Landon: In Sound and Noise

Letitia Landon has often been seen, both in her own time and ours, as a prolific writer catering to mass audiences with repetitive tales of exotic romance. This essay proposes that Landon’s verse narratives, and the inset poems they include, repeat tales using different media less as a stock performance of the sentimental woman but as an acute inquiry into her own multiply mediated landscape. In doing so, she constructs an archive of mashed-up older and newer technologies that engineer a layered sensory, affective, and temporal experience, which we can read through the techniques of non-linear media archaeology and machine-assisted reading.

Landon: In Sound and Noise

Kate Singer
Mount Holyoke College

1.        Having produced during her lifetime what Glenn T. Dibert-Himes once estimated to be over thirteen-hundred works (170), Letitia Elizabeth Landon was both immensely popular and lambasted by critics for her sloppiness, repetition, and pandering to the developing mass of British middle class readers. L. E. L., one contemporary critic snidely wrote, “is a mere machine wound up by the clock-work of rhythm” (as cited by Vincent, 27). Current scholarship has more often than not followed suit: Glennis Stephenson’s Letitia Landon (1995) portrays a poet who “constructed the conventionally female poetic self of L. E. L.,” a poetess who is bound by social prohibitions to write on love and whose feelings “are immediately spewed out upon the page” (15, 10). [1]  An engine of verse, she deployed the repetitive contrivances of feeling, for some readers, ad nauseam. In her essay, “On the Ancient and Modern Influence of Poetry,” Landon explicitly denies having become a Stepford wife of nineteenth-century poetry, writing “vain will be the effort to regulate mankind like machinery” (Selected 164). She implicitly argues for a different type of technology, “the hazel rod pointed by the hand of truth” (Selected 164) that will find the hidden fountains of future poetry. While metaphors of divine inspiration uncovering the liquid depths of poetic feeling may be nothing new, it is Landon’s interest in previous forms of technology—the hazel rod, the lute, and the lyre—that reveals her poetry’s mediated complexity.

2.        Bypassing a romanticized or idealized voice of inspiration, several of Landon’s longer poems interweave and reckon with past technologies and older media. In addition to a hoard of annual and newspaper verse, Landon wrote eleven volumes of poetry, seven of which begin with verse narratives riddled with smaller inset poems and songs. The Troubadour (1825) and The Golden Violet (1827), for example, both rehearse medieval poetic contests, while The Improvisatrice (1824) and The Vow of the Peacock (1835) both supply tales of minstrels who frequently devolve into song. These longer poems offer more than a machine of sentiment and instead rehearse a veritable treasury of songs: Greek lyric, Medieval romance, troubadour song, crusade chanson, Turkish or Arabic tales, folk song, and Italian improvisation. The improvisatrice, the troubadour, English bard, and the lute-toting minstrel together compose a pantheon of older media. Such repetitive interludes embody a corpus of poems not automatically spouting the gush of the feminine to less literate consumers but instead constructing a non-linear media archaeology, an archive of mashed-up older and newer technologies that engineer a multiply mediated, affective, temporal experience.

3.        No stranger to the colloquy among audio and visual media during the Romantic period, Landon was one of the queens of the annuals, almost single-handedly writing Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap-book for seven years (1832-1839). She often received engravings for these volumes and then wrote poems to accompany them. [2]  What Nicholas Mason titles her “visual turn” consisted not only in her keen interest in art but also in a series of portraits commissioned as a marketing ploy to bolster L. E. L.-mania when it began to flag in the mid-1820s (104). Landon’s poems often juxtapose engravings, narrative, songs, and musical settings within poems or among volumes. Dibert-Himes once called these “multimedia presentations,” but Landon’s repetitive cultural mediations move beyond the agon between the sister arts into a layered, dynamic method of “remediation,” what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in their book describe as “the representation of one medium in another” (45). While Remediation (2000) made a pervasive mark on media theory fifteen years ago, scholars including N. Katherine Hayles have updated the relation among media through concepts of “intermediation” and “intermediality.” [3]  Even more recently, Jussi Parrika in What is Media Archaeology? (2012) argues that remediation is an “intuitively good way” to investigate intermedial relations over time, both through scholarship and within art itself (137). While we could easily read Landon’s attention to voice and art through the lens of mode, genre, ekphrasis, or the special concerns in women’s writing with the sister arts, a media-theoretical approach allows us to see and most fully explore the poet’s distinctive play with sound and noise—indeed, with the questions of new media as they were unfolding in the early-nineteenth century.

