Technologies of Forgetting: Phonographs, Lyric Voice, and Rossetti's Woodspurge.
In her recent book Listening Publics, Kate Lacey makes a compelling claim about the origins of sound recording, proposing that "the phonograph was prefigured" in the literary culture of the nineteenth century. Lacey believes that what she calls the "phonographic imagination," which involves "the separating of sound from time, place and body," both anticipates and helps to shape recording technology. Especially given that the phonograph works by making a series of inscriptions first on tinfoil and later on wax, it thus represents an "extension of textual practices." (1) Douglas Kahn, too, associates phonography with the widespread nineteenth-century trend of transferring "the voice of presence into the contaminated realm of writing" (p. 70). In an age of rising literacy and unprecedentedly large-scale publication, when reading was increasingly silent and private yet also part of a shared cultural experience, the displacement of this "voice of presence" was a significant literary phenomenon. (2) If Kahn is justified in grouping all "mnemonic ... and conceptual means of sound recording as both technological means, empirical fact, and metaphorical incorporation" under the umbrella term "phonography" (p. 16), then his definition covers the mnemonic structure of poetic form. A poem's iterative formal patterns, like the cylinders of the phonograph that Thomas Edison initially saw as a means of capturing not music but speech, constitute a mechanism for the mental preservation of language; they allow readers to evoke, appropriate, and recontextualize the nebulous "voice" of verse. Lacey is chiefly concerned with the role of sound technology in the emergence of the modern public sphere, and Kahn focuses on the aesthetics of sound and noise in the twentieth century. But I elaborate on the notion that literature prefigures or portends Edison's invention by discussing Victorian lyric poetry--which often features conspicuously anonymous and dislocated voices, emphasizing the disconnection of a putative utterance from a quasi-anthropomorphized poetic speaker--as a particularly revealing example of the phonographic imagination.
The work of literary critics as well as media theorists shows that this topic is ripe for further investigation. Emily Harrington has recently suggested that both recorded and lyric voices are "defined by repetition and mechanical or metrical functioning and a disembodied state"--ideas that I expand on in the pages that follow. (3) Margaret Linley posits that Victorian lyric's "attempt to conjure dead, absent, and lost voices while talking (figuratively) about voice" should be reconsidered in light of Victorian anxiety regarding the question of whether phonographs, like telegraphs and cameras, were "remapping human coordinates." (4) At a time when embodied speech was being displaced and destabilized, when (as I claim later in this essay) poetic fixation on the vanished past signaled the elegiac nature of the age, and when the waning of religious faith and the vogue for spiritualism ignited new uncertainties about whether the dead could speak, the admittedly problematic urge to personify marks on a page provided an intriguing counterpart to the urge to personify recordings. Frederick Garbit's 1878 attribution of human traits to the phonograph (it is "tractable, teachable and humble, ... faithful, outspoken and devoid of all treachery"), his proposal that such a machine be placed inside the Statue of Liberty, the fact that Edison manufactured talking dolls containing phonograph cylinders, the use of phonographs to synchronize recorded dialogue with silent films: all reflect the desire to reunite disembodied sound with human presence. (5) Yopie Prins, concentrating on a mnemonic formal feature that I also scrutinize, argues that the metrical strategies of Victorian poems were "preceding and perhaps even predicting the sound reproduction technologies that emerged in the course of the nineteenth century." She adds that both "literary and technological inventions of 'voice' were a way to perform the dissociation and disembodiment of speech." (6) In producing a dehumanized version of voice, even while nostalgically invoking utterance by appealing to readers' and hearers' memories of it, poems emerge as phonographic precursors. And Ivan Kreilkamp underscores the similarities between recording and writing in the nineteenth century when he notes that before Edison's device appeared, Victorians used the word "phonography" to refer to a kind of shorthand. "[W]ith [Isaac] Pitman's invention of the phonographic shorthand system in 1837," says Kreilkamp, "the Victorian period was inaugurated with a new mandate to use print to capture, transcribe, and simulate voice." Contending that it laid the groundwork for the phonograph, he associates shorthand with language that has lost the "natural connection to its human origin." Indeed, in the realms of literature and (in both senses) phonography, voice derives from an ambiguously sourceless set of "fragmentary material phonemes" that serves as an incomplete synecdoche of a whole person; for Victorians, the embodied voice is "a fetish and a myth--the nostalgically recalled sign of what was lost in the turn to an information culture." (7) No longer grounded in local or identifiable bodies, voice is instead tied to the relatively opaque and disorientingly reproducible materiality of wax cylinders and printed pages.
So voices that seem diminished or unformed, that recall or evoke utterance but cannot be unequivocally linked to distinct or knowable speakers, spring from literary texts as well as from new technology. Kreilkamp relates this fact to the figure of the storyteller in novels and dramatic monologues. However, Victorian lyric poems illustrate vocal dislocation with particular clarity because they seldom ventriloquize specific characters in the manner of the monologue. (This is true of non-Victorian lyrics too, but in an increasingly narrative-dominated age, lyricists are both conspicuous and unusually self-conscious.) Lyric form creates a strikingly protophonographic vocal mode that is depersonalized and self-referential. It also lays claim, like a recording, to a series of unchanging future iterations; lyrics' tendency to feature stanzas and rhyme and regular meter, along with their relative brevity, may prompt a reader to memorize them verbatim rather than to paraphrase them. In fact, because elements such as enjambment and caesura can supply a kind of script for performance, indicating the stresses and the pauses with which a poem should be read, our knowledge of a lyric's language may be even more exact than the knowledge of language that shorthand provides. Yet in repeating a mnemonic lyric as in replaying a phonographic recording, what one often internalizes is an eerily evacuated voice from which individuating details have been stripped away. These media generate unstable forms of recollection that, though precise, are also shot through with vagueness and impersonality. (8)
I take up Linley's challenge, develop Harrington's and Prins's hypotheses, and build on Kreilkamp's research as I identify multifaceted new connections between the voice of the phonograph and the version of voice produced in Victorian lyric poems. I believe that the latter helps to create the cultural conditions--and thus the imaginative categories--for phonography. In the process, I offer a fresh context for Dante Gabriel Rossetti's strange poem "The Woodspurge": I argue that it is a commentary on the emptiness of the lyric voice, and I investigate the ways in which phonographs recapitulate and elucidate this distinctive emptiness. Having used memory as an interpretive framework for issues surrounding voice throughout the essay, I conclude by asking what the connection between lyricism and phonography reveals about Victorian remembering and forgetting.
Lyric and Phonographic Voice and Memory
When Edison invents the phonograph in 1877, the public is for the most part impressed by its ostensibly flawless ability to reproduce human speech. Edison himself praises the "marvelous accuracy" of this "infallible scribe"; he predicts in 1878 that his invention will provide, among other things, an impeccably truthful record of court testimony and a means of capturing the last words of loved ones on their deathbeds. That same year, the London Times waxes rapturous about the phonograph: "What will be thought of a piece of mechanism by means of which a message of any length can be spoken onto a plate of metal ... and the message absolutely re-spoken in the very voice of the sender?" Ten years later, Edison dwells on the phonograph's superiority to human recollection, claiming that it "will retain a perfect mechanical memory of many things which we may forget." (9) When Edison's European agent George Gouraud sets out to collect a "Library of Voices" featuring the luminaries of the age, thus attempting to stabilize and unify a volatile society by archiving carefully-selected utterances, he relies on the phonograph's verisimilitude and power of recall to establish this standardized cultural canon. Gerard Manley Hopkins believes that the phonograph will allow outstanding recitations of lyric poems to be "fixed and learnt by heart," creating and transmitting a "living tradition" of "fine spoken utterance." (10) A phonograph appears in Dracula (1897), and heroine Mina Harker informs John Seward that this machine successfully conveys, "in its very tones, the anguish of your heart." (11) Indeed, most nineteenth-century reactions to the phonograph express awe at its mimetic precision.
But some contemporaries of Edison emphasize the unsettling consequences of this precision. For instance, Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's 1886 novel L'Eve future--in which an automaton rigged with phonographs takes the place of a beautiful but shallow woman--calls attention to the new technology's capacity for disturbingly lifelike mimicry. And it seems that acknowledging the impressive accuracy of a phonograph's mechanized remembrance may cue not only a sense of alarming uncanniness but also, paradoxically, a sense of loss of control over memory. While in 1878 the American magazine Harper's Weekly praises the "charming impartiality" of a machine that repeats anything said to it, the Spectator is far more pessimistic about this phenomenon. An 1888 article titled "What Will Come of the Phonograph?" warns that "an immense storing up of sounds that it might be better not to store up" and a concomitant "rescu[ing] from forgetfulness what it should be the first duty of human beings ... to forget" may eventually leave "future generations drowned beneath the accumulated scraps of ancestral voices and expressions, ... the superabundant vestiges and records of the past." The Spectator author complains of the "shrinkage of character which seems to go on simultaneously with the growth of these manifold devices for erecting massive monuments to character." (12) In other words, the phonograph can neither forget nor discriminate. It conserves voices indefinitely without exercising any principle of selection; it may well immortalize trivialities and omit important information, obscuring rather than preserving clearly-demarcated individual selfhood, creating a version of history that is disquietingly random and chaotic rather than (as the "Library of Voices" would have it) meticulously curated. It lacks the filtering consciousness that Freud sees as "a shield protecting the organism against stimuli ... from without, by preventing their retention, their impress as memory." (13) After all, "[t]he power of selecting what seems useful, and ignoring what seems useless, is a most valuable aid to the advance of knowledge." (14) Expressing this worry more lightheartedly, Richard Le Gallienne laments that memory, "once an impressionist of divine moments" made conspicuous by selective forgetting, has become "a phonograph catching every word that falleth from the mouths of the board of guardians." (15) Such anxiety taps into the widespread Victorian fear that society suffers from a crippling information overload--that there is simply too much material to catalog and organize, with mass media and the proliferation of the press ensuring that a bewildering amount of data is available for public reproduction and circulation.
