How to Speak Poetry

WE all remember the noble tribute to Oxford paid by Matthew Arnold, himself one of her noblest sons. But let me recall once more that exquisite vision: —

Beautiful city! so venerable, so lovely, so unravaged by the fierce intellectual life of our century, so serene! . . . Steeped in sentiment as she lies, spreading her gardens to the moonlight, and whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Age, who can deny that Oxford, by her ineffable charm, keeps ever calling us to the true goal of all of us, to the ideal, to perfection — to beauty, in a word, which is only truth seen from another side? . . . Adorable dreamer, whose heart has been so romantic! who hast given thyself so prodigally, given thyself to sides and heroes not mine, only never to the Philistines! home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties!

For the last few days I have been again a visitant to that beautiful city, once and always my spiritual home, and I have heard her still calling me nearer to that true goal, to the ideal, to perfection, to beauty. Matthew Arnold’s words were written nearly sixty years ago — some years before the adorable dreamer took me to her romantic heart; but I have still found in her the example to keep down the Philistine in myself, and to save me from that ‘bondage to the commonplace’ of which Goethe speaks in his incomparable lines upon the death of Schiller.

My return to this ancient Mother of Youth was due to an invitation from my friend John Masefield, poet and story-teller, well known in America as in England. All the world now knows the strong verse and prose that somehow spring out of that little head, with the wide and dreamy light-brown eyes, the deep and sonorous voice, uttering a language so unusual in a jolly jack-tar, and with a punctilious politeness so unexpected in a former dog of ocean. It was his love and knowledge of the sea that first gave him fame, and now the fertility of genius, cultivated with careful and persistent devotion, has secured him a lasting place in the long and glorious series of our English poets. As were Milton, Pope, Byron, Tennyson, and Swinburne, he is famous though alive. He has set a tone. He has created a form. For the first time in two centuries a poet has penetrated the English country house, and, listening to extracts from Reynard the Fox, the squire thinks there may be something in poetry after all, by Gad! Even the fastidious name him the poet of our years.

Living on the low range of hills that look southward far over the Berkshire downs, and northward over the mediæval city herself, it has fallen to him to carry onward that heritage of Oxford’s ineffable charm. Not being a son of the University himself, but hardened among the perpetual perils of the sea, he has escaped the precious and supercritical mood with which the mere beauty of her thought and aspect taints her permanent denizens, entering so deeply into their nature that sometimes they can hardly speak for ecstatic languor and hesitating self-distrust. Not one of them would have had the courage to initiate the enterprise that Masefield has now accomplished. They would have feared ridicule or failure or the charge of that preciosity which is their own besetting weakness. But John and Constance Masefield, though highly cultivated, had the courage to face the risk of ridicule, of failure, and even the paralyzing charge of preciosity. This has been the fifth successful year of their inspiring labor.

The object of the Oxford Recitations is to create or maintain a fine tradition of speaking English verse. There was a time when all verse was necessarily spoken, because writing was not invented. Afterward, for many ages it was still spoken, because manuscripts were rare and costly. Then, perhaps in an evil hour for poetry, printing came, and sight began to take the place of sound. For a time the drama kept alive the sense of beautiful sound, but it is three centuries now since verse seemed the natural form of drama, and if it is ever heard now upon the stage it comes to us only as a queer survival, an unpopular and tedious experiment, or even a frigid imitation. So it has happened that nearly all of us who care for poetry at all judge of it by sight rather than by sound, and the first object of the Oxford Recitations is to restore the beauty of the sound by means of exquisite utterance.

The judges in the present contest have been John and Constance Masefield; Sir Montagu Burrows, a famous Civil Servant for many years working in Ceylon, and a true lover of the best literature; George Gordon, Professor of English Literature in Oxford; Lascelles Abercrombie, the poet, Laurence Binyon, the poet, Gordon Bottomley, the poet, and myself, who have followed war and the Muses all my life. Professor Gilbert Murray, scholar and poet, could not come, though he is president of the movement; nor could John Buchan, journalist, story-teller, poet, the rising hope of the Young Tory Party in Parliament, and master of talents in general.

The duty of a judge is extremely difficult. He sits alone, or with one colleague, at a table in one of the large rooms in the Oxford Schools, and behind him sits a crowded audience, silent but critical, including many of the competitors. In front of him, upon a slightly mised platform, stand the competitors in turn, and he listens while each recites the same set piece in each class — that is, for each prize. The competitors are divided into men and women (the women being nearly always the more numerous) and different passages are set for the two sexes. All must be over eighteen. If a judge is wise, he will avoid looking at the candidates, especially when they are girls or young women; for the susceptible heart of man is almost inevitably influenced by personal appearance, physical charm, and even by dress. Most of the feminine candidates are perfectly aware of this natural weakness, and are obviously careful to look their best in hair, face, frock, stockings, and shoes. But in vain is the net spread in the sight of any bird. Or rather the bait is set in vain if the bird resolutely shuts his eyes. The candidates must be judged by sound alone. If they possess beauty of nature, character, voice, or understanding, it will pass into the sound, and though I think such beauty always finds expression in the face as well, it is not by prettiness of appearance, still less by elegant and dainty dress or stockings, that it should be appreciated.

