On Reading Verse Aloud

[ALTHOUGH the main theory — the ninth principle — expounded in this article has been tested on thousands of lines, I cannot guarantee that an occasional exception cannot be found. For the reader’s convenience I have adopted a simple notation: ‘ a short syllable; ⌣ a medium-length syllable; — a long syllable; X a pause; X X a long pause; X X X a very long pause. — AUTHOR]

MOST readers of poetry perform by ear, and depend on the free dramatization of meaning or mood to carry them along. Since few have a good natural ear, the results are generally embarrassing to the audience. Not even poets themselves can, as a rule, manage their own cadences properly. They chant, vociferate, mumble, and grunt. The inner ear may have accomplished wonders of subtlety, but the outer fails to observe them. The following pages are designed to aid the many who would practise a technique which has, in fact, clear principles based on the presentation and rhythms of English verse.

The first obstacles to be overcome are self-consciousness and the consequent instinct to interpret rather than present the work. One should aim to be the bow in the master’s hand — not the master himself. Any poem worthy the name has enough intensity within itself to obviate the need for dramatization. The reader should deliver himself up to the poem as its instrument. ‘Make me thy lyre’! Since poetry should never be chanted, pitch should be flexible. The two extremes to be avoided are ‘elocution’ and singsong.

For more concise and definite principles we must penetrate the inmost shrine of Rhythm where pulse those mysterious forces which move beneath the flow of English metre. Many prosodists have entered this shrine never again to emerge into the sweet light of the sun. Locked in mortal combat with each other, or lost in the gigantic mazes of Theory, they sacrifice both life and poetry. Since I have every intention of returning unharmed, I shall give voice to a few theories only — and then run. Furthermore, I shall deal merely with those theories that are essential to the understanding of reading aloud.

First, we have the paradox of accent, or stress. English verse is indubitably based on a theoretical (but not an actual) pattern of recurrent accent. An iambic pentameter, we say, is a five-foot line, each foot containing an unaccented, followed by an accented, syllable. It would be difficult to find many such lines in the whole range of English poetry, for our verse is based on recurrent accent as an iceberg is based on the larger part that is submerged and invisible.

Much have / I trav / ell’d in / the realms / of gold.

Much and trav are full accents, but much is theoretically in the wrong half of the foot. Realms and gold are weaker accents. In cannot be accented at all. Thus we have an iambic pentameter not with five, but with only two, primary accents. Why, then, is such a line permissible?

Because the time rhythm darts back and forth in ever-changing units to give balance to the line as a whole. It shrinks where the accent is strong, and expands where the accent is weak. In the line quoted above, in is not adequate to the metrical place it occupies. Therefore the time rhythm holds up the line with the long syllables realms and gold, which compensate for the missing stress. Thus we have a constant interplay between accent and time, between strength and length, which, in spite of irregularity in detail, brings every line to a metrical balance. Time rhythm is like the spider alert to repair every rent in the symmetry of the web. Accent rhythm is the web itself. With due apologies to Keats, let us rewrite his line, substituting short syllables for his long ones. ‘Much have I travell’d in the infinite.’ It drops to pieces (as poetry of the ‘infinite’ generally does).

This second rhythm works through two equally important elements. The first is called duration, and depends on the length or shortness of an individual syllable. It is short; slow is long; and between these extremes lie innumerable variations of swiftness or length. Although long durations are generally dependent on long vowel sounds, in words like strength, wherein the consonants draw out the sound, we find not only a full accent, but a long duration as well. The second element in time rhythm is a silence, a pause. Pause corresponds to the ‘rest’ in music. It is essential that the reader of poetry consider both duration and pause with rapt attention. They are the time rhythm, time smoothing out the irregularities of accent. They must be over-observed. Their differences must be brought out far more emphatically than in the reading of prose. Also, acceleration is just as important as retard. Short syllables must be staccato, or the long cannot fulfill their contrasting function. For practice, take Housman’s line: —

' — — ' ' ⌣ ' —

The fleet foot X on the sill of shade.

It is as necessary to hurry over the quick syllables on the as to draw out the two equal longs fleet foot. Note, in passing, that only the word sill receives a full accent. An even more striking example is Bridges’s

— — ' ' ' ' ⌣

Ah XX soon XXX when Winter has all

⌣ — ' '

our vales opprest.

In this line the exceedingly long durations ah and soon, with their long attendant pauses, are equal in time to the nine syllables which follow. Only the first syllable of Winter and the second syllable of opprest receive a full accent. Yet in theory this is an iambic pentameter, scanned thus: —

Ah soon / when Win / ter has all / our vales / opprest.

