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On the Use and Representations of Sound in British Pre-Romantic and Romantic Poetry, or “On The Power of Sound”

De l’usage et des représentations du son dans la poésie pré-romantique et romantique britannique, ou « Du Pouvoir du Son »
Claire Téchené
p. 13


Dans cet article, l’on se propose d’attirer l’attention sur le sort qui est fait aux sons émanant de la nature dans la poésie britannique de la période pré-romantique et romantique (environ 1720-1830). L’on s’efforce de démontrer qu’en ces temps de déchristianisation croissante de la société européenne et de remise en question de la notion pluriséculaire d’harmonie universelle, ces poètes tentèrent de raviver la flamme du pacte entre l’homme et la nature au moyen de la sensation auditive. De Thomson à Keats, les bruits et les sons prirent le statut de traces de la transcendance ; dans des textes tels que The Task de Cowper ou « On the Power of Sound » de Wordsworth, le topos du locus amoenus comme celui de l’harmonie sont mis en valeur de manière à suggérer une unité évanescente à l’œuvre dans la nature. C’est la mission du poète que de découvrir celle-ci et de la porter à la connaissance de ses frères humains. Il est frappant de constater que, dans les fragments tombés dans l’oubli comme dans les chefs-d’œuvre, le champ lexical de la musique comme art est omniprésent, bien que discret, dans des descriptions bucoliques ou géorgiques de paysage. Employé dans des métaphores, il met en valeur des sons de la nature qu’il faut entendre et comprendre comme un langage que l’homme doit prendre en compte et faire sien. Cette poésie entre dix-huitième et dix-neuvième siècle engageait donc chacun de ses lecteurs en tant qu’individu à s’ouvrir au mystère qui sous-tend le monde sensible et à réenchanter sa vision de ce monde… grâce à l’écoute.

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1This paper aims to give an overview of the treatment of natural sounds in poetry from the eighteenth century to the early nineteenth, from the neo-Platonic notion of world harmony organising the perception of the natural soundscape, to the loss of such traditional bearings among the pre-romantic generation, giving way, in its turn, to the music of nature playing a major role in the elaboration of a new pact with nature at the core of the romantic vision of the world.

2The notion of natural sounds is here to be understood in the very broad sense of all sounds that are not produced by art; man is only included in nature as God’s creature, not as artist, musician or craftsman. This implies that, in this paper, I shall not attempt to brace the all too vast topic of the sounds of poetry itself (prosody, rhythm, and all the sound effects a poet is capable of) and keep to the network of images created by the theme of nature interacting with that of sound. For the sake of clarity, I will avoid the metatextual realm of the musicality of poetry to concentrate on the relations between music and poetry as two independent media.

3Natural noise and sound in pre-romantic and romantic poetry can be considered from the perspective of topos, first of all because nature is a very particular place (the meaning of the word in ancient Greek) – an entity with its own noises; secondly, because, in the poetic field, the notion of “music of nature” should be considered as a convention. The same “place”, or convention, built over centuries by the poetic tradition, was gradually emptied of its meaning, eroded away, leaving an absence that was deplored around the middle of the century by what some critics have called a poetics of absence, and finally came to be reinvested with romantic meaning.

The Augustan Heritage

Locus Amoenus, The Topos of a Harmonious Nature

  • 1 Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Richard R. Trask, Princ (...)

4The topoi, inherited from ancient rhetoric and transmitted to our modern Western literature through Medieval tradition, are very much like a store of ideas, as the German philologist Ernst Robert Curtius defines the term in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages.1 Authors used to borrow turns of phrase and images from the common stock, so as to guide the reader or audience through the various steps of their work with ease; everybody had the same bearings and references and was thus able to recognise the schematic development of the piece they were reading or engaging with. This convenient recycling of old schemes increased complicity between poet and public, so that both received a classical education and could enjoy cultural allusions in a new piece of work. Well into the eighteenth century, therefore, readers could find numerous allusions to Nature as a goddess: her nurturing, creating, and organising powers have been familiar to generations of poets since Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which voiced the beliefs of a pagan world in which men could transform into plants and animals.

5In this context, nature finds an ideal incarnation in the pastoral landscape, especially in the locus amoenus, an ideally beautiful, secluded spot where nature is not used for materialistic ends but only worshipped, and where fertility and creation, nature and love, find their best expression, in a marriage of natural fertility and poetic creation. According to Curtius’s definition, which he elaborated from the medieval Latin corpus, a locus amoenus usually brings together a tree, a meadow and a water stream, birds, a profusion of fruits and flowers, and a gentle breeze. It is a favourite spot for all European writers who, since the eleventh century, have wanted to dwell on the music of nature – that is to say, natural noises perceived primarily as music, because they are pleasant to the ear. The mingling of sounds of the flowing water, of the wind in the trees and of birdsong, against the backdrop of a peaceful silence in – unlike the georgic – an uncultivated landscape, provides an appropriate acoustic setting for any text about the harmony of nature at work in the landscape, and the pleasure derived from different senses: there is the coolness of the shade (feeling), the sweetness of flowers and fruit (smell and taste), and the beauty of the landscape (sight). Heaven on earth is not far off, and Christian poetry gives many examples of a link between the pagan heritage in this vision of nature, and the idea of paradise, a garden enclosed by walls where peace and harmony reign supreme.

