Wordsworth’s Acoustics: Sound Before the Echo of the Sense – Felix Duperrier

Listening is one of the most fundamental modes of relationality. By listening, one comes into contact with one’s environment, allowing oneself to engage with, and even be changed by, one’s environment. In his poems of listening, William Wordsworth probes the complex nature of auditory experiences. Wordsworth’s encounters with song, sounds, and voices offer ways of thinking about the special kind of receptiveness that characterises the act of listening, in which creative, ethical, and political processes intertwine.

Felix Duperrier est doctorant au LARCA. Sa thèse porte sur la question du langage dans l’oeuvre de William Wordsworth.


“I see what you mean”; “to have a point of view”; “to put things in perspective” – these common phrases that are used on an everyday basis indicate how central the notion of “vision” is to our definition of knowledge. To “see” does not only mean to have a visual perception of something, it is frequently taken in the sense of to “understand.” The affinity, if not the interchangeability, of sight and insight has served as an epistemological principle – a principle for producing and structuring knowledge – since antiquity. The ancient Greek word theôría, the origin of the word “theory,” combines the senses of “speculation, thought” and “sight, spectacle, viewing,” further confirming the long tradition of associating seeing and thinking.

Seeing enables one to classify knowledge, to organise the contents of experience, and to bring order to one’s thoughts. British thinkers and science practitioners in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries were acutely aware of this fact, all the more so as sight was an area of major scientific interest. Isaac Newton’s Opticks (1704) expounded important discoveries about the nature of light that were celebrated in both the sciences and the arts.[i] On an institutional, if not political, level, sight also found expression in Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, his model for an “all-seeing” prison. The panopticon was a circular building that enabled the gaolers to see their prisoners and to monitor their every move at all times. It brought out the political connotations of order and control that the notion of sight conveyed; in that respect, it is not surprising that the panopticon later came to stand for cultures of mass surveillance and police states.[ii] Bentham’s panopticon conflates vision, knowledge, and power in a sinister fashion.

The valorisation of sight over the other senses can seem problematic. As each sense offers its own unique access to one’s experience of the material world, elevating sight as the sole standard of reference in matters of knowledge sets limitations on both our understanding of knowledge and the relation between the human body and the world. The exclusive preference for sight appears even more restrictive in the case of poetry. Poetry, in fact, gestures towards different ways of relating to sense experience: it deploys the acoustic potentialities of language by exploiting the resources of rhythm, rhyme, or sound patterns. Whether one chooses to read it silently or to recite it, poetry draws attention to its sonic dimension. Although poetry appears on a printed page, it frequently refers to voices – be it the voice of the author, the reader, or the performer. This suggests that seeing it in print may not be enough, as if reading poetry were continuous with hearing poetry, or rather “giving voice” to it. The experience of reading poetry establishes an uncertain, albeit productive, tension between seeing and hearing language. As such, it invites us to reflect on the nature of listening.

The poetry of William Wordsworth offers a rich body of texts that reflect on the act of listening. Some of his most intensely lyrical poems involve moments of listening. In ‘Tintern Abbey,’ for instance, he writes that he has learnt to hear “The still, sad music of humanity”[iii]; likewise,  in his sonnet ‘Mutability,’ he discerns the “musical but melancholy chime” of “dissolution.”[iv] The following remarks aim at tracing some of the ways in which Wordsworth’s poetry explores an auditory attunement to the world, that is to say a perception of the world that is primarily mediated by sound. More specifically, they will be concerned with poems about listening, for instance ‘The Solitary Reaper.’ Focusing on the act of listening brings to the fore the dual nature of sound, which is shown to be a partly sensory, partly mental phenomenon – a mixture of sense data and meaningful, “sensical” information. Although these two poles of sound are dependent on each other, Wordsworth emphasises the fact that they are distinct and that, at times, the connexion between them can be broken. Wordsworth’s poems of listening thus take their inspiration from sound as a source of both sensuality and meaning. They make a self-conscious use of sounds in that sound is their subject as much as their material: they reflect on the nature of sound while drawing attention to the sounds of which they are composed. In doing so, Wordsworth makes apparent the strong links between sound and creativity. His acoustic sensitivity will then be approached in terms of the ethical and political uses of listening. Listening to social outcasts – a central theme in the Lyrical Ballads – meant listening to the victims of the British political system. Expressing sympathy for these men and women registers criticism of, if not opposition to, the government. Lyrical Ballads stages encounters across social classes that remind us how fraught the very act of listening could be. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, listening to critics of the government – in particular, physically attending the rallies of those considered as agitators and listening to their unsanctioned opinions – involved taking personal risks. But equally suspicious was the use of unconventional metres, which the conservative cultural establishment tended to regard as alien, un-British, and therefore subversive. In adopting such metres, Wordsworth associated himself in his poetry with radical friends and literary collaborators that had been targeted by the counter-revolutionary government and media. As the repressive government of the 1790s strove to regulate who and what its subjects could, or could not, listen to, Wordsworth recovers the fragility of listening, which his poetry invites us to consider as a civil liberty.

