poetry and police

In the book Poetry and Police, Robert Darnton explained that orality played an important role in understanding the history of communication. He stated that one must reconstruct “orality” as the missing element to understand communication before “texting, twittering, uploading, downloading, encoding, decoding and talking on the phone” existed in modern society (Darnton, 1). Darnton studied the messages encoded in poems to explain the importance of oral communication, to show how Parisians communicated information in a semiliterate society and to demonstrate how these poems shaped the Parisians’ public opinion about the government in society.

King Louis XV and other elite officials of the state controlled the Parisian government and the information received by the Parisians during the 18th century. In the spring of 1749, Parisian authorities arrested Francois Bonis (The Affair of the Fourteen: L’Affaire des Quatorze Operation) for distributing a seditious poem humiliating the king for his government policies, his foreign affairs and his mistress. Darnton outlined how the poetry served as a powerful tool to explain the public affairs in Paris. Bonis “recited the poem in the presence of a few persons” (Darnton, 11). Other people in society began to learn about the corrupt ways of the Parisian government. They learned by “copying poems, trading them for similar scraps, dictating to more copyists, memorizing, declaiming, printing underground tracts, creating popular tunes and singing those tunes” (Darnton, 11). Written poetry and music allowed people to understand and relay information in small groups. As more poems became intertwined with other poems from people “adding and subtracting stanzas” and modifying phrasing, the public opinion became a hot topic in the Parisian government. This began to undermine the power of the state, limiting the king’s control in keeping people from being informed about corruption of the Parisian government.

“Students, clerks and priests” made up the small groups that distributed poetry about the Parisian government and its affairs. As the Renaissance began to impact society, common people became more aware of the issues in society. “Louis XV became more sensitive to what the Parisians said about him, his mistress and ministers” (Darnton, 41). Danton explained how the rise of music shaped the public opinion of the Parisians and how it circulated beyond the political courts. “By means of all these songs and satirical pieces, this strategy meant politics could not be restricted to the court. It opened up another dimension to the power struggle in Versailles: the king’s relations with the French people, the perception of events outside the circle, and the influence of such views on the conduct of affairs” (Darnton, 42).

While censorship existed in the mid 1700s, poems served as the framework for literacy about the issues taking place in the Parisian government. Elite individuals knew about these issues in society. Common people in the markets of Paris relied on poems and their encoded messages to educate them about the government. Darnton stated, “While Louis sleeps away in the bosom of shame, And is shamefully smitten with a lowly woman, He forgets in her arms our tears and our scorn” (Darnton, 60). Like newspapers in modern society, poetry and oral communication helped Parisians understand the government and shape their opinion about the government.

Darnton justified his thought that “marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past-even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet” (Darnton, 1). The written “encoded” messages in poems, the recitation of poetry and the incorporation of music to this poetry foreshadowed the modern day use of communication.