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Poetry in the Age of New Sound Technology: Mallarmé to Tennyson

Francis O’Gorman


The meaning that sounds carry has always mattered to poetry but in a culture developing new communication technology using sound, the Victorians heard poetry's capacities to signal to the ear anew. This essay considers a number of poets writing after the invention, principally, of Morse code, the telegraph and the telephone, and their culturally-pertinent ruminations on what human messages sound could bear across space and time. The essay concludes with Alfred Tennyson's life-long interest in the meanings of sound. It suggests ways in which telegraphy provides an analogue to his conceptions of the survival of the meaning of the dead through messages in the air.

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Thanks to members of the University of Edinburgh to whom I read an early version of this essay in November 2007 and to the anonymous readers of Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens.

  • 1 Stéphane Mallarmé, Tombeau d’Anatole (The Tomb of Anatole), parallel text with a translation by Pat (...)

Tant que nous-mêmes vivons, il vit—en nous—ce n’est qu’après notre mort qu’il en sera—et que les cloches des Morts sonneront pour lui.1

  • 2 ‘Morse's Telegraph’ from Martin Farquhar Tupper, Three Hundred Sonnets (1860), text accessible from (...)
  • 3 For more on the fictions of telegraphy, see Katherine Mullin, Working Girls: Fiction, Labour, and M (...)

1Following three years after the first functioning transatlantic cable had, if imperfectly, joined the Old and New Worlds, the two coasts of the United States were linked by telegraph in 1861. ‘[This] electric chain from East to West’, said Martin Farquhar Tupper optimistically, ‘More than mere metal, more than Mammon can/Bind us together.’2 The implications for economic growth, the development of corporate institutions, the internationalization of trade, and the circulation of information were hard to underestimate. Foundations of the contemporary world had been laid. The success of the telegraph depended on the ability of electricity to carry pulses, discrete electrical disturbances, which were entered, ‘tapped’ in, using a relatively straightforward key and pad. Across the cables travelled, or, at least, should have travelled, the sounds of Samuel Morse’s newly-invented chattering system of dots and dashes (dits and dahs). Morse patented his code in 1840. It was first successfully used to send a telegraphic message on 24 May 1844. Later modified into the form known today, the first of Morse’s systems employed a paper tape to print out the keyed-in code where it was received. Sound had been ‘entered’ at one end, but converted into visual material at the other. Nonetheless, the sound of the needle or ‘pen’, as it was known, reproducing that code on paper at the receiver’s end, quickly became, for telegraphers with sharp ears, useful. Sound became functional, so to speak, at both ends of the cable. Such telegraphic practice led presently to the invention of ‘sounders’, amplifiers of the pen’s noise, to develop the possibilities of acoustic reception as well as transmission. Anthony Trollope’s ‘The Telegraph Girl’ (1877) was about the consequences of that formal shift to an acoustic system in the London Telegraph Office in 1874.3

  • 4 For the most recent consideration of telegraphy in relation to spiritualism, see Steven Connor, Dum (...)
  • 5 ‘The March of Science’ from James T. Breeze, The Glory of the Age: The Atlantic Cable: A Poem on th (...)
  • 6 Ellsworth took the words from Numbers 23: 23.

2Sound travelled down wires—or so it seemed—from the start; noise, the patterns of dits and dahs, were being made to speak, to bear meaning, to be conduits of human information in this new system for relaying words: tapping had extended the reach of language. The table rapping of spiritualists—the Hydesville rappings began in 1848—suggested communication from the Other Side. The tapping of Morse was communication from the other side—of town, of a country, of the globe itself.4 ‘[S]ound it far, from shore to shore,/To vibrate o’er earth evermore’, wrote James Breeze of the news Morse could carry in his gushingly celebratory ‘The Glory of the Age: The Atlantic Cable—A Poem on the Wondrous Achievements of Science’ (1866).5 ‘What hath God wrought!’, Morse’s famous first transmitted message, took Biblical words, suggested by Annie Ellsworth, the daughter of a friend, which were caught between a question about, and a bold assertion of, divine benevolence seemingly evident in electricity’s capacity to carry human meaning.6 What appeared prima facie to be random acoustic repetitions and visual configurations of dots and dashes were being miraculously translated into sense..--. . ...--. . ...--. . ..--.----..--.--. . ., in the modern version of Morse, was not merely sound, nor the printed marks on paper, but a new form of revelation (this is ‘What hath God wrought’).

3Sound and speed: the telegraphs filled the air with vibrations, made it hum, metaphorically and sometimes literally, with the traces of human exchange. Thomas Dunn English, by the end of the century, reflected on the juxtaposition of the audible with the secret in the mysterious relays of the telegraph wires. ‘Sounding to quickening ears their cadenced song’, he wrote:

  • 7 Thomas Dunn English, ‘The Telegraph Wires’, Select Poems (1894), LION, 12 December 2006.

