Wolfson, "Sounding Romantic: The Sound of Sound"

"Soundings of Things Done":
The Poetry and Poetics of Sound
in the Romantic Ear and Era

Sounding Romantic: The Sound of Sound

Susan J. Wolfson, Princeton University

  1. Those of us who may have been thinking of the path of poetry, those who understand that words are thoughts and not only our own thoughts . . . must be conscious of this: that, above everything else, poetry is words; and that words, above everything else, are, in poetry, sounds.

  2. That's a noble writer, Wallace Stevens, riding round at last to the subject signaled but delayed in his iconic essay, "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words."[1] But, we hear you murmur, Sounding Romantic? or in line with the 2006 MLA Convention call, sound in Romantic poetry and poetics? Either way, it seems counter-intuitive: words, especially poetic ones, affront the new Romantics with unwanted trading in "poetic diction" (Wordsworth and Coleridge, anyway, though Keats rather liked camping it up), or a too parodyable mimetics ("Oh woe is me! oh misery!"). But still, these are technical transactions; whatever the gambit, poetry is words, and words work in the sounding. We might even endorse Stevens's radical constitutiveness: "A poet's words are of things that do not exist without the words" (32). No things but in words.  

  3. Reading poetry, we sound the words, out loud, or in the head. It is through a path of sound that Coleridge drives his theory of poetry. He opens a lecture of 1818 on the art by observing, with a preliminary near pun, that "Man communicates by articulation of Sounds, and paramountly by the memory in the Ear—Nature by the impression of Surfaces and Bounds on the Eye."[2] In the auditorium of Coleridge's lecture, even the visual work of Nature seems conscripted, in so far as the ear catches the rhyme of Bounds to Sounds. But what of reading, sound evoked by an impression on the eye? Reading poetry, too, is a sounding, Coleridge proposed just the year before in Biographia Literaria, with a Stevens-prone simile for audition: a reader is carried forward "like the path of sound through the air" (chapter 14).[3] More than a simile, this is a transformational trope: poetry is this very imagination of words as a path of sound through the air. Yet in Romantic airs, its path often courses into a waning or absent sound: that prized metaphysics of silence, deep within, way beyond the material or any mere phenomenological instance. And the old paradox is that sound takes us there, pitches its tenor.



  4. In the Romance of silence, Romantic poets are always tuned to what T. S. Eliot calls an "auditory imagination" ("the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word").[4] Coleridge's verse in The Eolian Harp sounds out a lilting course into silence, "Where the breeze warbles and the mute still Air / Is Music slumbering on its instrument" (31-32). He feels his syllables beautifully to this end: Where (whispering across warbles) echoes in Air, and within, mute is poised for reverberation into Music and instrument. This is all tuned to an extended figure in which music is not music, but its cessation, a suspense both of motion and sound finely compounded in still, and underscored by the arrest of pentameter into spondees: "the mute still Air." Coleridge has an ear for such limits, of sound suspended: the rapture of being "Silent with swimming sense" in This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison (39), or the gothic turns: that "strange / And extreme silentness" that vexes meditation and nearly freezes the meter in Frost at Midnight (9-10); the "moonlight steeped in silentness" in the Mariner's return to an alien home harbor (The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere [1798] 505). On hissing s's, sound subsides into spectral dreamscape.

  5. The iconic Wordsworthian poet is a famously silent type: mute above the Boy of Winander's grave, or tracing "wreathes of smoke / Sent up, in silence, from among the trees" (Lines, written a few miles above Tintern Abbey 18-19), with a metric stress on the faintly audible sympathies of wreathes and trees, from among, and the wisp of all the s-words. This poet is soon cherishing "an eye made quiet" (48). Elsewhere he contemplates "the silence and the calm / Of mute insensate things" ("Three years she grew" 17-18) that also claims "the silent Tomb" ("Surprized by joy"). All these pauses of deep silence verge on a poetics of eternity that makes "our noisy years seem moments in the being / Of the eternal Silence" (Ode: Intimations of Immortality 154-55), the world for "ears" indicted in the subvocal of "noisy (y)ears." In her bodily decrepitude Dorothy Wordsworth will sigh of the "robe of quiet [that] overspreads / The living lake and verdant field" (Lines Written . . . April 6th 9-10), as if this were a burial shroud for a life in sound, too, now stilled.

  6. Keats's luxurious reveling in language, a physiology it often seems, makes all the more potent his moments of epiphanic negation. If reading Chapman's Homer has him feel he's "heard CHAPMAN speak out loud and bold," silence is the reciprocal homage. Hence the listening reader as kin to Cortez "star[ing] at the Pacific, . . . / Silent on a peak in Darien" (On First Looking into Chapman's Homer)—a conclusion "equally powerful and quiet," marveled Leigh Hunt as he introduced Keats to readers of The Examiner (1 December 1816). In another scene of reading Keats hails an urn as a "still unravished bride of quietness" (among the puns in still is unsounding) and a bearer "of silence and slow time" (Ode on a Grecian Urn 2), the time of reading slowed by the shift of pentameter into spondee. He is soon tuning his words to "unheard melodies" over and against, and "more endear'd" (11-13) to the ear than a merely unyielding "silent form" (44).[5]

  7. So, too, Shelley's apostrophe to Mont Blanc's "Silence" hails a carte blanche, a blank upon which "the human mind's imaginings" flurry into verbal production. The very name, by punning historical revision, puts a claim on the erasure that so agonized Milton's lament, "a universal blanc / Of nature's works to me expunged and razed" (3.48-49; thus blank in the 1667 text). Shelley's title by Franco-phonics says "my blank; my blank verse."

  8. As these conflicted poetics of silence suggest, none of the metaphysics, none of the epistemics, none of this would matter, materialize to consciousness, but for the paths of sound. "Speak si[l]ence with thy glimmering eyes," Blake invokes the Evening Star (To the Evening Star), with an audible sigh of "silence" in "eyes." Well before Simon and Garfunkel sang "the vision that was planted in my brain / Still remains / Within the sound of silence," Romantic poets were there, and tacitly theorizing the contradiction.[6]



  9. Not the least of the agents is the word sound, not only the occasion of our convocation, but a meta-trope for poetry in the ear, whether heard or silently audited, more endear'd. It's a meta-trope, too, because sound is homophone, variously drawn out from different etymologies, which come together (by chance or choice) from a prodigal polyglot past. There's the Latin sonare: the very word is like a bell for poets, the fount of sonnet ("little sound") and persona ("sounding through"). Petitioning for, and sometimes crowding into the same literal space, and open for punning (O Pun! to honor Charles Lamb), there are Old English tributes of sound (test the depths); sound from a different source for healthy (sane), and with a slight shift, as in sound asleep, whole, entire; and the waters (more etymology yet) in Milton's poetry of Creation, "Sounds and Seas" (PL 7.399)—poignantly sounding sees, what the blind poet does no more. All these sounds play as synchronic kin, the accident of phonemic confluence that condenses new senses. My audit of "sounding Romantic" in what follows is keyed to the sound of sound, figuring not just a pre-verbal pulse of apprehension and expression, or a counter-verbal metaphysics, but the pleasurable satisfactions realized by the language in poetry.

  10. A primer of this recreation, playing on poetic infrastructure, is Southey's jeu d'esprit, "The Cataract of Lodore," a poem shaped, phonically and metrically, into a cascade of sounds that not only coincide with lexical sense but drive it as a primary expressive force:

    Turning and twisting,
        Around and around
    With endless rebound!
    Smiting and fighting,
        A sight to delight in;
    Confounding, astounding,
    Dizzying and deafening the ear with its sound. (64-70)

    Alliteration, assonance, rhymes terminal and medial, all rebound in lines that seem

    . . . never ending, but always descending,
    Sounds and motions for ever and ever are blending,
    All at once and all o'er, with a mighty uproar,
    And this way the Water comes down at Lodore. (118-21)
    And this way, too, "The Cataract of Lodore" comes down to the name from the rush of sound with which it rhymes more than once—"All at once and all o'er, with a mighty uproar." With different theological or epistemological pressure, this might be a landscape of hell or an intractable Mont Blanc. Part of Southey's delight is just such suggestion and negation—underwritten by the displacement of epic or odic pentameter by jaunty tetrameters. Half echoed is the "wilde uproar" of Milton's Pandemonium and chaos,[7] converted to delight. Against Milton, too, the poetics of up and down is so changeable and interchangeable (all at once) that the last line arrives as an arbitrary end for soundings that, once in motion, seem endlessly variable, always descending, this very word a relay-rhyme that contains and undoes ending.
  11. As Southey's political enemy Byron knows, sound can pack a polemical punch. The very hero of Don Juan refuses a continental chime of Juan with want ("I want a hero") to insist on English matchmaking with new one. Anti-hero Southey is brought to rhyme with mouthey, one of many with whom Byron settles scores in sounding the name. English national hero, Napoleon's vanquisher at Waterloo, Wellington, gets a French twist at the outset of Canto IX, rung and wrung on Byron's disgust of war glory:

