Let us now praise famous men; in particular, let us praise Masaru Ibuka, the technical genius behind Sony Corp. of Japan. Twenty years ago this summer, Ibuka and his helpers created the Walkman and made the world a better place. Perhaps that overstates it a little, but not much. For many of us, the Walkman long ago acquired permanent status among the century's great ideas.
It put music and other sounds in places where we never dreamt of experiencing them. I was a little slow catching on (maybe I thought it was only for teenagers), but some time in the 1980s I realized that the Walkman was made for me. I have been filled with gratitude ever since. In my experience, it improves almost everything you do alone, whether it's riding in the subway, flying in a plane, waiting in a lineup -- or just walking. The fact that I can have Handel or Miles Davis as reliable companions, on demand, makes me contemplate the technology of culture in the mood that the Japanese call neyaka. That means optimistic, open-minded and wide-ranging -- it's a word they toss around a lot at Sony.
As those who use one know, Walkman sound is not like other sound. A Walkman turns your cranium into an echo chamber. The sound is deep and broad: It flows down distant tunnels, as if from "caverns measureless to man," as Coleridge says in Kubla Khan, which, as it happens, is one of many poems I've recently been rediscovering through my Walkman.
I've had a precious tape of W. H. Auden for a couple of years and, last year, I acquired A Century of Recorded Poetry, a four-cassette collection of poets reading their own work (Walt Whitman on an Edison wax cylinder, W. B. Yeats in a scratchy reading of The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Ezra Pound sounding mad but grand). More recently, I acquired the excellent Penguin English Verse in six volumes, each of them containing two cassettes and a little book of the poems. (It costs $125 for the set of six, or $16.99 per volume.)
The poems are read by British actors, among them Judi Dench, Alec McCowen and Jill Balcon. The series begins with a medieval lyric by anon. from the 16th century and ends, a dozen cassettes later, with Wilfred Owen, one of the poets shaped by the First World War. The volumes fall into obvious categories, such as The Eighteenth Century: Swift to Crabbe, and The Romantics, and many of the poems are (as they pretty well have to be) fairly standard anthology pieces. But there are surprises, not only in the poems but in the way a listener's perception of them changes under the influence of the actors and the simple fact of hearing the words read.
I've discovered, among many other things, that even when you've heard Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner read half a dozen times (by Crawford Logan, his voice coloured with just the right degree of wonder and fear), it doesn't lose its bizarre charm. I've also learned that Robert Burns does not improve with rehearing, no matter how hard you try to convince yourself that there must be, after all this time, something to be said for him. Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), the earliest named poet we encounter in the cassettes, is more stylish and more touching than he seems on paper. Alexander Pope, read by Balcon, is much funnier than I had imagined. Keats and Shelley, heard repeatedly, are as good as everyone has always thought, but Byron seems less admirable when read aloud; his rhetorical flourishes are exposed in all their self-consciousness.
To listen to the Romantics in the middle of a big city is to understand that they invented a way of writing about nature that has not been equalled and still feels remarkably fresh. Keats, Wordsworth and the others are so good at it that some of us may prefer their version of nature to nature itself. (In the same way, Billy Wilder argued that movies improve on reality, however glorious: "I prefer Paris, Paramount, to Paris, France.") After all, when has anybody heard a skylark whose song was as impressive as Shelley's To a Skylark -- even if Shelley did rhyme springest, wingest and singest?
Much as we may love the Romantics, at the end of the 20th century it's impossible not to feel ambivalent about them, especially in this historical context. Hearing them read intensifies both what we like and what we don't like about them. The romantics sound much more old-fashioned than the metaphysical poets of the early 17th century, such as John Donne and Robert Herrick. Donne and his contemporaries, two centuries older, feel fresher, even younger. Partly it's their cleaned-up language: They reach us through generations of editors, their spelling (and now their pronunciation) standardized for modern tastes. Romantic poetry, on the other hand, comes down to us much as originally written, with all its antique-sounding choice of words. The Romantics were unfortunately heavy users of wouldst, canst, thou, thy, etc. Coleridge liked "o'erspread" and "affright," and Wordsworth, writing of leaves flying through the air, said they "chariotest to their dark wintry bed." (He may have thought he was inserting "chariotest" into the English language as a synonym for "travel," but after about two centuries the Oxford English Dictionary still adamantly refuses to recognize this accomplishment.)
The difference, however, goes far beyond language. In 1999, the Romantics seem too anxious to be adorable: Their earnest desire to demonstrate that they're in earnest can be a strain. The 17th-century poets come across on tape as more concise and compressed: They keep thinking of how to do more with less, and they're unafraid to imbed their passion in irony. I also enjoy the way they incorporated in their work a sense of the new science that was being born around them.
The other day, for the 300th time, I read about improved versions of the Walkman. This month, Sony will bring out a high-priced anniversary model. Fine, but I buy a new one only when an old one wears out. As far as I'm concerned, the original was perfect.