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The Living Stream

Warwick Gould


Ronald Schuchard, The Last Minstrels: Yeats and the Revival of the Bardic Arts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), xxvi + 446 pp.

Matthew Campbell

Texte intégral

1Even for Yeatsians, mention of W. B. Yeats and Florence Farr’s long experimentation with the chanting of verse to the accompaniment of Arnold Dolmetsch’s psaltery can evoke exasperation, if not mockery. Here is George Moore, relaying some gossip about rehearsals for an 1899 production of The Countess Cathleen:

[Edward Martyn] had come to tell me that Yeats had that morning turned up to rehearsal, and was now explaining his method of speaking verse to the actors, while the lady in the green cloak [Farr] gave illustration of it on a psaltery. At such news as this a man cries Great God! and pales. For sure I paled, and besought Edward not to rack my nerves with a description of the instrument or the lady’s execution upon it (quoted Schuchard, 39n).

2This is Moore in full begrudger’s mode—even if Ronald Schuchard tells us that it was a fiction made up for Hail and Farewell, since Dolmetsch didn’t invent the psaltery until 1901. The picture of Yeats instructing puzzled if not resistant actors in the correct manner of reciting his verse while Farr sounded the psaltery ‘in all the chromatic intervals within the range of the speaking voice’ (54) is repeated throughout this fascinating book. The whole project has long been considered at worst an embarrassment and at best a scheme to reinvigorate verse-drama which spectacularly failed to catch on.

3Schuchard doesn’t deny us the humour of those evenings when the chanting performances didn’t work. But future readers of Yeats can no longer dismiss them as amateur theatricals: Farr and Mrs Patrick Campbell, both key figures in the performance history of these experiments, were Shavian and Shakespearean stars of the London stage, and without the acting talents of Molly Allgood and Frank and Willie Fay, many Irish theatrical successes, and not just those of Yeats, would never have happened. The loss of the Fays from the Abbey Theatre, partially over the matter of chanting verse dramas, seems to have been the only serious artistic casualty of Yeats’s ideas about performance. Indeed, other types of casualty might in Yeats’s own self-mythology have followed from the chanting. Schuchard refreshes the actual verbal performance of the most momentous events in Irish theatrical historiography, the 1902 performance of Cathleen Ni Houlihan, with Maud Gonne in the title role. The play is described taking on the strange mystical intensity of Gonne’s chanted performance, matching the political intensity which has attracted and repulsed critics of all hues. Schuchard’s account offers ammunition for either sceptics or revisionists: Gonne said she recited the final speeches ‘to an air she heard in a dream’; Arthur Griffith was among those in the profoundlymoved audience who stood up to sing ‘A Nation Once Again’ at the final curtain.

4This book isn’t quite literary history or biography, although it offers much in those fields, particularly in the voluminous scholarship of its wonderfully rich footnotes. Rather it is a literary biography of an aesthetic idea and those artists who functioned as characters in the story of that idea. It is based around Yeats’s attempt to bring together what he called ‘the living voice’ with printed verse and music in verse-performance. Schuchard adds in the first stirrings of the early music movement and the history of early-twentieth-century national theatres, in England as well as Ireland. He describes the unexpected influence that such folk material could have on a poetic modernism wrenched from the visual preoccupations of imagism to the aural problems of the cadences of vers libre by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot after the example of the success of the chanting in Yeats’s Noh plays. Above all, this book is a history of performers and their performances and lectures, usually carried out in drawing rooms or small theatres—though at one point Yeats lectured to six hundred people at Carnegie Hall. In a bravura chapter in the centre of the book, Schuchard reconstructs the lectures which were to find print in the ‘Literature and the Living Voice’ essay from newspaper reports of Yeats’s lecture tours in Scotland, England and Ireland in 1906 and 1907. He pictures a series of rapt audiences in mercantile provincial towns (‘Dundee, the practical and commercial’; ‘busy, practical Leeds’) carried away by Yeats’s vision of the ‘spiritual democracy’ of individual and community in a place like the West of Ireland, where the tradition persists of performing the folk arts of poetry and song.

5So, given the efforts of so many, and particularly the messianic zeal of the pre-eminent poet of the day, why didn’t the chanting catch on? Even given Yeats’s avowedly elitist poetics, this was supposedly a movement demonstrating spiritual democracy, and as such ultimately of the ‘folk’. However briefly, Pound and Eliot were impressed. Before Schuchard, the critic’s answer would have been fairly easy, and it goes along these lines, as provided by Yeats himself:

  • 1 ‘Literature and the Living Voice’, collected in ‘The Irish Dramatic Movement’ (Ex 219).

