James Earl Jones Reads Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

For all its many flaws the orig­i­nal Star Wars tril­o­gy nev­er strayed too far afield because of the deep well of grav­i­tas in James Earl Jones’ voice. The omi­nous breath­ing, the echo effect, and that arrest­ing baritone—no amount of danc­ing Ewoks could take away from his vocal per­for­mance. And though Jones’ expres­sive face has also car­ried many a film, his unmis­tak­able voice can give even the sil­li­est of mate­r­i­al the weight of an oil tanker’s anchor. So then imag­ine the effect when Jones reads from already weighty lit­er­a­ture by Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whit­man? “Chills” only begins to describe it. Just above, hear him read Poe’s “The Raven,” a poem whose rhymes and sing-song cadences con­jure up the mad obses­sion that mate­ri­al­izes as that most por­ten­tous and intel­li­gent of all the winged crea­tures.

While Vad­er and Poe seem like nat­ur­al com­pan­ions, the read­ing by Jones above of selec­tions from Whitman’s “Song of Myself” also makes per­fect sense. As com­fort­able on the stage as he is before the cam­eras, Jones has an excel­lent ear for the Shake­speare­an line, clear­ly good prepa­ra­tion for the Whit­man­ian, an “oper­at­ic line,” writes The Bro­ken Tow­er, “due to its brea(d)th.” In the truth Whit­man sings in his expan­sive tran­scen­den­tal poem, “the body, the body politic, and the nation’s body, are all lit­er­al­ly the stuff of the uni­verse, star­dust smat­tered and strewn from the uni­fy­ing explo­sion of our shared ori­gin.” There are few read­ers, I aver, who could hold such “stuff” togeth­er with the strength and depth of voice as James Earl Jones. The record­ing above, of sec­tions 6–7 and 17–19, comes from a read­ing Jones gave in Octo­ber of 1973 at the 92nd St. Y. Below, hear the com­plete record­ing, with sev­er­al more stan­zas. Jones begins at the begin­ning, rum­bling and bel­low­ing out those lines that trans­mute ego­tism into mag­is­te­r­i­al, self­less inclu­siv­i­ty:

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Earl Jones Reads Oth­el­lo at White House Poet­ry Jam

Orson Welles Reads From America’s Great­est Poem, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1953)

Hear Walt Whit­man (Maybe) Read­ing the First Four Lines of His Poem, “Amer­i­ca” (1890)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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