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Yeats's Mask

 | 
Margaret Mills Harper
, 
Warwick Gould

Yeats’s mask

‘I beg your pardon?’: W. B. Yeats, Audibility and Sound Transmission

Emilie Morin

Texte intégral

1Despite the wealth of evidence demonstrating W. B. Yeats’s deep interest in radio broadcasting, his responses to and perception of sound transmission devices have not received sustained critical attention. This article considers Yeats’s ambivalence towards sound recording and the wireless, and discusses his attempts to diminish the artistic significance of his engagement with the BBC, highlighting the persistence with which he presented himself as a naïf in matters of sound transmission, and contrasting his responses to the wireless with his command of broadcasting techniques. In so doing, the article situates Yeats’s complex treatment of audibility and inaudibility in a wider cultural and artistic context, pointing to the peculiar relationship that binds Yeats’s concerns to Thomas Edison’s perception of the phonographic voice and to Guglielmo Marconi’s early experiments with signal transmission and encryption.

I

  • 1 Ann Saddlemyer, Becoming George: The Life of Mrs W. B. Yeats (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 200 (...)
  • 2 George Yeats (hereafter GY) to MacGreevy, 31 December 1926, cited in Saddlemyer, Becoming George, (...)

2Biographies of W. B. and George Yeats feature amusing anecdotes about the awkward partitioning which sound transmission devices imposed upon the Yeats household. The family gramophone was, for instance, confined to the recesses of the domestic sphere, where it remained largely unused, if not forgotten; Ann Saddlemyer draws attention to the clandestine existence of this bulky device (which the children did not recall being played) in the kitchen in Rathfarnham and to the record collection that remained concealed until George Yeats presented it to her daughter in her mid-teens.1 George Yeats’s ‘secret collection of records’ was substantial, as she confided to Thomas MacGreevy in 1926, and included many operas.2 But these recorded voices remained hushed and carefully stored away: indeed, she listened to her records clandestinely, for the gramophone was a source of noise which Yeats deemed deleterious to the good progress of his writing.

  • 3 Ibid., 422.
  • 4 A. Norman Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: A New Biography, second edition (London: Continuum, 2001), 250; A (...)
  • 5 Rodgers, 7.
  • 6 Saddlemyer, Becoming George, 514-15.
  • 7 GY to W. B. Yeats (hereafter WBY), 13 October 1936 (YGYL 443); GY, cited in Colton Johnson, ‘Yeats (...)

3In contrast, the wireless was a tolerated presence: George Yeats owned a portable wireless set, which she would take with her when travelling in the late 1920s.3 But it is only in January 1937 that the Yeatses acquired a more sophisticated device; following the cooling of his interest in Margot Ruddock, Yeats relented on his previous refusals and bought a Bush wooden radio for his wife (‘For a long time Father wouldn’t have one, he didn’t like them’, Anne Yeats explained later).4 The protracted purchase of the device through the BBC was delayed by Yeats’s ignorance of all things electric, but wireless telegraphy saved the day, as Lennox Robinson reported: ’[the BBC] wanted to give him the best wireless set they could to his home in Rathfarnham, and they said: “Have you got electric light in the home?” He had to wire back to his wife to find out whether they had electric light – he found they hadn’t.’5 The acquisition of a new wireless set provided some light relief for a disaffected George Yeats whose frustration with her wayward husband had become difficult to ignore.6 She listened assiduously to his BBC broadcasts, and their successes subsequently altered another aspect of her everyday: for example, the warm reception of his broadcast poem ’Roger Casement’ in 1937, praised highly by Eamon De Valera, led to marked manifestations of ‘deference’ to her in Dublin shops.7

  • 8 Rodgers, 7; see also Jeffares, W. B. Yeats, 250.
  • 9 Saddlemyer, Becoming George, 515.

4By the time of this purchase, Yeats had been intensely engaged in broadcasting with the BBC and had pioneered new writing techniques, germane to the demands of radio. Nevertheless, his reaction to this domestic acquisition suggested to his family that he had remained a bewildered neophyte: he feigned technological incompetence and granted corporeality and vocal presence to the machine. Anne Yeats later recalled that, unable to hear the wireless distinctly on the first evening, he leaned towards it, cupped his hand behind his ear and asked politely for clarification: ‘I beg your pardon?’8 His family were struck by his studied ignorance; Saddlemyer reports that this episode became ‘one of George’s set pieces’, much to the children’s amusement.9 However, Yeats was not as naive in such matters as his anthropomorphizing of the wireless might suggest: he had a sound knowledge of the workings of radio, gained diffusely through conversations and work with the BBC, and his correspondence confirms his familiarity with some technicalities. In a letter of 2 January 1932 to him, George Yeats reported receiving mysterious messages from 2RN, the first Irish broadcasting service, over the telephone:

  • 10 GY to WBY, 2 January 1932 (YGYL 283).

A very queer thing happened on the day after Christmas (Boxing Day) the telephone rang about 5 to nine. I answered it but instead of a reply I heard Italian opera being sung; I seized a chair and sat and listened. Presently, when I. Op. had ceased, a voice said ’this is 2 RN’ then an announcement of a pantomime that was to be broadcast. Then a sort of preliminary song and the telephone suddenly cut off! I have been trying to find out what could have happened to make my telephone wire cut in on a broadcast, but so far ”without success.10

5Yeats replied reassuringly, disowning the explanation as his own, but nevertheless conveying its nuances adequately:

  • 11 WBY to GY, 10 January 1932 (YGYL 287).

Richard [Gregory] thinks that it is quite possible that your telephone wire got the “wireless wave (one of the others said before he came in that they make use of the telephone wires in relaying) or that you may have been rung in mistake for another number by some body at the Dublin Wireless Centre & heard the lound-speaker. One of the other men suggested that a joking friend rang you up & then held his reciever up against his wireless set.11

  • 12 See Richard Pine, 2RN and the Origins of Irish Radio (Dublin: Four Courts, 2002), 89, 105, 183.

6Richard Gregory may have been right: 2RN was operated by means of Marconi transmitters tuned at a wavelength that made their broadcasts prone to generating and being affected by interferences.12 Its afternoon and evening programmes also included gramophone records on a daily basis.

  • 13 Margaret Mills Harper, Wisdom of Two: The Spiritual and Literary Collaboration of George and W. B. (...)
  • 14 On the wider contexts of these transformations, see Pamela Thurschwell, Literature, Technology and (...)
  • 15 Neil Baldwin, Edison: Inventing the Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 93-94.

7These vignettes demonstrating Yeats’s ambivalence towards sound transmission technologies are more than simply anecdotal: they provide insights into the register in which certain aspects of his experimental psychical research operated. Indeed, as Margaret Mills Harper has emphasised, sound transmission technologies provide a powerful discursive field for understanding some aspects of the Yeatses’ depictions of the supernatural.13 Their mixed responses to the ability of the wireless to capture mysterious, formerly unheard voices carry a weight that is external to the machine itself and owed to a wide-ranging spiritualist interest in sound transmission technologies: the ability of phonograph and wireless to capture sounds and voices had remained a source of fascination in spiritualist circles since the first forays into sound recording, and this ongoing conversation between W. B. and George Yeats finds many resonances in late nineteenth-century discourses about signal transmission, recording and psychical research.14 Edison’s phonograph, in particular, provided new frames of reference for investigations of the otherworld, finding upon its inception an enthusiastic welcome in Madame Blavatsky’s newly-formed Theosophical Society, into which Edison was immediately enrolled.15 In December 1878, Blavatsky undertook a journey to India with a phonograph to foster new collaborations; a phonographic extravaganza dedicated to celebrating the powers of Edison’s invention preceded her departure from New York. The proceedings reportedly transformed the phonograph into a portal to the unknown as well as a benevolent messenger entrusted with preserving a lore created for the occasion:

  • 16 ‘Silence in the Lamasery’, New York Sun, 19 December 1878, quoted in Daniel H. Caldwell, The Esote (...)

... a man came in with a phonograph which had been procured for the purpose of carrying greetings to India ... A tall sculptor was dislodged from a barrel on which he sat, and the phonograph was put in position, after which the greetings were shouted into the paper funnel, and a song in pigeon [sic] Hindustanee was sung into it by a jolly English artist. Charles, a huge theosophical cat, was then induced to purr at the machine, and the various records were carefully put away.16

  • 17 William T. Stead, How I Know That the Dead Return (Boston: Ball Publishing, 1909), 6; Saddlemyer, (...)
  • 18 Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (Ithaca: Corn (...)