Commonplace harmony

  • 2 John Hollander, “Wordsworth and the Music of Sound”, in New Perspectives on Coleridge and Wordswort (...)

6In his contribution to New Perspectives on Coleridge and Wordsworth,2 John Hollander remarks that, in the age of Pope, “the poetic treatment of the sounds of wind and water had achieved […] the full status of cliché”; Pope himself parodies this cliché in his famous lines from An Essay on Criticism (1711):

Where’er you find “the cooling western breeze”,
In the next line, it “whispers through the trees”:
If crystal streams “with pleasing murmuring creep”:
The reader’s threaten’d (not in vain) with “sleep” (l. 350-353).

7To this trend belonged poets such as James Thomson, who uses the topos of calm, beautiful nature in The Seasons (1730); he describes the mythical Golden Age at the beginning of “Spring”:

For music held the whole in perfect peace:
Soft sighed the flute; the tender voice was heard,
Warbling the varied heart; the woodlands round
Applied their choir; and winds and waters flowed
In consonance. Such were those prime of days (l. 267-271).

8Here the noises of nature provide background music, while the flute, voice and heart stand out, as if the music of man had a place of its own in the music of the world. Hollander explains that locus amoenus is characterised by singing, instrumental music, and natural sounds. It seems that the description of these sounds as if they belonged to a musical score, with a melody standing out from a harmony, here provided by a “choir” and a “consonance”, best conveyed the world harmony. The poetic tradition thus offered eighteenth-century writers a topos – a place for creation nurtured by the writings of their predecessors under the symbolical aegis of a creative nature, natura naturans.

  • 3 Leo Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World-Harmony: Prolegomena to an Interpretation of th (...)
  • 4 John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry 1500-1700, Princeton, Pri (...)

9This idea of world harmony, expressed through the metaphor of music, also dates back to ancient times and was adopted during the Christian Middle Ages: “the Pythagorean concept of world harmony has been revived in our civilisation whenever Platonism was revived”, according to Leo Spitzer, who investigated “Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony” through a study of the German word Stimmung3 – meaning atmosphere, or temperament. The conception of music as a harmony of the spheres (musica mundana, a manifestation of the order of the macrocosm in which a parallel was to be found on a microcosmic scale with musica humana) was certainly still thriving, conventionally at least, in the early eighteenth century, as John Hollander’s research into the question demonstrates.4 The Christian tradition asserted that to recognise the beauty of the world as created by God is to acknowledge the existence of a great organiser behind it: in music, everything converges in the transcendental. In that sense, Christian music thus embodies the Greek world harmony. William Cowper creates a poetic echo of this vision of the world in The Task (1785):

A voice is heard that mortal ears hear not
Till thou hast t’ouch’d them : ’tis the voice of song
A loud hosanna sent from all thy works ;
Which he that hears it with a shout repeats,
And adds his rapture to the general praise.
In that blest moment Nature, throwing wide
Her veil opaque, discloses with a smile
The author of her beauties, who, retir’d
Behind his own creation, works unseen
By the impure, and hears his power denied (bk. V, l. 886-895).

10However, as Spitzer explains in his study of the evolution of the word Stimmung:

  • 5 Leo Spitzer, op. cit., p. 76.

At the end of the eighteenth century Stimmung was crystallised, that is, it was robbed of its blossoming life. […] Musicamundana was destroyed by the modern mechanistic spirit […] from the period of the Enlightenment, European mankind came to lose the feeling of a central “musicality.”5

11The philologist here looks at the evolution of the literary imagery of music; he analyses world harmony, symbolised by the meaning of the word Stimmung, as the dislocation of a semantic field. According to him, this dislocation is due to de-christianization and the disappearance of the faith in nature as the effect of a single, superior power. This analysis is echoed by John Hollander in The Untuning of the Sky: music and harmony had undergone a process of “trivialisation” – resulting in the final “untuning of the sky” by the end of the century, and the numerous poetic representations of untuned beings, hearts out of tune, and other dissonant moods in following generations.

