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It is said that Sir James Mackintosh was a fine reader; though from the harshness of his voice, I should not have supposed it. A respected friend of mine tells me that one day in a large party at Hydrabad, on some person depreciating Cowley, Sir James took down the book from a shelf in the room, and saying that he was sure the gentleman could not have sufficiently studied that poet, he read the “ Chronicle” in a style that enchanted his audience. Perhaps his truth of emphasis and feeling overcame the disadvantage of a bad voice.
Though good poets are not necessarily good readers of verse, and I have given the names of several who illustrate the observation, I still think that the best readers amongst the poets must recite their own compositions or those of their brethren with a peculiar gusto and a magical effect. It is said that Virgil, Racine, and Boileau were admirable readers. Nat Lee was particularly distinguished for the beauty of his recitation.
“ He was so pathetic a reader of his own scenes,” says Cibber, " that while he was reading to Major Mohun at a rehearsal, Mohun, in the warmth of his admiration, threw down his part, and said, “unless I were able to play it as well as you read it, to what purpose should I undertake it?'"
Mr. De Quincy (the Opium Eater) gives an interesting account of Charles Lamb as a reader ; and in speaking of his own habits, says, that at one period during illness he could not read to him. self with any pleasure, yet that he sometimes read aloud for the pleasure of others, for reading was an accomplishment of his, “ almost the only one he possessed," and if he was proud of any thing it was of this, because he had observed that no accomplishment was so rare. He describes Charles Lamb as a delightful reader of verse, though his style of recitation wanted force, and was better suited to passages of quiet or solemn movement than to those of tumultuous passion. But the management of his pauses, it is added, was judicious, his enunciation distinct, his tones me
lodious, and his cadences well executed. This praise may excite some surprise, because it has been said that Lamb stammered even more in reading than in speaking. Amongst the best readers of modern times was Dr. Sayers, of whom William Taylor of Norwich has written such an affectionate and interesting biography. “ Throughout life,” says his biographer, “he was one of the finest readèrs ever heard ; expression of every kind was at his command; his own emotion was always transitive, yet given with that subdued grace which is the expedient distinction between lecture and declamation.” Mr. Polwhele (in his Traditions and Recollections) records that Dr. Wolcot (Peter Pindar) read poetry extremely well. He remembers the Doctor's reading some lines " with a voice so plaintively soft, so musical in its cadences, that his whole soul should seem to have been attuned to sensibility and virtue. But what a medley is man of good and evil !"
Wordsworth's reading of his own poetry is described by Hazlitt as particularly imposing. “In his favorite passages his eye beams with preternatural lustre, and the meaning labours slowly up from his swelling breast.” Mrs. Hemans, in a letter to a friend, also gives a pleasing account of Wordsworth's style of recitation. “ His reading is very peculiar, but, to my ear, delightful ; slow, solemn, earnest in expression, more than any I have ever heard ; when he reads or recites in the open air, his deep and rich tones seem to proceed from a spirit-voice, and to belong to the religion of the place; they harmonize so fitly with the thrilling tones of woods and waterfalls.” Coleridge was also a fine reader. The reporter of the poet's Table Talk mentions that upon his telling him, that he did not very well recollect the Prothalamion of Spenser, " Then I must read you a bit of it,” said Coleridge, and fetching the book from the next room, he recited the whole of it in his finest manner. "I particularly bear in mind,” continues the reporter (the poet's relative), “the sensible diversity of tone and rhythm with which he gave the concluding line of each of the strophes of the poem :
“ then en
Sweet Thames, run softly 'till I end my song. Talfourd, in his life of Lamb, tells us that Coleridge was sometimes induced to recite portions of “ Christabel,” shrined in manuscript from eyes profane;" and that he gave "a bewitching effect to its wizard lines.” “But more peculiarly beautiful than this," continues Talfourd, was his recitation of Kubla-Khan. As he repeated the passage
A damsel with a dulcimer
Singing of Mount Aborahis voice seemed to mount and melt into air as the images grew more visionary, and the suggested associations more remote.”
Very little attention is paid at the generality of schools to accuracy and variety of emphasis and cadence. The consequence is that few persons, even amongst those who have received what is called an elegant education, are able to read either prose or verse with propriety and effect. Most readers hurry over the finest prose composition like a paragraph in a newspaper, as if they had no time to spare; or turn poetry into prose by a cold and careless intonation, or by harsh and erroneous accents.
