Imagining the Cockney University: humorous poetry, the march of intellect, and the periodical press, 1820- 1860.
A discussion of the ways in which a major socio-political phenomenon was evaluated and analyzed in the humorous verse published in periodical literature between 1820 and 1860 appears at first sight a relatively straightforward undertaking. The complexities and resonances of the terms used here--especially "humorous verse" and "periodical literature"--in relation to the print culture of the late Regency and early Victorian period, however, render the task anything but simple. The verses gathered here for discussion derive from a wide variety of print cultural sources--serialized song books, part issue collections of lyrics derived from the theater as well as publications more readily identifiable as periodicals--and thus expose the generic and formal instability that characterized the marketplace for comic literature in this period. They were consequently written in a variety of forms that were as likely to derive from the needs of the theatre or the concert room as the demands of a magazine editor. They were as likely to adopt the formal characteristics of a broadside ballad or a theatrical monologue as any more conventionally literary kind of poetry. Accordingly, it is important to begin by asking a number of fundamental questions that recognize the origins of these verses in print culture.
An immediate difficulty is that of ascribing such lyrics to their appropriate cultural level, a question that cannot be addressed simply by recourse to an analysis of literary quality. Are we discussing poetry or verse, or lyrics, or songs, or even doggerel? In any case are the humorous songs and recitations that feed into periodical literature at this time, despite the often crudely produced and clumsily illustrated small scale publications they appear in, easily located as "down-market" productions aimed at vulgar though hardly culturally dispossessed readers? How far is the "popular" verse and doggerel that filled many a page in magazines aimed at middlebrow readers truly vernacular? How widely accessible was the framework of cultural allusions invoked by even the simplest poems? And, given that punning was a central mechanism for the activation of a humorous and satirical social vision in the Regency period, what levels of linguistic skills would a reader have needed to decode the verbal humor of the printed version of a song that had its origins and original performances in the supper rooms and penny gaffs of London?
Recognition of the origins of periodical verse in songs and lyrics first written for the concert room or other occasions of male sociability raises another set of interpretative difficulties to do with performativity. How far can the tone of a song/poem originally offered to an audience by means of performance be read off from a printed text that has been separated out from its performative occasion? How far is it possible to talk of "periodicals" in a context where much of the reprinted verse belonged, in one form or another, to the stage or some other moment of public declamation? Is the idea of a "literary" text in such a context an over-simplification that denies the cultural interpenetration of discourses drawn from widely different modes of distribution and reception? And, increasingly, a visual element was added in periodical literature by means of illustration. What was the function of illustration in relation to the publication of these kinds of lyrics?
And what, exactly, was a periodical at this cultural moment when various forms of serial publication were being rapidly developed not just for what might conveniently be called magazines but more widely for the publication of such diverse textual manifestations as plays, caricatures, songs, and, even this early, extended fiction? Was a song-book published in weekly or monthly parts with an identifiable element of individual "branding" in its typography and physical presence a "periodical"? Is it possible to distinguish between a serialized song-book and the thousands of one-off "songsters" or small scale gatherings of lyrics that were commonplace in the print marketplace of the 1820s and 1830s? Were the relatively expensive serials aimed at a more affluent and sophisticated market than the songsters, and did the difference in price show itself in the literary qualities and levels of socio-cultural understanding shown in the texts included?