The Pre-Romantic Quest for Harmony

The Topos at a Dead End

  • 6 In the words of Clifford Siskin, “Personification and Community, Literary Change in the Mid and Lat (...)
  • 7 Raymond Williams, Culture and Society: Coleridge to Orwell, London, Hogarth, 1982. Chapter 2, “The (...)

12At least two things changed in cultural and poetic life at this time: first of all, the place of the poet in society. The Augustan Age had been the time of a search for stability after the Civil War. Human nature was claimed to be always the same, and nature to have “the regulatory role of a common denominator”; “the deviant individual” was an object of suspicion6; this is confirmed in our understanding of Latin culture, which enabled authors and readers alike to share and understand the topos of the music of nature. There was subsequently a change in the writer-reader relationship with the rise of the middle-class and the “literary market” this engendered; writers, relatively less well educated than the aristocratic patrons who had come before, experienced a general dissatisfaction with the new “market”. At the same time, claims Raymond Williams, the increasingly popular view arose that the artist was “a special kind of person”: emphasis was laid on the embodiment in art of “certain human values […] which the development of society toward an industrial civilization was felt to be threatening…”; the artist became the one who, through his work, gave pleasure to all human beings and revealed “a superior reality”, which was what he now had to imitate in his texts, just like Augustan poets had tried to “imitat[e] the universal reality”. But the Augustans particularly insisted upon this notion of universality, while the early Romantics claimed that of a superior, hidden meaning.7 In consequence, poets could no longer use topoi as they once had; their mission was no longer to ensure that their audience shared their particular view of nature, but to closely examine a natural world that became more and more distant.

A Fragmented Land- and Soundscape

13This partly accounts for another major change in literary tradition – that of the vision of nature, which evolved from being a universally shared environment with strict, culturally defined features to being an environment devoid of the obvious presence of God. The generation of writers after Pope – including William Cowper, John Dyer, Thomas Gray, and William Collins – felt that they had lost something when they came to write about nature, and expressed this feeling through such images as ruins or graveyards, as if what remained of the topos of natural harmony was to be found in a useless, meaningless place:

The poplars are felled, farewell to the shade
And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade,
The winds play no longer, and sing in the leaves,
Nor Ouse on his bosom their image receives. […]

The blackbird has fled to another retreat
Where the hazels afford him a screen from the heat,
And the scene where his melody charmed me before,
Resounds with his sweet-flowing ditty no more. (“The Poplar-Field”, l.1-4 & 9-12)

14In this poem, dated 1785, William Cowper mourns the disappearance of a locus amoenus by evoking its amenity, in particular the sounds of the wind in the leaves and of birdsong that used to emanate from the trees – sounds which are described in musical terms. The text closes with an evocation of the poet’s death, in the fourth stanza, followed by a fifth stanza lamenting the vanity of the pleasures of life: the horizontality of the grave echoes that of the felled tree offering a seat instead of its shade (l. 8). The verticality, and the ascending movement towards transcendence, symbolised by harmony, no longer work in a landscape deprived of the shelter for music that the tree once provided.

15Another example of the loss of an original unity in the soundscape provided by the lexical field of music is Charlotte Smith’s “Written in October” (1797):

The blasts of Autumn as they scatter round
The faded foliage of another year,
And muttering many a sad and solemn sound,
Drive the pale fragments o’er the stubble sere,
Are well-attuned to my dejected mood ;
(Ah ! better far than airs that breathe of Spring !)
While the high rooks, that hoarsely clamouring
Seek in black phalanx the half-leafless wood,
I rather hear, than that enraptured lay
Harmonious, and of Love and Pleasure born,
Which from the golden furze, or flowering thorn
Awakes the shepherd in the ides of May ;
Nature delights
me most when most she mourns,
For never more to me the Spring of Hope returns !

16In this sonnet, the topos of harmony is borne by the wind, but in the restricted context of the description of a mood; no religious implication, or expression of respect for nature as a goddess, can be perceived. The fact that poets, and society at large, no longer believe in the presence of God in nature makes itself felt through this search for a “coupling” in which man and nature try to come to terms, that is to say, a harmony without God. The role of the wind here is to “scatter” leaves, and not unite, the landscape; the wind itself is fragmented into “blasts, as well as the various sounds it carries, whose number is emphasised by the adjective “many”. No music is evoked here, only “muttering” and “sound”. The only trace of music we can find in the first sestet is one relating to Stimmung in line 5. “Well-attuned” stands in strong contrast to the parallel evocation of the topos in the second sestet: “that enraptured lay/Harmonious…” related to the theme of love and fertility, or spring as Thomson described it in 1730. The final couplet insists upon the notion of individuality through the emphasis on the pronoun “me”, echoed by the recurrence of the phoneme /m/ stretching to the next and final line. In this instance, the centre of attention is no longer nature’s fertility, but the perceiving subject.