J. M. W. Turner, Tintern Abbey (c. 1794)[v]

Wordsworth, like many Romantic poets, relied on reciting and reading aloud to produce his poetry; appreciating the auditory qualities of verse was central to composition. Verse did not originate silently and spontaneously, it was gradually fashioned into poetry through an acoustic process of repetition and revision.[vi] Some of his most famous poems give an equally important role to the eye and to the ear. In ‘Tintern Abbey,’ he famously portrays himself as a lover of

                                                 all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.[vii]

Grounding his poem in “the language of the sense” emphasises the ambiguous role played by the ear and the eye. As they both “perceive” and “half-create,” they engage with the world in a simultaneously passive and active manner: they both record the features of the speaker’s surroundings and they refashion them into a “mighty world” of considerable richness and complexity. This twofold involvement of eye and ear raises important questions about the nature of perception. Retrieving an “objective” reality that exists before it became entangled in the subjective senses is forever compromised by the subjective mediation of eye and ear. As the two senses suspend the Cartesian division of subject and object, Wordsworth also frees the senses of an instrumental role by claiming that they are both the causes and effects of the activities of the mind, rather than being merely subordinate to it. The eye and the ear thus foster his “purest thoughts”, protect his “heart,” and safeguard his “moral being.”

In making this claim, Wordsworth questions certain assumptions of the empiricist philosophy that was dominant throughout the eighteenth-century. John Locke’s influential study of the human mind and knowledge in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) assigns a passive role to the senses. Seeking to trace the origins of ideas, Locke contends that no ideas are innate and, as a result, that they derive from experience entirely. Ideas thus originate in the senses: the outer world creates “impressions” on the senses, which record the characteristics of what they have encountered and pass the information on to the mind. The mind subsequently converts sense data into ideas. While this approach posits continuity between the senses and the mind, between the body and the understanding, it reduces the senses to tools subservient to the activities of the mind. In this view, the senses are intermediate between the experienced reality and the mind, and their halfway position relegates them to a secondary role. Though the senses play an essential part in the formation of ideas, they are not shown as intrinsically interesting.[viii] By defining the senses as vehicles of perception, as well as of creation, Wordsworth challenges the Lockean conception of the senses. Whereas Locke, and the empiricist tradition after him, generally considered the senses as offering a reliable, objective account of reality, Wordsworth counters that the senses are actively engaged in reworking, or “half-creating,” reality. Perception implies a subjective re-presentation of the world, not a faithful mirror-image of it. In other words, the senses would not provide a transparent, unmodified account of reality, nor would the mind be the centralising faculty exclusively responsible for the production of ideas. Instead, the “language of the sense” is produced both by the bodily senses and the “sensical” mind.

Wordsworth repeatedly thinks about poetry as a process of “making sense.” Wordsworth’s releasing the senses from the utilitarian function of data-purveyors invites us to approach the senses as sources of genuine aesthetic interest. This also leads him to challenging the hierarchy of the senses, conventionally dominated by sight. The Prelude articulates his most forceful attack on the supremacy of the eye:

The state to which I now allude was one
In which the eye was master of the heart,
When that which is in every stage of life
The most despotic of our senses gained
Such strength in me as often held my mind
In absolute dominion.[ix]

Wordsworth criticises an obsession with sight that constrains his ability to feel (“the heart”) and to think (“my mind”). The excessive influence of the eye is not limited to Wordsworth’s past, but it extends to “every stage of life” and affects all people, as suggested by the alternation of the first-person singular (“I” and “me”) and the first-personal plural (“our”). It is significant that this passage occurs after the two books Wordsworth dedicates to his experience of the French Revolution, as his warning against the eye is couched in political language: the eye is successively branded his former “master,” “the most despotic of our senses,” and a figure of “absolute dominion.” Considering the politically charged context in which these lines appear, Wordsworth consciously draws a parallel between resisting the hegemony of sight and revolting against absolutist power.

