- Do Not Say That It is Mine:The Nature of Sound in Shelley's Late Lyrics
"In each resides the secret power of its own"—Lucretius, Of the Nature of Things1
Percy shelley was haunted by nature's "mysterious tongue," by the voices of trees speaking in autumn gusts, avalanches roaring in the night, a wind harp singing without an audience, containing like Jane Williams's guitar "all harmonies / Of the plains and of the skies, / Of the forests and the mountains."2 These instances of nonhuman communication evoke some sense of what Levi Bryant would call "the democracy of objects," and they repeatedly surface in Shelley's corpus, as Alfred North Whitehead has argued.3 "We are within a world of colours, sounds, and other sense-objects, related in space and time to enduring objects such as stones, trees, and human bodies," Whitehead writes. And "we seem to be ourselves elements of this world in the same sense as are the other things which we perceive."4 His reading highlights "Mont Blanc"'s oscillation between a sort of Berkeleyan idealism and an objectivism that deprivileges the human mind. And it also begins to approach the element of terror that seems to accompany listening to the "unresting sound" (line 33) of the natural [End Page 1] world that operates "beyond our own personality" in Shelley's poem.5 For if, as Steven Shaviro explains in a speculative realist reconsideration of Whitehead's philosophy, "things have their own powers, their own innate tendencies," if their vitality is not predicated on human perception, then "we are [often] threatened by the vibrancy of matter," by its independence, its indifference.6 Something like that threat is registered in "Mont Blanc," a poem in which Shelley approaches but cannot penetrate or organize "the still and solemn power of many sights / And many sounds" contained in the glacial mountain before him (lines 128–29).
As a genre that foregrounds the discursive interplay between sonic and propositional material, lyric calls attention to the nonhuman vitality of objects that Shelley addresses thematically in "Mont Blanc," to the sounds that only relatively depend on those makers who give them "rhythm and order," to borrow from Shelley's description of the poetic process in A Defence of Poetry (3). Indeed a lyric poem is an aural event categorically parallel to "the low hum of insects in an August woodland" that "overwhelms us" in Whitehead's thinking—or to the "caverns echoing to the Arve's commotion, / A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame" that Shelley imagines in the gloaming of Chamouni (lines 30–31)—even as it is an index of human attempts to read, order, and tame aurality.7 In this essay, I argue that the sonic nature of (and in) lyric is a source of secret tension for Shelley that culminates negatively in his late poems to Jane, where the transposition of natural objects into poetic objects, the translation of alien sounds into native sounds, is repeatedly allegorized and performed at a distance. That these studies of poetic animation were kept private—that the poems to Jane Williams were never published in Shelley's lifetime and were likely not intended to be published—not only exposes Shelley's uneasy negotiation between the private and public dimensions of poetic form, it [End Page 2] also reveals his strategic management of what Mutlu Blasing has called lyric's "open secret," its public display of its own sonic and rhythmic otherness.8 What the "Jane poems" record is therefore not wholly biographical (illicit love, marital jealousy), nor economic (anxiety over authorial control and agency), nor political (a desire for escape, a despair in the face of political upheaval), but rather Shelley's most fundamental attempt to reconcile the nonhuman, recalcitrant sounds of lyric with his own political, economic, and personal motivations.
Preceded by ecological shifts in the early nineteenth century, Shelley's carefully engineered late lyrics reflect the growing tenuousness of Romantic interactions with nature. While recent studies of Romantic ecologies and sound often settle on the stable correlation between the poet and nature, the interfacing of text and environmental context was not always...