Praxis Series
Romantic Circles

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

The "Power of Sound" and the Great Scheme of Things: Wordsworth Listens to Wordsworth

James Chandler, The University of Chicago

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  1. Two citations, for starters, one that will be familiar enough to students of the Romantic period and a second that should be more familiar than it is.[1]

  2. First, Shelley's famous claim, at the close of A Defence of Poetry, that the poets of his age surpassed those of other ages not because of their opinions, with which he himself often disagreed, but because of their ability to tap into something larger than themselves, a great secular energy, a spirit of the age. Shelley represents this power with a figure drawn from recent explorations in the natural sciences carried out under the rubric of "vitalism." He calls it "the electric life which burns in their words" (535).

  3. The second citation is taken from Murray Cohen's Sensible Words, a fine book that traces changes in eighteenth-century English linguistics and that has not had the readership it deserves, despite praise from Noam Chomsky and Edward Said upon its publication. Cohen's final chapter charts a twofold shift in late eighteenth-century writing about language, such that "words . . . come to function less referentially or logically and more affectively" (109), and  that "sounds . . . become the object of new and widespread interest" among linguists (107). The scheme on which the new grammars predicate their work is based not on "the order of things," but on "manners of speaking" (103). The new paradigm, Cohen explains, "defines the linguistic expression of mental activity in a . . . context [that stresses] communication of intention through oral/aural signals associated with feelings or intentions" (106). Ultimately what is implied is a shift in the concept of "mind": from the mind "evident in syntactic logic" to "the 'mind' that is expressed by vocal tones [that give] evidence of passion" (106).

  4. Let us suppose, then, for the sake of a too-brief argument, that the vitalist "electricity" that appears in some famous poetry of the Romantic period had something to do with this new attention to the sound of words, with a new way of hearing sounds in relation to a new understanding of the mind as an affective domain. Let us suppose that there was something distinctive, in other words, about how Romantic poets reckoned with "the power of sound."

  5. In approaching this topic, we might wish to make a (familiar enough) distinction between the sounds that words have and the sounds to which they refer: the phonetic dimension of language as distinct from the semantic one.[2]  As for the former, one could certainly point to passages where key Romantic poems seem, by the very sound of their words, to simulate vital processes. Celeste Langan, for example, has dilated brilliantly on the "oh" at the start of Wordsworth's Prelude in its relation to the human breath, and on the implications of changing the "oh" to the capital O with which the 1850 text begins (172-75).[3]  But we can also find evidence of this sort of vitalist affective phonetics in Shelley's echo of the "Breath of Autumn's being" in Ode to the West Wind—that refrain "hear, O hear! / . . . O hear! /  . . . O hear!" (14, 28, 42). We hear it again in Keats's dramatization of "forever panting" (27) in the central stanza of Ode on a Grecian Urn: "More happy love! more happy, happy love!" (25)—a line that offers the promise of rising above "All human breathing" (28) but results in a "parching tongue" (30).

  6. As for the semantic element of sound in language, the sounds to which words refer: these are everywhere evident in Romantic poetry, especially in the many lyrics responsive to the sounds of birds, such as Coleridge's and Keats's nightingale poems. One even finds a number of poems in the period that relate these two kinds of sound effects to each other. Such a poem is Shelley's Stanzas Written in Dejection Near Naples, which begins with "a voice of one delight" (7) but comes in the end to name itself an "untimely moan—" (40), a reference to its own moments of tonal and rhythmic breakdown. The first of Shelley's initial iambic tetrameter lines, descriptive of what the poem will later call the "day" (48), had built its perfectly cadenced syntax with geometric logic—two clauses per line, then one clause for a line, then one clause for two lines:

    The sun is warm, the sky is clear,
    The waves are dancing fast and bright,
    Blue isles and snowy mountains wear
    The purple noon's transparent might  (1-4)

    Not unlike some of his geometric play with Pythagorean figures in Ode to the West Wind, these lines produce what might be called a "squaring effect" within a poetic space defined by four feet repeated over four lines. But in the second stanza, descriptive of the self (and where the first-person pronoun is first-introduced), these harmonies dissolve, and the poem becomes a syncopated lament, an untimely moan:

    I sit upon the sands alone:
    The lightning of the noontide Ocean
    Is flashing round me, and a tone
    Arises from its measured motion,
    How sweet! did any heart now share in my emotion. (14-18)

    The final line of the next stanza produces a similar effect with a similar semantic reflexivity:

         To me that cup has been dealt in another measure. (27)

    The awkward 13-syllable line is almost impossible to scan and, like line 18, departs from the regularity of the iambic hexameter lines closing stanzas 1, 2, and 5:

    The City's voice itself is soft, like Solitude's (9)
    How sweet! did any heart now share in my emotion  (18)
    Will linger though enjoyed, like joy in Memory yet (45)  

    Line 27 effectively dramatizes the alien measure in which the poet has been dealt the cup (or coup) of which he here complains. Such are the ways in which the poem earns that self-label as an "untimely moan."

  7. Upon these conceits for relating the phonetic and semantic dimensions of affective sound in poetry (known well enough to students of the Romantic lyric) are built yet more complicated structures of sound and sense. The relation of sound to affect, Cohen suggests, is an explicit topic for the age, an active subject for discussion by poets, critics, and philosophers. This is a point for which we can find persuasive evidence in familiar places—in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, for example. In light of this recognition, should we not be on the alert for poems that not only stage the relation of these two kinds of sound in poetry but also deal with it discursively?

  8. Just such a poem can be found among the later writings of Wordsworth, an ode composed in 1828 and published in 1835 and in fact titled: On the Power of Sound. Wordsworth went out of his way to give this poem a certain prominence in his late collections, placing it in the concluding position for the prestigious grouping he called "Poems of the Imagination."   Twenty-one-year-old Mary Ann Evans—later, George Eliot—read the poem in 1840 and wrote to a friend to praise it lavishly (Letters 1: 68). As Wordsworth's prefatory prose Argument makes clear, the poem is framed between explicit references to two "ears" and to the two spiritual powers associated with them. It opens with an extended address to a spirit who inhabits the labyrinthine cave of the human ear, and it ends with a tribute to Lord God of all, who is said to possesses the "ear" into which all the sounds of the world are ultimately poured. Most of the poem along the way is a dramatization of the great efficacy of auditory stimulation across an enormous range of circumstances. Consider stanza 2:

    The headlong streams and fountains
    Serve Thee, invisible Spirit, with untired powers;
    Cheering the wakeful tent on Syrian mountains,
    They lull perchance ten thousand thousand flowers.
    That roar, the prowling lion's Here I am,
    How fearful to the desert wide!
    That bleat, how tender! of the dam
    Calling a straggler to her side.
    Shout, cuckoo!—let the vernal soul
    Go with thee to the frozen zone;
    Toll from thy loftiest perch, lone bell-bird, toll
    At the still hour to Mercy dear,
    Mercy from her twilight throne
    Listening to nun's faint throb of holy fear,
    To sailor's prayer breathed from a darkening sea
    Or widow's cottage-lullaby. (17-32)

    It doesn't take much knowledge of Wordsworth's early poetry, certainly no more than he might have expected from his late readers, to hear this passage as a kind of echo-chamber of his own early lyric subjects, especially those of the period from Lyrical Ballads to the 1807 Poems, in Two Volumes. The allusions are multiple. Wordsworth wrote more than one poem "To the Cuckoo," but we also find here echoed the "ten thousand" flowers from "I wandered lonely as a cloud," the prayerful nun of the sonnets, the sailors and widows of the early narrative poems, the bleating sheep of Michael and The Last of the Flock, and of course the streams and fountains from all over the Wordsworthian oeuvre. Why this self-recapitulation?

  9. One might justifiably declare the burden of these lines to be that, no matter how great the variety of sounds in our experience, all can be understood to serve the spirit that inhabits the human ear. Exactly how the poem enacts this point, however, demands some careful attention. If we reinvoke the distinction between two kinds of sound effects, we can note that, with the possible exception of the "Toll  . . . toll" echo to simulate the sound of the "lone bell-bird" (28), the stanza's way of invoking particular sounds is simply to refer to them. The rush of the streams and fountains, the roar of the lion, the bleat of the sheep, and the call of the cuckoo enter the poem only insofar as we know what those words mean and thus attach auditory associations to their occurrence there. Likewise for the human sounds: the nun's throb, the sailor's prayer, the cottage-widow's lullaby. For a stanza so long on the representation of diverse sounds, it is surprisingly short on onomatopoetic devices.[4]

