(Re)Listening to George Whalley

Sound is an essential consideration in the pursuit of George Whalley. He had a distinct and recognizable voice in person and on air. For those who knew him, the quality and timbre of his speech, conjoined with the deliberation of his thought and language, were an integral part of his character. He was a gifted amateur pianist and music was a life-long love and practice. He was a talented scriptwriter and adaptor for CBC radio whose works contributed to and participated in technical advancements in broadcasting. Capturing these elements of his person and life is difficult. A well-written biography can do more justice to his writings, presenting anew in words the thoughts and feelings he inscribed on the page. For his voice, his musicianship, his radio broadcasts, it is preferable to encounter them with the ear instead of the eye. But recordings of his voice are relatively rare. Access to his radio broadcasts is limited by the necessity of visiting archives to hear them played, and, as far as his musicianship goes, there is no known record of his dexterity on the piano keyboard. This makes collecting and preserving – and publishing when possible – the limited number of recordings of great importance.

What follows is an account of the kinds and sources of the recordings, accompanied with comments on their significance. In this way, some of the work of the Whalley project can be illuminated.

The recordings in the database have been gathered from a small number of sources. Whalley wrote and adapted scripts and narrated broadcasts for CBC Radio and Televsion from 1953 to 1974. He also frequently appeared on CKWS (Kingston, Ontario) and CRFC (Queen’s University radio). The studio records and audio recordings for these appearances have yet to be discovered. Many of the CBC radio programs were collaborations with John Reeves, the long-time CBC producer (from 1952 to 1986). Queen’s University Archives (QUA) preserves a significant collection of Whalley’s scripts in process, from the earliest to the final drafts, and among them is a large amount of correspondence – letters Whalley received and carbon copies of those he wrote – and the CBC contracts. In all, Whalley arranged and donated broadcast-related materials filling six boxes with a total of one hundred and forty-one folders. The textual record of Whalley’s writing for radio is more complete than the audio record. In addition, Concordia University’s Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism Studies contains several of Whalley’s scripts and sound recordings in its archives for CBC Radio Dramas.

Fifty-one ½ inch reel-to-reel tapes and four CDs are in the George Whalley Fonds in QUA.[1] Though not a complete collection of Whalley’s CBC radio broadcasts, it contains the most important of them, such as Whalley’s first attempt to tell the story of John Hornby, Edgar Christian, and Harold Adlard in Death in the Barren Ground (1954), his adaptation of Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man (1965), and his adaptation of James Agee and Walker Evan’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Me” (1966). (The CBC radio archive in Toronto also has several broadcasts.) Very few of the tapes are recordings of Whalley speaking publically; for instance, one appears to be from an academic symposium and another, very poor in sound quality, is a class discussion from the late 1970s. However, one tape with clear audio contains a poetry reading given by Whalley and his former student Doug Jones at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University, 10 March 1966, with Tom Marshall acting as the master of ceremonies. This is the only known recording of Whalley reading his poetry to an audience. In introducing Whalley, Jones describes him as “more platonic James Bond” which arouses great laughter in the room (Poetry Reading). Before reading each of his poems, Whalley makes illuminating remarks about their origins, comments that are very rarely found in his writings. (The readings of each poem be heard individually.)

Two cassette tapes were discovered among the papers preserved by Katharine Clark, Whalley’s eldest daughter, a surprise that led us to recover a once lost recording and find another of which no one was aware. The former is a copy of Elizabeth Hay’s April 1976 interview of Whalley in Yellowknife in which she asks him to reflect on The Legend of John Hornby. The latter is a reading, dated 21 March 1977, Whalley made of an autobiographical fragment deleted from a paper he gave in Toronto on 15 October 1976 entitled “The Imprint of Man’s Mind,” which was later printed as “The Place of Language in the Study of Literature.”  Both are the only known copies of the recordings.