At times, Wordsworth appears to suggest that sight works differently from hearing. Sight can operate selectively – one can choose what one wishes to see or not see. What one sees is further determined by one’s “point of view,” placing the seeing subject at the centre of what he views. Wordsworth’s suspicion that the eye can prove too oppressive a sense stems from a fear that sight might establish a top-downwards relationship between the subject and the world surrounding him. The distancing, “panoptical” effect of sight would threaten to instil a similarly “despotic” outlook in the subject. As he vests the eye with connotations of tyranny, he elsewhere presents the ear and the act of listening as a better political alternative. In ‘Expostulation and Reply,’ for instance, the fact that “We cannot bid the ear be still” is a form of “wise passiveness.” This is the attitude in which painters sometimes chose to represent Wordsworth himself, such as the portrait by Henry William Pickersgill:

Henry William Pickersgill, William Wordsworth (c.1850) [x]

The process of listening exposes the subject to his surroundings; the ear offers a permanent access to its auditory environment, but it has no control over its “soundscape.” Listening implies being receptive to the presences of other people or things, which impinge on the listener’s consciousness. For all the cultural and historical parameters that inform the act of listening,[xi] it offers the possibility of encountering a form of otherness. Commenting on Wordsworth’s poetry, Adam Potkay observes that “Ethics begin in listening”, an attitude he defines as involving “responsiveness (a step towards responsibility) and vulnerability (a sense of which underscores our obligation to care for others).”[xii] Listening is an ethical stance in that it allows the self to be transformed by what it perceives.

The poem ‘The Solitary Reaper’ explores the nature of listening. It gives an account of a traveller who pauses in a valley to listen to a female reaper singing in Gaelic. Unable to understand the words, the speaker emphasises the strangeness of the situation throughout the poem. Despite the pleasure he takes in the experience, the poem shows him struggling, and ultimately failing, to assign a meaning to the song. The fact that meaning is unavailable leads him to engage with sound as raw, unsignified material. The first stanza conveys an attitude of creative receptiveness:

Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.[xiii]

The exclamatory tone and the imperatives suggest that hearing is an experience of excess: the “overflowing” song bursts beyond the limits of the vale in a way that defies containment. It strikes the ear of the speaker and enters its mind as forcefully as he commands the reader to “stop” and “listen” in turn, inviting us to share his responsiveness. The echoes with which the stanza (and the poem in general) is filled indicate that the speaker strives to mimic the song. The repetition of sounds, not only through the use of rhyme but also through the alliterating “s,” combines with the repetition of words and the use of synonyms, with “sings” and “singing” paralleling the synonym “strain,” and even the first syllable of “single” too. The wording also recalls Wordsworth’s claim in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads that poetry originates in “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”[xiv] This other echo underlines the connection between the song and the process of writing the poem: the speaker is trying to recreate the aural relation to the scene and thus to break down the barrier between the original experience and the post-hoc composition of the poem: it enacts the process whereby unprocessed sound and “powerful feelings” are organised by metre, which brings them to order through “the co-presence of something regular.”[xv]

The sense of being overpowered by sound is then approached in terms of disorientation, albeit one of a pleasurable kind:

No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.

