Call for papers

« Echoes of Echo in British Literature from the Renaissance to the Present »

While the mythological figure of Narcissus has become a common topic in literature and the arts, Echo, the nymph, can hardly be said to have elicited the same amount of interest. And yet, although Echo cannot speak for herself and has consequently been overlooked in criticism, her voice might still be heard reverberating today, and be worth listening to. Indeed, the nymph who was sentenced by divine law to repeat part of another’s words might also produce new meaning through this very process of deferral and alteration. Beyond the stereotype of a disembodied and petrified shadow blending into the landscape, we would like to consider Echo as the epitome of literary (re)creation: although her discourse follows, rather than leads, it is always new and can thus undermine notions of authority and authorship. In the wake of John Hollander’s and Véronique Gély’s ground-breaking works, The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (1981), La Nostalgie du moi : Écho dans la littérature européenne (2000), this conference will study Echo’s mythological, acoustical and metaphorical manifestations in the specific field of British literature, across different genres (poetry, drama, essay-writing and fiction) and through different theoretical approaches, from the Renaissance to the present.

This topic will be studied from three different angles:

• The mythological figure of Echo: how was Ovid’s narrative translated, received, reinterpreted throughout the centuries? What kind of “metamorphoses” has Echo undergone? What is specific about the reception of the myth in the British Isles?

• The echo as an acoustic phenomenon: participants will be encouraged to look at the representations of echoes in fiction, poetry and drama, but also to study echoes as a mode of representation, particularly stylistic devices based on repetition.

• The echo as a type of literary allusion: what characterizes the echo as a form of intertextual reference? How does the altering repetition of the words of others carry and create meaning? The aim will not be to list or present examples of intertextual echoes but to try to define the specificity of echoes as allusive devices, as compared with other intertextual phenomena.

Topics of interest include (but are not limited to) the following:

• Translations and reinterpretations of the myth of Echo and Narcissus (Ovid) or the myth of Echo and Pan (Longus) in the British Isles.
• The dialogue with Echo as a literary genre (including echo-poems).
• Rhetorical devices based on echoes.
• The echo as the voice of nature in pastorals.
• The lyrical subject as an embodiment of Echo, both voicing and interpreting the song of nature.
• Soundscapes: shores, lakes, caves, cliffs, cavities or monuments.
• Echoes of the lost voices of the dead in elegiac texts.
• The echo as the embodiment of the author’s voice, reverberating in the reader’s mind, and as a symbol of fame and posterity.
• Echoes as the projection of irrational fears (in the Gothic Novel, for instance).
• Narrative echoes that shape differed, diffracted or multiple forms of enunciation.
• The echo as endless repetition threatening meaning.
• The echo as a form of ironical repetition.
• Echo as the embodiment of secondary, subordinate, subdued voices (as theorized by Gayatri Spivak in the concept of “a-phonia”).
• Echo as a figure of the translator who says “almost the same thing” (to use Umberto Eco’s phrase).

We welcome proposals for 25-minute papers (in English or in French) on the above-mentioned topics.

Please send abstracts of about 300 words, together with a short (100-word) author biography, to the organizers, Marie Laniel, Laetitia Sansonetti and Aurélie Thiria-Meulemans by 30 June 2016, at:

A selection of peer-reviewed articles based on papers given at the conference will be published in Polysemes:

Scientific committee:

Prof. Pascal Aquien
Prof. Christine Berthin
Prof. Camille Fort
Prof. Isabelle Gadoin
Prof. Véronique Gély
Dr. Florence Klein
Dr. Marie Laniel
Prof. Yves Peyré
Dr. Lacy Rumsey
Dr. Laetitia Sansonetti
Dr. Aurélie Thiria-Meulemans
Prof. Pascale Tollance

Early Modern Echo

In the Early Modern period, the figure of Echo was known via new translations and adaptations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which she is mentioned as a protagonist in the tale of Narcissus (Book 3). While moral commentaries still accompany the text in the translations, they are not fused with the story proper, as was the case in Medieval French moralisations, such as Pierre Bersuire’s Repertorium morale or the Ovide moralisé. The first English translation, the 1560 anonymous Fable of Ouid treting of Narcissus, has a very long “moralization” attached to the story that recapitulates the different interpretations offered by previous commentators, who have seen Echo as a flatterer, or as a good advisor whom Narcissus failed to heed.

In Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation, the statement of the moral lesson to be drawn from the Metamorphoses is limited to the Preface, while George Sandys, who started translating Ovid’s tales in 1621, has a moral appendix after each book in the 1632 edition. Ovid is still considered a purveyor of moral precepts, but he is also celebrated for the sweetness of his wit (Francis Meres speaks of “the sweet witty soul of Ovid” in his 1598 Palladis Tamia). The pleasure of reading his poetry is put forward in the numerous adaptations of stories from the Metamorphoses that are published in the form of erotic-mythological poems (sometimes called epyllia by twentieth-century critics, after the Greek genre), a trend that becomes highly fashionable in the late sixteenth century.

Parallel to this strain runs another version of the myth, in which Echo is a chaste nymph fleeing Pan’s desire, and sometimes a muse. This alternative tradition, although less widely circulated than Ovid’s version, remains vivid, especially in pastoral literature. Because of Echo’s identification with her natural environment, Francis Bacon even makes her the incarnation of “true philosophy” in De Sapientia Veterum.

When the fate of Echo is interpreted in a moralising way in the translations, the gendered (and sexual) dimension is put to the fore: for Golding, she is “a bawd”; as for Sandys’s analysis, it reveals a growing interest in the acoustic phenomenon – not only is Echo the “babbling” nymph who personifies vainglory dissolving into nothingness, but her story is also the starting point of a development on specific echo-places in Europe.

In adaptations, Echo mainly seems to appear as a foil to Narcissus, who remains the main protagonist of the story, whilst her sad fate makes her an apt elegiac figure to mourn lost love. In terms of poetic form, her infirmity is a challenge for poets to write echo-poems of the type found in Book 3 of the Metamorphoses, in Latin (as in John Clapham’s 1591 Narcissus) or in English (as in Shakespeare’s parody of Clapham’s poem, inserted in Venus and Adonis). In his Epithalamion, Spenser ends each stanza with a line mentioning the “ring” of the echo made by his song in the woods. In Cynthia’s Revels, Ben Jonson goes further in giving Echo the power to speak in her own right and not only by repeating others’ words, although this autonomy is only temporarily granted by Mercury, and she uses it only to mourn her Narcissus (and condemn the self-love that led him to his death).

The satirical potential of the Echo-figure, which was already manifest in Bersuire’s denunciation of “adulatores” and ironists who can only deride other people’s original ideas, seems to resurface in the seventeenth century. Because she/it tells some truths that were better left unsaid, E/echo can serve as a subversive character/device, as is the case in the ominous echo-dialogue from John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. However, Echo can also mean the possibility of reciprocity, as in Abraham Cowley’s poem “Eccho”. Echo’s link with the natural world can even grant her the status of God’s interpreter (Milton links her to the music of the spheres in Comus), thus making the echo-poem an apt form in religious poetry, as with George Herbert’s “Heaven”.

Echo in the Romantic Era

Ovid’s version of the myth was the most widely known and appreciated by the Romantics, particularly in its most famous translation at the time, published by Samuel Garth in 1717 and containing stories translated by Dryden, Pope and Addison. Previous ones, however, continued to be taught and appreciated. Sandys’s version was the one Wordsworth read at school and he once suggested “Goulding’s [sic] Ovid” should be added to Robert Anderson’s A Complete Edition of the Poets of Great Britain. [1]

At first sight, there would appear to be no period in literary history in which Echo was eclipsed by Narcissus as blatantly as in the Romantic era. The beautiful youth in love with his own reflection has come to encapsulate a not-so-unrealistic portrait of the Romantic poet, from Wordsworth’s “egotistically sublime” poetic persona, to Shelley’s Alastor, to Byron and Keats and their concern for their own fame or posthumous glory. Ovid’s nymph would seem to have disappeared into the landscape, somewhere behind a crowd of golden narcissi along with Dorothy Wordsworth, whose presence in the daffodil scene has been erased from her brother’s famous lyric.

Echo the nymph is, however, present in no fewer than seven of Shelley’s works, from his most famous, such as Adonais, to more obscure translation exercises such as “Elegy on the death of Adonis from the Greek of Bion” or “Pan, Echo and the Satyr from the Greek of Moschus.” Echoes become characters in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and in Adonais, the poet convokes both human echoes to mourn the dead poet, and Echo herself, who mourns Adonais with as much grief as she did Narcissus. Keats mentions “lone Echo” giving “the half / To some wight amaz’d to hear / Jesting, deep in forest drear” in a poem to Reynolds from February 1818, and invites her to weep with Isabella in Isabella or the Pot of Basil.