Now faint and tremulous, now bold and strong.
Wind-smitten, strange the secret tales they tell,
Harp-strings of iron, resounding day and night;
Their music rises in harmonious swell,
Or sinks in ecstasy of deep delight;
And I who listen to them here to-day
Know well what songs they sing, what words they say.7

4The technology of long-distance communication, rhythmic configurations of sound, now vibrating in the atmosphere, had a natural affinity with poetry. Making acoustic patterns meaningful, discussing the relationship between sound and sense, were subjects that had long mattered on Parnassus. In the 1860s and ‘70s, I suggest here, the matter of the meaning of sound in poetry was implicitly relevant for a range of culturally-different writers who probed questions at once pertinent to the ancient nature of verse but which were newly readable as topics impelled by the imaginative implications of Morse telegraphy and, later, of other acoustic communication technologies. An old subject was cast into new, and culturally pertinent, shape. Tennyson, whom I consider at the end, had been interested in the sound messaging of the dead throughout his career. His writing offers some of the richest oblique commentaries on the possible burdens of meaning that messages delivered through the air could carry. In the strange ‘words’ sent through the atmosphere by telegraphy—and afterwards by the telephone—is a curiously modern analogue for his lasting preoccupation with the ways in which the past, and in particular poetry, might remain alive, the ways in which the modern, indeed, might be most valuably reconnected with what had gone before.

5Sounds that filled the air invited poets to consider the air filled with sound. There was, literally, something in the atmosphere about forms of communication that, posed against the composition of poetry, acquired a hint of modernity’s glamour in the early 1860s. Both Stéphane Mallarmé and William Barnes—to take two writers of very different natures—turned to sound patterns that did or intriguingly did not bear sense in the year after the trans-American cable, and their testing of ideas about verse resonated, for the reader conscious of the changing technologies of the modern world, with contemporary inquiries about communication. Inviting questions about sound in poetry, they were, mutatis mutandis, raising queries a telegrapher would have understood. Among the Mallarmé’s earliest published poems was ‘Le Sonneur’ (‘The Ringer of Bells’), published in L’Artiste on 15 March 1862:

  • 8 Stéphane Mallarmé, Collected Poems and Other Verse, parallel text version (Oxford: Oxford Universit (...)

Cependant que la cloche éveille sa voix claire
À l’air pur et limpide et profond du matin
Et passe sur l’enfant qui jette pour lui plaire
Un angélus parmi la lavande et le thym,
Le sonneur effleuré par l’oiseau qu’il éclaire,
Chevauchant tristement en geignant du latin
Sur la pierre qui tend la corde séculaire,
N’entend descendre à lui qu’un tintement lointain.
Je suis cet homme. Hélas! de la nuit désireuse,
J’ai beau tirer le câble à sonner l’Idéal,
De froids péchés s’ébat un plumage féal,
Et la voix ne me vient que par bribes et creuse!
Mais, un jour, fatigué d’avoir enfin tiré,
O Satan, j’ôterai la pierre et me pendrai.8

  • 9 Adelaide Anne Procter, ‘The Lost Chord’. This echo, heard in a single chord of organ music, sounded (...)

6Enigmatic, symboliste, and interweaving the natural with the supernatural, ‘Le Sonneur’ proposed a distinct narrative—of fall, the impossible ideal, of the impediments in creative production, of suicide, of the ringing of bells—as if a brief re-working of Victor Hugo’s themes in Notre-Dame de Paris (1831). Writing on the problems for the poet/ringer of sounding the Ideal, Mallarmé kept hazy the question of precisely what that ambition of sounding, sonner l’Idéal, might mean. How might an Ideal be ‘sounded’? How might human meaning be put into such limited patterns of sound as a bell-ringer’s? Mallarmé’s poem mused on the reluctance of sequences of cognate sounds to communicate the ideal just as it offered at the auditory level that which deliberately avoided harmony, as if ironically playing out the unwillingness of the aural to cooperate with an artist’s intentions. Acoustically, the words, for the most part, resisted the onomatopoeia they might well have exhibited. ‘Cependant que la cloche éveille sa voix claire/À l’air pur et limpide et profond du matin’ offered, symptomatically, nothing by way of assonance except the extreme and jarring, the stumbling inelegance of ‘claire/À l’air’. Amid the absence of chiming, that conjunction hinted how far the language of the sonneur missed the sonorous. Adelaide Proctor, thinking of the Ideal expressed as sound too, discerned in a ‘harmonious echo’9 that which might be the once-in-a-lifetime articulation of the perfect in the aural. Once heard, that lost chord might never be found again. But Mallarmé’s bell ringer could not sound his ideal at all.

  • 10 Charles Edward Fenerty, Betula Nigra (1855), LION, 2 February 2007.
  • 11 Isabella Whiteford, Poems (1860), LION, 11 November 2006.

7‘Le Sonneur’ posed a poetic question. But it also asked, transformed, a telegrapher’s. Could sound really convey human intentions? Frustrated with the impediments in aurally transmitting meaning, the poet-figure envisaged only fragmentation and hollowness—’bribes et creuse’—and, finally, dismal death. Unable to make an acoustic sequence resonate with meaning, producing successions of sounds that missed their intention, the ringer of Mallarmé’s poem faced a problem of acoustic messages that could not get through. Speed of communication was the plainest wonder of the telegraph, to be sure: ‘Morse/sent the lightning’s fire’, said Charles Edward Fenerty in ‘Betula Nigra’ (1855), ‘Freighted with thought along the wire.’10 Isabella Whiteford in ‘The Atlantic Telegraph’ (1860) figured respiration not flame. But her point was similar: ‘quick as thought its language breathes’, she said, matching the technological with the physiological. Yet to Whiteford, the telegraph’s use of sounds without words was its oddest, most compelling feature. It ‘thrills with strangest sympathy our old world’s hidden chords’, she observed of the cable, catching in the last two words the secretive movement of ‘sound’, as electrical pulse, bearing words without words. These ‘voiceless words,’11 as she called them, crossed the Atlantic; they were a kind of electrical Lieder ohne Worte with a decisively practical purpose.

