Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Arcadian Ineloquence: Losing Voice in the Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Arcadian Ineloquence: Losing Voice in the Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia

Article excerpt

Speakers and singers in Philip Sidney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia are constantly losing control of their own voices: poems and songs are interrupted by sobs and sighs, and words, as volatile physical sounds, manage to escape the confines of their intended acoustic environment, becoming subject to overhearing and repetition. Recent scholarship on the voice in early modern literature has tended to emphasize the threat that the unstable medium of embodied vocal sound might pose to masculinity or, more broadly, to the logocentric, patriarchal order. However, in the case of Sidney's Arcadia, the alienability of the voice is often precisely what endows it with oratorical power and what enables it to become a site for the performance of elite, homosocial intimacy. Focusing on Cleophila's sonnet in book i of the Old Arcadia (the first sung poem in Sidney's romance), I examine how representations of vocal estrangement mediate larger issues and anxieties concerning poetic circulation. I argue that within the imagined community of coterie publication, the failure of a speaker to maintain strict control of his utterance does not threaten but, rather, signals and affirms the system of elite poetic exchange as a site for the meaningful performance of (male) social belonging. This managed loss of voice, I maintain, stands in marked contrast to what the alienated voice comes to mean once Sidney's texts travel beyond their originally intended audiences, and so the article concludes by looking at how non-elite readers might have encountered Cleophila's sonnet in the version that appeared in print.

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THROUGHOUT Philip Sidney's Old Arcadia (ca. 1580) speakers and singers are stricken with vocal incapacity almost as often as they are admired for the sweetness and fluidity of their utterances. Pyrocles's speech in praise of solitude in book 1, for example, "beginning with two or three broken sighs," seems doomed to failure from the outset. As the prince speaks, Musidorus witnesses his companion's eyes sometimes even great with tears, the oft changing of his colour, with a kind of shaking unstaidness over all his body, ... his words interrupted continually with sighs which served as a burden to each sentence, and the tenor of his speech (though of his wonted phrase) not knit together to one constant end but rather dissolved in itself, as the vehemency of the inward passion prevailed. (1)

Similarly, when Pyrocles (disguised as the Amazon Cleophila) reveals his identity to Philoclea, she is rendered temporarily mute by "a shrugging kind of tremor through all her principal parts" before finally managing to complain "how painful a thing it is to a divided mind to make a well joined answer" (O 106). Pyrocles's voice ultimately fails him altogether when, after a trembling first attempt at explaining away his apparent infidelity to Philoclea "with quaking lips," he "suffered grief so to close his heart that his breath failing him, with a deathful shutting of his eyes, he fell down at her bedside, having had time to say no more but, 'Oh, whom dost thou kill, Philoclea?'" (O 205-6). Likewise, in the revised Arcadia, Zelmane's "methodized oration" breaks down when "her breast swelled so with spite and grief, that her breath had not leisure to turn itself into words." (2) Nor are the more ordered oral genres of singing and poetry recitation immune to the various kinds of vocal disorder that afflict speakers in Arcadia. Just as Pyrocles's oratorical body betrays its master, revealing the love he is attempting to conceal from his friend, the force of Musidorus's own passion disrupts the song he sings for Pamela, which is "oftentimes broken off in the midst with grievous sighs which overtook every verse he sang" (O 87). Likewise, when Cleophila retires to a cave to lament her unrequited love in song, the fluctuations of her unstable singing body perform the part of a lute or viol: "[i]nstead of an instrument, her song was accompanied with the wringing of hands, the closing of her weary eyes, and even sometimes cut off with the swelling of her sighs, which did not suffer the voice to have his free and native passage" (O 158). …

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