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Onomatopoeia, Interiority, and Incorporation.


A LARGELY UNNOTICED VOLUME PUBLISHED IN 1832 APPEARS TO HAVE been the first work on birds to include nonce-transcriptions of their calls as an aid to identification. This adaptation of an ancient poetic technique for the purposes of natural history and pedagogy remains familiar today in birders' field guides and in stories and verse for children. (2) As well as seeing the first syllabic representation of birdsong in a work of natural history, the first half of the nineteenth century was also the period when teaching animal sounds became a function of children's literature. (3) The L832 volume was titled The Minstrelsy of the Woods, or Sketches and Songs Connected with the Natural History of... British and Foreign Birds; it combines the two genres, since it is explicitly addressed to young readers, both in its dedication to the anonymous author's "beloved young relatives" and in the introductory poem "To my Brother's Children." The book's introduction states its debt to Thomas Bewick's History of British Birds (1797-1804) and to Georges Cuvier's The Animal Kingdom (published 1807 as Le Regne Animal). Cuvier and Bewick are indeed major sources for the Minstrelsy's descriptions of birds' appearance and habit; it also draws from them fundamental principles of organization. The basic object of study in the Minstrelsy, as in Bewick and Cuvier, is the species, and the work's aim is to teach its readers to identify the species of birds they encounter in the wild. Its organization is thus modeled on that which Bewick made standard for field guides to this day, with the work being divided into sections grouping birds by families, and within these sections a chapter devoted to each species.

To the taxonomic markers of habit, plumage, and so forth that it adopts from Bewick and Cuvier, the Minstrelsy adds phonetic transcriptions of birdcalls. In some cases these transcriptions are traditional, as when the cry of the tawny owl is described as "well imitated by the syllables tee-whit or too-whit, and the hollow shuddering kind of note too-whoo." (4) The book's title points two ways; as well as a handbook on identifying birds by their song, it is also a miscellany of poetry about birds. While it includes long passages from other poets including James Thomson and Charlotte Smith, much of the Minstrelsy's poetry is original. Each of the birds it treats has a poem dedicated to it, in many of which the birds speak for themselves, with the syllabic transcription of their songs making a refrain. Thus, "The Song of the Wood-Grouse":
You must look for me
On my mountain tree,
Where the hardy pine uncultured grows,
Where the foaming torrent wildly flows,
There look for me,
On my mountain tree,
With my clarion note he-de-he-de-he. (5)

There may be earlier texts to use phonetic transcriptions of birdcalls as species markers, though I have not found any; I suggest in any case that in its assumption that animals of a given species always say the same thing, and its setting of their utterance in verse, Minstrelsy is an artifact of its historical moment.


We know the poetic technique employed by the Minstrelsy as onomatopoeia, and this essay will consider two different kinds of animal onomatopoeia in Romantic poetry. In the examples to be discussed, I will argue that onomatopoeia is treated as a poetic error, incorporating animal utterance in the poem only to reject it, or to make the animal itself an object of sacrifice.

Onomatopoeia's foundational theorist was Quintilian, in whose late first century Institutio Oratoria the term refers--as its etymology implies--to any new creation of a word. The examples Quintilian gives, however, are all of what would be termed onomatopoeias in our time, words coined to refer to a sound while also mimicking it: they are " mugitus, lowing, sibilus, a hiss, and murmur." (6) For the Elizabethan rhetorician George Puttenham, onomatopoeia is "the New namer"; (7) Puttenham is explicit that the newly-minted word should be "consonant" to the nature of its object, and gives a list of onomatopoeic representations of sounds as illustrations: "as the poet Virgil said of the sounding of a trumpet, ta-ra-tant, taratantara, or as we give special names to the voices of dombe beasts, as to say, a horse neigheth, a lion brayes, a swine grunts, a hen cackleth, a dogge howles, and a hundred mo. (8)

It is the trope of onomatopoeia in this sense that the Minstrelsy adapts from poetry to the purposes of natural history. As Puttenham implies, animals whose calls are rendered by onomatopoeia are viewed as "dumb"; that is to say capable only of making sounds that can be named or mimicked, not of uttering speech that might be translated. In its use of onomatopoeia, the Minstrelsy makes an instructive contrast with one of its sources, Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne. This work, first published in 1788 (dated 1789), reached a third edition in 1827. White was deeply interested in birdcalls, noting for instance the keys in which owl and cuckoo calls were pitched in his parish. (9) He represents birds throughout as conversing in a "language" which, he writes, "is very ancient, and... very elliptical; little is said, but much is meant and understood." (10) At no point in his work does he give syllabic transcriptions of their song.

In what follows, I will view onomatopoeia as a trope that incorporates the utterances of non-human animals into language while also rendering them mute. Either by transcribing an animal call in nonce-syllables--such as "he-de-he-de-he"--or by giving it a name, as in the examples above from Quintilian and Puttenham, (11) onomatopoeia incorporates animal sounds into human speech, while excluding any possibility that they might belong to language in their own right. In this view, the long history of onomatopoeia in poetry and--more recently--in nature-writing constitutes a counter-tradition to the equally long history of beast-fables and satyr-plays that have endowed animals with language.