8Marconi’s subsequent experiments with signal transmission, in turn, gave a new impulse to the debates about scientific discovery and psychical research that had emerged with Edison’s invention. Yeats’s friend W.T. Stead, for example, campaigned tirelessly for a spiritualism attuned to the new realms opened up by Marconi’s and Edison’s inventions. For Stead, the wireless and the telegraph could provide invaluable proofs of the persistence of spirit life after death as well as means of communicating with the deceased; the purpose of his organisation ‘Julia’s Bureau’, well known to W. B. and George Yeats, was ‘to enable those who had lost their dead, who were sorrowing over friends and relatives, to get into touch with them again’.17 The metaphors and mechanisms used for letting the living ‘hear messages’ from the dead were indebted to stenography, telegraphy and telephony (Life 1 614, n. 42).18

  • 19 See, in particular, Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, ed. Douglas Kahn and (...)
  • 20 Campbell, Wireless Writing, xiv, 2-3, 10-13.
  • 21 Ibid., 15, 21-25.
  • 22 Ibid., 2, 15-21.
  • 23 Ibid., 18.
  • 24 ‘Signer Marconi’s Irish Lineage: His Mother a Wexford Lady’, Irish Times, 15 January 1898.

9Stead’s experiments bear testimony to the powerful impact of Edison’s and Marconi’s discoveries on the Western cultural imagination. The specificity of the cultural and artistic matrix from which scientific experiments with wireless transmission and sound recording emerged has been well documented; cultural historians and musicologists have shown that the workings of the phonograph and the wireless were related to a widespread fascination for the unheard, uncaptured and unintelligible which expressed itself in idiosyncratic ways, resulting in the creation of machines that remained enmeshed in the rhetoric and processes of writing, demanding the mechanical or manual inscription of sounds or messages.19 The wireless, for example, owed much to the format set by Edison, which transformed an intangible sound into a tangible groove, etched into solid matter; Marconi’s early model of signal transmission replaced the writing needle of Edison’s phonograph by a wireless operator or marconista, in charge of interpreting signals coming from a headset and ignoring interferences, a configuration indebted to the telegraph operator as well as the Morse machine itself.20 Marconi’s invention and the marconista had a determining impact upon modernist writing, particularly upon Ezra Pound; Timothy Campbell also highlights the proximity between Marconi’s early wireless and late nineteenth-century fascination with the occult, drawing attention to the powerful symbolism underlying Marconi’s invention and its strong focus on maternalizing forces.21 More specifically, Campbell considers Marconi’s successful experiments with wireless signal transmission between Ballycastle Beach and Rathlin Island as an attempt to summon the voice of his Wexford mother, Anne Jameson.22 An opera singer related to the Jamesons and heir to their whiskey fortune, she had been led to emigrate to Italy by virtue of her beautiful voice and passion for music; she was very close to her son and instilled in him, or so the biographical accounts say, a strong patriotic love for Ireland, ‘his country’.23 Marconi’s personal history was widely known in Ireland, from the first descriptions of his undertaking on the Northern Irish coast: the Irish Times was prompt to report on ’Signor Marconi’s Irish Lineage’ and to document his Wexford origins, casting the roots of Marconi’s miraculous invention firmly into Irish soil, in a rebuff to the British newspapers which had celebrated his mother’s English origins.24

  • 25 Christopher Blake, ‘Ghosts in the Machine: W. B. Yeats and the Metallic Homunculus, in YA15 69-10 (...)
  • 26 Blake, 80; see also Dulac’s description in Blake, 86.
  • 27 Ibid., 80.

10Yeats was familiar with such experiments and their spiritualist currency. He even invested in and endorsed offshoots of Edison’s and Marconi’s inventions: in 1917, as Roy Foster and Christopher Blake report, he went to great lengths to support the invention of a peculiar machine, which he baptised the ‘Metallic Homunculus’, and whose speciality, being a little further removed from the coordinates of the British Empire, was not pidgin Hindustani but pidgin Turkish and Arabic.25 The apparatus, ‘a kind of ear-hole into the unknown region’, could capture voices from the otherworld but proved vulnerable to ‘interferences from mischievous spirits’ or ‘little beasts’, as its inventor, David Wilson, called them (Life 2 80). Yeats’s and Edmund Dulac’s descriptions suggest that the device was a tautological compound of most important inventions to date which had found domestic applications. Yeats’s account of his first encounter with the Metallic Homunculus conveys the technical confusion of the whole: he described ‘a copper-lined mahogany box, rather bigger than a large microscope case’, fitted with a ‘brass mechanism’, made of a ‘glass-topped brazen drum and a small brass rod’, on which was mounted ‘a stumpy telescope’, with a lens at the front and a hole at the back into which a bottle of ‘metallic medium’ could be screwed, the latter being linked to photographic plates.26 The aim of Wilson’s machine was to recreate the spirits’ body parts as well as convey their messages, as Yeats reported: ‘In the stumpy telescope the eyes materialize, and under the metal disc the ear’.27 Legal complications ensued from the sophistication of its components, and the contraption, categorised as an illegal wireless, was seized by the police (Life 2 80).

  • 28 Marcel Schwob, Œuvres (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2002), 248-49.
  • 29 Blake, 81.
  • 30 See also Blake, 69-80.

11If Wilson’s invention chimes well with spiritualist utilisations of the phonograph in Blavatsky’s and Stead’s circles, it also bears affinities to the many literary creations that emerged from Edison’s mechanical ear, such as the tongue-tied speaking machine described in Marcel Schwob’s 1892 ‘La machine à parler’ (‘The Speaking Machine’), whose inventor professes his fascination for Edison’s recording of Robert Browning’s voice. His instruction to utter ‘I created the word’ is transformed into a monstrous stammer: ‘WOR-D WOR-D WOR-D’.28 Repeating the failures of Schwob’s fictional machine, Wilson’s device delivered little by way of a message; its technical complexity concealed a complete inarticulacy. The Metallic Homunculus incidentally replicated the challenges posed by the early wireless in terms of signal confusion; its declarations proved unintelligible, and Yeats returned home empty-handed: ‘I saw nothing and heard nothing. Apparently one can do neither unless one is clairaudient and clairvoyant.’29 His notes later proved useful, however, for both he and George Yeats remained preoccupied with the workings of the device during their experimental séances in the early months of their marriage. Yeats wrote to Arthur Waley on 21 November 1917, once their séances with had gained greater momentum, asking him to return letters from Wilson describing his ‘Metalic Medium’ (MYV1 44). At this particular stage in Yeats’s occultist pursuits, Wilson’s machine provided an important point of reference for conceptualising the relation that Yeats discerned between psychical research, photography, phonography, telephony and the wireless, and for creating a register within which he could couch its limitations (Life 2 79-81).30

II

  • 31 Quoted in Maurice Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, trans. Richard Howard (London: Jonathan Cape, (...)
  • 32 Pierre Janet, L’Automatisme psychologique (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1889), 18.
  • 33 Donald J. Childs, T. S. Eliot: Mystic, Son, and Lover (London: Athlone, 1997), 11.

12Considered in this context, Yeats’s emphatic demonstration of technological incompetence to the wireless set and to his family takes on new resonances, as does the confining of sound transmission to the domestic and feminine sphere in his household. George Yeats’s transcriptions of a spirit activity that only she could hear fostered a strong bond with her husband at the start of their marriage, and the process of listening and transcribing during their sittings placed her in a position close to that of the marconista. Scholars have emphasised the idiosyncrasy of their working methods; George Mills Harper, in particular, has drawn attention to their avoidance of the rituals used by the mediums they knew and their extensive knowledge of the range of consecrated protocols used in psychical research (MYV1 xii-xiii). The sittings, as reconstructed by Harper, were close to the telephone incident evoked by George Yeats in her 1932 letter: they involved sitting face-to-face at a table in broad daylight and borrowed heavily from the registers of telegraphy, telephony and wireless sound transmission. The Script, for example, originated from her feeling that ’something was to be written through her’, as Yeats reported to Lady Gregory on 19 October 1917 (L 633). George Yeats became a ‘receiver’, a word often used in the mechanical sense of the term in their accounts (MYV1 181). The spirits whose voices she transcribed, as one of the ‘communicators’ (Thomas) revealed, operated in a different ‘sphere of thought’, ‘not evoked by speech but by radiation of thought’, to be captured by ‘intermediaries’ (MYV1 14). These statements align the Yeatses’ experiments with techniques which would later come to be associated with Surrealism; drawing on the findings of pre-Freudian French Dynamic Psychiatry, which transformed the patient into a stenographer or recording device, André Breton presented Surrealist writers in the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto as the ‘deaf receptacles of so many echoes’, ‘modest recording machines that are not hypnotised by the designs they trace. ’31 Christopher Schiffhas traced the origins of Breton’s statement in the research of Pierre Janet, whose treatise L’Automatisme psychologique presents the cataleptic patient as ‘a phonograph’.32 Janet’s theories, which emphasised the power of writing to delve into the depths of the psyche, influenced many modernist writers, including Pound, who read Janet carefully as a student, between 1910 and 1914.33

  • 34 See Kathleen Raine, ‘Hades Wrapped in Cloud’, in YO 100, Plate 1.
  • 35 On the marconista, see Campbell, Wireless Writing, xiv, 2-3.

