The Art of Eurhythmy

The Golden Blade, 1954, 53-62

The new art of Eurhythmy, which Rudolf Steiner inaugurated about forty years ago, was, in his own view, one of the most important contributions made by Anthroposophy to the civilization of our time. For an anthroposophist well instructed in the history of consciousness, it is fairly easy to show in theory why this should be so. But since Eurhythmy is not itself a theory but a practice, I prefer to begin this article not with an historical approach, but with the present moment in which that practice is being carried on. The first question then, is not, how and why did Eurhythmy come into being, but what sort of things go on in the minds of the audience when a public performance is given?

Human beings must perforce proceed from the known to the unknown. Confronted with something new, they instinctively compare it with the nearest – or what seems to them the nearest – thing to it in their store of experience. In 1954 the spectator of a Eurhythmy performance – and I am purposely assuming that it is his first venture and that the literature of Anthroposophy is a sealed book to him – will inevitably begin by comparing it with ballet. We need not linger on the resemblances, but as time goes on, he is likely to note the following surface differences. That the movements on stage are accompanied about as often by the spoken word (usually poetry) as they are by music; that much less importance appears to be attached to legs and their movements than is the case in ballet-dancing; that the arm movements, on the other hand, are much more varied and subtle. There are, of course, other differences; but let us assume that our spectator begins – as he is likely to do – by noticing these three. What can be done next by way of trying to appreciate the different and the new?

I think it possible that, if he relates the first difference with the third, and particularly if he has noticed a peculiar shape-making quality in some of the arm movements, he may come to the point of saying to himself: “It seems to be a sort of attempt to talk with the whole body, especially the arms”. And he will probably add, in a bewildered sort of way: “But in that case, why do they do it to music as well?”

At all events, if he does get to the point of saying this to himself, he will be doing pretty well; will perhaps have advanced about as far on the road to understanding Eurhythmy as desultory speculation will take him. How far appreciation, and its concomitant delight, must depend on understanding, is a question it is better to defer. The point is that, for anyone who started, as it were, from scratch and wanted eventually to reach an understanding of the true nature of Eurhythmy, this notion of “talking with the body” would be a good first step. It was so that Rudolf Steiner himself developed and presented it. It is true that he once referred to it as a “metamorphosis of dancing”, or as a sort of attempt to restore “temple-dancing”; which was itself, he said, an attempt to reflect the movements of the stars and planets, whose creative forces streamed into and fashioned man; and there is no need, in order to enjoy Eurhythmy, to belittle the art of dancing and its possibilities. But Steiner also pointed out that Eurhythmy is not dancing but ‘visible speech’ and ‘visible song’. Moreover, when Eurhythmy was born, dancing in the form of ballet was still a comparatively rare and exotic plant. Now that it has become so familiar and ubiquitous, it is the distinction rather than the relation between the two, which requires emphasising.

Since, however, it is an ignorant (though open-minded) spectator whose self-education in the understanding of Eurhythmy we are imagining, let us for the moment leave Steiner’s own exposition out of it. Let us suppose that, having reached this vague but pleasing fancy of “talking with the body”, he decided to investigate it further and see where it led him. Presumably he would first ask himself what, in some deeper sense, happens when we ‘talk’, and he would begin to examine theories about language and the origin of language and the nature of utterance and the word.

Unfortunately, nearly all that has been written on this subject, especially when it attempts to deal with the sounds as well as with the meanings of words, is either pedantic or shallow or both. It is just a fact that the Darwinian theory is totally incompatible with an understanding of the true nature of human speech. And it was in the nineteenth century, when the Darwinian theory held almost undisputed sway, that the devising of theories on the origin of language became a sort of popular sport. The speculative nature of these theories – variously nicknamed the “Bow-wow”, the “Pooh-pooh”, the “Ding-Dong” theory and the like – was quickly apparent to all and, well before the turn of the century, the subject of the origin of language had by a sort of tacit consent been ruled out of the province of scholarship and relegated to the mystics. Since that time occasional attempts have been made to base, if not the origin, at all events the nature of language on some kind of “sound symbolism”, and to relate the semantic element in words to the movements of the organs which produce them, and of the muscles generally. These attempts, however, have attracted very little attention, and it was only by accident that I heard of a book, published as recently as 1935, which might help a little further on his path our imagined spectator; who, by the way, has now, I think, served his purpose and may be allowed to retire.

