- Metropolitan Songs and Songsters:Ephemerality in the World City
this special issue on "song and the city" attempts to open up the category of song for the study of the Romantic period by detaching it from associations with bards and minstrels and placing it within an urban context.1 One of our ambitions is to uncouple song from its near cognate, ballad—a term that has proven fertile ground for the discussion of literary Romanticism and its embrace of the popular, but one whose complex associations, including those of the popular itself, have become increasingly intractable. Our focus on song rather than ballads is, as we will discuss, partly an attempt to expand the purview of what gets included in discussions of popular literature, while also recognizing the global systems of commerce and imperialism that helped disseminate cultural products such as songs and other forms of literature.2 The relationship of songs to these systems, the essays in this special issue will argue, constituted a distinctive aspect of metropolitan culture in the Romantic period.
By metropolitan we mean primarily London—and, as James Chandler and Kevin Gilmartin have pointed out, by the turn of the 19th century, London was well established as a world city. In 1800 London housed nearly a million inhabitants, the largest city in Europe, with a population double that of Paris. In the next fifty years London's population doubled, despite death rates exceeding birth rates. It grew, that is, because of the vast movement of bodies to London from elsewhere.3 What resulted was a new form of [End Page 429] urban life, characterized by a fractious cosmopolitanism and a dizzying modernity. To contemporary writers, London was indescribable and cacophonous; a modern Babylon that was everywhere and nowhere.4 While other urban contexts are important in the history of song—the capitals of Edinburgh and Dublin as well as industrial towns such as Birmingham, Manchester, and Sheffield—London was unique in that its cultural representations continually insisted on its worldliness. Romantic London was a city that defined itself through its contact with distant others.
London was also a city that understood itself through a particular relationship to song. Writers describing the metropolis defined the era as "this song singing Age."5 People living there in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries recognized that they were part of a robust culture of song. Song emanated from churches, palaces, theaters, private drawing rooms, pleasure gardens, taverns, alehouses, brothels, boats, ships, carriages, markets, fairs, and streets. Until this basic fact has been more thoroughly digested, we cannot hope to fully understand what, for example, William Blake meant by naming his most famous collections "Songs of Innocence and Experience," or what John Keats meant by talking about his relationship with George Felton Matthew as a "Brotherhood in Song." Until we have apprehended the culture of song in the period, we cannot hope to understand any of the many references to poetry as song in the Romantic period, which have become so familiar as to be almost invisible.6 Nor for that matter will we be able to fully appreciate the scenes of singing in the novels of Jane Austen or Frances Burney, or the social function of song as it appears in the countless comic afterpieces performed in London theaters, or—in a different mode—the riotous presence of song in works such as Pierce Egan's Life in London (1820).
In much scholarship of the period, particularly literary scholarship, song has tended to become subsumed into the category of ballad. And indeed, the relationship between the ballad and Romantic poetry has been the subject of frequent and lively interrogation, most notably with book-length studies by Steve Newman, and Maureen N. McLane devoted to the subject.7 It has frequently been observed that the ballad, operating just outside [End Page 430] the domain of the legitimately literary, has helped constitute the study of literature as a discipline, demarcating lines of inclusion and exclusion in often productive ways. Scholars have noted that Francis James Child, the first professor of English (as opposed to belles lettres) at Harvard, is best...