5. Hunting the Wild Reciter: Elocution and the Art of Recitation

Peter Kirkpatrick

Table of Contents

The poetry generation
Resuscitating an immoral piece of poultry
Radio killed the poetry star?

Despite the endurance of bush poetry festivals and an inner-city fashion for contemporary spoken word and performance poetry, these days the recitation of verse in Australia—as in other Western anglophone nations—remains a minority taste. Early last century, things were very different. In the 1920s, Australians were reciting verse all over the place; so much so that the well-known Bulletin humorist ‘Kodak’ O’Ferrall lampooned them:

Way out in the suburbs howls the wild Reciter,

Storming like a general, bragging like a blighter;

He would shame hyenas slinking in their dens

As he roars at peaceful folk whose joy is keeping hens.

‘How We Beat the Favourite’, ‘Lasca’, ‘Gunga Din’,

There they sit and tremble as he rubs it in.

When he’s done they thank him! Never do they rise,

Tie his hands and gag him as he rolls his eyes,

Bag his head and bear him swiftly through the night.

That’s the only remedy for villains who recite.[1]

Here, from the modern, metropolitan perspective of the professional writer, the reciter is an outlandish form of Homo suburbiensis. An amateur with half-baked literary taste, his choice of party pieces is quaintly Victorian, comprising narrative ballads from Adam Lindsay Gordon to Rudyard Kipling, and extending to Lasca by the Englishman Frank Desprez, in which a Texan cowboy laments the death of his Mexican sweetheart in a cattle stampede. And yet, despite his vulgarity, the reciter’s manic energy makes him a force to be reckoned with. It seems only physical violence can put an end to his kind.

This chapter traces the rise and fall of the wild reciter in Australia. In doing so, it takes recitation to refer to the memorisation and public performance of printed verse not written by the reciter, whose repertoire sometimes incorporated the work of canonical poets, but which tended to focus on more popular authors (including stage entertainers), who are now largely forgotten. Reciters might also have included a range of prose highlights and dramatic character sketches in their recitals, but it’s evident that rhyming verse in a variety of traditional metres was favoured, and this will be the focus here.

Analysing the historical sources of recitation offers not merely a wistful glimpse into one of the lost arts of everyday life in Australia. It also sheds light on some of the ways in which poetry was mobilised by modern popular culture and the new technologies that served it. What follows revisits the broader cultural context in which recitation flourished, outlining three factors that led to its enormous popularity: the growth and spread of elocution, the institutionalisation of recitation in schools, and its professionalisation as a performance art. As the last two are substantially a consequence of the first, elocution will be thematic throughout this account. Indeed, the fate of recitation was tied inextricably to that of elocution—as we shall see by way of conclusion.

Elocution began in the eighteenth century as a means of training lawyers and churchmen in oratory, but by the end of the nineteenth century, it had broadened into a middle-class movement concerned to foster proper and ‘natural’—that is to say, middle-class—speech habits. In the words of Dwight Conquergood,

Elocution was designed to recuperate the vitality of the spoken word from rural and rough working-class contexts by regulating and refining its ‘performative excess’ through principles, science, systematic study, standards of taste and criticism…Ambivalently related to orality, elocution sought to tap the power of popular speech but curb its unruly embodiments and refine its coarse and uncouth features.[2]

In a world without electronic means of amplification, elocution also taught voice projection for all forms of public speaking, professional and amateur, including that for the theatre. The great influence of elocutionary practices throughout the nineteenth century on public entertainments such as lectures, recitals and music hall, in conjunction with an ever-expanding market for ballads and topical verse in newspapers, made the speaking of poetry very popular indeed.

The poetry generation

In her splendid study of The Victorian Popular Ballad, J. S. Bratton describes the way in which Romantic experiments with the literary ballad interacted with older traditions such as the broadside to produce a new kind of popular verse. An early favourite was Lord Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome (1842), which set a fashion for historical ballads across the Empire that lasted well into the twentieth century, and which became institutionalised through recitation in imperial education systems. Macaulay’s Lays were set for first-year study in the New South Wales secondary syllabus between 1911 and 1944[3] and clearly had a long afterlife. In the late 1960s, I can recall coming across an extract from Horatius in an early high-school anthology called Poems of Spirit and Action [4] —an old-fashioned collection that also included naval ballads by Henry Newbolt, cowboy poems by Bret Harte and William Rose Benét, as well as The Sick Stockrider by Adam Lindsay Gordon and In The Droving Days by Banjo Paterson.

The success of the bush ballad in the Australian context needs to be scrutinised in the light of this wider, imperial taste for literary balladry. Because of its status in white Australian folklore, radical nationalists such as Russel Ward saw the bush ballad as a uniquely demotic form, a function of the vernacular realism sponsored by the Bulletin. Yet Richard White has shown how the Bulletin’s image of the heroic frontiersman à la The Man from Snowy River was in fact a common literary trope across the British Empire and the United States in the late nineteenth century (Lasca is a perfect case in point). He compares the topos of the city versus the bush in Henry Lawson’s work, for instance, with the celebration of colony over metropolis in Kipling: ‘It must also be remembered that the bush-worker was an integral part of empire and, when he was ennobled as “the Bushman” and his capacity for drunkenness and blasphemy forgotten, contributed much to imperial ideology.’[5] Read within this frame, many bush ballads appear less a folkloric expression of Australian national consciousness than local variations of a hegemonic literature of colonial adventure.