13The Yeatses, also learned in the discipline of psychology, were familiar with spiritualist utilisations of machines predicated on recording and inscription. Their belief in the power of these inventions to open doors onto the supernatural found many expressions, individual and collective, from Yeats’s mysterious decision to pose for spirit-photographs and experiments with the Metallic Homunculus to their actual sittings.34 Their working methods, which reveal their awareness that the doors into the unheard and uncaptured could be codified in particular ways, remained dependent upon a syntax merging the auditory and the visual that has more to do with Edison’s and Marconi’s inventions than with the Order of the Golden Dawn and other occult societies. Like Marconi’s wireless operator, George Yeats cast herself into the role of scribe, transcribed signals that only she could hear, ascribed meaning to a complex universe made up of interferences and inaudibilities, determined which messages were worthy of attention and negotiated the simultaneous demands of listening and writing.35 Disturbances remained important to the process; the Scripts pay close attention to interferences originating from communicators remaining between immanence and occurrence, ‘invisible & inaudible & immanifested’ (YVP1 55). Their experiments, thus, were aligned not only with discoveries surrounding wireless transmission, but also with enshrined cultural beliefs in what these discoveries could achieve at the level of cognition.

  • 36 Harper, Wisdom of Two, 166-69.

14Neither party was impervious to the troubled relationship between George Yeats’s peculiar take on the séance and wireless transmission; indeed, their correspondence about Yeats’s introductory essay to The Words upon the Window-pane features a dispute about the relationship between the transmission of soundwaves and the role of the medium. This episode, in Margaret Mills Harper’s study, is presented as revealing of the dynamics of their collaboration.36 Yeats’s essay argues for an element of performativity at the heart of the séance, stating that ‘every voice that speaks, every form that appears ... is first of all a secondary personality or dramatization created by, in, or through the medium’ (Ex 364). Doubtful of the validity of his argument, George Yeats objected in no uncertain terms to his assimilation of the medium’s method to the mechanics of wireless transmission, suggesting that his criticism of the medium’s intuition was simply ignorant:

  • 37 GY to WBY, 24 November 1931 (YGYL 270).

If I had to interpret that ‘commentary’ I could not say that any ‘spirit’ were present at any seance, that spirits were present at a seance only as impersonations created by a medium out of material in a world record just as wireless photography or television are created; that all communicating spirits are mere dramatisations of that record; that all spirits in fact are not so far as psychic communications are concerned, spirits at all, are only memory.37

  • 38 WBY to GY, 25 November 1931 (YGYL 272).

15The peculiar phrase ’wireless photography’ may be read as an expression of her indignation; it also reflects the place which photography and the wireless had come to occupy in spiritualist circles, as tropes signifying new realms of exploration and new techniques, rather than distinctive technologies. Replying to her comments, Yeats returned once again to the parallel between the séance and the wireless, stating his having been particularly ’moved’ by it, carefully locating the origin of their disagreement elsewhere, in his use of the word ’unconscious’, and reverting to more generic evocations of dramatisation.38

  • 39 George Mills Harper and John S. Kelly, ‘Preliminary Examination of the Script of E[lizabeth] R[adc (...)
  • 40 William M. Murphy, ‘Psychic Daughter, Mystic Son, Sceptic Father’, YO 22.
  • 41 Ibid., 22, n. 24. John Yeats attributes Lily’s evocation of Marconi to W. B. Yeats.
  • 42 ‘Talk of the Town, by A Lady’, Irish Times, 26 December 1896.

16Some of the cues for their disagreement can be found in Yeats’s 1914 draft essay on the automatic writing of Elizabeth Radcliffe; the essay comments upon Radcliffe’s analogies between her methods (which called for messages to be ’visualized mentally by her ears’) and the task of the marconista, evoking ‘actual words’ ‘spoken and caught by a highly sensitive physical hand as waves of sound take shape – think of wireless.’39 Significantly, Marconi’s invention provided a register in the Yeats family for thinking about the supernatural; Lily Yeats reportedly described her own prophetic visions as ‘something which the Marconis of the future will make use of’.40 Similarly, in a 1919 interview, John B. Yeats suggested that Yeats had been thinking about Marconi’s invention as a foundational moment that yielded new cognitive possibilities: ‘He expects a great Marconi some day in the future to explain the occult to us.’41 This connection between Marconi and contemporaneous interest in the occult had long been a feature of commentaries on the wireless, including in Ireland; a chronicle published in the Irish Times in 1896 responding to the success of Marconi’s wireless experiments remarked that ‘[i]t does not seem to be a far cry from this to the ‘thought waves’ of theosophists!’42

  • 43 Fred Archer, Exploring the Psychic World (New York: William Morrow, 1967), 54.
  • 44 Saddlemyer, Becoming George, 55.

17Yeats’s polite request to the wireless set to speak more audibly thus stands as a testament to his own uncertainties concerning psychical research methods, which were embedded, in their turn, into wider cultural anxieties concerning the potential of sound recording technologies. His cupped hand behind his ear, recreating the kind of amplification that an ear trumpet would foster, is not simply a declaration of incompetence in the face of sounds coming from a source that remains concealed: it also emulates methods widely used in séances for dramatising an interaction with an elusive, inaudible otherworld, and recalls the posture of the trumpet medium materialising the transmission of spirit voices by intercalating an object between mouth and message. More specifically, Yeats’s posture recalls the methods of Etta Wriedt, a medium who was a regular in Stead’s home. Wriedt was a direct-voice medium: spirit voices were not heard through her lips but appeared to surface out of the ether or were relayed via trumpets.43 The Yeatses were impressed by the performative sophistication of her séances; Wriedt’s trumpet surfaces in George Yeats’s early scripts, and Yeats, equally fascinated by the process, expressed doubts concerning its integrity, leading to his dismissal from Wriedt’s séances (MYV2 78).44 Considered in this context, Yeats’s categorisation of the wireless voice as barely audible finds powerful correlations in spiritualist associations of the otherworld with the boundaries of the intelligible.

  • 45 Quoted in Liam Miller, The Noble Drama of W. B. Yeats (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1977), 278.
  • 46 Ibid., 281.
  • 47 March 1929 was a very productive month for Yeats; see John Kelly, A W. B. Yeats Chronology (Basing (...)
  • 48 See John Pearson, Façades: Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell (London: Macmillan, 1978), 182; (...)
  • 49 Michael McAteer, Yeats and European Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 7, 78-83, (...)

18Yeats’s cupped hand, an improvised prosthetic trumpet of sorts, finds further resonances in the context of the theatre. Anecdotal evidence surrounding the radical ideas of composer George Antheil suggests that Yeats was receptive to the theatrical potential of sound amplifying devices from the late 1920s. Antheil, struck by Yeats’s fascination for occult matters, commented with indulgence upon Yeats’s ability to see ghosts ‘in broad daylight’ (‘a rather difficult feat’) and upon the ghostly intrusions which frequently perturbed their conversations.45 The score which Antheil wrote for Fighting the Waves, his adaptation of The Only Jealousy of Emer, accounts for Yeats’s interest in disembodied voices and grants a new visuality to sound transmission and amplification; Antheil indicated in complementary notes to the Abbey Theatre that Fand’s dance should be performed against a figuration of the fusion of musical and vocal sound: ‘Trombone should fit into its bell an enormous extension cardboard megaphone extending at least one yard from the end of the instrument.’46 Antheil’s interest in the visuality of sound and dramatisations of listening may, in turn, have informed Yeats’s own exploration of voices moving in and out of earshot in the Crazy Jane poems written in March 1929, while in sustained dialogue with Antheil.47 The latter’s vision of a double trumpet structure may have been inspired by the first self-stylised Surrealist play, Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1917 Les mamelles de Tirésias, in which the stage is dominated by a megaphone in the shape of a dice cup, and hands are occasionally transformed into ear trumpets. The idea of embedding one sound source into another was certainly in keeping with the Zeitgeist; in a 1923 performance of a poem entitled Façade, set to music by William Walton, Edith Sitwell recited the text through a Sengerphone (a papier mâché megaphone), remaining concealed behind a curtain which had been decorated with two masks, painted to look as if her amplified voice was originating from one of them.48 In this instance, the diffuse web of influences linking Yeats’s drama to French Surrealism, which Michael McAteer has identified, is brought to the fore: via Antheil’s compositional method, Yeats’s experimental dramatic practice engages Surrealist and proto-Surrealist experiments with the listening ear.49

III

  • 50 Johnson, 25-30; Jeremy Silver, ‘W. B. Yeats and the BBC: A Reassessment’, YA5 181-85; see also Geo (...)