Among the materials held by the Whalley Estate in England are two CD copies of recordings, the originals of which have not been found. On one, recorded in 1975, Whalley reads a few of his poems: in order, “Pig,” “To Mr. W.H. All Happiness,” “A Minor Poet is Visited by the Muse,” “Wheat,” “Initial Assault – Sicily,” and “Canadian Spring.” The other has recordings of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and “The Loss of the Eurydice.” These are, presumably, readings Whalley made for the CBC in the 1950s, a cassette copy of which John Ferns had received from Whalley in the early 1980s and donated to the Whalley project a few years ago.

With the permission of the Whalley Estate, a number of recordings have been published on the website to make the audio accessible to a wide audience. They have been selected for listeners to hear the quality of Whalley’s voice and encounter a cross section of his pursuits. These recordings illuminate his life and writings, but how and why they do can only be briefly sketched here.

Those who knew Whalley and have spoken or written about him almost always remark on his voice, on the quality of his speech, his diction and phrasing. One is reminded of the attention to Samuel Johnson’s speech that is often found in the reminiscences of those who knew that inimitable conversationalist. Whalley’s son Christopher tells us “his long attention to thought and language had produced a remarkable proficiency […] and the quality of expression it maintained was consistent. His table talk was as good as his learned writing: refined ideas cleanly and fluently worded” (Moore 188). One acquaintance, Ivan Anhalt, the composer and decade-long head of the Queen’s University Department of Music in the 1970s, listened to Whalley’s voice with a trained and sensitive ear, as he might attend to the quality of a musical instrument: “I recall, above all, I was especially attracted by his voice. It had an extraordinarily beautiful quality and resonance. It was exquisite also on account of the way he used it in all dimensions: lilt, timing, dynamic stress, range, and distribution, just to single out some of the prosodic aspects” (Moore 143). The truth of these observations can be tested against the evidence in the “Autobiographical Fragment.” Its excellent sound quality reproduces Whalley’s voice more clearly than any other. The whole seven minutes and forty-three seconds, during which Whalley speaks about his learning as a child at home and at school and how that education shaped his mind, is a reflection on language, reading, and learning, all of which are Whalley’s central subjects.

In his classes at Queen’s, Whalley often began and ended discussions of a poem by reading it. According to his students, these readings were essential to the trajectory of the lessons. The limited understanding that existed when the poem was first read became, through a process of discovery, transformed into something full and nuanced for many by the time of the second reading. Hearing the language and rhythms aloud, learning the shape and texture of the poem as something made: Whalley believed these were central in getting-to-know a poem. The words must be heard by the ear, not merely seen by the eye. The readings made lasting impressions on students. As Jane Campbell writes, “His voice is still to be heard, sometimes when I am re-reading words of Donne or Yeats or Eliot, sometimes – as Frost says – as a ‘tone of meaning but without the words’” (Moore 101). Though no recordings of Whalley reading T.S. Eliot (or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which is a surprise given the amount of time Whalley devoted to him) have been found, there are a number of readings of poems by three of his favourite poets: John Donne, Hopkins, and W.B. Yeats, all of which were likely recorded for Whalley’s broadcasts on poetry for CBC radio. For those of us who were not his students, we can indirectly share in their experience of hearing the poems read aloud. For those who have read Whalley’s essays from the 1970s on poetry, language, thought, heuristic inquiry, and the humanities, these recordings prompt thinking about his readings in relation to the arguments in those essays. The shape of these arguments, which certainly owes much to his teaching, perhaps owe something to the large amount of writing Whalley did for CBC radio.