    Oh Wellington! (Or 'Vilainton', for Fame
         Sounds the heroic syllables both ways.
    France could not even conquer your great name,
         But punned it down to this facetious phrase—
    Beating or beaten she will laugh the same.)
         You have obtained great pensions and much praise;
    Glory like yours should any dare gainsay,
    Humanity would rise and thunder 'Nay!'
    In the French story, Wellington is punned down to Vilainton (villain-style), and the protest Nay, without even sounding the syllables another way, says Ney: Napoleon's field marshal, executed into nothingness after the Bourbon restoration. On his manuscript Byron wrote Vilain ton as two words, to sharpen the pun; and he scrawled an equivocation about Ney or Nay: 'Query, - Ney? - Printer's Devil,' a footnote that was put into print.[8]
  12. Though Waterloo may seem far afield from the War in Heaven, our close-listening (one form of close-reading) is, by multiple Romantic routes, a heritage of Paradise Lost, full of sounds, not the least the sound of its extraordinary verse. This is poetry in love (too much in love, Milton could worry) with its material pitch and tone—sounds, for better or worse, for sin or salvation. Johnson complained famously at the end of Life of Milton that blank verse—blank of rhyme punctuation for the ear "as a distinct system of sounds"—was "verse only to the eye."[9] But to blind Milton, blank verse was first and always a poetry of sound, sounded in the head, aloud to a secretary, and never seen, by him anyway, on the page. His was "a voice whose sound was like the sea," said Wordsworth (London 1802)—the alpha-theorist of The Power of Sound—with an undersound in "like the see" that plays back to Milton's "Sounds and Sees."

  13. In all these punning measures the word sound keys a poetic differential from words as information. Though the line of difference can be anyone's call, sound is the poetic trade. "Quite an epicure in sound," was Wordsworth's lifelong impression of Coleridge, and he was among the beneficiaries.[10] Having listened (over the course of two weeks in the dead of winter, January 1807) to Wordsworth reading The Prelude, Coleridge finds himself at the close "Absorb'd, yet hanging still upon the sound," with still (again) catching quiet, stasis, and a duration of sound in the air (To a Gentleman 111). In this blank verse, Coleridge lets sound find a rhyme (with metrical stress) at found in his last line: "And when I rose, I found myself in prayer" (112).

  14. The paths to these soundless raptures are often love-affairs with sound, leading to the very word:

                        And now, its strings
    Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes
    Over delicious surges sink and rise,
    Such a soft floating witchery of sound.
    (The Eolian Harp17-20)
    Such witchery is the sounds, the vibration of sequacious / delicious surges (undertoning urges) / such a soft floating witchery of sound.[11] The word sound then vibrates in a phrase about itself: "Melodies round honey-dropping flowers" (23), enriched by the dropping of the round sound into the flowers. Even boldlier, a strangely arresting sound in so rare a word, seems half-created to herald this insurgence.
  15. No wonder then that the hymn Coleridge boldly added in 1817, to "the one Life, within us and abroad" (26 ff), is so intricate with its sound, Life heard again in the relays of light: "A light in Sound, a sound-like power in Light" (28). Allegorizing poetic presence, Coleridge not only suggests that sound, like light, is a powerline through the air; he's also working with the chiasmus of sound as a phonological paradigm. Even the sound of the simile-word like echoes light as it sends the sound of sound into power. It's the first pulse of the line, the imperative that shimmers A light into Alight.[12] 

  16. Coleridge was a reflective theorist as well as effective poet of these events, of meaning generated by the happy accidents of words in sounds:

    N.B.—In my intended Essay in defence of Punning—(Apology for Paronomasy, alias Punning) to defend those turns of words,
    che l'onda chiara
    E l'ombra non men cara,
    In certain styles of writing, by proving that Language itself is formed upon associations of this kind . . . that words are not mere symbols of things & thought, but themselves things—
    (Notebooks 3: 3762)[13]
    Associations are accidents of sound, in which words as things gain unsuspected power. When the poetry of This Lime-Tree Bower concludes that "No Sound is dissonant which tells of Life" (76), Coleridge arrays the line so that the assertion by negation carries an echo of itself in Soun(d is Disson)ant.
  17. In telling of the unlife of the Arctic, Coleridge's Ancient Mariner is haunted by sounds so alien that even the word sound becomes phantasmic:

    The Ice was here, the Ice was there,
         The Ice was all around:
    It crack'd and growl'd, and roar'd and howl'd—
         Like noises in a swound!
    (The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere 57-60)
    In this ice-sounding, noise similizes the assault: swound is a ghost of sound, a rhyme-word that lurks in the aural field without precipitating. And (we may well wonder in reflex) what the hell is that swound flaunted for reference? It sounds like a nonce-compound of wound (coiled), wound (injury), and sound—another of those Coleridge inventions, exquisitely desynonymized from near kin for this moment only. OED tells us that swound is a word from long, long ago, the age of oral poetry. For his retro-ballad of 1798, Coleridge recalls swound as a forgotten sound, an archaeology unearthed: it's swoon old-form (same etymology),[14] and (even better!) a variant of sound. Like noises in a swound is not after anything so mundane as mimesis. It is etymology, as if Coleridge were auditing Pope's tidy couplet, "'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence, / The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense" (Essay on Criticism 364-65), to estrange the lesson, and propose the reverse: the genesis of sense from sound or as sound. However one speaks it, the stress of Swound hits the ear as a wounded sound.
  18. Coleridge must have been remembering this terrific sublimity of sound when he recalled, a decade on, a storm on the lake of Ratzeburg, in sentences so exquisitely tuned to phonics as to suggest an event still in the writer's ear:

    there was a storm of wind; during the whole night, such were the thunders and howlings of the breaking ice, that they have left a conviction on my mind, that there are Sounds more sublime than any Sight can be, more absolutely suspending the power of comparison, and more utterly absorbing the mind's self-consciousness of it's total attention to the object working upon it. (Rooke, ed. 2: 257)[15]
    And here, Coleridge may be remembering Burke on the "sublime passion" of "sounds":
    The noise of vast cataracts, raging storms, thunder, or artillery, awakes a great and aweful sensation in the mind . . . and by the sole strength of the sound, so amazes and confounds the imagination, that in this staggering, and hurry of the mind, the best established tempers can scarcely forbear being borne down.[16]