Sir Richard Paget’s This English begins with an attempt to consider the whole nature of human speech and its relation to gesture. He bases his approach on a certain observed parallelism – and sympathy – between the movements of the limbs, particularly the arms and hands, and the movements of the vocal organs. This parallelism was indeed pointed out by Darwin himself in his book The Expression of the Emotions. Sir Richard Paget then goes on to mention that the gestures of articulation – or, as he elsewhere calls them, “mouth-gestures” and “mouth-postures” – which are made by the vocal organs in uttering the series of sounds which go to make up a particular word, repeat on a small scale the sort of bodily gestures men would make – and once did make – when he was trying to convey the same meaning by gesticulation:—

Thus, as man developed a gesture language with his hands and body – namely, by making natural pantomime – he also, unconsciously, developed a more or less corresponding gesture language of jaw, lips, tongue, etc., that accompanied it.

To give only one example, this author describes the mouth-gesture which produces the vowel u (oo) as “an elongated tubular mouth, nearly closed at either end”, and suggests that it may be expected to mean “something enclosed, or hollow, or full or tubular… something projecting forward”. The eurhythmist expresses the sound u by stretching out both arms to their full length, keeping them close together and parallel.

I am not, however, advocating this book as the best introduction to the study of Eurhythmy. It is obvious from my quotations that it will not take us very far. What is interesting about it, with all its crudity and limitations, is that by approaching the subject with a warmth of enthusiasm but in a strictly empirical way, and with no preconceived view of the spiritual origin of man – or rather (for the author assumes the Darwinian hypothesis) with a preconceived view which is inimical to the whole trend of his conclusions – he does, nevertheless, arrive at a conception of speech as being originally and essentially – gesture.

To those who reject the Darwinian picture of evolution, a fuller explanation of the gestural nature and potentialities of language is available, and it is one in which the element of pantomime plays a very small part. Those who make a habit of going to Church are told of it every Christmas morning, when the opening verses of St. John’s Gospel are read, but it is doubtful if many of them take it very seriously. It is the view that man is able to speak because in the beginning, he – and his world along with him – was “spoken”. Because they were spoken into being.

Since the Reformation, the mental picture which men have entertained of creation has become increasingly one of a single act of manufacture by God the Father. But, according to St. John, the world “came into being through the Word”. The Greek word which has been translated “was made” is the ordinary one for “becoming” or being born, which the Hebrew word used in the opening verses of the Book of Genesis has the meaning of cutting or carving as well as that of creating. It is clear that a “Word” which produced not only the audible but also the visible or tangible world which we see around us, must have been gestural as well as phonetic. “What then would the gods do”, said Steiner in the first of his lectures on Eurhythmy as Visible Speech, “if they really wished to form man out of a lump of earth? The gods would make movements, and as a result of these movements, capable of giving form to the dust of the earth, the human form would eventually arise”. The human being, he continued, as he stands before us, is the product of the eurhythmic movements which correspond to the sounds of the alphabet. And he adds the rather startling sentence:—“God eurhythmizes, and as the result of His eurhythmy there arises the form of man”. Perhaps the first rule for understanding and appreciating Eurhythmy is never to lose sight of its cosmic origin, never to forget that, even in its lightest moments, it is trying to “restore primordial movement” and in so doing to make us aware of the relation between speech and the genesis of man, and therefore between cosmic being and human being.

This process of ‘cosmic Eurhythmy’ is moreover reflected in the archetypal forms of the Zodiac which stand about the Earth and the planets which move around it in their endlessly varied creative dance. Each sign of the Zodiac and each planet is shown by Rudolf Steiner to correspond with a particular sound of the human alphabet. And here we notice a significant difference between the cosmic ‘Word’, out of which man originated, and the human speech and human Eurhythmy which he himself originates in response. The movements in Eurhythmy which directly represent in this way the signs of the Zodiac and the planets are not the same as the movements for the sounds which ‘correspond’ to these signs and planets.

Indeed, there is a certain contrast or opposition between the two series of movements. Paget spoke of ‘consonant gestures’ and ‘vowel postures’, and this arrangement holds good for what one might call the ‘alphabet movements’ given for Eurhythmy. Whereas for the ‘zodiacal and planetary movements’ as such, though the Zodiac corresponds with consonants, and the planets with vowels, it is the Zodiac which is represented by postures and the vowels by gestures. Thus the sound b may be associated either with the ‘b’ gesture or with the Virgo posture; the sound o either with the ‘o’ posture or the Jupiter gesture. It is as though in the one case the eurhythmist were called on to restore the primordial movement by a sort of recollection in imitation, while in the other he is to do so by means of his own, directionally opposite, response.

