Ideal Presence and the Past and Present Acoustic Ecologies of Romanticism: Reader–Listener–Performers and Their Recitations and Auditory Translations

Carrie Busby (The University of Alabama)

William Wordsworth knew the association of sound, language, and affect was poetically valuable and used it to his advantage in the creation of acoustic ecologies. He showcases acoustic aesthetics in his poetry through the speech acts of characters, dialogic interaction with audiences, and recitations, creating acoustic ecologies of Romanticism while advancing future ones. Because acoustic ecologies occupy a central presence in his narrative poems, I call for consideration of the power of speech and sound in the teaching of Romantic poetry and insist that students learn the task of close listening, becoming readers–listeners–performers in their literary study.

I value speech acts and sound in poetry and suggest that students of Romanticism be taught to listen closely to the acoustic ecology of Wordsworth as embedded in theirs. In so doing, they will find that poetry exists as innumerable, layered soundscapes in and beyond textual spaces. If students are taught to understand poetry as synthetic and sounded, they will interact with poetry to comprehend how poets move readers between and across patterns of organization and perception to showcase many aspects of their works as sound art. Wordsworth’s poetics is at the core of my theory, but I propose the practice of my theory more broadly as a pedagogical method. I encourage a consideration of the possibilities of sound in Romantic poetry and what technologies past and present might offer in terms of reciting, analyzing, translating, remixing, performing, and preserving Romantic poetry in and for the future.

Teaching students the value of speech acts and importance of recitation begins with an introduction to the history of thinking about language that existed before Romantics were composing and reciting, a history that widely contributed to Romantic poetics. According to the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Henry Home, Lord Kames, “speech is the most . . . powerful of all the means by which one human being can display itself to another” (1: 43). Teaching Romantic poetry with a focus on the important influence of rational beings stirring emotions through speech means engaging with theories and practices of audition and recitation. In the seventeenth century, linguistic theories and practices in England were concerned with connections of speech to thought. According to Murray Cohen, language at this time could be studied as an object, and “the relationship between language and reality . . . [was] sought in the physical parts of writing and speech—letters and sounds” (7). Seventeenth-century treatises on the physicality of speech reinforced the importance of sound in making meaning. Owen Price’s The Vocal Organ was one of many texts that “provided a scheme visualizing the physiology of sounds . . . [to] propose an articulatory phonetics based on an ordered, elemented, and evident arrangement of the speech organs” (Cohen 11). These speech organs are in part how the body produces language sounds. Language exists through the complexities of one’s speech organs, and these organs make articulations audible in distinct ways. While a conceivably obvious point, acknowledging the body’s critical role in linguistics illumines the relationship between live Romantic articulations, the imagination, and transformation. Connecting acts of the mouth—the body, past and present—to the intellectual quickness of the mind and to broader assemblages of mouths-bodies-minds is necessary to move Romantic poetry through and beyond individual, private notions toward understanding that acknowledges not only isolated incidents of human transformation in nature but conversion of the collective consciousness through public sphere revolution, a sphere just as natural to humanity. Christopher Cooper’s The English Teacher is another text increasing awareness to this possibility. A schoolmaster, Cooper sought to impose rules through his “detailed descriptions of physical sounds” and “alphabetized lists” concerning phonology and phonetics: “he finds the possibilities of language in the ‘powers’ of characters” (Cohen 13). Cooper’s work, as with Price’s, pulls language away from its intangible status into a more tangible reality—one more sounded, heard, felt, and participatory.

As with most treatises during this time, these texts were concerned with linguistic inquiry as a site for knowledge making. Including excerpts from these treatises on a course syllabus could be quite useful, not only for contextualizing the period prior to Romanticism which would help students understand the era’s engagement with linguistic inquiry, but also for vivifying soundscapes of the Romantic imagination. These treatises can be used for dislocating the silent practice of reading Romantic poetry and creating physical articulations through recitation and mouth movements vocalizing the powers of characters. Making students aware of the embodiment of language can help us understand diversity historically. Not everyone will articulate the same, and different sounds produce diverse aesthetic responses and shifts in meaning. We could study patterns that appear across the student body, note variances and illuminate problems, blind spots, and exclusive markers that led to further linguistic thought that Romantic poets were working through, with, and against.