All this said, comic verse was not necessarily the most significant discourse in which the meanings of the cultural shifts that characterized the march of intellect was negotiated and discussed. Even leaving aside scholarship in economic history and the history of science, recent publications have devoted close attention to the history of literacy, the rapid and spectacular development of periodical literature (especially cheap illustrated magazines), and the many forms through which print culture both enacted and described the march of intellect. One particular strand of recent scholarly interest has been on the use of the comic as a mechanism for publicizing, debating, and commenting on the march of intellect. The humorous representation of the anxieties caused by major social changes has been readily identified by historians of caricature, who have commented on the apparent over-representation of the march of intellect in caricature and graphic comedy published during this period. Dorothy George, in the closing sections of her influential overview of the caricature tradition, Hogarth to Cruikshank, devoted a fairly extensive section of her book to the topic, seeing it as characteristic of the shift away from political subjects to socio-cultural ones that took place in the 1820s and 1830s. (3) Brian Maidment has also given the march of intellect a prominent place among topics for satirical graphic commentary in his overview of the market place for visual culture in the period between 1820 and 1850. (4) Both Maidment and Michael Hancher have noted the interest caricaturists showed in periodical literature at this time as a symptom of the educational and cultural ambitions of emergent literacy among the lower classes. (5)
Scholars have thus interpreted caricature as visual print culture's engagement with the march of intellect. Caricatures were largely published in the form of a single plate and, increasingly, as a short series of related prints organized around a single theme. This essay will begin with the wide spectrum of sociopolitical perspectives about the march of the intellect found in verse published in comic magazines between 1820 and 1830. Poems and songs about the march of intellect formed a recurring topic of interest in the print culture of the late Regency and early Victorian periods. They appeared within collections of lyrics that worked through a range of topics--love songs, patriotic lyrics, drinking songs, and poems of male sociability, even "nigger" songs--but brought to such anthologies and periodicals a new kind of social awareness, previously largely confined to broadsides. In undertaking such a shift from traditional lyrics to more urban and socially aware subject matter, the songs of this period followed the caricature tradition that moved away from political satire towards socio-cultural topics. The assembly of poems gathered here for discussion comes from a cross-section of serial publications. The four series of the London Singer's Magazine (undated but apparently published between 1839 and 1840) showed a particular interest in the topic, and suggests some of the difficulties of defining what constitutes a "periodical" or "magazine" in this period. Is the London Singers' Magazine a songbook or a magazine? In what ways does its publication as a serial affect its content and audience? How far were such publications gathering material from sources within the theatrical and performance culture of London or were they commissioning fashionable items from their established contributors? Such issues will be discussed later in the essay. The point here is the simple one that there are at least six march of intellect poems in the London Singer's Magazine, and that they express startlingly different attitudes towards and understanding of the topic. The other poems considered here come from a range of similar sources such as Bell's Life in London and The Comic Magazine. Two of the poems had an existence beyond the immediate context of periodical publication: "The Cockney University," originally published in John Bull, was republished in one of C. M. Westmacott's popular yearly volumes the Spirit of the Public Journals, and W. T. Moncrieff's mock heroic The March of Intellect was published as a separate pamphlet by William Kidd in 1830. Discussions about the coherence of this group of texts will be made later in the essay. After illustrating the range of opinions about the value or dangers of the march of intellect available within contemporary society, the essay will turn to how the comic verse showed, in its tone, form, and social analysis, an equivocal or even confused sense of the nature of social changes. Finally, the essay will consider the particular characteristics of verse published in comic magazines between 1820 and 1850, especially the complexities offered by the relationships between magazine poetry and performance, the peculiar interpretative difficulties brought to attention by the comic mode, and the fundamental problem of deciding what might be defined as a periodical or a magazine during this period.
Central to the construction of images of the march of intellect in both graphic satire and in comic verse published in periodicals in the 1820s to 1850s was a sense of bemused wonderment, derived from the broadside, song sheet, and ballad tradition within popular culture. Such a viewpoint might be described as a combination of bewilderment at the rapidity of change, and the reversals of traditional social characteristics, caused by the march of intellect, with an anxious discomfort with the unfamiliar results of change. In this, caricatures and poems were echoing the ballad and song tradition of marking rapid social change through a failure of recognition; the urban environment has shifted so rapidly and radically that nothing is familiar or recognizable to the visitor returning after absence. Such repeated ballad and songs might be called the "Manchester's An Altered Town" genre, although the specific place named in the verses could easily be applied to anywhere the performer or writer found appropriate. In general, the socio-political implications of such images and songs were largely ignored; the verses stress speed and newness rather than outright hostility. Nonetheless, the de-familiarization caused by such rapid changes was often figured as a source of anxiety or even loss, a tonal complexity that, in more extreme forms, characterizes all the poems on the march of intellect.
