Sunday, 22 February 2009

Chartism and Poetry

Mike Sanders

The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History

(Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, Cambridge University Press), 2009

300pp., £50 hard, ISBN 978-0-521-89918-5

Literature played a central role in the political as well as the cultural development of Chartism. [1] Most Chartist newspapers included literary contributions and the Northern Star featured an arts page containing original and reprinted poetry, serialised fiction and book reviews. Poetry was particularly well regarded by Chartists for its own sake and as a sign of civilised values and literature was part of the discussion within the movement on a range of domestic and international political issues. It was what Thomas Cooper saw as a ‘literature of your own’ that alone was sufficient to represent the Chartist cause. [2] This was literature in the public sphere and contrasted with middle-class attitudes to poetry and fiction that were more private and individually reflective and aesthetic rather than overtly collective and political. However, literature was not simply a vehicle for articulating political ideas but was also an important means of remembrance. Poems could be recited or sung and easily memorised, plays could be performed and stories could be read to audiences. They commemorated the actions of Chartists as a means of articulating a heroic past and a positive future.

Mike Sanders has produced an important study of the Northern Star’s poetry column with a complete list of all the poems published. Between 1839 and 1852, over a thousand poems written by more than 350 poets were published in the newspaper. Given the massive circulation of the Northern Star, these poems were among the most widely read or listened to poems in the nineteenth century perhaps the clearest expression of the populist and collective culture of Chartism and its supporters. The importance of Chartist poetry has long been recognised and is explored in an excellent chapter on Chartist poetry and literary history. The core of the work is the three chapters that explore the nature and importance of poetry at the three climactic points in the Chartist movement in 1839, 1842 and 1848. This is achieved by examining the ideological afterlife of the Newport rising, memory and nostalgia in the year of the mass strikes and ‘the future-hastening storm’ of 1848, the year of the European revolutions. Through his detailed analysis of the Northern Star, we now have a clearer idea of why reading and writing poetry played such a central role in Chartism’s struggles for fundamental democratic rights.

This volume must now be recognised as the leading study of Chartist poetry available to historians. Its subtle linkage of literature, aesthetics and history provides a clear contextual setting for examining the written word and makes one realise why Plato contended that poetry could be harmful.

[1] Scheckner, Peter, (ed.), An Anthology of Chartist Poetry: Poetry of the British Working Class, 1830s-1850s, (Associated University Presses), 1989, pp. 15-58, Journès, Hugues, Une Littérature Révolutionnaire en Grande-Bretagne: La Poésie Chartiste, Paris, 1991, and Haywood Ian, (ed.), The Literature of Struggle: An Anthology of Chartist Fiction, (Scolar Press), 1995, pp. 1-25, provide a good summary of the significance of literature in the Chartist movement.

[2] Cooper’s Journal, Vol. 1, (9), 2 March 1850.

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