The acoustic phenomenon of echoes is even more abundantly present in the works of romantic poets, particularly those of Wordsworth. For John Hollander, “Echoing, for Wordsworth, is so central a figure of representation and plays such an important part in the dialogue of nature and consciousness that it would require an extensive separate treatment.”[2] Poems such as “On the Power of Sound” or “Loud is the Vale!” as well as many excerpts from The Prelude present the poet’s thoughts as born from the echoes of nature. “The Winander Boy” mimics the cries of owls, who in turn respond and whose cries are then reverberated by echoes around the lake. The pause between the original and the copy is even reproduced in the verse by the many run-on-lines that have readers hold their breath along with the boy. Echoing Nature is a way for the poet of Lyrical Ballads to present himself as wholly original, a poet who does not repeat his predecessors, but as the “chosen son”, dutifully mimicking, translating Nature’s song, thus becoming himself a paradoxical figure of Echo, since the poetic revolution he partly initiated aimed at discarding mythological references so as to speak “the real language of men.”

Far from fleeing the passivity implied in the echoing process, the Romantics saw this passivity as part of the poetic process: while Wordsworth claims himself “obedient as a lute,” Coleridge draws on the metaphor of poetic inspiration as an Aeolian harp which stirs thanks to Nature’s breath (“The Eolian Harp”, “Dejection, an ode”). Both poets thus see and present their verse as echoes of Nature. Keats’s ideal of the chameleon poet (letter to Richard Woodhouse, Oct. 27, 1818) is reminiscent of the passivity advocated by Wordsworth (although Keats sees in Wordsworth’s verse the absolute opposite of a poet’s malleability, he who embodies the “egotistical sublime”) and Keats’s own “negative capability” (ibid) evokes an acceptance of the faithfulness to the original implied in Echo’s curse. For Shelley, however, the poet’s role in the world should be more active; imploring the West Wind to “make me thy lyre”, Shelley offers not only to echo his contemporaries’ questionings about the period of political instability in which they lived, he aims at keeping the revolutionary spark burning. In his ode, he eventually gives up the lyre metaphor and directly implores the Wind to “Scatter… my words among mankind!”.

Yet, Echo also embodies Wordsworth’s poetics at its darkest. Famous for his Glorious Decade, Wordsworth survived his poetic genius, writing only minor works after the publication of his Poems in Two Volumes of 1807. He paradoxically announced this loss of poetic genius in many a grand poem as in the ode Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood “Wither is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now the glory and the dream?” Echoing this loss, Wordsworth’s poetry teems with figures of maternal grief repeating the same lament in wild landscapes until only the lament remains (“The Thorn”, “Maternal Grief,” and “The Complaint of the Forsaken Indian Woman”). Moreover, Wordsworth continued to revise his work (and particularly The Prelude) throughout his life, as if bound to self-repetition.

From a more metaphysical perspective, echoes signal the ambiguous status of meaning. Do these mysterious sounds, emanating from a nonhuman entity, have a superior meaning or is this meaning built by our own minds? For Wordsworth, meaning is granted by God. Thus in “Yes! Full surely ‘twas the Echo,” he considers we have in our own minds thoughts that are direct echoes of God, “recognized intelligence,” intelligent thoughts which Wordsworth chooses to attribute to a higher and external agency. Shelley the atheist, on the other hand, sees the human mind as the chamber of echoes that alone makes precarious sense of it all. “Mont Blanc” opens on an echo metaphor of the “everlasting universe of things” flowing through the mind “with a sound but half its own,” but ends with the cruel realization, which takes the form of a question, that the contrary is just as true: the world resonates with the meaning we place in it, it is “the human mind’s imaginings” that turn silence and solitude into something more than vacancy, the cruel possibility of emptiness here taking the form of the poem ending on a question no echo ever answers.

Yet poetry for the Romantics is not the end of the echoing chain: it serves to launch yet another series of echoes. In “To Joanna,” Wordsworth calls the reader’s attention – and calls the reader to attention – to the importance of his words by having his mocking friend told off by mountain echoes. Many Wordsworth poems read like artes legendi, notices for the reader on how to read the poet’s lines: a good catechumen, the reader should keep them in mind, or rather in heart, like the song of the Solitary Reaper, ultimately becoming a corporeal echo-chamber. Keats envisages the process the other way around, considering the poem as an echo of the reader’s “highest thoughts… almost a remembrance” (letter to John Taylor, February 1818). The fame so dear to Keats was also seen in terms of echoes, “an echo and a light unto eternity” is what Shelley promises Keats’s name will be in Adonais, insisting that the posthumous life of verse implies repetition by posterity.