17Indeed, this new attitude towards nature had consequences for the poets’ perception of the sounds of nature. In several poems it seems that the organising power is no longer there, but that communication is established only between the individual and natural sounds. Robert Burns, in a song published in the 1790 collection of his poetic pieces, altogether desacralises the wind, this traditional messenger of heavenly music, by hearing, or feeling in it, not the voice of God or any harmony of the spheres, but the presence of his wife:

Of all the airts the wind can blow
I dearly like the west,
For there the bonnie lassie lives,
The lassie I love best. […]

I see her in the dewy flowers,
I see her sweet and fair ;
I hear her in the tunefu’ birds,
I hear her charm the air… (“I Love My Jean”, l. 1-4 & 9-12)

18We must not forget that, as a farmer, Burns had a particular, professional – not to say georgic – relationship with nature, the exact reverse of the inhabitants of any locus amoenus, where nature is fertile by itself. The poet in him was therefore very much aware of the harsh realities of working the land, and he appropriated, all the more, a poetic place that had been deserted by tradition as he had the feeling of being left out of established cultural life and its codes. This love song celebrates the power of fancy, enabling the ploughman poet to see and hear his beloved, as if the wind could carry his fancy along, and bring back to him an image of the young woman. In lines 11 and 12, she sings among – “in” – the birds, in opposition to the locus amoenus where the human voice detaches itself from natural sounds, and her song, endowed with magical power (etymologically contained in the meaning of “charm”) instead of the religious power of Christian song praising the creator, is impressed upon the wind which will carry it to the poet’s ears. Thus, Burns works on the topos of harmony in order to refresh its meaning, and fit it to his own personal experience.

  • 8 David B. Morris, “A Poetry of Absence”, in The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry, ed (...)

19In “A Poetry of Absence”8, David Morris demonstrates that “Nature in the eighteenth century holds an inseparable connection with religion and with religious feeling, so that the desire for nature is often inseparable from a desire for God”, which might mean that looking for divinity in nature leads to the replacement of God by Nature as a muse and organising force (or desire, as Morris puts it). Thus, when William Blake portrays the Muses wandering in the sky and on earth in “To the Muses” (in Poetical Sketches, 1783), it is only to present the reader with a fragmented vision of deity and of space, and deplore the disappearance of the inspiring deities:

Whether on Ida’s shady brow,
Or in the chambers of the east,
The chambers of the sun, that now
From antient melody have ceas’d;

Whether in Heav’n ye wander fair,
Or the green corners of the earth,
Or the blue regions of the air,
Where the melodious winds have birth ;

Whether on chrystal rocks ye rove,
Beneath the bosom of the sea,
Wand’ring in many a coral grove,
Fair Nine, forsaking Poetry !

How have you left the antient love
That bards of old enjoy’d in you !
The languid strings do scarcely move !
The sound is forc’d, the notes are few !

20The last stanza refers to the poet’s incapacity to produce poetry described through the metaphor of the musical lyre. This is an instance of musica humana, since the muses have dissolved into a world where they seem to be lost – the only verb of movement is “Wand’ring”, evoking an erratic walk – as testified by the syntax which stands still, the halting punctuation, broken rhythm and incessant repetitions of the first sentence. The opposition of past to present times is striking, since the poet thus voices his generation’s regret for a mythical golden age when the harmony of the world could be heard. Paradoxically, this harmony is here represented by the double occurrence of “melody and “melodious”; it seems that Blake chose to evoke melody instead of harmony in order to lay more stress on the loss of the depth that was provided by harmony, whose chords symbolised so many steps leading up to transcendence. The lost music no longer consists of the strata of sound, as in Thomson’s “Spring”, but is portrayed, as the poem unfolds, as a linear succession of sounds. The poet concentrates on the multiplicity of landscapes, in which he places the muses, who are characterised by their movement from one picture to another, as opposed to the still strings of the lyre, so that places are evoked in succession, like the notes of a melody, while the depth of transcendence is nowhere to be found. A poet of the visual imagination, Blake offers us a poem in the shape of a melody of disconnected images, which tells of a quest for divine inspiration in a world that is to be admired for its inherent beauty.

  • 9 In his poem “The Tables Turned” (1798): “Sweet is the lore which Nature brings/Our meddling intelle (...)
  • 10 Marshall Brown, Preromanticism, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 102.

21Indeed, empiricism, along with Newtonian analytical and scientific description, had such an effect upon the vision of nature that it became very fragmented, or as Wordsworth would famously put it later on, “We murder to dissect.”9 For Marshall Brown, the Preromantics were a generation who looked for something new without achieving the definition of a true perspective: “the Enlightened poet knew what he saw and named what he knew; the movement of sensibility led past evocations towards the unnameables…”10 For Jennifer Keith,

  • 11 Jennifer Keith, “‘Preromanticism’ and the Ends of Eighteenth-Century Poetry”, in The Cambridge Comp (...)