19Yeats’s response to the wireless upon his first domestic encounter with it thus crystallises concerns both within and outside his own artistic remit, and points to a knowledge accumulated through his involvement with occult societies and psychical research, areas in which he found himself confronted by his inability to hear. His experiments with George Yeats, in particular, remained marked by the lack of audibility of the otherworld to him and by his recognition that his wife’s ear was attuned to the stirrings of the otherworld. The gift of a wireless set to her should be thought of in this context: she presided over things wireless in the household, having operated as a marconista of sorts in the early years of their marriage, and having established the realms between the audible and inaudible as her territory. However, Yeats was far more intimate with matters of radio transmission than George Yeats; indeed, it is now well known that he was one of the first poets to embrace wireless broadcasting, becoming a regular speaker on BBC programmes between September 1931 and October 1937, until ill-health prevented him from honouring his commitments.50

  • 51 George Barnes, ‘W. B. Yeats and Broadcasting’ [1940], introduced by Jeremy Silver, YA5 192-93.
  • 52 Ronald Schuchard, The Last Minstrels: Yeats and the Revival of the Bardic Arts (Oxford: Oxford Uni (...)
  • 53 Barnes, 189-90. Yeats alluded to these ideas in ‘In The Poet’s Pub’, his first collaboration with (...)
  • 54 See Silver, 182-83; Schuchard, 285-403.
  • 55 Barnes, 190.
  • 56 Ibid., 192-93.

20His correspondence with his BBC producer George Barnes reveals his willingness to work with as well as beyond the peculiar technical demands of radio; Barnes was particularly impressed by the time and effort that Yeats put into training actors to recite his poems so as to echo ‘the sounds which were running in his head’.51 To a Yeats aware of the formal constraints of the medium and eager for experiment, radio represented a new departure in a long-standing exploration of chanting and musical speech, a facet of his career which Ronald Schuchard has illuminated.52 Poetry broadcasts, whose conventions were as yet unformalised, granted Yeats the freedom to conceive new relationships between musical speech and non-vocal sound. Initially, as Barnes reports, Yeats considered experimenting with ‘unaccompanied singing of a refrain’ and with ‘the use of a drum or other musical instrument between stanzas or between poems, but never behind the voice, in order to heighten the intensity of the rhythm’.53 These considerations may have emerged from a dissatisfaction with previous broadcast readings which had used musical accompaniment.54 Yeats ascribed to the radiophonic voice the power to enhance the rich and varied textures of poetic diction: he considered adding musical instruments, but only to mark pauses; musical notes in that instance ‘must never be loud enough to shift the attention of the ear.’55 As such, radio broadcasting enabled Yeats to write not only ‘for the ear’, but also for the microphone: hence, to inscribe into the poetic utterance nuances in diction otherwise only faintly perceptible (E&I 530). In the studio, the attention that Yeats paid to these minute elements at the threshold of audibility posed serious challenges, and Barnes’s account of rehearsals with Margot Ruddock and Victor Clinton-Baddeley expresses bewilderment at Yeats’s ability to discern (with a sensitivity that ‘outran comprehension’) that which others ‘could hardly hear’, commenting, like many others before him, upon Yeats’s ‘wildly inaccurate’ notion of pitch and his ‘hav[ing] no ear for music as it is understood in Western Europe.’56

  • 57 Ibid., 193.
  • 58 Emily Bloom points out that Yeats’s approach to broadcasting remained aligned with common practice (...)

21On air, Yeats also proved to be an artful storyteller, attuned to the importance of fine narrative nuances and to the capacity of radio to capture voices and create forms of presence out of the void. Barnes’s recollection of Yeats the broadcaster at work, posing for posterity at the BBC’s London studios in 1938, chimes well with what had become George Yeats’s ‘set piece’ at home: sitting down, his left hand cocked up with the little finger erect, and his head on one side, listening intently to the sound of his words as they come out of the loudspeaker.’57 The published texts of Yeats’s broadcasts highlight, sometimes candidly, his awareness of the possibilities and the limitations of radio, and his desire to develop the imaginative capacities of an immaterial audience. Prefatory comments and interludes regulate this unruly imaginary universe and enhance Yeats’s discussions of the power of radio to bring voices out of the ether and to grant insights into worlds formerly unseen or devoid of sight. Yeats’s talks often draw attention to the ability of radio to overcome a whole range of sensory obstacles; for example, the text of ‘In the Poet’s Pub’, broadcast on 2 April 1937, is heavily reliant upon spoken interludes, setting the scene carefully to enable its listener to apprehend the musicality of the metre prior to a dramatised reading of Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Tarantella’. Yeats’s stated aim, in this instance, is to reproduce the intimacy of a singing session in the pub by granting an accidental quality to the broadcast and transforming the listener into an eavesdropper.58 Key to this recreation of an intimate atmosphere are the mannerisms normally confined to the margins of the performance, the ‘tricks’ that all folk singers, in Yeats’s view, use to ‘break the monotony and rest the mind’, including ‘clap[ping] their hands to the tune or crack[ing] their fingers or whistl[ing]’ (CW10 266). Yeats’s careful preparatory storytelling creates this sense of intimacy just as it draws attention to, and overcomes, the invisibility of soundwaves:

I want you to imagine yourself in a Poets’ Pub. There are such pubs in Dublin and I suppose elsewhere. You are sitting among poets, musicians, farmers and labourers. The fact that we are in a pub reminds somebody of Belloc’s poem beginning ’Do you know an inn, Miranda’, and then somebody recites the first and more vigorous part of Chesterton’s ‘Rolling English Drunkard’, and then, because everybody in the inn except me is very English and we are all a little drunk, somebody recites De la Mare’s ‘Three Jolly Farmers’ as patter. Patter is singing or speaking very quickly with very marked time, an art known to all old actors in my youth. We are all delighted, and at every pause we want to pound the table with our tankards. As, however, a tankard must be both heard and seen, the B.B.C. has substituted the rolling of a drum (CW10 267).

  • 59 For Ronald Schuchard, Yeats’s broadcasts represent the culmination of his reflections on the bardi (...)

22This final reference to technical demands which have been successfully met does not only break the carefully constructed illusion: it also conveys Yeats’s fascination for the technical aspects of radio broadcasting. A few months prior to the broadcast, on 27 January 1937, Yeats wrote to Barnes, agreeing to adopt a more imaginative approach to sound effects and acknowledging that non-naturalistic musical sounds could be transmitted with greater clarity than sounds inscribed in a naturalistic frame. He wished for economy and simplicity, desirous to ‘make everybody understand that we don’t want professionally trained singers but the sort of people who sing when they are drunk or in love’ (L 879). Radio, in this instance, proved to be an appropriate channel for expressing emotions in a musical speech indebted to minstrelsy: as such, as Schuchard has shown, writing for radio granted, for Yeats, new imaginative strength and immediacy to the ancient bardic traditions which he had for so long sought to revive, and his BBC broadcasts represent the culmination of his attempt to create an intimacy with a malleable audience receptive to this aspiration.59

  • 60 On the problems surrounding the categorisation of radio as a ‘blind medium’, see Julie Campbell, ‘ (...)

