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Poetry and the Art of Speech
GA 281


24 August 1918, Dornach

With Rudolf Steiner the educationalist, the scientist, the philosopher, even the sculptor and the architect of the Goetheanum, we already enjoy the degree of familiarity that translations of his books and lectures afford. We enjoy it too where, as a result of his observations and discoveries, new beginnings have been made in a host of other fields. But Rudolf Steiner’s literary work remains for the most part unfamiliar. Of course, there are grave and ominous difficulties: here more than anywhere else the barriers of language and tradition are tightly defended, hard to traverse. Yet we should not too readily turn away and admit defeat in the face of these literary problems. We might remember, after all, that the scientist-philosopher to whom the young scholar in Vienna and Weimar devoted so much sympathy and scrupulous attention, the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who wrote the Farbenlehre and The Metamorphosis of Plants, was better known to the world as one of the darlings of literature, the Poet of Faust and a great novelist and dramatist into the bargain. It is true that for Steiner the many-sidedness of the poet and artist was to be the new ideal for the philosopher too, but art, or man’s faculty of “aesthetic judgment”, was never to lose its central position or its claim to be – as the Romantics of England and Germany had argued with alternate reason and intuition – the highest and most perfect form of knowledge, because the most human. The apprehension of beauty, as Steiner once put it, “comprises truth, that is, selflessness; but it is at the same time an assertion of self-supremacy in the soul-life, giving us back to ourselves as a spontaneous gift.” [See The Wisdom of Man, of the Soul, and of the Spirit (New York 1971), p.114.] In our own day Owen Barfield has taken up the Romantic argument anew, with renewed passion and a new sense of precision, in Poetic Diction and certain of his essays elsewhere. In all Rudolf Steiner’s later, anthroposophical work, moreover, we seem to see everything tending to assume an artistic, poetic form.

He had, of course, his period of quite straightforwardly literary activity, dating back to the last decades of the nineteenth century. He was for some years the editor of the Magazin für Literatur, a well-established literary review founded in the year of Goethe’s death, and contributed to it pieces of his own criticism on literature and drama. [These are collected as Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Literatur (Dornach 1971).] He mingled in Vienna with many literary and some rather Bohemian figures, both prominent and obscure, and later recalled how deeply this cultural atmosphere had influenced The Philosophy of Freedom. [In From Symptom to Reality in Modern History (London 1976), pp. 132ff.]

He also edited and furnished with introductions several of the German “classics”. The occasion for his own venture into drama, however, was to come somewhat later and far from the conventional stage. This was in 1910, when his The Portal of Initiation was produced in Munich for the Annual Congress of the Theosophical Society, which Steiner was even then on the point of leaving. His work in this sphere was to be continued in the more congenial framework of the newly founded Anthroposophical Society. The Portal of Initiation was followed by a further three poetic Mystery Dramas.

It was around that time, too, that he first began to include in his lectures more detailed discussions of the working of language and “speech-formation” — the concrete substance (vowels, consonants, diphthongs, etc.) by means of which language evokes its astonishing range of sensual, emotive and poetic effects. It was in a lecture of 1911, in fact, that he first expounded one of his fundamental conclusions about the basic constituents of language. By that time his researches had reached a stage which enabled him to look back to a period of pre-history, near the very beginnings of language, when, as he says, there existed a kind of primitive human language, a manner of speech which was the same all over the earth, because “speech” in those days came much more out of the depths of the soul than it does now.

At that remote period, he continues, people felt all outward impressions in such a way that if the soul wished to express anything outward by a sound, it was constrained to use a consonant. What existed in space pressed for imitation in a consonant. The blowing of the wind, the murmur of the waves, the shelter given by a house were felt and imitated by man in consonants. On the other hand, the sorrow or joy which was felt inwardly, or was observed as feeling in another being, was imitated in a vowel. From this we can see that the soul became one, in speech, with outer events or beings. [The Spiritual Guidance of Man, Lecture II]

He adds the following example of this kind of intimate relationship between experience and the particular sounds of speech:

A man drew near a hut, which was arched in the ancient fashion and gave shelter and protection to a family. He noticed this, and expressed the protective arch by a consonant; and by a vowel he expressed the fact, which he was able to feel, that within the hut embodied souls were comfortable. Thence arose the thought shelter; “there is a shelter for me – shelter for human bodies.” The thought was then poured forth in consonants and vowels, which could not be otherwise than they were, because they were a direct impression of experience and had but one meaning. This was the same all over the earth. It is no dream that there was once an original human root-language. And, in a certain sense, the initiates of all nations are still able to feel that language. Indeed there are in all languages certain similar sounds which are the remains of that universal language. [The Spiritual Guidance of Man (New York 1970), pp.35-36. Compare the earlier (1904) discussion of this stage of language in Cosmic Memory (New York 1971), p.50. Cf. Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell Nos. 236, 241.]

