Poetry and Song Roundup

We concluded our class on Blake and song by taking a quick look at this footage of the 2011 royal wedding:

Now common both as a church hymn and a national patriotic song, “Jerusalem” began life as an untitled prefatory poem to Blake’s epic Milton. It was only much later, during World War I, that it was set to music by Hubert Parry, to help inspire national pride. So, in addition to the way that phrases like “dark satanic mills” have entered into vernacular English speech, the poem took on a politically-charged afterlife, serving as a suffrage hymn, a party tune of both the left and the right, and one of England’s unofficial national anthems. That public afterlife serves as a good reminder that lyric poetry–even Blake’s, which is often considered only in terms of an idiosyncratic, inner personal vision–oftn invokes social, public literary forms like the ballad and the hymn.

Our class discussions and blog posts this week seem to be developing two different ways of approaching that link between (written/printed) poetry and (oral, pre-literate, or popular) song:

“Auld Lang Syne” in the Scots Musical Museum

I. Reviving/Preserving Tradition

Some of us have focused on attempts to revivify a past tradition of song, sometimes even by preserving, reconstructing, or approximating the tune. Those of you who have expressed interest in this kind of marked-up text can might find the Scots Musical Museum volume worth investigating–click the image to link to the full volume. For more thoughts on this continuity with the oral past, you might check out this post on “The Bards in the Barroom” in contemporary Ireland and Scotland, or this one that concludes by suggesting a line of influence that runs from “Lord Randall” to Bob Dylan. This is a fruitful direction for critical inquiry, especially if we ask questions about how and why collectors and performers try to present themselves as preserving or recapturing “tradition.”

II. Historical Differences/Old and New Media

Others have focused on how “modern” or “literary” song meditates on its difference from oral tradition. After all, whether we were discussing Robinson’s English renditions of Sappho in the sonnet form, Blake’s “songs” of Innocence and Experience, or Coleridge’s archaic “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” one of the most interesting things we noticed was how those poems highlight the differences between the literary media of different time periods. Blake’s “Introduction” to Songs of Innocence, we saw, figures the movement from a wordless, piped tune “about a Lamb;” to a verbal song; to a written document. And that movement from orality to print has something to do with the play between “innocence” and “experience.”

So, too, we suggested, Coleridge’s “Rime” looks like a medieval seafaring ballad re-mediated in print, and in the 1817 edition even bears the marks of a later age’s readership. Most of the latest round of blog posts have taken up this question by focusing on one or another interpretive framework–medieval superstition, “orthodox” Anglicanism, folk tale, or moral fable–and showing how that framework ultimately proves insufficient to account for what happens in the poem.

Blake gets a similar treatment in this post, which discusses “London” as if it were spoken by the voice of the bard. That’s not the only way to read the poem, but it raises an important point: Blake often presents his speakers with heavy doses of irony, and that makes us step back and think about the mediating poetic voice. Is the speaker of “London” the outraged bard from the “Introduction?” Or is it a character who we should second-guess?

As we continue reading Lyrical Ballads this week, let’s keep thinking about who is speaking in these poems–who is narrating the events, how are the texts themselves framed, and what is their relationship to the various “poet figures” we have seen thus far?

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