The rapturous enjoyment of the song, made prominent by the use of hyperboles (“No…did ever…”; “a voice so thrilling ne’er was heard”; “farthest”), takes the reader through a list of distant countries with unusual associations. The Scottish Hebrides sit oddly next to the nightingale, a more southern bird, as do the Arabian sands next to the cuckoo. Both songbirds conjure up a number of English poets that Wordsworth emulated, and sometimes competed with, such as Shakespeare or Milton.[xvi] By mentally moving back and forth in these different regions, the speaker registers his difficulty in securing geographic and interpretive purchase. His inability to pin the song down to a specific location matches the way in which the song spreads throughout the vale and seems to surround the speaker from all sides. His search for bearings – both spatial and literary – makes him aware of his own foreignness. The unbridgeable distance that the speaker encounters on a physical and linguistic level can be construed as a symptom of the hybrid status of sound itself, which is part sensory stimulus, part meaningful content. Dividing sound from intelligible content also restores sound to its original state of alienness, thus hinting that the connections which language creates between words and things are arbitrary. Revealingly, in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth prescribes “the real language of men” as the remedy against the artificial language of poets who “indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression,” only to worry in the end that “my language may frequently have suffered from those arbitrary connections of feelings and ideas with particular words, from which no man can protect himself.”[xvii] Likening the reaper to a songbird further provides a sense of unrestricted pleasure, as though the speaker were hearing a melody that had not yet been specialised into a language. Music as the origin of language, a Rousseauvian theory,[xviii] lends to the reaper’s song a universal appeal that is not mediated by words and to which anyone can relate. Countering Pope’s dictum in ‘An Essay on Criticism,’ Wordsworth represents sound before, or even without, the echo of the sense: although he presents the song as meaningful, he does so on an affective and acoustic level, not a rational one. What the speaker-listener experiences is a moment prior to interpretation, a moment in which sound has not yet been converted into intelligible language – at least one understood by the speech community of the speaker himself.

As contentless sensation overlaps with semantic content, sound oscillates between the auditory and the intelligible.[xix] The speaker’s frustration at his inability to understand the singer brings out this tension:

Will no one tell me what she sings?—
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?

The exasperation the speaker vents in the opening question reveals how deeply the poem is concerned with the search, if not the need, for an interpretation. The different possibilities the speaker considers aim at classifying the song, as though assigning it to a specific genre would render it easier to comprehend. He initially wonders whether it might be an epic or a tragedy, with the theme of “battles long ago” and the lofty diction of “plaintive numbers” placing it in the tradition of heroic poetry. Its “plaintive” tone may also connect it to the epic and elegiac poetry of Ossian, which still enjoyed considerable popularity at the beginning of the nineteenth century and with which Wordsworth engaged repeatedly throughout his career. The image of a reaper moreover recalls the georgic genre. The speaker then turns to “some more humble lay,” whose “familiar matter of today” is redolent of the ballad tradition, if not the lyrical ballads that Wordsworth and Coleridge co-authored. The “natural sorrow, loss, or pain” finally identifies it as an elegy. None of these genres are mutually exclusive; rather, there is abundant evidence that they overlapped frequently. But the speaker’s rummaging through the catalogue of genres only exposes his need to pigeonhole the song. Ultimately, the speaker is not satisfied by any of these options; he goes on to dismiss his anxious attempts at classification by saying “Whate’er the theme” in the following stanza. His failure to gain access to the meaning of the poem leads him to confront the dual nature of sound, with sound-as-sensation filling in the gap left by sound-as-sense.

The bifurcation at work in sound becomes the subject of the final stanza:

Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o’er the sickle bending;—
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

The final stanza ties up the parallels between song and poetry that pervade the poem. The poem emerges as the speaker leaves the vale, thus symbolically re-enacting the “overflowing” spread of the song beyond the hill. It reinforces the proximity between the reaper and the speaker-poet, with Wordsworth exploiting the double sense of the Latin “versus,” a word connecting poetry and agriculture. The overlap he proposes between the composition of poetry and the act of listening, however, can be read as a somewhat more original, and modest, conception of poetic authority. The poet-as-listener acknowledges that his creativity is inextricably tied to the voices of other. It is significant that the speaker does not claim authorship of the song and that he does not control the voice of the reaper, but is keen to stress that he is trying to imitate some of its musical qualities. The poem he produces, rather than being the spontaneous creation of poetic genius, is a transmission and a reworking of another person’s song, which retains its individuality. In that respect, his poetic listening assimilates to a principle of hospitality, whereby the listener is constantly alive to new presences and forever welcoming their voices.


Robert Carrick, Glencoe (1850)[xx]

Wordsworth’s creative listening stages the encounter between the self and various forms of otherness.  Wordsworth frequently stresses that the other need not necessarily be human, with nature itself prominently featuring in his verse as an interlocutor that played a major role in his moral development. The ethical power of listening thus takes on an ecological dimension. The motif of “intercourse” with nature in The Prelude articulates this idea, with Wordsworth remembering how, as a child, he

               held unconscious intercourse
With the eternal Beauty, drinking in
A pure organic pleasure from the lines
Of curling mist, or from the level plain
Of waters colour’d by the steady clouds. (I.589-593, italics mine)

The “lines” of mist are continuous with the lines of verse he later writes, with poetry and nature converging on a shared “eternal Beauty.”