With such background, students will better understand that seventeenth-century linguists’ interests in the materiality of language and its association with thought led to eighteenth-century interests in the rhetorical and affective possibilities associated with language and communication. During the eighteenth century, oral emphasis became the dominant concern in linguistics, and conveying understanding through recitation was key. John Rice’s An Introduction to the Art of Reading represents the view that recitation could “evoke the relationship between thought and speech” and transfer sentiment from speaker to interlocutor (Cohen 105). According to Cohen, the linguistic ability to transfer sentiment depended on the “competence of the speaker rather than on qualities embedded in the language,” but it was accepted that individuals could use their “distinctive linguistic features” to this end (106). The “arrangement of voice inflexions and pauses” could “express each sentence with appropriate ‘passion or emotion’” and shifted the study of language as object to the study of the mind (Cohen 106–7). This lean toward psychology signaled a change in how the affective function of language could materialize—and articulatory phonetics emerged. Articulatory phonetics was concerned with sounds, including “discussions of basic sounds, emphasis, pause, modulation, articulation, accent, pronunciation, quantity, and tone” (Cohen 110). During this shift, lecturer Benjamin Martin, important for his role in advancing knowledge about the ear and auditory processing, published Institutions of Language, which contains his “Physico–Grammatical Essay on the Propriety and Rationale of the English Tongue” and includes a section wherein he “discusses each letter in terms of the physiology of its pronunciation” (Cohen 112). Texts, such as Martin’s, are evidence of theories of language that perceived speech as social and affective. Additional publications proliferated and emphasized pleasure’s role in communication, as elocutionist Thomas Sheridan’s oeuvre reveals (Cohen 112–14). The importance of linguistic sounds in the eighteenth century led some to instruct speech pronunciation by graphically specifying sounds using a system of notation modeled on musical notation which could, in addition to marking speech emphasis, confront “defects by comparing the voice to a musical instrument” (Cohen 116). This system was also used to record printed information.

As the auditory imagination functions differently for each reader, teaching historical attention to articulatory phonetics would allow for more concrete yet diverse engagement with the sounds of printed texts. Students could produce their creative renderings, or auditory translations, of texts and recorded pieces using notation systems created in the past. Noelle Chao discusses the sonic qualities of printed words in her work, which focuses on the British plantation owner Joshua Steele who, in his 1775 Essay Towards Establishing the Melody and Measure of Speech, outlined “a complex system for recording the voice in print, involving, among other things, a modified musical staff with extra divisions of pitch and rhythm, and a range of additional markings to indicate emphasis and force” (245). Chao’s work addresses a gap in research on recording technology and claims that while the historical narrative depends on the nineteenth century and its technological advancements as the point of origin for recording, in fact, the “eighteenth-century writings on music and elocution developed their . . . logic of recording through the medium of print” (258). Students could devise systems like Steele’s, whose methods, deemed implausible by some critics, were embraced by a select few who supported “conveying sound through the medium of print” using “written markings that could reliably and accurately communicate specific sounds” (Chao 247). Chao argues that “for scholars today, . . . [Steele’s] technology for recording has the potential to amplify eighteenth-century practices of reading and listening, practices made nearly impossible to hear or imagine by modern advances in sound preservation” (247). Therefore, we should be encouraging students to design similar methods of capturing poetic sounds, speech sounds, and soundscapes embedded in Romantic poetry. In this way, students participate in what Julia S. Carlson calls “the voicing of print” to “discover their measure” (2). This “democratic access to . . . measures,” which John Thelwall supported for blank verse at the time of The Excursion, according to Carlson, would teach students to initiate or participate in sound preservation (3). With today’s technological apparatuses, students could reinvent the process to create imaginative multimodal recordings and translations of Romantic texts, take elocution into consideration, and synthesize past recording technologies with those of the present.