8William Barnes’s meditation in ‘The Echo’ from his 1862 collection Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect, Third Collection asked questions too about what meaning sound could bear, as it travelled from one space to another, forming another version of queries to which Morse’s invention gave fresh resonance. The notion of echoes that bore sense, commonplace from the ancient Greek narratives, most particularly of Echo and Narcissus, emerged in the subtext of a poem which asked the reader to consider afresh if echoes could bear human meaning. In the third collection of dialect poems, published in the same year as ‘Le Sonneur’, Barnes endeavoured to continue the success of Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect (1844) and Hwomely Rhymes: A Second Collection of Poems in the Dorset Dialect (1859). The idea of repeating oneself, of sustaining meaning through repetitions, was, in this literal sense, a matter of consequence in a volume that aimed at reprise. Barnes’s poem in the third volume, ‘The Echo’, might well have seemed awkwardly to ask a question: was volume III but an ‘echo’ of volumes I and II? But echoes were relevant to other questions than this. Interested in what meanings sonic repetitions could bear, Barnes drew on a long tradition of echo verse from the Renaissance onwards, best known, perhaps, in the work of George Herbert or even from in the chorus ‘in the manner of an echo’ from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689). Offering unsettling scenarios, Barnes invited the reader to become uncertain about what kind of meaning an echo, a mere pattern of sound, had in situations of human misery. The final two stanzas make his practice clear:

  • 12 Selected Poems of William Barnes 1800-1886, ed. by Geoffrey Grigson (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (...)

. . .The night when little Anne, that died,
Begun to zickèn, back in Maÿ,
An she, at dusk ov evenèn-tide,
Wer out wi others at their play,
Within the churchyard that do keep
Her little bed, the vaïce o’thin
Dark aïr, mock’d mother’s call To sleep’
                                          —to sleep;
‘Tis bed time now, my love, come in’
                                          —come in.
An when our Jeäne come out so smart
A-married, an we help’d her in
To Henry’s newly-païnted cart,
The while the wheels begun to spin,
An her gaÿ nods, vor all she smil’d,
Did sheäke a tear-drop vrom each eye,
The vaïce mock’d mother’s call, Dear child’
                                          —dear child;
God bless ye evermwore; good bye’
                                          —good bye.12

  • 13 Written in 1854.

9Do these echoes have intention behind them, or are they merely noise with the appearance of meaning? Do they deliberately mock, making heartless fun of a distressed mother’s care as her daughter leaves to marry? Or are they only the result of physical law, which indifferently reflects sound from hard surfaces? The poem’s focus on how aural patterns might signify, how they might or might not contain willed meaning, left a discomforting uncertainty—with all its cultural suggestiveness in the face if the new communication—about the capacity of relayed sound to carry sense. Readers of Christina Rossetti’s ‘The Echo’, published in 1862 too;13 Emma Lazarus’s ‘The Echo’, written in 1863; Adelaide Anne Procter’s ‘Echoes’, which became a Victorian part-song with music by Francesco Berger; William Gilmore Simms ‘Echo-Duett’ included in his 1860 collection Areytos; and Barnes’s ‘John Talking Angrily of a Neighbour Before an Echo’ (1868) might have found similar questions.

10In A. C. Swinburne’s work, Victorian poetry’s newly-energized contemplation of the capacity of sound to carry sense reached, beyond the 1860s, a fresh concentration. The durability of aesthetic creations, the artistic legacy of the dead, were topics of peculiar interest to Swinburne, most finely treated in the elegies of the second and third series of Poems and Ballads (1878 and 1889) and in the later A Century of Roundels (1883) and Astrophel & Other Poems (1894). And for him, tropes of sound’s ability to bear meanings across huge spaces—as if in some silent connection with the new communication technologies of telegram and, after the mid-1870s, telephone—offered the most suggestive of terms for elegy. Artistic legacies, authorial continuations, and the posthumous resilience of verse were sketched in ‘Anactoria’, the monologue for Sappho, from the first volume of Poems and Ballads (1866). Amid its eye-watering sado-masochism, this contemplation of verse’s durability set terms for future ruminations on the sonic. Declaring that her poetry will not be extinguished with her life, Sappho envisages the way in which her writing will remain in the experienceable world:

  • 14 Algernon Charles Swinburne, Poems and Ballads [first series] (London: Chatto & Windus, 1910), ll. 2 (...)

Blossom of branches, and on each high hill
Clear air and wind, and under in clamorous vales
Fierce noises of the fiery nightingales,
Buds burning in the sudden spring like fire,
The wan washed sand and the waves vain desire,
Sails seen like blown white flowers at sea, and words
That bring tears swiftest, and long notes of birds
Violently singing till the whole world sings—
I Sappho shall be one with all these things,
With all high things for ever.14

11Sappho’s continuation, figured as a transformation into natural form and, noticeably, in sounds of the air, made of the voices of nightingales, words of sorrow, and ‘long notes of birds’ that cause the ‘whole world’ to sing the terms of posterity. Survival, inseparable from a notion of air suffused with meaningful sounds, appealed to Swinburne in subsequent meditations on the ways in which poets, and their creations, continued beyond death to become a portion of the environment, its scents, lights, and sound. Barry Cornwall (the writer Bryan Procter [1787–1874]) endured, certainly, through unquenchable strains of song. Time, Swinburne said in his 1878 elegy for the dead writer, ‘shall take not away to shame us’ the ‘flower’ of dead souls:

  • 15 Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘In Memory of Barry Cornwall’, Poems and Ballads, II and III, Golden Pi (...)