It is apparent how widely divergent are the underlying metres and the actual sounds of English verse.

At this point the reader is doubtless wondering what he should do about the accent rhythm. We have agreed that beneath the surge and thunder of the time rhythm a regular, though submerged, accentual pattern sustains the verse. Let us change our original figure and compare the accent to a skeleton, which, though unseen, holds the anatomy to its proper form and proportion. We can always scan metrical verse accentually even if we do not read it according to the scansion. Such a metrical chart might be compared to an X-ray picture of the bony structure beneath the flesh. Even such a line as Milton’s

Hail ho / ly Light / off spring / of Heav’n / firstborn

will submit to the investigation. In Shakespeare’s

In sooth / I know / not why / I am / so sad

the bony contour is nearer the surface. Poets often delight in conjoining fat and lean lines for the sake of variety. For practical performance, the reader should disregard accent, provided that he read naturally so that the accents fall into their natural places as they would in lively conversation. Accent is the essence of the English tongue, and may be left to take care of itself. It is impossible not to accent where an accent truly belongs. More often words are falsely accented because of their metrical position. This fault should be avoided. It would be impossible not to accent these lines properly: —

X X Break X X Break X X Break X

On thy cold gray stones O Sea!

It is also very easy to overdo. Study the time units, the slow, the quick, the pause; then stress will assume its proper place. In the ordinary iambic pentameter, the average number of full stresses is not more than two.

Pitch presents a vaguer problem, because the raising or lowering of the voice varies with the individual. For example, a relative of mine used to start every sentence at the top of the scale, slide to the bottom about two thirds of the way through, and, at the end, slide halfway up again. A foreigner would have thought him in a perpetual state of questioning worry. For the most part, Americans do not avail themselves nearly enough of a changing pitch. They avoid it as an affectation and lose half the effectiveness of their native tongue in drone, drawl, and growl. Yet the American voice is, in general, far richer than the English. Leaving out Cockney, — and that super-Cockney, the ‘Oxford accent,’ — we mistakenly accord superiority to the English voice, whereas actually the more flexible pitch gives the advantage. Pitch is to our tongue as hand-waving is to the French: its expressiveness, its emphasis, and its point. Without sliding pitch the reading of verse cannot be effective. Yet I cannot set any formula, or improvise a tune. I have noticed that, in moments of excitement, Americans lose their self-consciousness and sing out very well. Any good poem should arouse sufficient excitement to limber up the vocal cords. Away with constraint!

Enjambment is a problem which causes more confusion than pitch, yet has a clear solution. A large proportion of lines in English verse, especially in long poems and the drama, are locked together by their syntax: they ‘run over’ into each other; they are ‘enjambed.’

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide Of Humber would complain. I would Love you ten years before the Flood, And you should, if you please, refuse Till the conversion of the Jews.

In these lines of Marvell’s, we note the sentence structures running through line after line, with no chance for a pause to indicate the end of a line. The same device is common in blank verse. More than two thirds of the lines in Paradise Lost are enjambed; and Shakespeare, especially in his later plays, poured the lava of his thought over long series of boundary walls. The mishandling of Shakespeare’s enjambments is notorious.

There are two wrong ways of treating this device orally, and one right way. The poets themselves have so clearly pointed out the right way that I fail to understand how so many have missed it. The problem is this: a sentence leaps from line to line, ignoring metrical boundaries — how shall we preserve the integrity of the individual lines without placing pauses where they do not naturally occur? Or, on the other hand, preserve the normal syntax without melting the lines together into a formless mass? The old school of Shakespearean actors declaimed the speeches by the line and imparted a false rhetoric to the whole. The modern school follows the syntax merely and puts the poet to rout in favor of the dramatist.

But no such dilemma exists. All poets, consciously or instinctively, have indicated the method to be employed in reading enjambment. In enjambed passages, every line that runs over into the next is terminated by a syllable with a long vowel or with consonants that can be extended. Here, then, is the rule: Draw out the last syllable of the first line; then, without pause or change of pitch, launch into the second line. Thus: —

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side

← →

Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide

← →

Of Humber would complain. I would

Love you ten years before the Flood,

→ And vou should, if you please, refuse

Till the conversion of the Jews.

From what has been said so far, we may deduce the following principles for reading verse aloud: —

(1) Read out in a full but unstrained voice.

(2) Do not dramatize the poem.

(3) Do not chant it.

(4) Stress only the syllables that would be stressed in conversation; indeed, let the stress take care of itself.

(5) Read short syllables in a hurry and long ones at leisure.

(6) Observe all pauses extravagantly. Silence can never make a mistake.

