Lecture by David Nowell-Smith, “A Natural Scale”

In his Treatise on the Origin of Language (1771), Herder employs two striking tropes to describe the sonority of language: the animal ‘language of sensation’ is described as issuing from the ‘finest instrument strings of animal feeling’, whereas a poetic vocal repertoire that comprises onomatopoeia but also oratory and prosody is grounded in ‘the natural scale of the human voice’. Herder’s distinction pits against each other two competing conceptions of language (as expression and as reference), but also two conceptions of music (as timbre and as diatonic harmony) that were contested throughout eighteenth century musical theory. This paper takes Herder’s distinction as a starting point for a reflection on the anomalies of voice for poetics more broadly, both within other accounts of vocal ‘origins’ to language (psychoanalytic accounts such as Abrahams and Torok, ontological accounts such as Agamben’s ), and within poetic treatments of glossolalia and onomatopoeia, drawing on figures as diverse as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Antonin Artaud, and the mysterious 16th century French sound poet Durand de la Malle.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Presented By: 
The History and Forms of Lyric Lecture Series and the Program in Poetry and Poetics