The contingencies of military decisions and their outcomes have always shaped the course of literary history, determining even the languages in which it has been conducted. But modern literature takes a new bearing on its determinant military contingencies. This paper describes a modern literary scene that self-reflexively attributes to literature the potential to suspend these determining military events, and so to communicate the unactualised possibilities contained in past contingencies, even those that have been violently foreclosed. It is a scene of interested observers, adrift in a boat, who listen for the sounds of a distant naval battle. Having first located this scene's classical antecedents in Aristotle, I then track it through three pivotal and distinctively modern moments of literary self-periodization. In each instance, the scene is differently configured, articulating a specific conjuncture of war, textuality and literary self-definition. It appears in John Dryden as the setting of a modern critical dialogue on theatre, with James Montgomery as a Romantic definition of the poetry of sound in a lecture series on literature, and with Joseph Conrad as the narrative frame of a modernist tale within a tale. But the same scene re-echoes in all three – the scene of literary inscription as one in which, contingently, a war neither did nor did not take place, a battle was and was not fought.