Romantic poetry should be examined through the lens of elocutionary theory as it relates to the sound of speech acts and their effects. This lens offers innovative approaches to understanding Romanticism and results in students not only understanding the language of texts but also the rhetorical acts of original recitations and future possible performance translations. Judith Thompson insists that while “much remains to be done to recover and re-evaluate elocutionary history and theory in relation to Romanticism,” attention has begun to shift toward “actual circumstances and active effects of particular speech acts, utterances, genres, and performances” (23). Instead of approaching Romantic poetry only by linking the linguistic to the thematic, I suggest that we teach students of Romantic poetry to examine the linguistic using Romantic theories of hearing and philosophies of sound. Roman Jakobson in “Linguistics and Poetics” “distinguished the context (circumstances described in the message) from the code (the language system that lets the message be put into words),” and Andrew Elfenbein writes that “most literary scholarship on language absorbs code into context, rather than recognizing its potential autonomy” (4). Examining code on its merits forces close engagement with the language system (i.e., speech sounds), influences the context, and vivifies poetic soundscapes.

To consider Romantic poetry on these terms, I envision a reader who advances what Elfenbein calls the “impression of style” (41). Consideration must be given to the kind of reader Wordsworth visualized as he apprised his “Reader” of his style and intent to “look steadily” at his “subject” in the preface to Lyrical Ballads (600). Wordsworth unlikely chose “subject” for only its connotations of topic. Rather, he was thinking about the whole of his work in relation to its parts by considering the “subject” position of his “Reader.” His preface and other paratext serve a similar function to produce readers who know their parts but who also submit to poetic authority. Subject in every sense is recognized, and Wordsworth anticipates readers who accommodate him and realize the score in conjunction with their contributions. As Noelle Chao informs us, Steele writes of such a reader in Essay and Prosodia Rationalis: ‘The reader of such printed symbols is understood to be not only a reader who processes printed text in a silent, sonic vacuum, but a reader–listener, who is able to hear what is being communicated in print within . . . [the] mind’s eye. This reader–listener is often cast as a reader–listener–performer, whom the writer anticipates will rehearse the sounds captured within the text. (258)’ Adopting the term reader–listener–performer for students of Romanticism makes sense. Wordsworth was himself a reader–listener–performer, well known to have composed lines of verse orally while walking in nature where public and/or private audiences were attending and listening, leaving behind a methodology for his words to be conveyed by his readers–listeners–performers through an understanding of audition and the affective force of sound. Of course, I do not suggest that we teach students to become Wordsworth in their auditory/performance translations, but I do suggest the importance of understanding Romantic poetry in terms of accepting the importance of readers’ subject positions as they express the whole of poems in auditory/performance translations.

Nevertheless, readers should balance self-perception of their sonic environments, both created and actual, as well as the acoustic ecologies created in the lines of Romantic poems. With this layered sense of perception, sonic environments of the poets’ created audible worlds become less textual, more active soundscapes. Stressing imaginative interaction, Noel Jackson writes about Wordsworth and his “claim for the sensuous vitality of imaginative narration,” noting that Lord Kames’s term “ideal presence” delineated “the active status of imaginative things in the mind” (85). Wordsworth and Kames share the belief in the mind’s ability to activate sensation. Jackson explains that “ideal presence at once simulates and substitutes for physical sense-perception; this literary effect reproduces the potent effects of sensation without sharing in the limitations that bind it to one body, thereby preventing its communication to others” (85–86). Created acoustic ecologies, considered through Kames’s ideal presence, would function as sonic environments wherein one could have “an embodied experience wholly independent of external stimuli” (Jackson 86). This account theorizes “the signature effect of powerful imaginative representation” and “render[s] . . . the sensuous presence of the past” (Jackson 86). Adding the representation and rendering of the past with the present renderings complicates the sonic landscape, or soundscape, of the poetry, but accepting Kames’s ideal presence along with students’ auditory translations of the texts opens up the poetry to fresh conceptions of poetic sound. This exploration allows for an understanding of acoustic ecologies that reinforces embodiment and direct perception and permits the unbinding of poetry from not only one body but also one imaginative representation. It lets students participate more creatively in poetry and thus participate more fully in the expressive utterance of the poem, by embodying speech, thought, and feeling together through words on their tongues. This participation allows them to experience Romantic poetry as an embodied force always agitating others through utterance. The method teaches that acoustic codes are not stable but subjective, and that such a reality should not negatively affect analytical import.

These systems reproduced in a classroom allow for critical engagement with student recordings. We could make comparisons, notice like patterns in marking, and begin quite possibly to hear Wordsworth’s voice through graphical specifications. Studying linguistic structures by focusing on the sounds of language and affect reveals compelling information about articulation, accent, vocal variations, euphony, stress, cadence, pauses, respiration, punctuation, attention, stimulation, artificiality, force, and more. Romantic poetry emerged in this linguistic environment, so acknowledging these systems in classroom settings better equips students for understanding this environment.

Linguistic structures shift now as they did then as rhetorical situations vary. Sounds of language and affect for exigencies differ, so Romantic articulations should be understood through the complexity of performance or recitation contexts. An introduction to both seventeenth- and eighteenth-century linguistics and articulatory phonetics reinforces the importance of the sonification of language that alphabetic text might obscure for readers; it reifies the attention to social linguistic structures so important in Romantic recitation and readers–listeners–performers’ auditory imaginations. The social origins, intellectual culture, and outcomes of the French Revolution and its ideological birthing shaped Wordsworth’s imagination and concern for his community and thus shaped Wordsworth’s poetics and its emphasis on words and passion. Words in the mouths of revolutionaries elicited substantial consequences, and “unmasking” such penetrating use of political language for Wordsworth likely reinforced his poetic use of words and the force of their passion to affect his audience (Hunt 20–21). Revolutionary speakers were passionate, affective, and “concerned with authority” and “audience,” and Wordsworth recognized that language shaped perception with positive and negative implications (Hunt 25). Language shaped political interests and ideologies and was “a way of reconstituting the social and political world,” in both France and England (Hunt 24–25). Wordsworth knew language served as an “expression of power, and power . . . [was] expressed by the right to speak for the people” (Hunt 23). His concern for man’s nature fueled his sense of preservation and need to speak on behalf of others, to use language to foster political and social change, preserving his experiences and revolutionary sense of language through poetry that could indeed bring authority or sense of liberty to those lacking privilege and agency. Wordsworth experienced that in times of revolution some voices were heard above others, and those silenced by an oppressive majority needed others to help them be heard. Wordsworth poeticizes selfhood that serves broader humanity, whose liberty could be found in conversing with their souls, which his poetics teach and taught even while his explicit political actions waned. At times hiding explicit political intent in verse, Wordsworth spoke for those who could not, for reasons social, political, or otherwise, and emboldened others who listened to participate in society as was possible in spaces where the overlooked were silenced. Taking this voicing into consideration, we can and should problematize and complicate notions of Wordsworthian “liberty” and critique imperialist political and educational aims and realities aurality brings to mind. Attention to aurality always makes audible historically unheard voices that have been enslaved by the English tongue—voices of those silenced, colonized, appropriated, forced into assimilation, and ignored. There are always consequences. In other words, we can critique why Wordsworth felt compelled to speak for others and discuss the implications and ethics of that. Fortified with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century linguistic theory, Wordsworth aligned his thinking about language with the values inherent in political language esteemed during the French Revolution: values of passion, authority, audience, perception, and persuasion that served social and political purposes, expressed power and agency, and ensured Wordsworthian liberty. Teaching values inherent in political language is crucial, and students can understand such thinking through our historical moment, especially in terms of modern audible movements serving social and political justice purposes.

