Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Perchance My Hand May Touch the Lyre": Orality and Textuality in Nineteenth-Century Deaf Poetry

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Perchance My Hand May Touch the Lyre": Orality and Textuality in Nineteenth-Century Deaf Poetry

Article excerpt

In his book The Lost Senses: Deafness and Blindness (1845), deaf (1 British writer and missionary John Kitto declares that deaf people cannot write poetry. Kitto argues, "For want of hearing others speak, it is next to impossible that [a deaf person] should have that knowledge of quantity and rhyme which is essential to harmonious verse." (2) However, after explaining this personal disqualification, Kitto provides specimens of his own verse to demonstrate his attempt at "the tuneful art" (1:171). Kitto suggests that "if the reader can discover the formal errors-the bad rhymes--the halting, hopping, stumping feet-which I am unable to detect, then my proposition is demonstrated; but if he can make no such discoveries, it must then be admitted with some qualification" (1:171). While Kitto's poetry provides evidence of his poetic ability, his preface exposes his anxieties about writing in a genre that he believed required the ability to hear. Kitto's strange vacillation between declaring the impossibility of a deaf poet and demonstrating the viability of his own poetry reflects the complicated position inhabited by a nineteenth-century deaf poet writing in English.

Kitto, like all other nineteenth-century poets, both hearing and deaf, was facing a cultural climate that linked written poetry with orality, especially in terms of formal features including rhythm and rhyme. Kitto was not the only deaf poet who felt ambivalent about participating in a genre tied to sound and speech: about a dozen American and British deaf poets, who used signed languages or fingerspelling to communicate, published one or more volumes of work during the Victorian period. These deaf poets often acknowledged that their position was contradictory in a cultural paradigm that invested poetry with a special relationship to aurality and orality. This essay will investigate how these nineteenth-century deaf poets balanced cultural beliefs about the primacy of sound to poetry with their own desire to sever hearing ability from poetic ability and will explore what this tension reveals about nineteenth-century perceptions of the relation between sound and poetry. By considering both the formal conventionalism and the thematic radicalism of their constructions of sound in poetry, I will argue that these poets mobilized the tension between sound and deafness. This essay will posit that nineteenth-century deaf poets ambivalently maintained an idea of "vocality" in their poetry while underscoring how that imagined "voice" was a silent construct of print. My argument about nineteenth-century deaf poetry also intervenes in contemporary critical conversations about sound in poetry because deaf poetry disrupts any model of poetry that imagines sound as essential to poetic craft and consumption.

Despite the potential barriers to deaf poetic production, poetry was a valued element of nineteenth-century deaf culture. Important events in the deaf community, including deaf school graduations, for instance, were commemorated with poems written and signed by pupils. (3) Furthermore, the vast network of periodicals created by and for deaf people, including the widely circulated deaf school newspapers known as the Little Paper Family, (4) published poetry by deaf writers in monthly poetry columns. The nineteenth-century poets I will examine were all heavily involved with this culture of deaf poetry. They constitute what I will propose is the canon of nineteenth-century deaf poetry in English from the 1830s to the 1890s. While these poets had diverse class, gender, national, racial, educational, audiological, and historical experiences, in this essay I focus on the one important quality they shared: a concern that their deafness might preclude poetic achievement. (5) For example, early poets like Kitto (1804-1854) (6) and American poets John Burnet (1808-1874) (7) and James Nack (1809-1879) (8) did not have deaf forebears to validate their desire to write poetry. …

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