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  • Phonographic Hopkins: Sound, Cylinders, Silence, and “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”
  • Justin Tackett (bio)

In response to the first edition of Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement observed in January 1919 that Hopkins had an affinity for linking words “merely because they are alike in sound. This, at its worst, produces the effect almost of idiocy, of speech without sense and prolonged merely by echoes. It seems to be a bad habit, like stuttering.” Yet, the essayist concludes, “[i]t is as if he heard everywhere a music too difficult, because too beautiful, for our ears and noted down what he could catch of it; authentic fragments that we trust even when they bewilder us.”1 This feeling of being bewildered by Hopkins’s sounds and simultaneously appreciating their authenticity remained a hallmark of readers’ responses. A respondent in I. A. Richards’s Practical Criticism (1929) echoed the TLS’s reaction to Hopkins’s poetry: “Has a decided fascination for me, but it is an irritating rather than a satisfactory fascination.... I find myself attending exclusively to the sound and general feel of the word-pattern regardless of the sense.”2 Sixty years on, critical works such as Eric Griffiths’s The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry (1989) were still deciding whether the relations between the “semantic processes” of Hopkins’s poems and their “sonic material” were “regrettable” or “inevitable.”3

In a November 1885 letter Hopkins wrote to his brother Everard, he expounds on the nature of his poetry, especially sound. “Poetry was originally meant for either singing or reciting, a record was kept of it; the record could be, was, read, and that in time by one reader, alone, to himself, with the eyes only,” he posits. “Sound-effects were intended . . . but they bear the marks of having been meant for the . . . merely mental performance of the closet, the study, and so on.” Then he declares, “This is not the true nature of poetry, the darling child of speech, of lips and spoken utterance: it must be spoken; till it is spoken it is not performed, it does not perform, it is not itself. Sprung rhythm gives back to poetry its true soul and self.” The problem for poetry, in Hopkins’s view, is that the sonic beauties and stirring acoustic effects of which the speaking voice is capable are rarely attained in his era, though he imagines [End Page 147] classical Greek lyric performance to be an exemplar. “I look on this as an infinite field & very little worked,” he laments, principally because the art of vocal performance “depends entirely on living tradition” (Corres., 2: 749). As individuals and succeeding generations of orators pass away, their performances die with them.

To avert the continuous erosion of the living tradition, Hopkins proposes a novel solution:

The phonograph may give us ^one,^ but hitherto there is ^could be^ no record of fine inflexions pronunciation ^spoken utterance^. . . . the natural performance and delivery belonging properly to lyric poetry, which is speech, has not been enough cultivated, and should be. When performers were trained to do it (it needs rarest gifts) and audiences to appreciate it[,] it would be, I am persuaded, a lovely art. . . . With the aid of the phonograph each phrase could be fixed and learnt by heart like a song.

(Corres., 2: 749–750)4

Although Hopkins’s knowledge of the phonograph—invented by Thomas Edison in the summer of 1877 to record sound by etching tinfoil, and later wax, on a rotating cylinder—is conceptual rather than experiential, he supposes it could sustain the otherwise living tradition of lyric poetry performance.5

In what follows, I analyze Hopkins’s pronouncements on phonography’s relationship to performance, in conjunction with his poems, to show how he saw the material reality of Edison’s machine as aligned with the poetics he had already taken pains to articulate and would continue to justify. I propose not that the phonograph was an invention merely coincidental with Hopkins’s mature poetry but that he was participating in phonographic thinking—a new interest in sound reproduction’s potential material realities gaining cultural momentum at the time. While Edison...


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pp. 147-165
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