4.        In the course of her numerous experiments with the long verse narrative, Landon attempts several strategies of remediation, which we can see by first doing a bit of media archaeology. Her printed narrative poems represent older forms of song and verse from an array of historical periods. In later works the page as a visual screen supplies a means of flattening the representation of aural poetry into an archive of verse that disregards temporal provenance, not to erase historicity, but to reformulate relations between history and media. Such a theoretical perspective is made concrete—and is perhaps best evidenced—by forms of machine-assisted reading offered at this paper’s end, as one more remediation via digital techniques. Word frequency analyses, visualized by word clouds and force graphs, extend Landon’s own techniques and enable us to read her texts at a greater distance. Together, these two complementary if diverse methods of remediation undermine a reading of Landon’s sentiment that repeats itself merely to make noise, and instead they amplify her layering of media that, when looked at through more granularity, expose a dynamic affect that sounds off through mediated differences.

5.        Landon’s attention to the “early music” of Sappho and the troubadours would seem to channel unmediated feeling, what Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others, associated with the most potent and simple emotions at the beginnings of language, and what Celeste Langan has called the “outmoded medium of the poem” (50). Langan summarizes this position in her discussion of Sir Walter Scott: “the same way that oral history projects like Scott’s Minstrelsy attempt to fix and preserve the vanishing traces of folk expression, so (written) lyric comes to be seen as an attempt to arrest the semiotic babble and rapid evanishments of emotion” (50). She suggests that written poetry silences the medium’s auditory mellifluence in favor of the “musical scene of the poem,” allowing the reader a virtual playground for audio-visual hallucinations. Erik Simpson, writing of British minstrelsy in the Romantic period similarly explains Landon’s attention to the troubadour/minstrel as a “fantasy of poetry being produced under the immediate influence of strong emotion and directed to an identifiable audience,” which evokes the “intimate connection between poet and listener in packaged texts of many layers [. . .] [that] acknowledge the loss of this fantasy” (18, 19). Both Langan and Simpson posit a hallucination or fantasy instigated by the audio-visual terrain of the song. Landon’s poems differently construct a notion of media in excess of either the nostalgic playback of primitive songs for women’s easy listening pleasure [4]  or the fantasy of interiority that evokes virtual sensory landscapes. Her poetic representation of early aural media supplies a series of remediations—a hypermediated excess—that moves beyond nostalgia, fantasy, and the construction of a performative, abyssally self-conscious subject. Rather, Landon highlights the manifold ways that a modern listener might hack into older songs collected on the page. Her poet-singers collect various moments of singing technology and enact them to compare, negotiate, and temporarily embody them. The page becomes an occasion (and not the only one) for archiving, reprocessing, and reproducing anew the visual, the textual, the verbal, and the aural.

6.        Landon begins her polyphonic composition with The Improvisatrice, her first published volume and perhaps her greatest commercial success. She sets the poem ostensibly in the past, yet the timeless guitar-toting, Florentine performer evokes a flexible historicity that signals a versatile channeling of minstrelsy for modern purposes. [5]  The narrative depicts the eponymous, unnamed tragic figure who meets Lorenzo at a party, falls in love with him, and then becomes lovesick after stumbling upon his wedding to another. Although Lorenzo eventually proclaims his love to her, she nevertheless dies only to be memorialized by a portrait and an urn installed in Lorenzo’s home. Such a narrative has given rise to readings of the improvisatrice as a nostalgic figure for narrative romance and the minstrel, whose songs become conventional when the singer lives her sung tragedy.

7.        This allegedly driving narrative of the improvisatrice’s love becomes nearly secondary to the remediated art housed within the poem—the numerous descriptions of her paintings and inset songs that compose close to 40% of the poem. [6]  The poem begins by stacking several in quick succession: two paintings done by the improvisatrice, both of struggling minstrels, are followed by eight inset poems, a painting of a tragic Ariadne, and the poem ends with the description of the improvisatrice’s portrait next to her urn. The poems themselves are wide ranging, highlighting our minstrel’s potent talents that, similar to Mary Robinson’s Sappho and Madame de Staël’s Corinne, wane as her seemingly unrequited love intensifies. We hear “Sappho’s Song,” “A Moorish Romance,” “The Charmed Cup,” “The Hindoo Girl’s Song,” “The Indian Bride,” “Song,” “Leades and Cydippe,” and “Lorenzo’s History.”