An English musical paper said the other day, in commenting on something I had written, ‘Owing to musical necessities, vowels must be lengthened in singing to an extent which in speech would be ludicrous if not impossible’. I have but one art, that of speech, and my feeling for music dissociated from speech is very slight, and listening as I do to the words with the better part of my attention, there is no modern song sung in the modern way that is not to my taste ‘ludicrous’ and ‘impossible’. I hear with older ears than the musician and the songs of country people and of sailors delight me.1

6That last sentence is so Parnassian, we might suspect a joke, and Schuchard suggests that the poet rather played up his famous tin ear—Yeats, ‘cultivated his tone-deafness as part of his public aspect, willingly providing many astonished friends with the many tone-deaf anecdotes (that he could not recognise the tune of ‘God Save the Queen’) recorded in memoirs’ (86).

7Yeats said, beautifully, that the microphone was ‘a little oblong of paper like a visiting card’ (342)—that is, a relic which conveys a just-missed human presence. But leaving aside the scripts and recordings of the radio broadcasts he made some thirty years after his first acquaintance with the psaltery, such annotated examples of the chanted performances that have come down to us do suggest that sound is frequently encouraged not to seem an echo to the sense. Take what we might call one of the main characters in this story, Aleel’s song, ‘Impetuous heart’ in The Countess Cathleen. The little lyric was to be performed by Florence Farr across the world, and to be moved around the play in all of its numerous performances and revisions. On March 24, 1902, seven years after it had been added to the 1895 version, Yeats chanted it to Dolmetsch, who ‘set’ it to a musical accompaniment which mainly amounted to sounding droned chords throughout the spoken performance. But that performance was also ‘set’ in print, with each syllable marked. As Yeats says, ‘The marks of long and short over the syllables are not marks of scansion, but show the syllables one makes the voice hurry or linger over’ (E&I 17). The speaking score looks like this:

  • 2 E&I, 17: see Schuchard, 58-60. The poem ended up at the end of Scene iv of The Countess Cathleen, (...)

/ / x x / / / / /
Impetuous heart be still, be still,
/ / x . x / / / x . x /
Your sorrowful love may never be told,
/ x . / / / x / x /
Cover it up with a lonely tune.
/ x x / / / x x /
He who could bend all things to his will
/ x / x / / x / x x /
Has covered the door of the infinite fold
/ x / / x x / x / /
With the pale stars and the wandering moon.2

8What these stress marks establish is a speaking performance which doesn’t seem to follow sense. Neither does it seem to bear out Yeats’s later retrospective statement on his practice: ‘I tried to make the language of poetry coincide with that of normal passionate speech.’ It certainly challenges the rules of conventional scansion. ‘Bé stíll, bé stíll’ or ‘bénd áll thíngs’ or ‘wánderíng moón’ or most difficult of all, ‘hás covér’d the doór’ just don’t sound like English if pronounced as required here. The long stress overrules the short vowels demanded by reading simply for sense.

9This isn’t quite the notation of a quantitative scansion either: the addition of music would mean that the vowels would be far removed from normal ‘speech’ yet never quite ‘song’. Schuchard is very good on the significance of Yeats’s reading in Coventry Patmore’s ‘Essay on English Metrical Law’ (266-67), but he doesn’t quite follow this up into a consideration of the great fascination of early-twentieth century British and American philology with the vexed question of the prosody of English poetry. This found its apogee in George Saintsbury’s great History of English Prosody (1906-10), the publication of which is concurrent with the first experiments with Yeats’s chanting. For those who wrote under the influence of this philology, the matter of a quantitative versus a syllabic prosody was a debate nearly lost to the reader of modern poetry by the shift to vers libre a decade or so later: the work of Yeats’s elders and contemporaries, Robert Bridges, Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and Wilfrid Owen show its consistent influence.

