Elocutionary Arts

Exploring the lost practices and performers of recitation

Four boys and four girls stood up one by one and gave their declamations.  About the middle of the program my name was called. I walked to the center of the platform feeling good that what I had to remember was only half as long as some of the others. I blurted out my opening sentences wondering how it sounded to the people out there. Near the middle of my declamation I had to stop. I didn’t know what was coming next. I reached up and around and somehow my mind pulled down what I wanted and I went on to the end and gave “The world moves!” fierce and fast like a shot in the dark and saw more faces laughing than sober.

—Carl Sandburg, Always the Young Strangers (1953)

Four boys and four girls stood up one by one and gave their declamations.  About the middle of the program my name was called. I walked to the center of the platform feeling good that what I had to remember was only half as long as some of the others. I blurted out my opening sentences wondering how it sounded to the people out there. Near the middle of my declamation I had to stop. I didn’t know what was coming next. I reached up and around and somehow my mind pulled down what I wanted and I went on to the end and gave “The world moves!” fierce and fast like a shot in the dark and saw more faces laughing than sober.

Carl Sandburg, Always the Young Strangers (1953)

Charles Dickens reading.
Poses from The Peerless Reciter, or, popular program; containing the choicest recitations and readings from the best authors, for schools, public entertainments, social gatherings, Sunday schools, etc., including recitals in prose and verse, selections with musical accompaniments, dialogues, dramas, tableaux, etc., etc. together with rules and instructions for gesture, expression, and cultivation of the voice (1894). Compiled and edited by Henry Davenport Northrop.

Poses from The Peerless Reciter, or, popular program; containing the choicest recitations and readings from the best authors, for schools, public entertainments, social gatherings, Sunday schools, etc., including recitals in prose and verse, selections with musical accompaniments, dialogues, dramas, tableaux, etc., etc. together with rules and instructions for gesture, expression, and cultivation of the voice (1894). Compiled and edited by Henry Davenport Northrop.

Poses from The Peerless Reciter, or, popular program; containing the choicest recitations and readings from the best authors, for schools, public entertainments, social gatherings, Sunday schools, etc., including recitals in prose and verse, selections with musical accompaniments, dialogues, dramas, tableaux, etc., etc. together with rules and instructions for gesture, expression, and cultivation of the voice (1894). Compiled and edited by Henry Davenport Northrop.

Poses from The Peerless Reciter, or, popular program; containing the choicest recitations and readings from the best authors, for schools, public entertainments, social gatherings, Sunday schools, etc., including recitals in prose and verse, selections with musical accompaniments, dialogues, dramas, tableaux, etc., etc. together with rules and instructions for gesture, expression, and cultivation of the voice (1894). Compiled and edited by Henry Davenport Northrop.

1909 Obituary for Anna Randall-Diehl, elocutionist, author, club woman, and Shakespeare advocate.

1909 Obituary for Anna Randall-Diehl, elocutionist, author, club woman, and Shakespeare advocate.

Postcard for the Bard Avon School, Baltimore, Maryland.  The Bard Avon School originated as a school of expression and lasted until ca. 1933.  The school was under the direction of one of its graduates, Kathryn Howard Lowes (1892–1959), who purchased it in 1920.   By the 1940s, it was a business and secretarial school.

Postcard for the Bard Avon School, Baltimore, Maryland.  The Bard Avon School originated as a school of expression and lasted until ca. 1933.  The school was under the direction of one of its graduates, Kathryn Howard Lowes (1892–1959), who purchased it in 1920.   By the 1940s, it was a business and secretarial school.

Original location for the Plonk School of Creative Arts in Asheville, NC.  A private home turned into the Grove Park School for girls became the location for a school of expression beginning in 1929.  Sisters Laura and Lillian Plonk moved their Summer Workshop on “speech, drama and living,” affiliated with the Curry School of Expression in Boston, there.   In 1941, the Plonk School moved to the location on the 1961 flier below, and the original house became the Albemarle Inn.  In 1943, the Inn housed Hungarian composer Béla Bartok, who worked on his Third Piano Concerto there.

[Full flier and more information at North Carolina Miscellany]

1894 advertisment in Werner’s Magazine for Edwin S. Johnston’s Johnston Philadelphia Institute for the Permanent Cure of Stammering, Stuttering, and All Other Defects in Articulation.  Johnston, a stutterer, reportedly cured himself, then opened an institute to share his method.  It lasted until around 1904.  Werner’s Magazine published numerous articles on stuttering.