8.        We can make a few observations about the poem’s texture that exemplifies Landon’s handling of media as more than an ironic and self-fulfilling performance of tragic, sentimental femininity. The poem promotes a veneer of affective and poetic immediacy that it nevertheless undercuts in several ways. The individual paintings and inset poems at first seem to express unmediated emotional experience. Her first resort to song occurs as she ends the description of her second painting, of course, a painting of a minstrel: “I deemed, that of lyre, life, and love / She was a long, last farewell taking;— / That from her pale and parched lips, / Her latest, wildest song was breaking.” She then commences “Sappho’s Song,” singing, “Farewell, my lute!—and would that I / Had never waked thy burning chords! / Poison has been upon thy sigh / And fever has breathed in thy words” (10). [7]  The emotional portrait of the minstrel nearly jumps off the page and into song. As Bolter and Grusin suggest of remediation, the poem presents an interface “that erases itself, so that the user is no longer aware of confronting a medium, but instead stands in an immediate relationship to the contents of that medium” (24). The plot seems to propel the reader from one palpable song and emotional crisis to the next. Nevertheless, the series of songs that shuttles readers back and forth from narrative to song proper effectively dispels the supposed immediacy of the improvisatrice’s overarching narrative as well as the supposedly direct, emotional message of her individual performances. These ruptures between poem and song become more intense and distracting as the poem continues. The improvisatrice’s steadily accumulating boxed set of greatest hits appears to trump the narrative, and rather than immediacy, their excess provides a sense of hypermediation, what Bolter and Grusin describe as a fragmentation and heterogeneity that emphasizes performance and process rather than a transparent, finished art object (54-55).

9.        This heterogeneity is nowhere more apparent than in the improvisatrice’s continual references to lyres and lutes, a repetition which increasingly encourages the reader to understand the supposed youth and naiveté of the ingénue performer as already mediated by an obsession with an older media—not just one but various iterations of the defunct singer. Her paintings of the minstrel with the lyre as well as Sappho’s song remediate Grecian performers who used that U-shaped instrument. She does not merely imitate Sappho’s form but modernizes Sappho’s voice through Sicilian or heroic quatrains (abab iambic tetrameter). The improvisatrice most often plays a lute, an instrument whose long history evokes a number of different versions of the early guitar most likely transmitted from the East to Europe via Moorish Spain during the Crusades. [8]  While the lute’s popularity rose through medieval troubadour music and perhaps accompanied some medieval romance narratives, in the early modern period it became the most common household instrument and a featured part of British court music. It then waned from use by the early- to mid-eighteenth century, not to revive again until the turn of the twentieth. This makes the lute-playing improvisatrice herself most likely not a contemporary figure, yet we cannot easily idealize the improvisatrice’s songs into generic lute songs. Rather, she channels different examples of minstrels, bards, singers, poets, and performers through her set list. After the Grecian “Sappho’s Song,” we have two mini-medieval romance narratives, “A Moorish Romance” and “The Charmed Cup.” These two evoke the fashion for romance plots of crossed lovers, eastern tales, and pagan magic. The “The Hindoo Girl’s Song” and “The Indian Bride” are both sung by our heroine at a masked ball, and while they may be related to first-person poems of female alterity and sensibility (including Felicia Hemans’s Records of Woman [1828] or even William Wordsworth’s “The Forsaken Indian Woman”), they even more powerfully allude to the non-Western provenance of the lute and the eastern traditions of female singing that were beginning to infiltrate other Romantic-era texts such as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Alastor” (1816). [9]  Through these inset poems, the improvisatrice collects, resurrects, modernizes, and perhaps scrambles multiple song forms including Greek lyric, European medieval romance, South Asian song, and early modern Italian court and folk music.

10.        Landon’s poetic text archives a media archaeology that intertwines poetry, music, voice, and song. The Improvisatrice encapsulates that paradox of remediation whereby new media (the page) refashions the old (the oral) becoming simultaneously automatic and interactive. While Bolter and Grusin remind us that remediation raises an awareness of immediacy as an ideology, Landon reveals how easily the supposedly older, automatic media become new and fashionable when resurrected. The improvisatrice’s art transforms her (and her voice) into a dynamic archive of sound; she simultaneously archives and plays back a playlist that reorganizes time and media. Media—perhaps not unlike women’s bodies and their sentiment—are not simply stuck in the embodied, material time of their provenance but recur, resurrected as they arise from one art form or performance to another. Parikka further theorizes such a mashup of new and old:

New media might be here and slowly changing our user habits, but old media never left us. They are continuously remediated, resurfacing, finding new uses, contexts, adaptations. In the midst of talk of ‘dead media’ by such writers as Bruce Sterling, it is clear that a lot of dead media were actually zombie-media: living deads, that found an afterlife in new contexts, new hands, new screens and machines. (3)
Unlike John Keats’s la belle dame sans merci who paralyzes her prey into the knight of the living dead, Landon’s improvisatrice resurrects supposedly ephemeral, diverse forms of lute song and lyric performance.