This was a discovery from which a great deal could be made, in opening up the way to a wide-ranging investigation both into the nature of language in general and, especially as regards that immediate and necessary link “in the depths of the soul” between certain specific sounds and types of experience, into the foundations of poetry and poetic speech-formation.

As so often in Rudolf Steiner’s career, however, he put himself at the disposal of those around him, and developed his ideas as circumstances seemed to demand, rather than as he himself might have found it easiest to elaborate them. In any event, the lecture-courses embodying his contributions to the subject in depth do not come until virtually the last years of his life – commencing around 1919. Some of these lectures, together with a sprinkling of aphorisms and notes, have been usefully gathered together and published in English as Creative Speech: The Nature of Speech-Formation, translated by Winifred Budgett, Nancy Hummel and Maisie Jones (London 1978). Others, notably concerned with broader and less technical issues in poetry and artistic speech, are presented in this volume. In our notes we have made some effort to indicate the points at which the two books may shed light upon each other or provide the inquisitive reader with further details on a particular topic.

Both earlier and later, one of Rudolf Steiner’s main inducements to develop his work in this direction was undoubtedly the interest, the practical help, the enthusiasm and the talents of Marie von Sivers (later Marie Steiner). Whilst still in Russia, as a promising young actress in St. Petersburg, Marie von Sivers had studied under Maria Strauch-Spettini, one of the prominent figures on the stage of the German Imperial Theatre. There were later hopes that she might have returned there to help make a stand for the traditions of French classicism against the all-engulfing trend towards naturalism. For in the meantime she had spent two years in Paris studying under the direction of Madame Favart, the first lady of the Comédie Francaise, then at the end of her theatrical career, and had been attending at the Conservatoire the classes of several other notable actors of the time. But she decided against returning permanently to St. Petersburg, and her connection with the Theosophical Society soon opened out quite different avenues for her future work. In his autobiography, The Course of My Life, Rudolf Steiner describes their collaboration in those early days, and the importance it assumed for the germinating Anthroposophical Movement:

In the Theosophical Society artistic interests were hardly cultivated at all. This was understandable in a certain sense – but had to change if a proper attitude toward the spirit was to flourish. The members of such a society tend to focus all their interests in the reality of the spiritual life; man in the sense-world seems to them merely a transitory being, severed from the spirit. And art appears to concern only that severed existence, as if it were divorced from the looked-for reality of the spirit.

In view of this, artists did not feel at home in the Theosophical Society. To Marie von Sivers and me it seemed important for an artistic life to be engendered in the Society. Knowledge of the spirit, when it becomes an inner experience, takes hold of the whole man. All the powers of the soul are roused. And the light of this inner spiritual experience will shine into man’s creative imagination.

But there may be difficulties. The artist, when his imagination is illumined by the spiritual world, may feel a certain uneasiness. He finds it preferable to remain unconscious of the spiritual that rules within the soul. And so long as it is a question of his imagination being prompted by that intellectualizing which has dominated spiritual life since the opening of the consciousness-soul era, this feeling is quite justified. Such a stimulation by human intellect does have a deadening effect on art.

When a spiritual content is perceived directly, however, and lights up in the imagination, the opposite result is brought about. This leads to a resurrection of all those creative powers which have ever brought art into being in the life of humanity. Marie von Sivers was genuinely accomplished in the art of speech-formation, and had a real feeling for drama. Thus there was represented within the Movement an art-form on which the fruitfulness of spiritual perception for the arts could be tested.

