Elizabeth Micaković

Department: English
Discipline: English
Research Centre/Unit: Twentieth Century Literature

Project Summary

"T. S. Eliot's Voice: A Cultural History" --- T. S. Eliot undoubtedly possessed one of the most identifiable and unique speaking voices of any poet in the twentieth century. The 'distinctive quality of his voice' (Bonamy Dobrée), 'so slow, that each word seems to have special finish allotted it' (Virginia Woolf), became not only an integral part of his artistry, but a commercially valuable asset. To this day, Eliot's voice remains deeply enigmatic, provoking questions as to the degree of performativity embedded in his public-speaking voice and indeed the diachronous cultivation of what many perceive(d) to be an "English" accent.   Whilst these questions form the backbone of this thesis, the answers can only be sought by synthesising the many discourses on voice and pronunciation circulating at the time. From pedagogical and social theories on standard speech, to institutionalised pronouncements on "correct" pronunciation (from the BBC, for example), and even peripheral debates on prosody and nationhood, the first half of the twentieth century was remarkably loquacious on the subject of voice and speech. Moreover, that many of Eliot's contemporaries commented and remarked upon his voice, even before his recording days, points to a community alert to the nuances of these debates. How Eliot situated himself and, importantly, reacted to these theories are central to any understanding of Eliot in a phonographic and radio age, where the "grain" of the voice was resurrected from the text back to greater prominence. From his early years in St Louis, where he was exposed to post-Reconstruction theories on nationhood and voice, to his emigration to the UK, the first part of the project focuses on Eliot's transition between these distinctly nationalist discourses on pronunciation. Eliot's response to these oral paradigms were perhaps nowhere more noticeable than in his early radio recordings and, later, in the phonograph recordings he made in the early 1930s. By undertaking extensive archival research (both within the UK and in the US), the project will also reveal an Eliot both keenly alive and self-consciously responsive to these paradigms, whilst his concurrent development of prosodic and dramatic theories demonstrate a deep-seated ambivalence to pronouncements on standard speech and dialect. Moreover, whilst oral recording technologies allowed Eliot that platform on which to reach the wide and varied audience he always sought, the project will examine how Eliot attempted to minimise the exposure of his voice (and his "personality") to copyright infringement of any kind, as both he and the international judicial systems struggled to keep pace with the developments of technologies of voice reproduction.   I hope that this project will intervene convincingly in the recent criticism by scholars on standard speech, pronunciation and dialect (Carrie J. Preston, Tony Crowley, David Vincent), and voice and recording (Lesley Wheeler, Derek Furr, Ivan Kreilkamp), to name just a very few. In particular, my work draws on the remarkable excavatory work undertaken by Michael Coyle and Todd Avery on Eliot's BBC broadcasts, which has gone far in illuminating the Arnoldian synergies between Eliot and the BBC Director John Reith, whilst uncovering Eliot's early unease with the transition from written to oral transmission (Coyle). I aim to demonstrate with this project that Eliot's unease also stemmed from concerns regarding the regulatory limitations he faced both from the BBC and from the fragile legal protection in place at the time.

Supervisory Team

Dr. Vike Plock Dr. Jason Hall

Wider Research Interests

I am very much interested, more generally, in the origins and histories of the recordings mades by Modernist poets. Indeed, I have already begun archival research into the (unwritten) history of the Harvard Vocarium and a number of recordings which took place in New York in the 1930s by poets such as Eliot, Vachel Lindsay, Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, and many others from this period. These recordings didn't merely form an appendix to their printed works, but were in fact an integral component of their creative outputs. I hope that this tentative exploratory work will culminate in a larger project on Modernist poets and their commitments to recording as a creative piece of work and their critical and artistic responses to recording technologies in general.