ABSTRACT The synesthetic quality of timbre—referring to the “color” of an instrument or voice—held special appeal for French symbolist poets in the years before 1900. This essay explores the writings of Rimbaud and Mallarmé, as well as those of their younger disciples, to ponder the meaning of timbre, and what it might have to say about the “music” of French poetry. If the concept of timbre encourages us to hear a different kind of music in the poem, it also encourages us to rethink song. The essay concludes with a brief reflection on the poetic music produced by French composers of the same generation, in the form of mute and expressionless mélodies.

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