One might expect – there were times when Rudolf Steiner himself seemed to expect – that the fact just indicated, namely, that the movements of Eurhythmy are based, at all events in intention, on the gestures and movements which underlie their own being, would be enough to ensure an instinctive and enthusiastic response from any audience. Experience, however, has shown that this is far from being the case. And if we investigate the difficulties in the way of such an instinctive response a little further, I do not think we shall find it so very surprising. There are, first, the difficulties of the audience and, secondly, the difficulties of the eurhythmist. In order to understand and sympathise with both of them, it is necessary to consider for a little what has happened to language, and man’s relation to it, since the time of its origin.

We live in an age in which it is customary to distinguish sharply between factual statements on the one hand, and poetic or fanciful statements on the other. It is a very necessary distinction; and the power to make it is one of the faculties which all sane adults must acquire in some degree as they grow up. At the same time a strict analysis of language – that is of the medium through which all statements are made – discloses that the number and nature of purely factual statements is so very limited as to exclude from their subject-matter almost everything that immediately concerns the human being as such – and a great deal else as well. We find, when we investigate the nature of language, that, if by ‘factual’ statements we mean statements from which all that can only be called the ‘poetic’ element in language has been eliminated, there is very little we can do with them – beyond making machines and recording and operating what is mechanical in nature. From one point of view, naturally, that is very much indeed. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice! Nevertheless, we shall find, if we add to logical analysis an historical study of words and their meanings, that meaning itself, including ‘factual’ meaning, is the offspring, not of the logic but of the poetic in language.

Furthermore, if we approach the historical study of language with no preconceived notions borrowed from some other science, we are forced to the conclusion that the poetic in language is not necessarily man-made. On the contrary, a man-made art of “poetry” appears as a comparatively recent phenomenon in human evolution, being perhaps not much older than Homer. Following the poetic farther and farther back into the dimness of the past, we find, instead of that, a state of affairs in which man’s consciousness was, as it were, immersed in the spirituality of the world about him, and in which his language expressed this condition. It was this condition which gave rise to the poetic in language – but it was the emergence of man from this condition which made possible the art of poetry. For the art of poetry can arise only when man, having awoken into individual existence out of the spirit which gave him birth, deliberately tries to restore the unity in which he first slept and later began to dream. The art of poetry develops (or rather the conditions for its development are given) as the poetic inherent in language declines. But, of course, for the same reason it becomes more difficult to practise.

For the gradual disappearance of the poetic – that is, of the inherent or “given” poetic – from words is both cause and effect of another, parallel process. This is the divergence between the sounds of words and their meanings. Just as in the course of the ages sound, as carrier of meaning, became separated off from gesture, so, as the ensuing stage of the same process, meaning itself began to be felt as something separate from the sound which expressed it. It is much easier in a language such as Greek – and still more Hebrew – to feel an inevitable and often wonderful unity between the sounds of certain words and their meanings than it is in any modern European language; for the complex processes of physical migration, phonetic sound-changes, transliteration and translation have brought it about that, for instance, the same Greek or Latin word has often to be expressed in different modern languages by totally different sounds.

People sometimes speak as if this were wholly deplorable. It should not be forgotten that most of the beautiful variety of the human landscape has grown from it. Nevertheless it is a tragic consequence of the process that in our own time we take, instinctively, a view of words which regards them, not as the carriers or garments of their meaning, but as tickets or labels which merely “refer to” the things or ideas they are said to “mean”. We distinguish cautiously between the emotive and associational effect of a word and its “reference”. I doubt whether this would have been possible even as recently as the 14th century. I doubt whether it would have been possible for St. Thomas Aquinas.

The poets, of course, continue to be aware that the sounds are carriers of, as well as referents to, their meaning; but even here the divergence between sound and meaning has gone very far. Dr. Johnson, a fine critic and himself the maker of two or three admirable poems, ridiculed the idea of any valid connection. Things have now gone so far that it is possible to write a book about the language of poetry, deliberately ignoring the sound-element and treating poetry simply as a system of meanings. Indeed, it is only about twenty-five years since I wrote such a book myself.

