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.

Sources: Peel in death

Lord Hatherton writing at the time of Peel’s death in 1850

Peel always seemed to me the most faultless of Ministers. The steadiness of his application and his facility of research, acquired from habit and good memory, were quite wonderful; he always appeared to me to do everything with great ease. He seemed to me not to have a particle of vanity or of undue ambition about him, but a constant of love of truth and desire to give it the victory. Naturally he did not appear to me good-tempered, but his temperament was not hasty, and his feelings were held under wonderful control. His friends, and even his most intimate colleagues, all complained that they could never learn his mind; yet at table or in the society of those he liked, or in a country ride or walk, he seemed unreserved and cordial, and at such times the good sense of his remarks and the liveliness of his anecdotes were very charming. He frequently carried the House away with him, but it was by his greater knowledge of his subject, and his superior power in handling facts, and by the moral character of his sentiments.

The death of Sir Robert Peel

The following report of Peel’s death was published in The Lamp, a Catholic newspaper, in July 1850

Sir Robert Peel is dead! A great instrument in the hand of Divine Providence has ceased to operate in mundane affairs! His task has been fully performed. He has been called to render an account of his stewardship, and in our heart’s core we wish that he may have been found acceptable in the unveiled presence of his JUDGE! It is not our object to follow in the track of the mere politicians of the day, who view his exit from this earthly scene as an event big with misfortune or fertile in blessings, as party feelings or personal bias may prompt them to prognosticate. Neither our judgment nor our hopes are limited to so narrow a range. True, our best sympathies for the last twenty years towards the man, and still shall they cling tenaciously to his memory; nor could any one more sincerely condole with the bereaved and deeply afflicted family of the great departed statesman; but we must confess we do not, like many others, hold his sudden call from among us, as an irreparable national loss. The designs of divine providence, though impervious to human intellect, must be wise and perfect - to us, to every thinking mind, they must be all-in-all, and we would sooner mistrust our own existence, than doubt for a moment that other fit agencies await the summons, to carry out and complete the great work or regeneration so well and nobly begun; by the late and deservedly lamented Sir Robert Peel.

Beyond comparison the most remarkable and distinguished English statesman of the age, it would appear he was called into existence to shiver the theories, and dash, by his extraordinary career, the prejudices, the hopes, the wishes, and the unsound principles of the millions who had staked their earthly welfare upon the power of genius and the subtle exercise of the human intellect. Starting into political life under the auspices of the proud old Tory Faction, he became at once their most able instrument, their cherished and favoured protégé. Endowed, however, with a mind capable of gathering and storing up practical wisdom, another name for expediency, he soon perceived that his haughty patrons secretly looked down on the young aspiring Commoner; but he was prudent, he had a noble card to play, and he was not slow in learning the true value of what the old school called constitutional principles. In the honesty of his heart he despised their hackneyed and used-up absurdities; He found himself trammelled, however, by the extensive influence and powerful interests of those whose index he had become, and who deemed him to be the best expositor of their sordid wishes and over-weening pretensions. Acting with that caution and moderation which were two great ingredients of his character, he closely watched the progress of events, drew knowledge from facts, waited his opportunity, and gradually converted his early masters into the unresisting slaves of his own proud will. On the altar of his loved country he immolated the Tory Faction, and gathered round his own name the grateful respect and admiration of that great body from which himself had sprung, the middle classes of Englishmen. Thus, under the direction of an over ruling providence, did he assume the championship of the men and the principles that in early life he had been brought forward to crush and annihilate.

While secretary in Ireland, he had the misfortune to earn the applause, almost the adoration of the Orangemen. It was because he came forward the bitter opponent of Catholics and Catholicism. This was a great error on his part, a defect in the statesman, a crime in the governor, a sin against a crushed people. But time and opportunity were vouchsafed to correct it, and he did not permit the occasion to slip. Under his tyranny the Catholic people began to learn their own importance. O’Connell concentrated their powers, the association sprung into existence, grew rapidly into gigantic strength, and, finally assumed a position, from which the united efforts of religious bigotry and political intolerance failed to dislodge them. Sir Robert quailed before this new creation, this offspring of a mind mightier than his own; accordingly, he reconsidered his position, drew wisdom from facts, and casting all former prejudices aside, he gracefully bent to necessity and became the reluctant benefactor of the Church of God. Strange destiny his, if aught which God marks by a special interposition may be called strange. Singular that he was made not only the scourge of early party, but the champion of those whom he formerly despised and oppressed! but so it was. His great merit as a statesman was, that when he knew himself to be right, he proceeded in his course with fearlessness and candour. What he did, he did not do by halves; with the grace of sincerity he made his recantations and concessions; and in the case of emancipation, without hankering after or attempting to impose silly and insulting securities, &c., he admitted the Catholics freely into the temple of the constitution. The drag being thus removed from the wheel, Catholicity has since rolled forward with such an accelerating motion, as neither he nor his fellow labourers, nor his opponents, nor those whose condition he sought to ameliorate, had ever dreamed of. Two men alone perhaps possessed correct anticipations of the results. O’Connell, in the vivid picturings of faith, beheld the conquests which the untrammelled Church was destined to achieve. Lord Eldon, in the depression of despair, saw through his tears, as through an inverted lens, that ‘the sun of England’s glory had set for ever,’ and in his narrow view he was indeed prophetic. In Protestant ascendancy his bigoted soul had concentrated England’s glory, and with the emancipation act, that sun did truly set never to rise again!

Peel a ‘working class hero’

Obituary article on Sir Robert Peel in Chambers’ Papers for the People, volume iv, a cheap popular periodical aiming at a mass circulation.

He fell from official power into the arms of the people, whose enthusiastic plaudits accompanied him, on the evening of his resignation of office, to his residence in Whitehall Gardens. The spontaneous feeling of gratitude and respect which prompted those plaudits has since widened, strengthened, deepened, and will become more and more vivid and intense as the moral grandeur of his motives - the unselfish, self-sacrificing spirit which dictated his public conduct - pierce through, and consume in the clear and brilliant light of that truth and justice which, we are assured by an illustrious authority, has ever inspired his acts, the calumnious misrepresentations so unsparingly heaped upon him. By his humbler countrymen, that testimony to the moral worth of the departed statesman was not waited for, nor needed. They felt instinctively that he must be pure and single minded, as he was intellectually vigorous and great; for what had he, raised aloft upon the bucklers of a powerful and wealthy party, to gain by stooping from that dazzling height, to raise tip the humble and lowly from the mire into which ignorant and partial legislation had so long trampled them.