These lectures are about the use made by writers in the ‘long nineteenth century’ of songs that were sung on the streets of cities. They included ballads, folk songs, and popular songs from opera to music-hall, but also the cries of street vendors and, by metaphorical license, the ‘song’ of a tramway or a knife-grinder’s wheel. Such songs formed part of the urban ‘soundscape’, and offered many writers a rich expressive and symbolic resource; writers also responded to the challenge of a rival art, one that could claim to ‘voice’ the city more potently than writing. In this sense the presence of street songs in novels and poems belongs to a larger cultural history, that of the perpetually difficult, unstable, unbreakable marriage of voice and text.
With the exception of the first lecture, which will contain some contextual and theoretical material, the lectures will focus on the close reading of selected literary works.
Lecture 2 – Proust’s enchantment: the cris de Paris
In Marcel Proust’s La Prisonnière [The Prisoner], the sixth volume of A la recherche du temps perdu [In Search of Lost Time], the narrator lies in bed listening to the cries of the street vendors in the early morning. The ‘cris de Paris’ were famous as an emblem of urban life; illustrations and literary adaptations of them date back to the Middle Ages, and the same was true of the ‘cries of London’. The ‘cries’ linked music and poetry to every kind of trade and craft, as well as to urban appetites for food, sex, and spectacle. Proust’s narrator appropriates these ‘cries’, playfully compares them to classical music or the liturgy; at the same time they voice his deepest desires and fears, especially as these relate to his ‘imprisoned’ mistress Albertine. Street song here finds its way into high art, as subversive as it is sublime.
Other lectures in the series
15 November Gods and Beggars
17 November The Poet and the Knife-grinder