This set of attitudes toward the phonograph both echoes and sheds new light on Victorian views of lyric poetry. Just as phonographic recordings can seem to function as genuinely satisfactory substitutes for the original speaker (witness one confident American assertion that the recorded voice is "indicative of the natural disposition"), so poems can appear to be transparent expressions of an author's innermost emotions. (16) John Stuart Mill answers the titular question of his 1833 essay "What Is Poetry?" with "feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude, and embodying itself in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet's mind"; as the rise of the novel prompts some prominent poets to favor epic-length social commentaries and dramatic character studies over isolated meditations, Mill's description seems particularly relevant to lyric poems. (17) And again, a short lyric--unlike a long narrative poem or a novel--insists on being known and recalled with the same kind of strict precision that a recording of speech ostensibly offers. As Jonathan Culler puts it, "if the novel is writing you assimilate--that is, when you remember novels you recall, in your own words, as we say, what happens, what they are about--lyrics, on the contrary, retain an irreducible otherness: to remember them at all is to remember at least some of their words; they ask ... to be learned by heart." (18) Edison draws the same distinction between these two varieties of memory when he explains the phonograph's usefulness in business settings. "In writing our agreements we incorporate in the writing the summing up of our understanding-- using entirely new and different phraseology from that which we used to express our understanding of the transaction in its discussion, and not infrequently thus begetting perfectly innocent causes of misunderstanding"; with the phonograph, in contrast, "we would not only have the full and correct text, but every word of the whole matter." Even "the most skillful observers, listeners and realistic novelists," Edison adds elsewhere, "cannot reproduce a conversation exactly as it occurred. The account they give is more or less generalized. But the phonograph receives, and then transmits to our ears again, every least thing that was said-- exactly as it was said--with the faultless fidelity of an instantaneous photograph." (19) The ways in which both phonographs and lyrics pursue (mental or mechanical) linguistic permanence can, it seems, be defined against the inferior accuracy of a novelistic mnemonic mode. Yet returning to the Spectator author's fears, I will confirm that both varieties of apparent precision can breed confusion and ambiguity instead of total clarity.
In fact, such precision is in some senses illusory. Sound recordings neither perfectly preserve human utterances nor offer the straightforward authenticity that Edison touts. These recordings, while they do allow posterity to remember and reexperience sounds that would otherwise be fleeting and ephemeral, also inevitably alter the material they conserve. They dislocate an utterance from a specific time and place and from a corporeal human source; they efface historical context and override temporal embeddedness, ironically turning a speaker into a spectral vocal trace in the very act of granting her eternal life. "Wrench[ing] the voice from the throat and out of time" in an act that sounds almost violent, recordings draw attention to themselves as a medium rather than seamlessly replacing human presence (Kahn, p. 9). Indeed, some nineteenth-century commenters contest the realism of the phonograph's vocal reproductions. In 1878, the engineer W. H. Preece describes the tinfoil phonograph's sound as a "burlesque or parody of the human voice"; that same year, the Graphic calls it "a very faint and unearthly caricature"; had the phonograph appeared in the Middle Ages, writes the French inventor Theodore du Moncel in 1879, "it would certainly have been applied to ghostly apparitions." One audience member at Edison's 1877 phonographic demonstration in Washington, D.C., even exclaims that "it sounds more like the devil every time." (20) As Tom Gunning observes, while a phonograph "calls on auditors to imagine a human being," it also cannot escape an "effect of anxiety" stemming from its creation of a bodiless voice that may be distorted and is certainly uncanny. (21) It cannot fulfill its promise to provide perfectly accurate reproductions of voice and thus of selfhood. Its version of memory is bound up in amnesia.
In the same way, contra Mill, knowing a lyric does not mean having access to an author's or a speaker's clearly expressed feelings. Unlike their novelist and monologist compeers, many Victorian lyricists generate hauntingly vague and undeveloped voices that cannot be connected to an identifiable setting or a well-characterized individual. Victorian lyric speakers--for reasons explored in this essay's final section--often recollect the past, but doing so rarely clarifies their current situations or makes their experiences coherent (as it does for some of their chief Romantic predecessors); their elegiac gaze is unfocused, their memories unparticularized, their regret nameless and objectless. Instead of realistic narratives or openhearted confessions that use specific remembered events to motivate emotions, they offer a hazily remote perspective that turns the backward glance into a technique of numbed and quasi-unplotted emotional detachment. This mode of memory tends to produce an anonymous poetic persona that seems unable to recall the details of its history and its desires. (22) Alfred Tennyson's "Memory," for instance, takes inspiration from memorial failures by musing on thoughts of the past that "Dim in distance fly" (1.8). Emily Bronte's "Remembrance" (11. 3-4) portrays amnesiac nostalgia: "Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee, / Severed at last by Time's all-severing wave?" D. G. Rossetti begins "Sudden Light" with "I have been here before, / But when or how I cannot tell" (11. 1-2). W. B. Yeats's "He Remembers Forgotten Beauty" turns a lover into the abstract "loveliness / That has long faded from the world" (11. 2-3). Matthew Arnold's "To My Friends, Who Ridiculed a Tender Leave-Taking" substitutes "the dim remembrance" for "the clear impression" (11. 69-70). As In Memoriam also demonstrates, the need to remember is frequently heightened by the fear of forgetting--a fear that is underscored by the disorienting impersonality of the lyric voice. Victorian poets' unwillingness to embrace a confessional model of lyricism that reveals private sentiment is particularly evident as the century comes to a close; the phonograph's speech literalizes or fully achieves the Decadent poetic ideal of an empty "I," a self-concealing subjectivity without a subject. (23)
The phonographic mechanism that preserves speech also warps it, as this machine endlessly (and with ironic consistency) perpetuates its modified version of a voice. Its reiterations possess in self-similarity what they lack in mimetic accuracy. And a comparable principle applies to the memorable form that underlies lyric impersonality, highlighting its prefiguration of phonography. Lacey remarks that recordings are "constructions as much as they are reconstructions"--one might see the phonograph's intricate workings as a reminder of the fact that a poetic voice is a laborious textual fabrication rather than an overheard natural phenomenon--and phonography therefore mirrors lyric poetry as its revisions of voice disclose the '"structural amnesia' inherent in processes of representation" (pp. 91, 62). Lyrics' formal features are an important source of this amnesia. A brief poem often distorts and fractures what it depicts; such conciseness engenders or amplifies a reminiscing speaker's seeming estrangement from his or her own emotions and history. Iterative structures such as meter and rhyme tend to be mnemonic and so to demand precise reproduction, but their formal consistency also tends to draw pivotal and peripheral details into enigmatic equivalence. They do not always hierarchize experience with a view to establishing a coherent story line, an identifiable speaker, or a specific setting. Compact and repetitive lyric patterning, which elevates well-balanced and pleasingly familiar form over emphatic asymmetry, both accentuates and evacuates the moments and moods it captures. (24) Just as lyrics' speakers can neither disregard nor summon the past, so their readers remain alienated from insistently memorable language.
Paradoxically, then, as with a phonograph, a lyric's conspicuous mediation and alteration of what it represents or remembers is heightened by its refusal to forget. And by allowing it to be replicated again and again, both lyrics and recordings oblige readers and listeners to recall what may appear to be a perplexingly arbitrary and unselective rendering of events. As Culler says, if lyrics are to be known, they cannot be reconfigured. (25) So although no literary genre flawlessly mimics experience, it is lyrics that will not allow readers to forget any detail of their attenuated transience or their drained subjectivities. Tennyson's Lotos-Eaters vigorously resolve to refrain from action: "Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind, / In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined / On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind" ("The Lotos-Eaters," Poems of Tennyson 1: 474-476, 11. 153-155). Infectious meter commemorates, and encourages readers to remember distinctly, the impercipient obliviousness of largely unindividuated figures who sink into a dim "half-dream" as they seek to "live again in memory" (1: 472-473, 11. 101,110). And another forgetful Tennyson speaker, even while yearning for "the days that are no more," admits of the resulting tears, "I know not what they mean," and can place their source only in "some divine despair" ("Tears, idle tears," 2: 232, 11. 5, 1, 2). "Tears, idle tears" exemplifies lyric amnesia: its highly memorable formal structure helps to ensure that its speaker is not particularized and that his nostalgia remains vague. Stanzaic and sonic design takes precedence over sequential narrative logic. Brevity and patterns of repetition, which make a poem more suited to stubbornly fixating on fleeting sensations than to portraying advancing action or rounded characters, also impress that poem on the reader's memory. Thus Victorian lyricists, whose verses often lament the elusive nature of remembrance, tend to write highly mnemonic poems--which further pursue permanence by aspiring to substitute static atemporality for plotted progression. And by allowing transitory instants to be captured and archived and retrieved, phonographs appear both to fulfill and to exceed lyric's atemporal aspirations. Lyrics and recordings, especially given their propensity to be reuttered or reread or replayed, convert chronology into cyclical sameness and so allow memorable repetition to undermine narratable individual selfhood.
The apprehensive Spectator author longs for a strategic version of forgetting to help refine and enhance depictions of human character, but neither phonographs nor lyrics seem able to grant it. If recordings force us to remember indiscriminately, if we can neither ignore nor prioritize information, then our lives may become "subdivided and attenuated." We risk passing on our cultural confusion to future generations through increasingly disordered "inherited memories" ("What Will Come of the Phonograph?," p. 881). When Lionel Johnson condemns Arthur Symons for being "a slave to impressionism, whether the impression be precious or no," and when Ezra Pound writes of Algernon Charles Swinburne that his penchant for "rhythm-building" overshadows his "word-selecting, word-castigating," they express a similar concern. Thomas Hardy does the same in "Overlooking the River Stour," the title of which suggests both careful surveillance and flawed perception; the speaker realizes too late that he has memorialized something worthless and failed to notice an unnamed but important detail (in lines 23-24, "O never I turned, but let, alack, / These less things hold my gaze!"). (26) Memorable poetic form ensures that these amnesiac impressions are passed on to readers.
Nicholas Dames calls attention to the differences between prosaic and lyric forgetting. He believes that Victorian novels deliberately overlook some aspects of the past in order to give their narratives a satisfying teleological arc. Prose fiction, Dames argues, uses "nostalgic forgetting" to emphasize the growth and development of plot and character. It can "transform the chaos of personal recollection into what is useful, meaningful, able to be applied to the future." (27) But a lyric's refusals to recall, unlike those of a Victorian novel (or a long narrative poem), tend to be noncumulative. Rather than building up an organized picture of the world, lyric forgetting can signal obsessive memory of disjointed or ill-defined details, emptying of the voice, dissolution of the self, regressive stilling of plot. It is a "faculty that stalls or misfires," failing to deliver "grand narratives" or "perfect hindsight." (28) In this, it is truer to everyday experience than is the orderly and progress-centered novel. Perhaps novelists appeal to Victorian epistemological optimism, while lyricists--many of whom react against the rise of the novel by resisting plot-making--tap into Victorian anxiety about the limits of human agency and human knowledge of the past (and about the arbitrariness of a universe where God may no longer be in his heaven).
