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.
Volume 2, no. 2, 1891/92, pg. 455-458

Translated for the "Parents' Review" by Mrs. Swire (with the kind permission of Messrs. Hetzel & Cie., of Paris).


There is a general opinion which has become law that fables should always be read simply. Granted! But what do you mean by simply? Do you mean plainly, straightforwardly, in short, prosaically? Yes. Well, I say No. That is not reading La Fontaine, that is disfiguring him. It is not interpreting him, it is betraying him. La Fontaine is the most complex poet of the French language. No one presents so many contrasts! No poetry is so rich in antitheses! His well-earned nickname of "Bonhommé," his legitimate reputation for naiveté, his thousand diverting traits, have given us a wrong impression of his genius. His personal character conveys a false notion of his character as poet. Ingenuous in his life? Yes. Artless as an individual? Yes. But once he gets the pen between his fingers, he is the cleverest, the most skilful, I would even say the most cunning of artists. He has revealed his secret to us himself:--

Beneath my snow-white hairs,
I am fabricating all the time
Verses more silly than my prose.

"I fabricate." Do you understand the meaning of that word? Does it not energetically express the effort, the labour, the will which he employed? For with La Fontaine everything is calculated, premeditated, far-fetched, and yet at the same time by a marvellous gift everything is harmonious, smooth, and natural. Art is everywhere, artifice nowhere. What is his secret? Is it his delightful simplicity of heart, which, passing into his poetry, allied itself so closely to his talent that he employs science to delineate artlessness, and artlessness throws its glamour over science? Add one more contrast, one more difficulty; one more merit is the result. In La Fontaine all extremes meet. Side by side are placed the most dissimilar tones: emotion, raillery, strength, nobility, familiarity, broad joviality elbow one another through his verses. No one has ever compressed so much real grandeur into so small a space. For him, one line, one word suffices to open up a wide horizon. Incomparable painter! Incomparable narrator! Creator of character almost equal to Moliére himself. And you fancy that all that can be read quite simply and straightforwardly. No; a thousand times no! A profound study alone could enable the reader to understand and to explain even imperfectly so profound an art.

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Nearly all La Fontaine's fables would bear the closest study, and all great poets can be studied in the same manner as La Fontaine. Only do not let it be forgotten that there are as many ways of reading verse as of writing it. You must not read Racine as you would Corneille, nor Moliére as you would Reynard, nor Lamartine as you would Victor Hugo. Reading is translating. Elocution to be good must exactly represent the genius it is interpreting. Attenuate a few faults, cloak a few mistakes, shorten a few of the longest parts--all this may be allowed; but do not alter the nature of the thing. A reader who to "Ruy Blas" would apply what is called a simple and artless delivery would deprive it at one stroke of its chief characteristic--the richness of the style. With exuberance you must be exuberant. If you want to copy Rubens you cannot do so with a black-lead pencil. You must also remember that each kind of poetry requires a special kind of interpretation. To read an ode as you would a fable, a lyrical fragment as you must read a dramatic one, the "Etoiles" of Lamartine like "L'Aveugle et la Paralytique" of Florien, is to cast over the magnificent variety of works of genius the terrible pall of monotony. The immutable, eternal, inflexible law which applies to all styles and to all men--law that I repeat as the law which combines all other laws in itself--is this: when you read poetry you must read as a poet. As there is rhythm, make that rhythm discernible. As there are rhymes, make those rhymes apparent. When the verses are in themselves painting and music as well as verse, become as you read both painter and musician. How many passages are there where pathos is born of the actual harmony! People may say to you, "Be careful! You will become declamatory, emphatic. You will forget truthfulness." Thank God, truth has a vaster horizon than that of the narrow-minded votaries of artlessness. You can read with truth all that has been written with sincerity.

Has our object been attained? Not yet. I trust I have sufficiently shown that pupils as pupils and masters as masters will find a powerful auxiliary in the art of reading. But pupils do not remain always pupils, and teachers are not solely teachers; and this study will be quite as useful to both out of school as in school, after lessons as during lessons.

Sixty years ago the talent of speaking was rare, public speeches an exception. Nowadays the voice used in public speaking has become the great agent in effecting every kind of social reform. Today everybody ought to learn to speak and to read, because anybody may have to do so in public. The advance of civilisation has so multiplied the number of public meetings that at every turn we have recourse to lectures and speeches. Meetings, committees, commissions, congressses, electoral assemblies, industrial assemblies, commercial assemblies, literary réunions, scientific réunions, are so many new developments of public life, which include all classes of citizens, and through which at any moment the most obscure as well as the most illustrious person may be called upon to perform a part as reader or orator.

In their capacity as artisans will not the pupils of the elementary schools become members of trades' unions? as farmers, of agricultural committees? as workmen, of provident societies? as voters, of political meetings? In these various capacities will they not often be obliged to read aloud a report, a balance sheet, minutes of proceedings or plans? If they read badly, will they not be misunderstood, misapprehended, and probably somewhat ridiculed? If they read well, will not their discourse be all the more clear, the more convincing? Undoubtedly so. The idea of reading which they acquired at school will cling to them in their after life. As men they will utilise what they learnt as scholars; and their talents as readers will enable them all the better to fulfil their duties and discharge their rights as citizens.

I do not like to end this little treatise without adding one general consideration which appears to me to be necessary for its completion. The practical utility, the pleasures of the art, the joys of self-satisfaction, are not the only fruits of the study of this art of reading aloud. It has a place amongst our most cherished sentiments. That is why I should wish to see enrolled as its disciples a class of persons whom I regret not having mentioned till now, namely, women. This art is even more suitable to them than to men. Nature has given them flexibility of organs, and an imitative faculty which adapts itself marvellously to all those arts whose object is to interpret, and, therefore, to the art of reading. I would add that this talent, which in men becomes a means of livelihood or of professional success, may in women be exercised in the course of their sweetest domestic occupations, their most sacred family duties. They are daughters, sisters, mothers, wives. More than one has, or may have, an old and helpless father, a mother overwhelmed with grief, a sick child; the father cannot read, his eyes refuse him their service; the mother will not, her heart is too sore; the child would like to, but knows not how. What more delightful than for the young girl to be able, with the help of a few pages pleasantly read, to calm the sufferer, console the sorrowful, amuse the restless! It is, then, in the name of their sweetest feelings that I say to them, learn to read and strive to acquire a talent which may become a virtue.