The evolution of the consciousness-soul exposes the “Word” to danger from two directions. On the one hand it is made the vehicle of social understanding, and on the other it serves to communicate logical, intellectual knowledge. In both spheres the “Word” loses all value of its own. It has to be adapted to the “sense” of what it expresses. That the tone, the sound and the formation of the sound possess a reality of their own has to be forgotten. The beauty and luminous quality of the vowels, the unique character of the various consonants, are lost in speech. The vowel is drained of soul, the consonant of spirit. Speech deserts utterly the sphere of its origin – the spiritual sphere. It becomes the slave of intellectual knowledge and of a social life that shuns the spirit. It is divorced entirely from the domain of art.

True spiritual perception is also instinctively an “experience of the Word”. Through it one learns to enter into the soul-quality that resonates in the vowel, and the spiritual power of depiction that resides in the consonant. One gradually begins to comprehend the mystery of speech and its evolution: how divine-spiritual beings could once speak to man’s soul through the Word, whereas now it is merely a means of communicating in the physical world.

To lead the word back to its own sphere requires the enthusiasm kindled by such a spiritual insight. Marie von Sivers had this enthusiasm. Through her personality there entered the Anthroposophical Movement the possibility of cultivating the art of speech and speech-formation. Thus to the activity of imparting spiritual knowledge was added cultivation of the art of recitation and declamation, and this played an ever-increasing part in the events that were organized within the Anthroposophical Movement.

Marie von Sivers’ recitations on these occasions formed the point of departure for the impact of art on the Anthroposophical Movement. From them, beginning as supplements to lectures, the drama productions later staged in Munichside by side with anthroposophical lecture-cycles were directly descended.

Since, along with spiritual knowledge, we could also unfold artistic work, we entered more and more upon an experience of the spirit appropriate for our time. For art did indeed grow out of man’s primaeval, dream-image experience of the spirit. And when this experience receded in the course of man’s development, it was left alone to find its way; therefore art must find its way back to the experience of the spirit, when this is once more becoming, in a new form, a part of man’s cultural evolution. [The Course of My Life, Chapter XXXIV]

The present volume is a fragment of the work that resulted from their collaboration. It consists for the greater part of lectures held in several places by Rudolf Steiner, and these are punctuated by regular recitals of poetry, illustrating the points that the speaker has just made. The poems were recited or declaimed by Marie Steiner – generally introduced with impeccable courtesy as “Frau Dr. Steiner” – and constitute an integral part of the lecture’s meaning. Indeed the lecturer often relies entirely on the effect of her reciting to make some literary characteristic or contrast immediately obvious. And this, of course, makes for certain difficulties in point. A case in point is the basic distinction, adumbrated in the opening lectures and running all through the book, between recitation and declamation. Rudolf Steiner naturally makes no attempt to define for us what the differences between them are. A definition, after all, is not what is finally wanted. And it becomes totally superfluous when we can hear the difference through a concrete demonstration of things being recited and declaimed. Even the most precise definition would pale in comparison.

The situation with the printed poem (at least for those who cannot call upon the resources of some trained speech-formationist) is a little more difficult. Yet for all its force and vividness, even the oral demonstration would have resolved itself only gradually in our minds into a clear grasp of the distinctions involved, enabling us to discern the essentials of both modes of speech. All the more must the serious reader be content to work his way slowly and patiently forward before he can attain to a clear experience, and, excellent introduction though these lectures may be, he will certainly find himself in need, if he is to progress beyond a certain point, of contact with the living tradition of anthroposophical speech-formation. In England this is represented above all by the London School of Speech Formation, headed by Maisie Jones. Those who wish to learn for themselves the detailed methods of the art of speech which has developed on the basis of Rudolf Steiner’s investigations will there find qualified instructors, with practical experience of its complexities.

For those who simply want to approach literature and poetry with a more awakened sense of its spiritual depth, however, these lectures remain a valuable and relatively accessible source of illumination. But either way, practical or appreciative, the student must be wary of the intellectual short-cut and the neat definition as a substitute for experience. He must gradually progress along a path of knowledge, and so ultimately develop a sensitivity for the multifarious and elusive ways in which poetry, all-mysteriously, contrives to operate. It is one of the central arguments of this book that such a process is also one of increasingly definite self-knowledge – not only in the vague, Johnsonian sense of general human psychology, but even as regards one’s own deeper spiritual resources, at a level where these are continuous with the forces of organic life itself.