10Schuchard does, though, alert us to the views of one late contributor to this critical debate, the Irish poet and critic Thomas MacDonagh, commemorated in ‘Easter 1916’ but known to Yeats through his work on the quantitative verse of Thomas Campion. In his Campion dissertation, MacDonagh had praised the ‘wandering’ quality of Yeats in poems like ‘Impetuous Heart’ because he thought it derived from Irish traditional music. (Yeats was consistently delighted to be told his rhythms had a basis in folksong, an influence the Anglophone and non-music-reading poet felt he had absorbed telepathically from the spirits of the Irish bards (315).) MacDonagh calls what Yeats is doing, ‘chant-verse, overflowing both songverse and speech-verse’ (Schuchard, 85). The older poet was very pleased with this construction when he read it in 1913, but MacDonagh’s violent death was to mean that the prosodic work Yeats wanted him to do on ‘chant-verse’ was not to materialise. The fate of MacDonagh is one of the many poignant sub-plots of this biography of an idea, but Pound, for one, was to invoke MacDonagh’s later work on Irish verse in English as an influence on the development of vers libre to rank with that of Yeats.

11It is maybe an actor and not a poet who suggested the main artistic reason why this chant-verse failed, and Schuchard’s story becomes that of one of the last hurrahs of verse drama (before Eliot) on English-speaking stages. According to Frank Fay, Yeats told him ‘that I [Fay] cared for nothing but beautiful speech and he cared for nothing but beautiful words’. Fay and Yeats’s artistic differences were to result in the actor and director leaving the Abbey in 1907. Yeats didn’t want him back in 1910: ‘I had sooner not have him teaching them to sing the verse & getting cross when I object’. What might work for Synge’s singing prose speech, would not work for Yeats’s chant-verse. But the Yeats / Fay distinction between ‘beautiful speech’ (which might paradoxically be sung) and ‘beautiful words’ (separated from their cadence by the accents placed on them by the artificial chant) places us right at the limits of the challenges to realism mounted by Yeats and Farr in their experiments in concert hall and theatre.

12That challenge of verse drama, not just to dramatic realism but also to the spoken performance of lyric poetry, is put most strongly in the ‘Speaking to the Psaltery’ essay of 1902, rescued by Schuchard as one of Yeats’s central critical statements. The key passage goes thus:

All art is, indeed, a monotony in external things for the sake of an interior variety, a sacrifice of gross effects to subtle effects, an asceticism of the imagination. But this new art, new in modern life, I mean, will have to train its hearers as well as its speakers, for it takes time to surrender gladly the gross effects one is accustomed to, and one may well find mere monotony at first where one soon learns to find a variety as incalculable as in the outline of faces or in the expression of eyes. Modern acting and recitation have taught us to fix our attention on the gross effects till we have come to think gesture, and the intonation that copies the accidental surface of life, more important than the rhythm; and yet we understand theoretically that it is precisely this rhythm that separates good writing from bad, that is the glimmer, the fragrance, the spirit of all intense literature (E&I 18).

13Monotony is set against variety and both terms switch their expected positioning in the hierarchy of taste. One of the wonderful things about this passage is the way that Yeats continually refers sound to space, thus monotony goes from the external to the interior, eventually superceding the varieties of theatrical facial expression. When ‘rhythm’ comes in, it is used to tell against ‘surface’, but it in turn takes on a sensual image-cadence which moves from glimmer to fragrance to spirit. The intensity is in the monotone and the monotone is never gross.

14This is not very helpful as writing about prosody, but it might be more appropriate as a beautifully opaque instruction about performance. Yeats appended notes by Florence Farr to versions of ‘Speaking to the Psaltery’ in his collected essays, quite rightly according her joint authorship in this project. And while we have recordings of Yeats’s voice, Farr’s performance is the opaque element lost to us. Schuchard does much to recreate her performances through his immense reading in letters, biographies, newspapers and indeed the ever-shifting, ever-revised printed texts. Most readers of modern verse have been relayed a memory of something faintly ludicrous, indeed many of the witnesses recorded here did find the performances so. But readers might be asked to follow Farr’s story through this book. Schuchard is quite clear on her influence: when she left England to work as a teacher in Ceylon in 1912, the loss of her voice from the chanted poems, ‘spelled the end of the new art’ (296). Farr’s death in 1917 was followed by the surrender of her voice and her music into print: ‘because now that she is dead’, Yeats wrote, ‘it is part of an attempt, which seemed to me important, to recover an art once common and now lost’ (334). The Last Minstrels recovers that art again for us.


1 ‘Literature and the Living Voice’, collected in ‘The Irish Dramatic Movement’ (Ex 219).

2 E&I, 17: see Schuchard, 58-60. The poem ended up at the end of Scene iv of The Countess Cathleen, but was not extracted for editions of the Poems.