Judging is easy enough when some or most of the candidates speak the lines badly. The trouble of the judge comes when several are excellent — so excellent that there is not a pin to choose between them. How shall he then decide? One may be fine in voice and understanding, but have slipped a word. Another may be faultless in word and meaning, but speak with a meagre and unpleasing tone. Another may speak to perfection and yet not enter into the inward spirit of the poem. Another may excel throughout, but put a false emphasis just upon one word. Two or three may speak the lines so perfectly that one simply cannot put one above the other. The judge seeks for beauty of speech, but also for fineness of understanding, which is an inborn grace and very rare. It is often difficult to detect it with absolute certainty. Let me quote a few sentences from a Note written by Masefield as guide both for candidates and for judges: —

The speech desired by each judge is speech so beautiful as sound, so exquisite as perception of the poet’s meaning, that the illumination of the poet may kindle the hearers.

The first requisite is that the speaker should sink himself or herself in the poem, not remain outside it and deliver it as something to be explained or embellished. Then it is essential to give full value to the music of the poem, simply as sound: and in the voice production a certain volume of sound is necessary, if there is to be adequate expression. If the speaker gives the rhythmical movement with a feeling for its beauty, significance will usually follow.

The commonest faults are a kind of meagreness (of voice, rhythm, emotion): literalness, draining the words of life and color; and attempting to be dramatic where there is no drama.

That last point was a great trouble in the earlier sessions. In the first two at which I acted as judge, many of the candidates thought to win approval by dramatic gestures and violent changes of voice or expression, as though they were acting Hamlet or Lady Macbeth on the stage. I remember one woman falling down at the end of her recitation, as though dying of emotion. The result was horrible in all such cases. For there was no stage; no dramatic emotion worked upon the audience; and no fellow actors carried off the violence of the scene. Since those earlier years, gesture of any kind has pretty nearly disappeared. The candidate speaks the lines without moving from position. The hands are kept quietly at the side or just clasped in front. All the effect has to be gained by sound and understanding alone. This year a special prize was offered for the intoning of a poem to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument, struck by the reciter. This beautiful method, recalling the ancient habit of Homeric and Irish bards, was practised to perfection some years ago by Florence Farr, under the influence of the Irish poet, W. B. Yeats. But the divine voice of Florence Farr has been hushed by death in Ceylon, and no one has ventured to repeat her triumph. For this prize there was but one entry, and the competition was not held.

The pieces selected for the ordinary recitations this year were typical, but I think rather more difficult than usual. For men there were first two longish pieces from Chaucer, ‘The Knight’s Tale.’ One described a tournament; the second gave that terrible speech of Saturn to Venus. The latter was well suited to a deep-toned speaker, who endued it with exactly the right tone of sinister atrocity. But I thought the choice of Chaucer a mistake, for no one really knows how his verse or even his English words should be recited or pronounced. The women in that class had two passages from Dante’s Purgatorio, translated with marvelous skill by Binyon. Both described the revelation of the Angel of God, gradually appearing in flight from a western sea. In each class only a selected three compete in the second set piece for the prize of that class, and all the judges sit together in the evening to hear those selected few.

The next class had two pieces from Wordsworth’s Prelude for the men, describing how that apparently guileless poet once stole the use of a boat, but as he rowed across a lake was frightened by the apparition of a huge mountain peak uprearing its head above the craggy ridge which had hidden it. And the women had Wordsworth, too — the stanzas on Peele Castle, and the shepherd’s verses on ‘Hart-Leap Well,’ surely the most touching protest against blood sport ever uttered. A few of the candidates said the Wordsworth very beautifully, not exaggerating the poet’s deceptive simplicity, but just revealing that unexpected gleam of sudden glory that illuminates the whole.

So we came naturally to Shelley — two difficult passages for men from the Prometheus Unbound, and two for women from that superb chorus of freedom in the ‘Hellas’: ‘The world’s great age begins anew.’ And when the prizes for those classes had been secured, three from each of the very best of all the classes were called upon to compete for the highest prize, called the Oxford Prize. For this the men recited some twenty lines from Milton’s Il Penseroso, and the women the same amount from L’Allegro. Both were supreme performances, making the final judgment terribly hard. But I think the best won. At all events the marks given by all the judges together, when added up, fixed upon the candidates whom I had myself chosen as the best.

I suppose there were about three hundred candidates altogether, and many of course were poor at the task, but even among the most carefully selected I never heard a word of complaint or jealousy when the judgment was given, though some must have been bitterly disappointed.

All the candidates sprung from the middle classes, some from the higher, some from the lower. The highest prize for men was won by a shopkeeping chemist, who was with difficulty persuaded to enter. The best young woman of all, though many were so excellent, was a teacher and trainer in voice production, who somehow contrived to shake off the qualities of teacher and became literally inspired as she stood before us, moving neither hand nor foot, but standing perfectly still, while the very soul of poetry issued from her lips. The recitations for the final prizes always attract large crowds from the University and the ancient city, and excitement runs very high. The audience is divided according to its chosen favorites, almost as at a horse race. The intense silence of enthusiasm prevails until the decision of the judges is given out. Then the cheers shake the solemn building, and the winners enjoy the happiest moments of their lives, no matter how long they may live.

Thus it is that the glory of poetry, which is England’s noblest gift to the world, is displayed and preserved untarnished as a brazen shield. And thus it is that Oxford, the adorable dreamer, once more calls us to our true goal, to the ideal, to perfection — to beauty, in a word, which is only truth seen from another side. Just before I went to Oxford as judge in these recitations, I had been on duty for many weeks with the Naval Conference in Geneva, and from the dusty tedium of that Conference Oxford helped me to escape. Once again she saved me from that ‘bondage to the commonplace’ of which Goethe spoke.