Both traditions are represented in Romantic-era literature; (12) I begin however with texts from slightly later that stage the contradiction between them. This is the case with the Minstrelsy, which indulges a taxonomist's dream by having the birds step forth to describe in words their own wordless song. The contradiction between representations of non-human animals as speaking and as non-speaking is still more acute in Lewis Carroll's Alice books, where Jacques Derrida aligns it with what he takes to be the contrast between poetic and philosophical views of the animal. At the end of Through the Looking Glass, when the newly-awakened Alice asks her kitten whether it had a role in her dream, she gets no answer: it only purrs. "It is a very inconvenient habit of kittens... that, whatever you say to them, they always purr," writes Carroll, and goes on to ask, "how can you talk with a person if they always say the same thing?" (13) Derrida identifies the prose realm to which Alice awakes at the end of her dream with philosophy: Carroll's complaint about the kitten, he breezily notes, is "exactly like Descartes." (14) In dreams and in poetry, though, Carroll and Derrida both imply, the animals can speak; for the latter, "thinking concerning the animal," while excluded from philosophy, "derives from poetry [la pensee de l'animal, si il y'en a, revient a la poesie]." (15)

The first animal to speak in Carroll's Alice books is the white Rabbit--who says "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late" as he hurries by on his way to a rabbit hole. Alice does not think his utterance is anything "very remarkable"; only when the Rabbit takes "a watch out of his waist-coat pocket" and looks at it before hurrying on does she start to her feet and follow down the hole to Wonderland. (16) The talking animal is one who doesn't know the time, and we will see that this conjunction in Carroll obeys a logic previously established by poetry. To understand this logic, let me recall Descartes, who does not in fact quite say that an animal always says the same thing. Rather he argues that animal utterance is automatic, unlike that of human beings, which he takes to be the expression of rational thought:
And speech must not be confused with the natural movements that are
signs of passion and can be imitated by machines as well as by animals;
neither must one imagine, as did certain of the ancients, that animals
speak, although we do not understand their language. For if that were
true, they would be able to make themselves understood by us as well as
by members of their species, since they have many organs that
correspond to ours. (17)

The philosopher's repeated analogy in his discussion of the animal's automatism is between its action and that of a clock; here is the most extended version of this analogy:
I know that animals do many things better than we do, but this does not
surprise me. It can even be used to prove that they act naturally and
mechanically, like a clock which tells time better than our judgment
does. Doubtless when the swallows come in spring, they operate like
clocks. The actions of honey bees are of the same nature, and of cranes
in flight. (18)

Descartes's examples of animal automatism--the swallows returning in

spring, the bees' labor, and the calls of cranes in flight--all refer to well-established poetic topoi. (19) Far from differentiating philosophy from poetry, Descartes's examples of animal behavior have a specifically poetic origin.


Since ancient times, poetry has used onomatopoeia to stereotype animal calls, especially bird songs, and has observed the synchronization of their behavior with the hour and the season. Onomatopoeic representations of bird song are especially common in late medieval and early modern poetry--as in the Middle English round "Sumer is icumen in, / Lhude sing cuccu!" which reentered the canon in 1801 with the second edition of Ellis's Specimens of the Early English Poets. (20) In Elizabethan lyric, the cuckoo, the cock crowing at daybreak, and the nocturnal owl are stock figures. Two of them are paired at the end of Shakespeare's Love's Labor's Lost, in songs contrasting "Hiems, Winter" and "Ver, the Spring; the one side maintained by the owl, th' other by the cuckoo" (5.2.891-93). This song is also an example of the characteristically Elizabethan device of making the formula for a bird's song into a pun, by which it is arbitrarily endowed with meaning: The owl's "tu-whit, tu who" thus sums up the play's theme: to wit, to woo; while the cuckoo's song hails the cuckold, becoming a "word of fear, / Unpleasing to a married ear!" (5.2.901-2). (21)

This poetic tradition is eclipsed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but reappears in new contexts during the nineteenth. As we have seen, poetry for children takes on the function of teaching stereotyped versions of animal sounds. Works of natural history begin to use syllabic transcriptions, especially of birdcalls, as a taxonomic device; this way of identifying birds presumes that, as Carroll said of kittens, they are animals who always say the same thing. The revival of lyrics that record birdcalls and use animals to mark time was not limited to the nursery and the field guide. Other genres of poetry recover the convention to define themselves by contrast with animals' supposed character as automata and mimics. The device of punning on the bird's song and the convention of treating it as a natural clock or calendar both reappear as objects of parody in a poem from 1830 where Alfred Tennyson rewrites Shakespeare's song from Love's Labor's Lost. Like its model, Tennyson's song has two parts. In the first, the owl sits silent as the cock crows and the day begins; in the second the poet recalls the owl's nocturnal call, which neither part of the poem directly reproduces. The inability to do so is the second song's topic:
Thy tuwhits are lulled, I wot,
Thy tuwhoos of yesternight,
Which upon the dark afloat,
So took echo with delight,
So took echo with delight,
That her voice untuneful grown,
Wears all day a fainter tone.

I would mock thy chaunt anew;
But I cannot mimick it;
Not a whit of thy tuwhoo,
Thee to woo to thy tuwhit,
Thee to woo to thy tuwhit,
With a lengthened loud halloo,
Tuwhoo, tuwhit, tuwhit, tuwhoo-o-o.

("Second Song. To the Same," 1-14) (22)

Even as it echoes Shakespeare and repeats his pun, Tennyson's poem disavows echo and breaks the identity between language and the cry of the owl on which the pun depends. "Thy tuwhit" becomes only the name of the owl's call, rather than a representation or echo of it.

Slight as it is, this jokey piece of Tennysonian ephemera belongs at the center of a certain nineteenth century poetic canon. For in the form of a Shakespearean song it revisits the topic and some of the key terms of one of Wordsworth's best-known autobiographical poems, eventually incorporated into The Prelude, but published separately in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads as "There was a boy." (23) In this poem, Wordsworth describes how a child in the Lake District--a version of himself--at night, by the water, "with fingers interwoven, both hands / Press'd closely palm to palm and to his mouth / Uplifted... / Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls / That they might answer him" (7-11). At first the owls answer his call, "With quivering peals, / And long halloos" which are "redoubled and redoubled" by echoes across the water (13-15). But sometimes pauses of silence "mock'd his skill" (17)--and, at those moments, the boy would experience an access of consciousness--"a gentle shock of mild surprise" that would carry awareness of himself and his surroundings deep into his heart (19). In this access of consciousness, there is also an intimation of mortality--for the poem goes on to tell us of the boy's death "when he was ten years old" (32). As Paul de Man notes, the adult poet, who stands "mute" over the boy's grave, is a double of the silent boy, waiting in silence by the lake for an answer from the owls; (24) the poem is thus legible as a parable of the poet's coming into being through the contemplation of death, in a moment of rupture with the animal world.