    Burke awakes awful sensation in his sounds: the alliterations, the swelling of sound in confounds and down, the strange reverse-birth in forbear being borne down, the line made slow and heavy by these very sounds.
  19. Across the poignant course of his sublime Rime, Coleridge writes the verse of sound in a chord of antithetical returns. This is the Mariner's delusionally beatific swoon, the revival of the dead crew, rendered and remembered with a vibration in the sound of sounds:

    Sweet sounds rose slowly through their mouths,
         And from their bodies pass'd.

    Around, around, flew each sweet sound,
         Then darted to the sun;
    Slowly the sounds came back again . . . (341-45)

    This is a symphony of sounds, exhaled through the vowels and the slide of s's in rose slowly through (with a phonotext-effect in rose lowly) to issue up and out from mouths that seem formed for sounds and resound in the rhyme with Around, around and the slow return of its own sounds.

  20. Coleridge may seem spendthrift of such effects, in the register of Keats's urging poets to be "misers of sound and syllable" (Incipit altera Sonneta). For his sonnet-sonics, Keats did not spend the word sound until his tenth line, and waited for its return until its last: "She will be bound with garlands of her own"—that is, Poesy, among her weavings, sound unchained from rhyme-scheming to echo in this liberal bound. In a haunted dream-epic Keats wonders of sound without syllable, the sensation without sense:

    Or thou might'st better listen to the wind
    Whose language is to thee a barren noise,
    Though it blows legend-laden through the trees . . .
    (The Fall of Hyperion 3.4-6)
    —verse he copies in a letter, underlining the compound, eager to share it with one of his most attentive readers (Richard Woodhouse) "on account of" its "fine sound." As if caught up in the sweep, Keats may have transcribed the line with two thoughs: "Though it blows legend-laden though the trees." Editors usually follow Hyder Rollins in supplying a dropped r for the second one, to get th[r]ough;[17] but Keats often writes a shorthand emphatic downstroke that implies two letters, and I think here he may have liked the fine-sounding of Though / blows / though enough to let it ride.
  21. In the Keats phonotext of 1819, the fine sound of legend-laden echoes the leaf-fring'd legend that "haunts about" the Grecian Urn, to tease with a latent sound effect (Ode 5). There is some evidence, moreover (Andy Elfenbein tells me) that legend was sounded in Keats's day with a first long e; if so, leaf gets an echo, along with a pun on legion'd—a word Keats sounds in fantasy in The Eve of St. Agnes, where "legion'd fairies pac'd the coverlet" of Madeline's quiet sleep (xix). On the Urn site, Keats manages, with fine visual poetics, to bring an unsounded "ring" within the fring'd legend, as if the sound were ready for audition.

  22. It's a fine sound that plays, too, in Autumn "on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep" (To Autumn 16), a suspense of motion and music—as if in this poppy-drowse, all sound sleeps in heavy ease. Keats's deft slide in these registers reminds us how sound may multiply, variously, in chords of sense: as tone, as character, as depth, as resonance. It is Keats's irrevocably sound sleep of death that prompts Shelley to imagine Echo pining away "Into a shadow of all sounds:—a drear / Murmur" (Adonais 134-35), a trace of waning sight (shadow) that gains this phonic effect. On another pulse, the "sound of life" heralded in Prometheus Unbound draws aural sensation into recognition, the world-enkindling "seldom-heard mysterious sound" learned from the artist who wrought a guitar into a vibrant instrument (With a Guitar, to Jane 75). "Sounds as well as thoughts have relations, both between each other and towards that which they represent, and a perception of the order of those relations has always been found connected with a perception of the order and relation of thoughts," Shelley proposed in his Defence of Poetry (SPP 514)—the same paragraph that insists on "the vanity of translation," and seems, even, to offer a demonstration in the relation of Sounds and found.[18]

  23. No one broods more over sound, caressing words as things (so the poet put it in a note to that sound-haunted ballad, The Thorn) than the iconically-ironically named Words-worth. In his own audit, he identifies a habit that feels diachronic:

    Have felt whate'er there is of power in sound
    To breathe an elevated mood, by form
    Or image unprofaned: and I would stand
    Beneath some rock, listening to sounds that are
    The ghostly language of the ancient earth . . .
    (The Prelude 1805 2.324-28)
    "The 'power in sound' is the severe music of the signifier or of an inward echoing that is both intensely human and ghostly," says Geoffrey Hartman, hearing in these lines an even more radically pressured "relation between textuality and referentiality": the way this poet's words respond to a priority of sound that beckons as "a potentially endless descent," saved only by an impulse to textualize the sounds, install them, measure them in poetry.[19]
  24. For Wordsworth this impulse is an element of style, an argument that words matter for the sounding: among the "reasons why repetition and apparent tautology are frequent beauties of the highest kind" is "the interest which the mind attaches to words, not only as symbols of the passion but as things, active and efficient."[20] And so the luxury of words as sound—whether in "the sound like thunder" that is not thunder but the motion of eternity ("It is a beauteous Evening" 8); or the "sounds / Of undistinguishable motion" (Prelude 1805: 1.331-32) that are not eternity, but the reflux upon an imagination still haunted by boyhood thefts (how rare to put the sound of undistinguishable to work in blank verse); or the luxuriously echoing redundancy of "heard the murmur and the murmuring sound" in the nut-tree grove (Nutting 37) that underscores epicurean boyish foreplay in the key of Eve's call from mirror-romance to Adam by a sound of "murmuring waters" (Paradise Lost 4.453).

  25. What a world of winter gets generated by, and surrounds, a recollection of a whole pack of bellowing boys, as their ice-skates hiss and fly along the sounding board of the lake:

                                 All shod with steel
    We hiss'd along the polish'd ice, in games
    Confederate, imitative of the chace,
    And woodland pleasures, the resounding horn,
    The Pack, loud bellowing, and the hunted hare.
    So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
    And not a voice was idle: with the din,
    Meanwhile, the precipices rang aloud,
    The leafless trees, and every icy crag
    Tinkled like iron, while the distant hills
    Into the tumult sent an alien sound . . .
    (The Prelude 1805: 1.461-71)
    No wonder Coleridge put this verse into The Friend after his own account of the thunderous sounds of icebreaking on the Lake (2: 259).[21] Half-rhyming aloud and sound, with both echoing loud and resounding in the train, Wordsworth fills the verse with sound everywhere and alien—a weird auditorium that he amplified in 1836 by replacing the merely space-filling Meanwhile with Smitten, to echo in the relay from din to precipices. Even in the auditorium of 1805, the relay of sent is already sounding in distant, in tumult sent, and the hiss of sint across the line of "hill(s / Int)o."
  26. As Wordsworth's verse shows in more than a few traces, sound is a memory, an imprint poetry strives to capture:

    My eyes are dim with childish tears,
    My heart is idly stirr'd,
    For the same sound is in my ears,
    Which in those days I heard. (The Fountain 29-32)

    It is sound that stirs the heart to recover what was heard, and it is sound, too, that recovers, finds lost years in m(y ears), idly stirring inside "ch(ildi)sh." For Wordsworth it is often sound that stirs and flows feeling from past to present:

                                  I cannot paint
    What then I was. The sounding cataract
    Haunted me like a passion . . . (Tintern Abbey 76-77)

    Reciprocally, an adult reads back from sight to sound:

    The gentleness of heaven is on the Sea:
    Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
    And doth with his eternal motion make
    A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
    ("It is a beauteous Evening" 4-8)
    The manuscript shows no final period[22]—a mimesis of everlastingly not only in sense but as a pervasive sound sweeping up the phonics of "the Sea: / Listen . . . / hi(s e)ternal . . . thunder—everlastingly." Hearing is believing.
  27. It is Shakespeare's Lear that Keats says is in his ear at the seashore in April 1817, the occasion for a sonnet that advances sound is a formal rhyme. It is all immediated by Edgar's fiction for his blind father, "Hark, do you hear the sea"?—a solicitation that falters metrically when Gloucester completes the line "No, truly" (4.6.4), a foot short and in a weak rhyme with sea. Writing about writer's block to fellow-poet J. H. Reynolds, Keats reverses this to his hearing of the sea and a communication to his correspondent (Reynolds). He recreates Shakespeare's sea-scene into a sound stage (with absent Reynolds doubling blind Gloucester):

    . . . the passage in Lear—"Do you not hear the sea?"—has haunted me intensely.
                                 On the Sea.
    It keeps eternal Whisperings around
         Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
         Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns; till the spell
    of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
    often 'tis in such gentle temper found
         That scarcely will the very smallest shell
         Be moved for days from whence it sometime fell
    When last the winds of Heaven were unbound. . . . [23]

    How nice of Keats, comments Christopher Ricks, to interpolate the coercive pressure of not[24] and, with a poet's ear, add the tenth syllable to Shakespeare's line. We see him working sound through it all: Sea / Intensely / To the Sea—right into the first rhyme, with Sea itself in the subtle current of sound in "keep(s E)ternal." The whispering is also of the portmanteau Seaternal, an undertow of Wordsworth's "hi(s e)ternal" ("beauteous Evening" 7). In Keats's sea-listening, the shadowy sound of sound in "Whisperings around" (surround / sound) washes into the echo-chamber of those ten thousand Caverns, rippling the s's across desolate shores . . . spell . . . shadowy . . . scarcely . . . sometime . . . last.