Perhaps we may be permitted to say a little on the subject of one of the difficulties that is likely to arise from a first perusal of the lectures that follow – a difficulty connected with the polarity between recitation and declamation. Rudolf Steiner characterises them in the opening lecture-cycle in terms of the contrast between the plastic arts and music. Recitation and metrical, regular poetry are brought into connection with music; energetic declamation is connected with a kind of powerful visual experience. In the later lecture on “Speech-Formation and Poetic Form”, however, he apparently contradicts himself by presenting recitation as a visual, plastic art, as opposed to declamation which is musical and melodic. We would suggest that, as always with Steiner’s observations, the key to understanding is to descend from the level of abstractions, and take a concrete look at which aspects of the arts are involved in these contrasts. We do not, of course, propose to discuss the question in detail. But it may prove helpful to the reader to be reminded that both music and the plastic arts are themselves very varied things, and that each at their extremes may invite comparison with the other. Within music, for example, the classical style stands at the opposite pole to the baroque. Mozart’s music is eminently metrical and regular: yet, precisely because it reaches us in a series of perfectly defined and clearly differentiated structures of sound, it can easily be compared to an exactly delineated picture, where the artist has sharply rendered every detail. With Bach, on the other hand, we are engaged by the driving-force of the music, its tremendous energy and unflagging will: and yet there is even here a certain kind of painting with which it can very appropriately be compared – as in baroque art, where we have a visual experience that, rather than lingering over every detail of form, catches us up in a single powerful movement or effect of light. When Steiner contrasts recitation and declamation as opposite poles in the art of speech, therefore, we must remember to ask which features of music and the plastic arts he is appealing to in order to explain the contrast, and realize that he might elsewhere appeal to very different ones.

Edwin Froböse, in his “Nachwort” to the German original of this work, has adduced an extract from the papers left by Marie Steiner, possibly drafted in the ’30s, where she describes the high seriousness of their undertaking, as it was carried on by her continuing work at the Goetheanum:

The endeavour of the Section for Speech and Music at the Goetheanum is to approach more nearly the riddle of language and the foundation of a spiritual knowledge of man and the universe, as uniquely expressed in the anthroposophical Spiritual Science of Dr. Rudolf Steiner, and to grasp the nature of sound-formation in connection with man and the cosmos. Through abstract understanding we have lost the secret of the creating word. This creating power of the word can be reawakened and experienced, however, through a conscious activity of thought – a thinking that is not simply a mirror of the external, but wells up vitally from deeper strata of the soul. In association with music, colour, and the new art of eurythmy (a speech made visible through the medium of the body), it is possible to instil new life into the works of our great poets, and also into works for the stage. This, at a time when interest in and understanding for the idealistic struggles of our ‘classic’ authors is on the wane, is one of the tasks that the Goetheanum has set for itself. [Die Kunst der Rezitation und Deklamation, p.246.]

This passage may also remind us, among other things, of the remarkably wide implications of what the Germans so conveniently and all-embracingly term a Geisteswissenschaft, which comes rather sadly truncated into English either as cultural or spiritual science. In these lectures poetry and the other arts are all viewed from the perspective of such a science, as the several manifestations of the human Spirit. And conversely, the rediscovery of the spiritual is seen as something with consequences across the whole range of human culture.

But how are we to coax this book into English? Poetry is traditionally defined as what gets lost in translation between two languages, and a work such as this might in the end look like nothing so much as a sort of stranded whale when once removed from the native element of German poetry to which it makes minute and constant reference. Certainly we could see little point in offering the reader the dubious assistance of the German poems in translation. But we were convinced that the principles of Steiner’s poetics could be applied, with the appropriate adjustments, to English – or any other – poetry. The only valid way of translating the book, we therefore decided, was to furnish it with a repertoire of suitable examples from the vast wealth of English verse or, in one case, poetic prose. In this way we hoped to present Steiner’s work on poetry to English readers with some semblance of its having been genuinely domiciled in English literature. How far we have succeeded it is for our readers, and particularly those pioneers who have already taken up anthroposophical speech-formation in English, to judge.

