Robert Browning is said to be the first poet to have his poem recorded onto wax cylinder by Thomas Edison, only to forget the verses in How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix.
Only a few months before his death in 1889 Browning attended a party held by Rudolf Lehmann where he was asked to speak into the Edison Talking Machine. He began reciting his galloping, urgent poem How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix but no sooner had he began, he faltered, stammered, and apologised for forgetting his own words.
The audio from the cylinder is rough but we can hear as he begins his poem with great energy only to then hesitate, and apologise. “I forget it… er,” Browning stammers, attempts to restart but stops again, saying: “I… I am most terribly sorry that I can’t remember my own verses. But one thing that I will remember all my life is the astonishing sensation produced upon me by your wonderful invention.”
On the first anniversary of Browning’s death, December 12th 1890, members of the London Browning Society gathered to listen to the recording.
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?””
Poor Browning’s sister, Sarianna, did not find it so amusing: “Poor Robert’s dead voice to be made interesting amusement!” she wrote to a friend. “God forgive them all. I find it difficult.”