Faults in prosereading, however, though more easily avoided, are far less disgusting than in the recitation of verse. Even so early as the time of Elizabeth, the poets used to complain of the manner in which their works were recited. Beaumont, in his lines to Fletcher on the failure of his "Faithful Shepherd," speaks with impatient contempt of bad readers of verse :
« Of those Whose very reading makes verse senseless prose." The first and most important requisite for excellence in reading, is a thorough comprehension of the author's meaning; for unless we fully apprehend his sentiment or intention, it is impossible to give the right tone and cadence. The slightest error in these respects has such a serious effect, that a writer is quite at the mercy of his reader. A greater punishment to a poet could hardly be conceived than that of making him listen to his own compositions inaccurately or untastefully recited*. I have never met with more than two or three individuals in private life who could read an ode or an elegy in a style that was not absolutely offensive.
The two most common though opposite faults in the reading of verse are a disregard of those fine harmonies which distinguish verse from prose, and a whine or sing-song. These are the Scylla and Charybdis of recitation. To avoid such serious dangers requires the nicest art—the utmost delicacy of taste. The reader who can succeed in this difficult task, and keep precisely the right tone, accent, and emphasis, and preserve at the same time an air of ease and freedom in the management of his voice, must be no ordinary person. Such excellence is not a mere mechanical accomplishment. It not only requires something of the perseverance of a Demosthenes, but many personal and intellectual qualities of a rare and brilliant order.
The rules for reading verse are so unsettled, that many points of considerable importance must be left entirely to the taste and feeling of the reciter. It is not, for instance, yet agreed amongst the teachers of elocution, whether or not a slight pause should be made at the end of every line of verse just sufficient to mark its limits. Dr. Lowth, Mr. Garrick, Dr. Johnson, Dr. Blair and Mr. Sheridan are in favour of this pause ; Walker and others are against it. I am inclined to agree with the former, that
“I laugh heartily,” says Owen Feltham (in his Resolves), “ at Philoxenus's jest, who passing by and hearing some masons mis-sensing his lines, (with their ignorant sawing of them,) falls to breaking amain. They ask the cause, and he replies, they spoil his work, and he theirs. Certainly a worthy poet is so far from being a fool, that there is some wit required in him that shall be able to read him well; and without the true accent, numbered poetry does lose of the gloss. It was a speech becoming an able poet of our own, when a lord read his verses crookedly, and he beseeched his lordship not to murder him in his own lines, • He that speaks false Latin breaks Priscian's head; but he that repeats a verse ill puts Homer out of joint.""
there ought to be a very slight, and except to a fine ear, a scarcely perceptible pause of suspension at the end of every line, whether of rhymed or blank verse; but it should seem, if I may say so, more like a link than a break in the chain of harmony.
If any one is asked a second time to read aloud by any number of persons of good taste whom he has no reason to suppose are inclined to flatter him, he may congratulate himself upon
possession of a very rare and delightful accomplishment. For my own part I repeat, that I have heard very few persons in private life attempt to read poetry aloud who did not either irritate their auditors or lull them into an untimely slumber. I have met with many who could write good poetry, but very few who could read it properly. They who have been present at poetical readings in private parties know what a wearisome trial of courtesy it is to keep up an air of attention. The eyes begin to close in spite of one's politeness, and to make those“ pictures when they're shut” of which Coleridge speaks ; while like the waves on the sea-shore as described by Shelley, the reader's voice breathes over the slumbering brain a dull monotony. That Anna Seward deserved her reputation as a fine reader is sufficiently evident from the circumstance of her having been so frequently solicited to read Shakspeare aloud to different companies, that at last the task was beyond her strength. One evening, from reading all the principal scenes in Macbeth, she found herself so much injured that as she assured her friends, she never breathed freely afterwards.
Mr. Southey in the preface to his Madoc, in the new editi his poems, has made the following complimentary mention of Miss Seward, with which I shall conclude the present article :-"Sir Walter Scott has estimated with characteristic skill Miss Seward's powers of criticism and her strong prepossessions on literary points. And believing that the more she was known the more she would have been esteemed and admired, I bear a willing testimony to her accomplishments and her genius, to her generous disposition, her frankness, her sincerity and warmth of heart."