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  • Technologies of Forgetting: Phonographs, Lyric Voice, and Rossetti’s Woodspurge
  • Veronica Alfano (bio)


In her recent book m, 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 [End Page 127] 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...


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