Hear Benedict Cumberbatch Read John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and Other Great Works by Shakespeare, Dante & Coleridge

Would Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch have such ardent fans if he could­n’t read poet­ry so well? Almost cer­tain­ly he would, although his way with verse still seems not like a bonus but an inte­gral com­po­nent of his dra­mat­ic per­sona. Though not eas­i­ly explained, that rela­tion­ship does come across if you hear any of the actor’s read­ings of poet­ry. In the video above, Cum­ber­batch per­forms “Ode to a Nightin­gale,” the longest and best-known of John Keats’ 1819 odes that casts into verse the poet­’s dis­cov­ery of “neg­a­tive capa­bil­i­ty,” or as he defined it in a let­ter two years ear­li­er, “when a man is capa­ble of being in uncer­tain­ties, mys­ter­ies, doubts, with­out any irri­ta­ble reach­ing after fact and rea­son.”

Yet one sens­es that the Cum­ber­batch fans who put up these videos, such as the one accom­pa­ny­ing “Ode to a Nightin­gale” with imagery rem­i­nis­cent of a Tiger Beat pic­to­r­i­al, care less about his neg­a­tive capa­bil­i­ty than cer­tain oth­er qual­i­ties. His voice, for instance: the uploader of the video com­bin­ing five poems just above describes as “the vel­vety dul­cet tones of a jaguar hid­ing in a cel­lo.”

That com­pi­la­tion includes “Ode to a Nightin­gale” as well as Shake­speare’s “The Sev­en Ages of Man” (“All the world’s a stage”), Lewis Car­rol­l’s “Jab­ber­wocky,” a piece of Dan­te’s Divine Com­e­dy, and Samuel Tay­lor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” With Coleridge’s dream of Asia and Dan­te’s Ital­ian vision of the after­life, this poet­ic mix does get more exot­ic than it might seem (at least by the stan­dards of the eras from which it draws).

But Cum­ber­batch, who in 2015 received the hon­or of Com­man­der of the Most Excel­lent Order of the British Empire from the Queen and even read at the rebur­ial cer­e­mo­ny of King Richard III, clear­ly match­es best with the canon of his native Eng­land. As a ver­sa­tile per­former, and thus one who pre­sum­ably under­stands all about the need for neg­a­tive capa­bil­i­ty, Cum­ber­batch and his cel­lo-hid­den jaguar deliv­ery (a poet­ic descrip­tion, in its own way) has done jus­tice in the past to Kaf­ka, Kurt Von­negut, and Moby-Dick. Still, one won­ders what poem Cum­ber­batch could per­form in order to achieve an unsur­pass­able state of peak Eng­lish­ness. How long could it take for him to get around, for instance, to “If—”?

Cum­ber­batch’s read­ing of “Ode” will be added to our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

F. Scott Fitzger­ald Reads Shakespeare’s Oth­el­lo and Keats’ “Ode to a Nightin­gale” (1940)

Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner Ani­mat­ed: A Clas­sic Ver­sion Nar­rat­ed by Orson Welles

Hear 20 Hours of Roman­tic & Vic­to­ri­an Poet­ry Read by Ralph Fiennes, Dylan Thomas, James Mason & Many More

Hear Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Read Kafka’s The Meta­mor­pho­sis

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Incensed Let­ter to the High School That Burned Slaugh­ter­house-Five

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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