Nor the lips lack song for ever that now lack breath.
For with us shall the music and perfume that die not dwell,
Though the dead to our dead bid welcome, and we farewell.15

12The assonance—’music and perfume that die not dwell/Though the dead to our dead bid welcome’—quietly marked out in verbal form a sonic companion to the survival of art the words cautiously narrated. And ‘In Time of Mourning’ (1889), Swinburne recalled the loss of those loved who were not artists alone, imagining their continuations in pulses of sound. ‘The heart that healed all hearts of pain’, he observed:

  • 16 Swinburne, Poems and Ballads, II and III, 244.

No funeral rites inurn:
Its echoes, while the stars remain,

  • 17 Ibid., 258.

13Like the natural sounds through which Sappho survived, the continuation of echoes marked the air—as Morse might imaginatively be thought to do—with presences both ghostlike and unlocatable. ‘Years on years/Vanish’, Swinburne said on the death of the translator, Sir Richard Burton (1821–1890) in Poems and Ballads III: ‘but he that hearkens eastward hears/Bright music from the world where shadows are:’17 echoes that crossed synaesthetically into the visual allowed a form of composite long-distance communication from one world to another. Burton’s legacy filled the atmosphere with sense just as Richard Wagner’s music remained as his ‘living’ testimony in ‘The Death of Richard Wagner’ from A Century of Roundels.

14Tennyson’s preoccupations with the nature of sound in poetry were permanent. Quickly known, as Swinburne would be, as a poet with exceptional control over the acoustic nature of his verse, Tennyson from the earliest poems—‘Claribel’, ‘Song—The Owl’ (1830)—tested how near writing could approach to ‘pure’ sound while retaining the outline of sense. ‘The Splendour Falls’ from The Princess (1847) probed the same questions as Barnes, while ‘The Dying Swan’ (1830) extended sonic rumination by invoking the figure of a doomed poet who produced ‘pure’ sound alone. In that celebrated scene of the dying bird, post-Romantic anxiety was troped as sonic utterance that could not be understood—it was a kind of code to which no-one seemed to have the key—even as it was unheard. Tennyson’s meditations on sound qua sound were always, in a plurality of ways, self-reflexive; they were pointers directly or indirectly to his craft as a unique shaper, recognized throughout his age, of rhythmic patterns and verbal harmonies. But the thematic possibilities of sound, of the continuation of voices, touched him most significantly in his life-long contemplations of the dead. His ear was peculiarly attuned to the aural traces of the departed, to their lost voices and to the possibilities of continuances in sound patterns, still audible, despite the grave. From well before In Memoriam (1850) to the last years of his life, Tennyson searched the possibilities of the messages of the dead, or, at the least, their faintest echoes. He did not need the new acoustic technologies to suggest this. But in the heart of the telegraphic and into the telephonic age, his poetry on the passage of meaning through the air—written in a poetic culture that was newly-energized by the imaginative implications of the new inventions—offered one of the most subtle and sophisticated ways of thinking about features of modern life, of imaginatively integrating them with an ancient theme of poetry and an ancient hope of religion.

  • 18 See, for instance, Tennyson's half-ironic, half-serious letter to Francisque Xavier Michel, just af (...)
  • 19 References to Tiresias and Other Poems come from the first edition (London: Macmillan, 1885) and ar (...)

15Standing on the verge of death was a topic of Tiresias and Other Poems (1885), the text Tennyson thought, literally, would be his last.18 And its consequences and imaginative implications form part of the context from which Tennyson’s meditation on the meanings of sound gained consequence. Tiresias took its title poem from the prophet who, though ancient, could not die despite his longing. But what remained in the afterlife, in a heavenly realm of posthumous existence, formed a subject that, beyond this, was intricately probed. The dismal matter of ‘Despair’, a poem that might have been drafted by John Davidson, proposed a man and his wife attempting suicide because they have become ‘utterly miserable’ in having ‘lost faith in a God, and hope of a life to come.’19 Wretchedness and an angular sympathy defined the emotional temper of this contemplation of lost futures. ‘Helen’s Tower’ fantasized endurance through ‘the Doomsday fire’ to be ‘found of angel eyes/In earth’s recurring Paradise’ (p. 190), an immutable perpetuation that Yeats might have re-written in ‘To be Carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee’ (1921). Epitaphs for Caxton, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, and General Gordon of Khartoum cautiously evaded statements about what, if anything, of the soul might survive the tomb, leaving on a tomb an unsettling absence in the place even of conventional reassurances and consolations. ‘Despair’ exposed both the anguish and the intellectual coherence of a refusal to believe in a heavenly afterlife while ‘The Ancient Sage’ outlined the dilemma of what was knowable about that state. ‘Thou canst not prove that thou art body alone,’ Tennyson’s Sage tells his interlocutor,

