Monday, 20 August 2012

The Three Voices of Poetry – An essay by T.S. Eliot – Overview

Eliot through this essay brings to the surface the fact that each poem or work o art has a distinctive voice. The voice differs with the situation as if one is writing for the stage the approach would certainly be different from verse writing that is to be read or recited. Thus, for a work to be really successful, the voice must be in tune to what is being said and vice versa.

The first voice is that of the poet talking aloud to himself without thinking of addressing an audience. The second voice is best seen in a dramatic monologue where a poet addresses himself to an audience. The third voice is an indirect manifestation of the second one. Here, the poet uses an imaginary character as a mouth piece, and this character addresses another imaginary character thus, letting the poet have the liberty to speak his mind seen most commonly in the poetic drama. However, the employment of these voices is much more difficult than can be seen on the surface.
The Voices

When we look at the difference between the first and second voices we find the problem o poetic communication to be posed. And when we look at all three voices together we see that there is a difference in the dramatic, quasi-dramatic and non-dramatic verse.
From Eliot’s viewpoint, it is an illusion to think that there is such a voice as that of a poet talking to one person even though there are poems addressed to particular people (Epistles). There is a certain amount of overhearing expected, even though a love poem may be addressed to one person it is meant to be overheard by others for Eliot finds prose more suited to private discourse with one’s beloved.

Eliot on taking up the dramatic pen found that he used the second voice of the poet addressing the audience rather than addressal through imaginary characters (third voice). In fact, even the second voice is hard to master as many a time it is the character bending to the writer’s view than showing any real character for itself. When dealing with a group or choir a writer must employ verse that differs from that used for a single speaker. Thus, it is when the writer practically sits done to write that the voices make themselves most clear.
“Its (the chorus’) members were speaking for me, not uttering words that really represented any supposed character of their own.”

To write in the second voice, the writer must first identify himself with the characters instead of the other way around to make it successful. In the case of the third voice, the writer has to identify himself with the characters but also find the words to make the communication taking place between these fictionous characters seem plausible.  When writing non-dramatic verse one writes in the terms of one’s own voice (the way the writer would speak) and while writing tests it to see how it sounds when you read it to yourself. The reason it is so is because it is the writer speaking in his natural voice and as for communicating ideas to a reader; that is not the main aim. The writer isn’t interested in getting the reader to understand what is being said; it is the act of expression that is of greater importance. Thus, when speaking for an imaginary character the thrust changes for it is not yourself merely but the character that you also must consider.
Complexity of the third voice – poetic drama

When dealing with a verse play, a writer has a varied range of characters to gift speech to and these characters vary in temperament, background, education and intelligence. Due to this, the writer cannot single out one character for identification with and bestow all the important line or poetry to it. Take for example Jane Austen’s writing. All her characters have some say or the other and move the plot onward, none of them pose as mere furniture. A character cannot be a mere mouthpiece as it will bring to notice the artificial aspect of the play and drama is a suspension of belief. You believe what you see on stage to be true temporarily so as to engage with it but for this the words assigned to the character should sound plausible, bring out the right degree of emotion and move the action forward.
“The poet writing for the theatre may, as I have found, make two mistakes: that of assigning to a personage lines of poetry not suitable to be spoken by that personage, and that of assigning lines which, however suitable to the personage, and that of assigning lines which, however suitable to the personage, yet fail to forward the action of the play.”

Eliot further elaborates that to make a character actually seem alive is not possible by just words alone but by certain sympathy excited in the writer’s breast fro that character. A novelist has more scope to manipulate a character but a dramatist is hard put due to the lack of time and space provided. He also poses the question whether it is even possible to therefore, make a villain seem real as weakness will have to blend with either heroic virtue or villainy for a truly evil character to stay real. Therefore, the image of Iago is far more frightening than that of Richard the Third.
The creation of a character leads to a give-and-take between the author and the character. Besides the other traits of the character, the author may bestow some of his own traits to it and also may to a certain extent be influenced by the character. Thus, author is compelled to sysmpathise with characters that may be at a contrast to each other while allocating poetry as widely to each character as possible and also diving this poetry so that there is variation in style suited to the character that speaks it.
The second voice – dramatic monologue

It can be termed non-dramatic poetry with an element of the dramatic in it and is on contrasting terms from poetic drama where the author must have divide loyalties. As Eliot very succinctly puts it, there is no check on the poet while writing a dramatic monologue as he deals with one particular character that needs only to identify with him or vice versa. There is no second character that has to be replied to or set at variance at.
“What we normally hear, in fact, in the dramatic monologue, is the voice of the poet, who has put on the costume and make-up either of some historical character, or one out of fiction. His personage must be identified to us – as an individual, or at least as a type – before he begins to speak.”

Frequently we find that the poet adopts a history character or a known character of fiction for this role. Erza Pound, Browning’s greatest disciple adopted the term ‘persona’ to indicate several historical characters through whom he spoke. Eliot also brings out the fact that a dramatic monologue cannot create a character as action constitutes one and it can only be created by communication between imaginary people.
If the poet only speaks in his own voice a character cannot be brought to life as it is only mimicry taking place. And the point of mimicry lies in recognition of the person being mimicked and in the incompleteness of the picture. If we are deceived into thinking the speaker and person mimicked are same then it is impersonation. When we read or listen to Shakespeare’s plays we aren’t listening to his voice but that of his characters and when we read Browning’s dramatic monologues, we are listening to no other voice expect Browning’s.

Thus, the dramatic monologue is the second voice, i.e. the voice of the poet speaking to an audience. The fact that the poet dons a mask is in itself self obvious as no one would go to such lengths merely to talk to himself. The second voice in poetry is the one heard most often and is clearer than the rest. All poetry has some conscious social purpose, either to preach, instruct, and tell a story, moral and the like. In the epic this is the most employed voice though in Homer you do hear a dramatic voice from time to time. There are points when the hero tells his tale directly.
The first voice of poetry – the poet addressing himself alone

Meditative verse is a form of poetry where the poet writes not to be listened to but to purge himself of the emotions he is unable to carry. The poet is concerned only with using the best words possible to convey what he feels. “He does not know what he has to say until he has said it; and in the effort to say it he is not concerned with making other people understand anything.”... “He is oppressed by a burden which he must bring to birth in order to obtain relief.”
According to Eliot a “psychic material” - call it inspiration, the muses or what you may, causes the poet to feel the urge to convey something through his pen. This is the germ of creation that causes the poem to be written. Here, poetry has no fixed shape and it is only after it is written that the final structure is seen which is not the case in works of the second and third voice where already some preconceived form is adhered to even though modifications in the process of its creation may creep in.

Union of voices – a summation

Even though a poet may have written the poem without keeping an audience in mind, he would be curious to see how people react to his thoughts and on discussions might add to or modify his work changing the voice of the poem slightly. “If the author never spoke to himself, the result would not be poetry, though it might be magnificent rhetoric; and part of our enjoyment of great poetry is the enjoyment of overhearing words which are not addressed to us. Even in dramatic verse there are times when the author and character both speak in unison saying something that though appropriate to the character can be something that the author can say from his context too even though the words may not hold the same symbolic value for both.

1 comment:

  1. Yes such a great essay i read its Urdu translation great translation available at