Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
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"Pull out all the stops"
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"Pull out all the stops"

First Entry in Literally Speaking!
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The lover Astrophil, in Philip Sidney’s acutely ironic sequence of sonnets called Astrophil and Stella, has stolen a kiss from the married woman he has been courting and hounding, and when he insists that he has to write poetry about it, because it’s so sweet and enchanting, she tries, blushing, to say that she builds her fame on the foundation of a “higher-seated praise.” She is thinking of virtue, and he, Astrophil, isn’t. So Sidney puts this rejoinder on the lover’s lips:

Then since (dear life) you fain would have me peace,
And I, mad with delight, want wit to cease,
Stop you my mouth with still still kissing me.

It’s a terrific turn of rhetoric, but that’s all it is, and that’s what Sidney wants us to see. Astrophil says he doesn’t have the wit, that is, the intelligence, to cease praising the kiss; he is out of his senses with delight. So if he’s going to shut up, she’ll have to force him to, and the only way to do that is what he begs her to do in the final line: “Stop you my mouth with still still kissing me.

Stella will eventually have to tell Astrophil that he’s not allowed in her home or in her presence anymore, but that’s another matter. I used to ask my students what the word “stop” meant here, and they would say it meant to cease, to come to a halt, to give up doing what you’re doing. But I’d press them. “What does the verb stop mean, literally? Think like a poet. Think in terms of the specific, the tangible, the concrete.” And maybe someone in class would say, “Is he thinking about how you stop up an opening, with a plug?”

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Bingo! That’s what he’s thinking of. So is Lady Macbeth, when she gets her hubby’s letter and begins to fantasize about his glory to come, because, being a good wife although her soul is wicked, she wants to promote Macbeth’s interests in the workplace, so to speak. So she cries out to the spirits that attend upon mortal thoughts to “stop up the access and passage of remorse,” and we may think here of natural streams blocked up, such as the milk of a woman’s breasts, which Lady Macbeth wishes to exchange for gall, or of the hallways and stairways of the very castle where she dwells, so that remorse cannot make its way to King Duncan, where he is going to sleep.

Now then, if you “pull out all the stops,” it means that you let the streams flow freely — but what streams, for what purpose? And here we turn to the musical instrument that was specifically invented for grand, mighty, complex, full-throated, vast-space-filling sound. That instrument is the organ.

My son plays the organ. I can’t. You could give me a lifetime to practice, and I’d still not be able to do it; I’d not be able to play, as my son does, one melody with my right hand, a second melody with my left hand, and harmony or a third melody with my feet dancing over what is essentially a keyboard of pedals. There is, frankly, no instrument even close to what the organ is.

View of Organ Pipes, Notre Dame de Paris.

Understand that when you press a key, say middle C on the top manual, that doesn’t simply play a note. That C is connected to a valve that opens up a passage for air to be forced through a pipe that plays C — or through several pipes of different qualities all playing C simultaneously, so that you get a complex sound with many tones and overtones on a single note, a sound like a viola, or a trumpet, or a flute, or a human voice, or all at once. And that is the case with each of the keys on each manual and with each of the pedals. They are connected, potentially, with great “ranks” of pipes, each rank devised to produce a certain quality of sound. Even a small parish organ will have nearly a thousand pipes, and large cathedral organs may have thirty times as many.

Now, what if the piece you are playing calls for a single sort of sound for one of the melodies, say, a trumpet? You then have to keep all the other ranks of pipes from getting any air. So you keep the stops closed, all of those but the one that says “trumpet.” That’s easy, as it’s the default position on an organ for the stops to be closed. But if you want to shake the walls of the cathedral with a mighty paean of praise on Easter Sunday, you may want all the ranks to be sounding, as if you had a full orchestra up there in the loft, horns and strings and woodwinds and choristers, and that’s when you pull out all the stops!

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Yes, the phrase comes from playing the organ. In our day, people use it to mean that they’ve left no means untried, they’ve sent all their soldiers into the field, they’ve dialed up all the politicians on their dole, they’ve bought commercials on television and put up billboards at highway intersections, pulling out all the stops to get good ol’ Jack S. Phogbound reelected as senator from Dogpatch. But I like the old sense better.


Word & Song is an line magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
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