Nor canst thou prove that thou art spirit alone
Nor canst thou prove that thou art both in one:
Thou canst not prove thou art immortal, no
Nor yet that thou art mortal[.] (p. 57)

16Such uncertainties should not, he continues, overwhelm; rather, men and women should ‘Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt’ (p. 57). The Sage’s optimism was superficially akin to Browning’s. But the act of preaching in Tennyson, of imparting wisdom, was always, implicitly or explicitly, hedged with doubts. Certainly, the Sage’s confidence in the ‘sunnier side’ of dubiety did not define the temper of the volume as a whole. Too many have lost faith in the soul’s durability, the Poet speaker of the ‘Epilogue’ declares: ‘Too many a voice may cry/That man can have no after-morn’. But the speaker is, he reassures his reader and himself, ‘Not yet of these’ (p. 168). If the credo sounded like a confident rebuttal of modern secularism in preference for a belief in the perpetuation of the human, the ‘yet’ could not quite banish the doubtfulness it aspired to cast out.

17Ironically situated in this fretful rumination on what lived beyond the grave was the opening monologue, ‘Tiresias’. No contemplation of immortality, it was the speech of a man not seeking to be deathless but unable to die. In his opening aspiration, ‘I wish I were as in the years of old’ (p. 5), Tiresias glances back, despite the yearning of the volume as a whole for assurance about eternity, to the longed-for period of his mortality. Inured in the sublunary world by Athene’s anger (to use Tennyson’s spelling), Tiresias’s hope for death does not, though, exclude a hope for perpetuation after it. Once his last prophecy is heeded (if that is what happens), Tiresias’s thoughts of futurity are primarily about the preservation of his renown. He hopes to be ‘gather’d to my rest,/And mingled with the famous kings of old’ (p. 15). Such ambition hinted at the other side of the volume’s engagement not with heavenly immortality but with that which survived death on earth. Unresolved on the soul’s durability, Tiresias was equally intrigued by human achievements that remained or failed to remain. Most particularly, it was curious about what of a writer’s achievement might posthumously live, and what, precisely, such ‘life’ might involve. What could posthumous vitality in the aesthetic, in the literary word, mean? And how could the lingering of verse beyond authorial death best be troped in ways that were faithful to Tennyson’s uncertainties?

18Certainly, Tennyson’s volume was sometimes buoyant about the durability of a poet’s words. ‘To Virgil’, written at the request of citizens of Mantua on the nineteenth centenary of Virgil’s death, was a serene meditation on the permanence of poetic achievement. Effacing the chronological distance with the simple assertion of the present tense (‘thou that singest/Ilion’s lofty temples’ [p. 170]), the celebratory poem acknowledged Virgil as living still. At the close, works became subsumed in a surviving, deathless self. ‘I salute thee, Mantovano’, Tennyson concluded:

          I that loved thee since my day began,
Wielder of the stateliest measure
          ever moulded by the lips of man. (p. 173)

  • 20 ‘Binsey Poplars’ from The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. by W.H. Gardner and N.H. MacKenzie, 4 (...)

19‘Thee’ allowed Virgil and his works to unite to become a single presence that suffused Tennyson’s life, a possession whose ‘lips’, the flesh and blood of a living man rather than of pages, still communicated. But such confidence was not the summation of the volume’s reflections on how verse might linger in the territories of futurity. ‘To Virgil’, in the arrangement of the first edition, was placed after a text that cast a shadow over it. ‘Song will vanish in the Vast’ (p. 166), Tennyson’s speaker declared in the preceding ‘Epilogue’, and the ‘s’ in ‘Vast’ seemed indeed the last vanishing point of ‘Song’ as it was swallowed up in the new. Sounds might linger—but not forever. And Homer’s fame, the speaker concluded, ironizing the reflection on Virgil, was not indelible: ‘Tho’ carved in harder stone—/The falling drop will make his name/As mortal as my own (p. 167–8). Homer lived—yet precariously, as fragile as the ‘sleek and seeing ball’ of Hopkins ‘Binsey Poplars.’20

  • 21 On the textual history of this poem, see David F. Goslee, ‘Three Stages of Tennyson's “Tiresias”’, (...)
  • 22 The three words invite, of course, different emphases. But one of them is certainly a recognition t (...)

20Thinking of his brother Charles’s death in ‘Prefatory Poem to my Brother’s Sonnets: Midnight, June 30, 1879’, Tennyson could only salute him as ‘True poet, surely to be found/When Truth is found again’ (p. 186). But when might that future be? Tiresias looked back even in his opening words to the irrecoverable past, before the curse of Athene. And Tennyson looked back, in the prefatory poem, to his friendship with Edward Fitzgerald. In so doing, he sketched an anxiety about verse’s movement into posterity—a dim echo of the ‘The Dying Swan’—as something that was unread. A local instance of a broader unease about verse’s failure to survive was adumbrated in the transmission history of Tiresias’s opening sequence.21 Tennyson’s preface to the eponymous monologue was not a tribute of whole-hearted affection. The praise for Fitzgerald’s ‘translation’ of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859–79) was double-edged, and the gift of the poem (‘Tiresias’ itself) was hedged with an admission that Tennyson’s son had merely found it ‘In some forgotten book of mine/With sallow scraps of manuscript’ (p. 4). If that hardly sounded like a carefully-chosen offering to a dear friend, the poem’s reminder that the words of ‘Tiresias’ were from ‘the years of old’ served the larger purpose. Fitzgerald—the author of a celebrated poem about oblivion—did not live to receive his gift: death intervened in this migration of text from the past towards its audience. ‘Tiresias’ fell on deaf ears. The ‘rhymes’ that ‘miss’d his living welcome’, Tennyson said, seemed ‘Like would-be guests an hour too late’ (p. 17). And the weakening pulse of an ‘hóur t?o lăte’ performed the loss of vitality the words sorrowfully described.22 Staging the material circumstances of the text’s failure to be read, to move from the distant past to the intended audience of the present, the Laureate mused on a local episode of poetry’s inability to be known that defined, perhaps, a larger scene of the flimsiness of words transmission into futurity.

