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Sound in Conflict: Lyric Poetry and the American Civil War



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This dissertation investigates the acoustic resources of lyric poems written during and about the American Civil War, and asks how closely related these acoustics were to their historical environment. I thus attempt to redress the dominant visual and material responses to Civil War aesthetics, in favour of attention to its sounds. I also set out to discover whether lyric poetry, now held to be an essentially sounded medium, can be understood as part of the boom in sound technologies that textured the nineteenth century. These two aims can be drawn together into one question: did the lyric poetry of the Civil War record anything? To answer this question, the dissertation positions itself at an intersection between sound studies, historical poetics, and lyric theory, examining whether the playful sound experiments noted by current writers on lyric were in conversation with their historical moment, even to the extent (and this is the proposal of some sound studies practitioners) that the poems can be used as acoustic evidence of particular Civil War soundscapes.

The dissertation is made up of three chapters, structured around the three sounds that lyric poems have been held as making or containing: rhythm, rhyme and voice. The first chapter investigates the rhythmic patterning of Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps (1865), and its potential origin in Whitman’s theories of health and his work in army hospitals. The second chapter takes on rhyme, via a paired reading of Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces (1866) and Laura Redden’s Idyls of Battle and Poems of the Rebellion (1863). I argue that Melville was invested in rhyme as nonsense, and that Redden investigated the possibility of untying rhyme from sound, thus strengthening the prospect of a deaf Civil War poetry. The third chapter turns to the Civil War poems of Emily Dickinson and Paul Laurence Dunbar, and asks how they set about preserving or recovering the voices of Civil War soldiers. I conclude by looking at the place of Dunbar’s poems in the early market for recorded sound. The dissertation ultimately contends that while the poems discussed do not record their environment, their experiments with form and sound do let them work as a historiographic instrument, and that ‘lyric’ thus remains a valuable and informative way of reading Civil War literature.





Allen, Edward


Poetry, American Civil War, American Literature, Sound


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
AHRC (AH/T00052X/1)
AHRC (2105441)