A song by T. P. Prest, one of the key entrepreneurs who specialized in developing the market place for songs, performances, and novels with a broad-based cross-class appeal, called "The New March of Intellect" and published in Thomas Duncombe's serialized song book The Popular Vocalist, forms a paradigm of such bemused but slightly anxious and largely apolitical responses to rapid social change. (6) The Popular Vocalist provided a characteristic song book mixture of patriotic songs, comic monologues, sentimental lyrics, and sardonic social commentary brought together in a carefully constructed serial identity that made good use of Robert Cruikshank's vignette illustrations on the title page of each issue. The eclecticism of such serial gatherings of lyrics is clear from Prest's verses which were constructed in a traditional broadside mode rather than as the kind of concert-room lyrics and monologues that dominated the contents of The Popular Vocalist. Formal variety, and the widespread use of pastiche, was an inevitable consequence of the miscellaneous nature of such serialized song books which, given the pressures of filling their pages week after week, depended on gathering together texts and lyrics drawn from many sources, both oral and printed.
Prest launched his song with an invocation to the "wonders" that "daily do increase" and goes on to state that "his business" is "to detect" this "foolish 'March of Intellect. " Such detective work involves a consideration of the ways in which
Old modes and pastimes now give place, sir, To things with quite a novel face, sir, Each day brings forth new alterations, Fashions, follies, reformations. Dear, oh! dear! The truth I tell, sir, The present age doth all excel, sir!
In this way Prest instates the march of intellect as the presiding genius over a lengthy accumulation of sarcastically or sardonically observed evidence of "progress" as the whims of fashion rather than cultural or scientific advance. The speaker/performer is mildly offended by the white trousers worn by swells and laments the spread of cigar smoking and novel reading to all classes of society. The song does, however, focus a couple of stanzas ruefully on the changing cultural and leisure interests of the poor:
Poverty is all a farce, sir, Dustmen wear a quizzing glass, sir, Sweeps in Wellingtons must shine, And beggars wear coats superfine, sir. Dear, oh! dear &. c. I also sing of former days, sir, When working folk ne'er went to plays, sir, Or, if to go had got the luck, sir, In the shilling gallery were stuck, sir. But now some houses are more cheaper, And high and low can get a peep there, And sweep or dustman, if they're willing, In the boxes sport it for a shilling! Dear, oh! dear &. c.
After such a conventional run-through of the invasion of the lower classes into privileged spaces of the wealthy, along with a concurrent standard regret for "the former days," the poem ends with a flourish of concluding tropes: "let us hope the times will mend," "I wish no person to offend," "let's hope this year ... all such preposterous ways may smother." In elaborating a long list of social follies carried out in the name of "newness," Prest in this poem appropriates the fashionable topic of "the march of intellect" as a mechanism for gathering his targets under the conventionalized rueful refrain of "oh dear!" The ostensible focus of his poem--the "detection" of social pretentiousness and the deleterious effects of changes in fashions and manners--is subsumed under the heading of the march of intellect, capitalizing on this widespread concern (especially among the emergent middling classes) and expressing a conventionalized belief in the virtues of a bygone age.