By combining in a single text allusions to Shakespeare's song and to Wordsworth's narrative, Tennyson's poem rewrites this parable and shifts its setting from the life of the individual to the history of poetry. In his version, when Shakespeare's stereotyped "tu-whit, tu whoo"--which does not appear in "There was a boy"--fails to mimic the owl, the poem stages its own specifically linguistic character, recalling the Elizabethan identification of poetry and bird song only to make a break with it. Further, by making this break in a mash-up of Shakespeare and Wordsworth, Tennyson implies that his poem's relation to early modern lyric is not unique, but rather characteristic of his own period in literary history, with Wordsworth chosen as its exemplary figure.

Let me for a moment take Tennyson's parody seriously as a guide to the relation between Wordsworthian lyric and its models. Although the model for the Lyrical Ballads was ostensibly to be found in the printed and oral ballad traditions, there are few examples to be found there of bird song. The nightingale's jug-jug, the cuckoo's song, and the owl's tu-whit-tu-woo, all to be found in Wordsworth and Coleridge's collection, come from early modern lyric, and there is evidence that in their dialogue as they assembled their collection, the two poets had these conventional representations of bird song on their minds as a kind of running joke. In the spring of 1798, about a year before the likely date of "There was a boy," Wordsworth wrote "The Idiot Boy," a poem whose narrative opens with the "lonely shout, / Halloo! Halloo!" of the young owl (5-6); the owls' calls accompany the entire story of Johnny's midnight ride, whose happy conclusion the narrator introduces by summing up: "The owls have hooted all night long, / And with the owls began my song, / And with the owls must end" (444-46). The last word, however, belongs to Johnny himself, who tells what has happened to him in only two lines: "The cocks did crow tu-whoo, tu-whoo, / And the sun did shine so cold" (460-61). Johnny's narration of his adventures both repeats and parodies the stereotyped representation of the owl's cry, along with its traditional time-telling function; as he transposes the names of the cock and the owl, Johnny also reverses night and day. In this poem too, as in "There was a boy," the celebration of poetic power accompanies a mimetic or nominative failure. (25) The same serious joke appears at the opening of Coleridge's "Christabel," written around the same time as "The Idiot Boy." (26) This passage displays a mimetic excess that like Johnny's narrative has the effect of prying apart the links between a bird, the stock representation of its call, and the time of day or night: "Tis the middle of the night by the castle clock, / And the owls have awakened the crowing cock; / Tu-whit!--Tu-whoo! / And hark, again! The crowing cock, / How drowsily it crew." (27)

A chain of allusions to cocks crowing at the wrong time stretches out from "Christabel" into later poetry. Walter Scott's version of "Clerk Saunders" in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders has the cocks crowing at midnight (stanza 21), in a line that Tennyson acknowledged as a source for the cock's crowing "an hour ere light" in "Mariana" (27). (28) We also find other reworkings of the matter of "There was a Boy" contemporaneous with Tennyson's. For instance, a sonnet by John Clare, published in the Englishman's Magazine in August 1831, also uses stock representations of birdcalls to pry apart their attachment to a single type of bird or time or place. Here a boy mistakes the black-cap's song for the nightingale's, leading him to wonder if May has come in March:
the Blackcap doth his ears assail
With such a rich and such an early song
He stops his own and thinks the nightingale
Hath of her monthly reckoning counted wrong
'Sweet jug jug jug' comes loud upon his ear
Those sounds that unto may by right belong
Yet in the [h]awthorn scarce a leaf appears
How can it be--spell struck the wondering boy
Listens again--again the sound he hears
And mocks it in his song for very joy.

("The March Nightingale," 5-14) (29)


For Keats, the connection of error with animals and with poetry is a recurrent theme. In a journal letter from the spring of 1819 he wonders how the "erroneous" reasonings of human beings would appear to a "superior being": "though erroneous they may be fine." This qualified fineness, he goes on, "is the very thing in which consists poetry; and if so it is not so fine a thing as philosophy--For the same reason that an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth." (30) On one side of the binaries organizing this passage lie philosophy and truth; on the other are the half-truths of poetry and animals. In the spring odes of 1819, contemporaneous with this letter, Keats picks up the topic of the animal voice that sounds at the wrong time from the earlier Romantics, though his more subjective poetics tends to transform the animal's error into an error of its hearer.

Neither in the odes nor elsewhere in his poetry does Keats write out syllabic transcriptions of animal utterances, like those Wordsworth and Coleridge revive from Renaissance lyric. His work, however, is rich in onomatopoeia; as we will see two of the odes turn on canonical examples of the genre taken from Quintilian: "murmur" and "low." In "To Autumn" Keats develops techniques from late eighteenth-century works such as Collins's "Ode to Evening" and Gray's "Elegy." Like the earlier Romantics, though, Keats adopts a critical relation to his models. Where for Wordsworth and Coleridge animal voices are excluded from poetry, in Keats they are incorporated under what we will see to be the sign of melancholy.

The "Ode to a Nightingale" has birdsong as its occasion, and the temporal dislocation the song induces is one of its major topics. The poem is framed by inextricable confusions of day with night and waking with sleeping. It is set in the springtime month of May, when the nightingale arrives, but the bird sings "of" summer (10), and its song precipitates in the poet a reverie on the coming summer flowers, concluding with the "musk rose, full of dewy wine, / The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves" (49-50)." This line, unlike any of the references to the nightingale's song itself, mimics the sound to which it refers. The poem's recourse to onomatopoeia occurs at the moment where it represents the poet as most thoroughly transported by the nightingale's song, a moment corresponding to the "false surmise" of grieving nature that Milton summons up and then rejects in the form of a flower catalogue in "Lycidas."

