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Mike Sanders. The Poetry of Chartism: Politics, Aesthetics, History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. ISBN: 9780521899185. Price: US$89.00/£53.00

  • Florence S. Boos

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  • Florence S. Boos
    University of Iowa

Logo for Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net

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Long a victim of neglect driven by condescension, nineteenth-century working-class poetry has begun to come into its own. In his overview of attitudes toward Chartist literature in the second chapter of The Poetry of Chartism, Mike Sanders correctly remarks that “Chartist poetry has a higher academic profile than at any time in the past half-century” (66), and his most recent study clarifies its qualities and a number of ways in which it has been subtly misread.

One of these critical lapses has been the exclusive concentration on a small number of “Labor Laurates” (66), a focus which has led to under-attention to the historical circumstances in which these context-sensitive poems were written. Another was to dismiss the importance of editorial and political influences which largely determined which poems were read; and a third has been to confine consideration to poems with a readily discernible political import. Such approaches employed a “‘self-evident’ definition of [their] object of study, constructing Chartist poetry as an ‘ideal type’ consisting of poems on a recognisably Chartist theme written by self-identified Chartist poets” (66).

In his response to these oversimplifications, Sanders examines Chartist poetry as an evolving effort to express authors’ personal aspirations and political agenda in a chaotic period that ultimately crushed these newly-aroused aspirations. He considers Chartist poetry in relation to the movement’s rise before 1842, for example, its organizational surge after the rejection of the Charter, and its ambivalent and conflicted attempts to rally against the harsh repression of 1848. He has also broadened the scope of inquiry to include selections from quite literally thousands of poems written by the Chartists and their ideological allies as examples of “the Chartist imaginary” (3).

Sanders also critiques prior accounts of Victorian (middle-class) poetry as dominated by the dramatic monologue, the epistemologically skeptical double poem (a concept developed by Isobel Armstrong), and preoccupations with marital unity and national identity. He makes a strong claim for working-class poetic patterns of “negation, opposition and transformation,” which form a “Chartist equivalent to the double poem” and will “broaden and deepen our understanding of Victorian poetry” (37).

Sanders’s first chapter establishes that poetry was pervasive in the everyday practice of Chartist institutions—sung at meetings and published in broadsides and newspapers, of course, but also composed by Chartist leaders, who sought to inspire and communicate with their followers as they responded to the events of the day. In a period before the dominance of prose, the power of the secular ‘good word’ could soften harsh everyday reality, alternately channel and mute anger, and offer a hope of earthly change as a counterpoint to the religious verities that permeated middle-class literature designed for the working-classes.

Even readers predisposed to agree with Sanders’s larger arguments may be startled at the evidence of the force of working-class poetic interests and aspirations. The various editors of the Northern Star from 1838-52 struggled with deluges of poetic submissions; one beleaguered editor complained that that “[w]e have received as much poetry as a donkey could draw” and [are] “glutted with poetry, [with] almost a jackass load of what claims to be original poetry waiting for insertion” (qtd, in 72).

A second chapter on the Northern Star’s poetry column explores the complex interrelations between poetically inclined readers and the country’s most widely read Chartist newspaper, which reached an estimated weekly circulation of 50,000 at its peak in 1842. As the editors alternately responded to and attempted to shape the quality of the contributions submitted, its poetry column moved “from the margins to the centre of the paper” and expanded in length and scope (71).

The quality and political implications of some of these submissions were recognized by all observers, as was the popularity and acknowledged sophistication of Thomas Cooper’s Purgatory of Suicides (1845), one of the movement’s great achievements. But divisions in the Chartist movement (between Cooper and Feargus O’Connor, for example), the widespread repression and imprisonment of major Chartist leaders, and more benign changes such as the emergence of Chartist fiction and rise of sympathetic middle-class publications, gradually checked the outpouring of working-class poetic expression after 1850.

In the next two chapters Sanders assesses other shifts in Chartist poetry occasioned by specific events. He considers the response of the Northern Star to the 1839 uprising of 7,000 armed colliers and ironworkers who had marched on a hotel in Newport, Wales with the intention to free an imprisoned leader and, by some accounts, to initiate what they hoped would be a pan-British democratic revolution. When twenty-four of these insurgents were shot and their leaders arrested, the Northern Star, and the Chartist movement more broadly, were faced with the question of the morality and efficacy of armed resistance. As advocates of “moral force” (88), editorialists in the Star cast the conflict as one of martyrdom, assimilated the workers’ deaths to the massacre of Peterloo, attacked the government’s conduct of the trial of the chief defendant John Frost, and raised money for his defense before he was sentenced to deportation.