A similarly conventionalized and relatively jocose response to the march of intellect dominates the most extended poem on the subject, W. T. Moncrieff s The March of Intellect, an exercise in the mock-heroic mode built out of an extended, and eventually wearisome, series of punning quatrains in the manner of Thomas Hood. (7) The March of Intellect was never, as far as I can tell, published in a periodical, but was issued by William Kidd in 1830 as a thirty-six page pamphlet format with wood-engraved illustrations by Robert Cruikshank. Such publications were called "jeux d'esprits" for a few years in the 1830s and were used largely to reprint popular lengthy poems accompanied by specially commissioned illustrations by leading comic artists. The form enjoyed a passing fashionability, but faded out of view quickly in the mid 1830s, a victim of the incessant quest for novelty that characterized the market place for print commodities at this time. One of Moncrieff s several moments of engagement with the march of intellect in both dramatic and verse forms, The March of Intellect largely avoided confrontation with the more contentious aspects of the topic and instead constructed an overview of social change that is good humored and well observed in its detailed account of the cultural ambitions of the lowly classes:
Learning's by poverty unchill'd, Each workhouse is a college, And paupers, deep in science skill'd, Prove they're not poor in knowledge. They sadly sigh o'er former days, Superior to their station, Rail at the sums the red book pays, And seek to save the nation. Yearning to raise their country higher, The ministry to stir; They'd rather go without a fire, Than Cobbett's Register. With novels they beguile the hours, With poems cure the vapours; Watch warily the parish powers, And club to read the papers. Abuses anxious to reform, And lop corruption's tree, They daily at the beadle storm, The overseer o'ersee. (pp. 21-22)
Despite Moncrieff s linking here of the literacy gained due to the march of intellect with the development of political interests among the poor, his response seems strangely muted and apolitical. Even in his subsequent account of the anxiety of the parish authorities when confronted with growing radicalism among the poor, he finds time to laugh at the pretentions of the parish overseers before heading back into a stream of wordplay. Overall Moncrieff uses the march of intellect here as an occasion for a virtuoso display of sustained punning rather than as an opportunity to express anxiety, hostility, or support to the cultural symptoms of major social change. His central joke, in keeping with his chosen mock-heroic mode, seems to be his ability to spend verbal and intellectual energy in celebrating such a low and mundane subject.
If such verses as Prest's and Moncrieff s represent a commonly held and relatively anodyne conventionalized regret for times gone by, with the traditional symptoms of social hierarchy shifting under both the incursions of new social aspiration and changing fashions, more strident and complex responses to the march of intellect could be found elsewhere. These responses, although seldom single-minded and coherent in their analysis, reach out towards the two extreme responses to the march of intellect also widely expressed in contemporary comic and satirical visual representations. The first constructs, or perhaps fantasizes, the effects of the march of intellect as socially disruptive or even dangerous--the usurpation of traditional social order and hierarchy by the ludicrous and unreachable aspirations of the vulgar lower orders. In this world turned upside down the secure world of genteel manners and book learning is overthrown by its brash adoption by the disreputable urban working classes whose very trades--dustmen, sweeps, scavengers--were widely characterized through repeated tropes of dirt, violence, disorder, and irruption into the spaces of society reserved for the genteel and the gentlemanly. It may be that the publication of verses in serialized song books that enacted the social anxieties and insecurities of the emergent professional middle classes offers important clues in defining the audience for such periodicals. Despite the formally unambitious vernacular, comic and "'low'" manner of the verse, it seems likely that the serialized song books, for all their crudity, spoke extensively to a relatively sophisticated cultural constituency largely drawn from a socially aware and highly literate readership. Put simply, serialized song books, despite their down-market appearance, their cheapness, their use of vernacular idioms, and their reliance on '"low"' comedy, were directed to an essentially middle-class readership drawn largely from the professions and trade.