Onomatopoeia marks an even more categorical poetic error in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Since the ode is addressed to a silent artifact and takes silence in the form of negation--as in unheard melodies--as a major topic, the representation of a voice makes a major break in its decorum. As with the "Ode to a Nightingale" and its representation of summer, though, the dialectical logic of this poem eventually leads it to represent the very thing whose absence set it in motion. In the ode's penultimate stanza, the images on the urn are given, by means of rhetorical questions, the very thing that up to this point they, like the urn itself, have lacked--an origin and a destination: "To what green altar... ?" (32); "What little town... ?" (35). At this moment the poem's silence is broken, and Keats sums up the illusions about the urn that the poem has entertained--the illusions of consciousness, of change, of speech--in the onomatopoeic utterance of an animal: a heifer, "lowing at the skies" (33).

Even more markedly than the murmur of flies in the "Ode to a Nightingale," the heifer's low breaks into the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" as a violation of its conventions and functions to signal a deepening of illusion, a moment of maximal enchantment that precedes the poem's turn and its disenchanted close. In the last of Keats's odes, a similar turn away from illusion also constitutes the main drama and, as in the earlier odes though in a more complex way, this turn is mediated by animal sounds.

Keats wrote "To Autumn" on September 19, 1819, and more than any of his other writing it has affinities with the tradition of closely observed writing on English natural history inaugurated by Gilbert White in The Natural History of Selborne. The poem shows White's influence and that of the column on the calendar and rural life that Keats's friend and mentor Leigh Hunt published in his paper The Examiner. (32) A possible source for "To Autumn" is White's attention to what he calls the language of birds and to its social function around the time of migration:
We have, in the winter, vast flocks of the common linnets; more, I
think, than can be bred in any one district. These, I observe, when the
spring advances, assemble on some tree in the sunshine, and join all in
a gentle sort of chirping, as if they were about to break up their
winter quarters and betake them to their proper summer homes. It is
well known, at least, that the swallows and the fieldfares do
congregate with a gentle twittering before they make their respective
departure. (33)

Keats's swallows twittering in the skies as they gather to migrate echo White's, as more generally does the way "To Autumn" in its last stanza gives its animals, birds, and insects utterances proper to the time and season when they occur.

The poem's opening, however, represents animals that, like others we have seen in Romantic poetry, mistake the time. As in Keats's other odes, animals here appear as projections of a poetic false surmise, though here indeed the error is not even expressed in sound, but only imputed by the poem. The first stanza of "To Autumn" consists of an incomplete sentence apostrophizing Autumn as the "bosom-friend" of the sun. In spite of this apostrophe, though, the stanza's main point is that Autumn is difficult to recognize. She is veiled in mists, and even her sex is hard to determine: partnered with the presumably masculine sun, she appears to be a goddess of the harvest. But Keats's term "friend" is non-committal. Even more crucially, in the exceptionally warm September of 1819, in the first stanza of this ode addressed to her, Autumn does not appear as herself but as summer. Together with the sun she loads the trees with fruit and nuts, and sets "budding more, / And still more, later flowers for the bees, / Until they think warm days will never cease, / For summer has o'erbrimmed their clammy cells" (8-11). The bees' deception is another one of the animals' mistakes about time that I have argued open a space for poetry in Romantic and post-Romantic writing. Unlike other animals we have discussed, though, Keats's bees are silent. Rather than making a sound at the wrong time, the bees are endowed with thoughts about the wrong season.

Like the murmur of flies in the "Ode to a Nightingale" and the heifer's low in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," neither of which properly belongs in the poem where it appears, the bees' thought forms part of a fabric of illusion whose dissolution constitutes the poem's action. The entire first stanza consists of misrecognitions, among which autumn's appearance as an extended summer is only the most basic. Grammatically, the stanza is a sentence fragment that addresses autumn without telling or asking her anything, like an envelope without a letter inside. Together with the sun, she is personified as something like a divinity: the two of them collaborate, breathing together to shape the destinies of crops, animals, and human beings. Helen Vendler sees in them the hazy outlines of a "sky-god impregnating a goddess." (34)

But the poem's address to autumn as a goddess is no more to be relied on than the season's apparent offer of a perpetual supply of more and later flowers and fruits. In the second stanza the poem's work of demystification replaces the supposed divinity with representations of human beings. Now autumn appears in succession as a reaper, a thresher, a gleaner, and a cider-maker. Autumn in this stanza is not made by gods but by human labor. Like the divinities of the first stanza, however, the laborers of the second don't actually do anything. As generations of the poem's critics have observed, the stanza represents a thresher who doesn't thresh, a reaper who doesn't reap, and a gleaner and a cider-maker who are caught, motionless, respectively in mid-stride and between the last drops of cider falling from the press. (35) The poem's opening stanza, lacking a verb, shows Autumn and the sun conspiring to bring about a fruit harvest that, in the stanza's tenseless time, cannot occur. Though the second stanza has verbs, it nonetheless represents the harvest only under the sign of negation. In the motionless scenes the stanza shows us, the harvest is the thing that is not happening.

In the first two stanzas of "To Autumn," the personifications of the season conspire to hide it by presenting an autumn of endless warm days from which labor and even movement are excluded. More accurately, the trouble with the scenes where autumn appears in these stanzas is less what they exclude than a kind of excess in her self-presencing. Bringing surfeit and over-fullness, she is not recognized as herself. Personified as a reaper, she is unable to reap because the late-flowering poppies overcome her with their scent. At the end of the second stanza the cider-press crushes out the juice with which the fruit had been filled to bursting in the first, in a metapoetic moment that announces the poem's will to wring out its own figural excesses and confront autumn in its truth.

Of these excesses, the most important is the personification of autumn itself. This figure organizes the poem's first two stanzas and determines its genre as an ode. It provides the medium for the poem's rejection of theology as it shifts from a representation of the season as made by gods to one in which it is made by human beings. But in the last stanza, to experience autumn as actually present--in the "now" first specified in line 31--requires giving up the idea that the season is made at all, or that there is any agency responsible for it.

