In a review of the recordings which T.S. Eliot made of his own Four Quartets, F.R Leavis judged the poet’s oral performance to be inadequate and concluded that ‘These records should call attention to the problem of reading Four Quartets out. The problem deserves a great deal of attention, and to tackle it would be very educational’. Well, we don’t have a recording of Morris reading out his own verse (as we do of Tennyson and Browning), though Fiona MacCarthy refers, in her account of his undergraduate days, to ‘the funny singsong voice he always used when reading poetry. He laid great stress on the rhymes’. But we do have Gary Watson and Peter Orr reading some of Morris’s verse on the 1986 Argo ‘Treasury of Victorian Poetry’ tapes, which I’ve just happened across in a local charity shop. How educational is that, to borrow Leavis’s adjective?
In any performance of a poem we are likely to gain insight into those features of tone, pace and rhythm which are so difficult to establish in a written analysis; and this is certainly the case here. But additional effects come into play through the choice and sequence of texts, with its reversal of chronological order. First, ‘The Message of the March Wind’ (1885), and then ‘Summer Dawn’, ‘Shameful Death’ and ‘In Prison’, all from the 1858 Defence of Guenevere collection. In the first of these, the reading voice is torn between lush Hardyesque rural nostalgia – ‘the fiddler’s old tune and the shuffling of feet’ – and the more turbulent tones and energies which the wind introduces with its news of the grim political realities of the distant city
This conflicted voicing then reveals ‘Summer Dawn’ as the worthless little exercise in a stale Victorian convention which it so clearly is; the reading voice can do nothing with it, but remains ‘patient and colourless’, to borrow the poem’s own words. Plenty of colour in the next two Guenevere poems, though, which are delivered here with an appropriate mix of anger, grief and bitterness. But they have been brilliantly reframed by this sequence, with the political message of the March Wind implicitly turning their violent medieval events into episodes in the kind of vicious civil war which brings political change in chapter XVII of News from Nowhere. Early Morris, as Ingrid Hanson has recently reminded us, is all about fighting – ‘I fight, therefore I am’ – and that combative energy just needs a political ideology (which it gets in 1883) to give it contemporary point and purpose. So in reading aloud more than one poem, it would seem, a phonic and semantic interplay can be set up which may unexpectedly transform the texts involved.