When Poets Have to Speak a Piece

THIS has been a year of centenary celebrations of the marvelous galaxy of great men who happened to be born in a bunch a hundred years ago; and at frequent intervals during these twelve months, many men have felt themselves called upon to stand and deliver ornate speeches setting forth the essential characteristics of the great man whose hundredth birthday is being commemorated. Not a few poets also have come forward to read laudatory lyrics, in which they sing the virtues of their predecessors who have joined the choir invisible. And it has been interesting to observe how well they have acquitted themselves of this grateful task, and especially how adroitly they have adapted themselves to the novel conditions of oral delivery.

Originally, all poetry was to be said or sung; and the poets still like to think of themselves as singers, and as touching the lyre. And yet, from a time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, the poets of our language have appealed exclusively to the eye of the reader, neglecting altogether the appeal to the ears of an audience. One result of this is that they have forgotten how to make verses fitted for oral delivery. They have centred their efforts on effects which may be proper enough in the study, but which are out of place on the platform. Not only have they forgotten how to write rhymes that will fall trippingly on the ear, but they now fail to grasp the distinction which must exist between that which is to be read aloud and that which is merely to be read. Of course, this blunder is often made by prose-writers also, who venture to deliver an essay prepared solely for perusal as if it had the special qualities of an actual address, intended for the ear of the many rather than for the eye of the one. Yet we all know that a good essay will not necessarily make a good address, just as a good address will not necessarily make a good essay. Indeed, it is a commonplace of criticism that a really persuasive speech rarely reads well.

Now, this is a fact which the bards of the set occasion ought to keep in mind. They ought to adopt for their commemorative verses the model rather of the speaker than of the essayist. They ought to take account of the limitations of the human ear, — and also of the human intelligence when it has to be reached through the ear. In other words, what they must strive to do is to give their poetry certain of the special qualities of the oration. They must contrive to sustain their lyrics with the repetition and with the rhetoric demanded by the spoken address. And they must avoid all those metrical forms which will not carry to the ear. The sonnet, for example, with the intricate interlacing of its rhymes, is altogether too complicated for satisfactory oral delivery. The ear cannot catch the scheme easily, and the auditor is puzzled by the complexity of structure; and as a result, there is a violation of that principle of Economy of Attention, which Herbert Spencer declared to underlie all the rules of rhetoric.

It is profitable to remind ourselves that the most satisfactory passages even in the noblest memorial odes have conformed to the laws of oral delivery. Indeed, it could be shown that the strikingly effective portions of Tennyson’s Wellington Ode are, in essence, rhyme and rhetoric, — splendid and inspiring rhetoric, no doubt, but rhetoric none the less. And Lowell’s noble characterization of Washington in one ode and of Lincoln in another, are also essentially oratorical; they have the stately structure and the serried march of the masterpieces of oratory; they have the true rhyme of the spoken word, as distinguished from the merely written word which makes its appeal only to the eye. So Kipling’s “ Recessional,” prepared to be read, could have been spoken to advantage, as it carries its message with the clearness of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. This same characteristic, it may be noted, can be discovered also in the verse of the later Latin lyrists, after the habit had established itself for a poet to speak his own lines, and to publish them with his own voice.