Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Constance Hale on Sound and Sense

Constance Hale

I came across an interesting analysis by Constance Hale of sense through sound at work in Virginia Woolf's writing:
[The devices of sound and sense] are often obvious in poetry, but we have to look harder to see them in prose, especially because they often work on a subliminal level. What do you notice about the relationship between music and meaning in this passage, from Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse"?
. . . the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, 'I am guarding you -- I am your support', but at other times, suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow -- this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.
Woolf uses "monotonous," "soothing tattoo" and "murmured" when she's referring to the "kindly meaning" of waves on the beach (and the calming of thoughts) and then "ghostly roll," "remorselessly beat" and "thundered hollow" when she's referring to more ominous forces of nature and consciousness. The first set of words murmurs with soft syllables. The second gives us sounds that register like the beats of a tympanum. (Constance Hale, "The Sound of a Sentence," New York Times, June 11, 2012)

I have to get ready for my intensive writing class soon, so I have little time for comment, except to say that I'm glad to have stumbled across Hale's insightful reading with its attention to sound's contribution to sense in well-written prose.

Even when writing articles for publication, I listen for the sound of my words . . .

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