As for the examples themselves, they are no more than suggestions on our part. They lay no great claim to finality, nor indeed any authority save that we took some pains in the choosing of them, and tried conscientiously to find extracts which exemplified as precisely as possible the points made in the lecture to which they belong. Predictably, we were not always as successful as we might have wished. In some areas, German and English literature simply do move in incompatible directions: poets here in England, for instance, do not feel the apparently perennial attraction that alliterative verse has for the German poet. But at the same time the poem we eventually included (by W. R. Rodgers), besides confessing to the gulf which lies between the two languages, is indirectly valuable in pointing to something essential in the differences that divide them. It shows that alliteration in English is essentially distinctive and in important ways unlike its German counterpart, whilst sharing certain fundamental qualities with it.

We have enclosed all our editorial intrusions within square brackets, adding the briefest of explanations as to our intention in each case. It was obviously necessary, too, to preserve the original German poems employed as examples and recited when the lectures were given. Furthermore, we have on some occasions availed ourselves of a poetic licence to be frankly inconsistent, and supplied an English translation where the interest of the poem’s content seemed to merit it, or, as in the brilliant example of the two versions of Iphigeneia used in the first lecture, where nothing exactly comparable could be adduced from English. Conversely, where the German poem was a translation, and as such no nearer to the original than an English version, we have of course simply substituted the latter for the German piece. (However, the observant reader will in one case here find us guilty of double inconsistency.) In general we have tried to make the selection as interesting as we could. We have had the advantage, in cases where Steiner used the same example on more than one occasion, of being able to offer more than a single analogy from our own literature. This, too, has broadened the range of our anthology.

We have followed the lead of the German choice of examples in selecting works from the mainstream of literature. Some of our instances are in fact old favourites; some of them not so old; and some of them, perhaps, not such favourites. But they are all drawn from the central, deep channel along which the history of English literature has been directed more or less from the days of Chaucer and Langland to the present day. Only one large omission may provoke the raising of an eyebrow or two: we therefore take this opportunity of pledging our boundless admiration for William Shakespeare, even though we have chosen to represent him by a mere fourteen lines. Here, with the poet who more than any other is in himself an entire world, a microcosm within the literary macrocosm of our language, we suffered from a sheer embarras de richesse. Any choice seemed like a concession to the arbitrary or a personal whim. It seemed best, therefore, to exclude him (with entire good will) from our little republic of poetry, only erecting within it the monument of a lone sonnet to commemorate his kingly greatness.

A further disparity which may strike the reader stems from another of the differences between German and English literary history. Steiner drew a good many of his examples from the so-called “classic” period, the age of Goethe and Schiller, one of the high points in the development of German literature and poetry. But England’s equivalent of the classic period falls earlier, with the blossoming of poetry and drama in the Renaissance. Our Goethe is, so to speak, Shakespeare. In order to do justice to the splendours of our literature we have accordingly delved back a little further into the past for the bulk of our examples, and by way of compensation broadened their range to show some of the almost infinite variety of forms which have sprung up since. We soon ran into certain difficulties, however, over the language of our poems. The German “classics” are written in what is virtually modern speech; many of the highlights of English literature, contrastingly, are in a slightly archaic language. Even though the pronunciation of Shakespeare’s day was not too far removed from what it is now, there are nuances – and these are reflected in the spelling. This confronted us with the problem of whether or not to modernize our texts. Easy intelligibility argues for modern spelling and punctuation. But in poetry, as Steiner continually emphasizes, the sound and articulation of the words is all-important. Indeed, in the last of the lectures in this volume he says explicitly that “the spiritual does not speak in human words. The spiritual world goes only as far as the syllable, not as far as the word.” The preservation of the syllables of each word as nearly as possible in the way the poet envisaged them therefore seemed the only justifiable policy. Now the relation between spelling and the spoken sound, particularly in an eccentrically written language like English, and particularly in times when spelling was much less hidebound by orthodoxy than it is nowadays, is a subtle and complex one. But in those flexible circumstances a poet’s spelling obviously will form a valuable guide to the particular sound he wanted. In the superbly musical case of Miltonit is now known that the poet developed a highly refined notation for the pronunciation of his works. And we may take a more simple and blatant case: if a poet transcribed the sound he envisaged as thorough, this is plainly unlikely to be exactly what we get if we insist upon writing through. Often the difference is no more than a shade or nuance – but these are the special province of the speech-formationist, who must be thankful for any of the poet’s hints on the formation of sound that underlies his poem.