23The texts of Yeats’s broadcasts display his shrewd observation of the dramatic potential of radio broadcasting and eagerness to dramatise his poetry readings in order to account for the specificities of the medium. He wrote differently when he wrote for radio, using in his talks and prefatory comments simple grammatical constructions and short sentences, paced in order to enable regular breathing. More importantly, the texts of his broadcasts create a vocabulary for apprehending the sense of immediacy and intimacy produced by the radio, providing their listener with a rhetoric and imagery that overcome the absence of a visual dimension. Evocations of ignorance, decay, uncertainty and imaginative blindness prove particularly efficient. For instance, the text of Yeats’s first BBC broadcast, a commentary upon his translation of Sophocles’s Oedipus the King aired on 8 September 1931, revolves around an acknowledgement of his own ignorance in order to foreground the imaginative potential of radio broadcasting as well as pre-empt the reaction of listeners unfamiliar with his drama and radio drama generally: ‘If the wireless can be got to work, in the country house where I shall be staying, I shall be listening too, and as I have never heard a play broadcasted I do not know whether I shall succeed in calling into my imagination that ancient theatre’ (CW10 220). Yeats subsequently lays the ground for thinking about the suitability of classical tragedy to radio: he associates the plight of the blind Oedipus with that of the blind Raftery, summoning tragic voices which find a new channel in what is often presented as a ‘blind medium’.60 The radio, in turn, grants unique insights into a literary tradition dominated by blind seers and bards, delving into age-old human experiences and knowledge. Absence also takes on a new weight; Yeats concludes by considering the radio’s invisible audience and its unrivalled and unfathomable capacity to speak to multitudes, evoking the ability of radio broadcasting to reach the millions of Irishmen and women ‘scattered throughout the world’, ‘ready to share our imagination and our discoveries’ (CW10 223). This final statement suggests a faint hope that wireless broadcasting might foster a new cultural cohesion and, perhaps, succeed where the stage might have failed. This invisible body of listeners remained in Yeats’s thoughts; later, in June 1937, he thought of a programme with Dulac that would playfully incorporate this absent audience. He wrote of his ambition

  • 61 This idea was for a programme entitled ‘My Own Poetry’, which was to include a debate between Yeat (...)

to work it all up into a kind of drama in which we will get very abusive, and then one or other of us will say with a change of voice, ‘Well, I hope they will have taken all that seriously and believe that we shall never speak to each other again.’ The other will say, ‘Stop, the signal is still on, they can hear us.’ Then the first speaker will say ‘God’, or if that is barred out by the BBBC [sic] – ‘Hell!’61

24Throughout his broadcasting career, Yeats never ceased to find inspiration in the visual lack rendered by the soundwave, and the specific requirements and resonances of radio broadcasting provide the matrix for many of his later commentaries and poetry readings. For example, the 1937 ‘Abbey Theatre Broadcast’, for which Yeats had great expectations, incorporated a reading of ‘Roger Casement’ into a series of acoustic deathmasks which playfully took as their first predicate bodily decay and an ability to imagine a shared past, peopled by ghosts. In an interlude preceding John Stephenson’s sung performances, Yeats asks his audience to overcome the boundaries of corporeality, to imagine a history that cannot be fully envisioned and, in so doing, to dutifully pay tribute to the nation’s dead political fathers. He asks his listeners to think of themselves as ‘old men, old farmers perhaps, accustomed to read newspapers and listen to songs, but not to read books’, as ‘old and decrepit, because [they] have been to Glasnevin on all the anniversaries of Parnell’s death for the last forty years’ (CW10 262). The process of imagining this shared past borrows from the register of the séance: ‘There are not many of you left, and you’re to imagine yourselves sitting in a public house, after you have returned from Glasnevin graveyard’ (CW10 262-3).

25This passage serves a double function, as a preparation for both Stephenson’s performance of ‘Come Gather Round Me Parnellites’ and his reading of James Stephens’s ‘In the Night’. Stephens’s poem, as reproduced in the text of Yeats’s broadcast, evokes the terror created by ‘[t]he noise of silence and the noise of blindness’, which hold the poet still (‘They hold me stark and rigid as a tree!’) and bind his power to listen to an immutable natural order whose complexity cannot be comprehended:

Their tumult is more loud
Than thunder,
They terrify my soul! They tear
My heart asunder! (CW10 264)

  • 62 James Stephens, ‘In the Night’, in The Poems of James Stephens, ed. Shirley Stevens Mulligan (Gerr (...)

26Stephens’s dirge takes on poignant undertones when considered alongside the blind and blinded listeners and bards, from Homer to Raftery, who populate Yeats’s talks. The poem, as Colton Johnson points out, was abbreviated in the broadcast (CW10 403, n. 466). In the original, the first stanza emulates an Aisling poem when evoking the limits of cognition: ‘There always is a noise when it is dark; ǀ It is the noise of silence and the noise ǀ Of blindness.’62 Yeats’s abbreviation, associating silence with blindness, grants a radiophonic dimension to this exclamation of bardic despair resonating through the ages: here, the power of the wireless to capture voices out of the ether facilitates the process of re-imagining a lost primeval culture which must be spoken of in order to arise from speechlessness, songlessness and darkness. These analogies chime powerfully with Yeats’s early meditations on bardic poetry, which evoke a poetic utterance returning to life to re-awaken the ear as well as the mind’s eye, emulating the journey of a signal on the wire which one, in turn, must strain to hear. His 1890 review ‘Bardic Ireland’, for instance, praises the heightened form of historical ‘self-consciousness’ that found ’its most complete expression’ in the art of the fili, and summons the image of a chanted verse ’sung out of the void by the harps of the great bardic order’ (UP1 162, 164). The review draws attention to the imminent resurgence of a primeval ‘Celtic passion’, which, ‘lost in the ages’, ‘murmurs like a dark and stormy sea full of the sounds of lamentation’ (UP1 166).

  • 63 See also Schuchard, 85-86.
  • 64 For Bloom, this particular episode conveys Yeats’s uncertainty concerning the ‘kind of orality rad (...)

27The bardic self-consciousness which Yeats so aspired to emulate at the onset of his career as a poet could find new metaphorisations on the blank canvas of radio broadcasting, germane to rendering those fundamental and yet submerged nuances unknown to the musician which his ’older ears’ alone could capture in musical speech and chanting (Ex 218).63 Evocations of sounds and voices travelling through the air and through time are integral to Yeats’s BBC broadcasts: the scripts represent the process of broadcasting as uniquely able to render the artfulness of ancient bardic traditions and create a self-conscious form of expression, drawing equally on poetry and music, across temporal and spatial boundaries. In ‘Reading of Poems’, broadcast on 8 September 1931, Yeats draws attention to Homer’s proximity to his own words and to his own ability to ventriloquise bardic methods of poetic diction (CW10 229). ’Poems about Women’, broadcast on 10 April 1932, also refers to utterances crossing a void, bringing the past into the present and the dead into the world of the living. Yeats’s speech begins with an analogy between the difficulties he had experienced when preparing his talk and those he had previously encountered during a public reading which continues to haunt him and is here re-imagined. His account of finding himself engaged in a tense dialogue with a demanding audience borrows from a radiophonic or phonographic register: ‘voices’, one of which was memorably ‘cracked’ and ‘high’, ‘came’ to him with requests for love poetry (CW10 234). Similarly, ‘In the Poet’s Parlour’, broadcast on 22 April 1937 and conceived as a sequel to ‘In the Poet’s Pub’, invokes spectres whose utterances lie at the threshold of the audible. The script briefly relocates the poet into the theatre, introducing instead of a studio manager, a ghostly ‘stage manager’ who has come to relay the request from ‘one or two of the poets present’ for less ‘melancholy’ poems and a return to ‘our pub’, in which ‘they were much more at home’ (CW10 278).64 The appeal from these expert listeners, modelled to anticipate the reactions of Yeats’s invisible radiophonic audience, is scripted as if conveyed in a Morse code of sorts: ‘Y-e-s? Will you pardon me for a moment while I read a note from our stage manager. (I will rustle paper). O – O – I understand’ (CW10 278). This dramatic interruption, articulated tongue firmly in cheek, gestures towards the bardic traditions which Yeats had invited to bear upon his own readings in previous broadcasts, as he invoked Homer, Raftery, Shakespeare and Sophocles. Yeats’s announcement of an accompaniment with clatter-bones to take place at a later point in the broadcast playfully points to the resilient presence of these spectres, as poetic diction finds a new malleability in the studio (CW10 278).

IV

  • 65 Schuchard, xxv; Johnson, 30; Silver, 181.
  • 66 Anne Atik, How It Was (London: Faber, 2001), 59. The date and origin of the recording are not ment (...)
  • 67 Beckett to H. O. White, 14 April 1957, quoted in Emilie Morin, Samuel Beckett and the Problem of I (...)
  • 68 Samuel Beckett, Disjecta, ed. Ruby Cohn (London: Calder, 2001), 72.

28The recordings of Yeats’s BBC broadcasts have, over time, turned into precious relics themselves; indeed, the bombing of London reduced his radiophonic output to debris, leaving in its wake only one complete recording, that of ‘In the Poet’s Pub’, and four other fragments.65 Yet Yeats’s crackling voice found many afterlives, including in the hands of Samuel Beckett, who gave a tape recording of Yeats reading his poetry to his friends, the painter Avigdor Arikha and his wife, the poet Anne Atik. Atik later remarked upon Beckett’s indifference to Yeats’s matter-of-fact delivery and idiosyncratic chanting, noting that ‘it didn’t seem to bother Sam that Yeats read some of his own poems, with notable exceptions ... at breakneck speed – as though he couldn’t wait to get the reading over with.’66 Beckett, a keen wireless listener, may have heard Yeats’s broadcasts during the 1930s; thereafter, he referred to Yeats as the vessel for messages from another world and another time, delivered with far too much haste and too little sense of their contents. A letter of 1957 recalls a Yeats ’rambling Swift’ during their only meeting in Killiney, in September 1932; on the same occasion, Yeats had recited a few lines from Beckett’s Whoroscope (published in a small print-run two years previously), much to Beckett’s surprise.67 Echoing this vision of Yeats as ventriloquist, Beckett’s 1934 review of Irish modernist poetry, ‘Recent Irish Poetry’, makes an analogy between Yeats and a fantastical creature unable to sing and yet dedicated to tearing apart the organs that might grant it a voice: the review dismisses ‘that fabulous bird, the mesozoic pelican, addicted, though childless, to self-eviscerations.’68

  • 69 Johnson, 25.
  • 70 9 September 1931, quoted in Schuchard, 339.
  • 71 Quoted in Johnson, 24; see also Silver, 183.

