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Poetry and the Police

Poetry and the Police

Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris

Robert Darnton

ISBN 9780674066045

Publication date: 09/03/2012

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Robert Darnton

Listen to "An Electronic Cabaret: Paris Street Songs, 1748–50" for songs from Poetry and the PoliceAudio recording copyright © 2010 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

In spring 1749, François Bonis, a medical student in Paris, found himself unexpectedly hauled off to the Bastille for distributing an “abominable poem about the king.” So began the Affair of the Fourteen, a police crackdown on ordinary citizens for unauthorized poetry recitals. Why was the official response to these poems so intense?

In this captivating book, follows the poems as they passed through several media: copied on scraps of paper, dictated from one person to another, memorized and declaimed to an audience. But the most effective dispersal occurred through music, when poems were sung to familiar tunes. Lyrics often referred to current events or revealed popular attitudes toward the royal court. The songs provided a running commentary on public affairs, and Darnton brilliantly traces how the lyrics fit into song cycles that carried messages through the streets of Paris during a period of rising discontent. He uncovers a complex communication network, illuminating the way information circulated in a semi-literate society.

This lucid and entertaining book reminds us of both the importance of oral exchanges in the history of communication and the power of “viral” networks long before our internet age.

Praise

  • Darnton has ably mined the available evidence surrounding the 1749 investigation and string of arrests for sedition known as the "Affair of the Fourteen" and produced a remarkable analysis of a subversive Parisian public discourse that openly attacked the king, his mistress, new taxes, and an unpopular peace treaty. Darnton lucidly reconstructs a world where information traveled through poems and songs set to familiar melodies; he reminds us that our world of instant communication, tweets, and 24-hour news cycles is not as distinctive as we may believe. With rich end matter that includes the lyrics of poems and songs as well as a link to a superb recording of some of the songs by cabaret artist Hélène Delavault, this interdisciplinary piece is highly recommended for serious students across the humanities as well as readers with an interest in 18th-century French culture and politics.

    —Brian Odom, Library Journal

Authors

  • Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian at Harvard University.
  • Hélène Delavault studied at the Paris Conservatoire and The Julliard School, has sung in operas and operettas, and has also created her own cabarets, including an exploration of the world of bawdy songs in eighteenth-century France.

Book Details

  • 240 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press
  • Performed by Hélène Delavault and Claude Pavy

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