Late-eighteenth-century poets are well aware of the world they have lost, a world to which their predecessors the Augustan poets saw themselves very much connected. Far from either an Augustan world order or the egotistical sublime that Wordsworth would claim for the self, the late-eighteenth-century self is terra incognita to these poets who explore a poetic vision where social, poetic and metaphysical comforts drop away.11

22We can therefore replace the topos koinos by the terra incognita as a definition of the pre-romantic view of the world, because it fits a representation of nature as estranged, and epitomises a shift in the use of natural sounds that took place in this period, due to the tyranny of the eye felt by the generation that came just after, namely the first Romantics.

Romantic Territories

Repositioning the Self

  • 12 Pierre Wat, Naissance de l’art romantique : peinture et théorie de l’imitation, Paris, Flammarion, (...)

23Though Thomson had, in his day, written a “Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton” (1727), scientific discourse had come to be rejected in its role as an interpreter of nature. The ordering power of the scrutinising eye was increasingly denounced by those who were looking for a more meaningful experience and were drawn to music’s vagueness and its capacity to evoke states of mind, associations of ideas, or emotions. In other words, music seemed to enable the feeling subject to be at one with his environment, to communicate with it. The notion of response was the new approach to the music of nature. William Blake always claimed the superiority of the unity of form over Newton’s minute observations, and the superiority of intuition that could see divine principles of organisation through appearances. He scornfully portrayed the man of science in his painting entitled Newton (1795), in which the famous scientist can be seen crouching, engrossed in his narrow-minded activity. In Naissance de l’art romantique, Pierre Wat explains that for romantic artists, nature is a symbol within which it is the artist’s task to find unity.12 The artist, painter or poet, must live in the world as an interpreter, or as the observer of an Other with which man had grown out of touch. Yet, he is an observer turned visionary. The terra incognita was to be redeemed from its remoteness.

24The romantic age, therefore, was a time of change in the artist’s position, in which he tried to reinvest nature with a dose of immateriality and enchantment. He brought music to nature and endowed it with a supplementary charm. So the noises of nature are no longer described along the traditional lines of commonplaces, which had been challenged by Coleridge in his conversation poem “The Nightingale” (1798), questioning Milton’s ejaculation in “Il Penseroso”:

“Most musical, most melancholy” bird!
A melancholy bird ? O idle thought !
In nature there is nothing melancholy.
But some night-wandering man whose heart was pierced
With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,
Or slow distemper, or neglected love,
(And so, poor wretch ! fills all things with himself,
And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale
Of his own sorrow) he, and such as he,
First named these notes a melancholy strain. (l. 13-22)

25In this seminal text, the poet expresses his opinion that the environment should cease to be systematically associated with traditional ideas or feelings. He describes this type of the melancholy young man remembering his sorrows on hearing a nightingale, because of Ovid’s account of the ancient myth of Philomela, a rape victim who had been transformed into this bird after her tongue had been cut out, using the natural music of the bird’s voice to express herself. Coleridge means to encourage poets to feel nature more than to see it through the filter of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in order to prevent individuals from attributing their own states of mind to landscapes – in this he recognises what was not yet known as pathetic fallacy. To Coleridge, this behaviour is selfish and “idle”, in that the individual makes no effort to meet the natural environment and to experience sounds by himself, which is the most efficient way of responding to, and establishing contact with, nature. The same topos was not erased, but was reinvested with new, personal meaning. Nor were natural sounds, however, to be considered as objects for scientific study. It was time to let the artistic self be overwhelmed by the reality of nature in order to better reinvest it with symbolical meaning; here the artist’s vision acts as a veil over facts and objects, triumphantly imposing a subjective view in place of the discriminating eye of the Enlightenment. This is how poesis became more loaded than mimesis in the artistic and literary life of the day – poets had to create the meaning of nature instead of merely registering topoi and observations; this is how natura naturans came to life in the poetic productions of the day: romantic poets imitated the process of nature being created, not its objects in the midst of the locus amoenus. Art therefore consisted in recreating the divine world by enjoying a direct, sensual relationship with it and expressing these sensations in verse.

