150+ essays on literary topics
Writers talk about finding their voice. I was once told by a literary agent to whom I had sent a draft of a novel ‘we warmed to your voice’. But what exactly is a writer’s voice? Is it the same as any other voice? In what sense do we hear a voice when we read words on a page? Surely the voice we hear, whether we read aloud or silently, is our own.
A poet puts words into our mouths, not like a dramatist writing lines for actors to speak, but like a mute who can communicate only in writing. The poet and the reader are each other’s alter ego. Reading a poem, we find ourselves thinking someone else’s thoughts and speaking in someone else’s voice. The voice we hear is inside our head.
This, I think, is what Wordsworth meant when he wrote, at the beginning of his ‘pastoral poem’ Michael, that the tale he was about to tell, heard first when he was a boy, led him on ‘to feel for passions that were not my own and think (at random and imperfectly indeed) on man, the heart of man, and human life’. Wordsworth never wrote anything without saying why and how he wrote it. Those observations are often the most interesting and enduring parts of his poetry.
Therefore, although it be a history
Homely and rude, I will relate the same
For the delight of a few natural hearts;
And, with yet fonder feeling, for the sake
Of youthful Poets, who among these hills
Will be my second self when I am gone.
The Victorian novelists, who were, as much as, if not more than, the poets, Wordsworth’s inheritors, had the same close relationship with their readers. ‘Dear Reader,’ they wrote. ‘Reader, I married him.’ Victorian writers, in prose and in poetry, button-holed their readers. When you read a lot your head is full of voices ‘that give delight and hurt not’. Who was the Ancient Mariner, the ‘grey-beard loon’, but Coleridge himself, the poet insisting on being read, not on giving but being given, a voice?
The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.
Fortunately, the voices we cannot choose but hear are not all those of madmen, though ‘the lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact’ and have other things in common too. Poets need second selves, readers need alter egos. The poet’s voice is unheard until read, when it becomes the reader’s. Why else would Ted Hughes and other poets want us to learn poems by heart? Like lunatics and lovers, they want to possess us. Like mistletoe and other parasitic plants, they need us to be their hosts.
I find Wordsworth’s voice sympathetic. He speaks not only to me but for me in a voice that I like to hear, a voice I like to pretend is my own. The voice has many moods, from the tranquil recollection of Tintern Abbey –
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.
– to the rapturous first verse of To A Skylark –
Up with me! up with me into the clouds!
For thy song, Lark, is strong;
Up with me, up with me into the clouds!
With clouds about thee ringing,
Lift me, guide me, till I find
That spot which seems so to thy mind!
– and its less than rapturous ending –
Alas! my journey, rugged and uneven,
Through prickly moors or dusty ways must wind;
But hearing thee, or others of thy kind,
As full of gladness and as free of heaven,
I, with my fate contented, will plod on,
And hope for higher raptures, when life’s day is done.
A poet’s voice has nothing in common with the ordinary human voices that we use to communicate with every day, for purposes both personal and impersonal, and that we quickly learn to distinguish one from another by their pitch and timbre, as well as by their characteristic mannerisms. That is not how we recognise poetic voices. It takes longer to get to know them because you hear them only in your head and know them only when you have become the poet’s second self.
I have led her home, my love, my only friend.
There is none like her, none.
And never yet so warmly ran my blood
And sweetly, on and on
Calming itself to the long-wish’d-for end,
Full to the banks, close on the promised good.
If you heard this and looked round, you would expect to see D.H.Lawrence standing behind you, not Alfred Lord Tennyson. If all you knew of him was The Charge of the Light Brigade, you would not be expecting the erotic charge of this verse from Maud.
Wordsworth’s insight that a poet needs a second self is akin to Shakespeare’s in his Sonnet 18 that poetry confers immortality.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
But that had been a commonplace of poetry for at least two thousand years which Shakespeare and others re-worked endlessly. The idea of a poet having an individual voice different from that of other poets, rather than just being more or less skilled at writing sonnets, came later, though Shakespeare might have started it by giving the characters in his plays their own voices. Wordsworth’s other insight about ‘passions that were not my own’ resonates with that too.
But an actor speaking lines is not that same as you or me reading a poem. A poem does not need to be read aloud by an actor (especially not by an actor) for the poet’s voice to be heard. All it needs is to be read by you or me, silently.