The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
A Short Treatise on Reading Aloud

by Ernest Legouvé. Translated (with kind permission of Messrs. Hetzel, of Paris) for the "Parents' Review."
Volume 1, 1890, pg. 915

Chapter VII.--Punctuation

You punctuate with words just as you punctuate with the pen.

One day a young man, with an uncommonly good opinion of himself, called on Mr. Samson.

"You wish to take reading lessons, sir?"

"Yes, sir."

"Have you had much practice in reading aloud?"

"Yes, sir, I have recited many times from Corneille and Molière."

"In public?"

"Yes, sir."

"With success?"

"Yes, sir."

"Kindly take that volume of 'La Fontaine' and read from it the fable of 'The Oak and the Reed.'"

The pupil began--

"Le chêne un jour, dit au roseau . . . "

"Well, sir, you cannot read."

"I must believe you, sir," said the pupil somewhat nettled, "as I come to ask your advice, but am at a loss to know how a single line-----"

"Kindly read it again."

He repeated:

"Le chêne un jour, dit au roseau . . . "

"I must say once more that you cannot read."

"But ----- "

"But," interrupted Mr. Samson, composedly, "does the adverb belong to the noun or to the verb? Do you know of any oak tree called 'one day'? No; well, then, why do you say, 'The oak one day?' Why do you not say 'The oak,' comma, 'one day, said to the reed.'"

"Of course! That is how it ought to be," cried the pupil.

"So much so," said the master with the same composure, "that you have just learnt the most important rule for reading aloud, the law of pronunciation."

"Do you mean to say, that, in reading, one must punctuate?"

"Why, of course; a certain pause indicates a full stop; a half-pause, a comma; a certain accent, a note of interrogation; and the clearness of a recitation, in fact a great part of its interest, depends on the skilful distribution of commas and stops, indicated by the reader and understood by the audiece without their being named at all.

As the written punctuation varies with each age, so ought the spoken punctuation in like manner. Suppose that a tragic poet of today had written the "Let him die" of Corneille, he would have placed an enormous note of exclamation after it, and perhaps even two. What has Corneille written? A comma. This comma means a great deal. It indicates that Corneille did not consider that sentence as a supreme outburst, but as an involuntary exclamation, instantly modified by the second line, which Voltaire thought weak because he was incapable of appreciating its exquisite delicacy. It is the Roman that exclaims, "Let him die," but the father that adds, "Unless supreme despair should be his aid."

Colons are a modern invention. You will not find a single one in the literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They are in use chiefly in dramatic works. Scribe was a great inventor of colons. They answer to the feverish, precipitate, and agitated style of his pieces; it is the punctuation of a man hurried onward by the action of the plot, carried away by the stream, who has not time to finish his sentences; it is the punctuation of inference. To punctuate thus, in reading, is extremely difficult.

It will now be seen that I spoke nothing but the truth when I said that reading was an art which has its fixed laws. We have found laws for the emission of the voice, for respiration, for pronunciation, for articulation, and for punctuation; that is to say, laws for all the material side, the technical part of the art of reading. Let us now pass on to its intellectual aspects.

PART SECOND: Reading As Applied to Oratorical Efforts, to Prose, and to Poetry.

Chapter I.--Readers and Orators.

Let us now imagine a pupil who, as far as the technical part of reading is concerned, is perfect.

Practice has made his voice agreeable, supple, uniform.

He knows when and how the medium, bass, and treble notes should be blended.

His inhalations and exhalations are not perceptible to the audience. His accent is pure. He articulates clearly. His faults of pronunciation, if he ever had any, have been corrected.

He punctuates when reading. His delivery is neither hurried, nor jerky, nor dragged; and finally, rare merit indeed, he does not allow his voice to fall on the final syllables, which imparts solidity and clearness to all his sentences.

Is he a perfect reader? No. As yet, he is but a correct reader. He may read, without distress to himself or others, a report in a political assembly, a dissertation in a scientific reunion, an important document in an academy, a schedule of accounts for an industrial society, a report of proceedings before a committee, and minutes of transaction before a magistrate. These are, of course, real advantages. They connect reading with the exercise of nearly all the liberal professions, and consequently place it amongst the number of useful sciences.

But does it as yet deserve the name of art? No, for in order to deserve that designation, it must extend itself to works of art; it must become the interpreter of the masterpieces of genius; only, then, correctness will no longer suffice, it will demand talent.

What does this talent, then, consist in? On what laws is it founded?

Saint Marc Girardin, if you remember, condensed them all into one. "You must read as you speak."

This opinion, which has become law to many people, is subject to more than one restriction.

Read as you speak? Certainly, on one condition: that is, that you speak well; but, then, most people speak badly. I remember a couplet which was often quoted in my youth.

    A writer, who ends all his rhymes with peak,
         Remarked one day to his friends, "All those
    Who read, should read in the way they speak,"
         Which is right, if you do not speak through your nose!

Conversation admits of, and even demands, a certain negligence in pronunciation, a carelessness in delivery, voluntary inaccuracies, which are graceful when talking, but which would be errors when reading. To talk as you read would be pedantic, to read as you talk would sometimes border on vulgarity.

* * * * *

The celebrated tragedian Lafon, once said, referring to conversational pronunciation: "Society is society, but art is art; reading is reading, and its rules are not those of conversation."

