Professor Helen Abbott BA, MA, PhD

Professor Helen Abbott

Department of Modern Languages
Professor of Modern Languages
Deputy Head of College of Arts and Law

Contact details

University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

As Professor of Modern Languages, I specialise in nineteenth-century French poetry and music. My research explores ways of writing about word-music relationships in poetic language, in critical theories, and using digital methodologies. My particular focus is the work of (post-) romantic and symbolist poets including Gautier, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, and Mallarmé.


  • BA (Cantab)
  • MA (King's College London)
  • PhD (King’s College London)


I studied for my first degree in French and Italian at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and after a short spell working as an investment banking analyst in the City, I returned to academia. In 2003, I completed an MA in the French department at King’s College London, working on authors as varied as Montaigne, Boileau, and Baudelaire.

Following the completion of my PhD thesis on ‘The Aesthetics of Voice in the works of Baudelaire and Mallarmé’ in 2006, I took up a Lectureship in French at Bangor University, becoming Head of French in 2009. I joined the Department of French at the University of Sheffield in 2012 as Senior Lecturer, following a period of research leave in 2010-2011, for which I was awarded a Visiting Fellowship at the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies (University of London) and an AHRC Early Career Fellowship. My postgraduate research (2002-2006) was also funded by the AHRC, and during my time in London I taught French language and literature at King's, and Italian language at Roehampton University.

I am also a classically-trained soprano, and regularly give solo/consort recitals and run French language coaching sessions for professional singers.

I currently lead an international team of researchers on the Baudelaire Song Project (2015-2019, AHRC-funded), and took up my Chair at the University of Birmingham in 2016.


I teach French language at all levels, and specialist modules on Poetry, Poetics, Performance, and (French) Aesthetics.

Postgraduate supervision

I have supervised a number of PhD students on a wide range of topics. I welcome applications from PhD students in any of my areas of interest, especially the following:

words/music relations (including aesthetics, translation, adaptation, and performance)
poetry and poetics (especially nineteenth-century French, and metre, accentuation, versification)
voice/performance in relation to literary texts
the role of digital media in researching texts and performances (music, theatre, readings)

My previous PhD students include:

Armelle Blin-Rolland (Bangor, awarded 2011): ‘Back and Forth between Written and Spoken: Studies of transposed voices in Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro and their Adaptations’
Sven Greitschus (Bangor, awarded 2016): ‘Baudelaire’s Prose Poetry’
Eleanor Hodgson (Sheffield, awarded 2015): ‘Reflections of writing, rewriting, and reading in twelfth-century French literature: A study of Guillaume de Palerne as a self-reflexive romance’
Gemma Wheeler (Sheffield, 2014-2016): ‘Geffrei Gaimar's Estoire des Engleis: subtexts, politics, kingships’

Find out more - our PhD French Studies  page has information about doctoral research at the University of Birmingham.


My current major research project, the Baudelaire Song Project ( has one main aim: to research all the song settings ever of the poems by famous French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). Working with Dr Mylène Dubiau at the University of Toulouse II, and the HRI Digital team at the University of Sheffield, we are building a pioneering digital dataset which brings together for the first time both pop music and classical music settings of Baudelaire's verse and prose poetry.

Using innovative digital song analysis techniques devised and tested by our project Research Associate Dr Caroline Ardrey, we are able to produce rich, comparative data across a wide dataset, meaning we can answer questions such as: What are the performance trends in singing Baudelaire's poems? Which poems are never or rarely set to music, and why? How do composers and songwriters handle the challenges of setting French verse metre? Are there certain types of musical genres which are more suited to Baudelaire's poetry than others? The project is generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 2015-2019.

Related to this project, my most recent monograph, Baudelaire In Song 1880-1930 ( 2017/18) sets out a new methodology for analysing song settings of poetry. It takes five European song sets as its case studies from French, Russian, and Austrian composers of the fin-de-siècle/early 20th century, and reveals how understanding song means understanding the complex, multi-layered bonds that form and shape it. Drawing on existing theories from translation, adaptation, and word-music studies, it critiques and enriches these perspectives by exploiting recent neuroscientific research and developing new digital approaches for analysing song.

My inaugural lecture at the University of Birmingham on 17 November 2017 on the topic of 'Baudelaire in Song' is available to watch online.

Beyond the Baudelaire Song Project, my broader research areas include:

  • Rhetoric, poetics, music and aesthetics 1850–1950, with particular emphasis on theories of voice
  • Post-romantic French poetry, and in particular Baudelaire, Gautier, Mallarmé, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Verlaine, Valéry, and Post-romantic French song, and in particular Berlioz, Charpentier, Debussy, Duparc, Fauré, Vierne
  • Aesthetic theory and neuroscience 1880–present (in particular the work of René Ghil, Jacques Rancière, and neuroscientific theories of ‘pre-movement’ and resource-sharing)
  • Influence of French symbolist poetics on early twentieth-century Italian poetry (in particular the poetry of Dino Campana, Eugenio Montale and Gabriele D’Annunzio)

Central to my approach is working regularly with practitioners (songwriters, composers, singers, pianists, performers, actors). Current and recent collaborations, and events include:

  • Series advisor to the Académie Francis Poulenc (Centre International de la Mélodie Française)  2017 season on Baudelaire
  • Hector Berlioz / Théophile Gautier, Les Nuits d'été recitals, creative collaborations, and coaching sessions with professional singers (including Sophie Bevan) and translators (including Eleanor Brown) February 2014
  • Aloysius Bertrand / Maurice Ravel 'Gaspard de la Nuit'. Related interview on ABC Australia 'Into The Music' (broadcast 6 April 2013)
  • Co-organiser, with Richard Langham Smith (Royal College of Music), of Debussy symposium ‘Debussy Text and Idea’, London 12-13 April 2012 (fully podcast online). Related interview on BBC Radio 4 programme 'Songs for Madame Vasnier' (broadcast 10 January 2012).
  • Collaboration with pianist Sholto Kynoch, Artistic Director of Oxford Lieder (including series adviser, and numerous pre-concert talks)
  • Member of Oxford Song Network: Poetry and Performance research group (TORCH network)
  • Member of SongArt Performance Research Group (podcasts available online)
  • Collaboration with LLA-Créatis at Université Toulouse II-Jean Jaurès, working on French mélodie.

Current and previous research grant awards include:

  • AHRC Standard Grant 2015-2019, Baudelaire Song Project (£594,000)
  • AHRC Early Career Fellowship 2011 (£55,186)
  • The Leverhulme Trust Artist in Residence Scheme 2009 (£11,800)
  • British Academy Small Research Grant 2008 (£2,477)

Other activities

  • Editor of Dix-Neuf (2013- )
  • Member of the Editorial Board of Etudes Stéphane Mallarmé (2012-2013)
  • Member of Executive Committee of the Society of Dix-Neuviémistes (2005-2011, 2013- )
  • My research blog is:


  • Monograph: Baudelaire in Song 1880–1930 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), ISBN: 9780198794691
  • Monograph: Parisian Intersections: Baudelaire’s Legacy to Composers, (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012) ISBN 978-3-0343-0805-2
  • Monograph: Between Baudelaire and Mallarmé: Voice, Conversation and Music (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), ISBN 978-0-7546-6745-2
  • ‘Singing and Difference: The Case of Gautier and Berlioz Re-Examined’, French Studies 71:1 (2017), 31–47
  • 'Baudelaire and Electronica: strange voices and Ruth White's 1960s experimentations', Comparative Critical Studies 12.3 (2015), 357-376
  • ‘“I turned to look at you to read my thought upon your face”: Baudelaire’s readers transposed’, Poets as Readers, ed. by Joseph Acquisto, Adrianna Paliyenko and Catherine Witt (London: IMLR, 2015), pp. 131-147
  • ‘Transpositions des Illuminations, ou Rimbaud en musique’ Parade sauvage 25 (2014), 301-321
  • 'Song settings of Baudelaire's poetry' in Tom Hubbard (ed.), Critical Insights: The Poetry of Baudelaire (Ipswich, MA: Grey House Publishing / Salem Press, 2014), pp. 195-208
  • 'Poetry, Performance, Music in Nineteenth-Century France'. Editorial for special issue of Dix-Neuf 17:1 (2013), 1-8 on Poetry, Performance, Music, edited by Helen Abbott with Katharine Ellis
  • ‘Baudelaire’s “Le Jet d’eau” and the politics of performance’ Dix-Neuf 17:1 (2013), 37-56
  • ‘Failed departures and inevitable returns: impossible journeys in Baudelaire and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’ in Loïc Guyon and Andrew Watts (eds), Allers-Retours: Nineteenth-century France in Motion (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), pp. 16-28
  • ‘Performing Poetry as Music: How Composers Accept Baudelaire’s Invitation to Song’, in Phyllis Weliver and Katharine Ellis (eds), Words and Notes in the Long Nineteenth Century (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2013), pp.183-203
  • 'Poetic Time and Space, or What Fauré Learns from Baudelaire' in Mario Dunkel, Emily Petermann & Burkhard Sauerwald (eds), Time and Space in Words and Music (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2012), pp.137-149
  • ‘Working at the words/music interface: models of collaboration’, 'Setting Agendas' special issue of Contemporary Music Review 29:2 (2010), 159–169. Joint paper with Chris Collins (Bangor University)
  • ‘Sacred rhythms, tired rhythms: Dino Campana’s poetry’, 'Rhythm in Literature after the Crisis in Verse' special issue of Paragraph 33:2 (2010), 260–279
  • ‘Poetry and Music: a doomed love affair?’ French Studies Bulletin 30 (2009), 84–87, including own recording of relevant song setting together with Leverhulme-funded Pianist in Residence at Bangor University, Sholto Kynoch.
  • ‘Reading and deciphering: Mallarmé’s rhythmic sensation’, in Elizabeth Lindley and Laura McMahon (eds), Rhythms: Essays in French Literature, Thought and Culture (Bern: Peter Lang, 2008) ISBN 978-3-03911-349-1
  • ‘Politics or poetics? Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s “Vox populi”’, Romance Studies 26:2 (2008), 126–135.
  • ‘Music and Poetry at the Crossroads: Baudelaire, Debussy and “Recueillement”’, Dix-Neuf, 8 (2007), 18–38. Joint paper in collaboration with Dr David Evans (University of St Andrews) which includes our own recordings of song settings and relevant excerpts. Paper awarded High Commendation by the Society for French Studies Malcolm Bowie Prize 2008

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