The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

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Another transcriber of Tahitian tales

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This post is contributed by Letitia Henville, presently preparing a PhD (Univ. Toronto) on late nineteenth century ballad translations.

 Ballad Puzzles (Part Two)

In my first post, I described the strange piece of manuscript I found in the Beinecke Rare Books Library at Yale University, and its relationship to Stevenson’s Tahitian ballad “Song of Rahéro.” The second puzzle piece that I found during that trip was held not in the library but in the Yale University Art Gallery, which, during my stay in New Haven, happened to be hosting a special exhibition of works called John La Farge’s Second Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890–1891. La Farge, an American painter and writer who spent a year travelling in the South Pacific, had met Stevenson in Samoa in October 1890; La Farge described this meeting in a letter to the New York Times published shortly after Stevenson’s death.

La Farge’s Sketchbook #8, “Tahiti – 1891, 32v, 33r

La Farge’s Sketchbook #8, “Tahiti – 1891,” 32v, 33r

La Farge’s Sketchbook #8, “Tahiti – 1891,” includes transcriptions of indigenous Tahitian legends. Stevenson claimed that “as many as five different persons have helped me with details” of the story that became his “Song of Rahéro”. It is probable that these five persons were (i) Ori a Ori, the dedicatee of the poem; (ii) the Teva matriarch Ari’i Taimai, and three of her adult children: (iii) Queen Joanne Marau Ta’aroa Tepau Salmon (who Stevenson called Queen Marau), ex-wife of the French Governor King Pomare V; (iv) Tati Salmon, who Stevenson identifies as the “hereditary high chief of the Tevas” in his notes to the poem; and (v) Moetia, for whom Stevenson wrote “To an Island Princess,” later published in Songs of Travel.

Marau and Tati were fluent in English, French and Tahitian, which meant they could communicate fairly easily with Stevenson—who professed in In the South Seas that he only could “smatter” in Polynesian languages. Following in Stevenson’s footsteps, La Farge met with these same people and wrote down the stories that they told him.

La Farge’s sketchbook transcriptions—published almost verbatim in his posthumous Reminiscences of the South Seas (1912)—provide examples of the kind of source material Stevenson integrated in his Tahitian ballad. Like Stevenson, who claimed he had “not consciously changed a single feature” of “Rahéro,” La Farge repeatedly stated in Reminiscences that he had not edited the words of his sources: “This is the story exactly as Queen Marau told it”; “I leave it as I first wrote it down”; “[The above contains] words that I do not quite understand”; and so on.

Of course, these Teva storytellers would have been self-editing their stories, telling them as them could be received and understood by La Farge—in English, with some indeterminable degree of consideration for the conventions of English-language story-telling. Still, the apparent lack of editorial intervention on the part of La Farge’s text gives us access to what appear to be quotations from a woman who may have been one of Stevenson’s sources. So while Stevenson’s drafts of “Song of Rahéro” may still be missing, La Farge’s sketchbook transcriptions provide a glimpse into the kind of stories that Stevenson may have been told, by these same people, in 1888.

Part of the exhibition is available as an online exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery site, John La Farge’s South Seas Sketchbooks 1890-1891.

RLS, poet and anthropologist

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This post is contributed by Letitia Henville, presently preparing a PhD (Univ. Toronto) on late nineteenth century ballad translations.

Ballad puzzles (part 1)

In December 2010, I visited the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library at Yale University, hoping to find Stevenson’s manuscript translation of an indigenous Tahitian legend, “Song of Rahéro.” This poem was written while Stevenson was in Tautira, Tahiti, between 28 October and 25 December 1888. I’d hoped that “Song of Rahéro” was hiding, un- or mis-catalogued, somewhere in the vast Edwin J. Beinecke Collection of Robert Louis Stevenson at Yale; given that my PhD dissertation focuses on late nineteenth century ballad translations, the manuscript of “Song of Rahéro” seemed like an important missing piece. I’d already located his manuscript for “The Feast of Famine: Marquesan Manners” (from early October 1888) in the Morgan Library in New York—but the Beinecke had more manuscript material from Stevenson’s time in Tahiti, including partially-translated poems like “Let Us Come and Join the Clan of the Tevas” and “Song of Tepari.”