  10. At the same time, however, all the diverse sounds semantically indicated are articulated in words that can themselves be sounded. These sounds, the sounds of the words themselves, are patently organized to constitute the poem's formal auditory system. Prosodists trained in linguistics nowadays refer to this as a poem's "verse design," its meter and rhyme patterns conceived as a recurring pattern. The "verse design" is what modern criticism calls the "rhyme scheme" together with what might be called the "metrical scheme." "Scheme," in a slightly looser application to poetic description, was a term in play in late-eighteenth century Britain, and thus available to Wordsworth, who employs the term suggestively in the Argument to On the Power of Sound.

  11. Here Wordsworth seems to have taken this looser sense of a poet's "scheme" and to have pushed it toward the later and more technical senses of "rhyme scheme" and "verse design." The Argument offers an account of the poem's central line of development in the following terms: "The mind recalled to sounds acting casually and severally.—Wish uttered (11th Stanza) that these could be united into a scheme or system for moral interests and intellectual contemplations" (2: 323). That "wish," it is fair to say, is realized in the poem's own formal scheme or system of sound. And this scheme is in turn both expressive of and governed by a larger, indeed a cosmic regime of sound, one that Wordsworth describes at the start of stanza XII:

    By one pervading spirit
    Of tones and numbers all things are controlled . . .

    The theme of poetic harmony—a revision of the Augustan conceit of concordia discors—is an important one for many of the major male Romantic writers, not the least Wordsworth, and his attention to it was crucial in the composition of The Prelude, where it anticipates some of the themes of On the Power of Sound.

  12. In Book First of The Prelude, the theme of harmony is first figured negatively, during the poet's dramatization of his early failures with the poem:

    It was a splendid evening, and my soul
    Did once again make trial of the strength
    Restored to her afresh; nor did she want
    Eolian visitations—but the harp
    Was soon defrauded, and the banded host
    Of harmony dispersed in straggling sounds,

    The harmonics then appear in the poet's account of his success, once he has managed, despite himself, to get his great epic poem underway:

           The mind of man is framed even like the breath
    And harmony of music. There is a dark
    Invisible workmanship that reconciles
    Discordant elements, and makes them move
    In one society. (1805: 351-55)

    To gain a sense of how these passages differ from what we find in On the Power of Sound, we need only compare them with the 1850 text, a revision that appears for the first time in a manuscript of 1832, just a few years before On the Power of Sound:

           Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
    Like harmony in music; there is a dark
    Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
    Discordant elements, makes them cling together
    In one society. (1850: 340-44)

    This talk of an "immortal spirit" likened to musical harmony, and of a biblically "inscrutable" workmanship by which it is brought to being, separates the already Burkean poet of the great decade from the Christian poet of the 1830s. To put the matter in other, not less apposite, Wordsworthian terms, it separates "natural piety" from Christian piety.

  13. In On the Power of Sound, then, it is as if Wordsworth, with a kind of redundant reflexivity, were recomposing the straggling sounds of his earlier work into a sanctioned order, thus legitimating at once the soundness of its poetic principle and the principle of its poetic sound. There is of course considerable variety in the way the poem fulfills the requirements of its formal scheme of meter and rhyme—variety in the sound of individual words and of the sound patterns by which they are combined. But one might say that this is a far subtler sense of variation than that of the widely varying sounds to which the poem refers in its semantic register: the roar, the bleat, the shout, the throb, the prayer, the lullaby.  (One might well argue that the human sounds are themselves already more homogenous, more shaped and cadenced, than the animal sounds.)  Through the double-sided sound capacities of poetry (and indeed of language)—its capacity both to be sounded and to refer to sound—the poem thus seems to suggest two conclusions: first, that the pre-semantic sounds of the world are made meaningful by their being semantically distinguished in such words as roar, bleat, shout; second, that when these words are themselves brought into the formal sound pattern of a poem's distinctive music, they can be "heard" as constituting yet another kind of order: let's call this musical order "post-semantic."

