Louise Joy: Guided Tour
“Since I spend much of my time rooting around in the eighteenth century, this is where I headed first. Hearing poems from long ago brought to life by poets from our own age is peculiarly fascinating. The doubling-up of voices exposes both parallels and idiosyncrasies, hinting at the intricate, vexed, sometimes unlikely nature of poetic kinship. The accumulation of all these voices from across the ages – pitching in in whatever haphazard order you happen to press play – dangles in front of you a snippet of an ancient, ongoing conversation. It is sheer, gluttonous pleasure, soaking up all this talk. Alongside, it has also occurred to me how hard it is to really listen: to resist the itch to pre-judge, interrupt, or simply get distracted by the business of planning what to listen to next. All the more rewarding for the effort it involves. I urge you to have a go.”
Louise Joy is a Fellow and Director of Studies in English at Homerton College, Cambridge, where she teaches a wide range of literature from the eighteenth century to the present day. She is particularly interested in the literature of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, especially in writers who never made it into – or were careless enough to fall out of – the canon, by, for example, writing for children. She has written on a number of critically-neglected authors from this period, many of them female, and on the history of children’s literature, although is also unable to lay Wordsworth to rest, and keeps finding herself coming back to his work.
It was through Wordsworth that I first discovered poetry, and his poetry epitomises, for me, what poetry is. My first response to this poem, though, was one of breezy, adolescent contempt. Its simplicity seemed trite; its neatness twee. It was only much later that I heard the still, sad music of humanity – the sound of pure feeling – with which Wordsworth’s poetry vibrates. Listening again, I am struck by the poignant obviousness of the poem’s central irony: the poem’s music is like the song of the highland girl, and yet is merely, inadequately, a linguistic trace of it. This is one of many poems in this archive which longs to be music, striving against the encumbrances of word and meaning. Hearing the poem read aloud lays bare this struggle. The mournful rhymes carry the labourer’s melancholy strains into the inner ear and leave them there to reverberate through time.
One of the most eerie things that poetry can do is to put us in touch with the dead. Hearing the disembodied voice of this poem speaking, breathing, suffering is almost too much to bear. Andrew Motion’s heartbreakingly understated reading reaches an impasse in the final lines, protracting the agony of the speaker’s desperation. I defy you not to cry. When reading Keats’ poetry, it is impossible to un-know the fact of his early death, and though this poem resists autobiographical particularity, it is hard not to read it as a prophetic self-elegy. And yet there is the strange fact that, by virtue of the poem’s afterlife in archives such as this, his love and fame did not sink to nothingness. Careful attention to the poem read aloud affords us the dubious glimmer of solace that by bearing witness to the desolation depicted, we go some way to alleviate it.
We can find ourselves wrong-footed when negotiating a poem which disrupts what we have come to expect from our exposure to canonical, usually male, poets. This, for me, is what lies behind the intriguing awkwardness of listening to this poem. Riley’s robust but expressive voice exactly captures how I imagine that this prodigious eighteenth-century bluestocking might have sounded, and she reads Barbauld’s poem with great sensitivity and grace. And yet the poem somehow fails to fulfil the promise of the rousing spirit which Riley’s reading conjures. The result is discomfiting. Why? Is polemical poetry off-putting? Are we embarrassed by Barbauld’s equivocal gender politics? Are traditional poetic protocols somehow unsuited to the representation of female voices? This last is a troubling possibility; but hearing Riley’s voice reminds us that women have succeeded in carving out poetic traditions of their own, and touchingly acknowledges their indebtedness to trailblazers such as Barbauld.
This is a poem which I love to give to students for discussion. In Ridler’s hands, the villanelle form – which has the potential to feel contrived – here unfolds with seeming effortlessness. In browsing through the archive, this poem more than any other has caused me to notice how our ears fashion a curiously altered poem to the one we bring into focus with our eyes. On the page, punctuation navigates us in particular directions. On listening, without the aid of visual clues such as speech marks, we must listen to tonal colour in order to find our bearings. We infer meaning from vocal emphasis, which prioritises one particular set of interpretations over plausible alternatives, such that certain ambiguities don’t so obviously come into play. The recording thus shifts uncertainty elsewhere, recalibrating the balance which the poem strikes between the particular and the general.
I’m drawn to the stillness of this poem, which beautifully encapsulates the bleariness of being awake, alone, in the middle of the night. This poem seemingly contains no human presence – the flowers, and not a person perceiving them, serve as the subjects of the verbs. Maguire’s languorous reading of the poem causes colour and moisture to seep into one another, suspending for our consideration an impression, or chunk of time, or mood. Present tense sensory detail is accumulated rather than narrated or made sense of; it is simply offered up for our delectation. Maguire’s buttery voice contributes as much to the poem’s sensuousness as do the tints and textures it evokes. It’s refreshing to encounter a poem which doesn’t push towards the philosophical, but simply causes us to blink at the exquisiteness of ordinary things, presenting us with surprise associations which we would normally be too torpid to notice.