11.        While we might see the collection of songs in the single body and voice of the improvisatrice as a flattening of formal and historical variation, the embodied voice remediated by the printed page may, in fact, represent an alternate vision of the archive itself. Parikka reminds us of the notion of an “archive in motion”: “What this means is a turn from object-centered archiving to objects in the software sense, their searchability and transformation into forms that make them viewable and experiential through encoding, streaming and other software techniques” (124). The improvisatrice is less concerned with the preservation of the songs as stable artifacts and more so with the possibilities of encoding, processing, streaming—those operations that make transmission possible and probable. Landon writes many of the improvisatrice’s songs in similar verse forms—a combination of the tetrameter couplet and the heroic quatrain—and in doing so, updates and processes earlier media through the technological operating system of easily read modern verse.

12.        Moreover, through her remediations, as a form of reiteration, Landon addresses whether repetition in her work actually advances instantaneous, easily digested sentiment. Her techniques suggest that media play becomes a means to change our distance from the art object, a means of making its sound clearer or muddier. It is perfunctory for Landon scholars to remark on the repetitive nature of both her larger frame narratives and their songs—each one seems to document a lovelorn, tragic minstrel. This sort of redundancy may be less an effect of what friend and biographer Laman Blanchard called her “breathless and reckless rapidity” of composition (as cited by Baiesi, 78) than a tension between clear sound and noise. As Parikka reminds us, information scientists in the mid-twentieth century as well as telegraphers used redundant signals to “battle the various kinds of disturbances in the communication channel” (98). A more contemporaneous example occurs in Sense and Sensibility (1811) when Marianne Dashwood embarrassingly sends John Willoughby multiple letters, assuming that their transmission has been somehow interrupted or misunderstood. Like Marianne’s missives, gauche in their excess, redundancy can clarify a message, but it can also become like spam, spurring an “unwanted flow of messages” that necessitates “various kinds of filters and scanners [. . .] to cope with it” (Parikka 98). Marianne’s jejune, ardent effort to transmit a narrative carrying clear affect potentially turns into its opposite. Sentimental narrative, when repeated over time, can transmute into noise as repetition loses its meaning, becoming a series of unpleasant sounds. When The Improvisatrice diachronically narrates a series of inset songs, it reproduces the danger that such vocalizations will begin to sound like a particularly feminine sort of noise—the suffering woman singing the same song over and over again. Although the hypermediated poem attempts to refocus the reader not so much on individual songs or precious voices but on the process of reproducing, comparing, and processing sound, if we read these songs too easily, without attention to media, we cannot easily compare or differentiate them as they repeat through time.

13.        Landon’s long poem The Vow of the Peacock represents a late effort to tackle these problems once again in what F. J. Sypher describes as “a curious return on the part of Landon to a poetic genre that was by 1835 clearly outmoded and unprofitable” (10). While Sypher argues that the nostalgia for her youthful success spurred the volume, the poet’s revisiting verse narrative likewise represents her rethinking techniques of remediation—especially since the poem’s narrative is, before it even reaches the page, already twice remediated. She takes her subject from Daniel Maclise’s painting of the same name, which itself was inspired by a line from Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805). [10] 

14.        This poem plays off romance narrative—the bulk of the story tells of Knight Leoni’s vow to win Cyprus back for Queen Irene, ending in his success and their marriage—but it engages a frame that multiplies the visual, textual, and aural remediations. [11]  At its start, Landon inserts visual metaphors to frame and flatten the poem so that the diachronically told inset songs and tales can be read more synchronically. The opening lines of the poem begin by constructing a contrast between present and past, with each of the first three stanzas starting with the exclamation, “THE present!” and the fourth with “The past!” In her first critique of the present, she inveighs, “I love it not—it taketh its birth / Too near to the dull and common earth” (3). This remark might surprise typical readers of Landon because the speaker protests against sorrows that are “so fresh” and “so near.” The speaker is “[t]oo near” to the “common earth” and to the “sweat of the brow”; the materiality of feeling’s embodied, phenomenological presence lies too “heavy” (3). Here Landon markedly distances herself from the immediacy of both the present moment and the intense feelings that characterize her earlier verse. The past, as one might expect of Landon’s infatuation with knights, maidens, and troubadours, provides a better world. She writes, “It softens the present, and flings / A grace, like the ivy, wherever it clings” (4). Poetry, Landon suggests, can put a box around feelings, compartmentalizing and distancing us from the harsh realities of the present, as a building is picturesquely framed with ivy. The poet accordingly “calls up the shadows of ages long fled” and “[s]hades and softens the world-worn, the harsh and the mean” (6). This description is not simply a sloppy metaphorical bait and switch but Landon’s multimedia thinking about how the visual qualities of the printed poem might remediate past music.