One begins then to appreciate the difficulties of a modern audience confronted with a performance of Eurhythmy. We are asked to make the transition from sound back to gesture. But we are not even at the starting-point for such a transition. We are simply not used to experiencing words as sound; we are used to regard them as labels – labels of some character no doubt – melodious, jagged, and the like – but still as labels. And incidentally, when poetry is in question, we are much more used to reading it in silence than to hearing it clothed in physical sound. It looks as if we shall need a very inspired and perfect performance indeed, if we are to be lifted out of ourselves.

Yet the difficulties in the way of the eurhythmist’s producing such a perfect performance are even greater. For he – or more probably she – has to do the “restoring” not only with the mind but with the whole body, and so that it is apparent in the subtle quality of least movements. Moreover, what precisely does it signify, this “restoring of primordial speech-gestures?” Some kind of archaeological research perhaps – or a careful conning of descriptions given by Steiner followed by accurate reproduction – as the smart recruit reproduces the instructions of the drill-sergeant? Very far from it. It is not simply gestures that are to be made; it is gestures with meaning incarnate in them, gestures that are semantic in the way that words are. And this means that the gestures will not really be there at all, and there will be nothing for the audience to see – or rather there will be nothing it can “read”, for a true spectation of Eurhythmy involves not only seeing, but also the kind of seeing through which we call reading – there will be nothing the audience can “read”, unless the performer not only reproduces the gestures, but also experiences them. In other words they must be, not reproduced, but produced each time out of the very self of the performer – a self which is, as we know, a somewhat forlorn proposition; which has emerged from the cradling spirit; which has fallen out of the word; which is accustomed to divide meaning not only from gesture, but from sound itself.

Man is, however, not yet entirely disinherited. The poet still has his words, many of them with overtones of meaning that blossom from ancient roots far back in the past. And somehow or other he must use them, so that his poetry at once receives life and meaning from, and gives or restores life and meaning to them. (I may interpolate here that the principal object of the book to which I have just referred was to demonstrate this). In the same way the eurhythmist has his bodies, physical, etheric and astral. They also were ‘spoken’ – in the beginning. As words are the poet’s, so these are his “given” material, rich with the spirituality of an ancient and dying past, at once giving and receiving the spirit which is present life and meaning. But, for this delicate reciprocity of receiving and giving, the poet has at least the leisure of his ponderings and his erasures. Whereas the eurhythmist must somehow receive and give in the same instant of time, in a single movement.

It seems like demanding the impossible, and – let us not beat about the bush – there is one thing, and one thing only, which has made it possible. It is possible, because the inwardness, which we call ‘meaning’, came out of heaven and into earth. The movements of Eurhythmy can be true and effective only in so far as they arise from the activity of an Ego possessing that ‘emptiness’ into which the Christ impulse can penetrate. I do not say this for vague and general uplift. The deeper one enquires into the detail and practical application, the more clearly it appears. Something of the sort is, of course, in a measure true of all the arts, and will become truer, but in the old-established arts there is a rich inheritance from tradition which can be lived upon as a sort of spiritual capital, and this helps at present to conceal the fact. Eurhythmy is by the date of its birth, a Christian art, and in that sense it is the only one.

In practice, musical Eurhythmy meets with a readier response from the public than speech Eurhythmy. This was a disappointment to Rudolf Steiner, who regarded it as showing a lack of real understanding of what Eurhythmy is. I think it is due also to the absence, where music is concerned, of the particular obstacle I have been stressing. In music there is no obvious duality between the sound in itself and a “meaning” conceived as separate from it. Whereas in speech Eurhythmy the overcoming in some measure of this dichotomy is a condition precedent to its appreciation. And this is something which the eurhythmists cannot do for themselves. They should be able to begin about where it leaves off. It is for the poet to re-unite meaning and sound, and for the reader or reciter to restore to sound some of its “gestural” quality. These are problems into which I cannot enter. It may be that the future of the art of Eurhythmy depends on their solution.

It is certain, however, that, if we wish to understand and appreciate Eurhythmy, we ought not to approach speech through music, but vice versa. This is also in accordance with the course of evolution, for there is little doubt that primordial language was richly varied in tone and pitch, that song came before instrumental music, and that instrumental music is really a comparatively recent separating off, or abstraction, of what was once only an element in the totality of utterance. In the first two lectures in the book, Eurhythmy as Visible Song, the broad lines of such an approach are laid down. The alphabet and the diatonic scale are not just a heterogeneous aggregation of unorganised units. We can, if we will, get principal bearings and begin to find our way about in their interrelations, as we can, if we will, begin to find our way about the starlit sky by learning to recognize, first a few, and then more and more, of its wheeling constellations. In speech we distinguish first and foremost between the vowels and the consonants, the vowels expressing the inwardness, the feelings of man, while the consonants seek to represent, by gesturally reproducing them, the forms which create and uphold the outer world. But music as a whole is to speech as a whole rather as the vowels of speech are to its consonants. For while it is the function of speech to bring man into relation with the outer world, music is there to relate him to himself.

