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Five Questions: Oskar Cox Jensen on Napoleon and British Song

Oskar Cox Jensen - Napoleon and British Song

Oskar Cox Jensen is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London working on the Music in London 1800-1851 project.  His work focuses on the political, social and cultural histories of Britain and Europe in the long eighteenth century, with a particular focus on balladry, street music and mass culture.  Prior to taking up his post at King’s, he completed his doctorate at the University of Oxford, where he worked on the project that became his first monograph, Napoleon and British Song, 1797-1822, which was published in October by Palgrave Macmillan and which we discuss below.  As well as researching songs, Oskar is also a performer and recording artist; versions of many of the Napoleonic songs that his book examines can be heard on his Soundcloud.

1) How did you first become interested in the ways in which Napoleon was represented in popular song?

As an undergraduate historian, I was torn between two rather disparate interests: the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary period (which is now so central to my thinking that I tend to forget to put ‘French’ before ‘Revolution’, just as ‘the ’90s’, to me, means the 1790s…) – and Viking-age Scandinavia.  Lacking the necessary six languages required for the latter, it became 1789 and beyond.  Song, meanwhile, has always mattered hugely to me, and I’ve been writing songs for more than a decade: drawn in by the thunder of the Marseillaise, I wondered if the two worlds might collide.

Of course, they did (for more of which, see question two!).  I needed a topic for my Master’s dissertation, ideally British, and while the 1790s seemed well covered, there was this immensely potent figure looming at the decade’s end that no one really had a handle on.  Stuart Semmel’s Napoleon and the British, the key work, focuses on London society and the press, rather than the people.  Folk musicologist Vic Gammon had published on the puzzling fact that later British songs of Napoleon seemed to idolise him.  There was clearly a story here.  I began with 15,000 words on 1814–16 and, encouraged by Mark Philp and David Hopkin, didn’t look back.

2) In your introduction, you assert that popular song was ‘the most widespread and influential form of literary expression of the day’, but remark that it has thus far received very little scholarly attention. What do you see as being the main benefits of recovering the importance of popular song?

The great attraction here, and the great danger, is the thought that we are recovering ‘lost voices’: that the silent, unlettered majority was actually making a lot of noise (or, rather, music).  In fact, many scholars from several disciplines have been drawn to the vast number of extant songs, often digitised, that we tend to label ‘broadside ballads’.  The issue is less, why has there been no work done, but rather, why has it proven so unproductive?  There remains a good deal of sober scepticism about what we can do with songs: they are ephemeral, and thus unquantifiable; they are usually anonymous; there is too little contextual material to bear their weight.  Their aesthetic worth, both musical and literary, has been seen as negligible.  The Romantic period was also a great age of propaganda, and many songs are polemical, didactic, seductive: with almost no evidence for their reception, how are we to draw any meaningful conclusions?

To claw back something more positive in answer to the question: song was the ubiquitous mass medium.  Generically, it was heterogeneous, assimilating elite poetry, theatrical hamminess, and street doggerel, just as it assimilated sacred, dance, or military music.  It simultaneously united and divided society both geographically and along class lines.  Its perceived potency was such that political and moral activists of every stripe made use of it.  Subject matter ranged from the same day’s news to medieval romance.  More people consumed canonical poetry as song than as verse; singing and listening, even in an age dominated by print, was simply what people did.  If we can get to grips with this, then we recover a living culture.  For how we might attempt this, see question three…

3) In composing your monograph, how did you seek to deal with the problems implicit in what you describe as ‘the fractured and contradictory incoherence of popular culture’?

I’m beginning to go off ‘popular’ as a useful label (maybe twenty years too late), preferring, if anything, to use ‘common’, especially for song.  But in this book, yes, I was specifically concerned with addressing plebeian experience and perception, which is a massive mess.  But there are some basic propositions that help shape things.  That quotation comes from a discussion of E.P. Thompson’s point that popular culture embodied a tradition of rebelliousness – a rather pleasing paradox.  And this is central to the book: we find a quite old fashioned top-down/bottom-up struggle, whereby various actors are trying to impose a set of values upon the people by cultural means that these actors do not quite understand.  Whilst being incoherent, especially in terms of party politics and a sense of identity, popular culture had its idioms and conventions, especially in song, and these conventions were cultural rather than political.

That is to say, for example, that it’s no good advancing the cause of temperance by publishing mass editions of teetotal songs, because these songs will not be fit for purpose: their lyrics will be sermonising, unsuitable to sing, and their functionality will be minimal: when would you sing them?  It is this idea of the fitness of songs that proved to be my way through the mess.  Were the words sympathetic?  Was the choice of tune, in particular, appropriate, and could the words be sung to it in the first place?  In the end, it was only by turning to contemporary aesthetic and performative considerations that I could evaluate this mass of material, and advance theories about its reception.  Thus the book begins with a contextual analysis of song as a practice, considering its writing, publication, performance and reception by real people in specific times and spaces, as a necessary precondition of any close readings.

4) To what extent might musical responses to Napoleon be systematised in chronological or class-based manners?

For convenience, I’ll take ‘musical’ to mean ‘song’ here, as the book does not look at instrumental music.  It all depends on whose response we are looking for: do we mean what was produced, or what was consumed?  The former is achievable. 1797: the first responses, mostly admiring.  1798: Napoleon as the worthy adversary to Nelson.  1799: he becomes a heathenish, usurpatory butcher.  1801–3: ambivalence.  1803–5: the blustering Ogre.  1806–9: silence.  1810–12: domestic comedy.  1813–14: triumphalism.  1814 and after: the disappearance of anti-Napoleonic propaganda and the mass assertion of a sympathetic song tradition.  Underneath, it’s far more complicated, and that goes for class too.  Geography is also central.  If sweeping generalisations are permitted, then take England south of the M4, and Wales: staunchly loyal and anti-Napoleon.  Everything north of that, including Scotland and Ireland: far likelier to hold Bonapartist sympathies.  And there is an obvious narrative of elite disdain versus popular affinity.  But press too hard and it all falls down.  Look at Cobbett or Byron, and they change year by year.  Look at the contested performance of song in almost every major city and town.  Most importantly of all, look very hard at any individual song, the relation of words to music, and the multivalent interpretations that could be read into both: the same song in two mouths could carry two opposing messages, which might be heard as half a dozen more.  This is not a medium that encourages systematisation.  Indeed, this would be my central plea.  Just because there are thousands of songs, and just because most of them don’t appear to be any good, doesn’t mean we should turn them into big data.  In the first place, it doesn’t work, because what is extant is entirely unreliable as a sample of what circulated at the time.  And in turning songs exclusively into statistics (not that statistics can’t be great when done properly), we both belittle their value as cultural objects, and lose any sense of what they actually meant to audiences.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

Music in London 1800–1851 is keeping me very busy.  I’d like to echo James Grande’s invitation in these pages to visit the website if you are interested in being involved.  Along with David Kennerley and Ian Newman, I am co-editor of a volume of essays, The Art of Miscellany: Charles Dibdin and Late Georgian Culture, which looks at the world of Charles Dibdin the Elder with the aim of suggesting a new model of thinking about cultural production in the period, one that spans all sorts of media and networks.  This book is currently with readers.  I am also writing my second monograph, The London Ballad-Singer, 1792–1864.  In writing the Napoleon book I moved from political to cultural history, and this is where I’ve come to: a belief that we can best understand society and its texts by looking at the lived experience of culture, in this case on the London streets.  The book focuses on the representation, politics, performances, and repertoire of street singers – and ends (tragically?) with their ultimate disappearance.  Which seems like a good place to finish.