15.        The softening shadows add a visual noise that alters our views of the seemingly stock poems they frame. This visual remediation aggregates another mashed-up, dynamic archive even as it constructs a different sort of noise—made from visual static—to dissipate the dangers of unhelpful redundancy or mechanistic song. In The Vow, certain types of noise work to drown out the narrative and even the emotive force purveyed through the poem’s romance plot, focusing the reader’s attention more directly upon the construction of a series of songs sung by different singers. Various remediations along a single plane act perspicaciously as an archive of multiple temporalities and media that dispel any dominant narrative, theme, or sentiment. Looking specifically at the structure of this poem after these introductory comments, the speaker executes a short ekphrasis ostensibly of Maclise’s painting, then launches into the story of Catherine, Queen of Cyprus, who asks her minstrel Azalio to tell a tale of her ancestors. The minstrel promptly begins “The Vow of the Peacock,” an inset romance narrative about the former Queen Irene, who had journeyed to Venice in search of a knight; soon after, a second minstrel appears who turns out to be the knight’s disguised lovelorn ward, Amenaïde, singing tunes from her youth. The diachronic sequence of songs moves backwards in time from contemporary verse to romance narrative to minstrel song to folk tunes. However, within a visual frame where all parts of the image can be seen along the same plane, if not at once, songs are heard within an archive not necessarily organized by linear provenance.

16.        Moreover, songs become notoriously difficult to track, date, and historicize, especially once they are already remediated, echoed, and processed by other singers, texts, and images, as Maureen McLane’s recent work on eighteenth-century ballads has attested. The poem’s two final inset songs, Amenaïde’s “Letter” of farewell to Leoni and a funeral “Dirge” about her death, reify this complicated temporal heterogeneity of oral performances. The tension they evoke between the living and the dead catapults us back to the poem’s multiple frames. Who, we wonder, is really living and who is dead, if song itself is a zombie-media resurrecting many living deads, not the least of which are two deposed Queens in the decade after Caroline of Brunswick’s exile? Just afterward, the poem’s final fourteen lines fail to close the frame, and it is difficult to tell whether they are sung by Azalio or written by the poem’s speaker. This confusion heightens the poem’s hypermediacy by muddling The Vow of the Peacock and “The Vow of the Peacock” and by mixing up the minstrel songs of L. E. L., Azalio, the Moorish minstrel, and Amenaïde.

17.        Landon’s almost vertiginous, repetitive mediations, however, may require something beyond media archaeology’s retro-futuristic approach, a different form of analysis that can take us an even greater distance from historically mediated sound and noise. Digital tools that amass word frequencies and collocations might help to make sense of narrative repetition that, to our ears, sounds like sentimental static. Machine-assisted reading, moreover, helps to raise questions about how noise might frame productive, alternate readings and reframe Landon’s poems at large. Stephen Ramsay, in his manifesto Reading Machines: Toward An Algorithmic Criticism (2011), traces the advent of smaller scale, algorithmic reading from the legacy of Oulipo and deformance, experiments that disrupt our perceptions of the text and open up suggestive gaps encouraging new theories and narratives to emerge. [12]  Such counting and filtering methods present a rich way to encounter Landon if only because there may be no better way to assess the supposed repetition within and among Landon’s poems than an “unsupervised” computer algorithm. [13]  Just as Landon’s own versification appears slapdash and mechanistic, these computational operations that seem effortless and rapid are, however, the result of hours of painstaking programming. Both offer the rapid transmission of copious data, which the reader can then encounter and interpret anew via visual remediation in word clouds, frequency charts, and force graphs. These tools can definitively show us where the obvious repetition in Landon’s work lies—no small feat. But this final remediation of poem and song—the digitization of poem data and the new narrative interpretations they suggest—becomes a part of what Ramsay calls “the larger document space within which it is already implicated” (80). My digital methodology in this part of the paper does not seek to propose a single argumentative strand but, rather, is meant to offer an initial range of tools and their visualizations, a heterogeneous set of observations aimed at provoking close reading and other textual sensitivities by studying word density, frequency, and proximity. It is as if the unclosed frame of The Vow of the Peacock continues with data visualizations as one more modern, mashed-up version of the various minstrel songs. These visualizations intensify Landon’s focus on the colliding categories of poetry, song, music, sound, and textual noise.