  28. This is a meditation of sound in the deepest measure, but as Keats and especially Wordsworth know, sounds haunt, in synonymy, sometimes in accidental collusion, with the verb sound. Hence, Wordsworth's present participle sounding as searching, sonic information when sight is of no avail:

    Three sleepless nights I passed in sounding on,
    Through words and things, a dim and perilous way . . .
    (The Borderers, 4.98-99)

    In the blind chamber, "passed in" intimates din before its sounding, then is echoed eerily in dim, a slide of sound that one is tempted to audit as the terrain of "perilous (s)way." Wordsworth gives the Solitary similar lines to follow:

    By pain of heart—now checked—and now impelled—
    The intellectual power, through words and things,
    Went sounding on, a dim and perilous way!
    And from those transports, and these toils abstruse,
    Some trace am I enabled to retain
    Of time, else lost;—existing unto me
    Only by records in myself not found.
    (The Excursion, Book III 699-705)

    In the memory of this trace is Wordsworth's Note to The Thorn on the mind's adhesion "to words . . . as things, active and efficient, which are of themselves part of the passion." Sound recovers what sense negates.

  29. Coleridge was arrested by this sense of sounding, and made it a self-description at the end of Biographia Literaria Chapter 4: "I earnestly solicit the good wishes and friendly patience of my readers, while I thus go 'sounding on my dim and perilous way.'" Recollecting his first acquaintance with Coleridge, Hazlitt endorsed the transfer:

    I accompanied him six miles on the road. It was a fine morning in the middle of winter, and he talked the whole way. The scholar in Chaucer is described as going
                                    Sounding on his way.
    So Coleridge went on his. In digressing, in dilating, in passing from subject to subject, he appeared to me to float in air, to slide on ice.[25]

    The sound of Coleridge himself seems the path through air, or in its winter climate, the hiss of sliding from subject to subject, sliding on ice.  

  30. The sound of sounding as prescient deep knowing is nowhere more audible for Wordsworth than in a strange recollection of death by water. In The Prelude he recalls a boyhood sensing of such an event:

    Seeking I knew not what, I chanced to cross
    One of those open fields, which shaped like ears,
    Make green peninsulas on Esthwaite's Lake.
    (1805 5.457-58) 

    The simile is not chance, however, for the event, as the poet now knows, was all about a sounding of information, of random seeking turned to succeeding:

                                      The succeeding day—
    Those unclaimed garments telling a plain tale—
    Went there a company, and in their boat
    Sounded with grappling-irons and long poles:
    At length the dead man, 'mid that beauteous scene
    Of trees and hills and water, bolt upright
    Rose with his ghastly face. . . . (5.466-72)

    The telling that is the intuition, and the discovery worked through that half-punning homonym, sounded, are the verbal actions that bring this scene to sight. Called into the verse by a seemingly random, now motivated simile ("like ears"), sound is already in the air, and in retrospect texturing the verse from boat to beauteous to bolt upright. The revelation at hand is even more audible in "sounded"—a dead homonym, with a Miltonic formation.[26]

  31. Such sounding without sight, dim and perilous for the haunted, can seem to a sighted poet who can't paint what then he was, a fantasy of perfect harmony:

    Thus lived he by Loch-Leven's side
    Still sounding with the sounding tide,
     (The Blind Highland Boy 91-92)

    The sounding is in the world, past and present, and in the boy himself, in whom all sounds echo, and still sound in Wordsworth's reservoir for the poetry of sound.

  32. This is a poet forever seduced by the sound of sound—

    O listen! for the Vale profound
    Is overflowing with the sound.

    The poetry is an event of overflow, from the vocative O listen as a phonics for O-verflowing, to the drama of enjambment—"the Vale profound / Is overflowing with the sound"—to the way the rhyme of profound into sound arrives on the metrics that pace the overflow. It is a sound that listeners recall as the poet's own. "Christopher North" (John Wilson) remembers him "pacing in his poetical way . . . and pouring out poetry in that glorious recitative of his, till the vale was overflowing with the sound."[27] Bearing this sound in memory, Dorothy Wordsworth can even catch the lines as her own:

    There is something inexpressibly soothing to me in the sound of those two Lines
    Oh listen! for the Vale profound
    Is overflowing with the sound—
    I often catch myself repeating them in disconnection with any thought, or even I may say, recollection of the Poem.[28]

    The iambics of "O listen! for the vale profound is" pulse in "I often catch my self repeating." The sounds are not a memory but a sensation that seems ever renewable—and hence in her letter she replaces her brother's period with a dash that implies prolonged audition. The poem that follows The Solitary Reaper in the 1807 Poems, Stepping Westward, re-echoes sound (as Adam Potkay notes). The title is from a local greeting to the foot-travelers, "What you are stepping Westward?", that Wordsworth liked, in a stepping of regular meter, for its "sound / Of something without place or bound" (13-14).