The genre of the heroic ballad was so widely popular that, across all class levels, schools encouraged patriotic sentiment through the declamation of prominent examples.[6] As Terry Eagleton has pointed out, it’s hardly coincidental that Henry Newbolt, bard of such Boys’ Own classics as Drake’s Drum and Vitai Lampada, should also have written the highly influential 1921 British government report The Teaching of English in England.[7] Bratton notes:

It was this appropriation to schoolroom use…which converted the heroic historical ballad into the staple popular poetry of the middle classes, and imposed upon it the peculiarity of becoming as much oral as written poetry. Children were set to learn these instructive and inspiring pieces; and what is learned must be recited.[8]

Similarly, in the American context, Joan Shelley Rubin has described patriotism as one of three ‘prevailing purposes’ in school recitation, the other two being ‘the cultivation of moral sense and the desire to equip the young with memorised works that could provide “comfort, guidance, and sympathy” throughout life’.[9]

Elocutionary belief in the virtue of ‘good’ speech underpinned recitation in schools. As a popular form of speech training or ‘correction’, it was important in reshaping individuals, facilitating class mobility by disguising working or lower-middle class or provincial accents—including, of course, Australian accents. The extension of elocution’s social function was related directly to the expansion of public education, and consequent concerns about the cultural impact of mass literacy that went hand-in-hand with the rise of English as a subject for schools and an academic discipline. The recitation of verse was seen as a useful skill for ‘raising’ and standardising pronunciation and thus, supposedly, helping to overcome social division.[10]

In their 1992 oral history of Australian reading practices, Martyn Lyons and Lucy Taksa describe the generation that grew up before and during World War I as ‘The Poetry Generation’, and their interviewees (61 of them, all aged over seventy, born between 1886 and 1917) reported encountering the work of the following poets:[11]



Henry Lawson


William Shakespeare


Banjo Paterson


Henry Longfellow


C. J. Dennis


William Wordsworth


Alfred Lord Tennyson


Adam Lindsay Gordon


Rudyard Kipling


Mary Gilmore


John Milton


Though Lyons and Taksa are interested in reading rather than recitation, their figures make no clear distinction between these different modes of consumption. As they point out: ‘The poetry in the imaginary library of the Australian reader, which we have tried to reassemble here, did not sit silently on the page. It was memorised and recited.’[12] The range of poets recalled by their interviewees represents a span from the low and local (Lawson, Paterson, Dennis), through a middle rank of popular Victorians (Longfellow, Tennyson), to the high and canonical (Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Milton), emphasising the extent to which poetic taste was informed by a school education system that fashioned Australian identity in terms of imperial citizenship. In this list, only three Australian poets and Kipling—and then largely on the basis of their longevity—might be considered twentieth-century writers, and none are modernists.

Rubin’s account of recitation in American schools between the wars similarly notes a preference for nineteenth-century material: ‘The prescribed texts in 1935 were frequently the same ones tested on college entrance examinations in 1890.’[13] She makes the important point that such old-fashioned and occasionally eclectic selections serve to distinguish histories of reading from more conventional literary histories, which privilege innovation: ‘Thus the recitation provides a graphic illustration of the discrepancy between textual production and consumption at any given time.’[14]

Pieces selected for reciter books and elocution manuals also offer evidence of this conservative, by now almost customary, form of textual circulation. The eponymous hero of V. S. Naipaul’s Trinidadian novel, A House for Mr Biswas, misappropriates a copy of the much-reprinted Bell’s Standard Elocutionist as a schoolboy, and the book stays with him throughout his life, as ‘his favourite reading’[15] and as the repository of a cultural capital that, however outmoded and irrelevant to his own context, he can never accrue. Biswas was taken out of school just as he had started to memorise Bingen on the Rhine by Lady Caroline Norton—an English poem about a dying French legionnaire in Algiers who pines for his hometown in Germany—and it is up to his educated son Anand (a version of the young Naipaul himself) to achieve what was denied his father:

He increased the pathos in his voice, spoke more slowly and exaggerated his gestures. With both hands on his left breast he acted out the last words of the dying legionnaire.

‘Tell her the last night of my life, for ere this moon be risen,

My body will be out of pain, my soul be out of prison.’ [16]

Anand’s touching performance takes place in the 1940s, when the cultural cringe it represents was still common across the British Empire.

Hugh Anderson’s account of reciter books published in Australia between the 1860s and the 1940s reveals that most comprised British and American pieces with a few Australian poems thrown in for local colour.[17] Among the more enthusiastic anthologists was W. T. Pyke, manager of Cole’s Book Arcade in Melbourne, who edited three collections: The Applause Reciter (1898), first published in London, which had no Australian content; The Coo-ee Reciter (1904), with two-thirds Australian material; and The Australian Favourite Reciter (1907), with one-third Australian material. The last was republished as late as 1947, 14 years after Pyke’s death, with its 1907 preface and spectral invitation for more contributions intact, and still prophesying ‘two or three more books on similar lines’.[18]

The great exception to this transnational pattern of choice is The Bulletin Reciter, selected by A. G. Stephens and first published in 1901, which garnered only Australian verse that had appeared in that journal in the previous two decades. It was the most popular of the locally produced reciters and went through at least 14 editions,[19] the final edition appearing in 1940 and boasting on its cover ‘Over 250,000 copies sold’. The original Reciter was replaced in 1920 by a new, updated collection edited by Bertram Stevens, called The Bulletin Book of Humorous Verses and Recitations, which went through at least three editions. In 1933, however, the old Reciter was reinstituted with ‘enlarged’ contents,[20] its return highlighting not only the conservatism of popular taste but that recitation was already moribund.

Clearly the success of the reciter books is explained only partly by the promotion of recitation in schools. As already noted, outside the classroom, recitation was also practised widely as a form of entertainment—not only by amateurs, but by professionals from a range of cultural milieux, from local variety performers to world-renowned Shakespearean actors. Their performances are the most visible factor in the popularity of spoken verse, yet, as much as the schoolchild stammering through his or her set piece, they also took place in a world highly attuned to accent and the auditory discipline of elocution.