18.        Voyant Tools’s text analysis software, developed by literary scholars Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell, provides a web-based portal enabling some initial data mining. The popular, low-threshold, web-based tool allows users to input text files of their own and quickly reveal basic information about one or more texts alongside an easily digestible set of visualizations. This counting and sorting can help to filter out frequent keywords in the poems, collocations among keywords (their frequency use in proximity to one another), and the lexical density of the poems (a measure of unique and different words used). By looking at local repetition (word frequency) and trends (word repetition over time; word repetition in context of other repetitions), we can filter out both poetic and critical narratives that keep us in ruts of reading. As in The Vow of the Peacock, but to a greater degree, flattening the poems and reducing plot to a framing, static noise helps to elevate other nodes of repetition, those places that do create meaningful sounds through iteration.

19.        Figures 1-4 present several word clouds, or representations of the words most frequently used in Landon’s eleven volumes, Hemans’s poems, Scott’s poems, and Byron’s poems: [14] 

Word frequencies in Landon’s major poetry volumes.

Figure 1. Word frequencies in Landon’s major poetry volumes.

Word frequencies in Hemans’s poems.

Figure 2. Word frequencies in Hemans’s poems.

Word frequencies in Scott’s poems.

Figure 3. Word frequencies in Scott’s poems.

Word frequencies in Byron’s major poems.

Figure 4. Word frequencies in Byron’s major poems.

20.        These visualizations of word frequency data are weighted so that the largest words represent those with the highest frequencies. [15]  Aside from comparative observations about individual words, one way to contextualize these frequencies is to look at Voyant’s data about lexical density. Landon’s two volumes discussed here are lower than volumes by Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hemans, Scott, and Charlotte Smith:

The Improvisatrice: 126.6
The Vow of the Peacock: 133.7
Hemans’s Records of Woman: 148.9
Hemans’s The Forest Sanctuary: 170.9
Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads: 180.5
Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel: 201.7
Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets: 212.5

Figure 5. Chart of lexical density (total words divided by unique words x 100).

Since her poems have fewer unique words (using the same words more often), we might assume they have less intellectual density. But Ramsay’s discussion of lexical richness among American novelists should give us pause, when he reminds us that William Faulkner’s A Light in August (1932) is exceedingly less vocabulary rich than many other novels of its time (71-73). Perhaps Landon’s word choice may not be a repetitive dumbing down but the signal of her poem’s historical flexibility, hybridity, and modernity. The mashup of old and new songs may be enabled by a fluid and easily processing form (couplets and heroic quatrains). This operating language includes word choices (diction) that tend toward monosyllabic nouns and simple adjectives that will not fade from use—modern in their succinctness, concision, and directness of expression.

21.        The word clouds themselves are especially provocative in suggesting how we define sound and noise. The smaller words, placed on the outskirts of the field of knowledge, might be distracting noise from the top frequency hits: “like,” “love,” “heart,” “light,” “sweet,” “young,” “fair,” “dark,” “bright,” and so on in Figure 1. Alternately, like Landon’s description of the past as a visual scene of noise that distances us from the present, this noise might create the edges of coherence that allow us to see meaning in those items most repeated. The central words, like Marianne’s letters and Landon’s techniques in The Improvisatrice, however, may themselves represent the noise of the poem—the unctuous sounds of love and heart that become feminine noise. Word clouds may help us to see those words at the middle distance, around the periphery, which represent less noisy and more meaningful coding of the poem’s subject—here the “song,” “music,” and “words” that construct the archive as an array of various mediations.

22.        Within Landon’s published volumes of poetry, “song” has its highest frequency in The Improvisatrice, The Vow of the Peacock, and The Golden Violet; “music” crests in the first two and “sound” remains more or less constant across volumes. When these mid-frequency words peak in particular volumes, they may supply hints to hidden meta-subjects:

Frequency trends of “song” and “music” in Landon’s seven “romance” volumes.

Figure 6. Frequency trends of “song” and “music” in Landon’s seven “romance” volumes.

23.        If we want to understand how different kinds of sound relate to each other, one final visualization depicts clusters of keywords that frequently occur together, collocations on a force graph:

Force graph of word collocations in Landon’s published volumes.

Figure 7. Force graph of word collocations in Landon’s published volumes.

