Saturday 24 May 2014

Reading Aloud

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.

Thursday 8 May 2014

On being Oxford Professor of Poetry

On Tuesday evening the sonorous tones of Geoffrey Hill rang around the Oxford University Examinations Schools as he delivered his latest lecture as Professor of Poetry. Hill read out to us Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’ and then meditated searchingly upon its linguistic and religious complexities – his own splendid lecture style being (to borrow a phrase he applied to the poem itself) ‘vaticised beyond the reach of commonplace propriety’. There are political as well as religious implications to Hopkins’s unique practice of language, as when the poet informed Robert Bridges on 2 August 1871 that ‘I am always thinking of the Communist future … Horrible to say, in a manner I am a Communist’; but these Hill didn’t explore. None the less, this was a marvellous offering in what is clearly intended as a coherent five-year lecture sequence devoted to the proposition that ‘the grammar of a poem decides the grammar of belief’.

It was on 16 February 1877 that William Morris wrote to James Thursfield of Oxford University declining to let his name go forward for the Professor of Poetry election of that year. I’ve always felt that, as a valuable exercise at the critical-creative frontier where so much important work is being done in literary studies today (not least by my Lancaster colleague John Schad), someone should have a stab at writing the sequence of lectures that Morris might have given had he accepted the nomination and won the election. In the nineteenth century the Professorship of Poetry was a ten-year stint rather than today’s five, so Morris’s tenure – 1877-1887 – would have covered his conversion to socialism in 1883. We would thus see a Pre-Raphaelite Professor of Poetry maturing into a full-bloodedly Communist one across that decade, and reworking his views of poetry and literature accordingly. So I look forward one day to reading the volume of William Morris’s lost Oxford lectures.