Thus mnemonic lyrics prefigure phonographs in turning the reliable preservation of language, which they simultaneously immortalize and dehumanize, into a source of disorientation and uncertainty. They mediate and isolate the speech they safeguard, establishing it as a human simulacrum or vocal vestige while denying it context and immediacy. Fixing and reifying a speaker, giving his or her words enduring and reproducible life in the form of a concrete object, both media continually revive a real or imagined act of embodied speech while also negating or displacing it. An individual's recorded voice, like the voice of a poetic speaker, is uncoupled from bodily presence and proximity to a specific audience (Mill, after all, defines poetry as that which is directed to no one). (29) The text and the recording speak for themselves, gesturing at but ultimately renouncing the fiction that a single expressive personality underlies them. As Friedrich Kittler asserts, "[P]honography means the death of the author"; in separating the physical self from the voice, it transfers human agency and identity to a set of data-holding grooves. (30) Tennyson's 1890 recording of "The Charge of the Light Brigade," for instance, aspires to become an authoritative reading that showcases the poet's distinctive character, emphasizes his unique control over his textual creations, and ensures that a cultural touchstone will remain forever unchanged. Yet the status of this incantatory recording as a new sound event independent of Tennyson, along with the indistinct quality that a modern listener notices immediately, encodes and exaggerates the poem's haunting impersonality in a way that its author likely did not intend. (Whom, if anyone, does a reader imagine chanting, "Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die" [Poems of Tennyson 2: 511-512, 11. 13-15]?) Readers and listeners experience the echoic afterlife, the faint yet persistent sonic memory, of a human voice--which can perhaps in the case of lyric, despite its historical connection to song, be considered a false memory perpetuated by interpretive assumptions.
Short poems, which are relatively easy not only to memorize but also to anthologize, are liable to be seen as portable and autonomous. Though this makes them promising commemorators and transmitters of cultural values, there is also an amnesiac quality to the material incarnations of memory that such apparent portability produces. Nineteenth-century gift albums, for example, decontextualize verses in the process of turning them into nostalgic keepsakes. (31) Poetry demonstrates forgetful recollection when its mnemonic patterning, often in a wistful attempt to suspend or reverse time, suppresses plotted causality; just so, overfamiliar anthology favorites may be misremembered if their formal strategies allow them to enter the canon in an artificially purified state, subject to readings that likewise impose or pursue timelessness by detaching them from the historical circumstances of their production. And the same is true of sound recordings, which generate nonrelational discontinuity as they freeze and sequester moments, echoing poetry's depersonalization of experience and threatening to falsify what they conserve.
Indeed, lyrics' brevity and tendency to linger in the memory mean that they are likely not only to be memorized and anthologized but also to be recorded. This was particularly evident in the early days of the phonograph, when its storage capacity was relatively small. Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade" recording, which distorts and dislocates this poet's speech while also capturing the dehumanized nature of his lyric's voice, was made when Edison's representative Charles Steytler came to visit the Laureate on the Isle of Wight. Tennyson also recited "The splendour falls on castle walls" and "Ask me no more," both short intercalary lyrics taken from his long narrative poem The Princess: A Medley. Yet when Frederic Harrison imagined a phonographic project immortalizing the Victorian era, Tennyson's contribution was to include a recording of The Princess entire. (32) An ideal version of recording technology, for Harrison as for Edison, would act as a form of limitless and all-encompassing external memory. In practice, however, the conciseness of lyrics makes them better candidates for phonographic recording than epics are and so may cause them to be removed from their narrative--and their historical--framework. Famously, the first phrase Edison spoke into his 1877 prototype was "Mary had a little lamb"; a phonographic demonstration at the Royal Institution in 1878 featured the physicist John Tyndall reciting "Come into the garden, Maud"; a New York presentation that same year involved a reading of "Bingen on the Rhine"; the Graphic reports that W. H. Preece, "remarking on the difficulty of knowing what to say under the circumstances, and that he should repeat something he had learnt years ago, ... spoke into the phonograph, 'Hey, diddle, diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle.'" (33) Lisa Gitelman, who associates sound recordings with "ritualized repetition," points out that "individuals reduced their own expressions to rote" when confronted with the phonograph. Chanting popular lyrics and familiar children's rhymes, they dipped into the collective memory and "repeated bits that were already often repeated" (Always Already New, pp. 68, 35). It has become clear that the phonograph's disembodied version of voice reflects and sheds light on influential trends in Victorian literary culture, not least the depersonalizing repercussions of lyric's conspicuously iterative formal tactics. And as it prompts onlookers to dredge up childhood recollections, showcases the effects of pedagogical memorization, and (crucially for this essay) illustrates the lyric-esque imperfections and limitations of its own obsessive remembrance, phonographic voice provides insights into Victorian memory as well. The essay's final section expands on this idea.
A New Perspective on D. G. Rossetti's "The Woodspurge"
I turn now to a reading that exemplifies the mutually illuminating nature of Victorian phonography and lyricism. My argument has more to do with the phonographic imagination as prefigured in poetry, and with the amnesiac remembrance that both media demonstrate, than with the effects of sound recording on nineteenth-century literature; I have therefore deliberately chosen a poem that was published before Edison's breakthrough technology emerged. (34)
Rossetti's "The Woodspurge" (written in 1856 and published in 1870) both reminisces about an apparently noteworthy moment and gestures at an apparently traumatic past experience. Yet the poem offers no cogent narrative, no logically linked series of events, and no climactic or confessional epiphany to contextualize these episodes--only a suspended temporal state, an undefined voice, and fixed concentration on the memory of what seems to be an arbitrary image.
The wind flapped loose, the wind was still, Shaken out dead from tree and hill: I had walked on at the wind's will,-- I sat now, for the wind was still.
Between my knees my forehead was,-- My lips, drawn in, said not Alas! My hair was over in the grass, My naked ears heard the day pass.
My eyes, wide open, had the run Of some ten weeds to fix upon; Among those few, out of the sun, The woodspurge flowered, three cups in one.
From perfect grief there need not be Wisdom or even memory: One thing then learnt remains to me,-- The woodspurge has a cup of three. (Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, p. 205)
Here Rossetti deliberately omits crucial information: what is the source of the "perfect grief'? It is all but impossible to give the reticent speaker a backstory or to make an informed speculation about where this frozen tableau is set. Rossetti uses truncated lyric retrospection to erode the situational details that might have lent his poem plot-based unity or turned its evacuated speaker into a realistic individual. This speaker's perceptions of the world do adumbrate his emotional state, but his pain remains perversely unmotivated.
What is more, despite the woodspurge's temptingly Trinity-esque attributes, one can hardly transform it into an icon of divine consolation. Thus even the title, like the plant itself, is a red herring or screen memory of sorts. (35) As this poem pays close attention to cryptic images that flicker between concrete particularity and emblematic portentousness (the definite article of the title could indicate either), it typifies Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics. The insights of critics such as Jerome McGann, Catherine Maxwell, David G. Riede, John P. McGowan, and Carol T. Christ have ensured that discussions of "The Woodspurge" usually center on the question of whether and to what extent its imagery is symbolic. This is an important issue and one that my reading addresses; surely if the woodspurge is a symbol of anything, it (ironically enough) communicates the incommunicable nature of debilitating sorrow. But I want to create a new interpretive framework, based on the foregoing discussion of genre and of Victorian media culture, for this poem's liminalities and evasions. First, I consider it as a commentary on lyric voice. Second and relatedly, while I continue the tradition of reading "The Woodspurge" in terms of vision, I am also interested in the auditory context that emerges when a lyric voice is compared to the voice of the phonograph--which acts as a poetic simulacrum as it deals in the atemporal, the seemingly arbitrary, the disembodied, and the impersonal. (36) Themes of memory and forgetfulness help to unite (and ultimately gain fresh significance from) these areas of inquiry.
There are telling intersections between the language used to describe this poem and the language used to describe the phonograph. One contemporary response to "The Woodspurge" touches on the unnerving quality of its undeveloped voice, emphasizing its "mood of sorrow, newborn, and scarcely realized, the dull continual pain of a soul shaken from its harmony." A second dwells on the simultaneous absence and presence of human emotion, as well as the coexistence of remembering and forgetting, as it explores Rossetti's portrayal of "the vacant, numbing, desolating pain of grief, the pain that cannot even as yet recover recollection" but is still "terribly real." When Charles Grivel mentions an isolated "voice coming from no one, ... empty, devoid of soul, vacant," he could well be yet another "Woodspurge" commenter; he is actually, however, referring to the speech of the phonograph. (37) Indeed, the iterative aaaa rhymes of Rossetti's poem produce the same effect noticed by the audience member who said that one of Edison's replaying recordings "sounds more like the devil every time." The largely end-stopped monotony of these quadruple rhymes-- further exaggerated in the opening stanza, which rhymes "still" with itself-- turns the lyric's voice into a static and unsettlingly dehumanized drone, signaling trauma that the speaker declines or fails to articulate, rather than an open expression of emotion. He (or she; even gender is unclear here, though I use the masculine pronoun) may begin two consecutive lines with "I" and four consecutive lines with "My," but the anaphora is more hypnotically incantatory than revelatory. Claustrophobic enclosure within a tormented mind need not disclose details of character. In fact, the mysterious grief that colors "The Woodspurge" is not even named until the final stanza.
Appropriately enough, given its oddly listless speaker, Rossetti's poem struggles to separate what is vital and alive from what is inert and deanimated. The first stanza is composed almost entirely of terse and thudding monosyllables, which cement the impression that this voice is stunned, deadened, emotionally withholding to the point of pathology. In this context, the word "shaken" is a shock. The only polysyllable in the stanza, it also inverts the poem's iambic metrical pattern. Despite this word's disruptively vigorous trochaic spasm, though, we learn immediately that the wind it describes is "dead." Yet the repeated phrase "the wind was still" is ambiguous. Echoing Tennyson's "sound of a voice that is still" ("Break, break, break," Poems of Tennyson 2: 24, 1. 12), it implies both that the wind did not blow and that the wind continued to exist. Like the speaker's inner life, this wind hovers between absence and presence. When read aloud, the highly alliterative line "I had walked on at the wind's will" (1. 3) requires exhalations on the recurring "w" sound; especially when encountering the back-to-back beats of "wind's will," a reader converts his or her breath into the fitful wind. And fittingly, the speaker's voice is also associated with the motiveless vagaries of the breeze. "The wind flapped loose, the wind was still" (1. 1): the impassive declaration of these two pieces of trivia, which in the absence of a chronological marker (such as "then") seem to cancel each other out instead of depicting plotted progression, is divided into near-identical intervals of silence and rhythmic activity by the midline caesura and by the line break. The voice flapped loose, the voice was still. Both wind and meter-driven voice are, like an uncanny phonographic recording in which the cylinder drones on after the speaker is gone, only half personified-- as confirmed by the fact that this automaton-like speaker is profoundly passive, moving and pausing only when the semi-anthropomorphized wind does so. "I sat now, for the wind was still" (1. 4) offers an ersatz version of motivation and narrative causality. Similarly, despite moving from past to present tense, the poem eschews storytelling and character development.