On the Whalley website two radio broadcasts are available, one in sound and text and the other in text only. The broadcast recording of Death in the Barren Ground is reproduced in its entirety following the negotiation of a ten-year license with the CBC. An accurate transcription accompanies it. For If This Is A Man, a transcription of John Reeves’ copy of the script that reproduces its layout shows readers the innovative script-writing and production techniques Whalley and Reeves co-discovered in dramatizing Levi’s account of his time in the concentration camp. As Reeves explains, Whalley produced the “unique format of script layout” in which “there is a left-hand page, containing the narration, and opposite it there is a right-hand page, to be played simultaneously, containing the dialogue and the sound-effects. To put it another way, the right-hand page is Auschwitz itself, and the left-hand page is Primo’s account of it” (Reeves). The script layout was directly tied to the production. Reeves explains that

on the right-hand page, where Primo has lines, he is in dialogue with other members of the cast and he shares a microphone with them as they re-enact events. But on the left-hand page, all his lines are, so to speak, outside the action. […] [H]is lines are tagged variously with the letters N and D and R […] Narrating the events, or Describing the scene or the people, or Reflecting on the meaning of what takes place. Douglas Rain [who played Primo Levi] was fully sensitive to the slight difference between the three aspects of his text, and the subtlety of his tripartite delivery was enhanced, if almost imperceptibly, by his speaking into three microphones that differed slightly from each other in their sound quality. (Reeves)

Though the broadcast of If This Is A Man cannot be licensed by the CBC (the union contract rights intertwined with the original production making the cost of reproducing it prohibitive), the text of the script provides some insight into how Whalley thought about speech and conversation, about the relationships between the words a person utters aloud in public and those private thoughts that are articulated silently in one’s mind alone.

By attending to Death in the Barren Ground and If This Is A Man, one comes to realize there are continuities linking the radio work and Whalley’s other writings, especially his poetry and literary criticism, which have yet to be explored and understood. The overwhelming majority of Whalley’s poetry – over one hundred and fifty out of a total of two hundred and fifty pieces – was written in the 1940s, during and immediately after the war.[2] It cannot be a coincidence that the number of poems Whalley writes falls off around 1953 to 1954, at the time he was writing Death in the Barren Ground, when his energy was redirected into radio. Given that Whalley’s conception of poetry was inclusive, he may not have seen a sharp distinction between the writing of poems and the writing of scripts. Poetry “is informed – or declares itself,” Whalley argues, “by the inventive rhythms of a mind unfolding what cannot be known except in the uttering of it” (Crick 148). Whether this happens in prose or verse is not essential. The emphasis on utterance is significant. One of the poets Whalley admired most, W.B. Yeats, he praised for having an “unmatched sense of the integrity of language – significant words rhythmically disposed, passionate hieratic utterance keyed to the inventive rhythms of the speaking voice” (Crick 147). And Jane Austen, whom Whalley regarded as a poet, was unmatched in her “incorruptible sense of the integrity of prose, the translucent rhythms of the speaking voice in the other harmony, the peculiar signature of breath and intelligence that identifies a personal speaking and the state of mind that from moment to moment informs the voice” (Crick 147). In writing and adapting for radio, Whalley may have been developing and practicing the idea of poetry he later articulated in his essays of the 1970s.

One additional but no less serious consideration in choosing the audio to publish online has been to reveal Whalley’s humour, a quality restrained in his published writings but traces of which are found in his private writings. Within the immediate family, Whalley’s humour, sometimes playful and absurd, was well known. This sense of humour was shared with his youngest brother Peter Whalley, whose humour can be seen in the many political and other cartoons he published in MacLean’s, on CBC television, and in books co-written with Eric Nicol. For Whalley, the evidence is scarce. One hint is found in an introduction Whalley made for a poetry reading F.R. Scott gave in the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 23 February 1967. For the first two minutes and twenty seconds, Whalley makes a conventional introduction, but then he tells the audience,

I don’t know why but I think the only appropriate introduction for the sort of reading that we are likely to hear because Frank has never allowed his verse to settle into any predictable mode – he’s finding poems at the moment – is to read the sort of poem, the only kind of poem that I can think of which doesn’t offer him any competition. And that is a sonnet to a monkey written by Marjory Fleming, who died in 1811 at the age of eight. (“Introduction”)

The audience erupts into laughter. Then Whalley reads the sonnet, of which the first two stanzas are reproduced here:

O lively, O most charming pug,
Thy graceful air and heavenly mug
The beauties of his mind do shine
And every bit is shaped and fine.
Your teeth are whiter than the snow
You’re a great buck, you’re a great beau.
Your eyes are of so nice a shape
More like a Christian’s than an ape. (“Introduction”)

During it he repeatedly chuckles and laughs with the audience. One can imagine the smile on his face when the tone of his voice changes, as he endeavours to read the poem straight. A written biography cannot reproduce the sound of a voice changing because a person is smiling, unable to resist the urge to laugh in the moment. This must be heard by the ear, not read by the eye.