[Courtesy of John Vidumsky, Hidden City Philadelphia]
"Home, Sweet Home," picture for table of contents to The Brightest Gems of Poetry (1899), edited by Henry Davenport Northrop (1836-1909).
The Old Clock on the Stairs, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Somewhat back from the village street Stands the old-fashioned country-seat. Across its antique portico Tall poplar-trees their shadows throw; And from its station in the hall An ancient timepiece says to all,—       ”Forever—never!       Never—forever!”  Half-way up the stairs it stands, And points and beckons with its hands From its case of massive oak, Like a monk, who, under his cloak, Crosses himself, and sighs, alas! With sorrowful voice to all who pass,—       ”Forever—never!       Never—forever!”  By day its voice is low and light; But in the silent dead of night, Distinct as a passing footstep’s fall, It echoes along the vacant hall, Along the ceiling, along the floor, And seems to say, at each chamber-door,—       ”Forever—never!       Never—forever!”  Through days of sorrow and of mirth, Through days of death and days of birth, Through every swift vicissitude Of changeful time, unchanged it has stood, And as if, like God, it all things saw, It calmly repeats those words of awe,—       ”Forever—never!       Never—forever!”  In that mansion used to be Free-hearted Hospitality; His great fires up the chimney roared; The stranger feasted at his board; But, like the skeleton at the feast, That warning timepiece never ceased,—       ”Forever—never!       Never—forever!”  There groups of merry children played, There youths and maidens dreaming strayed; O precious hours! O golden prime, And affluence of love and time! Even as a Miser counts his gold, Those hours the ancient timepiece told,—       ”Forever—never!       Never—forever!”  From that chamber, clothed in white, The bride came forth on her wedding night; There, in that silent room below, The dead lay in his shroud of snow; And in the hush that followed the prayer, Was heard the old clock on the stair,—       ”Forever—never!       Never—forever!”  All are scattered now and fled, Some are married, some are dead; And when I ask, with throbs of pain. “Ah! when shall they all meet again?” As in the days long since gone by, The ancient timepiece makes reply,—       ”Forever—never!       Never—forever!  Never here, forever there, Where all parting, pain, and care, And death, and time shall disappear,— Forever there, but never here! The horologe of Eternity Sayeth this incessantly,—       ”Forever—never!       Never—forever!”

The Old Clock on the Stairs, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Somewhat back from the village street
Stands the old-fashioned country-seat.
Across its antique portico
Tall poplar-trees their shadows throw;
And from its station in the hall
An ancient timepiece says to all,—
      ”Forever—never!
      Never—forever!” 
Half-way up the stairs it stands,
And points and beckons with its hands
From its case of massive oak,
Like a monk, who, under his cloak,
Crosses himself, and sighs, alas!
With sorrowful voice to all who pass,—
      ”Forever—never!
      Never—forever!” 
By day its voice is low and light;
But in the silent dead of night,
Distinct as a passing footstep’s fall,
It echoes along the vacant hall,
Along the ceiling, along the floor,
And seems to say, at each chamber-door,—
      ”Forever—never!
      Never—forever!” 
Through days of sorrow and of mirth,
Through days of death and days of birth,
Through every swift vicissitude
Of changeful time, unchanged it has stood,
And as if, like God, it all things saw,
It calmly repeats those words of awe,—
      ”Forever—never!
      Never—forever!” 
In that mansion used to be
Free-hearted Hospitality;
His great fires up the chimney roared;
The stranger feasted at his board;
But, like the skeleton at the feast,
That warning timepiece never ceased,—
      ”Forever—never!
      Never—forever!” 
There groups of merry children played,
There youths and maidens dreaming strayed;
O precious hours! O golden prime,
And affluence of love and time!
Even as a Miser counts his gold,
Those hours the ancient timepiece told,—
      ”Forever—never!
      Never—forever!” 
From that chamber, clothed in white,
The bride came forth on her wedding night;
There, in that silent room below,
The dead lay in his shroud of snow;
And in the hush that followed the prayer,
Was heard the old clock on the stair,—
      ”Forever—never!
      Never—forever!” 
All are scattered now and fled,
Some are married, some are dead;
And when I ask, with throbs of pain.
“Ah! when shall they all meet again?”
As in the days long since gone by,
The ancient timepiece makes reply,—
      ”Forever—never!
      Never—forever! 
Never here, forever there,
Where all parting, pain, and care,
And death, and time shall disappear,—
Forever there, but never here!
The horologe of Eternity
Sayeth this incessantly,—
      ”Forever—never!
      Never—forever!”