This, then, is no prophetic West Wind. "The Woodspurge" self-consciously revises the Romantic paradigm in which an isolated speaker gleans a moral lesson from nature or achieves spiritual unity with what he or she beholds. Its world is disenchanted. Rather than demonstrating the Blakean ability to see a world in a grain of sand, Rossetti presents a set of particularities that do not seem to move beyond self-reference or to offer more universal significance. (38) As the speaker stares at this opaque little plant and fails to detect any meaning beyond its materiality, the scope of his vision myopically narrowing and constricting through the first three stanzas as it sets up the anticlimactically redundant final line, so the reader regards an opaque little poem and discovers more about its self-sufficient formal structure than about its narrative trajectory or its speaker's identity. As this speaker is estranged from his surroundings and perceptions, so the reader is estranged from him. Even the closed-off position of his body implies extreme opacity: "Between my knees my forehead was,--/ My lips, drawn in, said not Alas!" (11. 5-6). The awkwardness of this posture, which confirms the inert speaker's quasi-inhumanity in that it is both fetal and corpselike, reiterates the awkwardness of the couplet's slant rhyme and anastrophic syntax. And in simultaneously invoking and abolishing speech by attributing it to a sketchily realized character while also revealing it as the product of various formal effects (such as the caesura-divided line discussed earlier), "The Woodspurge" encodes the dehumanized and dislocated status of poetic voice that sound recordings would soon accentuate and echo. (39) After all, that unsaid "Alas!" is present on the page, and a reader's lips may say it even as the speaker denies that his lips have done so. This hollow persona is protophonographic as he dramatizes the displacement of embodied utterance and deprivileging of presence evident in Victorian culture more generally.
As with phonography, an apparently perfected form of recollection that nonetheless signals a loss of control over the past, one can view the central paradox of Rossetti's lyric through the lenses of memory and forgetfulness. "Memory," in fact, stands out as the only three-syllable word in this poem. But its dying dactylic fall precludes a satisfyingly emphatic rhyme with "be," a phenomenon that is reinforced by a reader's tendency to accelerate through the line break of "be / Wisdom," one of the poem's few enjambments. This associates the word "memory" with a sense of anticlimax that is entirely appropriate thematically. Even as "The Woodspurge" implicitly dwells on the past through its use of verb tenses and its vague reference to "grief," it disavows recollection ("there need not be ... memory") and refuses to describe the events that caused such grief. It reiterates haunting remembrances of a striking visual detail; at the same time, it forgets or elides crucial contexts for these memories and ensures that neither the speaker nor the reader can associate them with any clearly communicable significance. (40) Lyric's propensity for organizing itself primarily around stanzaic structures that are both repetitive and circumscribed, rather than around fleshed-out arguments or plots, allows Rossetti to create a severely traumatized voice that oscillates between highlighting and negating the power of remembrance. If (as John Locke believes) unified selfhood derives from a continuous stream of interlinked memories, then this speaker's faltering recollection compromises his identity in addition to occluding his story line. Rossetti's revisions of Romanticism thus also apply to Wordsworth's rehabilitating memorial mode, in which emotion recollected in tranquility renders past events more meaningful and aids in self-apprehension.
The insistent aaaa rhyme scheme of "The Woodspurge," a poem that makes claims on cultural as well as individual remembrance because it has frequently been anthologized, is only the most conspicuous of its many formal traits that tend both to be mnemonic and to impede plotted recollection. This brief lyric impresses its speaker's limited vision on readers, perhaps prompting them to connect its inchoate sentiments to their own memories. As an 1882 article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine puts it, "The Woodspurge" is so "profound [and] terse that it affects its readers as an experience of their own." (41) This is possible partly because the past experiences it evokes, and the memories it creates, remain so undefined. If "I sat now" briefly seems to conflate past and present, it is to emphasize that both are inscrutable rather than to make the former accessible. The amnesiac qualities that "The Woodspurge" presents in exaggerated form and that characterize many other Victorian lyrics--its tendency to pursue fractured atemporal stasis rather than orderly temporal progress and the way in which it allows the hauntingly indeterminate past to warp the present--make its memorable retrospection a force for surreal depersonalization rather than character development, self-revelation, or narrative building. And again, the persistent, iterative, semianonymous, decontextualized voices of poems such as this one prefigure the voice of the phonograph. A recording, says John M. Picker, may provide only "artificial communion" with a past that has become a "vanishing remnant" (Victorian Soundscapes, p. 133); like memorizing a lyric, listening to a recording presses the fact of impermanence into the memory. Distanced from an original event, listeners cannot but recall its new and amnesia-inflected incarnation. As Jonathan Sterne notes, a sound recording may be "an antidote to total forgetting," yet it still "thrives on the forgotten, on a past that recedes and retreats." (42)
As lyric's protophonographic status elucidates Victorian notions of poetic voice and poetic recollection, it is particularly relevant to Rossetti's work and to that work's formally mnemonic qualities. Elizabeth Helsinger observes that Rossetti's verse is prominently marked by sonic iteration; this configures lyric as a mode of repetition that "risks becoming merely monotonous and mechanical" rather than personal or confessional. Rossetti is less likely to imitate a human voice than to offer "waves of measured sound, heard and felt as a rhythmic 'pulse.'" Meter's structured reiterations, adds Helsinger, cue intensified mental receptiveness and openness to involuntary memory in readers when they depict "[S]cenes of attentive listening." (43) "My naked ears heard the day pass" (1. 8) portrays just such a scene, and this line appears in a poem that itself makes strong aural appeals with features such as quadruple rhymes, recurrent anaphora, and heavy alliteration and assonance. A Rossetti poem, like a phonograph, asks readers to hear--or at least to imagine they hear-- and to recall the mediating form and the memorable patterns of rhythmic sound that undermine plot-based context, teleological temporality, and (in the very process of preserving or comprising voice) a speaker's expressive individuality.
Further consideration of meter and memory underscores the connection between texts and technology. The Spectator author, asking what will come of Edison's invention, worries that a failure to forget trivialities will lead to "shrinkage of character." And in Rossetti's poem, a similar effect derives from the apparently unselective nature of perception and remembrance that are also occasionally quite precise. When the speaker informs us, "My eyes, wide open, had the run / Of some ten weeds to fix upon" (11. 9-10), he reveals both his heightened awareness ("wide open"; "fix upon") and the arbitrary mode of observation that results. (44) The meter here is emphatic and deliberate, demanding three consecutive stresses on both "eyes, wide o-" and "some ten weeds"; the word "some" may imply casual approximation, but the speaker's obsessive focus--suggested by the slowing meter--and the poem's mnemonic form require that we forget neither the exact number of weeds in the grass nor the exact number of cups in the woodspurge. Novelistic memory that relies on paraphrase is disallowed. But, a reader may well ask, is recalling these cups and weeds ultimately meaningful? Which details matter? "My naked ears heard the day pass" is metrically irregular; the iambic context cues a stress on "the," which is surely the only syllable in "heard the day pass" that a reader does not stress in performance. Both our inner eyes and our inner ears must struggle to determine what, in every sense, to emphasize as we encounter this poem. The same goes for the attentive speaker, who remembers mundane sights and sounds. When he attributes agency to his eyes and ears and lips rather than to himself, he implies that both observation and expression are impersonal and even involuntary. He transfers his meticulous but seemingly aimless recollections to readers, who learn little about him beyond the fact of the overwhelming grief from which he remains detached. Thus the speaker, phonograph-like, dramatically demonstrates "shrinkage of character." His distorted apprehension of the fading past is founded, in some measure, on his failure to forget.
Even as Rossetti obscures the histories of his speakers, his medievalizing tendencies and tone of regretful longing mean that he is frequently concerned with time gone by. "The Woodspurge" is an especially arresting example of the way in which lyric's ambiguous memorability derives in part from its simultaneous focus on and disconnection from the past. Moreover, Allen Grossman explains that much lyric speech is based in amnesiac remembrance of voice in particular. Such speech involves "the recollection of past lives," specifically those of "all other speakers who have inhabited the lyric cell," but it is "ignorant of all but the general case of their state of affairs.... There is in this sense an ignorance about the person in poems." (45) Many lyric speakers, then, are constellations of faint textual echoes. And a poem's recollection of familiar voices, as well as familiar forms and themes, helps to account for its distinctively elusive appeals to cultural and individual memory. The conventional nature of the lyric "I" may render it highly recognizable, easy to recall because it is easy to categorize with comparable poems--but these are often poems in which the voice is similarly depersonalized and difficult to grasp. By making mnemonic claims on each reader, lyrics ensure that a private act of remembrance can become public and communal (one might think of the common instinct to record poetic "bits that were already often repeated"), generating a shared set of amnesiac recollections. In the same way, listening to phonographic recordings is "both an individualized and a collective experience" that allows audiences to commemorate the past by achieving imaginative intimacy with the voices they hear--while also converting the human agency behind these recordings into automated vocal traces detached from time and place (Sterne, p. 163).
"One thing then learnt remains to me,--/ The woodspurge has a cup of three" (11. 15-16). One is reminded of Robert Browning's entertainingly ill-fated encounter with a phonograph. When Gouraud asked him at an 1889 dinner party to contribute to the "Library of Voices," he launched into "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix"--and promptly forgot the words. Yet he concluded his botched recitation by declaring that "one thing which I shall remember all my life is the astonishing sensation produced upon me by your wonderful invention." Browning forgot the content of his planned utterance, but what he immortalized was his vow never to forget the medium by which his words were recorded. (46) Similarly, the "Woodspurge" speaker fails or refuses to produce a cohesive account of the remembered grief he mentions, but he cannot forget the stark vividness of the apparently irrelevant image that nonetheless begins to serve as an enigmatic means of conveying this sorrow. And as he recalls the woodspurge, readers recall "The Woodspurge." They internalize the poem's strikingly specific images, its spectral voice, its largely conventional formal design, and the mnemonic medium of its tetrameter quatrains without knowing what motivates the numbed intensity of its despair. Culler, after all, points to the "irreducible otherness" of language that asks to be learned by heart; one can memorize a lyric word-for-word without fully comprehending the message it conveys. In repeating the same patterns of meter and rhyme, stanzas may start to resemble a phonographic recording continually replaying as they draw attention to their own reiterations and away from their content. This connection between lyrical repetition and mechanized replay becomes explicit in the 1901 American ditty "Susan, Dear Sue (The Phonograph Song)," which features a chorus that is first spoken by an unfaithful lover and then played back by the phonograph that has caught his incriminating words. Indeed, as John Hollander remarks and Grossman would no doubt agree, "refrains are, and have, memories--of their prior strophes or stretches of text, of their own pre-occurrences, and of their own genealogies in earlier texts." (47) Such remembrance-laden poetic returns, in the form of refrains or other repeating patterns, also appeal to the reader's memory--again, not only because of their iterative and past-oriented nature but also because familiar formal strategies may present themselves as already part of his or her knowledge.
