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Vessels of Flame

Vessels of Flame

Letitia Elizabeth Landon and the Improviser’s Voice

(p.221) Chapter 11 Vessels of Flame
London Voices, 1820-1840
Melina Esse
University of Chicago Press

London in 1824 was a city obsessed with the Italian improvising poets known as improvvisatori. Periodical accounts, reviews, and histories of poetic improvisation abounded, while the popularity of Madame de Staël’s fictional improviser Corinne opened up new possibilities for women authors. Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L.E.L.) was only the latest to follow Corinne’s lead, publishing her long poem “The Improvisatrice” that year. Not only is her protagonist clearly based on Staël’s Corinne, but she also revisits that most ancient improvvisatrice, Sappho. By 1825, when Tommaso Sgricci himself arrived in London, his decision to recite from already published transcriptions rather than perform extempore might suggest that improvisation had been thoroughly absorbed into print culture, its spontaneous effusions hardened into fixed texts. This chapter argues, however, that printed evocations of poetic improvisation testify to the continued resonance of the improviser’s voice. The repercussions of this (sometimes imagined) sound carried not just across media (live recitation, transcriptions, published poems) but across geographical and gendered boundaries. Landon’s poem reads quite differently placed next to another “remediation” of the improviser’s voice: Giacomo Leopardi’s “Ultimo canto di Saffo” (1822). Both works prompt us to understand the textualization of improvised poetry as a risky, incomplete, and impermanent undertaking.

Keywords:   improvisation, improvvisatori, Letitia Landon (L.E.L), Giacomo Leopardi, orality, poetry, print culture, textuality, voice, improvvisatrice

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