Voices from the Past: Old-School Authors Reading on YouTube

Yeats, Tolkien, Woolf — YouTube is a time capsule of authors’ voices you probably never thought you’d ever hear.

Black Balloon
Jun 3, 2014 · 3 min read

Youtube offers a great bank of readings, many of which are much older than you might expect. Here are some of the best examples from long-deceased authors — and in case you were worried, none of these come with the obligatory badly animated photograph. Enjoy.


Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1890)

The earliest complete recording of a poem belongs to Lord Tennyson. In 1890, Thomas Edison was attempting to cement his dubious status as the sole inventor of sound recording. As part of his sales campaign, he sent agents around the world to record the voices of famous figures.

Here Tennyson reads his “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” It’s not an especially stirring reading, but the sheer age of the recording lends it a haunting quality. Look out for the rhythmical knocking half way through the recitation; the 81-year-old Tennyson appears to be hammering his fist to convey cannon fire.

On other Edison wax phonograph recordings you can hear Robert Browning forgetting the words to his poem “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix” at a dinner party and Oscar Wilde giving rich voice to a snippet of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”


W. B. Yeats (1932)

Yeats made a series of recordings of his work between 1932 and 1937. Here he gives an engaging preface to his reading by explaining why he thinks it is important to stress the rhythm of his lines. He quotes William Morris, who said, after hearing a bad reading of his own poetry, “It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get those poems in verse.” Yeats was 72 when he made the last of these recordings and doesn’t appear to be afraid of sounding like a cantankerous old man, introducing his first poem by saying, “If you know anything about me, you will expect me to begin with it.” He also gives a vivid account of where the inspiration for his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” came from.


Virginia Woolf (1937)

Woolf was asked to take part in a series on the craft of writing for BBC radio in 1937. In this recording she outlines what proved to be a central pillar of modernism: the attempt to get away from overly rigid literary dogma and focus instead on the consciousness represented by words. “Words do not live in dictionaries,” she says. “They live in the mind.” At the heart of the argument is her rhetorical question: “Do we write better, do we read better, than when we read and wrote 400 years ago, when we were unlectured, uncriticised, untaught?” The recording offers a chance to hear Woolf explaining what drove her with brilliant clarity and passion. It’s worth hearing, even for anyone who’s had to study modernism from a dry, literary theory standpoint before.


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