A cacophony of sedition – poetry & the French Revolution

Monday, January 10, 2011

When we think of the origins of modern political uprisings, we think of revolutionary France and the insurrectionary philosophers of that day. And when we think of politics and free speech, we often think of pamphleteers and protesters. In all of this, who thinks of poetry?

Well, think again, and then get a copy of Robert Darnton’s latest book, Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Harvard University Press, 2010).

In this engaging book, Darnton, the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard and director of the Harvard University Library, continues his amazing work as an investigative cultural historian of the first order. In the process, he takes us to the streets of Paris and then to the bowels of the Bastille to show how poetry and song helped shape (perhaps more than did philosophical tracts) the ever-developing popular mind about the rule of the monarchy in mid-to-late-eighteenth century France.

Years ago, I read Darnton’s The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (1996). It taught me much about the relationships among pornography, libel, politics and poetry, both written and oral. That book helped to inform my views on free speech as set forth in The Death of Discourse (1996), co-authored with David Skover. Now, as David and I prepare to complete a book on dissent, I find myself turning yet again to Darnton and the discoveries he has made by giving the poetry of the past its voice again — and what a voice it is!

Communication networks
In this year of Marshall McLuhan (he was born 100 years ago), it is fitting to turn to Poetry and the Police to learn about “communication networks” and how they shaped the “mental landscape, composed of attitudes, values, and folkways.” This fascinating set of such networks (sometimes moving chain-like, sometimes not) is the stuff of which this down-to-earth book of street poetry and song is composed.

The conventional wisdom largely ignores orality and therefore overlooks its impact (by the recitation of poems and the singing of songs) on the birth of the French Revolution of 1789. Rather, that wisdom explains the rise of the revolution, in meaningful part, by way of books by French philosophers — e.g., the works of Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot. “They inspired the people to ask,” wrote Charles Van Doren in A History of Knowledge (1991), “how despotism or tyranny could ever be legitimate. And so the pressures built.”

Well, the story wasn’t that simple; there was much more to be said about how public opinion came to be what it was in 1789. That something more was orality, the expression of ideas and animosities by poets, singers and the public.

If one stops and thinks about it, it makes sense that poetry and song were closer to the minds of French commoners, many of whom were illiterate, than were the elevated words of highbrow philosophers who bound their ideas in print. The attitudes of the masses often mirrored how they communicated. To learn about the former, one must study the latter, which is the point of this book.

How those poems and songs were communicated, spread and developed is part of the network of communication that helped to shape public attitudes toward the ruling class. The concept of “communication networks” found earlier and thoughtful explication in chapter seven of Darnton’s The Forbidden Best-Sellers. In his latest book, the author returns to that theme, this time by way of remarkable investigative work conducted in major French libraries.

A cacophony of sedition
If it were not once so frightfully real, it would make for great comedy. The year is 1749. Someone maligns the King, Louis XV, in a poem. Those in power take royal exception. Find the scoundrel; hunt him down; drag him to the Bastille. The prosecutorial word goes out — from the minister of war, to the lieutenant general of police, to the inspector of the book trade, to spies. Pretty powerful stuff for “bad talk” (in French, mauvais propos).

So, the spies go out and round up suspects, the usual and unusual ones. A chain of arrests follows: a medical student, who turns over a priest, who gives up a fellow priest, who offers up yet another man of the cloth, who fingers a law student, who squeals on a notary clerk, who points to a philosophy student, who blames a classmate, who “said he got the poem from another student, … who never was found.” (Darnton provides his readers with a useful diagram — replete with six identifying arrows — of the chain of poetic criminality.)

As if all of this were not enough, as the spy forces redouble and the dragnet widens, more and more poems (all seditious) surface. More poems, more spies, more investigations, more suspects. By the end of the first round of investigations, Darnton tells us, “the police filled the Bastille with fourteen purveyors of poetry,” hence the name “the Affair of the Fourteen.” The imprisonment, the interrogations, the agony of it all, the subsequent exile and the ruinous outcomes for the 14, were a high price to pay for repeating racy poems.