  • 23 [Anonymous], In Memoriam, 18th edition (London: Moxon, 1866) 14.

21These features constituted the most relevant elements of the volume’s imaginative transactions with posterity and the frame for Tennyson’s contemplation of the possibilities of acoustic messaging. For ‘Frater Ave Atque Vale’, perhaps the most moving of the elegies in Tiresias and Other Poems, it was sound’s multiplicity, its ability and inability to sustain meaning through time, which was a defining topic. Tennyson had long listened for the sounds of the dead or from their world. In In Memoriam; he had ‘heard’ that which crossed strange distances, as, through the air, he detected the sound not literally of his lost friend Hallam but of the ship bearing his body. ‘I hear the noise about thy keel;’ he wrote in lyric X, of a sonic receptiveness driven by grief, ‘I hear the bell struck in the night.’23 The sounds hinted that acoustic traces that could travel distances, and that, with the right receiver in the right frame of mind, could be known. The desire to hear from the departed created a heightened sense of acoustic perception, an ear attentive to the most urgent needs of the heart. But it was not merely associated sounds of the dead, like the solemn ship bearing Hallam’s corpse, which Tennyson heard in ‘In the Valley of Cauteretz’ (1864). It was Hallam’s voice itself, a tender sound he thought never to hear again. A poem concisely staging the persistence of an apparently silenced voice, ‘In the Valley’ troped the beguiling chance of the remaining, sustaining dead:

  • 24 Alfred Tennyson, Enoch Arden, and Other Poems (London: Moxon, 1864) 34.

All along the valley, stream that flashest white,
Deepening thy voice with the deepening of the night,
All along the valley, where they waters flow,
I walk’d with one I lov’d two and thirty years ago.
All along the valley, while I walk’d today,
The two and thirty years were a mist that rolls away;
For all along the valley, down thy rocky bed,
Thy living voice to me was as the voice of the dead,
And all along the valley, by rock and cave and tree,
The voice of the dead was a living voice to me.24

22The repetitions—’all along the valley’, not least—echoed the echoes sent back by the deep rock sides. But they figured too the quiet desperation of the poet to hold on, through words, through sound patterns, to that which would not change. Words are repeated, as if their repetition staved off the movement of time, in a poem that imagined the literal continuation of a voice uncauterized by the passage of years (‘Cauteretz’, as a kind of Pyrenean misspelling, suggests exactly what Tennyson was trying to avoid). Voices continue, they remain somewhere in the mist. But yet they are discernible as a faint reassurance of the continuation of the lost, even if their exact meaning (what is the voice saying?) either cannot be decided or imparted.

23‘Frater Ave Atque Vale’, far into the age of new sound technologies, continued this development of the meaning of messages borne through the air. In the first edition, it is true, the poem’s obvious appeal was not to the ear but the eye. Split across verso and recto, the division gave an obtrusive visual form to the divisions of mind it narrated.

24Forcing each of the nine lines to be broken off at the end, the page width meant that one, two, or three syllables tipped over the edge. Creating a brief rhyming poem of their own, those broken words caught the main theme of the whole. And the visual suggested the new world of acoustic messaging. Singling out terms, shorthand for the poem’s full themes, the thin column of text running vertically against the horizontal hinted at an abbreviated telegram-like version of the whole. ‘Woe/ago’ succinctly reminded the reader that ‘woe’ from long ‘ago’ was, precisely, the emotional issue at stake in the poem. Compacted and surprising ways of receiving meaning were embedded in the text’s form.

  • 25 Alfred Tennyson, Demeter and Other Poems (London: Macmillan, 1889) 174.
  • 26 It is worth noting Swinburne's own sense of his proximity to Catullus and his invocation, in Poems (...)
  • 27 Catullus, Gaius Valerius. The Poems of Caius Valerius Catullus, in English Verse: With the Latin Te (...)

25The conveyance of messages was its overt topic too. They were central to the poem’s musings on what might live beyond the grave, how poetry could survive, and what illusions or hollowness might lie behind a notion of posthumous verbal vitality. Musing on his own death in ‘Crossing the Bar’ (1889), Tennyson discerned a sound, the ‘one clear call for me!’25 travelling across the waters from an unknown place both in time and space. Sound bought the welcome from the world of the dead. But in 1885 it suggested the persistence of poetry against an eternal silence. In its consideration of the spontaneous actions of memory, Tennyson’s text hinted at poetry’s durability by framing the receipt of poetry as the arrival of words, like that one clear call, from a distant realm protected from time. Catullus seems simply to come to Tennyson through the bright air of the Lago di Garda, as if suddenly breathed in, like the scent that signified one of Swinburne’s survivals,26 or suddenly received, like a message sent from a remote correspondent. A line from Catullus’s poem once known as ‘De Inferis ad Fratris Tumulum’ that mourned his, Catullus’s, brother with the celebrated equivocation ‘Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave, atque vale’27 reaches Tennyson unbidden, snatched from the atmosphere, conveyed like a mysterious telegram across unseen wires.