  14. Such an account may help to explain why Wordsworth goes on to spend so much of the rest of this poem on the question of music. In this, too, Wordsworth seems to be revisiting work of his "great decade," specifically a poem from the 1807 volumes titled The Power of Music, a verse reflection on how musicians playing to a crowd on Oxford Street provoke strong emotion among diverse listeners. The great Orphic theme of music's power became a kind of obsession in the Romantic period, for reasons related to those explored in Cohen's analysis. Vanessa Agnew has recently been developing an ethno-musicological account of how this topic came to have such importance from about the time of Charles Burney's musical travel writing in the 1790s.[5]  Indeed there is much more to say about Wordsworth's late reworking of the 1805 Prelude along these lines and about his late return to poems in the 1807 volumes. For now, I attend to the question of how On the Power of Sound rewrites the poem in which he developed the theme of "natural piety," the poem that is arguably the most important single lyric that Wordsworth published in the 1807 volumes, perhaps in any volume: the simply titled Ode, better known by its elaborated title of 1815, Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.[6] 

  15. On the Power of Sound, like the "Intimations" Ode, is a long lyric in roman-numbered stanzas; at 224 lines and fourteen parts it is slightly longer but on the same order of magnitude as the Ode. At the opening of stanza III, Wordsworth addresses the sounds to which he has referred in stanza II, beginning with lines about the phenomenon of echo that themselves echo the "Intimations" Ode:

    Ye Voices, and ye Shadows
    And Images of voice—to hound and horn
    From rocky steep and rock-bestudded meadows
    Flung back, and, in the sky's blue caves, reborn-
    On with your pastime! (33-37)

    This passage recalls two moments in the "Intimations" Ode. The first, the opening of stanza IV, addresses the songs of the birds and lambs, creatures named in stanza III:

    Ye blessèd Creatures, I have heard the call
           Ye to each other make; I see
    The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee. (36-38)

    The second is the reprise of these lines at the top of stanza X, where the speaker says, in effect, "on with your pastime":

    Then sing, ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
           And let the young Lambs bound
           As to the tabor's sound!  (168-70)

    In the context of all the other allusions to the early poetry, these take on special force.

  16. Most important for my purposes, the final stanza of On the Power of Sound includes a pointed and complex echo—to the ninth stanza of the "Intimations" Ode, arguably the poem's pivot, and one of the most complex passages in all of Wordsworth.  Here, first, is the concluding stanza of On the Power of Sound:


    A Voice to Light gave Being;
    To Time, and Man his earth-born chronicler;
    A Voice shall finish doubt and dim foreseeing,
    And sweep away life's visionary stir;
    The trumpet (we, intoxicate with pride,
    Arm at its blast for deadly wars)
    To archangelic lips applied,
    The grave shall open, quench the stars.
    O Silence! are Man's noisy years
    No more than moments of thy life?
    Is Harmony, blest queen of smiles and tears,
    With her smooth tones and discords just,
    Tempered into rapturous strife,
    Thy destined bond-slave?  No! though earth be dust
    And vanish, though the heavens dissolve, her stay
    Is in the WORD, that shall not pass away. (209-24)

    The audible allusion is to the passage that records the sudden eruption of joy at the top of stanza IX in the "Intimations" Ode, more specifically a few lines on, when the poet says that it is not for the "simple creed" of childhood that

                                  I raise
              The song of thanks and praise;
         But for those obstinate questionings
         Of sense and outward things,
         Fallings from us, vanishings;
         Blank misgivings of a Creature
    Moving about in worlds not realised,
    High instincts before which our mortal Nature
    Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised:
              But for those first affections,
              Those shadowy recollections,
         Which, be they what they may,
    Are yet the fountain light of all our day,
    Are yet a master light of all our seeing;
          Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
    Our noisy years seem moments in the being
    Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
             To perish never;
    Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
             Nor man nor Boy,
    Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
    Can utterly abolish or destroy!  (139-60)

    What is involved in the crowning echo of this passage in On the Power of Sound—this return to the question of whether "noisy years" are mere "moments" in a metaphysical Silence?

