Much attention has been given to what happens when a song becomes a poem—particularly in the case of the “artifactualization” of the ballad and folk song when it is collected and circulated in print (its “remediation,” as Maureen McLane more neutrally puts it). Such medium-shifting was widespread in the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, with the collecting, editing, and printing of old songs and ballads. This essay looks at the question from the other side: what happens when a poem becomes a song? Some have argued that the passage from poem to song is a struggle for mastery that the poem must lose. But history suggests something different: that the traffic between poem and song, between verse written and song musically performed, has always flowed in both directions, and that some poems, like some songs, not only survive transmemberment but thrive. With this history in mind, we should not be surprised to find that some poets look to the idea of song not only for what it might do for poetry, but also for how their poetry might affect popular cultures of song. William Blake, John Clare, and William Morris offer three examples of poets who seek to intervene in the culture of song, to purify its popular language, and thus to restore to song and song verse possibilities that, each believed, song had lost in an age of commercial remediation for large audiences.


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pp. 669-690
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