Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Textualizing of Sound: Romantic-Period Pseudo-Songs

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Textualizing of Sound: Romantic-Period Pseudo-Songs

Article excerpt

The growth and technological transformation of printing and typography in the nineteenth century included a sort of synesthetic imperialism in print. For example, in 1810, Thomas Moore prefixed to one volume of Irish Melodies a prefatory letter (called, in later editions, "Prefatory Letter on Music") in which he wrote, "though much has been said of the antiquity of our music, it is certain that our finest and most popular airs are modern" (1), and he called attention to the new scores by Sir John Stevenson that accompany his verses in the 1810 printing of Irish Melodies. Though Moore wrote "with respect to the verses which I have written for these Melodies,... they are intended rather to be sung than read" (3), from 1822 onward he published the verses as a collection of poems with no music whatsoever. The project entitled "Irish Melodies" culminates in the deletion of music altogether, while the typographical simulation of it was mass-produced. With or without Moore's intention or wishes (and I think it was without), typography took over the project. The medium of print extirpated the antecedent medium of sound while exploiting its illusion.

Similarly, but five years earlier, in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Sir Walter Scott had printed the verbal text of "lays, 'steeped in the stream of harmony'," although no harmony or melody or music of any sort were included (1802, xci). Another indication of the popularity of the nostalgic and folkloric theme, in the typographical culture of the period, is that Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan) had published Twelve Original Hibernian Melodies in 1805, three years after Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, and her The Lay of an Irish Harp; Or, Metrical Fragments and Patriotic Sketches of Ireland appeared in 1807, in the same year in which Moore published the first part of Irish Melodies.

Typographically reproducible words are of course not really "melodies," though poets, editors, and publishers exploit the metonymic relationship of typographical products to sounds. Like paper money (also a typographical development of the same period, but a more controversial and less charming one (1)), ballads, lays, melodies, and songs proliferated in signs and symbols as they disappeared in fact.

In obvious ways, this metonymic surrogation of sound is not new: from the earliest written record of an Old English song, Caedmon's hymn, onward, in English poetry scripts were never really sounds though their scriptorial avatars said and say that they are--what exists is not the song of the shepherd Caedmon from the occasion of the bir-scippe, from which he hid because he feared he could not sing, until an angel endowed him with the gift of sacred song, but rather what exists is a scribal transcription of the Venerable Bede's verbal record, in Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, with Bede's Latin surrounding the Old English verses that he attributed to a shepherd named Caedmon who was already only a character in a written work. Outside Bede's narrative (in Latin), there is no indication that Caedmon ever existed, though the charming story of the bashful but pious shepherd gifted with song by an angel has been reproduced for centuries.

In all odes, in the fictitious singing of ancient and Early Modern pastoral poetry, the songs of Petrarch, the Piper's Songs of Innocence and the Bard's Songs of Experience, the Lyrical Ballads, Byron's Hebrew Melodies, Scott's "Lay of the Last Minstrel," and, among the vestiges of ancient poetry, the Song of Solomon, Psalms, and the pseudo-songs of Moschus, Bion, Theocritus, Anacreon (translated into English poetry by Thomas Moore), that which is script or typography is presented as if it were sound, of which it is at most a prescription (like a printed score) or a lexical imitation, like Moore's poems.

In the Romantic period, however, the typographical simulation of sound grows rapidly, and changes in this age of mechanical reproduction. …

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