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By F. TOWNSEND SOUTHWICK.
Elocutionary practice enables us to express the full meaning of what we read or speak.
If we listen attentively to others, we shall soon observe that the words they speak often mean less than the manner of speaking them. Even a dog knows by his master's voice whether he is pleased or not. A simple exclamation like Oh! may mean pleasure, pain, anger, love, surprise, grief, or contempt, according to the expression of face and voice.
Our emotions are seldom expressed in so many words. We do not often say, “I am very sad and miserable,” or “I am very angry.” We do not need to say so. The emotions exhibit themselves unmistakably.
We state facts or describe scenes clearly enough in words, but our feelings about those facts or scenes are shown by our tones, inflections, and other means of vocal expression, as well as by facial expression which always accompanies true feeling. For example, in “ The Chambered Nautilus,” the poet says:
This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
The words here state what is really not true, for the shell is not a ship of pearl, but resembles a ship of pearl. To read this in a matter-of-fact way would not bring out even the poet's thought. What he really wishes us to understand is that it is a beautiful object, and he wishes us to see it in imagination. Moreover, he wishes us to feel toward the shell as he does, that is, to love and admire it.
Now to read this well we must put ourselves in the author's place, try to think what he thought, see the shell in imagination, and finally feel toward it the same admiration that he felt. Moreover, we must strive to make our listeners see and understand as well as share our feelings.
One might read these lines with an intonation that would convey great contempt, the underlying thought being “how ridiculous for poets to imagine such nonsense about a mere shell.” Of course this would be entirely wrong, but it would be possible to do it without changing a word, simply by a difference in expression.
We see, then, that one must determine the underlying meaning of a given passage before he can be sure of reading it properly, and supply mentally many descriptive or emotional words that are suggested but not written. To do this, we must study the context, that is, what precedes and what follows it. We must know something of the circumstances under which it was composed, and understand the historical or personal allusions which we often find in literature. Not only must we understand and sympathize with the author, but we must know how to use the voice so as to express his meaning naturally.
In Longfellow's “The Reaper and the Flowers,” occur these lines :
And the mother gave, in tears and pain,
The flowers she most did love;
In the fields of light above.
Now, one might read this, as is often done, in a careless, indifferent manner, or what would be almost as bad, in a very careful and painstaking way, as if one were explaining a problem in arithmetic. It is plain that neither way of reading would be right. To do justice to this stanza, we should try to see in imagination the weeping mother whose children have died, to sympathize with her sorrow and her love for them; then in the third and fourth lines we must endeavor to feel and express her hope and faith.
This is a difficult task, and only a very artistic reader can hope to succeed in it fully; but at least we may try to suggest the beauty of the poem, and even if we fail, we shall at least have gained something in the clearer understanding of its meaning.
In preparing your reading lesson ask yourself:
1. What was the purpose of the author ? What are the thoughts, pictures, feelings to be expressed ?
2. What words are most essential to make the meaning clear, that is, what words should I emphasize?
3. What particular meaning shall I give to these words? Shall I say, for instance, “this is a beautiful shell, which as poets charmingly imagine, sails the broad sunlit expanse of the tropical ocean,” or “this is a wretched broken shell, that silly poets would have us believe once sailed like a ship-- how ridiculous !”
4. Is a given thought complete or does it depend on another thought?
5. What are the most important ideas in the whole selection, and what are the secondary ones ?
6. What means of expression will best bring out the meaning, that is, shall I speak loudly or softly, fast or slow, with what inflection, etc.?
You already know something about emphasis, inflection, and pause. The following rules, well remembered, will help you to apply your knowledge :
PAUSE. We pause for every new idea, even if it is contained in a single word. The length of the pause depends on the importance of what we are saying.
In the pause we gather in energy for the next idea. If we are reading an unfamiliar passage, we master the new thought before going on.
GROUPING. We speak each phrase or thought group almost as if it were one long word with a strong accent on the most important or