Foregrounding sound as the vessel for the “Visionary Power” (The Prelude 619) of which Wordsworth wrote challenges the thread of research in Romantic studies that fails to articulate such sonic emphasis to instead maintain that sight was more important to the Wordsworthian imagination. I dislocate Wordsworthian “Visionary Power” that “Attends upon the motions of the winds / Embodied in the mystery of words” (The Prelude 619–21) from assumptions of sight. Sound studies demand close listening and conceptualizing aurality through unorthodox means, and a study of sound implies physicality and psychophysicality beyond sensation and new critical regulation. In my classrooms, I seek to supplement traditional close reading with scientifically and historically informed close listening, which makes engaging with not only the physical but also the psychophysical sonic properties of poetry worthwhile. I teach Wordsworth in this way to show through acoustics and psychoacoustics frameworks that he reimagined refined sensibility and anticipated inclusive interpretive communities for poetry; he is, in part, a vessel for a wider social, cultural, discursive logic of the poetics of the Romantic period. If we teach others a similar understanding of Wordsworth, we propel his poetics forward into aural and semantic spaces informed by diverse historical moments, political perspectives, scientific engagements, technological advancements, and physical and psychophysical acoustic ecologies. These spaces inform our thinking; we cannot approach poetics sans current consciousness.

The dialogic quality of Wordsworth’s writing and focus on the interactivity between self, sound, and motion—what I term psychosonicmotion, presents opportunities for students to reimagine Wordsworth’s craft, his thinking, and the pleasure he derived, gave, and gives with his work. Consumed by his sense of true personal liberty, Wordsworth chose close listening to self in motion in the interest of preserving ideas in writing for future recollection and pleasure. Wordsworth does not abandon his civic project and exile himself from the world; his work draws in others and others’ voices in the service of broader humanity, engaging civically continually. Concerned with not only articulating others’ voices to be heard by others but also hearing his voice speak itself out, Wordsworth arguably privileged close listening and thus positioned sound at the forefront of his poetics as

A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns . . .
( “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” 95–98; emphasis added)5

The “presence” (95) here is sound, and the “sense sublime” (96) is hearing.

Wordsworth’s poetics connect not only early linguistic thought to later political language but also the debates regarding thought, language, experience, ideas, and things that existed before and as his poetics took shape. Wordsworth’s position can be traced from John Locke’s first articulation in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (see “Of Words” ) to Leibniz to Berkeley to James Burnet, Lord Monboddo to Locke’s French follower Étienne Bonnot de Condillac to John Horne Tooke to Destutt de Tracy to the idéologues, and my argument for sound as fundamental in Wordsworth’s poetics follows from a synthesis of such conceptions (Keach 95–110). William Keach surveys this theoretical terrain, which can be valuable information to include in a course tracing points of thought to Wordsworth’s ideas about language and thought. Keach asserts that Wordsworth’s use of words “gives us a profound sense of the pressure and action of the material world and of the physical significance of writing itself” (109). His tracing of Romantic verbal representation suggests Wordsworth’s intention to produce poetry with sound poetics in mind and must be present in a study of Romantic poetry.

In my ear, the beauty of Wordsworth is that he was able to capture his immersed nature—personally, socially, politically, and naturally. That quality inherent in his writing still remains. We hear even today the sounds of Wordsworth’s verse blending with the voices of the poets before and after him, with the waters and birds around him, with the soundscape we presently occupy. We hear it if we practice close listening. He captured his sonic moment through poeticizing its auditory scenes, documenting an acoustic ecology by layering sonic environments of which he was a part—physically, psychophysically, and imaginatively. By relocating these auditory scenes into verse, he preserved auditory perception in reality and ideality and for futurity, reifying his immersive tendencies to attend to sound through his Romantic ear and prompting our attention to do the same by reading his work—and reading it aloud. Through Wordsworth, by dislocating ourselves from our sonic environments to join his auditory scenes, we become aware of unique sonic environments that inform—even enhance and disrupt—the acoustic ecology of listening to Wordsworth. Through his verbal representation, Wordsworth mediates aurality by pulling his auditory scenes into our sonic worlds to intervene in our present and future systems of aurality.