  17. Each passage, let it be noted, solves a problem posed in preceding stanzas. In the "Intimations" Ode, the problem is the puzzle voiced at the end of stanza VIII: why the growing child hastens his maturation by fitting his tongue to the dialogues of business, love, and strife. The answer comes when the poem is able to see these acts of "endless imitation" as expressing not a submissive accommodation to the world of custom but a defiant skepticism about the world of sense. The relief that erupts into the poem in that pivotal exclamation at the top of IX—"O joy!"—is not for the child's "simple creed" but for his doubts, newly understood in the child's verbal play. The child turns to mimesis as to a world of forms, one that expresses his distrust of the world of passing sensations.[7]  In On the Power of Sound, the problem posed is, as the Argument puts it, how to unite all the sounds of the world—so dangerous in their potency—into "a scheme or system for moral interests and intellectual contemplation" (2: 323)-or what stanza XI punningly calls a "scale of moral music—to unite / Powers that survive but in the faintest dream / Of memory" (170-72, my italics). The solution to the poem's puzzle, that is, involves the recognition that all sounds ultimately pour into the ear of the Lord God of all, the author of the all-creating Word. The world is thus the Word, understood as a perfectly circular figure of sound's power.

  18. To see just what is at stake in Wordsworth's late reprise of his famous lines about the "Silence" and the "noisy years," we need to attend still more closely to the solution in stanza IX of the "Intimations" Ode. It is, I suggest, hedged around by syntactical ambiguities. These depend chiefly on two prominent echoes internal to the passage. "But for . . . / But for" (141, 148), and "Which . . . / Which" (150, 157). The first "But for" follows on "Not for" (139: "Not for these I raise") and so may denote "Not for these but rather for . . . ." The second "But for," however, is syntactically placed ("But for those first affections, / Those shadowy recollections") so that it may also suggest "except for" (e.g. "there but for the grace of God go I"). This raises a question as to whether the second "But for" clause is to be understood in apposition with the first or as a qualification of it—a matter of serious instability to the grammar and logic of the passage.[8]  Likewise, though we feel confident that the first "Which" modifies those "affections" and "recollections" just named in the same sentence, with only a comma pause (148-50), it is difficult to know whether the second "Which" ("Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour . . . / Can utterly abolish"; 157-60) is in apposition to the first, or whether it modifies what has just been named, separated by a semicolon: "truths that wake, / To perish never; / Which" (155-57). If the latter reading is possible, then we have a question as to the grammatical "mood" of the immediately preceding "Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make / Our noisy years seem moments in the being / Of that eternal Silence: truths that wake" etc. (153-55). If the syntax is modifying, is its mood declarative (those affections and recollections do uphold us), or imperative/exhortatory (Uphold us, truths that wake!)?  The effect of this further instability is to let the key point about just how the noisy years are made to seem thus hover between a statement and a plea, a fact and a hope.  

  19. The larger effect of all these syntactic ambiguities in the "Intimations" Ode is to undermine the logic of the decisive transition to joy, and thus ultimately to lodge the poem's claim to find consolation—affective renewal—in something like the sound of its own words. In On the Power of Sound, on the other hand, the primacy of sound's affective power is more like the problem than the solution. The whole poem, in a sense, is about just the kind of effect that Wordsworth so brilliantly manages in the "Intimations" Ode: Wordsworthian "shuffling," William Empson called it (151-54).[9] On the Power of Sound is about the electric life of auditory affect. This effect, whose secular power strikes the older Wordsworth as dangerous, must now give way—not to the older "logic" of Murray Cohen's pre-enlightenment language scholars, but to Christian Logos, the Word issued and received by the Lord God of all, a transcendental figure that dissolves all distinctions of read or said, declarative or imperative.  The sound of this Word is not only virtuous but also virtual. It is the sound of the power of sound.

  20. Retrospectively, then, the later poem's moral sentence—its categorical "No" to the question of noisy years and eternal silence—reveals something crucial about the earlier poem, and about the electric life which there is in its words, in its auditory effects and affects. Despite its references to "the fountain light of all our day" and "master light of all our seeing" (151-53), despite its metaphors of sunlight and skyscape—"trailing clouds of glory" (64) and the coloring of "Clouds that gather round the setting sun" (196)—the "Intimations" Ode is finally absorbed in the sheer sound of its own named affections. Wordsworth may have had his second thoughts about this feature of his extraordinary early lyric, but for Shelley it was perhaps the most cherished feature of a poem that much preoccupied him. It was the feature that made the "Intimations" Ode very much a lyric of its age.

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