26The Romantics inherited a desacralised vision of the harmony of the spheres, of which they were to make use in their poems, and indeed, as John Neubauer shows in his “Emancipation of Music”, the turn of the century saw a revival of Pythagoreanism with the rise of instrumental music and the idea of absolute music. The vision of music as a self-referential art finds its roots in this period. Music paradoxically moved away from natural sounds to favour the other, more intellectual side of Pythagoreanism, that is, the formative power of music and its mathematical structures, whose calculation of harmonic proportions intimated a higher order than that of mere noise. Music now had two faces, dialectically answering each other as the individual looked for a medium which could express both the microcosm of his emotions and the macrocosm of the order of the world. Pythagoreanism understood in romantic terms made sure to relate the two. The correspondence between the two worlds, for instance, enables Wordsworth to write the following fragment, probably in 1800:

Oh ’tis a joy divine on summer days
When not a breeze is stirring, not a cloud,
To sit within some solitary wood,
Far in some lonely wood, and hear no sound
Which the heart does not make, or else so fit[s]
To its own temper that in external things
No longer seem internal difference
All melts away, and things that are without
Live in our minds as in their native home. (Fragment III from the “Christabel” Notebook)

27The poet prizes the silence on the backdrop of which he can draw the score of his own heart; here the silence provided by nature, not the background of streams and singing birds, invites man to a communion. The correspondence between musica mundana and musica humana is here expressed in terms of the “temper”, or Stimmung, which has been redeemed from the inadequacy the Preromantics perceived in it. The final lines move to the image of melting, as if to abolish the distinction between inside and outside, microcosm and macrocosm. The music of nature is as good as silence when only the poet’s voice and feelings can endow the surrounding sounds with existence. This is an acknowledgement of the omnipotence of subjective perception.

Natural Sounds, New Landmarks

28The reworking of the realm of Pythagorean ideas could only suit the tastes and needs of a society puzzled with the natural world at large. To lend natural sounds a musical quality gave them further meaning as they suddenly participated in a larger scheme. Another of Coleridge’s major works, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), bears witness to this change in the perception of noise: in Part V of the ballad, the mariner is alone aboard his ship, and watches and listens attentively for signs of his redemption:

Sometimes a-dropping from the sky
I heard the skylark sing;
Sometimes all little birds that are,
How they seemed to fill the sea and air
With their sweet jargoning.

And now ’twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute ;
And now it is an angel’s song,
That makes the heavens be mute.

It ceased ; yet still the sails made on
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods at night
Singeth a quiet tune. (l. 347-361)

29Music here acts as a veil over the description of the sounds, in that it is not accurate in scientific terms but rather partakes of a personal perspective, giving the sounds or the meaning thanks to its unifying power. We twice notice a progression from sound or noise to music, with a gradation from birdsong to man’s instruments, then to angels, in an imitation of the hierarchy of musica mundana, musica humana and celestial music, paralleled by a gradation from objects, the sails, to a natural element personified: the singing brook. The beginning and ending of the songs lend the whole an even greater unity. To the redeemed mariner, it is a sure sign of the presence of the God in the world.

30Shelley evokes a dancer in a unified soundscape in his unfinished Triumph of Life (posth., 1824):

And her feet ever to the ceaseless song
Of leaves and winds and waves and birds and bees
And falling drops moved in a measure new
Yet sweet, as on the summer evening breeze
Up from the lake a shape of golden dew
Between two rocks, athwart the rising moon,
Dances i’ the wind where eagle never flew. (l. 375-381)

31Shelley describes a fascinating “Shape all light” (l. 352), dancing in a landscape characterised by profusion – see the plural forms in our passage, an old allegiance to the nature-nurture topos. This dancing figure unifies the diverse elements that compose the landscape by dancing to their noises, using the sounds as so many elements of a metaphoric “ceaseless song”, whose rhythmic pattern is suggested through the emphasis on the iambs created by repetition of the conjunction “and” (l. 376), and which gives more impetus to this long-winded sentence, which had started in line 367, as if the description in the text sought to mimic the all-encompassing dance, and therefore the landscape itself. This unifying movement is then compared to the action of the wind gathering and transporting the evening dew, as if air in motion were the paradigm of the unity of nature and not the word of God – a paradigm here reinvented through movement and the soundscape, but also through the metaphoric process: the topos of the music of nature, with its gentle breeze carrying the sounds, is here reactivated by the emphasis that is laid on the original metaphor of the “ceaseless song”.

  • 13 Frederick Albert Pottle, “The Eye and the Object in the Poetry of Wordsworth”, Yale Review, XL, 195 (...)

32As Frederick A. Pottle points out in “The Eye and the Object in the Poetry of Wordsworth,”13 the Lakist poet described in his texts the mental images he had kept from earlier observations. What he looked for was the meaning at work in nature, in what Pottle calls “the method of transfiguration”, where natural objects symbolise values. For Wordsworth, the poets of the Augustan age did not observe nature but transcribed into their poems an idea of nature, whether it had been carried over to them by tradition, or actual observation. Wordsworth, like Coleridge and his nightingale, defends the opposite behaviour: first observe, then let your imagination reach the deepest level of experience and veil the objects observed with the meaningful image thus provided.

