The Last Minstrels: Yeats and the Revival of the Bardic Arts

June 19, 2008

Yeats was not an enthusiast for machinery and the modern world. When he agreed to talk and read his poems on BBC Radio in August 1931, he confessed to never having listened to anyone "speaking over the wireless". He read out a scripted talk about his version of Oedipus for 15 minutes and followed it by chanting some early poems, a process that, he warned, "may sound strange if you are not used to it".

The few recordings that have survived, and the many written descriptions, adequately justify his warning, even if it doesn't quite equal Ezra Pound's evocation, in Canto 82, of the wind in the chimney that turns out to be "Uncle William/downstairs composing/that had made a great Peeeacock/in the proide ov his oiye".

Broadcasting poetry reinvigorated Yeats's imagination. He told his fellow senators that it might "change the oratory of the world". But most of all it revived his old interest in a vision of the poet as bard and minstrel, and the theory of poetry that underpinned it.

Yeats's fascination with the revival of Ireland's ancient traditions, and his conviction that his poetry needed to be a conduit for poetic tradition as the vehicle of higher spiritual truths, led him to experiment with different methods of chanting or intoning verse.

Both his theories and his practice gained enthusiastic endorsement from the actress and feminist Florence Farr. Like Yeats, she was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn and disposed to enthuse about daft ideas. Together they set about annotating poetic speech and reciting poems to the accompaniment, or occasional interjection, of a zither-like instrument called a psaltery, crafted by that central figure in the early music revival, Arnold Dolmetsch.

Yeats believed that poets could communicate a timeless spiritual truth as he imagined bards and minstrels in pre-literate cultures to have done, and declaimed poetry with what seems to have been total bardic conviction (although T.S. Eliot once described hearing him read Blake as "more astonishing than satisfying").

The association in poetry of ancient music with ancient truths, and their power to counter a civilisation in dangerous decline, struck a chord with many in London society and more broadly in the early years of the last century, and Ronald Schuchard does a magnificently exhaustive job of reclaiming the meetings, concerts, discussions and arguments that went along with the poetry. The cast of walk-on parts is gratifyingly large, and the footnotes are copious and abundant.

But the real achievement of the book, which begins to come into its own after the first 250 pages, is to rewrite the debates between 1909 and 1915 about vers libre, symbolism and Imagism, so that the arguments between poetry for the ear and poetry for the eye, between Imagists and Recitalists, take on a depth and a resonance that really brings the full range of issues at stake to life for the first time.

The importance of cadence, and of composition by musical phrases, owes a lot to Yeats's unembarrassed conviction that he could "hear with older ears than the musicians".

At the heart of the book is what must be almost a complete set of descriptions of Yeats and his associates performing poems, to the psaltery or in the poetic theatre, on the radio and in the lecture hall, in the UK and in the US, to every kind of response from smirks of derision to cries of acclaim.

Call it declamation, lilting, singing, chanting, cantilation or intoning, the performance of verse had never been so passionately debated. And in this extraordinary book, something previously regarded as a minor aspect of Yeats's antiquarian oddity turns out, rather amazingly, to be central to the development of poetry in the early 20th century.

The Last Minstrels: Yeats and the Revival of the Bardic Arts

By Ronald Schuchard
Oxford University Press
528pp
£55.00
ISBN 9780199230006
Published 28 February 2008

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments