Ear alone

In the second of the justly famous general introductions to his work W.B.Yeats declared ‘I have spent my life in clearing out of poetry every phrase written for the eye, and bringing all back to syntax that is for ear alone.’  This resonant phrasing has since provoked more embarrassment than scholarship.  The poet though was quite clear about what he meant: ‘I wanted all my poetry’, he said, ‘to be spoken on stage or sung’.  How much this aural intensity and oral imperative must affect its genesis, matter, and direction we are only just beginning to understand.

In a long and detailed study Ronald Schuchard has picked up the gauntlet where Yeats had thrown it and tried to recover through letters, personal accounts, and contemporary articles the history of Yeats’s repeated attempts to have his poetry spoken or sung.  At the book’s heart is Yeats’s ten-year effort to have poetry spoken with careful intonation to a stringed instrument known as the psaltery, a subject on which Schuchard has already penned brief articles.  Its ten chapters however do roam further afield, with the thought of tracing a continuous line from early theatrical performances near the Yeats home in Bedford Park, west London, featuring a beautiful and exquisite verse-speaker called Florence Farr (soon the voice of Yeats’s psaltery performances) right through to an account of Yeats’s innovative radio broadcasts of poetry and music in the 1930s.  Indeed these outside chapters contain the most illuminating material, accounting for Yeats and Ezra Pound’s enthusiasm for the songs of Rabindrath Tagore, describing impressions of Yeats’s verse-speaking at Oxford, and allowing the influence of Farr’s speaking on the burgeoning Imagist movement for once to be seen in proper relief.

There is no doubt that this book represents an important contribution to Yeats studies, and opens up interesting avenues of scholarship when it comes to the story of modernist poetry.  No doubt too that it is meticulously researched, and written in a fine and engaging style, combining a handsome biographical sweep with an economic turning of minutiae – virtues we might expect from the co-editor, with John Kelly, of recent volumes in Oxford University Press’s ever-impressive series of Yeats letters.  That there is finally a frustrating vagueness at its heart is not by any means to dismiss its subject, which matters hugely, nor to impugn its scholarship: rather to acknowledge that writing about words and music is rarely done well.  ‘Beauty is difficult, Yeats’, Pound remembered Beardsley saying: trying to achieve it in poetry performed to music was doubly so, and writing perspicaciously about the results is perhaps scarcely less.  Here, lacunae in musical knowledge hamper the investigation, and because the documentary style eschews analysis of the central questions of tone and poetics raised by Yeats’s experiments, the reader is left with a valuable collection of sources without, quite, convincing narrative direction or real poise in either musical or literary judgment.

Much of this archive material has long lain open to scholars in Yeats’s own obliging scrapbooks of press cuttings, compiled with Lady Gregory and readily available in the National Library of Ireland.  The more remarkable then that so few have, until now, bothered to investigate the fascinating story these cuttings tell, with Yeats’s little-regarded gift for the orchestration of publicity nowhere in better evidence.  Pound one senses learned not only from Yeats’s extreme musical attention but from his political manoeuvring to create what Schuchard provocatively calls ‘the most visible poetic movement in the country’, its concerts in London packed with cognoscenti, provincial lecture tours bringing the ‘new art’ to the populace.  Still, whilst nudging Pound, Joyce, and Eliot to thoughtful creative responses, of Yeats’s experiments many like Bernard Shaw, not unaffected by jealousy of Farr, and even the sympathetic Arthur Symons were sceptical.  Musically literate but rather Wagnerian than avant-garde, critics like these have decisively influenced later generations, and unquestionably the received view of Yeats’s musical collaborations as simply absurd needed a serious corrective.  Schuchard to his credit consistently defends the validity of Yeats’s experiments, and their wider significance.  He does so, however, by appearing to claim their self-consistent integrity.  This fails to acknowledge how Yeats’s methods evolved through new influences (Nietzsche’s particularly pronounced) or show us how changing collaborations and aesthetics produced quite different results, even within one performance.  More seriously, in trying to assert their continuity with a fictional tradition of ‘bardic arts’, Schuchard fatally elides the differences between the widely varying approaches of poets, musicians, and performers through the ages.  Yeats claimed mischievously that ‘all poets from Homer up to date have read their poetry exactly as I read mine’; Schuchard, oddly, seems to take him at his word.  Fluffy generalizing about ‘bardic instincts’ and the ‘lost bardic arts of chanting and musical speech’ only perpetuates the deliberate vagueness that Yeats suffused about his project, and forgets that the poet, for one, barely used such terms after 1900.  Likewise the notion that poetry speaking might restore a ‘lost spiritual democracy’ is simply regurgitated, leaving the intriguing contradictions of an avant-garde, intimately quiet and expressive art of coteries and theatre societies (of which Schuchard has a sure grasp) being rolled out across the country in enormous halls unexplored.  Footnotes to the Collected Letters supply a pithy, ironic commentary too often absent here.

Neither is there any scrutiny of where Yeats’s projects of speaking to music fit into broader musical trends.  How the evolving speech sounds and word-music combinations of composers like Janaček, Peter Warlock, and in particular Schoenberg might relate is never discussed; the arrival of the American Harry Partch gets some coverage, but the lack of a larger musical perspective means Schuchard is often painfully oblique about decisive moments.  The making of the psaltery by the early music pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch as a chromatic instrument of paired octaves tuned in semitones entirely determined the course of the experiments, yet this is just announced, with no motivations or alternatives considered.  As built the psaltery flatly contradicts Schuchard’s unlikely identification of Dolmetsch as the adviser Yeats mentions who ‘thought quarter-tones and less intervals the especial mark of speech’; nor is it credible such a scrupulous editor of music manuscripts advised Yeats to notate the chanting in wavy lines.  A serious lack of musical authority matters because without such rigorous analysis a real grasp of what was actually going on always eludes us.

Finally the book makes little attempt to sound reverberations in Yeats’s own poetry: charitably this is left for others to do.  The one poem explicitly written for Farr to intone (‘The Players Ask for a Blessing on the Psalteries and on Themselves’) is among the worst Yeats ever wrote, and it would have been interesting to hear critical judgement on how Yeats’s collaborations affected his verse, which is ultimately what will matter to the modern reader.  It is a shame that such a sumptuously produced and proportioned book, full of photographs and score-reproductions, misses the opportunity to rescue a Yeats shrouded in mist and subject him to cold-eyed scrutiny.  The book’s achievement will be in bringing some little-considered areas of Yeats’s aesthetic into public light, and picturing the preoccupations of an age.  Patches of cloud and cloudy analysis prevent it from being definitive.

Ronald Schuchard, The Last Minstrels: Yeats and the Revival of the Bardic Arts. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. xxvi + 447pp.  £55.00. ISBN 978 0 19 923000 6.

[To see this article in print see Notes and Queries 56, no.4 Dec 2009]

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~ by thebicyclops on December 18, 2009.

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