Following on from my previous posts, this week continues with another of Irene Mawer’s ‘word rhythms’.
Miss Mawer was a ‘born mime’, famous in her day for her ability to express emotions and to show occupations – all without speaking. However, to Miss Mawer mime was not a stand-alone subject, but one that was crucial to the training in all of the dramatic arts, not least speech.
Speech and physical movement, according to the Ginner-Mawer School of Dance and Drama are closely interlinked.
In this post I will write about a second nature rhythm: I have already looked at ‘Fire’, now I will discuss a word-rhythm called ‘The Tree in the Wind’.
Miss Mawer states that she would have liked to use the term ‘poem’ instead of the expression ‘word-rhythm’ but hesitated to do so “in fear that some of the forms chosen are not sufficiently metric to receive that name”. (p.ix). I think she meant that they didn’t sound poetic enough! That wouldn’t be a problem today, when sometimes it seems that ‘anything goes’.
The poem (word-rhythm) ‘The Tree in the Wind’ was published in 1925 in Irene Mawer’s book ‘The Dance of Words’. It was the first poem in the section entitled ‘Nature Rhythms’. In the foreword, Miss Mawer states that the word-rhythms in the book are primarily intended to be used in connection with movement, most especially with Revived (Classical) Greek Dance.
The intention in this instance is for dancers to move to the rhythm of the spoken word, but equally a mime can interpret the same poem using movement that is not dance.
The dance movements came from the rhythm of the spoken words. As Miss Mawer states “These movements…were not based upon the music…but upon the rhythmic beat of the verse itself”. (p.vii). It was the rhythms of nature which formed the building blocks for much of the Greek dance.
Irene Mawer appreciated “spoken words as music, intimately connected with movement”. (p.viii). Here is the word-rhythm in full, 15 lines:
The Tree in the Wind
The whisper of the wind is in my little leaves,
I hear the calling of the wind.
They dance, my little leaves, until my branches stir.
The wind-song rocks my branches, in a rhythm slow and slumberous.
But my heart can feel the storm that breaks,
And thunders suddenly on high.
I am tossed, I am torn.
Hold me, oh, hold me, brave earth, and strongly.
Lest in mine agony I fall –
For, lo! An arm drops useless,
And I am very old.
But the wind sings in my gaunt branches,
Tearing the dead leaves away to sleep for ever –
I am old, but yet I dance.
And the wind goes ever singing, singing, singing.
Miss Mawer was particular about who should speak these word-rhythms. In order for them to work as a musical force, they needed to be spoken by someone who knew what they were doing – someone fully trained in verse speaking, and able to express the musical qualities of the speaking voice.
Miss Mawer expected an awful lot from the speaker: an infinity of inflections; variety of quality; as well as a deep understanding of the movements they accompany, ie, the speaker should also be very knowledgeable about the Revived (Classical) Greek Dance. In addition, the speaker must have a “technical grasp of the purity of rhythmic speech obtained by perfect breath control, vocal tone, diction and a highly sensitive appreciation of the musical values of the written and spoken word”!
In turn, the dancer was also required to be able to speak the poems, though Miss Mawer did agree that no-one had to be equally proficient at both elements.
Further, with particular reference to the Nature Rhythms there was also a requirement to understand how a beautiful speaking voice was close to those natural voices such as the wind; trees; running water, the sound of birds’ wings; and the sound of all the “elemental orchestras”.(p.87)
It is clear that the speaker will use their knowledge of Greek Dance to inform their vocal performance, indeed Miss Mawer makes a point of clarifying that she has not made any attempt to explain ‘how’ a person should move. Instead, her role is “merely to indicate the connection between the word rhythms and the corresponding movements”.(p.87).
So, in Miss Mawer’s view, the best performances will be when both the speaker and the dancer or dancers have excelled in all the aspects of both Greek Dance and of voice work.
It is necessary for the dancer to understand how the voice works, and it is equally necessary for the speaker to have a deep understanding of the movement and ethos of Classical Greek Dance.
