Voices from Afar …

“Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw –
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime – Macavity’s not there!”

That’s a pretty accurate description of a member of the feline race – and written by someone who obviously knew the animal well. You’ve probably read it, recited it, laughed over T S Elliot’s marvellous sense of humour with your literary-minded friends … but have you heard it recited by the great poet himself?

I have. And it was a rare experience and a half, to hear the antics of Macavity, the cat who’s never there, in his sing-song, expressive voice. Even more interesting was to listen to Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate, recite his famed “Charge of the Light Brigade,” announcing in a sonorous voice …

“Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”

It sounded like someone with a very bad cold – but I suppose Lord Tennyson couldn’t help himself. :) Or the decades that have passed from that recording to this day.

I could listen to these poets and other great men through the endeavours of the Madras Book Club and the Madras Library Association, both of whom honoured the memory of S N Kumar and his wife, Dr Susheela Kumar, patrons of books, by holding a hour and half of delightful poetry – combining books and history in an interesting session. The session was emceed by Shri Sundaram, a connoisseur, who presented great poets and Edison’s genius quite delightfully. [And does he have a talent for mimicry. :)]

The evening kicked off at the Taj Connemara at 6.10 PM, with a short music recital and went on to a medley of voices from even the 19th century. You could listen to Tennyson, Browning, Frost and Walt Whitman recite short pieces of their own works, not to mention Ewart Gladstone, Winston Churchill, and the Right Hon’ble Srinivasa Shastry. Admittedly, some of the oldest, recorded in 1889, were quite scratchy and sounded hollow – but they were still voices. Real.

How had the voices of these great men survived from their times, down to the 21st century?

We owe these treasures to the foresight of Edison. His own first words spoken into the machine reveal a sense of practicality mixed, perhaps, with humour: he recited “Mary had a littler lamb.” Later, he and his agents went about the country, holding demonstrations, exhibiting the marvels of this new machine. The American public, inclined to treat it all as a magnificent joke in the beginning, hurled obscenities at it – only to find the machine faithfully record every word. They were astonished, indeed. The earliest phonographs were crude models, incapable of replaying the recordings for more than a few times. In 1888, though, there was a breakthrough: the Edison Company released the first model of the Perfected Phonograph, capable of retaining recordings for a long time.

Once he’d accomplished this marvellous feat, Edison understood the tremendous significance of it: himself an ardent admirer of poets and poetry, he discerned that his machine could act as a messenger across time. He knew that Tennyson and Whitman were in the last few years of their lives – and sent around his agents to record their voices. And that is how they were preserved fro posterity – testing out their voices and poems on a strange, magical machine. Perhaps the most hilarious recital was done by Robert Browning, who appears to have forgotten his text, and keeps saying, “I’ve forgotten!”, and when the short piece of recording is done, yells “Hip hip Hurray!” into the machine. It certainly had its 21st century audience in fits of laughter.

This evening, the recordings were accompanied by a commentary from Mr Sundaram, who added notes and explanations as to the voices, the poems and others. Winston Churchill’s recital of Longfellow’s was rich and moving, as were Robert Frost’s recitation of his poems, “The Road Not Taken,” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The latter, especially, held all the subtle lingering nuances, the gentle sorrow of a quiet evening in the woods – in the poet’s voice. Frost and Elliot were a few among the rest of the poets who enunciated clearly, with some confidence and enjoyment – perhaps because they were much more familiar with the equipments, than their predecessors.

There was also a recital of “The Ancient Mariner,” by Richard Burton – powerful and vibrant with emotion. All these had long ago been transferred from the ancient medium of phonograph records to audios cassettes and now – to CDs. Edison, it occurs to me, would have been delighted at today’s modern inventions – and would have promptly patented about a hundred more.

All in all, it was a entertaining and strangely moving evening – when you spent the minutes wondering at those poets who stood or sat uncomfortably in their old world drawing-rooms, perhaps, wondering at this machine that spoke back what they said, reading out their own works into it, unaware, possibly, of the hours of pleasure it would bring to listeners, a hundred years hence.

They may have had no idea – but Thomas Alva Edison obviously did.

Glory be to the power of foresight.

8 Comments so far

  1. david (unregistered) on December 13th, 2006 @ 12:35 pm

    Oh Pavithra! How I wish I had been there. I got goose bumps just by reading your description of the poetry readings. Next time there’s something like this on please let me know. What I’d give to hear Frost read ‘Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening’!

  2. Pavithra (unregistered) on December 13th, 2006 @ 12:52 pm

    Lol, glad you liked it. Next time, I’ll be sure to give prior intimation. :)

  3. Lavanya (unregistered) on December 13th, 2006 @ 1:38 pm

    Totally speechless…

  4. Ravi (unregistered) on December 13th, 2006 @ 5:02 pm

    Me too! Also, by someone’s writing style….. :)

  5. Chenthil (unregistered) on December 13th, 2006 @ 5:04 pm

    They had to do this AFTER I forgot to renew my subscription to the Madras Book Club.

  6. annoynomas (unregistered) on December 13th, 2006 @ 7:42 pm

    You are the Queen!

    For men may come and men may go, (@metblogs)
    But (Pavithra) I go on for ever…
    – The Brook [Keats]

  7. T.S. Eliot (unregistered) on December 18th, 2006 @ 7:48 pm

    Do not, oh do not, misspell my name, I beseech you.

    Thomas Stearn Eliot

  8. Pavithra (unregistered) on January 2nd, 2007 @ 3:20 pm

    Point noted. :)

    And thanks, guys. You rock.

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