The Sound of a Voice That Is Still



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“Listening to the Master’s Voice,” from Black and White, 1891.

In April 1889, only a few months before he died, Robert Browning became the first major literary figure to commit his voice to wax. At a dinner party held by the artist Rudolf Lehmann, Browning stood before the Edison Talking Machine—then new and exceedingly novel—and recited his poem “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix.” The problem: he couldn’t remember his lines.

“I forget it—er,” Browning stammers only three lines in. Then, after another false start: “I—I am most terribly sorry that I can’t remember my own verses.” (Imagine if, today, poets were expected to have all their own poems memorized.) “But one thing that I will remember all my life is the astonishing sensation produced upon me by your wonderful invention.”

He wouldn’t remember it very long—he died eight months later, thus conferring new value on the wax cylinder containing his voice. As John M. Picker writes in Victorian Soundscapes, Edison’s machine created a “kind of relic, a hollow, grooved talisman of identity”; with Browning dead, it could be used “in an unprecedented form of poet worship.”

On December 12, 1890, the first anniversary of Browning’s death, the members of the London Browning Society gathered to listen to the recording in commemoration. H. R. Haweis recounted the “extraordinary séance” in the London Times:

Today was the anniversary of Robert Browning’s death at Venice, and at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, in singular commemoration of it, an event unique in the history of science and of strange sympathetic significance took place at Edison house. The voice of the dead man was heard speaking. This is the first time that Robert Browning’s or any other voice has been heard from beyond the grave. It was generally known that Colonel Gouraud had got locked up in his safe some words spoken by the poet … at the house of Rudolph Lehmann, the artist. But up to yesterday the wax cylinder containing the record had never been made to yield up its secret … the small white wax cylinder containing the record carefully wrapped in wool was produced, and, on being put upon the machine, the voices at Rudolph Lehmann’s house on the night of April 7, 1889, were accurately reproduced … while in breathless silence the little, awed group stood round the phonograph, Robert Browning’s familiar and cheery voice suddenly exclaimed: “Ready?”

Haweis was quick to imbue the event with historic and spiritual significance, but Browning’s sister, Sarianna, took a dim view of the ceremony. “Poor Robert’s dead voice to be made interesting amusement!” she wrote to a friend. “God forgive them all. I find it difficult.” And as Picker points out, there is something ironic in the proceedings; “in listening and relistening to just a lapse, they memorialized, of all things, their hero’s forgetfulness.” But I understand the inclination to fetishize this recording: think of how Browning’s survivors must’ve seen it. Here was one of the few recordings available anywhere, of anyone, and it happened to contain his voice. Unless he’d been cursing up a storm or retching, his sounds, in their scarcity, were sure to take on an extraordinary preciousness.

Browning’s stint as the sole recorded poet was short-lived; not long after, Tennyson recorded some of his own works with the machine. And fittingly, W. H. Preece, an early phonograph enthusiast, had touted the invention by borrowing some lines from Tennyson: the “sound of a voice that is still,” he wrote, “may now be realized.”

As for “the good news” in Browning’s poem—if you’re wondering what it was, don’t. “There is no historical incident whatever commemorated in the poem,” Browning wrote in an 1883 letter: “a merely general impression of the characteristic warfare and besieging which abound in the annals of Flanders.”

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
 “Good speed!” cried the watch as the gate-bolts undrew;
 “Speed!” echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.

Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace
Neck by neck, stride by stride, never changing our place;
I turned in my saddle and made its girth tight,
Then shortened each stirrup, and set the pique right,
Rebuckled the cheek-strap, chained slacker the bit,
Nor galloped less steadily Roland a whit.

’Twas moonset at starting; but while we drew near
Lokeren, the cocks crew and twilight dawned clear;
At Boom, a great yellow star came out to see;
At Düffeld, ’twas morning as plain as could be;
And from Mecheln church-steeple we heard the half-chime,
So Joris broke silence with, “Yet there is time!”

At Aershot, up leaped of a sudden the sun,
And against him the cattle stood black every one,
To stare through the mist at us galloping past,
And I saw my stout galloper Roland at last,
With resolute shoulders, each butting away
The haze, as some bluff river headland its spray:

And his low head and crest, just one sharp ear bent back
For my voice, and the other pricked out on his track;
And one eye’s black intelligence,—ever that glance
O’er its white edge at me, his own master, askance!
And the thick, heavy spume-flakes which aye and anon
His fierce lips shook upward in galloping on.

By Hasselt, Dirck groaned; and cried Joris, “Stay spur!
“Your Roos galloped bravely, the fault’s not in her,
“We’ll remember at Aix”—for one heard the quick wheeze
Of her chest, saw the stretched neck and staggering knees,
And sunk tail, and horrible heave of the flank,
As down on her haunches she shuddered and sank.

So, we were left galloping, Joris and I,
Past Looz and past Tongres, no cloud in the sky;
The broad sun above laughed a pitiless laugh,
 ’Neath our feet broke the brittle bright stubble like chaff;
Till over by Dalhem a dome-spire sprang white,
And “Gallop,” gasped Joris, “for Aix is in sight!”

“How they’ll greet us!”—and all in a moment his roan
Rolled neck and croup over, lay dead as a stone;
And there was my Roland to bear the whole weight
Of the news which alone could save Aix from her fate,
With his nostrils like pits full of blood to the brim,
And with circles of red for his eye-sockets’ rim.

Then I cast loose my buff-coat, each holster let fall,
Shook off both my jack-boots, let go belt and all,
Stood up in the stirrup, leaned, patted his ear,
Called my Roland his pet-name, my horse without peer;
Clapped my hands, laughed and sang, any noise, bad or good,
Till at length into Aix Roland galloped and stood.

And all I remember is—friends flocking round
As I sat with his head ’twixt my knees on the ground;
And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine,
As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine,
Which (the burgesses voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.