  33. Shelley takes this scene of boundless audition to the Alps, and replays it with a sense of poetry aspiring, not to tame, but to run wild with antiphony and metrical disorder:

    Thy caverns echoing to the Arve's commotion
    A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame;
    Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion
    Thou art the path of that unresting sound—
    Dizzy Ravine!          
    (Mont Blanc 30-34)

    "Like the path of sound through the air" is Coleridge's simile for the retrograde motions of reading. If Shelley's Defence contends that poetry is not poetry without a striving for "a certain uniform and harmonious recurrence of sound" (SPP 514), the case is pitched to crisis here, with the poetry wresting the path of sound into a primary commotion of mind.[29] The sound-streaming tribute of his poetry is its anagrammatic churning of caverns / Arve's / art pervaded / art / Ravine. While sound achieves an end-rhyme at line 40, "the clear universe of things around," the formal chord is already belated in the train of the triple chord of sound in the commotion of 30-34 about the phenomenon itself. Even the expansive pun of surround in "things around" figures what is already in motion. Is this, too, what Keats heard, in tune with Wordsworth, in those "whisperings around" at seaside?

  34. For Shelley, unresting sound is the mode of the verse, discharging the very words and their inventory of letters from the end of the first stanza and into the dramatic turn to the apostrophe in the next:

    Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
    Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
    Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.
    Thus thou, Ravine of Arve—dark, deep Ravine— (9-12)[30]
    Shelley makes his claim for the sounds of poetry as its very sense, and with echoes everywhere of Milton (Paradise Lost), of Wordsworth (Tintern Abbey), of Coleridge (Kubla Khan), and not the least his own harvest:
    Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
    The source of human thought its tribute brings
    Of waters, with a sound but half its own (1-6)
    In the phonic roll of gerunds, sweeping up the very ontology of things, Shelley springs the poem's first rhyme, springs, then turns it to the poem's first couplet-rhyme, secret springs / tribute brings—the last punning on the very poetics (tributary stream; gift). Thus sound is set to echo in its own (its sone), half in the transformations of the echo-relay. In love with sound, Shelley releases sound to such a pitch as imply that the secrets behind sounds are only blanks, not Mont Blanc. As he is at pains to say in and through Mont Blanc, poetry is called to a sound-source that is but half owned. It is half owned not because sound out there is radically untamable and unnamable, but because the sound of poetry is an audition that is always a sounding of another's words with tributes of one's own.


1 1942; rpt. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York: Vintage, 1951) 32. This is also the place to say that my essay takes foundational inspiration from Garrett Stewart's Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext (Univ. of California Press, 1990) and has been encouraged and everywhere improved by his eyes and ears. I'm also grateful for the benefit of Andy Elfenbein's careful and carefully informed conversations with me.


2 Lectures, 1808-1819, On Literature, ed. R. A. Foakes; 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987) 2: 217, my brief italics.


3 Stewart gives this passage pride of place in Reading Voices, the first epigraph of his Prologue (1). For quotations of Romantic poetry and prose, I assume sources are near enough at hand or keystroke, and so I cite no particular edition. Titles in quotation marks are, by editorial convention, derived from first line of untitled poems; italic titles are the poets' own.


4 Lecture on Matthew Arnold, 1933 (towards the end); rpt. The Uses of Poetry and the Uses of Criticism (1933).


5 To Paul Fussell's remark on the slowed time of slow time (Poetic Meter & Poetic Form [1969; Random House, 1971] 41), I'd even add the foot of and. For my fuller discussion of the poetics of silence in this ode (and companionable readers), see "The Know of Not to Know It: Returns to Keats's Urn," in Praxis : "'Ode on a Grecian Urn': Hypercanonicity and Pedagogy," ed. James O'Rourke, Orrin Wang & John Morillo (rc.umd.edu/praxis).


6 Garrett Stewart's seminar will take us further, into an auditorium of potential auralities, sometimes with thematic import, that press into the auditions of reading and the arrays of textuality.


7 Paradise Lost 2.541 for the first; then Satan in awe of God's high formalism over chaos's "formless mass" (3.708): "Confusion heard his voice, and wilde uproar / Stood rul'd, stood vast infinitude confin'd" (710-11)—with a dramatic halting of pentameter into spondees at –roar / Stood rul'd stood vast.


8 The Manuscripts of The Younger Romantics, vol. XI, ed. Cheryl Fallon Giuliano (Garland, 1997) 60-61; I draw a bit on my introduction to the Penguin Don Juan (2004). Ney, having joined the king's army after Napoleon was exiled to Elba, rejoined Napoleon when his troops defected.


9 "Milton," in The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets; With Critical Observations on Their Works; ed. Roger Lonsdale, 4 vols. (Clarendon, 2006) 1: 294; Johnson's italics credit another "ingenious critick" for the remark (William Locke).