(7) Vary the pitch eagerly.

(8) When lines overflow into each other, draw out the last syllable of the overflowing line, and, without pause or change of pitch, collide with the first syllable of the line that follows.

These eight principles would be valueless without the ninth, which governs them all. The ninth is, quite literally, the heart of the matter, for its steady pulse sends life through all the veins of English verse. My discovery of it was a happy accident. For years I had been vaguely conscious of swaying backward and forward in time to the verse I was reading. A poem of great syllabic irregularity, Walter de la Mare’s ‘Listeners,’ demanded an explanation of this weaving that evened out lines of very disproportionate length.

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveler,

Knocking on the moonlit door.

Both the lines have three metrical feet, but the first line has twelve syllables, and the second, seven. Both of them divide into two equal time units; and these units are equal through the two lines and those that follow — in spite of the discrepancy in the number of syllables.

1 2

' ' ' ' ' ' ⌣ ' ' ' ' '

Is there anybody there | X X said the Traveler X 1 2

' ' ' — ' —

Knocking on the moon lit | door. X X

Continuing my experiment, I discovered the cardinal principle, the prime movement, of our verse. All lines in English verse, more than one foot in length, divide into two equal time units. These units cut across feet, accent, syllables, and may even split a single word. More often than not, there is no pause between them. Theoretically, then, the best way to read English verse is to a metronome. Practically, there are gradual accelerations and retards which change the general tempo, but never disorganize the equality of the two time units within the single line.

These two units are doubtless a survival from the prosody of our AngloSaxon ancestors. The Anglo-Saxon line broke into two equal time units, the only difference from our rhythm being that those units were always separated by a pause, whereas ours more frequently are not. It is not surprising that such a survival should prevail, for many more elements of our primitive verse remain than are generally recognized. There are lines in many modern poets, notably Meredith and Swinburne, which would fit AngloSaxon metrics perfectly.

The reason that this double metronomic rhythm does not become monotonous is that the number of syllables within the units constantly varies, along with the durations and the placing of the pauses.

' — — ' ' ' ' — '

The lone X couch X X | of his everl a sting ⌣ sleep.

In this line, three syllables balance against seven.

A good many consonants, such as n, m, l, and ng, have echoes which fill out a unit: —

— ' ' ⌣ ' ' ' ' ' —

Wake X for the sun ] has scattered into flight.

Note how the two long syllables Wake and flight balance the two ends of the line.

When two similar consonants collide at the end of one word and the beginning of another, a pause is demanded to avoid running the two words together.

— ⌣ —

While she lies X

⌣ '

Sleeping. X

As I have said, the units sometimes meet in the middle of a word, as in the first of these two lines: —


Where in her Mcditerran | ean mirror gazing

⌣ ⌣ ⌣ — ' — ⌣ ' ' ' ⌣

Old Asia’s dreamy face X | wrinkleth to a west⌣ — ward smile.

By way of final illustration, let us divide an entire poem into its time units. Fearful that my colleagues in the art might object if one of their productions were thus anatomized, I offer up a lyric of my own for vivisection. (Let no saucy reader substitute the word autopsy.)

Note well that, though I have had to divide each line to denote the two units, there should be no pause between them unless a pause is indicated.

At the beginning of this article I said that I do not offer up this theory of verse in the sanctum of Prosody, where it would doubtless, and probably its author also, be torn to pieces by the contending votaries. I offer it in the sunlight of practical experience to the many who, as I have cause to know, seek guidance for the correct presentation of English poetry.


There is always the sound
By day, blended with
By night, the only sound, X
Through the darkness and half-
Here in the mottled shadow
Unstartled, waits X
Then with a silent bound,
While the sound of falling wa
Those are not stars
They are shadow of stars
When you walk by these waters
All you have known of time;
The mystery almost revealed
In the summer dawn X
Or the last breath
Goes forth to the sound
Swift as deer, X
Flash with their hints of
In the dark waters
No stars but shadows
Dark are the waters
And the sound of their falling
Frail are your stars,
And the sound of falling
of falling water here,
birdsong and windy leaves,
steady and clear
heard through sleepers’ dreams.
of glades, the deer
until the walker is near,
X without effort is gone,
ter goes on and on.
reflected in the lake,
that were there aeons ago;
at night, you must forsake
X you are timeless, alone,
like the breath you take
before the world is awake,
X when the spirit beyond recalling
of water forever falling.
half-thoughts in the summer mind
happiness and are gone;
X of ourselves we find
of stars which memory lost,
under the bridge we crossed,
knows neither end nor start.
X deep are your waters, mind;
water troubles my heart.