In their own words

The British Library has compiled a collection of rare recordings of some great literary figures. Rob

''Pardon me if the first few words that reach you resemble a hollow voice from the tomb . . ." begins G K Chesterton's contribution in the British Library's Spoken Word CDs: just one example of a quiet wit in many of the selections made by Steve Cleary, Richard Fairman and Toby Oakes. In two CDs (one of poets and one of prose writers), we hear the voices of literary figures who were all born in the 19th century, and who are now, unsurprisingly, dead (Robert Graves most recently, in 1985). There is something eerie, even in a world grown used to various storage and transmission media, in hearing, for example, Tennyson's voice crackling out "The Charge of the Light Brigade", written in 1854. These are indeed hollow voices from the tomb, voices from an era in which recorded sound was a novelty. Browning's 1889 recording, the earliest in the collection, was made at a party where a guest had brought a phonograph, and concludes in farce when he forgets how his poem goes, but it ends endearingly: "I'm [inaudible] sorry but I can't remember me own verses: but the one thing I shall remember all me life is the astonishing [inaudible] by your wonderful invention."

Tennyson's contribution, made in 1890, and recorded on to wax cylinders, of which he left 23 behind at his death, is the first on the poetry CD. The compilers modestly point out that the quality, despite the best spit and polish that today's technology can offer, is not terrific: we might marvel rather that we have the recording at all. The fierce crackle accompanying his galloping rhythms sounds itself like a chaotic flurry of dust-raising hoof-beats: the voice, on the other hand, is Dalek-like. None the less, there is something about that gramophonic distortion that makes still more palpable the distance this voice has travelled. Just as one sometimes misses the clicks and cracks of vinyl recordings now that CDs can offer such cleanness of sound, imperfection seems somehow more authentic.

In Geoffrey Hill's recent poem, "The Orchards of Syon", he writes enigmatically: "Donne in his time/also heard voices he preserved on wax/cylinders. Some of these I possess/and am possessed by." Poetry and literature do preserve voices on printed pages, as once in folk memory, and now in many media. Rudyard Kipling, in the only surviving example of his reading from his own work, excerpted for us here, says: "It is only words, nothing but words, that live to show the present how men worked and thought in the past, and we do not know whose words they may be: and that is one of the reasons why there cannot be first or last in our Kingdom - (it is not a republic) - of Letters."

Virginia Woolf, in the only surviving recording of the three she made for the BBC, is heard saying: "Only after the writer is dead do his words to some extent - only to some extent - become disinfected, purified of the accidents of the living body". The rest of the talk (a version of which was published as "Craftsmanship") speaks of words' rebellious autonomy.

Here the words - "irreclaimable vagabonds" - are returned, in a sense, to the living body, or at least to the voice that begat them. And what a voice it is. The compiler's note mentions that "those who knew Woolf vary widely in their opinions as to whether it gives us a true representation of her speaking voice": and she does sound, as many of the voices do, fantastically posh, a country mile away from the estuary and mockney that marks out our cultural and political leaders today. (John Buchan's accent does some fabulous - I should say "febulous" - things with vowel sounds: at one point I thought he was, bizarrely, talking about Walter Scott's "financial creche", until I came to my senses.) We also get Vita Sackville-West reading a then unpublished section of Orlando, from her own copy of a draft manuscript, in similarly cut-glass tones: it ends with - in the context of these CDs - a rather splendid Woolfian joke about literary posterity.

Another treat is James Joyce reading from "Anna Livia Plurabelle". In the Writers Museum in Dublin, one can gaze upon a gramophone record of Joyce reading: a strange and fetishistic act, compared to actually hearing him. The rhythms are as mesmerising and beautiful as anything on the poetry CD. That said, it is salutary to be reminded of the pleasure that traditional poetic rhythms can afford, and even the more experimental work of the early 20th century recorded here (Gertrude Stein, e e cummings, Ezra Pound and others) has not lost touch with its musical roots. "I'm going to read my poems with great emphasis on the rhythm," W B Yeats says (rather sternly, as if about to deliver an unpleasant but necessary caning), and that may seem strange if you are not used to it.

I remember the great English poet William Morris coming out of some lecture hall in a rage because somebody had recited a passage of his. "It gave me the devil of a lot of trouble," said Morris, "to get into verse the poems that I am going to read: and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose." Nor does he.

Reading styles in this selection cover a range: the clipped imperial tones of Henry Newbolt ("Vitai Lampada" and "Drake's Drum"), and a John Le Mesurier-like Walter de la Mare, among others; the sing-song of Hilaire Belloc, Gertrude Stein and Edith Sitwell (with an orchestra conducted by William Walton backing her); the warbling sonorousness of John Masefield; and the declamatory bardic delivery of Ezra Pound, rolling his r's, vibrato on his vowels, and accompanying himself on ominous kettle drums. (Pound's reading style is not unlike Basil Bunting's, whose reading of "At Briggflatts Meetinghouse" is available on audio cassette from Bloodaxe: in both cases something ancient and vatic still seems emphatically present in their Modernist work.) Other Americans (Frost, with "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", William Carlos Williams, Robinson Jeffers) are less emphatically "poetic", but their rhythms are unmistakable, none the less.

"Where possible," write the compilers, "we have tried to avoid well-known recordings, preferring to select rare items that throw light on some important aspect of a writer's life or work". In the prose CD, "a third of the recordings are being published here for the first time". As the 20th century progressed, commercial recordings of writers became more common: but some authors could not be represented here because of permissions (the common problem for anthologists).

"Though we have thousands and thousands of professors, and hundreds of thousands of students of history working upon the records of the past, there is not a single person anywhere who makes a whole-time special job of estimating the future consequences of new inventions and new devices," H G Wells can be heard saying on these CDs. By the time he was speaking, recording was commonplace. But Browning's confused delight, and Tennyson's canny act of self-preservation, are another matter. Today we can preserve almost everything of contemporary cultural life: it is older treasures that we are lucky not to have lost. The British Library, which deserves our thanks for preserving so much, now earns it afresh for these acts of dissemination.

The Spoken Word - Writers (£9.95) and The Spoken Word - Poets (£9.95) are both available from the British Library

Robert Potts is co-editor of Poetry Review