Diverse approaches let us reconsider, reimagine, and diversify social contexts, past and present, in which Romantic-era poetry is highly valued and appreciated. We learn to understand the value of these aesthetic encounters and how they can be not only preserved but also renewed in our contexts through attention to how past technologies reshape or become reshaped through present technological capabilities. Adam J. Banks writes about the “repositioning” that composition theory and teaching are undergoing “that values cultural diversity and interrogates more deeply the social contexts in which writing occurs,” noting that in the field of composition, “more importance [has been placed] on multiliteracies and multimedia writing” (10). What might the possibilities be if, in teaching literature, we placed such importance on multiliteracies and multimedia writing and how, together, the two could preserve Romantic recitation using digital platforms that allowed for the immersive engagement with sound and/or performance and linguistic variation through the marking systems of the past? These are innovative considerations for literary studies. While Banks clarifies that “digital writing and our immersion in multiple media forms and spaces demands a return to performance as an important area in writing instruction,” reimagining Romantic poetry through diverse performances is also an important area in literature instruction, and this area can be enhanced through explicit attention to the possibilities of digital humanities and our immersion in multiple media forms (11). We can and should interrogate and diversify Romantic recitation and its sonic possibilities by recreating social contexts where reading–listening–performing occurred in the Romantic period, reimagining those moments in new physical locations and electronic spaces—with assorted voices. These contexts are not only textual but also actual and electronic, not only recitative but also performative.

Considering multimedia possibilities for Wordsworth’s poetry is one way we might reimagine the social contexts of present recitation in juxtaposition to Romantic-era recitation. For instance, an audio version of the text might change or enhance the reading of sound figures, and Wordsworth’s work, and all poetry in general, could be examined in this way. Sound figures have acoustic or psychoacoustic resonances, and the textual representations of linguistic utterances are sound figures. Multimedia possibilities for representing sound figures abound through remix, pastiche, sampling, and hybridity. Both language and music have metaphorical capability, and I hear sound figures as the fusion of linguistic and nonlinguistic sonic resonances in the service of metaphor. Hearing and listening to these utterances ignites thought if audiences listen closely. Adrian Curtin writes about examining audio recordings of readings through the concept of close listening (270). He quotes from Charles Bernstein to suggest that “‘close listening . . . may contradict ‘readings’ of poems . . . based exclusively on the printed text . . . that ignore the poet’s own performances, the ‘total’ sound of the work, and the relation of sound to semantics’” (qtd. in Curtin 270). Curtin writes that audiotexts emphasize and reinforce the acoustics of the written text (271). Audiotexts provide “a dense semantic field of linguistic activity and sound shapes that re-stages the printed poem’s ostensible meanings” (271). As we listen to a poem’s dynamic sound registers and begin to notice its layered sonic environments, we can access how technological re-conception of a work might, through newly imagined multimedia forms, bring about audio representations of multiple consciousnesses, which might offer semantic and post-semantic enrichment worth curating. Electronic aural stimuli authorizes the marking of poetry as technologically advanced and quite post-postmodern, insofar as it simultaneously represents communicative voices through messages it transmits through polyphonic figures.

