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Pictures from the Rylands Library ‘Respiratory Relics’: Robert Donat and Recordings of Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’

stella halkyard

It’s 1953 and the actor Robert Donat, hailed by Graham Greene as ‘the best actor we possess’, waits for his cue in the wings of a packed Old Vic in Robert Helpmann’s production of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. Wheezing painfully, a prisoner of asthma, his eyes close until the paroxysm subsides. The oxygen canisters, ready by his side, and the hovering of his understudy on constant standby exert their pressure. Then his line comes and he strides onto the stage, transformed into the likeness of the ‘turbulent priest’ Thomas Beckett, all breathlessness banished as the poet’s verse takes hold.

Regarded as the most accomplished performance of his theatrical career, it was also sadly Donat’s last as the debilitating effects of asthma increasingly reduced his opportunities. However, Donat, apprenticed in a classical tradition of voice training that began ‘with recitals of poetry in North Country towns’ (Donat), could also create an aural presence of ‘great mastery’ (C.A. Lejeune). The exquisite ‘range of colour, pitch, power and tempo’ (Tyrone Guthrie) of his voice found perfect expression in radio broadcasting, a technology that happily allowed ‘him to re-record material ruined by his asthma’ (Vicky Lowe) and to return to his first love of poetry and ‘especially reading it aloud’.

Around this time he began to record readings of poetry at home as ‘a release from the torment of his illness’ (Donat) and found there a therapeutic solace, for poetry entails ‘breath-work for readers, startling them out from their customary, automatic respiratory patterns [to] implicate them in the breathing of another’ (Andrew Kay). The Robert Donat Archive in the Rylands holds the open reel tapes that he made. Obdurate in their materiality they remain ‘radically present… [though] their voices are confined to long forgotten storage media’ (Wolfgang Ernst). Many of these preserve Donat’s experiments in reading

Keats, himself a poet often short of breath, and in particular ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, a poem many see, on one level, as shaped by a poetics of breathing. For Keats understood reading as ‘a mode of reciprocity between the poet’s body and the reader’s, grounded in shared breath… in which breath-shapes of the dead, distilled in the amber of the poetic texts, materialize a-fresh in the lungs of the living’ (Kay). Such ideas Donat was likely to endorse for ‘in his absorption in a poem… he seemed to be entering the spirit of the poet, until he shared the poet’s inspiration and this in turn inspired his reading’ (Donat).

So in listening to Donat’s recitations of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ from the phonographic archive we in some ways release their ‘respiratory relics and corporeal thumb-prints’ to ‘redeem from oblivion’ the ‘modes of inhalation and exhalation’ (Kay) of both poet and actor in defiance of ‘a life of tragic contingencies that spoil a nightingale’s singing’ (Nicolas Roe).

Mary Griffiths, ‘Nightingale’, pen and ink drawing on paper, 2020 inspired by the title page of

‘The Nightingale: a collection of approved songs’, (R101554.1.7).

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