10 A comment recorded by Samuel Carter Hall, A Book of Memories of Great Men and Women of the Age, from Personal Acquaintance (London: Virtue & Co., 1871), p. 42.


11 I poach on Garrett Stewart's refined attention in Reading Voices 152-53.


12 Stewart follows the trail of Alight into an archaic past participle (kin to Alit), within the poetics that coordinate "sound and the medium of vision": "'A light in sound' becomes 'Alight in sound' in the double sense of 'brought to light' in sound (lit, lighted, imaginatively kindled) and descended, settled, or come to rest therein (alighted)" (ibid 153).


13 The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn (Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), vol. 3: 3762. For fine attention to the sound qualities of Coleridge's verse, see Anya Taylor, "Coleridge and the Pleasures of Verse," Studies in Romanticism 40 (2001): 547-69.


14 This is how it plays in Bishop Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765): "The lady shriekte and swound away" (Sir Cauline, 183); a drunk tinker is passed out "as if laid in a swound" (The Frolicsome Duke, 6); and lords laugh so hard they're "readye to swound" (The Beggar's Daughter of Bednall Green, 62).


15 "Christmas Out of Doors," The Friend No. 19, December 28, 1809; The Friend, ed. Barbara E. Rooke, 2 vols. (Princeton Univ. Press, 1969) 2: 257.


16 A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 2d edition (1759), Part II, Section XVII: "Sound and Loudness" (itself an echo of the sense).


17 Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Harvard Univ. Press, 1958) 2: 171.


18 For noting this semantically laden relation of sound, I'm indebted to Michael O'Neill, "'Driven as in Surges': Texture and Voice in Romantic Poetry (The Wordsworth Circle 38 [2007], 91).


19 "Words, Wish, Worth" (1979; The Unremarkable Wordsworth [Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1987] 99, 101-2). I give fuller attention to this passage in "What's Wrong with Formalist Criticism?", Studies in Romanticism 37 (Spring 1998) 77-94.


20 Note to The Thorn, Lyrical Ballads 1800; his italics.

21 Dorothy Wordsworth had conveyed the verse in a letter to Coleridge, December 1798; The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Early Years 1787-1805, ed. Ernest de Selincourt, 2d edn. Rev. Chester L. Shaver (Clarendon Press, 1967) 239.


22 "Poems, In Two Volumes," and Other Poems, 1800-1807 by William Wordsworth, ed. Jared Curtis (Cornell UP, 1983) 464.


23 I follow the transcribed ms. (from a lost original) in Richard Woodhouse's letterbook; Rollins gives a slightly different rendition of the same ms. (Letters 1: 132).


24 "Keats," in Allusion to the Poets (Oxford UP, 2002) 175.


25 "My First Acquaintance with Poets," The Liberal 2 (April 1823); Hazlitt misremembers the phrase as Chaucer's.


26 To Sin's cry of Death in Hell's echo-chamber, "back resounded Death" (PL 2.789), the event is first sounded in "resounded" (finely noted by Stewart, Reading Voices 80). Wordsworth ceded this dead-success when he revised to "Sounding with grappling-irons" (1850 5.447; even as the double gerunds add a present intensity of recollection).

The phonologic of ears and sounded seems too deliberate for Cynthia Chase's slotting into "mute catachresis," meanings and signs linked only "by the accident of identity"; "The Accidents of Figuration: Limits to Literal and Figurative Reading of Wordsworth's 'Books'", Decomposing Figures: Rhetorical Readings in the Romantic Tradition (Cornell Univ. Press, 1986), 21, 27.


27 Noctes Ambrosianae, in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine XLVII (December 1829), p. 872, cited by Samuel Carter Hall, A Book of Memories, p. 372.


28 Letters, The Early Years, 650.


29 Mont Blanc and Biographia Literaria were published late in 1817; I haven't been able to find evidence of cross-influence or a common source for the similar phrasing of "path of sound." A few years on, Thomas Lovell Beddoes (who read both poets) may have caught this strain with lighter luxury, closing "The Induction to the First Fytte" of The Improvisatore (1821) thus: "With finger springing light / To joyous sounds, the songster wight / First tuned his lyre, then danced along / Amid the mazy paths of song" (51-54).


30 William Keach's comment on Shelley's poetics of rhyme may illuminate the anagrammatics here and the metapoetics of sound in 30-34: the "verbal imagination structures and shapes, without giving a closed or determinate pattern to, an experience which defies structuring and shaping" (Shelley's Style [Methuen, 1984] 196). To Frances Ferguson the "linguistic tour de force" of the anagrams is a relational punning that underscores "the symbiosis of things and mind. . . . the inevitability of any human's seeing things in terms of relationship" ("Shelley's Mont Blanc: What the Mountain Said," in Romanticism and Language, ed. Arden Reed [Cornell Univ. Press, 1984] 206-7).

Works Cited

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