Taking the vowels themselves, it is not so very difficult to acquire a feeling for the very great quantitative differences between them, if we allow ourselves to dwell on them inwardly. Bring yourself to meditate a little on a (English sound ah) and u, letting them well and truly resound and sing in the place where unheard melodies ‘pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone’, and you will come to feel how, in an almost literal sense, they differ from each other toto caelo. A large part of the two lectures to which I have referred was concerned with the contrast between the “forward” vowels o and u on the one hand, and the “back” vowels a and e (eh) on the other; and with the fact that this polarity – not of the vowels themselves, but of the experience of them – is found again in music, in the experience of major and minor. I can really do no more than indicate, for the benefit of those who may be minded to read them, the sort of thing that is to be found in these two books, Eurhythmy as Visible Speech and Eurhythmy as Visible Song. It is characteristic that some of Steiner’s most precious observations on the subject of speech are to be found in the latter.

The combination of extreme fineness with unfathomable depth of much of the thought in these books is simply overwhelming. On a hasty reading superficial contradictions will appear by reason of that very fineness. For instance, the sound o expresses essentially an outgoing of the human being from himself, even of his astral from his physical – and yet the gesture, like the shape of the letter, is an enclosing one. Or, again, Dr. Steiner remarks that the uttering of a implies the plunging of the astral right down into the physical and with that a sense of well-being (Wohlbefinden). Yet two pages later we are told that a (and the minor in music) implies the mood or experience of sickness (Kranksein). There is a key to these apparent contradictions, and it is precisely that delicate reciprocity of giving and receiving to which I have already referred. We shall make nothing of these books, or of Eurhythmy, unless we keep firm hold of this key. But if we do keep hold of it, we find it opening the door of eternity. It is what I had in mind when I emphasized, earlier in this article, the close relation between the art of Eurhythmy and the Christ impulse.

But this very relation makes it all the more necessary not to confuse aesthetic judgments with moral judgments. If we do fall into that error, we shall find that in one respect art is very unchristian. For Christianity looks to the intention rather than the deed, whereas the artistic merit of a work of art lies not in intention but in achievement. The point is, not, has it done the artist a lot of good, but did it come off? Not, what was he aiming at, but, did he hit it? There is no substitute, in fact, for artistry. Nothing of all that has been said here proves that Eurhythmy is suitable for presentation to an audience by performance on the stage. That can only be proved by presenting it, and presenting it with artistry. If, however, the critical complain on principle that there must be a lack of variety in the movements they see; if they suggest that the whole mode of expression is unfree, because it accepts certain established correspondences between sound and gesture; or again, if they say that Eurhythmy is unnecessary, because the poem or the sonata was written to stand by itself and is sufficient (why therefore add Eurhythmy?), then they invite replies.

The sounded consonants and vowels in a single English pentameter may be something like fifty, but there will not be time to present more than 2 or 3 of them eurhythmically. This seems to me to allow, plenty of room for artistry in selection and combination; and as to freedom, the material in which an artist works, the notes of the scale, the metre of verse, or the qualities of marble and pigment, are as much his opportunities as they are his limitations; indeed they are opportunities because they are limitations. The other objection – that Eurhythmy is an unnecessary, because merely ancillary, form of expression – appears to me to be based on a misconception of its nature. Eurhythmy should not be thought of as re-expressing what the music or words are expressing in another way. The music or the poem should rather be regarded as its subject-matter, which it then uses, as the poet or painter uses nature or man directly, and out of which it fashions a fresh work of art altogether. It is a creative art at one remove, not an executive art.

Here it is borne in upon me that the actual performance on the stage is not in truth, as I said it would be, the point from which I started, but the point at which I have at last succeeded in arriving; that I have written much more about language than about Eurhythmy and that I have really only succeeded in setting the stage for most of the things I wanted to say. Perhaps it was necessary, and, for the rest, perhaps there will be another opportunity, or somebody else will say them better.

Owen Barfield

Note: It is a pleasure to acknowledge the heavy debt which this article owes to Miss Marguerite Lundgren, of the London School of Eurhythmy. I remain the sole author of its deficiencies. —O. B.