Sanders next analyses a variety of Chartist poems which appeared in the aftermath of the mass arrests which followed the Newport Rising in 1842. Many called attention to the efforts of Chartism itself, advocated Corn Law repeal, or called for an end to colonial rule of Ireland. Others offered reflections about the movement’s internal debates, considered the ethical and psychological benefits Chartism provided its adherents, or anticipated a visionary and utopian “Merry England.” Rejecting the notion that such “nostalgia” was inevitably dishonest or escapist, Sanders observes that in such poems “the agrarian golden age enjoy[ed] a last moment of historical visibility, precisely at the time of the decisive transition to industrial capitalism” (165).

In his chapter on Chartist poetry in 1848, Sanders provides a poignant overview of poetic responses to the events of that turbulent year, including the thwarted uprising in Ireland, the repression of revolutions in Europe and, nearer home, the failure of a mass meeting on Kennington Common to attain a sympathetic hearing for the third and final presentation of the Charter to Parliament. The poetry in the Northern Star tracked this trajectory, beginning with largely unsuccessful attempts to forge anti-colonialist alliances against oppression and disenfranchisement with middle-class and Irish revolutionaries.

The paroxysms of 1848 were accompanied by a glow of reformist and revolutionary hopes, followed in its turn by a final, more disillusioned phase in which poets alternated between advocacy of “red republicanism” and ambivalence about the uncertain prospects and desirability of a British revolution (186). As expressed in an anonymous end-of-year poem, “Better Times” (1848), the poetry of this period expressed “a complex emotional note compounded of defiance, muted optimism, uncertainty and a sense of stoic endurance which teeter[ed] on the brink of fatalism” (201).

In a final chapter on Gerald Massey, Sanders applies language Walter Benjamin derived from Marxist and Jewish messianic traditions to Massey’s poetry, in which Sanders finds the evocations of messianic resistance, counterfactual hope and millenarian faith which have recurred again and again in the language of ‘long-term’ struggle. In contrast to Phyllis Ashraft, Martha Vicinus and other critics who have found Massey’s poetry marred by “extravagant language” and “highflown revolutionary phrasemongering” (46-47), Sanders considers him the most important Chartist poet and one whose messianism “allows the historical subject to feel both hope and despair, optimism and pessimism, agency and powerlessness, as constituent parts of a unitary historical process” (207). He argues that later poems such as “Hope On, Hope Ever” (1849), by contrast, “offer[ed] its readers a redeemed future which is essentially disconnected from the present, and a present which enjoys no vital connection with the past” (222).

Poetry of Chartism is the most comprehensive assessment these underrated works have had in more than four decades. The book’s arresting account of the internal tensions mirrored in the Northern Star exorcises the twin curses of anonymity and authorial obscurity in ways I hope will encourage others to canvass the pages of The Reasoner, The Chartist Circular, The Democratic Review, The Uxbridge Spirit of Freedom, Reynold’s Political Instructor and other Victorian working-class periodicals in pursuit of new metaphors, aesthetic formulations, and analyses of political conflict. It may also encourage collateral inquiries into other areas of working-class writing—essays, poems of the rural poor, oral and dialect literatures, and working-class women’s poems and memoirs—and foster awareness that views Victorian poetry based solely on middle-class exemplars are seen through blinkers: the beautiful and canonical works of poets such as Tennyson, Christina Rossetti and Matthew Arnold should be read against a broader range of writings by poetic colleagues from less privileged backgrounds.

Finally, few who read this book will fail to understand the spirit of Sanders’s comparison of his book with works such as Raymond Williams’s 1977 Marxism and Literature: that the latter, “written during a period of working-class militancy and advance, is understandably interested in the future, whereas this study, written during a period of profound defeat, is concerned with identifying those resources necessary for the undertaking of a journey of hope” (26). Sanders’s synthesis of aesthetic, political and historical interpretations in The Poetry of Chartism is an exemplar of new interdisciplinary insights, a poignant excavation of the “structures of feeling” inherent in all struggles for democracy, and a pioneering exploration of the intentions and achievements of a disregarded collegium of Victorian poets.