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The Soul's Voice

One of the greatest events in the history of this planet was the beginning upon it of articulate speech. Evolution has, as yet, attained no greater triumph than in this discovery of soul to soul by the fitting of thought to sound. How it came about we know not, though science is ever groping towards some answer to the problem. Animals, we know, have their signal codes. In Africa lions hunt in concert and send message notes to each other as they tighten their cordon round the game. The chatter of apes is being spoken of as a rudimentary language, and attempts even are being made to translate it. Human speech began probably in similar humble fashion, but its destinies were magnificent. In the process of its development we cannot say what was the order of cooperation, how far the struggling soul shaped its organ of expression, or how the perfecting of the organ gave new capacity to the soul. May be that our poet Spenser is mainly right in his Platonic affirmation,

Of soule the bodie forme doth take,
For soule is form and doth the bodie make.

But how the mere effort of the inner life wrought to the shaping and refining of the vocal machinery up to the present range and delicacy is as great a mystery as is that of its present use. Have we ever properly considered this latter mystery ; of how at any moment our intellect, our emotions, our will establish them-selves at our vocal chords and, without the slightest hesitation, strike the exact combination of them they want, and set them vibrating to precisely the needed pitch ; and how thus the complex of our inmost soul, made into a sound, discharges in this fashion its full content into another soul P

Questions of this sort meet us at the threshold of our topic, but it is not on their account that we have introduced it. There are matters connected with the soul's voice that touch us more nearly than do the purely scientific problems connected with it. How closely the voice and that realm of harmony to which it is related lie to the innermost of man's moral and spiritual life was a point very early discerned. Plato exhibits its full significance when in the "Republic" he speaks of rhythm and harmony as entering into the deepest parts of the soul, and declares that "by the educated sense of harmony we learn to discern between the good and the base, the ugly and the beautiful in all things." Ruskin endorses the doctrine when he reminds us that "all the greatest music is by the human voice," and that " with the Greeks the God of music was also the God of righteousness."

It is worth trying to discover what precisely these ideas amount to. That which Plato, in his doctrine of music, seems mainly to convey was that rhythm and harmony of sound, how-ever produced, have a marvellous parallel with man's inner states ; that music, like the soul, can be gay, frivolous, wrathful ; or solemn, serene, ecstatic ; that man's heights and depths, his greatness and his littleness, can be interpreted for him and realised in him through sound. But there is more than that. The relation of sound to our deepest life is not fairly got at till we study a certain phenomenon in speech, not too often met with, but which, where it is, leaves ever its own unmistakable impression. When we have discussed the quality of a voice as tested by the usual standards; when its powers have been registered by the singer, the elocutionist, or the actor, has all been said? The range they cover is immense, but there is an element of voice possibility which they have not touched and never can. It is the element, unique and indefinable, that is furnished by the size and the stirring of the soul behind.

It is not in life's ordinary intercourse that we catch this note. The voice is employed for the most part in doing the mind's hack work. It retails the news, discusses questions of fact or of logic, expresses in its different registers the usual day-by-day emotions, and all this without any unlocking of its secret doors. But those doors sometimes do open, and a breath from within, of something mysterious, unearthly, passes into the tone. The speaker whose utterance is of life's weightier matters knows perfectly the experience. At times his voice has handed out what he had to say mechanically, by a hard, pumping process, each sentence, as it were, with a separate stroke of the handle so much fact, so much argument, and there an end. At another time his vocal organs, uttering, it may be, almost the same words, are thrilling with vibrations from an unseen source ; each note has its myriad overtones, spirit echoes, as it were, of what is said. The man's voice is the instrument of a new music; his soul is speaking, stirred in its turn by an Oversoul mightier than itself. Socrates was describing this note when he spoke of being, in his words, " moved by a Divine and spiritual influence." It thrilled at times in the utterance of Newman. It was this which was felt in the words of Keble when, as Thomas Mozley says of them, "they seemed to come from a different and holier sphere." When the Jewish people said of the words of Jesus, " Never man spake like this man," the reference, we may be sure, was not merely to the meaning conveyed. There was the impression also of the unfathomable soul that uttered them, and that lived in the tone, saturating it with its mystic essence. Between words spoken by one man and the same words uttered by another, what a gulf ! It is the difference in size of the one soul behind as compared with that of the other. All which may be summed up in a word, to wit, that no one has discovered the capabilities of his voice till he has discovered the capabilities of his soul.