So "The Woodspurge" ensures that readers recall an amnesiac avoidance or obstruction of narrative and of humanized speech. Reader and speaker share a state of keen receptivity and concentration, but they find that indelible images do not organize experience or serve as the clear objective correlatives of emotions. This poem simultaneously clings to a haunting sentiment and shuts it down, rendering that sentiment both memorable and forgettable. Internal and external worlds remain stubbornly incongruent, and memory is inseparable from misconstrual and impercipience.
Victorian Remembering and Forgetting
Critics who note its influence on later works underscore the way in which "The Woodspurge" embodies a distinctive pattern in Victorian verse. Linda Dowling identifies this deadpan poem as the source of the "emotional autism" of Ernest Dowson's "Spleen"; Richard Cronin links it to Michael Field's "Cyclamens"; Florence Boos hears its echoes in Amy Levy's "To Vernon Lee." John Keats maintains that "The feel of not to feel it ... Was never said in rhyme" ("In drear-nighted December," 11. 21, 24), but this is precisely what so many Victorian lyrics--Hardy's "Neutral Tones," Browning's "Memorabilia," Christina Rossetti's "Song [When I am dead, my dearest]"--do seem to feel. (48)
Indeed, the way in which memory can combine scrupulously attentive accuracy with hazy obliviousness is a pervasive Victorian aesthetic concern. In a May 1854 letter to the London Times regarding William Holman Hunt's painting The Awakening Conscience, John Ruskin writes, "Nothing is more notable than the way in which even the most trivial objects force themselves upon the attention of a mind which has been fevered by violent and distressful excitement. They thrust themselves forward with a ghastly and unendurable distinctness, as if they would compel the sufferer to count, or measure, or learn them by heart." (49) And in 1879, Coventry Patmore faults Rossetti for "conferring upon all his images an acute and independent clearness which is never found in the natural and truly poetical expression of feeling"--despite the fact that "in extreme crises of passion there will sometimes be a moment of calm in which the minutiae of some most trifling object or circumstance will, as it were, photograph themselves upon the mind." (50) (An 1858 review of Patmore's own The Angel in the House begins by asserting that "the poetry most characteristic of the present century has in it a kind of microscopic air," favoring "what is near and apparently insignificant" over "comprehensive groupings of human life.") (51) The "unendurable distinctness" or "independent clearness" of sensory details is what haunts "The Woodspurge"--particularly when juxtaposed with its refusal to recall information that might explain its misery. Joan Rees catalogs similar examples of sight without insight that surface in Victorian texts: there is Rossetti's "My Sister's Sleep," in which the instant of the sister's death is obscured amid an atmosphere of imagistic clarity so tightly focused on the quotidian that it becomes surreal; there is the comment in A dam Bede that "[i]n our times of bitter suffering, there are almost always these pauses, when our consciousness is benumbed to everything but some trivial perception or sensation. It is as if semi-idiocy came to give us rest from the memory and the dread which refuse to leave us"; there is the episode in Ruth in which the title character has "no consciousness of error or offence; no knowledge of any one circumstance but that [Bellingham] was gone. Yet afterwards, long afterwards, she remembered the exact motion of a bright green beetle busily meandering among the wild thyme near her"; there is the mention in Maud of the way in which a confused and overwrought mind will "[s]uddenly strike on a sharper sense" for "little things / Which else would have been past by" (Poems of Tennyson 2: 570, Part 2, 11. 111-113). (52) All these passages describe a distinctive combination of profound amnesia and arbitrarily heightened memory at a moment of trauma. Swinburne, in fact, identifies this same combination in "The Woodspurge" when he speaks of its "passionate accuracy of sense half blunted and half whetted by obsession and possession of pain." (53) I would add that this pattern also mirrors the experience of internalizing an unparaphrasable lyric. Again, it is possible to recall such a poem's details and linguistic formulations with exaggerated precision yet not be able to link them, decode them, contextualize them, or connect them to a story line or an individual. Though several of the preceding examples are from prose works or longer narrative poems, lyric verse cues and demonstrates such forgetful fixation not only in its content but also in its mnemonic form. Thus it prefigures the anxieties that surround the phonograph as an ostensibly accurate recorder that nonetheless warps history and character in part by refusing to prioritize data or efface unimportant information.
For Victorians, the inextricability of remembering and forgetting is by no means confined to aesthetic or technological realms; it has broader cultural significance. Lyrics and sound recordings, by neither re-creating nor ceasing to evoke individual utterance (to what extent do readers of poetry strive to imagine or recall a speaking voice?), and by simultaneously preserving and obscuring their content through iterative sonic patterns, illuminate what Richard Terdiman identifies as a widespread nineteenth-century "memory crisis." This crisis involves both longing for days gone by and "loss of a sense of time's continuous flow, ... disruption of organic connection with the past." (54) Of particular import for Victorians are the waning of Christian orthodoxy and the growth of higher criticism, along with the rise of the industrialized city: these phenomena trigger a concurrent yearning for and dislocation from retroactively invented moral clarity and simple pastoral pleasure. As Freud develops his early theories, Edenic youthful innocence is enshrined as an ideal. In a period that witnesses rapid change in areas ranging from electoral practices to women's rights to transportation, the fear of forgetting, misperceiving, or losing touch with the past is pervasive. It exists on both individual and societal levels. Queen Victoria herself is in perpetual mourning. Evolutionary theory shines a light on deep time, making it disturbingly alien or imponderable in the process. Victorians attempt to standardize their national history and to grasp the elusive past by (for instance) visiting museums and erecting urban memorials-- but in an increasingly mechanized, accelerating, and progress-focused world, the past cannot be resurrected and will not provide a secure refuge from change. The memory crisis unfolds in scientific circles as well. Locke had proposed that personal identity is founded on the ability to recall the past; nineteenth-century scientists debate the related question of whether all memories are potentially recoverable. Hartleian associationism, its advocates maintain, can summon and so conserve every past experience. Later in the century, however, Freudian accounts of the unconscious assert that individuals repress or fail to apprehend (if not actually forget) some thoughts and events. Nostalgically recalled childhood memories, which profoundly affect human identity, fade and mutate in retrospect and are therefore both durable and evasive. For Victorians, the past becomes more and more slippery and volatile (in fact, the word "amnesia" emerges as a recognized medical term in the 1870s). Increasingly, the mind is figured as a palimpsest, full of faint-but-tenacious experiential data. In combining indelibility and indistinctness, such data resembles a mnemonic yet inscrutable poem--or a phonographic cylinder that serves as a precise index of the past that it ineluctably alters. (55)
An age that seems fundamentally elegiac in its attitude toward an often-ungraspable past produces a great deal of poetry that--as I have observed-- centers on the backward glance, foregrounding its hopeless urge to stop time or to regain what time has swept away. Tennyson's belated epic describes a doomed Camelot, while Yeats dwells on Celtic legend and Hardy journeys to the haunts of his younger days in hopes of being troubled by the dead. These and other poets remain distant from the historical, mythical, and quasi-personal pasts that they can never quite reinhabit. But lyric as a genre has special cultural significance where Victorian memory is concerned; as realistic prose comes to dominate the literary scene, lyric is "mythologized as the purest and oldest of poetic genres and thus transformed into a nostalgic ideological marker." (56) The versions of literary history, of speakers' occluded pasts, and of readers' textual recollections that it generates, then, all involve memorable distortion or forgetting. Lyric's mnemonic formal strategies of brevity and repetition, its frequent thematic concern with loss and longing, and its nostalgia-inflected generic connotations often cause it to navigate between the desire for regressive atemporality or timeless permanence and the reality of unavoidable transience. Despite lyricists' growing anxiety about the social relevance of their poetry (given that the reading public's interests increasingly lie elsewhere), they appeal to the Victorian imagination both because their work is relatively easy to recall and because it reflects an era that makes self-consciously futile attempts to recover the past that it catalogs and records. And the voice of the phonograph, which lyric voice anticipates, also tends to induce amnesiac nostalgia. This machine, as the wistful Spectator article shows, causes nineteenth-century commenters to yearn for prephonograph days--and particularly for authentic human interactions to replace flawed vocal reproductions. Such "nostalgia for the real" (Lacey, p. 70) accompanies most major media developments. (57) Like the retroactive mythologizing of lyric, it is an imprecise and deceptive form of memory. Thus the thrilling yet uncanny creation of noncorporeal voices, occurring via the mnemonic devices of impersonal little poems and of recording technology, again engenders forgetful recollection. Lyrics and phonographs, in demonstrating with particular clarity both the impossibility and the inevitability of losing sight of the past, shed fresh light on the liminal status of Victorian memory itself. They confirm that fixating on lost time often involves acknowledging a radical disconnection from it.
Rossetti's experience of the memory crisis was poignantly personal. Although the fading of religious faith--the woodspurge, after all, declines to symbolize the Trinity---might seem to make Victorian death more flatly conclusive, the popularity of spiritualism reveals a pervasive hope that the dead are never quite out of reach. In the mid-1860s through early 1870s, just around the time he published "The Woodspurge," Rossetti held a series of seances in which he regularly tried to call up the spirit of his dead wife and muse, Elizabeth Siddal. (58) Disembodied yet still able to communicate through an enigmatic medium, the object of obsessive remembrance yet eternally remote, Rossetti's imagined version of Siddal resembles a lyric or phonographic voice. Analyzing a poem is, in a sense, not so different from analyzing the events of a seance. In both cases, one posits, and investigates the "utterances" of, a more or less nebulous and inhuman speaker-figure whose internal life seems undeveloped and who provides only imperfect knowledge of his or her circumstances and emotions. (59) And while sound recordings finally realize the Victorian fantasy of hearing posthumous voices, their reanimation of the "sound of a voice that is still" nonetheless tends to underscore the disappearance of the original speaker. In this context, it is apt that Edison initially envisaged his technology catching the last words of the dying. (60)
As recalling the past cannot restore it, so rhythmically reiterating loss-- even when doing so meticulously captures its attendant minutiae--cannot compensate for it. In attempting to become a "moment's monument," in ending again and again, phonographic recordings and brief lyrics both defy and reenact mortal finality. Like gravestones, they dwell on absence but refuse to let that absence be forgotten. They hesitate between solipsism and anonymity, between transience and timeless persistence, between emphatic repetition that bolsters recollection and self-referential repetition that effaces content. Versified retrospection can seem deficient and outmoded given a machine's ostensibly faultless power of recall, but the lyric nature of the phonograph's mechanical memory may be part of its appeal. This invention echoes, elucidates, and extends the literary aesthetic of self-dislocation and amnesiac remembrance that portends its arrival. What is more, a comparison to sound technology reveals that this lyric decontextualization and dehumanization of voice can perhaps best be understood in terms of memory. There is the question of vocal nostalgia, as a reader's experience of a poem may be influenced by his or her memories of embodied utterance; there is the fact that the structural patterns of lyrics often render their putative voices both memorable and undefined; there is lyrical speakers' tendency to linger on a past that they blur and elide. These issues provide a valuable framework for understanding the phonograph as well. Sound recording has no doubt shaped the way we read "The Woodspurge," but poems such as this one helped to create the cultural and imaginative paradigms necessary for the rise of phonography.