No words could be more to the point, and the inference is that in conversation there is a natural grace of delivery, a truthfulness of intonation, which would be useful to us when reading, so long as we remain accurate and true, and borrow nothing from informal speech but its qualities.

The subject does not end here. By a singular confusion of terms, the public use indifferently the two words, talk and speak, as meaning one and the same thing. No two words differ more. There are many people who, from the point of view of elocution, talk very well and speak very badly. Do you wish for a proof of it? Go to the Palais de Justice, to the Salle des Pas Perdus; accost one of your friends the barristers, and talk with him. His delivery will be simple and natural. Follow him into the court, hear him say, "My lord, and gentlemen of the jury," and begin his speech. He is no longer the same man--all his good qualities disappear; he was natural--he becomes stilted' his conversational voice was tuneful--his oratorial key is flat; for one may speak flat in the same way that one sings flat. A great many of the barristers seem to be acting the part of l'Intime in The Two Pleaders. Mr. Regnier, Mr. Got, and Mr. Coquelin imitate them so well that they seem to be imitating Messrs. Coquelin, Got, and Regnier.


On the day of battle a general mounts his charger. What is then his first requisite? That he should know how to ride. A general has been absolutely obliged to have two masters: a master for tactics and a master for riding--Jomini and Mr. d'Aure.

This is precisely the position of the orator. His voice is his horse; it is his instrument of war.

In my younger days I was very intimate with a man of my own age, a deputy, full of talent and knowledge, who looked upon the position of deputy as a stepping-stone to the Cabinet. One day that he had to make an important speech in the Chamber, a quasi-Ministerial speech, so to speak, he begged me to go and hear him. When the sitting was over he came to me, very anxious to hear my opinion.

"Well?" said he.

"Well, my dear friend, you will not be nominated Minister this time."

"Why not?"

Because you cannot speak."

"How do you mean?" said he, somewhat piqued. "I cannot speak; but I thought my speech was-----"

"Oh, most of your speech was excellent--remarkable for its accuracy, common-sense, and even for its wit; but as only about half of it was heard, it was rather wasted."

"Only half heard! Why, from the very beginning I spoke so loud that-----"

"That you may even say you shouted. With the result that, at the end of a quarter of an hour, you were quite hoarse."

"Quite true."

"Wait, I have not finished. After having spoken too loudly, you spoke too fast."

"Oh! as for fast, it was only just towards the end, because I wanted to finish quicker."

"Precisely, and instead, you did exactly the opposite. . . . .

You prolonged your speech. In a theatre nothing is more fatal in a long scene than to hurry it. The spectator is quite acute enough to guess by your hurried delivery that you yourself feel the length of it. If he had not been warned, he would not have noticed it: you point it out to him, so he becomes impatient."

"True once more," cried my friend. "Towards the end I felt that my audience had escaped me: but what remedy for this can you suggest?"

"A very simple one. Engage a reading master."

"Do you know one?"

"An admirable one."

"Who is it?"

"Mr. Samson."

"Mr. Samson, the actor?"


"But I can't take lessons from an actor."

"Why not?"

"Just consider! A politician! A statesman! All the penny papers would be full of it, if it was known.

"You are right. The world is so stupid that it would laugh at you for trying to learn your work thoroughly. But no one need hear of it."

"Will you keep my secret?"

"Yes, and so will Mr. Samson, I am sure."

No sooner said than done. Mr. Samson steadied, softened, and strengthened his voice: he made him read pages of Bossuet, of Massilon, or Bourdaloue; he taught him to begin his speeches in a low voice and rather slowly--nothing commands silence so quickly as a low voice; people are silent so as to hear you, and the result is, they listen. These wise lessons bore ample fruit, for, six months after, my friend was nominated Minister. I do not say he was a great Minister, but he was a Minister who went to his office every day, who did his work, who read everything presented to him for his signature. Many words are wasted in public meetings. Prepare yourselves, then; arm yourselves! Remember that to control the public you must first control yourself. If you cannot control your voice, you cannot control yourself; therefore, take a reading master. I should say, take two; for whoever really wishes to learn a thing properly, takes a "coach" as well as a master; and that "coach" must be yourself. Add personal observations to your lessons! Listen to voices as you look at faces! Seek for truthful intonations as you seek for sincere natures. Above all, observe and study children. A most singular fact will then present itself to you.

Children are admirable masters of elocution. How true to nature! What just intonation! The flexibility of their organs lending itself readily to their mobility of feeling, they achieve an audacity of inflection that even the most practised child relating some secret it has overheard, some mysterious scene of which it has been an eye-witness, like Louison in the Malade Imaginaire. It will imitate all the voices! Reproduce every tone! You could almost imagine that you see and hear the people themselves. . . . Well, immediately afterwards, without any transition whatever, ask that same child to read you a scene from Moliére, or to recite a few lines from Athalie, and she will begin that complaining voice, that monotonous and imbecile tone peculiar to children when they read.

These great masters of elocution cannot read. In fact, reading is so much an art that we have to teach it to the children who demonstrate it to us.

I have not reached the most interesting point of our study, namely, reading considered as a means of literary appreciation.

Typed by happi, Sept 2017