting for me out the front of her well-maintained Victorian terrace, her brilliant orange hair whipping back and forth in the breeze. She shook my hand and led me inside to her music room. The walls were painted bloodred and each corner of the room was cluttered with various wind instruments, including dozens of ornate wooden recorders that Ros had carved herself.

“Here it is,” Ros said, pointing at the window. Wedged on the sill was a white cardboard box—almost like an oversize shoebox—with nylon strings pulled tight across from one side to the other. “It’s a very simple harp, not ornate at all,” Ros said. “But the best thing about it is that it’s portable. In Ireland, back in the day, every house would have a harp on the door and if you sold the house the harp would stay, like it belonged to the place. And of course, the harps I built on my property are too big to move around. And their strings are always breaking due to exposure. But this one I take with me everywhere I go.”

Ros took the harp from the window and began to tune it, and as she did, she told me, in scientific terms, how the harp works. When the wind blows against the harp, it is not the string itself that makes the sound but the breeze deflecting off them like tiny whistling tornadoes, she explained. The whistling tornadoes are called von Kármán vortex streets, a well-known phenomenon in fluid dynamics.

“But the thing is,” Ros said, placing the harp back in the window, “even though we understand how it works, the harp only plays when it wants to anyway. Like today, for example. It’s so windy, and nothing. All winter, nothing! It’s refusing to sing for us. But we could try something.”

Ros opened the door and called out down the corridor. “Arthur, darling. Could you open the kitchen window?” “Huh?” a voice called back. “The harp, darling,” Ros said. “We’re just trying to get the fullness of the wind.” A window opened somewhere, and an icy gust ripped through. The piano lid slammed shut, but the harp remained dead silent. Ros raised her eyebrows. “This is the thing with the harp. It’s a barometer of the now. It tells us where we are.” “Where are we?” I asked. “I think we’re stuck,” Ros said. “And sometimes we just have to give in and wait until the wind changes.”


Oscar Schwartz is a writer and journalist. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.