(1) Kate Lacey, Listening Publics: The Politics and Experience of Listening in the Media Age (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2013), pp. 75-76, 32. Where this topic is concerned, Lacey acknowledges her debt to Friedrich Kittler's Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1999), Lisa Gitelman's Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006), and Douglas Kahn's Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999). Gitelman, for instance, describes the ways in which the early phonograph "was experienced as party to the existing ... logics of writing, print media, and public speech" in America--such as the "ongoing industrialization of communication," the development of shorthand, and the rise of metropolitan mass audiences (pp. 13-14, 29). Elsewhere, Gitelman identifies the phonograph's "mechanized inscription" as a crucial part of the "climate of representation that emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century" and that cast textuality itself in a new light. Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1999), pp. 2-3. While the phonograph has important precursors, such as Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville's phonautograph, I focus on Edison's groundbreaking invention. For a parallel case of culture anticipating technology, see Geoffrey Batchen's Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997) and Peter Galassi's Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1981).
(2) More generally speaking, the phonograph does for speech what writing does for the oral tradition: once literature is mainly a written medium, it can be disconnected from the individual human body. John Durham Peters observes that, like phonography, writing "parodies live presence; it is inhuman, lacks interiority, destroys authentic dialogue, is impersonal, and cannot acknowledge the individuality of its interlocutors; and it is promiscuous in distribution." Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 47.
(3) Emily Harrington, Second Person Singular: Late Victorian Women Poets and the Bonds of Verse (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2014), p. 9. In this essay, I use the contested term "lyric" to denote poems that are relatively brief and that tend to avoid the dramatic monologue's identification of the speaker as a particular character.
(4) Margaret Linley, "Conjuring the Spirit: Victorian Poetry, Culture, and Technology," VP 41, no. 4 (2003): 539. In fact, says Linley, "Victorian poetry ... could be a precedent for the 'experience of sound disconnected from its source' that Gillian Beer suggests is novel to the history of the world with the invention of radio." See Beer, "'Wireless': Popular Physics, Radio and Modernism," in Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention, ed. Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), p. 149.
(5) Frederick J. Garbit, The Phonograph and Its Inventor (Boston: Gunn, Bliss, 1878), p. 8.
(6) Yopie Prins, "Voice Inverse," VP 42, no. 1 (2004): 44, 47. Relatedly, David Nowell Smith identifies "a logic of voice-prosthesis" both in the mechanism of the phonograph and in the way poetic utterances are formally embodied through memorable meter. Smith, On Voice in Poetry: The Work of Animation (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 140. And Allen Weiss, who writes that phonographs allowed "the voice of the deceased [to] continue to resonate, even as the mortal body dissolved," believes that we can locate the "phantasmatic origins of sound recording" in a "nostalgic lyricism" that shares its central impulses and aspirations with "new forms of reproductive prosthetics and technological memento mori." Weiss, Breathless: Sound Recording, Disembodiment, and the Transformation of Lyrical Nostalgia (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 2002), pp. xiv, 22. Linking sound recording to the "loss of voice in lyrical poetry" (p. xiii), Weiss's work resonates with that of Prins--who asserts that Victorian poems and phonographs both provide a "mechanism for the disembodiment of voice." She maintains that a poem is not a transcript of speech: "why must sound be attributed to a speaker in order to be understood as meaningful?" ("Voice Inverse," pp. 44, 47). Susan Stewart, however, insists that poems contain the memory of a voice. A lyric reader is "always recalling sound," and "the sound recalled is the sound of human speech.... [O]ur recalling will always have a dimension of imagination." Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 68-69. See also Eric Griffiths's The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1989), which both relies on the idea of the absent speaker and demonstrates that new sorts of voices emerge from the ambiguities and evasions of the page.
(7) Ivan Kreilkamp, Voice and the Victorian Storyteller (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005), pp. 32-34, 202, 183. In an essay that uses recitation books and elocution manuals to link print media and sound media, Jason Camlot also compares shorthand and phonography. Camlot, "Early Talking Books: Spoken Recordings and Recitation Anthologies, 1880-1920," Book History 6 (2003): 147-173.
(8) One is again reminded of the connection between phonography and writing; Plato's Phaedrus warns that writing may breed forgetfulness, making human memory obsolete rather than strengthening it. Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997), pp. 551-552. It may appear perverse to conjure up an anthropomorphized poetic "speaker" and then express surprise that this anthropomorphization is incomplete--and I do not propose that the foremost function of printed poems and phonographic recordings is always to signal the absence of Benjaminian authentic voice or presence. Yet for many of the critics cited in this essay, it does seem that anxious imagination or recollection of the individual human voice is distinctively Victorian.
(9) Thomas Edison, "The Phonograph and Its Future," North American Review 126 (June 1878): 533-536; "The Phonograph," London Times, 17 January 1878, 3; Thomas Edison, "The Perfected Phonograph," North American Review 146 (June 1888): 650. In 1901, W. H. Groves uses a telling technological metaphor in his mnemonic handbook; he writes that memory is "a phonograph into which are received the messages of God and man." Groves, The Rational Memory (Gloucester, Va.: W. H. Groves, 1901), p. 7. And in 1900, W. T. Stead dwells on the fact that phonographs will capture "the very sound and accent of the living words of the dead." Quoted in Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Victorian Afterlives: The Shaping of Influence in Nineteenth-Century Culture (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), p. 1.
(10) Gerard Manley Hopkins to Everard Hopkins, 5 November 1885, in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Letters, ed. Catherine Phillips (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 221, 220.
(11) Bram Stoker, Dracula (Westminster, U.K.: Archibald Constable, 1897), p. 207.
(12) "The Phonograph," Harper's Weekly, 30 March 1878, 249-250; "What Will Come of the Phonograph?," Spectator, 30 June 1888, 881. Carolyn Marvin, while observing that phonography "offered a chance to lay the foundation for an ideal future culture based on a chosen past," adds that "[a]s easily as [the phonograph] could reduce heterodoxies of interpretation and enforce right-thinking homogeneity, it could imperil cultural stability by introducing uncontrolled variety." Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 203-204. Lacey, too, speaks of the phonograph's "automated relation to the arbitrary" and its apparent rejection of "any preconceived categories of selection or aesthetic priority" (p. 56). One might think of the plight of Jorge Luis Borges's character Funes the Memorious, who is unable to forget any detail of anything he has experienced. These concerns seem even more pressing in the Internet age, with its promise--or threat--of a vast and ineradicable digital archive.
(13) Susan Buck-Morss, "Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin's Artwork Essay Reconsidered," in Walter Benjamin: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory, 3 volumes, ed. Peter Osborne (Oxford, UK: Routledge, 2005), 2: 301.
(14) R. Verdon, "Forgetfulness," Mind 2, no. 8 (1877): 443.
(15) Richard Le Gallienne, Prose Fancies (London: John Lane, 1894), p. 13.
(16) J. Mount Bleyer, "Living Autograms," Werner's Magazine 19, no. 2 (1897): 91.
(17) John Stuart Mill, "What Is Poetry?," Monthly Repository, n.s., 7 (1833): 64.
(18) Jonathan Culler, "Deconstruction and the Lyric," in Deconstruction Is/In America: A New Sense of the Political, ed. Anselm Haverkamp (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 46-47.
(19) Edison, "Phonograph and Its Future," p. 535; Edison, "Perfected Phonograph," pp. 648-650 (my emphasis). Edison echoes the language of poetry in describing his invention's wax inscriptions: he writes that it captures the "rhythm" of human speech in "lines ... which are an absolute equivalent for the emission of sound by the lips" ("Perfected Phonograph," p. 642; my emphases). See also Prins, "Voice Inverse," p. 51. Kittler takes this connection to its logical extreme when he asserts that mnemonic machines effectively displace mnemonic form and make it obsolete. Rhyme and rhythm are meant to help us remember language in detail, "to endow words with a duration beyond their evanescence," but phonographs do this more successfully than poetic form can. After Edison, says Kittler, poetry is able to stop imitating voice and can aspire to exist solely in the textual realm (p. 80). Kreilkamp, too, argues that the phonograph poses a challenge to print culture's authority where attempted inscriptions of voice are concerned (p. 32). See also Garrett Stewart, Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1990), pp. 126-127.
(20) W. H. Preece, "The Phonograph," Journal of the Society of Arts 26, no. 1329 (1878): 537; "The Phonograph at the Royal Institution," Graphic 17 (16 March 1878): 262; Theodore du Moncel, The Telephone, the Microphone and the Phonograph (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1879), p. 243; John M. Picker, Victorian Soundscapes (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003), p. 127. Picker points out that "repetition of a disembodied voice had the potential to distort even the most benign speech into a monotonous rant that sounded diabolical" (p. 127). Even Edison uses surprisingly macabre language when he calls his invention a "tongueless, toothless instrument" that "centuries after you have crumbled to dust will repeat again and again" every word you have said to it. Edison, "The Man Who Invents," Washington Post, 19 April 1878,1. Arthur Conan Doyle's 1899 "The Story of the Japanned Box," featuring a man who constantly replays a recording of his wife's dying words and so unwittingly creates the impression that he is communing with ghosts, picks up on the Gothic overtones of Edison's description. In the realm of musical mimesis, John Philip Sousa excoriates "talking and playing machines" that create sounds "as like real art as the marble statue of Eve is like her beautiful, living, breathing daughters." He adds that "[t]he nightingale's song is delightful because the nightingale herself gives it forth." Sousa, "The Menace of Mechanical Music," Appleton's Magazine 8, no. 3 (1906): 279. For more on phonographic music, see (for example) Richard Leppert, Aesthetic Technologies of Modernity, Subjectivity, and Nature: Opera, Orchestra, Phonograph, Film (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2015).