29Despite his vast practical experience, Yeats repeatedly pleaded his ignorance of the workings of radio transmission and of the kinds of responses it might spur from the public.69 The advertisements of his first 1931 broadcast are surprisingly candid: ‘… instead of speaking to a great many people altogether I shall be speaking to a great many people who will be separated. What it feels like to listen to a man speaking over the radio I do not know, for although I have heard music broadcast I have never listened to anyone speaking over the wireless.’70 His comments to friends and family about the experience are similarly tinged with indifference and naivety. He presented his radio work as ‘a new technique which amuses me & keeps me writing’ to Pound, and as a handsome complement to the family budget to his wife, glossing over the low fees paid by the BBC.71

30His experience of broadcasting, however, remained constrained by the technological and artistic difficulties inherent to this new artistic realm, and ended in a seemingly issueless confrontation with its limitations in the realms of the unseen and unheard. His broadcasting career momentarily came to a halt, following his disappointment with Stephenson’s performances of ‘Come Gather Round Me Parnellites’ and ‘Roger Casement’, broadcast on 1 February 1937, for which he had had high hopes. Yeats’s frustration with the result had to do with the process of sound transmission, and he communicated his disarray to Barnes in strong terms the following day, complaining that the radio had turned ‘[e]very human sound’ ‘into the groans, roars, bellows of a wild [beast]’ and presenting the technological limitations of radio as a setback for the art of poetry as a whole:

Possibly all that I think noble and poignant in speech is impossible. Perhaps my old bundle of poet’s tricks is useless. I got Stephenson while singing ‘Come all old Parnellites’ to clap his hands in time to the music after every verse and [the poet F. R.] Higgins added people in the wings clapping their hands. It was very stirring – on the wireless it was a schoolboy knocking with the end of a pen-knife or a spoon (L 879).

  • 72 Johnson, 27; Schuchard, 377.

31Higgins, as Colton Johnson and Ronald Schuchard report, managed to alleviate Yeats’s anxieties: he persuaded Yeats that he had ’mismanaged’ his wireless set by tuning in to ‘too powerful’ a station and that a different microphone arrangement would solve the other problems.72 In later correspondence with Walter James Turner, Yeats used a similar analogy: comparing the broadcast to ’the roaring of beasts in the jungle’, he deplored his own ignorance of the workings of the microphone: ‘The arrangement had a great success on the stage so I have not the least notion what was wrong. I do not know enough’ (CW10 400, n. 455).

  • 73 On the broader context, see Schuchard, 264.
  • 74 See Martin Kaltenecker, ‘Thanatographies’, Recueil 33 (1994), 74; Howard Sutton, ‘Charles Cros, th (...)

32Yeats’s observations about the distortion created by wireless transmission suggest that he had momentarily ceased to see broadcasting as capable of conveying the richness of poetic meter and rhyme, due to technical limitations he had suddenly found himself unable to pre-empt and control. He had expressed similar reservations about the phonograph; a letter to Lady Gregory of 10 December 1909 reveals his appreciation of Pound’s understanding of musical reading but compares his singing to ‘something on a very bad phonograph’ (L 543).73 The phonograph and wireless, here as in the letters to Barnes and Turner, are associated with artistic incompetence and lyrical deficiency, interfering with the artist’s craft rather than opening up new avenues for the imagination. It is worth noting, however, that Yeats’s depiction of sound transmission as a process able to transform poetry into monstrous ‘groans, roars, bellows’ and seasoned performers into schoolboys finds powerful resonances in the history of recording. Early inventors experimenting with recorded sound faced similar problems. The first words uttered by Charles Cros, the inventor of the failed paleophone or paleograph, into the recording and engraving device which he had invented prior to Edison’s phonograph were a line of poetry, and the word ‘Merde’.74 The expletive chimes well with the opening line of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, ‘Merdre!’, the premiere of which had prompted Yeats to announce an impending dark age (Au 348-49).

33In the light of Yeats’s persistent attempts to diminish the artistic significance of his engagement with radio, these anecdotes become very telling: indeed, when he presented himself as a neophyte, he did so in very specific terms, by (as in these instances) evoking a process of shape-shifting, from the human to the animal. It is possible to trace the genealogy of such an association back to Edison: Edison’s first recording was of himself reciting ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’, which was soon followed by the mass production of recordings of animal noises destined to children’s ears. But what is significant, more than Yeats’s anthropomorphizing of the machine, is his alignment of voice transmission with writing, due to the roots of such configuration of the wireless in Edison’s conception of the phonographic voice. Yeats’s career as a broadcaster thus finds origins and motives in certain facets of his own psychical research as well as his interest in contemporaneous technological developments.

V

  • 75 ‘A Poet Broadcasts’, Belfast News-Letter, 9 September 1931, quoted in Schuchard, 342.
  • 76 WBY to McCartan, 22 January 1937, in Yeats and Patrick McCartan, A Fenian Friendship, ed. John Unt (...)

34Comparisons between broadcasting and writing abound in Yeats’s declarations about the wireless; for example, in a 1931 interview, Yeats depicted the microphone as ‘a little oblong of paper like a visiting card’, which he thought ‘a poor substitute for a crowded hall’.75 Later, in a BBC talk entitled ’Poems about Women’, broadcast on 10 April 1932, he compared speaking before a microphone to addressing ‘something that looks like a visiting card on a pole’ (CW10 234). Likewise, when evoking Stephenson’s impending reading of ’Roger Casement’, Yeats used specific analogies with letter-writing, informing Patrick McCartan that the poem would be ‘sent out on the wireless from Athlone’ (Radio Athlone having succeeded to 2RN) and, that ‘the “record” of it [would] then be sent to Cairo, where the wireless is in Irish hands.’76 The soundwave, here, materialises into written word, demanding manual support in a manner which replicates Yeats’s genteel request to the wireless set in his home to speak more clearly and audibly (‘I beg your pardon?’), using his cupped hand as a prop in order to apprehend its auditory demands.

Plates 3a & b. Yeats at the Microphone, very probably March 1937. Photographs of unknown authorship, courtesy Colin Smythe.

35Yeats’s perception of the wireless as harbouring mysterious voices that demand remembrance, transcription, and from which audibility must be requested exists in continuity with early modernist reflections on the voice and late nineteenth-century conceptions of sound recording as an inhabited process, able to revive that which is concealed from sight and that which remains spectral and confined to memory. Edison’s view of the phonograph and interest in the occult, as much as Yeats’s own psychical research and perception of broadcasting, shape such approaches to voice transmission. In Yeats’s parallels between sound transmission and writing and his anthropomorphizing of the wireless, one can discern the resurgence of late nineteenth-century attempts to come to terms with the complexity of sound recording by ascribing supernatural powers to technologies able to capture or transmit sound and rationalising their workings by means of an adherence to the written word.

  • 77 Young, ‘Singing the Body Electric’, 23. Young’s conclusions are based on a wide range of definitio (...)
  • 78 Ibid., 118.
  • 79 Ibid.

36These associations raise wider questions about the historically resilient relationship between sound transmission and writing, as conveyed, for example, in the etymology of the word ‘phonograph’. As Miriama Young has noted, the obsolete meanings of ‘phonograph’ include: ‘person who makes a phonetic transcription of an utterance’, and ‘a person who or thing which exactly reproduces someone’s words’.77 As she notes, ‘to record’ has even richer meanings: ‘to get by heart, to commit to memory, to go over in one’s mind’; ‘to take to heart, give heed to’; ‘to practice’; ‘to sing of or about (something); to render in song’; ‘to call to mind, to recall, recollect, remember’.78 Finally, Young stresses, ‘record’, ‘heart’ and ‘machine’ ‘have a deep etymologically associative relationship’, record being a composite of ‘re’ and ‘cord’, where ‘cord’ refers to ‘heart’.79 The etymology of the word reverberates through the Yeatses’ discussion of Yeats’s essay on The Words on the Window-Pane; their correspondence reveals George Yeats’s sensitivity to the nuances of the word ’record’ and the relevance of its obsolete meanings to technological innovations. But George Yeats’s evocation of these complexities merely replicates what Edison’s invention had already achieved, as Edison’s view of the phonograph was itself aligned with the etymology of these words.