As it moves from its first to its second stanza, I have argued, the poem abandons its personification of autumn as a goddess and personifies her anew as a human being. In the course of the last stanza, though, it abandons personification altogether, and indeed more broadly the figure of metaphor that enables us to identify autumn as anything at all, whether human or divine. While the poem therefore does not represent autumn as animal, in its last stanza it does complete a trajectory begun with the shift from divine to human persons by representing an autumn scene populated only by non-human animals. These animals make sounds, breaking the silence that has prevailed in the poem until now, and replacing the static scenes which have hitherto been its object of representation with a soundscape constituted in time.

By making sound the medium in which autumn appears, Keats recognizes the season as an essentially temporal phenomenon. But why animal sounds? These animals don't sing out of time to announce a supernatural visitation or as part of a poetic reverie. The animal sounds that suffuse Keats's poem are of the Cartesian type: they mark time. They are all proper to a warm September evening in the south of England, (36) and their conjunction in Keats's soundscape endows it with a determinate location in time and space. Keats's animals function together as a clock, and he adopts the Cartesian model of animal behavior precisely because, as we have seen, the main point of the poem's final stanza is to produce a representation of autumn from which agency and thought have been emptied out. Nature here is observed with the eyes and ears of a natural historian, as the stanza suggests by its echoes of Gilbert White.

Though the sounds that the poem represents in its final stanza are all animal sounds, the nature in which these sounds occur is not one from which human beings are excluded. It is a nature that includes culture, though unlike the nature of the first two stanzas, it is not entirely given over to it. Human beings shape this landscape, raise animals and crops in it, and use them for food. This is the significance of the stubble-fields over which the sun sets. The flowers that overcame the reaper in stanza two are gone now, and the day's labor has been completed. Nonetheless, autumn's presence in this final stanza includes absence, for instance in the after-image of flowers in Keats's description of the fields and clouds at sunset: "barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day / And touch the stubble-field with rosy hue" (25-26).

The synthesis of antithetical pairs, like nature/culture and presence/absence, is indeed the governing formal principle of this representation of autumn. Its paradigmatic image is that of the gnats rising and falling on the intermittent breeze, "borne aloft / Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies" (28-29). Not only life and death come together in this liminal moment: the birdsong that suffuses it represents the final conjuncture of two species that the advancing year will separate. The swallows overhead are gathering to migrate, but the robins in the garden will remain to endure the winter. (17) The evanescence of Keats's autumn evening is the evanescence of the last moment in which these two songs will be heard together.

A similar but somewhat grimmer conjunction of opposites appears in Keats's soundscape with the reference to "full-grown lambs" that "loud bleat from hilly bourn" (30). The phrase "full-grown lambs" has sometimes been read as an oddly periphrastic reference to sheep. (38) In fact, however, it does not properly refer to a living animal at all, but to meat--or, given the plural, to animals destined for slaughter. In the annual cycle of sheep-herding, lambs are born in the spring. In flocks of dairy and wool sheep, which only require a small number of rams as sires, the superfluous males are normally slaughtered in the fall. (39) Their meat is consumed as "full-grown lamb"; outside Keats's poem, the phrase appears in the nineteenth century only in contexts informed by this practice. (4)" Its use here, in the plural, is a kind of catachresis, in which meat appears still on the hoof, at once bleating and bleeding.

By introducing into his representation of sheep herding this reference to its sacrificial logic, Keats differentiates his poem from pastoral, as he had also done by his references to reaping and to the grain harvest. I will return to the significance of this reference to sacrifice and to the consumption of meat below; before doing so let me note another instance in Keats's autumnal soundscape of apparently posthumous animal life. In lines I have already cited, Keats begins his catalog of autumn's sounds by referring to the gnats among the willows at the water's edge: "in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn / Among the river sallows" (27-28). Like "bleat," "twitter," "whistle," and probably even "sing" later in the stanza, the word "mourn" is an onomatopoeia, even though unlike them it does not name the act of making a sound. Unlike onomatopoeias in the narrow sense, where the mimetic and semantic functions coincide, in "mourn" they are split. Mimetically, the word represents the sound of gnats' wings in flight; semantically it refers to an affective state or psychic process. Even more acutely than other onomatopoeias, with its double reference "mourn" poses the problem of how an animal noise--the sound of gnats' wings--becomes a word.

I have read Keats's poem as dramatizing the depersonification of autumn; as it unfolds, its figures of the season as produced by divine or human agency are replaced by the representation of nature as an automaton. In the context of this reading it is impossible to take at face value the last stanza's endowment of its gnats with the capacity to mourn proleptically their own impending deaths. Like most of the poem's readers, I take the stanza's description of the autumn landscape and its dwellers to express a consciousness of the passage of time in the observing poet. The "bloom" of the soft-dying day on the stubble-fields at sunset appears in this reading as a projection of the poet's memory of actual blooms that had once been there. In this reading the gnats that "mourn" at evening would be an example of what John Ruskin was later in the century to call pathetic fallacy. But regardless of where we locate the mourning consciousness in this line, pathetic fallacy cannot be the sole determinant of "mourn." Rather, Keats's poem asserts, the word also functions as a transcription of the actual sound of the gnats' wings. Rising and falling with the wind rather than originating as a breath, the hum of the swarm in flight exemplifies the automatic, unconscious, and collective dimensions of animal life. But the word that represents it also signifies what philosophy for a long time took to be the most inward, profound, and characteristically human form of consciousness, the consciousness of death. (41) In poetry, as we saw, Wordsworth identifies this consciousness with a break between the human and the non-human animal. To interpret Keats's poem we should ask what principle links the two referents it attaches to the word "mourn."

