Here is further evidence that it is disillusioning, more often than not, to encounter close up any artist long admired at a distance. This generalisation applies to actors, musicians, painters and writers of all shapes and sizes, male and female. Coiffure and couture are rarely sufficiently haute; on the other hand, bohemian grooming and costumes are often rather scruffy. In advanced cases, there are dangers of rheumy eyes and bad breath.
The Spoken Word, the British Library’s admirable series of compact discs of historic literary recordings of lectures, readings and discussions from the archives of the BBC, audibly reduces icons to curios on an ordinary human scale. The latest discs, Irish Poets and Writers, take one back, as though by time machine, to Irish culture in the first half and middle of the 20th century, when Irishry was more intensely Irish than now, and regional accents were more distinctly differentiated. Since then, international and internal influences, most notably television, have had a homogenising effect, and have made the literary arts generally, alas, seem less important.
On this adventure in nationalistic nostalgia, one can listen to the recorded voices of Frank O’Connor, W.B. Yeats, Sean O’Faolain, Patrick Kavanagh, Eavan Boland, George Bernard Shaw, Sylvia Beach, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan, Elizabeth Bowen, Mary Lavin, Liam O’Flaherty and Edna O’Brien. Some of them are easier to appreciate when their words are displayed only in writing; however, all of them aloud reveal aspects of their personalities that may have been previously less fully understood, ranging from modest to boisterous and even somewhat bombastic. Listeners may find it entertaining to decide which are which.
Shaw, in arrogant Professor Higgins mode, yet teasingly facetious, casts doubt on the fidelity of the whole Spoken Word operation by pointing out that recorded voices are true to the speakers only when discs revolve at just the right speed. If gramophones were functioning at any other speed, he warned, ‘what you are hearing may be grotesquely unlike any sound that has ever come from my lips’, and thus may represent unfairly ‘an amiable old gentleman of 71.’ Without adjustable gramophones, one must rely on the BBC, whose engineers are said to be of exemplary trustworthiness.
A disproportionate amount of disc-time is devoted, justifiably, to Yeats, who dominated Irish poetry during his lifetime (1865-1939), while lolloping through Gaelic mysticism towards his own Bethlehem. At the outset of his first reading, he presents ‘the only poem of mine that is widely known’, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. He wrote it about Sligo, at the age of 23, he relates, when he was inspired by a jet of water upholding a ball to advertise something in a London shop window. Such was the poem’s popularity that he read it again in his final radio broadcast, in 1937, here in part preserved.
Although he promised ‘great emphasis’ on the rhythm of the poems he recited, Yeats, in the fashion of his era, intoned most of the words in a solemn monotone. He lightens up on these discs only when broadcasting jollier works by foreigners, such as Belloc and Chesterton. Yeats even joined in singing the last three choruses of a traditional French shanty, ‘The Lady and the Shark’; and, according to the British Library, ‘the closing chuckle also sounds as if it is his’.
Among the many other items of interest are James Joyce’s reading from Finnegans Wake as the Liffey is about to merge with the sea at Dublin Bay; Edna O’Brien’s elegantly punctilious reading of her romantic short story ‘Christmas Roses’; Brendan Behan’s reliably clownish rendition of his brother Dominic’s song ‘The Ould Triangle’, about the metal triangle that was beaten daily to awaken the inmates of Mountjoy Prison; and an interview with Peter Duval Smith in which Patrick Kavanagh, the Monaghan poet, tells how he overcame a ‘fantastic inferiority complex’ and ill will towards contemporary poets, and resolved to be ‘gay and happy’.
Dr David Wheatley, poet, critic and university lecturer, explicates everything that matters in an excellent, unbiased essay introducing the discs’ programme.