Imagination or The Realm of the Ear

  • 14 Gillen D’Arcy Wood, The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture 1760-1860, New York, Palg (...)

33This meeting of a subject and an environment that is claimed to be mysterious further pushes the boundaries of the subject’s known world. This is the transfiguration of human perception, as Pottle underlines. Geoffrey Hartman’s “The Unmediated Vision” studies “the tyranny of sight” as described in book XII of The Prelude, in which nature, by calling upon the other senses, helps counterbalance the negative effects of the rise of visual culture analysed by Gillen d’Arcy Wood.14 As for Wordsworth, he challenges the obviousness of sight and favours instead both sound – that subdues the eyes by the power of harmony – and reason, by the intuition of God’s presence in the Creation. The mind can grow toward independence from direct stimuli, and towards imagination, thanks to which poetry is no longer subordinated to mimesis. The eventual unity between nature and man is reached thanks to the ear of the poet, a medium open to all manifestations, as is shown in the “Fragment: Redundance” (composed in 1800, five years before The Prelude), beginning thus:

Not the more
Failed I to lengthen out my watch. I stood
Within the area of the frozen vale,
Mine eye subdued and quiet as the ear
Of one that listens, for even yet the scene,
Its fluctuating hues and surfaces,
And the decaying vestiges of forms,
Did to the dispossessing power of night
Impart a feeble visionary sense
Of movement and creation doubly felt.

34We are on the verge of synesthesia as the poet draws a parallel between eye and ear, in which the eye is as powerful as the ear because it behaves like it – that is to say, it is open and ready to be overcome but sees nothing definite. Everything is a blur, inviting us on a journey to the realm of perception, instead of understanding. The reader witnesses the constitution of sound as the most powerful ally of the poetic mind in its regeneration of poetic language and imagery confronted with a problematic nature. This is due to musica mundana, the power at work in a renewed poetical perception of the sound environment. Music’s capacity to create meaning, to give sense and direction, is felt by the poets as the ultimate solution to the puzzling feeling of bewilderment in their quest for the Other that is nature.

  • 15 Francis Claudon, La Musique des Romantiques, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1992, p. 274.

35The advantage the Romantics had over their predecessors is that they used music as a “life-giver” in their poems and images; music, in its various embodiments through evocations of musical backgrounds or the interspersing of musical vocabulary such as notes, melody or harmony. This endows the atmosphere with a liveliness that it otherwise would not have had. In the last stanza of his ode “To Autumn”, John Keats evokes the music of autumn in opposition to that of spring: “Where are the songs of spring? Aye, where are they?” (l. 23). This time, birds and fruit are the only remnants of the locus amoenus; the cider oozing out of the press has replaced the brook, wherein gnats and crickets make up the choir – not the works of God as in Cowper, or “the woodlands” as in Thomson. This subversion of the topos contributes to its rejuvenation and to the actualisation of natural sounds. The superiority of music lies in the fact that its old connotations as pacifier, harmoniser and manifestation of order at greater level, resurface here and act in texts, interfering with the other elements of the evocation, be they light effects, feelings, or any other component. This general behaviour gave way to what Francis Claudon calls a “visualisation of music”15; the idea of lending a musical quality to all elements is reversed into its opposite – that is, the music is made visible by the description of other elements, which also applies to the extract from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This phenomenon is not to be mistaken with sound references, which confine and stabilise music into its own realm.

36The harmony of the self and the world, so ardently looked for by the Romantics, is thus always best reached through the suspension of vision and language, the instruments of the intellect, in favour of the action of music, which evokes states of mind and associations of ideas, so many channels through which vision can be reinstated. Music is an agent in the passive openness of the subject to his environment, symbolised by the ear, the organ that always remains open, as opposed to the eyes that can close. Such is the power of sound, celebrated by Wordsworth in his ode, “On the Power of Sound” (1829), in which all sounds give thanks to the Creator and renew the pact with transcendence, along romantic lines:

By one pervading spirit
Of tones and numbers all things are controlled,
As sages taught, where faith was found to merit
Initiation in the mystery old.
The heavens, whose aspect makes our minds as still
As they themselves appear to be,
Innumerable voices fill
With everlasting harmony ;
The towering headlands, crowned with mist,
Their fleet among the billows, know
That Ocean is a mighty harmonist ;
Thy pinions, universal Air,
Ever waving to and fro,
Are delegates of harmony, and bear
Strains that support the Seasons in their round ;
Stern Winter loves a dirge-like sound (st. XII).

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Brown, Marshall. Preromanticism. Stanford : Stanford University Press, 1991.

Claudon, Francis. La Musique des Romantiques. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France (coll. Écriture), 1992.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages [1953]. Trans. Richard R. Trask. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1967.

Hollander, John. The Untuning of the Sky : Ideas of Music in English Poetry 1500-1700. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1961.

---. “Wordsworth and the Music of Sound.” In New Perspectives on Coleridge and Wordsworth : Selected Papers from the English Institute. Geoffrey Hartman (ed.). New York : Columbia University Press, 1972, 41-84.

Keith, Jennifer. “‘Preromanticism’ and the end of eighteenth-century poetry.” In The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry. John Sitter (ed.). Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2001, 271-290.

Morris, David B. “A Poetry of Absence.” In The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry. John Sitter (ed.). Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2001, 225-248.

Neubauer, John. The Emancipation of Music from Language : Departure from Mimesis in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics. New Haven and London : Yale University Press, 1986.

Pottle, Frederick Albert. “The Eye and the Object in the Poetry of Wordsworth”, Yale Review, XL, 1950, 27-42.

Siskin, Clifford. “Personification and Community, Literary Change in the Mid and Late Eighteenth Century”, Eighteenth-Century Studies, XV, 4, 1982, 371-401.

Spitzer, Leo. Classical and Christian Ideas of World-Harmony : Prolegomena to an Interpretation of the Word Stimmung [1945]. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963.

Wat, Pierre. Naissance de l’art romantique : peinture et théorie de l’imitation. Paris : Flammarion, 1998.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society : Coleridge to Orwell [1958]. London : Hogarth, 1982.

Wood, Gillen D’Arcy. The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture 1760-1860. New York : Palgrave, 2001.

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1 Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Richard R. Trask, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1967.

2 John Hollander, “Wordsworth and the Music of Sound”, in New Perspectives on Coleridge and Wordsworth: Selected Papers from the English Institute, ed. Geoffrey Hartma,. New York, Columbia University Press, 1972, p. 41-84.

3 Leo Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World-Harmony: Prolegomena to an Interpretation of the Word Stimmung, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963.

4 John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry 1500-1700, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1961.

5 Leo Spitzer, op. cit., p. 76.

6 In the words of Clifford Siskin, “Personification and Community, Literary Change in the Mid and Late Eighteenth Century”, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 15.4, 1982, p. 371-401.

7 Raymond Williams, Culture and Society: Coleridge to Orwell, London, Hogarth, 1982. Chapter 2, “The Romantic Artist”, focuses on the change in the poet’s role in Blake’s lifetime (1757-1827); quotations are taken from this chapter, p. 30-48.

8 David B. Morris, “A Poetry of Absence”, in The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry, ed. John Sitter, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 225-248.

9 In his poem “The Tables Turned” (1798): “Sweet is the lore which Nature brings/Our meddling intellect/Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:-/We murder to dissect.” (l. 25-28)

10 Marshall Brown, Preromanticism, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 102.

11 Jennifer Keith, “‘Preromanticism’ and the Ends of Eighteenth-Century Poetry”, in The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry, ed. John Sitter, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 271-290.

12 Pierre Wat, Naissance de l’art romantique : peinture et théorie de l’imitation, Paris, Flammarion, 1998, Chapter 2, « La nature comme symbole ».

13 Frederick Albert Pottle, “The Eye and the Object in the Poetry of Wordsworth”, Yale Review, XL, 1950, p. 27-42.

14 Gillen D’Arcy Wood, The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture 1760-1860, New York, Palgrave, 2001. The author demonstrates that the romantic period offered better access to the theatre, the opera, panoramas, the printed word, due to an enlarged reading public and improvements in technology. Wood studies the impact of these technological and social changes on sensation, especially the visual appreciation of the world.

15 Francis Claudon, La Musique des Romantiques, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1992, p. 274.

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Claire Téchené, « On the Use and Representations of Sound in British Pre-Romantic and Romantic Poetry, or “On The Power of Sound” »Études Épistémè, 29 | 2016, 13.

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Claire Téchené, « On the Use and Representations of Sound in British Pre-Romantic and Romantic Poetry, or “On The Power of Sound” »Études Épistémè [En ligne], 29 | 2016, mis en ligne le 16 juin 2016, consulté le 22 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Claire Téchené

Claire Téchené enseigne l’anglais de spécialité pour les masters d’histoire, d’histoire de l’art et d’archéologie à l’université Lumière Lyon 2. Sa thèse (2011) portait sur les métaphores musicales dans la poésie romantique britannique et les relations entre poésie et musique à la période romantique. Sa dernière publication sur ce sujet portait sur les sensations et les descriptions de sons musicaux : « Musical descriptions and sensations : the presence of music in English Romantic poetry », Études anglaises, 2014/4 (vol. 67), « Text and Music in Early Modern England » p. 470-483.

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