(21) Tom Gunning, "Doing for the Eye What the Phonograph Does for the Ear," in The Sounds of Early Cinema, ed. Richard Abel and Rick Altman (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 21-22. See also Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines, p. 149.
(22) In my monograph The Lyric in Victorian Memory (under contract with Palgrave Macmillan and forthcoming in 2017), I explore this kind of poetic amnesia in more detail. (I am grateful to Victorian Poetry for permission to reprint material from the current essay.) VP's anonymous reader suggested that some lyric poems seek to transform memory into the medium of music or of song rather than to render it as speech, adding that such poems are less anxious about their memorial shortcomings; I propose in The Lyric in Victorian Memory that future scholarship might theorize a counterelegiac impulse that figures forgetfulness as freedom, and I am intrigued by the idea that such an impulse is linked to musicality.
(23) Alfred Tennyson, The Poems of Tennyson: In Three Volumes, ed. Christopher Ricks (Harlow: Longman, 1987), 1: 94; Emily Bronte, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (London: Smith, Elder, 1846), p. 31; D. G. Rossetti, The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. W. M. Rossetti (London: Ellis, 1911), p. 200; W. B. Yeats, The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats: The Poems, ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York: Scribner, 1996), p. 62; Matthew Arnold, The Poems of Matthew Arnold, ed. Kenneth Allott and Miriam Allott (London: Longman, 1979), p. 115. For the Decadent "I," see Arthur Symons, "The Decadent Movement in Literature," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 87 (November 1893). Picker makes a comparable claim about phonographic selfhood, adding that in a noisy industrial age, Edison's invention--which allowed users to record and replay their own voices--"addressed ... a longing to hear perpetually the reproduced self rather than listen to the demanding din of others" (pp. 111-112). Like many lyrics, this machine tends to favor iterative introspection (albeit with an uncannily truncated and distorted version of self) over engagement with the outside world. For lyric as an alternative to urban chaos, see also Elizabeth Helsinger, Poetry and the Pre-Raphaelite Arts: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2008), p. 3.
(24) This section of the essay briefly echoes several points about lyric that I make in "A. E. Housman's Ballad Economies," in Economies of Desire at the Victorian Fin de Siecle: Libidinal Lives, ed. Jane Ford, Kim Edwards Keates, and Patricia Pulham (New York: Routledge, 2016), pp. 35-61.
(25) Paul Ricoeur, even as he declares that a healthy society must forget some of its own history, acknowledges that "only poetry preserves the force of unforgetting." Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blarney and David Pellauer (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 501.
(26) Quoted in Katharine Tynan, "A Catholic Poet," Dublin Review 141 (July-October 1907): 337; Ezra Pound, "Swinburne versus His Biographers," in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), p. 293; Thomas Hardy, The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy, ed. James Gibson (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave, 2001), p. 482.
(27) Nicholas Dames, Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction, 1810-1870 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 3-4.
(28) Charles Armstrong, Figures of Memory: Poetry, Space, and the Past (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 198. In part to avoid addressing issues of class and gender, says Dames, novels encase experience in sentiment. The past is "streamlined ... into a retrospect that remembers only what is pleasant, and only what the self can employ in the present" (p. 4). Amnesia allows both history and narrative to cohere, adhering to the exigencies of Victorian progress and order. According to Dames, novels do not shatter the past "into a series of vivid, relinquished moments"; they forestall the traumatic "bursting of an unassimilated and still-powerful past into the present"; they reject forms of memory that are "[u]nable to separate the relevant from the irrelevant, unwilling to eliminate detail, incapable of converting mnemonic data into useful information" (pp. 4, 6, 211). This description of what novels avoid also encapsulates what lyrics embrace. Ann C. Colley draws a related distinction between nostalgic longings that "freeze and attempt to conserve or frame a detached moment" and those that are more broadly historical. Colley, Nostalgia and Recollection in Victorian Culture (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998), p. 7.
(29) Charles Grivel observes, "The phonograph emphasizes the self in the lack of subject. This machine bears a paradox: it identifies a voice, fixes the deceased (or mortal) person, registers the dead and thus perpetuates his living testimony, but also achieves his automatic reproduction in absentia." Grivel, "The Phonograph's Horned Mouth," trans. Stephen Sartarelli, in Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, ed. Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), p. 35. Elizabeth Miller draws a connection between a famously audienceless oration given by Annie Besant and the emergence of the phonograph; with the advent of new media, she adds, "speech and writing are no longer defined by their proximity to originary bodies." Miller, Slow Print: Literary Radicalism and Late Victorian Print Culture (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 2013), pp. 237-238.
(30) Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer, with Chris Cullens (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1990), p. 237. Kittler also refers to Salomo Friedlaender's short story "Goethe Speaks into the Phonograph" (1916), in which a simulacrum of this dead luminary's voice is extracted from his corpse's throat (Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, p. 59).
(31) On gift albums and selective remembrance, see Helen Groth, Victorian Photography and Literary Nostalgia (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003), p. 44.
(32) Frederic Harrison, "A Pompeii for the Twenty-Ninth Century," Nineteenth Century 28 (1890): 381-391.
(33) Roland Gelatt, The Fabulous Phonograph: From Edison to Stereo (New York: Appleton-Century, 1954), p. 28. Nursery rhymes, selections from Shakespeare, and other well-known verses were popular choices at phonographic demonstrations. Interestingly, in D. G. Rossetti's farcical 1878 drama The Death of Topsy, the ghost of Percy Bysshe Shelley also recites "Hey, diddle, diddle"; both phantom and phonograph repeat words mechanically, disembodying and dehumanizing the voice. Camlot notes that the technological limits of the early phonograph meant that "scraps, gems, portions, and pieces" were recorded rather than novels or longer works (p. 151). The phonograph, as a lyrical medium, thus also functions as an anthology of sorts. For lyric portability, see Emily Harrington's "Michael Field and the Detachable Lyric," Victorian Studies 50, no. 2 (2008): 221-232. For a consideration of the ways in which contemporary spoken-word recordings take up the legacy of the phonograph, see Matthew Rubery, ed., Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies (New York: Routledge, 2011).
(34) Jill L. Matus does make the interesting point, however, that "already in the 1850s inventions such as that of the phonoautograph [s/c]were stimulating the cultural imagination of what it might mean to ... possibly record voices for posterity." Matus, Shock, Memory and the Unconscious in Victorian Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009), pp. 138-139.
(35) A screen memory features hyper-clear remembrance of a mundane event, which disguises or obscures another more disturbing memory. This term is usually applied to childhood recollections.
(36) Jerome McGann, for instance, describes Rossetti's poems as "iconic texts" due to their "pictorial elements" and to Rossetti's concern with "the graphic design of his texted works." McGann, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Game That Must Be Lost (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2000), p. 72.
(37) North British Review 52 (July 1870): 310; Spectator 43 (June 1870): 724; Grivel, p. 52. Ronnalie Roper Howard, in a similar vein, speaks of "the disjunction between [Rossetti's speaker] and his perception--the abstracted vividness of his view of the woodspurge, far from his numbed emotional center." Howard, The Dark Glass: Vision and Technique in the Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 114-115.
(38) John P. McGowan uses "The Woodspurge" to claim that "nature is dead for Rossetti in a way that it was not for Dante or the Romantics." McGowan, "'The Bitterness of Things Occult'": D. G. Rossetti's Search for the Real," in Critical Essays on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. David G. Riede (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), p. 115. More optimistically, McGann--while acknowledging that the woodspurge is not a symbol of the Trinity--believes that "the mere fact of precise sensory perception" comforts this speaker. It may not lend him fresh insight, but its concreteness and specificity are to be valued nonetheless. This three-cupped plant becomes "a token of the magical potential in any objective datum." McGann, "Rossetti's Significant Details," VP 7, no. 1 (1969): 46. See also Stefanie Markovits, The Crimean War in the British Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009), p. 204- I see the relevance of McGann's reading to a Rossetti poem such as "The Blessed Damozel," but I detect neither comfort nor magical potential in "The Woodspurge." David G. Riede takes a comparable but less hopeful tack; he writes that this poem of "nonstatement," in its denial of visionary insight, ultimately "implies a very limited role for poetry." Riede, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983), p. 57. Riede revises his reading when he adds in a later book that the plant is "emptied of divine truth but allegorical of the speaker's own mind." Riede, Allegories of One's Own Mind: Melancholy in Victorian Poetry (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 2005), p. 39. See also Lothar Honnighausen, The Symbolist Tradition in English Literature, trans. Gisela Honnighausen (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1971), p. 247. John Holmes is unusual in asserting that the woodspurge's three cups do successfully evoke the Trinity and that the "theological echo remains" despite the poem's apparent disavowal of it; he exhibits the near-irresistible urge to transform the plant into a symbol. Holmes, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence: Sexuality, Belief, and the Self (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2005), p. 22. Florence Boos simply concludes that "[t]he woodspurge is an emblem of sorrow." Boos, The Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Critical Reading and Source Study (The Hague: Mouton, 1976), p. 247. And Catherine Maxwell takes a novel approach when she posits that because the woodspurge can act as a purgative, this plant represents cathartic purification and so reflects "the purged vision of the grief-stricken narrator." Maxwell, '"Devious Symbols': Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Purgatorio," VP 31, no. 1 (1993): 20-22.
(39) Maxwell sees the speaker's posture as "almost embryonic," catching hints of "stillborn" in the poem's repetition of "still" (p. 21). Thus she, too, suspends him between existence and nonexistence. The concurrent absence and persistence of voice continued to concern Rossetti, as shown in his "Parted Presence" (written around 1874, published in 1881): "Your voice is not on the air, / Yet, love, I can hear your voice" (Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, p. 224,11. 22-23).
(40) Carol T. Christ believes that "the memory of [the woodspurge] is indelible, and simply in itself offers the poet a possibility of renewal." Like McGann, she sees its concrete specificity as intrinsically meaningful and comforting--a proto-Imagistic view with which I tend to disagree. Christ, The Finer Optic: The Aesthetic of Particularity in Victorian Poetry (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 46, 62.
(41) "Dante Gabriel Rossetti," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 389, no. 65 (1882): 696.
(42) Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 2003), p. 319. See also Picker, "Victorian Soundscapes Revisited," in Victorian Soundscapes Revisited, ed. Martin Hewitt and Rachel Cowgill (Leeds, U.K.: Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies, 2007), p. 44. Kreilkamp, in a reading of Richard Terdiman, identifies the phonograph as the invention that "most refigured and disrupted the memory function" (p. 180). A poem such as "The Woodspurge," though, shows that such disruptions were not new to the Victorians.