  • 80 Thomas A. Edison, ‘The Perfected Phonograph’, The North American Review 146, n. 379 (1888), 647.
  • 81 Ivan Kreilkamp, ‘A Voice without a Body: The Phonographic Logic of Heart of Darkness’, Victorian S (...)
  • 82 Thomas A. Edison, ‘The Phonograph and Its Future’, The North American Review 126, n. 262 (1878), 5 (...)
  • 83 Edison, ‘The Perfected Phonograph’, 647.
  • 84 Ibid., 649-50.

37For Edison, the process of sound transmission enabled the recovery of an intimacy with that which has been lost or threatens to disappear without a trace. He was particularly attuned to the potential of the phonograph as a device able to safeguard ideas and memories by keeping a record of them: in a 1888 essay entitled ‘The Perfected Phonograph’, he presented the phonograph as an unprecedented resource for authors, suddenly able to ‘register their fleeting ideas and brief notes [...] at any hour of day or night, without waiting to find pen, ink or paper’.80 Recording messages destined to be written was, indeed, the first commercial use of the phonograph, then widely sold as a machine able to inscribe the page, hence of great utility to stenographers.81 More importantly, the phonograph was, for Edison, an important tool for maintaining the ‘family record’ and preserving ‘the sayings, the voices, and the last words of the dying member of the family – as of great men’, as he explained in an 1878 article introducing his invention.82 Later, he celebrated the ability of the phonograph to capture and preserve the words and voices of those forever absent, evoking its ability to transmit ‘a dear friend’s or relative’s voice speaking to us from the other side of the earth’.83 He concluded that the device ‘knows more than we do ourselves’, and that ‘it will retain a perfect mechanical memory of many things which we may forget, even though we have said them.’84

  • 85 Sconce, 81-83.
  • 86 Thomas A. Edison, The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison, ed. Dagobert David Rune (...)
  • 87 Sconce, 38-40, 215-16, 85-90.
  • 88 Chanan, 23.

38Edison’s view of the phonograph as a device able to reach to the otherworld extended beyond the invention proper, shaping his speculations concerning knowledge of the afterlife.85 In a 1920 interview with Scientific American, he evoked the possible conception of an apparatus able to detect ’personalities in another existence or sphere who wish to get in touch with us in this existence or sphere’ in a more sophisticated and rigorous manner than mediums and Ouija boards.86 The peculiar machines and rituals that preceded and followed Edison’s invention and aimed at achieving precisely this goal have provided much fodder for cultural historians. In particular, Jeffrey Sconce has discussed the many experiments connecting physical electromagnetisms to the spirit world, such as John Murray Spear’s proto-robot, conceived during the 1850s, which aimed at replicating a living organism, and Konstantin Raudive’s utilisations of radio during the late 1960s and 1970s to communicate with an often multilingual spirit world.87 One may also think of early attempts to conceive of telephony as tapping directly into the world of the dead, an endeavour exemplified in Alexander Graham Bell’s initial use of a dead human ear for his telephone; the ear was rigged up to a metal horn with an armature and stylus attached to the ossicles.88

  • 89 Breton reports becoming aware of ‘a sentence ... that knocked at the window’, ‘articulated clearly (...)

39The associations between the inaudible, the ghostly and the non-human which recur in Yeats’s own dealings with wireless transmission suggest that he alternately acknowledged and failed to come to terms with the complexities of sound transmission, a hesitancy indebted in no small measure to the cultural matrix which had given rise to radio and recording as modes of communication and preservation. When writing for or commenting upon radio, Yeats preferred to make analogies between broadcasting, recording and the written word without engaging with the specifics of sound transmission, perhaps because such analogies were more germane to the dramatisation of cognitive uncertainty that he had come to relish and could foreground problems of agency in relation to writing which had been a long-term concern. Despite Yeats’s ambivalence towards the wireless, however, it is possible to think of its shaping influence over his approach to poetic form; the many voices that move in and out of earshot after the Crazy Jane poems, in New Poems in particular, emulate patterns salient in wireless transmission. The particular type of performativity associated with hearing and the failure thereof in ’What Then?’ and ’The Ghost of Roger Casement’ finds correlations in Yeats’s musings on listening in his radio broadcasts: here as on air, the poetic voice thrives on evocations of a ghostly past and voices. Evocations of Plato’s ghost singing ‘What Then?’ and Roger Casement’s ghost ‘beating on the door’ may, in this context, be conceived of as contributions to the long line of symbolic poltergeists that have made the relationship between sound transmission technologies and early twentieth-century literature so enduring; indeed, the ghostly sentence evoked by Breton as the source of all inspiration in the 1924 Surrealist manifesto, that mysterious sentence that came to him ‘knock[ing] at the window’, looms near (YP 420, 424).89 In these poems as in Yeats’s broadcasts, the voices that seem to emerge from concealed sound sources are more than mere fodder for an ongoing experiment with voice, tonality, metre and rhyme: they bear testimony to the enduring artistic potential opened up by Yeats’s experiments with sound transmission as a situation and as a process.

Notes

1 Ann Saddlemyer, Becoming George: The Life of Mrs W. B. Yeats (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 369. I thank the Editors and the external reader for their incisive suggestions; Tom Walker and Adrian Paterson, and the Yeats scholars in attendance at their symposium ‘W. B. Yeats and the Arts’, at which a section of this article was presented as a paper, for their generous responses; Trev Broughton, Emma Major, Nicholas Melia and Aisling Mullan for their insights on early drafts.

2 George Yeats (hereafter GY) to MacGreevy, 31 December 1926, cited in Saddlemyer, Becoming George, 369.

3 Ibid., 422.

4 A. Norman Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: A New Biography, second edition (London: Continuum, 2001), 250; Anne Yeats, cited in W. R. Rodgers, ’W. B. Yeats: A Dublin Portrait’, in In Excited Reverie: A Centenary Tribute to William Butler Yeats 1865-1939, ed. A. Norman Jeffares and K. G. W. Cross (London: Macmillan, 1965), 7.

5 Rodgers, 7.

6 Saddlemyer, Becoming George, 514-15.

7 GY to W. B. Yeats (hereafter WBY), 13 October 1936 (YGYL 443); GY, cited in Colton Johnson, ‘Yeats’s Wireless’, The Wilson Quarterly, 24, n. 2 (2000), 28.

8 Rodgers, 7; see also Jeffares, W. B. Yeats, 250.

9 Saddlemyer, Becoming George, 515.

10 GY to WBY, 2 January 1932 (YGYL 283).

11 WBY to GY, 10 January 1932 (YGYL 287).

12 See Richard Pine, 2RN and the Origins of Irish Radio (Dublin: Four Courts, 2002), 89, 105, 183.

13 Margaret Mills Harper, Wisdom of Two: The Spiritual and Literary Collaboration of George and W. B. Yeats (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 160, 165-70.

14 On the wider contexts of these transformations, see Pamela Thurschwell, Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); Michael Chanan, Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and its Effects on Music (London: Verso, 1995); Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000); Helen Sword, Ghostwriting Modernism (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002).

15 Neil Baldwin, Edison: Inventing the Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 93-94.

16 ‘Silence in the Lamasery’, New York Sun, 19 December 1878, quoted in Daniel H. Caldwell, The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky: Insights Into the Life of a Modern Sphinx (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2001), 109.

17 William T. Stead, How I Know That the Dead Return (Boston: Ball Publishing, 1909), 6; Saddlemyer, Becoming George, 54-55.

18 Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 248-49.

19 See, in particular, Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, ed. Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994); Lisa Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); Timothy C. Campbell, Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Miriama Young, ‘Singing the Body Electric: The Recorded Voice, the Mediated Body’ (PhD dissertation, Princeton University, 2007); Bennett Hogg, ‘The Cultural Imagination of the Phonographic Voice, 1877-1940’ (PhD dissertation, University of Newcastle, 2008).

20 Campbell, Wireless Writing, xiv, 2-3, 10-13.

21 Ibid., 15, 21-25.

22 Ibid., 2, 15-21.

23 Ibid., 18.

24 ‘Signer Marconi’s Irish Lineage: His Mother a Wexford Lady’, Irish Times, 15 January 1898.

