"Soundings of Things Done":
The Poetry and Poetics of Sound
in the Romantic Ear and Era
Against the prized Romantic metaphysics of silence, this essay investigates not only the sound of Romantic poetry, but its various, multiple, often punning soundings of the word sound. That the very romance of silence needs the sound of poetry to say so was experienced by romantic poets and theorized in the phonic play of their poetry where the word sound plays as a meta-trope of sonic registers, whether heard or silently audited. This essay tracks, traces, and registers the import of this situation across poetry by Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Blake, Keats, Shelley, and Byron. Its most resonant claim is that the sound of sound becomes the medium of conversation with the sensorium of the external world, not only its nonsemantic noises, but its auditorium of other voices, especially poets'.
How did Romantic poets come to terms with new thinking about the relation of sound and emotion in rhetoric and linguistics of the late-eighteenth century? To address this question, Chandler considers some examples in Keats and Shelley before turning to a late poem by Wordsworth, "The Power of Sound," which thematizes this very question of sound and sense. It does so, moreover, by echoing a number of passages from Wordsworth's poetry of the Great Decade, especially the "Immortality Ode," which Chandler argues is a key intertext for the later ode. He argues further that Wordsworth implicitly finds his earlier poetry wanting in theological terms, especially in a key (echoed) passage from the pivotal stanza 9 of the "Immortality Ode" in which the poet speaks of "our noisy years" in relation to the "eternal silence." That is, he finds his earlier poetry too much given to the free affective play of sound. For the later Wordsworth, sound schemes signify larger schemes drawn from the Christian Bible.
Stewart demonstrates the legacy of Romantic sound play—the undertext of lyric writing in its phonemic activation—as an influence on Victorian poets and novelists. Keats and Shelley experiment with the "phonotext" in ways taken up by Arnold, Hardy, and Tennyson. But there is also the Wordsworthian "underpresence" of subvocal effect in Dickens and George Eliot, most strikingly in Little Dorrit and The Mill on the Floss. Building on the writings of Mladen Dolar, Friedrich Kittler, and especially Giorgio Agamben, both his book Language and Death and his essay "Philosophy and Linguistics," Stewart finds in the latter's conception of "present contingency"—or in other words, in a sense of "potentiality" that can be immanent even in its apparent exclusion—a tentative philosophical model for the sub- or cross-lexical phonic charge of Romantic poetics and its prose derivations.
This essay addresses the Orphic power of music to seduce and distract—to wring the will of its freedom—in a way that is not incompatible with civic liberty. To flesh out this theme, Potkay looks at two poems from Wordsworth's 1807 Poems, in Two Volumes: the entrancing "Solitary Reaper" and the poem in which Wordsworth directly addresses the allurements of sound, "The Power of Music." In these poems, "the music of harmonious metrical language" mimics the power of vocal or instrumental music to distract from both meaning and purposeful activity. But music, for Wordsworth, is no mere drug; still less is it a threat to society. Although sound may induce reverie, it nonetheless brings individuals together, apart from an over-busy world. The immersion of musical pleasure serves as a counter-force to the commercial spirit over which Wordsworth, no less than many of his American reviewers, worried.