(43) Helsinger, Poetry and the Pre-Raphaelite Arts, pp. 233-234, 246, 3; "Listening: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Persistence of Song," Victorian Studies 51, no. 3 (2009): 409, 415. Helsinger describes "the rhythmic, sonorous, and semantic shapeliness of line and phrase that makes lyric thought peculiarly memorable, inviting storage and repetition by listeners and readers" ("Listening," p. 414). Lorraine Wood also considers the role of listening in Rossetti's poetry; her interest in the imagined presence of musical instruments echoes my interest in the imagination or recollection of poetic voices. Wood, "Filling in the Blanks: Music and Performance in Dante Gabriel Rossetti," VP 51, no. 4 (2013): 533-535, 539. George Landow writes that "The Woodspurge" tries to freeze time and capture a moment through memorably repetitive sonic techniques. Landow, '"Life Touching Lips with Immortality': Rossetti's Typological Structures," Studies in Romanticism 17, no. 3 (1978): 260. Something similar happens when Rossetti pairs alliterative antonyms; phrases such as "dead deathless," "sweet smart," and "slow sudden" ("The Sonnet" [Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, p. 74, L 3], "Nuptial Sleep" [Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, p. 76,11. 1-2]) create dilatory eddies in the poetic line.
(44) F. L. Lucas writes of this poem that "what once seemed tragic can fade out into trivial forgetfulness" and leave "only a pointless memory." Lucas, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Anthology (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1933), p. xxx.
(45) Allen Grossman with Mark Halliday, The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992), p. 265. Grossman provides a way to navigate between Prins's and Susan Stewart's opposing viewpoints on poetic voice as he describes lyric "presence," the quasi-human first-person singular that points to the text's formal memory of lyrics past rather than to an actual speaking subject. Helsinger applies Grossman's principle to Rossetti in particular, remarking that earlier texts are "unseen but hovering presences" in The House of Life; what she calls "the spectral persistence of the past," neither fully remembered nor fully forgotten, haunts his verse (Poetry and the Pre-Raphaelite Arts, pp. 222, 121).
(46) Even in the process of misremembering his own verse--he renders "Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest" (1. 5) as "Then the gates shut behind us, the lights sank to rest"--Browning faithfully reproduces the anapestic meters that serve as a medium for these words (Robert Browning, Selected Poems, ed. Daniel Karlin (London: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 39). Describing both these prominent meters and the distorted recording, Prins points out that "the speaking voice is broken up by the very technology that seeks to preserve it"; I make a similar claim here. Yopie Prins, "Robert Browning, Transported by Meter," in The Traffic in Poems: Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Transatlantic Exchange, ed. Meredith McGill (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2008), p. 216. Picker writes that the London Browning Society members who held a seance of sorts on the anniversary of the poet's death by replaying this recording ultimately "memorialized, of all things, their hero's forgetfulness" (p. 123). For more on the "complex interplay between metrical abstraction and embodiment," see Jason David Hall's "Materializing Meter: Physiology, Psychology, Prosody," VP 49, no. 2 (2011): 180. And for a transcript of the Browning recording, see Michael Hancher and Jerrold Moore, " 'The Sound of a Voice That Is Still': Browning's Edison Cylinder," Browning Newsletter 4 (1970): 25-26.
(47) John Hollander, Melodious Guile: Fictive Pattern in Poetic Language (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1988), p. 138. The refrains of poems such as Tennyson's "Mariana" and Poe's "The Raven"--"I would that I were dead!" and "Nevermore"-- illustrate both the horror and the monotony of phonograph-like repetition; nothing, it seems, can prevent their return. Pound makes a related point when he links the villanelle's refrain to "an emotional fact, which the intellect, in the various gyrations of the poem, tries in vain and in vain to escape." Pound, "Lionel Johnson," in Literary Essays, p. 369.
(48) Linda Dowling, Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siecle (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1986), p. 207; Richard Cronin, Reading Victorian Poetry (Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), p. 144; Florence Boos, "Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Poetic Daughters: Fin de Siecle Women Poets and the Sonnet," in Outsiders Looking In: The Rossettis Then and Now, ed. David Clifford and Laurence Roussillon (London: Anthem Press, 2004), p. 262; John Keats, The Complete Poems, ed. John Barnard (London: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 217. Cronin, as I do, contrasts "The Woodspurge" with "Ode to the West Wind."
(49) John Ruskin, letter to the editor, London Times 21.733 (25 May 1854): 7. There is a tradition of associating this passage with "The Woodspurge"; see, for instance, Maxwell, p. 30, and Christ, p. 62. Stanley Holberg identifies the "Woodspurge" speaker's state as trancelike: "the senses are enjoying a sort of autonomy" as they seize on random details "with a vividness that normal consciousness, committed to serving the ends of day-to-day existence, never permits." It is true (as Holberg says and as I confirm) that the woodspurge may serve as a symbol for traumatized perception and so provide some psychological insight after all. Holberg, "Rossetti and the Trance," VP 8, no. 4 (1970): 302.
(50) Coventry Patmore, Principle in Art (London: George Bell and Sons, 1898), pp. 103-104.
(51) "Poems by Coventry Patmore," North British Review 28 (1858): 529. Indeed, the philosopher Alexander Bain writes in 1859 that "a painful incident will ... imprint itself on the memory" but that the concomitant emotions may also "efface and consume the records of what has been." Bain, The Emotions and the Will (London: Longmans, Green, 1859), pp. 19-20. For a related perspective on this Bain passage, see Matus, p. 144.
(52) Joan Rees, The Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Modes of Self-Expression (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 66-68; George Eliot, A dam Bede, ed. Carol A. Martin (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), p. 363; Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth, ed. Angus Easson (London: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 80.
(53) A. C. Swinburne, "The Poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti," Fortnightly Review 13 (May 1870): 557. It is perhaps not surprising that Memory and Oblivion are two of the "mysterious powers" that Walter Pater associates with Rossetti's verse in his 1883 essay on the poet. Pater, "Dante Gabriel Rossetti," in Appreciations, with an Essay on Style (London: Macmillan, 1901), p. 212. Cronin makes the relevant point that even as this image "burns itself into his consciousness," the speaker "refuses to integrate his perception of the woodspurge with any human sense of value." For Cronin, "The Woodspurge" speaks to the fundamental human quest to situate the self in relation to sensual experience--a quest that motivates much of nineteenth-century poetry. Cronin, Colour and Experience in Nineteenth-Century Poetry (Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1988), p. 5.
(54) Richard Terdiman, Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 4-5. Reading The House of Life, Boos muses that "the past seemed further away to [the Victorians] than to the Romantics"; she adds that Victorian writers fixated on lost moments and vanishing loves even as they became "mote aware of history, progression in time, and therefore of their own constant progression, moment by moment, towards death and away from memory" (Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, pp. 79, 90). Erika Brady, pointing to the rise of "educational expositions, museums, and academic institutions," observes that Victorians both embraced progress and "honored the backward gaze--sometimes sentimentally for its own sake, and sometimes as a form of self-congratulation." Brady, A Spiral Way: How the Phonograph Changed Ethnography (Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1999), pp. 14-16. H. G. Wells's dystopian When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) depicts a world in which recorded sound has replaced writing, and phonographs endeavor to stabilize or preserve culture; Aaron Worth, however, notes that Wells's account ultimately points to "the essentially quixotic nature of the attempt to freeze cultural forms." Worth, Imperial Media: Colonial Networks and Information Technologies in the British Literary Imagination, 1857-1918 (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 2014), p. 76.
(55) Gitelman assesses the phenomenon of spectators taking home pieces of tinfoil as souvenirs after early phonographic demonstrations. She sees this inscribed foil as "a new, precise sort of quotation" that is both more accurate and more opaque than written texts--which strengthens her claim that media more broadly considered are "functionally integral to a sense of pastness" (Always Already New, pp. 39-40, 5).
(56) Mark Jeffreys, "Ideologies of Lyric: A Problem of Genre in Contemporary Anglophone Poetics," PMLA 110, no. 2 (1995): 197.
(57) The invention of the telephone, for example, cues nostalgia for face-to-face interaction; the rise of email and social media means that telephone conversations feel less mediated and are themselves the objects of nostalgia. Evan Eisenberg writes that a recording's attempts to "make beauty and pleasure permanent" can even engender "nostalgia for the here and now." Eisenberg, The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2005), pp. 14-16. For related perspectives on recordings and memory, see William Howland Kenny's Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999) and Karin Bijsterveld and Jose van Dijck's collection Sound Souvenirs: Audio Technologies, Memory and Cultural Practices (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2009).
(58) See Brian Dobbs and Judy Dobbs, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Alien Victorian (London: Macdonald and Jane's, 1977), p. 155. These attempts took a more literal turn in 1869, when Rossetti had Siddal's body exhumed in order to retrieve a manuscript he had placed in her coffin. In 1872, Rossetti began to experience aural hallucinations: "Whether he was tricked by his own fancy, or merely misinterpreted ordinary sounds, is not clear, but ... airy voices taunted him with epithets of intolerable ignominy; even a thrush which sang insistently in his garden was believed by him to have been trained to ejaculate terms of obloquy to annoy him." Arthur C. Benson, Rossetti (New York: Macmillan, 1904), p. 65. Such paranoid delusions are primarily a sign of Rossetti's tragic mental decline, but they also reveal his concern with spectral voices and presences--a concern that surfaces in his poetry as well. "The Woodspurge" itself may also be one of Rossetti's more cryptic remembrances of Siddal, as it can be read as a reflection of growing disharmony between the two.
(59) Pamela Thurschwell coins the term "technological resuscitation," remarking that phonographs "assure that spectral authors can always re-emerge"; I apply this point to spectral poetic speakers. Thurschwell, Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001), p. 4. Harrington connects both lyrics and recordings to posthumous voices, locating them in a "purgatorial space" where the dead are not quite revived (Second Person Singular, p. 39). Jason David Hall and Alex Murray make an argument related to my own when they compare "the apparatuses of spiritualism and sound recording--both of which prioritize the 'medium.'" Hall and Murray, "Introduction: Decadent Poetics," in Decadent Poetics: Literature and Form at the British Fin de Siecle, ed. Hall and Murray (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 14. And Deborah Lutz also associates phonographs, which she calls "relic replacements" and "empty graves," with the rise of spiritualism in an increasingly secular age. Lutz, Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015), pp. 124-125, 167.
(60) In fact, in 1920, Edison described an even more ambitious project; he believed he could construct a device that would allow the dead to contact the living. See Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 2000), p. 60.
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|Title Annotation:||Dante Gabriel Rossetti|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2017|
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