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HOW TO READ POETRY.
SOME murder poetry by singing it, and some by setting aside the rhythm, the metre, and the rhyme, and reading it as they would read an advertisement in a newspaper. Of these two besetting faults, I prefer the former, however nasal the twang. There is at least the consciousness of the presence of poetry-evidence of an ear, if not of a taste, for it. But the prosaic reader revolts you by the unequivocal proof he gives, with every word he utters, that he has neither taste nor ear, and that poetry to him is nothing more than dislocated prose.
The singing of poetry is the reader's most frequent fault. Usually it is a habit acquired in very early childhood, the consequence of bad training by the first teacher of the nursery rhymes that usually constitute a child's first exercise of the memory, and afterwards cultivated by the successive tutors who undertake the task of teaching to read. Metre and rhyme are sore temptations to an uncultivated voice. Probably the natural impulse is to convert them into music. And it must be admitted that music and poetry are very nearly allied. Poetry (I am speaking now of the mechanical part of it) is modified music—perhaps it might be termed imperfect music. Analyse them. Music is an array of inarticulate lengthened sounds, divided into even periods of time. Poetry is an array of articulate sounds or words, divided into even accentuations instead of even periods of time. These characteristics of song and music run so nearly together, that there is in most of us a decided tendency to pass from one to the other, or to substitute the one for the other, and thus accentuations come to be exchanged for time, and the articulate word lapses into the musical note. This explains the process by which the reading of poetry is so often converted into the singing of it; and indeed it can be prevented only by the exercise of most vigilant care by the first instructors of childhood. The lisping boy chants the nursery rhyme without correction, and thus lays the foundation of a habit which subsequent teachers will but too probably strengthen, and which it will be the arduous work of his maturity to unlearn.
Therefore, before you begin to learn to read poetry, ascertain if you are infected by the evil habit of singing it, for until that is entirely subdued, progress is hopeless. Your own ear will not help you in this investigation. It has been perverted also, and has ceased to inform the mind of the fact. You cannot so hear yourself as to sit in judgment on yourself—at least until another has listened and pointed out your defects to you, and you. learn from his instructions where you err. Call in, then, the aid of a judicious friend; ask him to listen while you read a few short passages from poetry in various metres, and instruct him that, with most resolute disregard to wounding your self-love, he shall stop
you in the
way, and tell you of every lapse into song, sing-song, or chant. He must be inflexible in his criticism, or you will not mend. Score with a pencil in the book the words of which he complains. If he is apt at imitation, ask him to show you by his voice the manner of your reading. Afterwards, when alone, read the same passages again from the scored page, carefully avoiding the faults he had told you of as attaching to the words marked by the pencil, and repeat them several times. A few lessons, thus learned, submitting the same passages to the judgment of your listener, will enable
to avoid the most offensive features of the evil habit. But be not impatient. As the mischief was early implanted, has been long cherished and grown with your growth, it will not be cured without much care and perseverance; and, however tedious the delay, do not abandon the task until it is thoroughly achieved. It will not be time lost altogether. Having once unlearned, the task of learning will be comparatively easy.
Having thus learned how poetry ought not to be read, you will now proceed to learn how it ought to be read. You must not sing it; you must not chant it; you must not drawl it; you must not ignore the metre and the rhyme ; you must not make prose of it. What then are you to do with it?
Read it so that metre, rhythm and rhyme may be made sensible to the listener's ear, but without giving prominence to either. The difference between the reading of poetry and prose lies in this, that you mark by your voice the peculiar characteristics of poetry. You must observe the metre, not altogether by intoning it, but by the very gentlest inflexion of the voice; you must indicate the rhythm by a more melodious utter
ance, and the rhyme by a slight-rery slight-emphasis placed upon it. The rule is plain enough: the difficulty lies in preserving the right degree of expression. I cannot convey this to you by words; it can be taught only by examples. Your ear should guide you, and would do so, if it were not perverted by bad habits. But, as those habits are probably formed, I can but advise you to do for this as for so many other ingredients of the art,-if you have not a judicious friend, who will hear patiently and tell you of your faults frankly, apply to a professional teacher.
But there are some frequent errors, of which I may usefully warn you. Avoid set pauses.
Some readers, otherwise skilful, will make a pause at precisely the same point in the metre of each line, whether the sense does or does not require it. This is not merely monotonous—it is wrong. In reading poetry, as in prose, the sound must be subordinate to the sense. Although there is a measuring of words in poetry, there is no measure for the pauses : you must pause
wheresoever the sense demands a pause, without regard to the apparent exigencies of metre or rhyme. If that pause so falls that it disturbs the melody of the verse or the harmony of the rhyme, you should preserve them by so managing your voice that, after the pause, it shall resume in the selfsame tone with which it rested, just reminding the hearer of the music of the verse, as an added charm to the beauty of the thought. Then, again, shun carefully the still more frequent practice of pausing at the end of each line, regardless of the requirement of the thought. It is not merely a school-boy's jest that ridicules this sort of reading by the excellent illustration of
My name is Norval on the Grampian Hills-
And Heaven soon granted what my sire denied. Not a few who think they read well, and who do read prose well, completely fail when they attempt to read poetry, because of this propensity to measure every line. And there is another fault frequently associated with it, which has the same origin, and is equally difficult to conquer—that is, reading in a “wavy” manner. I can find no better phrase for it. I mean that regular swell and fall of the voice in accordance with the metre, into which the unpractised appear to lapse unconsciously. Until you have succeeded in banishing this dreary fault, you will not read pleasantly, and the probable effect of your measured tones will be to set your audience to sleep. But on this also take warning that it is very difficult of cure. The best course of treatment, in addition to that already recommended, is to fill your mind with the meaning of the poet, and to resolve to give full expression to that meaning, forgetting, as far as you can, the metrical arrangement of the words in which those thoughts are conveyed. If your mind dwells too much upon
the words, you will sing them; if upon the ideas, you will read them.
There is one rule worth noting. The danger is of monotony in the reading of poetry. You must strive by all means to avoid this, and resort to every aid to give spirit and variety to your voice. Change its tone with every change in the thought to be expressed. Throw gaiety into it when the theme is cheerful, and