That principle appears later in the passage: it is the principle of sacrifice. The analogy the poem supplies for reading in "mourn" at once a sound and a state of consciousness is that of seeing full-grown lambs at once as live animals and as meat. (42) The gnats themselves appear in "To Autumn" to serve as swallow-food. In this poem, to make an animal's life-process into a concept or into a word is to eat it. We know that it was written as Keats abandoned his ambition to write an epic on the Hyperion story. Some critics have seen it as a farewell to poetry in general, and Keats certainly wrote little or no verse after September 1819. If as I have argued "To Autumn" compares making poetry out of animals to eating them, it is a suggestive conjunction that on his return to London the month after the poem was written, he became a vegetarian. (43)


In this essay, my point of departure was the poetic origins of the philosophical and natural historical traditions in which the sounds animals make are understood as innate and automatic expressions of species-identity. Descartes's original examples--including the migration of swallows, the flight of cranes, and the social behavior of bees--show that his concept of animal automatism derives from poetry. The incorporation into philosophy of the poetic motif of animal automatism, and of poetic renditions of animal calls, seems in the nineteenth century to have motivated a poetic counter-tradition, in which animals fail to behave like automata and poets insist that they can't echo animal voices. This counter-tradition historically originated in the Romantic era, but it would be an error to identify it with Romanticism as such, which also includes much natural historical writing, including poems where the animals do not miss their proper time, and works, like many of Clare's bird poems, that contain elaborate phonetic renderings of animal sounds. As we have seen, "To Autumn," the last of Keats's odes, ends by representing a chorus of animal sounds, all heard at their right time and season. I have argued that here, the incorporation of animal automatism in poetry, rather than being the object of demystifying critique or mockery, occasions melancholy. Keats identifies animals that tell time with animals killed for food.

Along with many other allusions to Romantic poetry, Carroll includes in the Alice books a recollection of the gnats of "To Autumn." In Through the Looking Glass, as Alice travels by train towards the fourth square of the chessboard where the story unfolds, she becomes aware of "an extremely small voice, close to her ear." This voice belongs to a gnat, whose predominant characteristic is that it is "very unhappy," much of its speech being accompanied by sighing. (44) This unhappiness receives no explanation in Carroll's text; it is motivated by the recollection of Keats's onomatopoeic form of the sound of gnats in flight: "mourn."

Rather than explaining its unhappiness, the gnat's discourse is largely concerned with the two topics at issue in the last stanza of Keats's poem: naming and eating. In its survey of looking-glass insects the creatures the gnat describes turn out to be animated words (45)--typically, words for food. Alice is thus introduced to the snapdragon-fly--whose "body is made of plum pudding, its wings of holly-leaves," and whose "head is a raisin burning in brandy"--and to the Bread-and-Butterfly--"whose wings are thin slices of Bread-and-butter, its body... a crust, and its head... a lump of sugar." (46) Whereas in Keats the animal's becoming-language makes it into food, in Carroll's looking-glass world the transformation of words into animals makes them inedible: foodstuffs become insects. And as is very often the case in the Alice books, looking-glass insects are also jokes about what should be eaten and what shouldn't, and about who eats and who is eaten. As the novel vomits out the language of food in insect form, the words not only become inedible animals, but also starving ones: when she learns that the bread-and-butterfly requires weak tea with cream for food, Alice recognizes a difficulty:
"Suppose it couldn't find any?" she suggested.
"Then it would die, of course."
"But that must happen very often," Alice remarked thoughtfully.
"It always happens," said the Gnat. (47)

A full account of the Alice books and their claims about poetry would need to discuss their representations of food and animals, as well as of language, and to explain the system by which Carroll's narrative allows for any of these terms to be transformed into either of the others. Sometimes these transformations seem unremarkable--like the walrus and the carpenter's consumption of live oysters--and sometimes they are very strange, like the lobster's complaint that he has been baked too long. Such an account is beyond my scope here, but were it completed, it would bring into view a Victorian reading of Romanticism as a question of diet. (48) Alice--who is very much like some protagonists of the Lyrical Ballads--needs to be instructed in what she can eat and when. My readings have described two kinds of Romantic language. One, in Wordsworth and Coleridge, is characterized by the non-incorporation of animal voices. This language opens out an interior space to which the animal remains a stranger. The other, is identified with the onomatopoeic last stanza of Keats's "To Autumn," which incorporates the voices of non-human animals into human utterance. In so doing, it opens out an interior space that is alimentary as well as psychic.

Western University, Ontario, Canada


"Extracts from Diplomatic and Consular Reports: Glove Leather Industry in Austria." Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry 12 (1893): 386-87.

Bate, Jonathan. "Living with the Weather." Studies in Romanticism 35, no. 3 (Fall 1996): 227-50.

Benjamin, Walter. "On Language as Such and the Language of Man." In Selected Writings Vol. 1, 1913-26, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, 62-74. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

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Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Translated by David Wills. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

--. '"Eating Well,' or the Calculation of the Subject." In Wlw Comes after the Subject? edited by Peter Connor, Eduardo Cadava, and Jean-Luc Nancy, 96-119. New York and London: Routledge, 1991.

Descartes, Rene. A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One's Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. Translated by Ian Maclean. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

--. Philosophical Letters. Translated by Anthony Kenny. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970.

Eagleton, Terry. "The Politics of the Image." CQ 54, no. 1 (2012): 26-34.

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Griggs, Jack. American Bird Conservancy's Field Guide to All the Birds of North America. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.

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--. The Poems of John Keats. Edited by Jack Stillinger. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

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Milligan, William. "The Easter Controversies of the Second Century, in Their Relation to the Gospel of St. John." Contemporary Review 6 (1867): 102-18.

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(1.) Over a longer period than I care to mention, many readers and auditors of this piece have been generous with their comments and suggestions. In particular, Peter Schwenger and Alan Bewell read early drafts and were kind enough to comment at length. And in the course of the final process of submission to SiR, Charles J. Rzepka asked me a question about onomatopoeia that showed me, belatedly, what I was actually working on.

(2.) An example from a field guide to hand represents the yellow-billed cuckoo's song as follows: " Kakakakaka-kow-kow-kow-kow-kowp-kowp-kowp, guttural call; starting fast, slowing at end." See Jack Griggs, American Bird Conservancy's Field Guide to All the Birds of North America (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 104.