Such sophistication can be easily recognised from the anonymous poem '"The Cockney University,'" first published in John Bull but more widely distributed through its inclusion in the 1825 volume The Spirit of the Public Journals, a yearly anthology of pirated extracts from periodicals edited by the somewhat notorious journalist C. M. Westmacott, whose magazine The Town had been built largely out of scandal and unsubstantiated gossip. With its highly polished engravings by Robert Cruikshank, The Spirit of the Public Journals was more a Christmas gift book than a digest of periodical snippets and sought to give respectability and weight to the occasional journalism it gathered. "The Cockney University" gives a good sense of the sarcasm and contempt through which it was possible to denounce the march of intellect, a sense of contempt that was presumably to be found among conservative readers of relatively up-market journals. (8) Beginning with the possibility that the labouring classes will "give over your labours" and "Leave digging and delving and churning" in order to "fill all your noddles with learning," the poem goes on to consider the march of intellect as another in a long line of "bubbles" or "mad schemes" that have disfigured society. The poet goes on to imagine what the Cockney University might be like, on the way making an explicitly political allusion to the likely astonishment of "each Radical's grannam" at the sight of it:
And, oh, what a thing for a lad who climbs flues, Or for one who picks pockets of purses, To woo in Ionic and Attic, the Muse, And make quires of had Latin verses, (p. 313)
The sarcasm of "bad" is matched here by the scornful notion that access to education was certain to empower the criminal as well as the urban working class. But having set out on a path of withering contempt the poem then becomes diverted by differing comic possibilities for a stanza or two, firstly with a string of occasionally witty puns on authors' names ("From Locke shall the Blacksmiths authority crave, / And Gas-men cite Coke at discretion") and then with an amused listing of the failings of progressive contemporary politicians. However, the poem concludes by reverting to an increasingly testy account of the ways in which cultural change can be closely linked to political threat:
From a College like this, what advantage must spring, What strides will the people be taking; Each Cobbler will soon be as good as a King, And a King a thing hardly worth making: The rising of some, and the fall of the rest, Will bring things at last to their level; And just as in France, which has suffered the test, Old England will go to the Devil, (p. 314)
A revolution in literacy and cultural ambition, the poem suggests, can be directly linked to political upheaval and even violent revolution. Such a fantasy of violent change was something that must have brought shudders of fear to the conservative readers of John Bull.
Less violently denunciatory but nonetheless sharply critical poetic versions of the march can easily be found elsewhere in periodical verse. Even W. T. Moncrieff, whose poem The March of Intellect was as we have seen an essentially bland response to the march of intellect, was capable of more pointed hostility:
Oh, Time! how strange thy changes-- Learning's now become mechanical; Scientific men and scholars, Are seized with a sudden panic all. The lower classes in the classic art, Are penny-trating low; And operative learning has So work'd it's way, it's all the go! Tol lol lol, & c. Now, thanks to Doctor Birkbeck, And Mechanics Institutions, The state of things are turning Upside down, by resolutions. Plain speaking now is banish'd quite, All patter metaphorical; Each dirty court is styled a place, In manner allegorical! Tol lol lol, & c. (9)
In Moncrieff's version of a "world turned upside down," rational common sense and traditional book learning is being replaced by "operative learning"--that is, technocratic, experiential, and empirical forms of knowledge that are "penny-trating" deep into society's consciousness. In evoking the influence of the Penny Magazine Moncrieff identifies a persistent line of opposition to the march of intellect--new forms of knowledge throw away integrated thought and understanding in pursuit of "useful" snippets of information. The complexities of the "alleygorical" (that is, belonging to the alleys where the poor live rather than the literary allegorical) misrepresent the truth and "style" the vulgar as the genteel. For opponents of the march of intellect the popularity of journals like The Penny Magazine was often viewed as something close to a fraud on a gullible public hungry for self-improvement as this verse comment from Figaro in London suggests:
"On the Circulation of a dull periodical, called The Penny Magazine" To see such trash as this go down, Makes some astonished look, But as the book takes in the town The town takes in the book. (10)
The implication that fashionable intelligence, by "taking in" The Penny Magazine, has itself been "taken in" by a cheap travesty of true knowledge or understanding, was frequently repeated by the many critics of the new information-based journals.