Making these recordings widely available may have some bearing on how we read contemporary Canadian works and understand the significance of Whalley’s writings in relation to them. Readers of Elizabeth Hay’s novel Late Nights on Air might experience the book differently after listening to Death in the Barren Ground, which has an important place in the story.[3] The characters repeatedly converse about Hornby and Christian. Some of them read and reflect on The Legend of John Hornby, the biography Whalley wrote which is, as Misao Dean argues, “one of the great texts of Canadian modernism” (107). In a scene in which the characters listen to and discuss the radio play, Hay’s novel reminds us that the book’s history is tethered to Death in the Barren Ground and that Whalley’s writing for radio is also worthy of our regard (124-32). A little known fact is that Whalley’s radio broadcasts held the rapt attention of Michael Ondaatje, one of his students: “Among my favourites was his inspired adaptation of Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and his program on Primo Levi – I sat down for ten minutes and found myself three hours later not having moved” (Moore 121). What did Ondaatje take away from them? Was it a lesson different in kind from those in which Whalley “taught [him] how to shape a book” of poetry or to respect prose as much as verse (Moore 120)? Contemporary listeners might find and take something away as well, if we attend carefully. Whalley’s radio broadcasts reached a general audience that must have been much larger than the one for his books and essays (with the exception of the Hornby biography) and was not limited to specialists, scholars, and students. Of what significance are Whalley’s contributions to radio over nearly two decades?

One way this question might be answered is to make the recordings freely available for scholars, students, and an audience of general listeners to rediscover in the twenty-first century. This website addresses that issue by gathering together recordings of Whalley from Canada, the United States, England, and elsewhere.


Works Cited

Crick, Brian and John Ferns. Eds. Studies in Literature and the Humanities: Innocence of Intent. (Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1985).

Dean, Misao. Inheriting a Canoe Paddle: The Canoe in Discourses of English-Canadian Nationalism. (Toronto: U of T Press, 2013).

DiSanto, Michael John. Ed. The Complete Poems of George Whalley. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2016).

Hay, Elizabeth. Late Nights On Air. (Toronto: Emblem, 2007).

Moore, Michael. Ed. George Whalley: Remembrances. (Kingston: Quarry Press, 1989).

Reeves, John. “Concerning George Whalley and Radio.” http://georgewhalley.ca. accessed 1 Sept 2015. http://georgewhalley.ca/gwp/node/5050

Whalley, George. “Introduction to F.R. Scott.” 23 February 1967. Agnes Etherington Art Centre. SR 792. Queen’s University Archives, Kingston. http://georgewhalley.ca/gwp/node/1885

Whalley, George and Doug Jones. “Poetry Reading: George Whalley Introduced by Doug Jones.” SR788a-2-Left. Queen’s University Archives. http://georgewhalley.ca/gwp/node/1792


[1] The audio transfer was completed by Jennifer Hardwick. QUA has two reel-to-reel machines: a Revox A77 MK II and a Revox B77 MK II. Both of them were used. They were connected to a laptop using a RCA to 3.5 mm aux adaptor. Audacity, a free audio editor and recorder, was used to make WAV files of the recordings. These were converted into .mp3 files that were saved as part of the records in the Whalley database. All of the WAV and mp3 files are stored in QUA and in multiple hard drives at Algoma University.

[2] The Complete Poems of George Whalley presents his entire oeuvre for the first time.

[3] At the time Hay wrote the novel, Death in the Barren Ground was available only to those who travelled to the CBC Archives in Toronto, as she did when writing the book. It 2014 it was published on the Whalley website.