Voices from the Past: Alfred Lord Tennyson

One of very few Victorian poets to have had their voices preserved, Alfred Lord Tennyson can here be heard reciting his famous poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, which immortalised the valour and fighting spirit of the six hundred soldiers who took part in a disastrous cavalry charge during the Crimean War. While he clearly held those willing to die for their country in high regard, Tennyson also mourns the futility of the charge, which made as a result of miscommunication between commanders. The ‘glory’ of the soldiers is made poignant by the utter meaninglessness of their sacrifice.

This recording was made by Thomas Edison in 1890, who reportedly sent his agents round to the house of the then Poet Laureate to ask him if they could record the sound of his voice. Despite the primitive nature of the wax cylinders which renders parts of it inaudible, the strength of Tennyson’s enunciation is surprisingly powerful, particularly the force with which he half-shouts words such as ‘Canon’ at the start of each line. Much debate has been given to the mysterious knocking noise that can be heard from about 90 seconds onwards. Given the poem’s subject matter, it is most likely that Tennyson made the sounds himself in order to indicate the clop of horses’ hooves as the Light Brigade thundered into the ‘valley of Death.’