Clarendon Lecture 4: The Poet and the Knife-grinder

Street Songs

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 4 — The Poet and the Knife-grinder

The fourth lecture focuses on Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Sparkles from the Wheel’. This masterpiece of the ‘urban encounter’ places the poet in conjunction with, and opposition to, his ‘double’ or twin on a New York street: the knife-grinder ‘sharpening a great knife’, showering golden sparks from his wheel. The knife-grinder has a long and complex iconographic and literary history, which links this lecture to the ones preceding: to street-vendors and their cries, to the pleasures and pains of urban noise, to the god disguised. And these elements, in turn, belong to the poet: the poem is one of the finest performances of Whitman’s ‘song of himself’.

A coda to this lecture, and to the series as a whole, returns to Proust. It celebrates the least likely of street singers, and records that singer’s final ‘cry’.


Other lectures in the series

8 November The Enrag'd Musician, and Other Street Scenes

10 November Proust's enchantment: the cris de Paris

15 November Gods and Beggars