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.
H. G. Wells and Orson Welles (1940)
In a strange stroke of fate, Wells first met Welles in 1940 when the famous actor/director picked H.G. Wells up hitch-hiking outside L.A., not long after Welles had caused mass panic in the U.S. by performing the author's The War of the Worlds as a series of fake news broadcasts. This radio interview of the pair gives a brilliant cross section of that moment in time, encompassing the recent War of the Worlds hoax, the very real threat of World War II (which America hadn't yet entered) and one of the first mentions of “a new sort of motion picture” that Welles is working on called Citizen Kane. The 74-year-old Wells is brilliantly dry and cheeky throughout. In a shameless plug for his new friend, he says he is “looking forward” to Citizen Kane because he expects there will be “lots of new noises in it.”
J. R. R. Tolkien (1952)
Tolkien was a writer inspired by the sagas and Saxon poetry, so it's no surprise that his work has a great oratory quality. Happily, there are lots of recordings of his readings. One of the most entertaining is “Riddles in the Dark,” chapter five of The Hobbit. Tolkien clearly relishes the grim descriptions, emphasizing “throttled them from behind” with a rolled R and putting on a sinister hissing voice when he reads the dialogue for Gollum. In fact, his delivery of “eats it my precious” sounds creditably similar to the Andy Serkis rendition in recent films.
Just because you're in a literary mood on Youtube doesn't mean you have to settle for teenagers reading over pop music or actors “breathing new life” into poetry with lilting intonation and labored pauses. These are just a few writers representing their works in their own words, and they're well worth checking out.