In the case of pre-Elizabethan texts we have supplied a few (hopefully judicious) critical signs, notably where a final -ed is to be sounded in defiance of later usage. It is assumed that the later conventions of pronouncing this syllable, extending to the Romantic period but abandoned in the modern, are generally understood. In our couple of mediaeval texts we have marked the final -e where it is to be pronounced for the benefit of the rhythm. It should be said very short, just suggested rather than as a full vowel. Otherwise, alterations have been confined to editing out the old orthography and adding a few helpful capitals.

The English language is at a later stage of development than is German, and has lost many of those qualities which make for a ready, spontaneous poetic effect in speech. The English poet has very much to mould a language of his own to achieve what he needs to express. And in the same way there are difficulties for the reciter who must wrestle with what Blake called the “stubborn structure” of this language. But we are far from wishing to conclude from these gloomy observations that there are limits to the future potentialities of an English speech-formation. We may therefore be forgiven for taking this opportunity to quote the vision of our “English Blake” of what speech may ultimately become. It is taken from the last, apocalyptic pages of Jerusalem:

And they conversed together in Visionary forms dramatic which bright
Redounded from their Tongues in thunderous majesty, in Visions
In new Expanses, creating exemplars of Memory and of Intellect,
Creating Space, Creating Time, according to the wonders Divine
Of Human Imagination throughout all the Three Regions immense
Of Childhood, Manhood & Old Age; & the all tremendous unfathomable Non Ens
Of Death was seen in regenerations terrific or complacent, varying
According to the subject of discourse; & every Word & Every Character
Was Human according to the Expansion or Contraction, the Translucence or
Opakeness of Nervous fibres: such was the variation of Time & Space
Which vary according as the Organs of Perception vary; & they walked
To & fro in Eternity as One Man, reflecting each in each & clearly seen
And seeing, according to fitness & order.

We turn finally to the more immediate difficulties of rendering this book into English. That certain of these are notorious does not make them easier to resolve. Particularly with regard to philosophical or semi-philosophical terms, where the original distinguishes between inner processes with a Germanic nicety, we have retained its precision at slight expense to natural English usage. “Representation” appears uniformly for Vorstellung – occasionally “mental representation”; vorstellen as “form a representation” or “represent”. For Steiner’s argument it is important to realize that what is being contrasted in one context with “concept-formation”, for instance, is the same activity of “representation” referred to less technically elsewhere in the book; consistency was thus essential. In addition we have resorted to “psychic” to fill the lack of an English adjective from “soul” for man’s subjective and emotional nature; and we have sometimes been slightly devious in getting round the problem of ordinary “imagination” (Phantasie) and Steiner’s technical use of Imagination for the more highly developed spiritual faculty.

Our translation is based on the second, enlarged and improved edition of Die Kunst der Rezitation und Deklamation (Dornach 1967), edited by Edwin Froböse. This omits the introductory lecture included in the first edition, but adds the lecture here called “Poetry and the Art of Speech”. The German book also contains a seminar by Marie Steiner and a series of short discussions of individual poets: several of them are not known at all in England, and it seemed best to leave them out of an English version altogether.

Every translation is in some sense a collaborative effort. But we have more than the common number of acknowledgements for help and suggestions to record. Work on this volume began some years ago, having been originally undertaken by Maud Surrey for the benefit of her pupils, but she was regrettably unable to complete it before her death. We inherited from her a draft of the earlier lectures, whose renderings we have not infrequently adopted, even though we have subjected it to a thorough revision, mainly in the interests of a uniform style. We were aided in the first stages of this process and for all too brief a time by Olga Holbek, who made some fine contributions and has continued to take a beneficent interest in the work's progress. We were also encouraged from the very beginning by the warm support of Maisie Jones, of the London School, herself a leading figure in the struggle to develop a speech-formation for the English language. We also have good reason to thank Valerie Jacobs and Winifred Budgett for their help at various points, and their continued good will towards our project. In moments of difficulty or desperation in the face of the German text we have benefited incalculably from the knowledge and friendly exhortations of Edwin Froböse, who also made several excellent proposals for the preface and has been in general, as they say, a mine of information. For the manifold imperfections which remain we hold ourselves solely responsible.

Cambridge, E. J. W.