It is worth while reading history just for the purpose of discovering this magnificent spiritual note as it from time to time breaks in upon the human concert. There are periods when every-thing appears drowned in dissipation and folly, when human speech is a mere chatter, and the deeper man seems dead. Suddenly there breaks upon the air the indescribable vibrant tone. A voice sounds through the night, as the Latin poet says, " declaring immortal things in human speech," and the soul of every man within him trembles in response. Terrena coelestibus cedunt. It is felt that a prophetic word has been spoken, that the deepest essence of the age, its whole inner burden of feeling, aspiration and desire has uttered itself in this cry and has delivered therein its spiritual testimony. It was precisely in this that Luther, as Harnack in his fine study of him has shown, was the prophet of the Western world in the sixteenth century. What filled his voice with a power beyond words was the soul behind, fired with a new consciousness of God. No man need pose as a prophet unless that tone is singing in him. When it is there he is not to be stopped though, as the aforesaid Dr. Martin once himself declared, it " should rain devils for seven days."

Wonderful and awe-inspiring as are the effects when the soul comes thus into human speech, uttering itself to the world, not less so are they when the music is wholly interior, meant for one ear alone. The intruding note coming out of the depths of the spirit has been enough many a time to rend a man in twain. Most instructive here is that story, one of a thousand similar that might be told, of Lacordaire, the great French preacher. As a young advocate at the Bar, after a brilliant university career, irresistible in eloquence and ability, his career assured, the world at his feet, he is found one day by a friend alone in his room, sobbing and heartbroken. What is the matter with Lacordaire P This : that in the midst of his successes the inner deeps have suddenly broken up and overwhelmed his pleasure-world. A voice has spoken within, proclaiming that world a mockery, and himself a failure. " A delusion," says some one, "a moment of pique." But the preacher's whole career dated from that moment. Paul had such a time, and Augustine, and many another who has carried, as it seemed, a world's spiritual interests in his hands. As to whether the voices they heard were trustworthy, they were perhaps as good judges as their critics.

Domestic life is full of histories, pathetic, often tragic, of the soul's strange, long silences, broken at last, and many a time too late, by a cry from its depths. How often happens it that the genuine affection of worthy hearts, covered up and concealed under a vexed surface of irritations and misunderstandings, lies almost unnoted by its possessors until the swift warning of a near parting wakes the soul to a sense of what it is losing, and draws from it the awful cry of its anguished love ! What a lesson writ in fire is that word of Carlyle on the death of his wife : " Oh, if only I could have five minutes with her to assure her that I loved her through all that ! " How well were it here for some of us to follow the example of the worthy Siebenkas in Jean Paul Richter's story when, concerning Lenette, "Every morning, every evening he said to himself, ' How much ought I not to forgive ; for we shall remain so short a time together ! ' "

It were indeed vastly better for us all if, in our intercourse with one another, we oftener permitted the soul to speak. The surface chatter of the present day is in its emptiness and unreality almost worse than that of the France of the seventeenth century which tempted Pascal to exclaim, " Diseur de bons mots, mauvais caractere ! " If people knew it they could rule by the voice ; not by its vehemence and clamour, but by the soul they put into it. Spirit, which can saturate feature, can also saturate sound with its mystic essence. A domestic circle may be made a paradise by the music of one low, sweet voice. There are tones of spiritual natures that seem to visualise holiness, under whose pleading an erring man has been as the fallen archangel at the reproof of Zephon:

And felt how awful goodness is, and saw
Virtue in her shape how lovely; saw and pined
His loss.

The note we have been seeking to fix and to describe is indeed a voice from heaven, and to hear it, as at times we do, is to receive anew the assurance that man is not forsaken of God. It is a note worth striving for in human speech. The elocutionist cannot teach it, nor is it found in the whole scale commanded by the operatic star. To cultivate it we must go deeper than the vocal organs. Its seat is in the soul.

( Originally Published 1903 )

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