And Speaking of Poetry. . .

And Speaking of Poetry. . .

Fr. Barth is vocal in his appreciation for the art of the spoken word

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

McIntyre Professor of English J. Robert Barth, SJ, closed his eyes, inclined his head, and like a wine taster savoring a fine Bordeaux, began to recite in French a sonnet by the 16th-century poet Ronsard.

Rev. J. Robert Barth, SJ (Photo By Lee Pellegrini)
"Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle," he said. "Assise auprès du feu, devidant et filant..."

Fr. Barth said he often introduces students to poetry by presenting verse in a foreign tongue. "You won't understand this," he tells them. "Just listen to the music.

"Poetry is like music. It's meant to be heard."

That spirit animates Fr. Barth's latest project, a compact-disc recording of read poems by Francis Thompson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, that he hopes will spark a renewed appreciation of the bard's art at BC and beyond. Released last fall, the recording is available at the Boston College Bookstore for $10, with proceeds benefiting the Burns Library.

The CD includes Fr. Barth's readings of a dozen works by the two Catholic poets, including a 12-minute-long rendition of Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven" [see excerpt below] and a 20-minute rendition of Hopkins' "The Wreck of the Deutschland."

"They represent for me two of the great religious statements of the 19th century," said Fr. Barth. "There's a grandeur about them. Both are long and powerful poems. They come out of faith, and they evoke faith."

The English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, (1844-1889) was an Oxford-educated convert to Catholicism whose poems, never published in his lifetime, influenced many 20th-century British and American poets, notably Dylan Thomas. The Burns Library has significant holdings on Hopkins in its British Catholic Authors Collection.

Francis Thompson (1859-1907) was an English Catholic poet whose most famous poem, "The Hound of Heaven," describes the pursuit of the human soul by God. His papers are housed at the Burns Library, where the main reading room is named for him.

The CD grew out of a reading Fr. Barth gave at a launch party for the Thompson book at Burns Library last year. The warm response gave Fr. Barth and Burns Librarian Robert O'Neill the idea of making a recording to spark further interest in the literary holdings at the Burns.

The recording was produced by the BC Center for Media and Instructional Technology, with Audio Engineer Jonathan Sage handling the sound and Assistant Director for Graphic Services Michael Swanson designing the CD cover.

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
--From "The Hound of Heaven" by Francis Thompson

Fr. Barth made the recordings this past summer in a soundproof booth in the CMIT studios in the basement of Campion Hall.

The former College of Arts and Sciences dean is experienced at this sort of thing: He hosted a weekly poetry-reading show on the radio while teaching at the University of Missouri in the early 1980s.

For a scholar of the Romantic poets, Fr. Barth has a voice for the airwaves. He hopes to put his aural skills, he said in a recent interview, to "getting people into the habit of reading - and hearing poetry read - aloud, to bring it off the written page.

"When you see it on the page, poetry can be discouraging. But when you hear it..."

At this, Fr. Barth swung into the opening lines of Shakespeare's Sonnet 73: That time of year thou mayst in me behold/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/Upon those boughs which shake against the cold...

"Hear it," he said, "and you hear the music of it."

Fr. Barth hopes the Thompson-Hopkins CD will be the first in a series of recordings meant to "attune people's ears to the music of poetry."

"I'm thinking next year I would like to do a CD of Christmas poetry. I'm thinking of a selection of poems from the Romantic poets: Wordsworth, Shelly, Keats, Coleridge. Another collection I'd like to do is poems of the four seasons.

"This has whetted my appetite for doing more."


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