  • 28 I borrow John Sutherland's term in his chapter on Jane Eyre in The Literary Detective: 100 Puzzles (...)

26The voices of the dead live on, somehow. They are still communicative, audible: ‘There beneath the Roman ruin where the purple flowers grow,/Came that “Ave atque Vale” of the Poet’s hopeless woe. It is a description of a recipient, of the poet receiving. Like the curious “celestial telegram”’28 from Rochester to Jane Eyre, a precious message comes unbidden through the atmosphere, with startling aptness. No wonder the poem, musing on such messages, is so peculiarly concerned with the audible, even by Tennyson’s standards. Messages in the air seem naturally to suggest the meanings of sound. Nine lines of persistent rhyming on ‘o’—’row […] Sirmio […] glow […] grow […] woe […] ago […] fro […] below […] Sirmio’—draw the poem into a distinctive unity. The congruencies offer to hearing a continuation that sounds out, and further complicates, the text’s engagement with that which might continue. What will last? What kinds of meaning can be perpetuated after the grave? What significance can sound convey in such perpetuations? The patterning of o’s resonated with the text’s meditation on what might continue across time and travel from—Tennyson’s enchanted words—far, far away. They figure endurance. But they are also plainly curtailed: if sounds echo in the poem, they cannot extend beyond it. Echoes, the traces of human words, cannot remain in perpetuum. And Tennyson’s choice of ‘o’ as the key bearer of sound could hardly be more suggestive. Taking a sound visually expressed in a letter that signified completion and nullity, wholeness and emptiness, Tennyson’s sonic signifier was as double as the volume’s undecided regard for forms of posterity. Did Tennyson and Catullus’s brother live after death or not? Was the appropriate thing to say hail or farewell? ‘Ave’ or ‘vale’? ‘O’ is both perfection and the void, the symbol of eternity and of nothingness. So the continuation of a sound pattern, the long chiming of ‘o’ is throughout the text but not beyond it, imparts to the ear and eye both triumphant survival and the echoing of emptiness; the persistence of human achievement and the reverberations of blank sound which is simply sound.

27Mallarmé, after the transatlantic cable, considered how tolling sounds might bear meaning; William Barnes mused afresh on the old poetic subject of the doubleness of the echo as a carrier of human intention. And Swinburne was imaginatively absorbed with studies in song, to use the title of his 1880 collection: in sound as an agent for the perpetuation of human achievement. These were long-standing poetic topics. But they obtained new suggestibility in a culture that had come to think afresh about the ways in which sound might bear human meaning across space, and how the environment of the living might be criss-crossed with acoustic patterns that were decodeable as words. The telegrapher’s sounding of meaning across vast distances of space was suggestive, imaginatively, of ways of saving meaning through time, from beyond the grave, as later were the voices recorded on the phonograph or transmitted through the telephone. Proust’s narrator in Le côté de Guermantes (1920–1), speaking to his grandmother in Combray on the telephone, thought himself like Orpheus calling on the lost Eurydice; Joyce had Bloom muse on a gramophone in every grave. But long before À la recherche du temps perdu and Ulysses and through the period of the commercial development of new communication technology, Tennyson had been alive to ways in which the departed might remain in touch. Perhaps in an oblique relationship with telegraphic and telephonic developments, his poetry gathered together conceptions that offered themselves as a uniquely rich transformation of the imaginative possibilities of what those developments suggested. In a period peculiarly intrigued by the notion of sounds in the air, no other nineteenth-century poet, I think, thought so hard about the possibilities of such sounds to carry the messages of those now well beyond the reach of human voices.

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1 Stéphane Mallarmé, Tombeau d’Anatole (The Tomb of Anatole), parallel text with a translation by Patrick McGuiness (Manchester: Carcanet, 2003) 18 (‘as long as we ourselves live, he lives in us; he will not be after our death; and the bells of the Dead will sound for him’ [my trans.])

2 ‘Morse's Telegraph’ from Martin Farquhar Tupper, Three Hundred Sonnets (1860), text accessible from, 2 February 2007 (hereafter LION, with date).

3 For more on the fictions of telegraphy, see Katherine Mullin, Working Girls: Fiction, Labour, and Modernity 1880-1920, forthcoming.

4 For the most recent consideration of telegraphy in relation to spiritualism, see Steven Connor, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). For a new reading of Hydesville (in terms of national guilt in America), see Bridget Bennett, Transatlantic Spiritualism and Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

5 ‘The March of Science’ from James T. Breeze, The Glory of the Age: The Atlantic Cable: A Poem on the Wondrous Achievements of Science (1866), LION 2 August 2006.

