Saturday, 15 June 2013

Romanticism and soul music: the missing link

I've been thinking a lot about the vibrancy of popular culture in our day and especially how in popular music rhyming continues to dominate in the community's aesthetic life, although in what is sold as "high" culture particularly contemporary poetry, rhyming and metre have completely disappeared. What is considered "high" culture poetry is almost invisible in the broader community while pop music - which has its roots in American soul and, by extrapolation, in American low-church hymn singing - has a very active life in the community not only in terms of remuneration - rock musicians can become very wealthy indeed while contemporary poets often get by with access to government funding - but also in terms of how it is shared, enjoyed communally, and generally celebrated. In Australia we even had a quiz program dedicated to rock music, Spics and Specs, which ran on the ABC for years. Rock music rocks, to put it bluntly, while contemporary poetry is the concern of a dedicated few.

This split in the locus of production and consumption of culture, moreover, is a recent thing. As far as I've been able to work out, the first self-conscious "art movement" was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which began life in London in 1848. It wasn't the first time a bunch of young people had rejected earlier forms and themes but it was the first time those wild young men had actually put their own name to what they did. For the Romantics, for example, the use of a label came later, and was often used in a derogatory way in the media to denigrate and diminish what they were trying to do. It would be interesting to find out when it was that the word "Romantic" was first applied to such poets as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Byron. Periodisation, in any case, was a purely Victorian thing. Noone before their era had ever used the word "Renaissance" or "Middle Ages", for example. The Victorians - optimistic, refined and professional - updated academia just as they improved such things as governance, respect for human rights, and public transport. It was an improving age, and the Pre-Raphaelites were on the vanguard of that process. If it was necessary to reject the corruption, lax morals, alcoholism, criminality and venality of the long century of the Georges (the Hanoverian kings, the last of whom, the louche George IV, died without any surviving children, as did his brother, William IV), it was also necessary to reject the style of painting of the preeminent exponent of that era, Joshua Reynolds. The Romantics had already rejected its literature: the smooth style and urbane subject matter of Pope was pushed aside.

From the time of the publication of the foundational Romantic text, Lyrical Ballads in 1797, to the establishment of the Pre-Raphaelites in 1848 is a mere half-century. But after those young painters made their radical statement there seems to have been a split in how culture was consumed, and it may have something to do with the rise of proletarian consciousness, and the working class politics of the era, which happened around this time. Modernist elements began to appear in art and literature also, and Modernism is nothing if not an elite concern. The 1850s saw the last great democratic works, those of Whitman, Flaubert, Melville, appear in the West. From then on - and even now - the culture you consumed told a story about who you were and how you viewed yourself in the socioeconomic sphere The 1850s evinced the last, great flowering of democratic art after which culture was used by the individual to make a personal statement, to exclude as much as to include. It was a part of the tribal dynamic that we still see operating today, although nowadays it has become even more defined and uncompromising as culture brokers - publishing houses, record companies - exploit the community's special interests to make profit from people in it. The culture industry has become rigid, stratified and polarised in a way that would have been incomprehensible to a writer such as Jane Austen, for example.

The great flowering of American popular culture, which still dominates the marketplace today, happened in the 1920s, and it was a working-class culture. Soul music took its cue from low-church hymn singing, and because it kept many of its characteristics - such as rhyme - those characteristics continue to be used in popular music today. Rhyme is part of a tradition, just like wearing trousers became popular in the Victorian age. If we want to find the source of soul music, though, we have to go back to the age of breeches, back to the great revival churches of the 18th century: the Methodists and the Wesleyans. These movements used hymn singing as a potent tonic to combat the ills of their age, and it was their prosodic style that inspired the soul singers of the 1920s. For example:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

This hymn, by the evangelist John Newton, was first used in 1773, and it is this kind of lyric that continues to dominate popular music into the 21st century. And funnily enough there is a link between that aesthetic and the Romantics, in whose shadow we still live today. The picture accompanying this post is of William Cowper, a poet beloved of the Victorians (in Sydney, there are streets named after Cowper all over the place), but Cowper was also the poet the early Romantics turned to for a model when they started writing their revolutionary works.

William Wordsworth was still a 15-year-old Cumberland lad in 1785 when William Cowper’s noteworthy poem The Task was published in London but the times were filled with enough drama – the American colonial war had ended with Britain’s defeat just two years earlier; the French revolution was a mere four years away – that both the established poet and the poet-to-be would have been interested in the world in a way that was very much out-of-the-ordinary.

The long poem, which comprises six chapters and 6000 lines of blank verse, was composed while Cowper, who had suffered from a debilitating but periodic mental illness since 1763, when he had been aged about 32, was living in remote seclusion in Buckinghamshire. Cowper had earlier worked with Newton on a series of hymns that were published in 1779, the Olney Hymns. 'Amazing Grace' is one of those hymns.

As for The Task, its rambling tendency, structural vagaries, and an unusual and strong focus on images inspired by the natural world were things that struck a deep chord with young poets of the next generation, such as Wordsworth and his boon pal Samuel Coleridge, so it should be no stretch to acknowledge that when the young William decided to engage in making a long poem, The Prelude, to chronicle his education sentimentale, which would come out in 1805, and which he would continue to revise and modify for the rest of his life, he turned to Cowper for his formal model.

Cowper’s thematic innovation, though set in a traditional blank verse form, was to privilege the writer’s point of view, as well as his thoughts and feelings, so as to say, as a Renaissance or Medieval humanist might have done in other ways in other days ‘Ecco mi qua, un uomo davanti a Dio’ (‘Here I am, a man before God’). This privileging of the individual was probably what appealed to the early Romantics. For Wordsworth the relationship of the individual to God was long a matter of deep interest, as can be seen by looking at the ways he changed his 1805 poem at different points in his life. In his later years reverting to a more conventional position vis-à-vis God – no doubt making stodgy Victorian readers happy.

Funnily enough, it was Cowper that Vladimir Nabokov singled out for praise after the Russian-American writer had done an exhaustive survey of 18th century literature in aid of his own project of translating Pushkin's Eugene Onegin into English. Pushkin single-handedly invented Russian literature, and in homage Nabokov made a new translation, which came out in 1964. Nabokov decisively rejected the rhyming versions that had come out before, and to discover the kinds of prosodic forms that would have been dominant in England when Pushkin was writing his poem, he went back to the 18th century and read everything he could get his hands on.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if the influence of "Amazing Grace" on soul singers was not only to do with its style, but also that the author, John Newton, was a former slaver who became a activist for abolitionism.

"I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see" becomes very powerful in the context of switching from pro to anti-slavery.

Anonymous said...

Late comment here, but there were lots of other Cowpers in Sydney in the nineteenth century, including a premier, himself part of a clerical dynasty, who are likely sources of "Cowper" as a street name.