(3.) The paradigm for this literature is a nursery rhyme:
Bow, wow, says the dog;
Mew, mew, says the cat;
Grunt, grunt, goes the hog;
And squeak goes the rat.

Tu whu, says the owl;
Caw, caw, says the crow;
Quack, quack, says the duck;
And what sparrows say, you know.

The earliest publication of this rhyme I have found is in James Burns, Nursery Rhymes, Tales, and Jingles (London, 1844), 66. Dickens refers to it in 1865 in Book 3, Chapter 15 of Our Mutual Friend.

(4.) S. Waring [?], Minstrelsy of the Woods; or, Sketches and Songs Connected with the Natural History of Some of the Most Interesting British and Foreign Birds (London: Harvey & Darton, Gracechurch St., 1832), 27. Author identification from the British Library catalogue.

(5.) Minstrelsy, 184.

(6.) Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, trans. H. E. Butler (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1920), 6.6.31.

(7.) Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie (London: Constable and Co., 1906); Facsimile ed. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1970), 192.

(8.) Puttenham, Arte of English Poesie, 192.

(9.) White, The Natural History of Selborne (London: Penguin, 1977), 134-35.

(10.) White, The Natural History of Selborne, 216.

(11.) I will also later in the essay discuss onomatopoeias of what the nineteenth-century classicist Harry Thurston Peck termed a "higher type," where lines of verse imitate a sound without necessarily directly naming it. "Onomatopoeia of a higher type than mere word-making is found in literature, where the poets, especially, often make the sound of their lines harmonize with the sense most effectively. Homer is rich in such verses." Peck goes on to give examples where the Iliad imitates the falling of the sea (1:34), and the galloping of horses (10:535). This effect is, he claims, surpassed by Virgil in the Aeneid (8:596); Virgil also imitates the sound of Cyclopes at the forge in Georgics 4:174. See Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898), s.v. "Onomatopoeia," in Perseus Collection: Greek and Roman Materials,, accessed November 25, 2016. Effects of this kind became fashionable in English poetry in the eighteenth century, perhaps as a result of Pope's dictum in the Essay on Criticism that in poetry, "The sound must seem an echo to the sense" (2:365). The Essay itself goes on to give examples: "But when loud surges lash the sounding shore, / The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar" (2:368-69). Poets later in the century used the technique to mimic animal sounds, as in Collins's "Ode to Evening" where "The beetle winds / His small but sullen Horn" (lines 11-12) and Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," where "From yonder ivy-mantled tow'r / The mopeing owl does to the moon complain" (lines 9-10). The critique of this technique mounted in Keats's "To Autumn" will be discussed below.

(12.) Talking animals are, however, surprisingly infrequent. Some exceptions prove the rule: Anna Barbauld's "The Mouse's Petition," Robert Burns's "Death And Dying Words Of Poor Mailie, The Author's Only Pet Yowe," Sarah Trimmer's History of the Robins, and the chorus of swine in Percy Shelley's Swcllfoot the Tyrant are all in different ways anomalous. On the contrast between animals' silence and the speech of inanimate nature in Wordsworth, see Christine Kenyon-Jones, Kindred Brutes: Animals in Romantic-Period Writing (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 144-47.

(13.) Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (Harmonds-worth: Penguin, 1962), 344.

(14.) Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 8.

(15.) Derrida, The Animal That Therefore J Am, 8.

(16.) Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, 24.

(17.) Rene Descartes, A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One's Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, trans. Ian Maclean (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 47-48.

(18.) Rene Descartes, Philosophical Letters, trans. Anthony Kenny (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), 207.

(19.) For the swallow, see Pervigilium Veneris, line 90. The bees' labor and the conversation of cranes in flight provide matter for epic similes in both the Iliad and the Aeneid; for the bees, see Iliad 2:87 and Aeneid 1:430-36, and for the crane, see Iliad 3:2-6 and Aeneid 10:264-69. Virgil treats the natural history of bees at length in Georgics 4:149-314.

(20.) George F. R. S. Ellis, ed. Specimens of the Early English Poets., To which is prefixed an historical sketch of the rise and progress of the English poetry and language... 2nd ed., 2 vols. (London: G. & W. Nicol; J. Wright, 1801), 1:112.

(21.) The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

(22.) Tennyson, The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks, 2nd ed., 3 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

(23.) William Wordsworth, The Major Works, ed. Stephen Gill (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); hereafter quoted in the text by lines. Unless otherwise indicated, all citations to Wordsworth's works are from this edition.

(24.) de Man, "Autobiography as De-Facement," in The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 73.

(25.) On Johnny's poem and its transposition of night and day as an exemplary work of the imagination, see Karen Guendel, "Johnny Foy: Wordsworth's Imaginative Hero," TSLL 56, no. 1 (2014): 81.

(26.) Wordsworth links the two poems when he describes this period in The Prelude; in the 1805 version, see 13:98-402.

(27.) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Complete Poems, ed. William Keach (London: Penguin, 1997), 1-5.

(28.) Scott heard "Christabel" recited sometime between 1800 and 1802, when the Minstrelsy appeared. See John Sutherland, The Life of Walter Scott (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 100-101.

(29.) I quote Clare's poetry in the text established by Eric Robinson and David Powell in John Clare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984). Their text, based on Clare's mss, differs significantly from the published text of 1831. Clare's poems of the 1820's and 30's include many closely observed syllabic transcriptions of bird sounds. "The March Nightingale," where the quotation of a stock version of a bird's song begins a comedy of errors, is not at all typical of his poetry in this genre. The longest such transcription is of a nightingale's song in "The Progress of Ryhme" (sic); it occupies nine lines, and, transcribing a particular song heard on a specific occasion, does not belong to the kind of taxonomic project that presents transcripts of putatively typical or exemplary animal utterances.

(30.) John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder E. Rollins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), 2:80-81.

(31.) The Poems of John Keats, ed. Jack Stillinger (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978). Citations to Keats's poetry are from this edition and quoted in the text by lines.