6 Ellsworth took the words from Numbers 23: 23.

7 Thomas Dunn English, ‘The Telegraph Wires’, Select Poems (1894), LION, 12 December 2006.

8 Stéphane Mallarmé, Collected Poems and Other Verse, parallel text version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) 18-20. Mallarmé is notoriously difficult to translate. But I offer the following, with thanks to some suggestions from E.H. and A.M. Blackstone's version in the Oxford edition: ‘While the bell awakes its clear voice/in the pure and clear and deep air of morning/And passes over the child who throw for his pleasure/An angelus among the lavender and thyme,/The bell ringer brushes by the bird which he lights,/Crosses sadly in mumbling Latin/The stone which holds the secular rope/And hears from above only a distant tinkling./I am that man. Alas! In the eager night,/I pull in vain the rope to sound the Ideal,/Cold sins play about with safe wings/And the sound comes only in bits and hollow!/But, one day, weary to have pulled to the last,/O Satan, I shall remove the stone and hang there’.

9 Adelaide Anne Procter, ‘The Lost Chord’. This echo, heard in a single chord of organ music, sounded an Ideal in its own way: it ‘link'd all perplexed meanings,/Into one perfect peace’, LION, 11 November 2006.

10 Charles Edward Fenerty, Betula Nigra (1855), LION, 2 February 2007.

11 Isabella Whiteford, Poems (1860), LION, 11 November 2006.

12 Selected Poems of William Barnes 1800-1886, ed. by Geoffrey Grigson (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950) 167-8.

13 Written in 1854.

14 Algernon Charles Swinburne, Poems and Ballads [first series] (London: Chatto & Windus, 1910), ll. 268-77.

15 Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘In Memory of Barry Cornwall’, Poems and Ballads, II and III, Golden Pine edition (London: Heinemann, 1917) 71. There is more discussion of Swinburne's forms for memorializing dead artists in Francis O'Gorman, ‘Swinburne's Returns: The Endurance of Writing in Poems and Ballads, Second Series (1878)’, The Cambridge Quarterly, 33 (2004): 197-216.

16 Swinburne, Poems and Ballads, II and III, 244.

17 Ibid., 258.

18 See, for instance, Tennyson's half-ironic, half-serious letter to Francisque Xavier Michel, just after the poet received his peerage in 1884: ‘I see myself [as if] in an extra page of Holbein's “Dance of Death,” and standing before the mouth of an open sepulchre while the Queen hands me a coronet, and the skeleton takes it away and points me downward into the darkness’, The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson, ed. by Cecil Y. Lang and Edgar F. Shannon, 3 vols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982-90), iii.280.

19 References to Tiresias and Other Poems come from the first edition (London: Macmillan, 1885) and are to page numbers (these are given the body of the text hereafter). I quote from this edition, and other nineteenth-century editions, because the modern standard—Christopher Ricks's 3-volume Longman Annotated English Poets edition (Harlow: Longman, 2nd edition, 1987—modernizes spelling throughout. Though in keeping with the series house style, this deprives the reader of Tennyson's sometimes delicate use of seemingly archaic spellings (particularly 'd contractions). In an essay about the way the past might be sustained, this seems to me of some consequence.

20 ‘Binsey Poplars’ from The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. by W.H. Gardner and N.H. MacKenzie, 4th edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970) 78. Hopkins is pertinent to my argument in broader terms because of his consideration of the meaning of echoes, and his association of echoes with messages of eternity. In ‘The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo (Maidens Song from St. Winefred's Well)’, Barnes’s implicit questions are answered by Hopkins’s confident assertion that echoes contain intended meaning, in this case, of divine significance.

21 On the textual history of this poem, see David F. Goslee, ‘Three Stages of Tennyson's “Tiresias”’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 75 (1976): 154-67.

22 The three words invite, of course, different emphases. But one of them is certainly a recognition that what looks on page like a familiar spondee ‘too late’ is actually deprived of its usual force by an emphasis on the slightly-stretched out sound of ‘hour’, producing something like an ‘hóur tôo late’. ‘Hour’ always poses the reader with a momentary stumbling block anyway because it can be so nearly two syllables.

23 [Anonymous], In Memoriam, 18th edition (London: Moxon, 1866) 14.

24 Alfred Tennyson, Enoch Arden, and Other Poems (London: Moxon, 1864) 34.

25 Alfred Tennyson, Demeter and Other Poems (London: Macmillan, 1889) 174.

26 It is worth noting Swinburne's own sense of his proximity to Catullus and his invocation, in Poems and Ballads III, of all the weight of Catullus's meditations on his dead brother in the elegy ‘Ad Catullum’, with its telling invocation ‘Catulle frater’ (Swinburne, Poems and Ballads, II and III, 161). See also ‘To Catullus’ in A Century of Roundels.

27 Catullus, Gaius Valerius. The Poems of Caius Valerius Catullus, in English Verse: With the Latin Text Revised, and Classical Notes, 2 vols (London: Johnson, 1795), II, p. 162, l.10. Accessed through, 14 January 2007. I use this edition (and the eighteenth-century titles) as it was familiar to Victorian readers.

28 I borrow John Sutherland's term in his chapter on Jane Eyre in The Literary Detective: 100 Puzzles in Classic Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

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Francis O’Gorman, « Poetry in the Age of New Sound Technology: Mallarmé to Tennyson »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 69 | 2009, mis en ligne le 26 juin 2019, consulté le 07 août 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Francis O’Gorman

O'GORMAN Francis is Professor of Victorian Literature at the University of Leeds, UK.

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