I never found the missing manuscript, and if anyone reading this happens to know where it is, I’d love to hear from you. What I did find in New Haven, though, were two puzzle pieces that have helped me to better understand the context in which Stevenson made his translation. This first of two posts describes the first puzzle piece: a page of manuscript with almost no words on it.

‘Song of Rahéro’

In his notes to “Song of Rahéro”—the first of five poems published in the collection Ballads (1890)—Stevenson wrote:

“This tale, of which I have not consciously changed a single feature, I received from tradition. It is highly popular through all the country of the eight Tevas, the clan to which Rahéro belonged; and particularly in Taiárapu, the windward peninsula of Tahiti, where he lived. I have heard from end to end two versions; and as many as five different persons have helped me with details. There seems no reason why the tale should not be true.”

I now believe that Stevenson meant to “not consciously change” even the meter of the poem—that is, that he attempted to reproduce Tahitian rhythms in his English-language text.

While some of the poems that Stevenson wrote before his South Pacific travels feature strong ballad rhythms—the anapestic trimeter lines of “Ticonderoga” (“This is the tale of the man”); the alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines of “The Counterblast Ironical” (“A clear account writ fair an’ broad, / An’ a plain apologie”), both of them rhymed ABAB—the meter of “Song of Rahéro” is unusual. It has long hexameter lines (six-foot, six-beat), and these in addition consistently lack a strong central caesura; in a private letter to a friend, Edmund Gosse said, of “Rahéro” and the collection: “the versification is atrocious.” That Stevenson could write strong ballad rhythms but chose not to for “Rahéro” seemed, to me, significant.

Stevenson’s annotations to “Song of Rahéro” suggest that this rhythmical inconsistency was consciously constructed. A number of the notes to “Song of Rahéro” provide suggestions for pronunciation:

Yottowas,” so spelt for convenience of pronunciation […] Námunu […] [is] pronounced […] dactyllically.

In other notes, Stevenson switches to the imperative:

Omare,” pronounce as a dactyl. […] Paea—pronounce to rhyme with the Indian ayah

Such comments show an interest in the sounds and word-stress of Tahitian words by a careful observer who would undoubtedly also be interested in Tahitian metrical patterns.

A page of strange scansion

Then, while sitting in the Beinecke Reading Room, I turned over the leaf of the manuscript of “Song of Tepari”, and was both surprised and confused by the page that lay before me—a page of scansion of no recognizable meter:

Reverse of “Song of Tefari [sic],” McKay 6888, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Reverse of “Song of Tefari [sic],” McKay 6888, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

A quick check showed that the scansion on this page does not correspond to the English-language versions of the Tahitian songs on the reverse. The columns of numbers on the right, which appear to count numbers of syllables (one column reads “10,” “12,” “12,” “7,” “12,” “12,” “8”) and numbers of metrical feet (the other column reads “4 feet,” “6,” “6,” “6,” “6”), indicate long lines, frequently of six feet. I asked myself: could this be the key to unlocking the meter of Stevenson’s strange hexameters in “Rahéro”?

The answer, in brief, is no: these lines of scansion can’t be directly mapped on to Stevenson’s “Rahéro”. But rather than a metrical analysis of his own poem, I believe these lines to be Stevenson’s attempt to transcribe the rhythm of a choir of Tahitian singers.

In his letters, Stevenson mentions listening to choirs of himene singers; anthropological evidence and late Victorian accounts of Tahitian choirs both suggest that himene choirs practiced their songs multiple times. So, rather than hastily jotting down rhythms, struggling to keep up with the song, Stevenson would have had time to revise his scansion as he listened to the chorus’s repetitions; the corrections, revisions, and attempts at finding patterns in the rhythm evident on this page may have been based on listening to the same passage multiple times. Certainly Stevenson was an able musician: John Russell’s “Music of Robert Louis Stevenson” makes this fact abundantly clear. Even with his sensitive, musically-inclined ear, however, Stevenson seemed to have struggled to detect any underlying pattern in the singing. And so, I’d suggest, the lack of consistent rhythm in “Rahéro” may be one of the ways in which Stevenson attempted to accurately convey the “song,” without “consciously chang[ing] a single feature”.

My article on this page of scansion, and its implications in an interpretation of “Song of Rahéro,” was published in the July 2012 issue of Literature Compass. Its title is “‘The Walter Scott of Tahiti’: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Ballad Translation.”

Written by rdury

17/06/2013 at 2:11 pm