Nature Rhythms are not the easiest examples of movement rhythms, and the student is encouraged to master moving to the simple rhythms of words before undertaking the Nature Rhythms.
The Tree in the Wind is the first of the Nature Rhythms shown in The Dance of Words. Miss Mawer writes “The tree is almost still at first, but the movement increases until the words “storm” and “thunders”, when the whole tree seems shaken, and in the next lines, tossed by the wind. One arm drops, as if a branch were broken and, as the force of the wind in the voice dies away, the tree is left rocking rhythmically.”(p.90)
My reason for including this poem here on the Facebook page is rather interesting. I don’t recall having worked on this poem with my teacher, Mrs Durling, during my mime classes. However, my attention was drawn to it in a startling manner – I discovered that a school in America had been using it in their curriculum in 2009! I was stunned.
My first assumption was that the poem was just by someone with the same name, Irene Mawer, however, when Ann Cornford gave me a copy of The Dance of Words I discovered it was indeed the same poem and the same author.
It is unclear whether the poem was used for middle school or for elementary school, as I have had two different sources of information.
If Elementary level, then the children would have been at the upper end of the 5-11 year age range, if it were Middle School (what used to called Junior High), the children would have been aged 13-14 years old (Grade .
Pupils were given homework sheets as part of their Spring Break package in 2009. By correctly completing this work during their holiday time, the pupils could gain extra credits towards their final mark. By answering multiple choice questions the intention was for the pupils to be tested on their reading for understanding and the ability to interpret, etc.
These are the questions and multiple choice answers:
1. Which feeling does the tree in the poem express?
2. To whom does the tree “speak”?
The wind/the earth/the leaves/the thunder
3. Which statement shows an aspect of the relationship between the wind and the tree?
The wind depends on the tree/the wind helps the tree to survive/the wind at times damages the tree/the wind encourages the tree to grow
4. Which progression shows the changes of mood that occur in the poem?
Calm to distressed to calm/sad to hopeful to sad/energetic to sleepy to contented/gentle to humorous to angry
5. What do the choppy rhythms and uneven lines of this poem suggest?
The fragility of the aged tree/the wildness of the weather/the breaking of the tree’s limb/the slow and sleepy song of the wind
Why or how a school in Kernersville, North Carolina came across this poem is a complete mystery to me. Contact with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools (www.wsfcs.k12.nc.us) resulted in the following short but helpful reply “Our system has 80 schools. This particular document is something that was taught at Kernersville Elementary”, followed by the name and email address of the Principal. I emailed the Principal in May 2020, but have not had a reply. To be fair, we are in the middle of the Corona Virus pandemic so perhaps in a year or so’s time I will try again.
Who, in 2009, 3,000 miles away on the east coast of the United States, 84 years after it’s first publication, thought to use a poem by Irene Mawer in a school test, 47 years after she died? (Co-incidentally, 47 years is the time span that Irene Mawer and Ruby Ginner were staunch friends.) It is too fascinating a discovery to let it drop.
I have not been able to find even the smallest clue. I don’t know why or how the poem was picked, but it is reasonable to assume that it would have been chosen by a ‘specialist’ recruited for this task. Perhaps the specialist had been a teacher who had somehow come across the poem and liked it on its poetic merits and wanted to share it?
Or perhaps the poem was just in a literature text book judged suitable for this age group and was chosen at random because it was felt that it met the required elements of 8th Grade Language Arts (but that does beg the question of how it got into the book in the first place).
Teachers have access to all sorts of resources which are created by these specialists, as this helps to avoid just ‘teaching to the test’ and assists teachers to encourage children into a wider range of learning.
My favourite theory is that a Ginner-Mawer ‘old girl’ emigrated to the USA, taught the skills she had learned in London or Boscastle or Cheltenham (or Birmingham for Irene alone) and thus continued the legacy of Ancient Greece through the decades into modern day America.
My grateful thanks go to Lelia Pendleton for talking the issue through with me and for her knowledge of the American school system.
Lelia Pendleton, former Henrico Co. And Richmond City Public Schools student, former Chesterfield Co. Public Schools substitute teacher, former Va. Dept of Education employee.
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