Victorian, Modernist and Postmodern Echo

Although they express a form of nostalgia for the Romantic ideal, Victorian echoes tend to reflect the growing estrangement between man and nature, to reverberate uncertainties and doubts about the transitory nature of human life and the frailty of love, carrying an “eternal note of sadness”, like the waves breaking on the shore of “Dover Beach” (Matthew Arnold, 1867). In Christina Rossetti’s “Echo” (1862), a disembodied voice from beyond the grave, reminiscent of the petrified nymph, mourns the death of a lover who had “eyes as bright as sunlight on a stream”, while in “An Echo from Willowwood” (1890), two lovers leaning over a pond experience the transience of love and youth. In “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” (1882), by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the echo reverberating in “St Winefred’s Well” both conveys the threat of physical decay (“How to keep […] to keep / Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty,… from vanishing away?”), and transcends it by enacting the perpetuation of the poetic voice in the face of death, through a masterful series of echo-devices. In the poems which he dedicated to the memory of his late wife, Emma, Thomas Hardy often portrayed her as a figure of Echo (“Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me”, “The Voice”, 1912), a frail ghost haunting shores, cliffs, waterfalls or caves, and taunting him with “a voice still so hollow / That it seems to call out to me from forty years ago, / When you were all aglow, / And not the thin ghost that I now frailly follow!” (“After a Journey”, 1913).

Modernist writers have also found a powerful symbol in Echo, expressing their fascination with what Steven Connor has called “an uncannily disembodied vocality, a vocality which speaks of and out of the condition of physical violence or rending, and which therefore holds the body apart from its voice rather than uniting them” [3]. Modernist echoes raise unsettling questions of identity and reflect the dangerous dislocation of the self, contaminated by disquieting voices, both from within and from without. As a form of “epistemological echoing” [4], these “disembodied voices” are also self-reflexive interrogations about literature’s own relation to itself, its ability to be more than the distorted iteration of past utterances. The voice of Echo is thus one of the many alienated female voices that can be heard in “The Waste Land” (1922). In A Passage to India (1924), the destructive echo resounding in the Marabar Caves reduces all meaning to a single onomatopoeia, a dull sound, which undermines the Western myth of logocentrism: “The echo in a Marabar cave […] is entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. ‘Boum’ is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or ‘bou-oum’, or ‘ou-boum’—utterly dull”. Joyce also famously revived the dialogue with Echo in the “Circe” episode of Ulysses (1922) or in the “Echoland” of Finnegans Wake (1939). According to Didier Anzieu, vocal iteration can be seen as the underlying principle of all Beckettian enunciation, and all Beckettian narrators, trapped within the inner theatre of consciousness, can be seen as figures of Echo, “voices who never-endingly reiterate their own inability to make sense and to communicate” [5]. In “Echo’s Bones” (2014), the recently deceased Belacqua, wandering in a grim no-man’s-land, experiences the dismal fate of the petrified nymph, whose voice is doomed to outlast bodily decay.

In the second half of the 20th century, Echo has become a figure of intertextuality, undermining the authority of the writer as originator of meaning [6]. Postmodern writers (whether British or American) have thus frequently revisited the myth, breaking away from the reductive vision of Echo as the symbol of vacuous repetition and granting her the ability to produce meaning through a process of deferral and alteration: “Echo never, as popularly held, repeats all, like gossip or mirror. She edits, heightens, mutes, turns others’ words to her end” (John Barth, “Echo”, Lost in the Funhouse, 1968). Similarly, Jacques Derrida has rehabilitated the figure of Echo as the epitome of différance, as one who “speaks freely of herself, for herself, by seeming to repeat the last syllables of the other and thus to give in to the jealous dictates of divine law” [7], who “deceives” “the divine interdiction” “in order to speak in [her] own name and to declare untranslatably [her] love” while pretending to repeat the end of Narcissus’s sentences [8].

[1] The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Vol III, The Middle Years, Part II : 1812-1820. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt. 2d ed., rev. Mary Moorman and Alan G. Hill. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970, p.154.

[2] John Hollander, The Figure of Echo. A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (Los Angeles : University of California Press, 1981), 18.

[3] Steven Connor. “Echo’s Bones: Myth, Modernity and the Vocalic Uncanny”. In Michael Bell and Peter Poellner (eds.). Myth and the Making of Modernity, The Problem of Grounding in Early Twentieth-Century Literature. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998, 214.

[4] Ibid., 215.

[5] Didier Anzieu. « Le théâtre d’Écho dans les récits de Beckett ». In Créer Détruire. Paris : Dunod, 2012, 177.

[6] Véronique Gély-Ghedira. La Nostalgie du moi : Écho dans la littérature européenne. Paris : PUF, 2000, 152.

[7] Jacques Derrida. “By Force of Mourning”. The Work of Mourning. Trans. P-A. Brault and M. Naas. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 2001, 164.

[8] Jacques Derrida. On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy. Trans. Christine Irizarry. Stanford: Stanford UP, 291.