An opposite, but no less extreme, opinion to be found in both caricature and poetry offered a more positive reading, or again perhaps a fantasy, of the march of intellect as a heroic transformation of society in which the dirty and ignorant urban classes practising their trades on the edges of society were to be transfigured by cultural attainment into social usefulness or even individual prominence. If the lower orders, so the fantasy might have run, previously regarded as beyond the reach of culture, could be redeemed into civility, then, even at the expense of inaugurating a somewhat unsettling or even dangerous model of class mobility, society would reveal itself as progressive and able to accommodate social difference within a common economic and cultural project. To some extent such a fantasy was a crucial element in emergent middle class ideology. If the new non-productive professional classes could find cultural and social common ground with the aspirations of ambitious artisans and urban workers, then such an alliance might be an extremely important way of underpinning the development of a new social order that allowed for class mobility and a shared prosperity without recourse to violence or confrontation.
John Martin's "The Working Man's Song" published in a prolific source of march of intellect poems, the four series of John Duncombe's The London Singer's Magazine, offers a powerful account of the heroic potential of the movement:
That "ignorance is bliss" they say, "why teach the needy poor To murmur at their cheerless lot, and boldly crave for more-- The man whose station in the world is fix'd by humble birth, Mechanic-like to work his way, or till the fertile earth-- What need has he for intellect? Why should he upward look, And stand before the learned men with arguments and book? What right has he (the mean born kind) to write his vulgar name, Or think that all his energies can yield him common fame." That "ignorance is bliss" they say - but is that saying true? Should learning and its mighty power be given to a few? Should he who mates with poverty be but a witless knave, While Nature's voice within him cries "No man should be a slave!" While heaven proclaims to all around, throughout each mighty land, That rich and poor, and high and low, are made by one great hand-- The same wise care is over all, the poorest to protect Without regard to worldly rank, without regard to sect. As "ignorance is bliss" they say, "tis folly to be wise"-- So, unrepining, work away," the wealthy tyrant cries; But let the startling voice of truth in every realms [sic] be heard, To teach the least of human kind God's own benignant word. Let useful knowledge be instill'd in ev'ry human breast, And poverty will lose its load before such cheering test. Till through the world the humblest pen shall, giant-like, proclaim That ignorance has passed away, and only lives in name. (11)
It is not easy to interpret the likely tonal inflexions of a public performance of such a song, if indeed this poem is best described as a lyric. The relatively extended line, the rhyming couplets and the declamatory phrasing combine to suggest a hybrid poem that alludes to both religious and political exhortation as well as more traditional poetic philosophical meditation. The voice here is also complex: despite the title, it does not seem likely that a "working man" is speaking but rather that the poem is articulated by a more sophisticated speaker ventriloquizing an assumed artisan world view. Despite the title, this poem seems neither a song nor the plausible statement of a "working man," but rather an empathetic monologue written on behalf of a thoughtful but perhaps not especially articulate artisan. The singer would certainly have needed to be sure of the democratic sympathies of his audience, and the bardic proclamations of the concluding verse would only work within a confidently declamatory rendition of the verse even with the implicit appeal to patriotic sentiment. Despite its sometimes febrile appeal to the sentimental, however, the song offers a vision of the march of intellect which brings together economic advantage, personal redemption, patriotic and religious fervour, social progress, and moral rectitude as its outcomes. The "witless knave," for a performative moment at least, has here been turned into a "giant-like" cultural hero. A striking characteristic of this poem is the untroubled narrative of both collective social advancement and individual fulfilment that it offers. Yet such a progressive and visionary imagining of social change through collective will is to some extent diminished by the appeals to mawkish popular sentiment and easy patriotism.
The author of this poem, John Martin, elsewhere showed interest in another socially valuable or potentially triumphant aspect of the march of intellect: individual transformation through education. In "I Lives by Selling Hot Baked Taters," Martin rather touchingly invents a monologue for a street vendor whose experience of school comprised a master who was "always cuffin" but who succeeded only in "teaching us poor wretches nuffin." (12) Nonetheless, the hot potato seller managed to educate himself through Catnach's street literature and "Missus Natur" [Mother Nature] whose "cart loads" of knowledge reconcile him to his lot. Other poems linked book learning with social mobility. "The Learned Knife Grinder" by A.A.B., for example, concludes with a fantasy in which personal transformation through book learning results in the knife grinder becoming an M.P., fighting the cause of the poor against the "wicious Poor Laws."