24.        The larger the word, the more frequently it appears in Landon’s work; the closer the words sit, the more frequently they appear together. The graph represents some interesting relationships between “song,” “music,” “sound,” “voice,” and “poetry,” words selected to be the central nodes of the graph. “Song” is proximate to “voice” via “love,” but “voice” (by the way, one of the most frequently occurring words in Hemans’s corpus) does not appear close to either “poetry” or “sound.” “Music”—the written melody of rhythm or the aural melodies we imagine—is the channel that leads from “song” to “sound,” from meaning to noise. These collocations highlight the systems of sound operating within and among her works. If “song,” “music,” “voice,” and “sound” lie on a spectrum of communication possibilities, it may be that music—the easy prosody of Landon’s versification—creates the processing language that converts sound into song and vice versa. Landon’s repetition may be about processing sound into noise and back again, just like the very media that perform that trick.

25.        Landon’s poems give us a technique of remediation that hacks into minstrelsy and offers a valve for increasing and decreasing the level of sound and noise in any given sound system. Her remediations collapse time, and in doing so, she allows us to survey the field of song and all its noisy relatives once separated by history and now joined together on the printed and digital screen. Landon’s play with media juxtapositions neither offers a linear version of history (progressive or tragic), nor does it idealize us out of history into some lovely classical past. Her archives of song present what Parikka calls “future-pasts” and “past-futures” (5), or what I would argue are alternatives to empirical notions of historicity that bind the woman writer to the nineteenth century’s cultural and social prohibitions on her writing. Future pasts and past futures are a means of remediating women out of their present and ours, to imagine other futures and pasts with either looser or simply different demands upon gendered subjectivity. Whether or not such retro-hipster temporalities and media experiments are uniquely Romantic, they certainly reveal Landon as more than a poet of nostalgia, constructed femininity, and self-conscious belatedness. Her provocative experiments with sound and vision invite new modes of steampunk analysis where mechanisms may not tend toward the gross and violent but to collective, analytic engines of reading. The operating system of her poetry runs less on the often foretold, sickly sweet buzz of feminine sentiment but through scalar models of spoken and bespoken art.

Works Cited

Baiesi, Serena. Letitia Elizabeth Landon and Metrical Romance: The Adventures of a ‘Literary Genius.’ Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2009. Print.

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2000. Print.

Butterfield, Ardis. Poetry and Music in Medieval France: From Jean Renart to Guillame de Machaut. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Byron, George Gordon. The Works of Lord Byron. 7 vols. Ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge. London: J. Murray; New York: C. Scribner, 1898-1905. Project Gutenberg. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.

Comet, Noah. Romantic Hellenism and Women Writers. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013. Print.

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[1] While Landon scholarship has begun to consider a wider scope beyond the poetess figure, including Landon’s concerns with subjectivity (Cope), historicity (Reiss), and classicism (Comet), even if we view L. E. L. as poetess donning a constructed and at times self-critical mask, her performances are seen to be largely those of sentiment. See, for instance, Mary Waters’s “Letitia Landon’s Literary Criticism and Her Romantic Project: L. E. L.’s Poetics of Feeling and the Periodical Reviews” as well as Angela Leighton’s classic Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (1992). BACK

[2] A good primer for Landon’s annual writing is Terence Allan Hoagwood and Gina Elizabeth Opdycke’s introduction to their facsimile reproduction of the 1836 Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap-book. BACK

[3] In My Mother was a Computer (2005), Hayles writes that she chooses “intermediation” to consider the “multiple causality in emphasizing interactions among media” (33), a technique that suits the contemporary and digital nature of the media she probes. BACK

[4] For a more recent example of a similar phenomenon, see Lisa Gitelman’s description of the advent of the phonograph in Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (2006): “the new medium of recorded sound was deeply defined by women, generally middle-class women, who helped to make it a new, newly intelligible medium for home entertainment” (14). BACK

[5] For an alternative view, see Angela Esterhammer’s reading of Landon for the argument about her idealization of the classical figure: “Landon adopts the classical topos only as a vehicle for a timeless and potentially autobiographical story, ‘an ideal not a historical picture,’ as she puts it in her introductory note. This idealization involves endowing the Greek poetess Erinna with some of the characteristics of the Improvisatrice persona as depicted in Corinne” (99). BACK

[6] Looking at word counts, the entire poem spans 10,727 words, while the inset poems together amount to 4,744. BACK

[7] References throughout will be made to page numbers of the poems’ facsimile editions. BACK

[8] For initial information on the history of the lute see Matthew Spring’s The Lute in Britain: A History of the Instrument and Its Music (2001) (415). BACK

