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Kenneth Cox

Basil Bunting reading Wordsworth

When I visited Kenneth in 1991 he played a BBC recording of Basil Bunting reading Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” and “Tintern Abbey.” Later he copied the tape for me and wrote the following letter in reply to my questions about the circumstances behind the recording and the similarity of Bunting and Wordsworth’s accents.

— Jenny Penberthy

It was I who had the idea for the Bunting’s reading. My job in the BBC required me to select English speech suitable for retransmission abroad to be ‘transcribed’ from material already used in its regular broadcasts. It was made up chiefly of radio drama, talks and science programmes of possible interest to the ‘expatriate’ audiences (as they were called) of the former Empire. It also included programmes for use in the overseas schools preparing pupils for exams run by Oxford or Cambridge. When suitable material for this purpose did not present itself I was allowed (within limits) to ‘originate’ it.

On the understanding that it would be acceptable both for general and scholastic use the idea was accepted and I went to Newcastle to put it to Bunting and record a tape at the regional studio. His fee amounted if I remember to £100, being enlarged by the factor ‘for educational purposes’. I stayed at his house in Wylam and he took me round places he loved.


For reasons I can understand most listeners will I think have remembered them as remarkable readings rather than as remarkable poems. Bunting they may never have heard before, Wordsworth known from early schooling all too well. And interest in the reading is usually reduced to one of ‘accent’.

Unavoidable though this response may have been I rather regret it. To me and I think to Bunting ‘accent’ was not a problem nor an aim. Our purpose was to provide readings of these famous poems suitable to their texts and appropriate for audiences anywhere, including children learning English at school. It shouldn’t be necessary to say that we had no intention of trying to reproduce Wordsworth’s own voice!

Bunting’s attitude to the job throughout was in the highest degree ‘professional’. At his home I heard him practising passages behind closed doors. When the day came to record he kept silence while we journeyed to the studio. It was as though he were carrying something in his head too precious to be disturbed or distracted from, or something too fragile to be exposed to the air. In studio he referred to me questions about pronunciation of certain words which might, he thought, affect comprehensibility in other countries. When something he had recorded seemed to him to fall below the result he had rehearsed, or aside from the one he had intended, he corrected himself on the instant without reference to me. When I returned to London I was told a bill for the bottle of whiskey we had shared had already been received from the regional office.

It would be tedious to go into the whole question of phonology but as your interest has been aroused I will try to give you an idea of the sort of importance it has for me. I will not use the layman’s term ‘accent’. I too am in my way also ‘professional’.

There are a number of deviations from the pronunciations recommended in ‘Received Usage’. No way did this inhibit us. We simply ignored it. In so far as any justification was sought for the pronunciations actually adopted our only authority was Wordsworth’s texts. The rhyme arm/ warm is attested in the Ode itself. The short A in waters is similarly justified by example elsewhere in Wordsworth by rhyme with chatters. Both pronunciations are also still extant in northern English. Another characteristic of northern English, not reducible to a given area and still noticeable in the speech of some persons born in the north but no longer living there, is the habit of lengthening vowels bearing stress, sometimes already long, sometimes not. An example in the reading is look. I think I am right in saying there are no northern words in the texts.

It is impossible to describe a manner of speech in a few phrases. Any attempt is bound to leave something out. I will mention just a few things you ought to notice. Others are noted in my piece on Bunting in the book.

The most obtrusive feature of northeastern English is the uvular R. It is not however evident here, only present to a small degree when R is accompanied by G, as occurs for example in the first line of the Ode: groves. Elsewhere its use is absent, perhaps suppressed. Other characteristics of Northumbrian origin, less obvious to the uninstructed, can be detected. One is a system of intonation (perhaps attributable to relics of the Scandinavian tone-system) which produces uncommon effects, especially in ejaculatory sentences or expressions of known fact. It is most marked in the Ode, where variations of metre further disrupt utterance. Another is the full pronunciation of vowels in syllables unstressed. This is extended in the interest of giving every sound its fullest possible value. In the Ode it is also enhanced by the use of rhyme.

To the extent these features are intentional they are due to the scholastic desire to make every sound distinct, for the benefit of everyone including small black children, as well as to the aesthetic ambition of full sound expressing full meaning. Both are assisted by the style of delivery, the slow deliberative mode of all northern English in serious use.

In my opinion the readings bring out the faults and merits of both poems (they are quite different) as clearly as could be done. I will go into this later if you wish but enough for now.

A propos, my hearing has deteriorated in both ears and is like to go on doing so. I have hearing aids as they are called but prefer to do without them if I can. They amplify high frequencies while disturbing balance and directionality. My inner perception of sound is unaffected as far as I can tell. You may be able to judge for yourself when you see my book.

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