Wordsworth’s poetry already exists as hybrid and “multi discursive,” but through innovative platforms we have access to today, it could become even more so. The “hybrid genre embraces works of art which transgress genre boundaries by combining characteristic traits and elements of diverse literary and non-literary genres” (Karakoç 70–71). Wordsworth reveals such possibilities through diverse narrative and sonic elements through language and forms; he draws attention to physical and psychophysical sounds through his poetic utterances, which themselves house others’ utterances. Bakhtin defines the hybrid genre as “‘the mixture, within a single concrete utterance, of two or more different linguistic consciousness[es], often widely separated in time and social space’” (qtd. in Karakoç 71). Nonlinguistic acoustic data cutting into language in the text performs this hybridity because it reveals Wordsworth’s consciousness as a poet producing the consciousness of the text that the reader–listener–performer experiences through the works and perpetually renews through future recitations and/or auditory translations that may or may not be electronic.

Poems and the reader–listener–performer become an assemblage of past and present, lyrical and narrative, literary and real, and thus Wordsworth and individual. If “collective life is constituted by a multiplicity of circulating entities that are mutually influencing each other and bending space as a consequence of their divergent activities,” as the “power of rhetorical actancy as a concept” suggests, according to Laurie E. Gries, then Wordsworth’s poetry is a part of that collective, and his readers–listeners–performers are too (75). Both the poem, as technology, and the reader–listener–performer have agency and act in the world. In this sense, Wordsworth’s poetry exists as “distributed cognition . . . dispersed across various, heterogeneous components of an assemblage or assemblages as well as space and time” in a collective that includes nonhumans and humanity in their entirety—past, present, and future (Gries 68). Wordsworth’s poetry exists in hybridity in conjunction with its readership—at any time, and the work maintains a certain kind of living power in readers’ hands or on readers–listeners–performers’ tongues (Gries 73).

We should encourage students to envision the sonic environments of poems not as fixed interpretive territories but as interactive acoustic ecologies, allowing them to experience personal circumambient versions of the “‘world around’” or Umwelt (Chion and Steintrager 11). Chion and Steintrager maintain that one could argue that “there was a sound and a person”—a system of synthesized surround sound—sound and subject as entity (11). This Romantic understanding of the sonic environment positions the subject to feel “at the center of sound” and builds up sound “as a revelatory fantasy” that can “emphasize by a sort of mirroring effect, as it were, the individuality of the one listening to them” (Chion and Steintrager 11). Keeping this egocentric nature of audition in mind, students can understand that a poem’s sonic environment, soundscape, or acoustic ecology inspires options for discovering meaning. The auditory environment is not static but always fluctuating, perceptually founded. According to Albert Bregman, “auditory scene analysis” functions as a model for auditory perception, and using it, we can listen closely to continuous streams of sound in a sonic environment and analyze the sound mixture by segmenting the streams. It is difficult for a “listener to hear the entire sequence as a single stream of sound,” and differences in effects of the auditory stream vary (Bregman 643). While some active perceivers explore the sonic environment through an ecological model with attention to physical sound, others have powers, as William Noble writes, “to move around, to handle things, to bring objects into full view, to sweep the horizon, to get close to a faint sound” in other ways; instead of physically hearing the acoustic world, they perceptively attend to it (330). Noble suggests that hearing “is not necessarily an action that a person takes, but is rather more like the imposition of an audible object on one’s attention” (332). Such attention can be the result of perceiver choice or due to differences in hearing ability, but the analysis of the features of the audible world heard and attended to are meaningful and complex all the same.