He later argues that a child engages in constant dialogue with nature through his senses:

                                              there exists
A virtue which irradiates and exalts
All objects through all intercourse of sense.
No outcast he, bewilder’d and depress’d;
Along his infant veins are interfus’d
The gravitation and the filial bond
Of nature, that connect him with the world. (II.258-264, italics mine)

The dialogical relation between the child and nature posits a connection with the world that is not organised around man, but that it is founded on an idea of reciprocity whereby the conversation between man and nature intertwines the human and the non-human. This draws attention to Wordsworth’s environmentalist consciousness, which postulates a holistic relationship between man and nature. Listening to, and conversing with, nature allow it to act as an agent of an ethical transformation.

Listening can also take place within a social environment. As such, it can carry important political implications: it sometimes means engaging with the unheard or excluded voices of one’s community, and even letting oneself be shaped by them. This is the project that Wordsworth sets out in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, in which he announces that he will imitate as closely as possible “the very language of men,”[xxi] in particular the “plainer and more emphatic language” spoken in “low and rustic life.”[xxii] Incorporating such voices brings the reader to hear representatives of the lowest social classes, members of society which the book-buying public may otherwise choose to disregard. The poems of Lyrical Ballads are accordingly peopled with a large of number of beggars, vagrants, abandoned mothers, destitute men and women. For instance, the tale of the impoverished shepherd in ‘The Last of the Flock’ exposes the violence and cruelty of the Poor Laws, while the narrator of ‘The Female Vagrant’ requires the reader to confront the harm caused by the capitalist-driven expropriation of small landowners, the consequences of war on the poor, and the oppression of women. Even before the reader considers what they have to say, the very fact of heeding these figures of poverty and social distress constitutes a politically significant choice. Their inclusion signals the young Wordsworth’s sympathy for radical ideas, which the government of the 1790s increasingly sought to oppose. That the poems invite compassion for the people whom the speaker encounters further attests to the ways in which listening could be weaponised.

The political, and potentially punishable, uses of listening are vividly captured in New Morality (1798), an etching made by the caricaturist and printmaker James Gillray. The satirical cartoon embodies the convergence of poetic practices and political agitation. By publishing the print in the Anti-Jacobin Review, a pro-government newspaper, Gillray aligned himself with the counter-revolutionary agenda of William Pitt’s Tory cabinet. The cartoon does not criticise Wordsworth personally, but it provides insight into the political landscape to which he was responding, not least because the thrust of its attack was explicitly levelled against some of his close friends and acquaintances.

James Gillray, New Morality (9 July 1798)[xxiii]

New Morality is a savage, but highly effective, piece of propaganda. The Phrygian caps identify the crowd as supporters of the French Revolution, and the monsters in their midst convey Gillray’s, but also the government’s, fear of unrest on British soil. The mob and the monsters are two sides of the same coin: they reflect a dread of losing control of the population. The Leviathan at the centre brings to mind a famous antecedent in English political theory, Hobbes’s Leviathan, which presents an absolutist vision of state power. Gillray, in effect, is claiming that the English supporters of the Revolution want to replace the British constitutional monarchy with a dictatorship; the radicals who allegedly defend the cause of liberty are actually plotting to unleash the horrors of civil discord. Gillray’s conspirationist ideology is based on a perception that British radicals have swamped the print culture with tendentious publications. Closely zooming in on the papers the revolutionaries are holding in the lower half of the scene gives the names of specific people and works with which Wordsworth was very familiar.[xxiv] The two-legged donkey below the Leviathan is reading an extract of Political Justice, a major book and rallying cry of radical politics written by William Godwin, with whom Wordsworth associated in the mid-1790s. The man sitting closest to the Leviathan’s head is brandishing a document bearing the title “Thelwall’s Lectures,” that is to say the lectures of a prominent radical activist and public speaker whom Wordsworth also knew and even accommodated briefly.[xxv]