(32.) For discussion of the relation between "To Autumn" and Hunt's September 9, 1819 "Calendar of Nature," see William Keach, "Cockney Couplets: Keats and the Politics of Style," SiR 25, no. 2 (Summer 1986): 182-96; Nicholas Roe, "Keats's Commonwealth," in Keats and History, ed. Roe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 201-5; and Alan Bewell, Romanticism and Colonial Disease (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 178.

(33.) White, The Natural History of Selborne, 44.

(34.) Vendler, The Odes of John Keats (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1983), 248.

(35.) Vendler, The Odes of John Keats, 251.

(36.) To be exact: in September of 1819. The three previous autumns had been very cold, under the influence of the eruption of Mt. Tambora in April 1815. On this eruption and the historicity of climate in poetry, see Jonathan Bate, "Living with the Weather," SiR 35, no. 3 (Fall 1996): 227-50.

(37.) Among many English poetic representations of robins in winter, Keats would have remembered Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," lines 67-69. The robin's over-wintering is mentioned in White's The Natural History of Selbome (117), while the migration of the swallow is in this work something of an obsession, as White disbelieved in it and for years sought evidence that at least some swallows buried themselves in sandbanks rather than leave England.

(38.) Helen Vendler finds Keats in this line yielding to pathos; to represent sheep as "full-grown lambs," she writes, is "the equivalent of calling human beings in some context 'full-grown infants'" (The Odes of John Keats, 254). Terry Eagleton wonders whether the phase is an oxymoron: "It seems to be, since lambs are by definition not fully grown. Full-grown lambs are sheep." See "The Politics of the Image," CQ 54, no. 1 (2012): 26.

(39.) I am indebted to Sasha Torres for explaining the seasonal routine of sheep herding in wool and dairy flocks.

(40.) On full-grown lamb as an object of consumption: "We supped plentifully upon milk, yucca-root, honey, and a full-grown lamb, roasted entire" (J. P. and W. P. Robertson, Letters on Paraguay, 2 vols. [London: John Murray, 1838], 1:265). A later reference to a different mode of consumption further establishes the particularity of "full-grown lamb": "The material used in the manufacture of gloves is almost exclusively lambskin, the skins coming in three different sizes only--first, second, and third grades. The skin of the young lamb slaughtered when but a few weeks old is called first grade; the skin of the more mature lamb, which, however, is not full grown, is called second grade; and the skin of the full grown lamb is called third grade" ("Extracts from Diplomatic and Consular Reports: Glove Leather Industry in Austria," Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry 12 [1803]: 386). The distinction between full-grown and spring lamb also signifies in Christian typology. An article from 1867 takes up a dispute having at its heart the question whether Christ is to be identified with the spring lamb sacrificed at Passover (the Paschal lamb--from "pesaeh," passover), or with the ram [krios] given by God to redeem Isaac on Mt. Moriah in Genesis 22. From a discussion of the view of Melito, second century bishop of Sardis: "In the fourth fragment, he explains why the lxx. [Septuagint] in the passage of Genesis which he quotes, reads [phrase omitted] [krios] instead of [phrase omitted] [amnos]. It was in order to denote not a young offering like Isaac, but the full-grown, the perfect Lord.... Nothing can well be more certain than the conclusion to which such language leads, that Melito beheld in Jesus 'the Lamb of God,' for it is not simply Christ's offering that he beholds typified on Mount Moriah, but it is that offering as the offering of a lamb, and he sets himself to explain why the Greek translator of the Hebrew should have used the word Kptos instead of [phrase omitted] it is not that that translator would convey a different idea, but that he would bring out more perfectly the true idea of Jesus as the full-grown lamb" (William Milligan, "The Easter Controversies of the Second Century, in Their Relation to the Gospel of St. John," Contemporary Review 6 [1867]: 110). Keats could not have encountered the idea of Jesus as full-grown lamb here; eighteenth and nineteenth century Biblical lexicons, however, regularly use the distinction between lamb and full-grown lamb to illustrate what they termed the Greek amplificative; see for instance John Parkhurst, A Greek and English Lexicon to the New Testament in Which the Words and Phrases Occurring in Those Sacred Books Are Clearly Explained, 7th ed. (London: F. C. and J. Rivington et al., 1817), 14.

(41.) On this question in Heidegger, see Derrida The Animal That Therefore I am, 154. For a comparative study of grief and mourning in human and non-human animals, see Barbara King, How Animals Grieve (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

(42.) On the relation between eating and speaking in the Alice books, see Gilles Deleuze, Logic of Sense, trans. Charles Stivale and Mark Lester (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 23-27. For Deleuze's discussion of language and loss more generally, and the fashioning of "speaking... out of eating and shitting," see 186-95. On "sacrificial logic" of the subject and its connection to "carnivorous virility," see Jacques Derrida, "'Eating Well,' or the Calculation of the Subject," in Who Comes after the Subject? ed. Peter Connor, Eduardo Cadava, and Jean-Luc Nancy (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), 112-16.

(43.) The Letters of John Keats, 2:225.

(44.) Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, 222-23.

(45.) The Gnat himself is something like an animated word. His smallness is represented on the page by small type, and he disappears at the moment when Alice enters the wood with no names, where she and everyone else forget what they are called. The implication is that the Gnat is a name (Nat?). On animals and names in Genesis, see Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 15-21. Later in the same text, Derrida suggests that naming the animals was a stage in making them "sacrificial flesh" (42). Derrida's reading of Genesis here responds to that of Walter Benjamin, who writes that "to be named--even when the namer is godlike and blissful--perhaps always remains an intimation of mourning." See Benjamin, "On Language as Such and the Language of Man," in Selected Writings Vol. 1, 1913-26, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W.Jennings (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 73.

(46.) Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, 227.

(47.) Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, 227-28.

(48.) For current work on this topic, see Timothy Morton, Cultures of Taste/Theories of Appetite: Eating Romanticism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); and David Perkins, Romanticism and Animal Rights (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

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Title Annotation:animal onomatopoeia in Romantic poetry
Author:Rowlinson, Matthew
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2018
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