Poetry, for Wordsworth, creates defining realities and distinctive natures and allows for an apprehension and perception of various natures. I suggest that we situate nature according to Peter H. Khost’s definition of the literary affordance and maintain an understanding of nature as an object in relation to its usefulness in the textual environment by all involved actors, which include not only poet and auditors but also intertextual and intratextual voices. According to Khost, a forerunner of ecological psychology James J. Gibson introduced the concept of affordance: “Affordances are uses individuals make of objects, events, concepts, or environments through relation to their discoverable features. . . its basic principle being that experiential, environment-bound relations are central to psychological experience . . . [Affordances involve] situational emphasis” (19–20). Situational emphasis is important to understanding Romantic recitation and should be explored practically and theoretically. Immersive environments are critical to poetry once readers note perceptual offerings environments hold. Khost maintains that “a reader’s needs (and abilities, interests, situation, and so forth) contribute to . . . [their] making of literary affordances” (21). Readers, therefore, give to and take what they need from the sonic environment they find themselves a part of, both in and beyond the text, in order to experience the work more fully. Khost writes that “affordances are not only phenomenal (i.e., experiential), but they are also at the same time substantial (i.e., physical),” and experiential and physical readings offer more interpretive possibilities for the poetry as the literary affordances become more varied based on the variants of nature made possible by due consideration of, attention to, creation of—and re-creation of—multiple sonic environments by diverse readers–listeners–performers (21). That “an affordance is not a property of an environment [literary text] or of a person [reader] but rather a person’s [reader’s] ability to make uses of objects or environments [literary texts] by placing (i.e., identifying) and activating useful features in them” should be something we are teaching students of Romanticism because it allows for reconsiderations of engagement that would be much like the engagement of the poets during their time (Khost 24). It materializes the period to show that these poems were indeed penned by living, breathing bodies who were absorbing their actualities to push beyond them. Experiencing poetry in this way makes it not only perceptual and experiential (i.e., direct) but also both conceptual and referential (i.e., indirect) (Khost 27). The ecosystem of the poem, then, while a complex construction and representation of the poet’s transcendence from material circumstances, becomes rooted in a reader’s material circumstances to substantialize the very materiality the poet captured through the poetic form to begin with. The work then always exists in synthesis beyond the individual poem in its material collectivity, past, present, and future.

Wordsworth’s recitations prompt conjecture regarding the sonification of poetry in our context and how we close listen today as audiences of Romantic poetry as sound art, ourselves reciting, hearing, and listening from positions of present soundscapes and circumstances. It situates perpetual recitation and the need for performance/auditory translations from audiences contextually defined by idiosyncratic and distinct natures. Poetry creates sonic possibilities both referential and nonreferential, and through the experiencing of the poem or the experience the poem concretizes and figurativizes—through its creation, recitation, participation, and perpetuation—these sonic possibilities supply variable resources for knowing, which we should examine. Steven Feld examines what he calls “acoustemology,” which “conjoins ‘acoustics’ and ‘epistemology’ to theorize sound as a way of knowing”; this theorizing “inquires into what is knowable, and how it becomes known, through sounding and listening” and “asks how the physicality of sound is so instantly and forcefully present to experience and experiencers, to interpreters and interpretations” in order to understand “sonic sensation” as “experiential” (qtd. in Novak and Sakakeeny 12). Feld informs our understanding of poetic sound and what we can know from poetic sonification. Realizing sound possibilities by analyzing poetry as audio reshapes our theoretical understanding of poets and poetics and reinforces poetry as a modern somesthetic–affective object. If we conceptualize literary sound in this way, we provide students with unlimited possibilities for encountering poetic acoustic ecologies as three-dimensional and interactive.

The diverse study of sound presents uncountable opportunities for students. Technologies of the past and the present offer ample methods for experimenting with Romantic texts and auditory translations in terms of reciting, analyzing, translating, remixing, performing, and preserving Romantic poetry in and for the future. Sound studies using not only the linguistic treatises and recording methodologies of the past but also present-day digital tools provide us with the means to further experience and preserve literature. We should present students with the opportunity not only to experience these memorable works using their tongues and in new mediums but also to analyze them as originals and translations, synthesizing the imaginative renderings of the Romantic period with our present imaginative possibilities and technological capabilities. Students, as readers–listeners–performers, will experiment with the affective force of sound as we perceive its function, modernizing expressions of language’s materiality and its association with thought while curating diverse renderings, compositions, and analyses under the direction of poets.

Works Cited

Banks, Adam J. Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age. Southern Illinois UP, 2011.
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