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Immortalizing War in Tennyson's "The Charge of The Light Brigade"

Matthew and Todd

Thomas Edison with cylinder phonograph in 1878
Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Interior
In later years, however, Tennyson worked not only to immortalize those depicted in his tale, but the poem itself. The author’s 1890 recording@ of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was made in order to raise money for survivors of the Crimean War@, but more importantly, would serve as a permanent record of his voice for years to come. But while Tennyson was no doubt aware of the significance of this unique opportunity, he could hardly anticipate the effect it would have upon the average listener; the phonograph, after all, was unlike anything the public had seen before.

First demonstrated in 1878@, even Thomas A. Edison regarded the phonograph, perhaps arrogantly, as one of the most revolutionary technological developments of the Victorian age. In an essay written later that year for the North American Review, Edison outlined a number of potential uses for the phonograph — one of which was, unsurprisingly, the recording of books and poems. A single 10” plate, for example, could apparently record approximately 40,000 words, and be mailed to friends and family for later listening@.

This offered a number of advantages over the traditional printed word, or so Edison claimed. For example, it would not only be possible to hear what had been written, but experience both the author’s intended tone and diction. But most importantly, according to Edison, “it [would] henceforth be possible to preserve for future generations the voices as well as the words of our Washingtons [and] our Lincolns.”@
However, some modern historians dispute Edison’s notion of the immortal author. While the inventor believed it advantageous to have the works of Washington, Lincoln — and in this case, Tennyson — preserved for all of time, not all have been as quick to agree. For example, professor Yopie Prins at the University of Michigan describes Edison’s reasoning as a “phonographic fallacy”@ — essentially, the tendency to consider an author’s recording an authoritative representation of their work. In fact, both Prins and writer Bernard Richards (who reviewed the compilation of wax cylinder recordings in which Tennyson was included) caution against allowing such recordings to determine the final voice of a poem or text.@ Whereas listeners may have once drawn their own conclusions regarding the dubious actions and heroism of the brigade’s troops, the presence of Tennyson’s own tone and diction makes that decision for them.

Surprisingly, it seems that author Mark Twain agreed. While attempting to dictate his novel The American Claimant, Twain was adamant that the machine was no good for writing, and could “mock and betray” authors as easily as it might “delight and affirm those recording their voice.”@ What he referred to was no doubt the inherent shortcomings of the early invention — it’s tendency to compress and warp “even the most benign speech into a monotonous rant that sounded diabolical, perhaps even terrifying@.” This is particularly present in Tennyson’s own recording, and in fact, makes the author’s speech hard to recognize throughout most of the duration.
An Edison wax cylinder
Via Flickr user camerondaigle
"Mr. Welch, National Phonograph Co."
"Mr. Welch, National Phonograph Co."
Johnston, Frances Benjamin
Even as Edison himself praised the phonograph’s ability to preserve tone and rhythm, there is a something of a contradiction in his North American Review piece. Specifically, he notes that an author must actually adjust the volume of his or her voice to be properly heard on the resulting record — potentially altering the manner in which the poem is recited or read.@ Furthermore, Edison even notes the phonograph’s fantastic ability to alter and accentuate speech and pronunciation as a side effect of the recording process.@ Both of these effects are more than enough proof that Edison’s invention was not yet advanced enough to preserve the voice of its speaker as perfectly as he led readers to believe — and something that is readily apparent in Tennyson’s recording today. In fact, you might even argue the recording diminishes much of the immediacy present in his original poem, falling ill to the monotonous, diabolical ramblings that Twain so famously described.

But viewed today, Tennyson’s recording does something that the author no doubt never intended — the phonograph shifts the listener’s focus from the content to that of the author instead.@ Tennyson chose to record his poem in order to raise funds for those affected by the Crimean War, further cementing the war’s presence in the public conscience, even decades after the initial event on which he wrote. However, viewed today, it is not the Crimean war we regard, but the novelty of hearing Tennyson’s own voice read his creation.

In a recording by fellow poet Robert Browning, the author actually regarded Edison’s “wonderful invention” with more awe and reverence than the words he was present to record@ — even stopping mid-verse to marvel at the preserving powers of the machine. And while Tennyson doesn’t quite go this far, it’s clear the magic of the recorded voice was as much a novelty for the listener as it was for those being recorded. In fact, it is because of the scarcity of recordings from the Victorian era, contrary to what Edison or even Tennyson may have intended, that the phonograph immortalized the medium more than the message.