25 Christopher Blake, ‘Ghosts in the Machine: W. B. Yeats and the Metallic Homunculus, in YA15 69-101. Blake reports that an article on Wilson’s invention (called the ‘Psychic Telegraph’) by Estelle W. Stead, W. T. Stead’s daughter, may have drawn Yeats’s attention to it.

26 Blake, 80; see also Dulac’s description in Blake, 86.

27 Ibid., 80.

28 Marcel Schwob, Œuvres (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2002), 248-49.

29 Blake, 81.

30 See also Blake, 69-80.

31 Quoted in Maurice Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, trans. Richard Howard (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), 89, n. 11. The original reads: ‘sourd réceptacles de tant d’échos’, ‘modestes appareils enregistreurs qui ne s’hypnotisent pas sur le dessin qu’ils tracent.’ André Breton, Manifestes du Surréalisme (Paris: Gallimard, 2005), 39. On these influences, see Christopher Schiff, ’Banging on the Windowpane: Sound in Early Surrealism’, in Wireless Imagination, 171-72.

32 Pierre Janet, L’Automatisme psychologique (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1889), 18.

33 Donald J. Childs, T. S. Eliot: Mystic, Son, and Lover (London: Athlone, 1997), 11.

34 See Kathleen Raine, ‘Hades Wrapped in Cloud’, in YO 100, Plate 1.

35 On the marconista, see Campbell, Wireless Writing, xiv, 2-3.

36 Harper, Wisdom of Two, 166-69.

37 GY to WBY, 24 November 1931 (YGYL 270).

38 WBY to GY, 25 November 1931 (YGYL 272).

39 George Mills Harper and John S. Kelly, ‘Preliminary Examination of the Script of E[lizabeth] R[adcliffe]’, YO 156.

40 William M. Murphy, ‘Psychic Daughter, Mystic Son, Sceptic Father’, YO 22.

41 Ibid., 22, n. 24. John Yeats attributes Lily’s evocation of Marconi to W. B. Yeats.

42 ‘Talk of the Town, by A Lady’, Irish Times, 26 December 1896.

43 Fred Archer, Exploring the Psychic World (New York: William Morrow, 1967), 54.

44 Saddlemyer, Becoming George, 55.

45 Quoted in Liam Miller, The Noble Drama of W. B. Yeats (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1977), 278.

46 Ibid., 281.

47 March 1929 was a very productive month for Yeats; see John Kelly, A W. B. Yeats Chronology (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 264.

48 See John Pearson, Façades: Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell (London: Macmillan, 1978), 182; Alan Young, Dada and After: Extremist Modernism and English Literature (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981), 48-49; Tim Barringer, ‘Façades for Façade: William Walton, Visual Culture and English Modernism in the Sitwell Circle’, in British Music and Modernism, 1895-1960, ed. Matthew Riley (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 125-26.

49 Michael McAteer, Yeats and European Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 7, 78-83, 100-09.

50 Johnson, 25-30; Jeremy Silver, ‘W. B. Yeats and the BBC: A Reassessment’, YA5 181-85; see also George Whalley, ‘Yeats and Broadcasting’, in Wade 467-77.

51 George Barnes, ‘W. B. Yeats and Broadcasting’ [1940], introduced by Jeremy Silver, YA5 192-93.

52 Ronald Schuchard, The Last Minstrels: Yeats and the Revival of the Bardic Arts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), ix, xxiv, 335-403.

53 Barnes, 189-90. Yeats alluded to these ideas in ‘In The Poet’s Pub’, his first collaboration with Barnes. See W. B. Yeats, ‘In the Poet’s Pub’ CW10 267.

54 See Silver, 182-83; Schuchard, 285-403.

55 Barnes, 190.

56 Ibid., 192-93.

57 Ibid., 193.

58 Emily Bloom points out that Yeats’s approach to broadcasting remained aligned with common practice at the BBC; his dramatisation of his audience ‘as a small, familiar group coincided with conventional wisdom among radio broadcasters at the time.’ See Emily C. Bloom, ‘Yeats’s Radiogenic Poetry: Oral Traditions and Auditory Publics’, Eire – Ireland, 46, n. 3&4 (2011), 232.

59 For Ronald Schuchard, Yeats’s broadcasts represent the culmination of his reflections on the bardic tradition and gestures towards minstrelsy; with radio, his search for ways of creating intimacy with his audience found a new articulation. Going further, Emily Bloom argues that ‘that radio played a pivotal role as a medium through which Yeats performed, publicized, and published poetry at the end of his life’, and that the broadcast audience, which Yeats ceaselessly re-imagined, ‘was an active influence in shaping the auditory poetics of his late lyrics’ (228). See Schuchard, 335-403; Bloom, 227-51. On Yeats’s interest in poetic diction and desire to emulate the fili, and on the particular significance of radio to this endeavour, see also Jacqueline Genet, Words for Music Perhaps: Le ’new art’ de Yeats / Words for Music Perhaps: Yeats’s ‘New Art’ (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2010), 52-54.

60 On the problems surrounding the categorisation of radio as a ‘blind medium’, see Julie Campbell, ‘“A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine”: Radio, the Listener and the Dark Comedy of All That Fall’, in Beckett and Death, ed. Steven Barfield, Matthew Feldman and Philip Tew (London: Continuum, 2009), 151.

61 This idea was for a programme entitled ‘My Own Poetry’, which was to include a debate between Yeats and James Stephens, but Stephens declined and Dulac replaced him. Barnes, 194.

62 James Stephens, ‘In the Night’, in The Poems of James Stephens, ed. Shirley Stevens Mulligan (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 2006), 100.

63 See also Schuchard, 85-86.

64 For Bloom, this particular episode conveys Yeats’s uncertainty concerning the ‘kind of orality radio resembled’, and is representative of the ways in which Yeats ‘incorporated and radically altered dramatic, bardic, and modern verse recitation traditions to suit the new medium’ (232).

65 Schuchard, xxv; Johnson, 30; Silver, 181.

66 Anne Atik, How It Was (London: Faber, 2001), 59. The date and origin of the recording are not mentioned.

67 Beckett to H. O. White, 14 April 1957, quoted in Emilie Morin, Samuel Beckett and the Problem of Irishness (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 36; John Pilling, Samuel Beckett: A Chronology (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 24-25, 39; Richard Ellmann, ‘Samuel Beckett: Nayman of Noland’, in Four Dubliners: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett (London: Hamilton, 1987), 110.

68 Samuel Beckett, Disjecta, ed. Ruby Cohn (London: Calder, 2001), 72.

69 Johnson, 25.

70 9 September 1931, quoted in Schuchard, 339.

71 Quoted in Johnson, 24; see also Silver, 183.

72 Johnson, 27; Schuchard, 377.

73 On the broader context, see Schuchard, 264.

74 See Martin Kaltenecker, ‘Thanatographies’, Recueil 33 (1994), 74; Howard Sutton, ‘Charles Cros, the Outsider’, The French Review 39, n. 4 (1966), 517-18.

75 ‘A Poet Broadcasts’, Belfast News-Letter, 9 September 1931, quoted in Schuchard, 342.

76 WBY to McCartan, 22 January 1937, in Yeats and Patrick McCartan, A Fenian Friendship, ed. John Unterecker (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1967), 384; see also Johnson, 28; Pine, xix.

77 Young, ‘Singing the Body Electric’, 23. Young’s conclusions are based on a wide range of definitions.

78 Ibid., 118.

79 Ibid.

80 Thomas A. Edison, ‘The Perfected Phonograph’, The North American Review 146, n. 379 (1888), 647.

81 Ivan Kreilkamp, ‘A Voice without a Body: The Phonographic Logic of Heart of Darkness’, Victorian Studies 40, n. 2 (1997), 218.

82 Thomas A. Edison, ‘The Phonograph and Its Future’, The North American Review 126, n. 262 (1878), 531, 533-34.

83 Edison, ‘The Perfected Phonograph’, 647.

84 Ibid., 649-50.

85 Sconce, 81-83.

86 Thomas A. Edison, The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison, ed. Dagobert David Runes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1948), 239.

87 Sconce, 38-40, 215-16, 85-90.

88 Chanan, 23.

89 Breton reports becoming aware of ‘a sentence ... that knocked at the window’, ‘articulated clearly to a point excluding all possibility of alteration and stripped of all quality of vocal sound’ (my translation; published translations render Breton’s ‘phrase’ incorrectly, as ‘phrase’ rather than ‘sentence’). The original evokes ‘une phrase ... qui cognait à la vitre’, ‘nettement articulée au point qu’il était impossible d’y changer un mot, mais distraite cependant du bruit de toute voix’ (31).

Table des illustrations

Légende Plates 3a & b. Yeats at the Microphone, very probably March 1937. Photographs of unknown authorship, courtesy Colin Smythe.
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