The documents spewing out of the cornucopia establish even closer links to Wordsworth. The long-eared creature in a blue coat holds a copy of “Southey’s Saphics,” with “Colridge’s Dactyls” hovering above it. Protruding from its pocket is a copy of “Joan of Arc”, a play co-written by Southey and Coleridge, with whom Wordsworth was friends and – in Coleridge’s case – he even collaborated to produce the first edition of Lyrical Ballads. The two toads behind it are gaping at “Blank-Verse by Toady & Frog.” Wordsworth was virtually unknown to the public when New Morality appeared in August 1798. At the time, the only works he had published were An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches, and although both poems were printed by the radical printer Joseph Johnson, they dated back to 1793 and had more or less gone unnoticed. Lyrical Ballads, the collection of poems that earned him the public’s attention, only appeared in September 1798, and they did so anonymously – Wordsworth’s name was only included from the second edition of 1800 onwards. There is no evidence that Wordsworth saw the cartoon, but assuming that he did, he would nevertheless have felt Gillray’s charge of dissent and seditious activities applied to him, insofar as it connects revolutionary disorder to the use of experimental poetic rhythms, such as sapphics, dactyls, and most importantly in his case, “blank verse.” Wordsworth had already started using blank verse, that is to say unrhymed iambic pentameter, and he was to distinguish himself in it.

‘Michael’ is a case in point. In a letter to Charles James Fox, the leader of the Whig opposition, Wordsworth explains that ‘Michael’ is a poem of social protest. ‘Michael,’ according to Wordsworth, stresses the urgency of protecting “the lower orders of society” from an unregulated labour market, economic hardship, and the indifference of “the present Rulers of this country.”[xxvi] It is tempting to consider that ‘Michael,’ a versified argument in favour of reform, conflates its call for political change and the use of blank verse – precisely the nexus between politics and poetic practices that Gillray regarded as alien and unpatriotic. Employing unconventional rhythms and metres would mark out the poems of the Wordsworth circle as suspicious types of utterance, as though the way they sounded to contemporary readers could disrupt the group-speak of the conservative establishment.

Gillray’s politicisation of poetic rhythm is a reminder that the manner in which Wordsworth chose his poems not only to be read, but also to be composed and heard, implied certain consciously held political stances. As a print, New Morality may be silent, but the pandemonium it portrays identifies poetry with public speech. The noise of the disorderly crowd would be the equivalent of the jarring rhythms of disloyal, anti-government poetry. In his opinion, both expressed a “sensory coup d’état[xxvii] that needed to be contained. Gillray feared that radical ideas were spreading rapidly, in the same way that the louder sound becomes, the faster and the further it propagates. The cacophony of the cartoon presents listening as a site of ideological contamination. The identity of those to whom one listened, whether in literature or in politics, was becoming the focus of the culture wars of the 1790s in which figures like Gillray were pitted against the friends of Wordsworth. The “Gagging Acts,” the very byname of the measures deployed by the government to silence its enemies, whom it sought to brand as terrorists, raise questions about the political issues at stake in the act of listening. If the right to listen is the counterpart of freedom of speech, both liberties were curtailed by the Gagging Acts: they initiated a crackdown on the public rallies held by radical activists, forbidding those suspected of sedition from both organising and attending such events. With John Thelwall being tried in the 1794 Treason Trials, Wordsworth was acutely aware of the value, but also of the dangers, of listening.

In the end, Wordsworth’s thinking on the poetic, ethical, and political functions of listening takes us back to its grammatical usage. “To listen” is an intransitive verb which can be an end in itself, as in ‘The Solitary Reaper.’ The speaker’s entreaty – “O listen!” – invites us to reflect both on what sound is and on what it means to listen. The state of auditory availability that it supposes reminds us that listening is also a connective action: one listens to someone or something else. Listening brings one into acoustic and mental contact with an outside presence, which in turn gives this presence the possibility of influencing the listener. The mutuality it fosters, as well as the power to refashion or to disrupt that it gives, is perhaps nowhere better encapsulated than in Antony’s phrase “lend me your ears.”[xxviii] Listening to poetry, then, would be a form of gift exchange, in which the poet’s giving his poem is matched by the listener’s giving himself up to it.



[i] For one important example, cf. James Thomson, A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton (London: J. Millan, 1727).

[ii] Cf. Michel Foucault’s Suveiller et punir : Naissance de la prison (1975).

[iii] William Wordsworth & Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, ed. R. L. Brett & Alun R. Jones, 2nd ed. (1991) (London ; New York: Routledge, 1968), p. 116, l. 92.

[iv] William Wordsworth, Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical Sonnets, ed. Abbie Findlay Potts (Yale University Press, 1922), p. 179, l.4.