[9] The lute most likely derives from the Arabic oud, which came to Europe via the crusades most likely through Moorish Spain or Sicily. For a discussion of Romantic-era attention to the tradition of South Asian singing, see Tilar Mazzeo’s essay on Shelley’s “Alastor,” a poem that clearly influenced Landon. For the connections between Landon and Shelley, see Michael O’Neill’s “‘Beautiful but Ideal’: Intertextual Relations between Letitia Elizabeth Landon and Percy Bysshe Shelley.” BACK

[10] Daniel Maclise and Landon were well acquainted as he painted several portraits of her and may have been romantically involved with her as well. See F. J. Sypher’s long footnote (19-21 n21). BACK

[11] While The Improvisatrice might be akin to an anthology like the medieval chansonniers, or songbooks of a single minstrel’s works, The Vow of the Peacock is closer to the romance narrative’s slightly different mode of collection and circulation. As Ardis Butterfield suggests in Poetry and Music in Medieval France (2002), “Chansonnier and romance intersect in that whereas the chansonniers have already created the authorial image of the trouvère, and have already given his songs a developed social context, the romance in turn constitutes the work of anthologising and recording the songs as an identifiable repertory” (41). Ironically, songbooks bound by an authorial persona provide a less diverse and less narratively-bound set of songs than the narrative romance, which offers multiple voices or occasions for song. BACK

[12] Stephen Ramsay is especially useful in this case because, unlike the calls for “distant reading” by Franco Moretti and Matthew Jockers, which seek to analyze (rather than read) thousands of texts at once, Ramsay’s method of algorithmic criticism can be leveraged at single or multiple texts. Distant reading, what Jockers has termed “macroanalysis,” focuses on large collections of digital texts revealing “an examination of an aggregated ecosystem or ‘economy’ of texts” (32). While Ramsay is also interested in a “larger document scope” that reveals patterns, he helps to turn our attention to the numerous microscopic observations furnished by toggling between numerical data and the text. BACK

[13] “Unsupervised” is the term Jockers uses to suggest that computer analysis, unlike human reading, does not come to the text with ideas of what to look for (123). BACK

[14] These word clouds are meant to provide suggestive linguistic context rather than determinative statistics. They are based on the full text versions of poets’ works available, with varying levels of OCR correctness. Landon’s are the most accurate, having been taken from ProQuest’s Literature Online (LION), a full-text database of over 355,000 literary works. Figure 1 collects Landon’s eleven volumes of poems: The Fate of Adelaide (1821), The Improvisatrice (1824), The Troubadour (1825), The Golden Violet (1827), The Venetian Bracelet (1829), The Easter Gift (1832), The Vow of the Peacock (1835), Traits and Trials (1836), Flowers of Loveliness (1838), The Zenana (1839), and Life and Literary Remains (1841). They do not include many of the occasional, gift book, or annual poems Landon wrote, as these have never been collected, and it would take an entirely separate editing project to do so. Texts for Hemans’s poems are taken from The Internet Archive’s full text version of The Poems of Felicia Hemans (1875), Byron’s from Project Gutenberg’s The Works of Lord Byron (1898-1905), and Scott’s from the Internet Archive’s full text version of The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott (1822). In an attempt to ensure that the word clouds were comparing similar corpuses (i.e., comparing complete sets of poems rather than volumes with various sorts of editorial apparatus), I omitted Ernest Hartley Coleridge’s introductions and copious footnotes from Byron’s Works as well as the transcribed page headings from the Scott collection. BACK

[15] Frequency counts exclude stopwords, or what Voyant Tools describes as “so-called function words that don’t carry as much meaning, such as determiners and prepositions.” I use the tool’s standard English stopwords except in the case of Byron’s Works, where certain Roman numerals were omitted. Which words we deem less meaningful are, of course, open to interpretation, so I err on the side of extreme inclusion. I present this more or less raw data because it was the basis for my own curiosity and because I intended to use these visualizations in the classroom and wanted to raise questions about meaning (e.g., Is “like” or “o’er” a significant repeated word in these texts?). BACK

[16] Figures 6 and 7 use a slightly different corpus for Landon’s works because they look at only her seven volumes structured around an eponymous romance narrative: The Fate of Adelaide (1821), The Improvisatrice (1824), The Troubadour (1825), The Golden Violet (1827), The Venetian Bracelet (1829), The Vow of the Peacock (1835), The Zenana (1839). The corpus has been culled in this way to enable a more accurate comparison among like volumes. BACK