But get this: “[T]hey never found the author of the original verse. In fact, it may not have had an author, because people added and subtracted stanzas and modified phrasing as they pleased.” Long before WikiLeaks, apparently there were wiki poems. As Darnton phrases it, what the authorities had to confront was a “cacophony of sedition set to rhyme.”

Seeds in the soil
The more the police chased after poets and poetry, the more crime they found. “One has the impression,” Darnton surmises, “that their investigation dribbled off into a series of arrests that could have continued indefinitely without arriving at an ultimate author. No matter where they looked, they turned up some singing or reciting naughty verse … . The naughtiness spread among young intellectuals in the clergy.” Heresy, sedition, and rebellious talk were everywhere. The wolf of revolution was at the door …

Ah, not exactly.

By tracking the movements of the poems and songs, and then examining the criminal dossiers compiled by the Parisian police, Darnton made an amazing discovery: these guys weren’t real revolutionaries; they weren’t hardened heretics; hell, they weren’t about to call for the tumble of the Ancien Régime. To think that, one would have to buy into the mindset that set this whole investigative fiasco in motion. True, there was reason for dissent — people were unhappy about high taxes, war, abuses of power and all sorts of other things. But this wasn’t 1789; that was 40 years away.

What, then, had we here with these poems, songs and hand-written notes, and with the memorization of anti-establishment verse? Nowhere in the dossiers,” says Darnton, “can one catch the scent of incipient revolution. A whiff of Enlightenment, yes; a soupcon of ideological dissatisfaction, definitely; but nothing like a threat to the state.” People poked fun, spread gossip, and traded in rhyme. Was it a dangerous game to play? Most assuredly. Did it pose an actual danger to French security? Hardly. Not then, anyway.

There is more to the story — about, for example, a minister to the king who dabbled in poetry and who took liberties in bawdy verse about the goings on in his majesty’s boudoir, to the great displeasure of one of the king’s mistresses, Mme de Pompadour. As for that story, the one about the rococo and ribald world of palace life in Versailles, you’ll have to read the book yourself. Here again, there was no sedition, though there were rhythmic tales of sin and sex.

Meanwhile, back in Paris, the seeds of discontent stirred in the soil. There was a larger context in which “the Affair of the Fourteen” found itself; there were more saucy poems; and there were poetic attacks on the affairs of the state — both those of the bedroom and the war room. What Darnton’s sleuth work reveals is how they all might have connected, how public opinion was being formed (in all sorts of ways) by the spread of verse and song, and how those in power responded to everything. The more the French government embraced suppression, the more public opinion turned from dissatisfaction to rebellion. In time, it led to radical social and political upheaval — to the storming of the Bastille.

The lessons of suppression
Is there a free-speech lesson here? There are many. First, it behooves those in power to listen to the people. Second, satire is not sedition; that is, sometimes a poem is just a poem and not a revolutionary tract. Third, suppression often undermines the security of the state far more than do any criticisms of it. Fourth, a system of suppression must inevitably justify its existence by claiming to have rooted out radicalism destructive of the state. But as the heretofore secret criminal dossiers unearthed from the Bibliothèque de l’ Arsenal reveal, unfounded suspicion often produces little more than harmless scraps of paper laced with lines of rhyme.


Poetry and Police splendid book, chock full of discoveries and insights. It takes us far back in time to the public square in Paris. And what a spectacle. You can almost see the white wigs, dark hats, long dresses, and buckled boots of those gathering around. More important, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the rising voices of dead poets.

Ronald Collins is the Harold S. Shefelman Scholar at the University of Washington Law School, and a fellow at the First Amendment Center. His latest book is The Fundamental Holmes: A Free Speech Chronicle and Reader (Cambridge University Press, 2010). His next book, with Sam Chaltain, is We Must not be Afraid to be Free: Stories About Free Expression in America (Oxford University Press, March 2011).