[v] J. M. W. Turner, Tintern Abbey (c. 1794), drawing on paper, 419mm x 316mm, The British Museum, London. Accessed 07 February 2023 at https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1878-1228-41

[vi] David Perkins, “How the Romantics Recited Poetry,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 31, no 4 (1991): 655‑71.

[vii]  Lyrical Ballads, p.116, ll. 106-112.

[viii] For more details, cf. book II of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

[ix] William Wordsworth, The Prelude: The Four Texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850), ed. Jonathan Wordsworth (London ; New York: Penguin Books, 1995), XI.170-175.

[x] Henry William Pickersgill, William Wordsworth (c.1850), oil on canvas, 85 1/2 in. x 52 1/2 in, National Portrait Gallery, London. Accessed 03 March 2021  https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitExtended/mw06934/William-Wordsworth

[xi] Jonathan Sterne has debunked received ideas about listening; he argues, amongst other points, that the contents and the criteria of what we hear are dependent on what our cultural environment teaches us to hear. As such, the human relation to sound is not “natural,” but shaped by an evolving history of the senses. Cf. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2003), pp. 14-19

[xii] Adam Potkay, Wordsworth’s Ethics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), p. 13.

[xiii] William Wordsworth, Poems, in Two Volumes, 1807, ed. Richard E. Matlak (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2016), p. 153.

[xiv] Lyrical Ballads, p. 246.

[xv]Quoting this passage from the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads in full highlights the simultaneously formal and moral functions of such “order”: “Now the co-presence of something regular, something to which the mind has been accustomed when in an unexcited or a less excited state, cannot but have great efficacy in tempering and restraining the passion by an intertexture of ordinary feeling.” (p. 264)

[xvi] The nightingale famously features in Shakespeare’s plays, such as Romeo and Juliet (cf. III.5.1-5) and Titus Andronicus (cf. II.4), alongside Milton’s ‘To the Nightingale’ and Coleridge’s ‘The Nightingale’ (published in Lyrical Ballads). Wordsworth would also have been aware of other instances of cuckoos in poetry, notably the Medieval poem ‘Sumer is icumen,’ the eighteenth-century Scottish poet John Logan’s ‘Ode to the Cuckoo,’ and the song ‘When daisies pied and violets blue’ in the closing scene of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. The cuckoo serves as a symbol of the poetic voice elsewhere in Wordsworth’s Poems, in Two Volumes, for example in ‘To the Cuckoo’ and ‘Yes! Full surely ‘twas the Echo.’

[xvii] Cf. Lyrical Ballads, pp. 267, 246, and 268.

[xviii] Cf. Rousseau’s Essai sur l’origine des langues.

[xix] For this remark and for a philosophical understanding of sound in general, I am indebted to Jean-Luc Nancy, A l’écoute (Paris: Galilée, 2002).

[xx] Robert Carrick, Glencoe (1850), after Horatio McCulloch, print, 347mm x 517mm, The British Museum, London. Accessed 07 February 2023 at https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1863-0214-1531

[xxi] Lyrical Ballads, p. 250.

[xxii] op. cit., p. 245.

[xxiii] ‘New morality; -or- the promis’d installment of the high-priest of the theophilanthropes, with the homage of Leviathan,’ hand-coloured etching, 274mm x 620mm, The British Museum, London. Published in The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, 1 August 1798. Accessed 03 March 2022 at https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1868-0808-6762.

[xxiv] For an extensive study of the historical context and Wordsworth’s part in it, cf. Nicholas Roe, Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

[xxv] Thelwall marked the episode in his poem ‘Lines Written at Bridgewater.’

[xxvi] The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Early Years, 1787–1805, ed. Ernest de Selincourt; 2nd ed. revised by Chester L. Shaver (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), pp. 313-315.

[xxvii] Ian Haywood, “The Sounds of Peterloo,” in Michael Demson & Regina Hewitt, ed., Commemorating Peterloo: Violence, Resilience and Claim-making during the Romantic Era, Edinburgh critical studies in Romanticism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019), p.58.

[xxviii] Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, III.2.


I would like to thank Abigail Lang and Emma Prevignano for the many comments that they made when reading this article in draft form. This article has benefited immensely from their generous advice and insights, and I am grateful for their kind and invaluable help.




OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Sylvain-Karl Gosselet (15 février 2023). Wordsworth’s Acoustics: Sound Before the Echo of the Sense – Felix Duperrier. Frontières du littéraire. Consulté le 13 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/os3z

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