On Sound and Rhythm in Text: Angela Leighton’s ‘Hearing Things’

Imaginative listening while reading, as Leighton demonstrates so masterfully, is not only a form of cognition but also a physical experience as we read or write literary texts.

Hearing Things: The Work of Sound in Literature
Angela Leighton
Belknap Press
May 2018

One of the growing and conflict-ridden critiques of the Western literary tradition is how the popular “show, don’t tell” craft tenet is dismissive of the power and prevalence of orality in storytelling. Of course, almost all storytelling across every culture began in the oral tradition. But is the written word today truly free of orality? In Hearing Things: The Work of Sound in Literature, scholar Angela Leighton‘s main thesis is that all writing and reading has always been done with our ears and that “… written words make noises as well as shapes, calling on the ear like an after-effect of being seen and understood.”

Leighton is a Professor of English and Senior Research Fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, and a literary critic and poet herself. She has written several works on 19th and 20th century literature, women’s writing, aestheticism and the aesthetic, and poetry. She has also published several poetry collections of her own.

With this latest book, Leighton focuses on particular works by literary writers and poets who consider sound and rhythm critical in their writing — whether it’s the immediate sounds of the words on the page, or the sounds the writer has in his/her head from other texts or physical surroundings while writing, or the sounds the characters in a story hear/make, or the sounds the reader picks up in the process of reading from both his/her own memory and the surrounding world.

The sounds we “hear” in literature are also contingent on various tangible aspects (e.g., air, atmosphere, carrying medium, the ear itself, etc.) and intangible (memory, imagination, travel time, language, form, etc.). Due to this, not only does sound in literature comprise of many textures and layers, but it’s also never a static thing. It travels both physically and metaphorically through time and space and, therefore, it distorts, deflects, and changes. It requires both instinctual and studied assumptions about its origins. And it involves personal interpretations when it’s listened for or heard.

The analyses and arguments for all of the above and more are organized as a series of interconnected essays in Hearing Things. With thorough, close readings of the selected literary and poetic works, Leighton explores and interprets how sound features in them. Additionally, she balances her viewpoints by including the writers’ or poets’ own commentaries through their letters and other personal writings, relevant aspects of their biographies, and other related scholarly and critical writings. All of this is comprehensively and appropriately referenced throughout and showcases Leighton’s exhaustive research and authority over her subject matter.

The writers and poets are from the 19th century to the present day and from the Western canon: Tennyson, Rossetti, Woolf, Yeats, de la Mare, Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Jorie Graham, and others. The most fascinating essay is the one connecting the lives and works of Walter de la Mare, Edward Thomas, and Robert Frost because:

To read de la Mare, Frost, and Thomas together in this way is to become aware of innumerable echoing calls between them, whether originating in real life or magicked into life from each other’s writings. Between de la Mare and Frost, it is also possible to find a lifelong conversation about rhythm and sounds in poetry — a conversation rooted in their shared admiration for each other’s verse, which both preceded and succeeded the difficult intermediary presence of Thomas. If these sharings were complicated by actual loves and grievances, envy and admiration, betrayals and needs in each of them, they also remain signs of recognition between poets who continued to find, in these reciprocating echoes or undersongs of poetry, an inspiration and an incentive for their own writings.

That said, the book could probably have benefited from some examples from a few other literary cultures too. After all, even in the 19th century, literary texts from different cultures were talking to or against each other. Linguistic diversity has always meant that we pay attention to things differently because of how language shapes our thinking.

Nonetheless, Leighton weaves her theories beautifully — introducing and connecting each point carefully with multiple well-known examples and supporting arguments and counter-arguments. Sometimes, the web gets confusingly dense but she soon pulls it all back together again with a smooth summary. Her sensitivity to and awareness of sound come through in her own language too. Consider the poetics of these three sentences describing how sound is heard:

For the sound we hear is already in medias res, a passenger through time, cut off from its cause and quickly lost as it fades. To think about hearing is therefore to have to think without fixities and boundaries, in the flux of time that also runs through our very sentences for thinking. Heard in time, and then lost in time, sound quickly traverses the spectrum from closely sensed object to mere faded after ring, remembered and interpreted in the struck quiet it leaves behind.

There are many other descriptions of hearing sound as Leighton drives home the key point about how an “auditory imagination” opens up many possibilities for both the writer and the reader.

This kind of imaginative listening that Leighton demonstrates so masterfully throughout the book is not only a form of cognition but also a physical experience as we read or write literary texts. It’s about much more than an aesthetic response to literature. Being more alert and attuned to the several layers of sounds in such texts not only deepens our pleasure and understanding of them but also becomes a complex mode of thinking.

Beyond aural attention, Leighton says, “hearing things” in literature is really a long, rich tradition of “a form of artfully performed invention”. Approaching literature and poetry with this mindset and skill-set of intense, creative listening also makes us more actively engaged writers, readers, and critics. A written work, after all, is the writer’s response to an imaginative voice and his/her invitation to readers to listen. And texts even listen/speak to other texts over time through quotations, allusions, and similarities of language. When we read, there’s both a reading self and a listening and watching self. So that, in the end, the writer, the reader, and the text form an interactive complex which requires ongoing listening and interpretation by the reader.

Regarding criticism, Leighton makes an excellent point about how the language of criticism doesn’t even have broadly-accepted or well-known conceptual categories to help us think appropriately about hearing and listening in literary works:

… the ear is subservient to the eye, and sound subservient to rationality and argument … our main critical metaphors — vision, insight, image, and imagination — are predominantly derived from the eye and that we lack the equivalents for what the ear can do. Certainly, there are no single words for innerly hearing to match the inwardness of vision or insight.

In a world where our dwindling attention spans cause our thoughts to flutter from one distraction to the next, listening to (or even looking at) literary works with such attentiveness is akin to meditation. Surely, it can help retrain our listening faculty to be more focused so that we are better at receiving, retaining, interpreting, and communicating knowledge/information.

This is one of those rare books where we find ourselves changing our approach to how we read even as we’re reading. On every page, Leighton works skillfully to demystify how sound works in literature and how we can pay better attention to it. Yet, she also frequently emphasizes the “inexplicable mystery of sound” or its “kept promises which may never be disclosed” as one of the main attractions of literary reading and writing because it “instigates, inspires, and then recharges the act of interpretation.”

For writers and readers everywhere, this is a valuable guide to listening to sound in literature so that listening itself becomes an act of creation. So that we might, in our reading and writing, create sounds alive with rhythm and beat, recurrence and repetition, call and recall, inflection and intonation, murmur and hum, echo and vibration, accent and cadence, weight and resonance, shape and structure, grammar and syntax, memory and imagination, message and medium, content and form, fact and fiction, idea and metaphor, substance and style.