A similar fantasy informs perhaps the best-known march of intellect poem, "The Literary Dustman," which seems to have originated in dramatic adaptations of Pierce Egan's 1821 novel Life in London from the early 1830s before being widely disseminated in broadsheets and serialized song-books, often, in its broadsheet form, accompanying a wood engraved illustration. (13) The poem describes an heroic course of self-education. The dustman learns to write courtesy of a "turnpike-man, vot varn't no fool" and then "Took in" "all the peri-o-di-cals" to make himself "literary." He "sifted out [his] larnin" to such good effect that he comes to enjoy a good standard of living, aping middle-class manners and habits in the process, and imagining genteel careers for his children. Finally, he considers his likely activities as a newly elected Member of Parliament where, as the very "fust of dustmen" he "means to take" the "Taxes off o' knowledge."
In these three instances the march of intellect is presented as a socially progressive movement that had the potential to transform society for the better. Yet all three are dramatic monologues requiring the performer or reader to adopt the voice of a lower-class protagonist as a means of thinking through the issues involved. These three poems are all presented as deriving from performances, yet none can be described as a song or a lyric, thus suggesting the hybridity characteristic of both serialized song books and the verse published in magazines at this time. The use of the monologue form in these three poems directs attention back on to the likely nature of their performance, where the ironic distance between the performer and the voice adopted to speak the monologue would have been exploited in various ways in order to please the audience. There is a strong element of pathos underpinning these fantasies of change, which would presumably have been a necessary aspect of the assumed persona of the performer. It is even possible that these apparently positive accounts of the will to self-improvement might have been performed in a mocking way that undermined the imagined social transformation conveyed by the songs. There were, indeed, other poems on similar topics that had bathetic rather than heroic conclusions. In "The Dustman's Brother," for example, a song that appears in Fairburn's Annual Budget of Songs for 1839 using the well-known tune of "The Literary Dustman, the low-born speaker offered a blundering, punning account of his social progress. (14) "In early life I always seem'd / To feel an inclination, / To rise above the common class / Of mortals in my station," he begins, and then details his career from sweep's boy ("rising by progression, / I swept through all, and soon did see / The top of my profession") to parish organ-blower, and on to triumphantly become "a street end chanter" [that is "enchanter"] and the head of a family of street singers. He lives in hope of having his life commemorated in a bust by Chantery"--a final pun on the sculptor's name and the dustman's brother's life as a "chanter." The word play here suggests that "The Dustman's Brother" was a song aimed at mocking the aspirations of a lower-class character who perceived a career that ran only as far as a street singer as something of a cultural triumph. If it was possible to figure the march of intellect as a potentially heroic transformative force in contemporary society in some poems, in others it formed a source of either (as here) gentle ridicule or else, as in "The Cockney University" a source of contempt.
Some sense of the potential tonal ambiguities of the march of intellect poems has been glimpsed in "The Cockney University" where, in the middle section of the poem, withering scorn gives way to a lengthy episode of verbal exuberance and literary play before the poem returns to its contemptuous dismissal of the cultural ambitions of working people. Even more dramatic and sudden twists of tone and argument can be found in "I wont's summut what's sweeping in its hargyment," an unsigned poem illustrated by a wood engraving and taken from a short-lived middlebrow comic serial publication of the early 1830s, The Comic Magazine. (15) Under the mock heroic title of "Sapphic," and, in a knowing allusion to its literariness, using something close to the Sapphic verse form throughout, this poem dramatizes and then moralizes an exchange between a sweep and the Librarian of a Mechanic's Institute. The sweep, accompanied by an apprehensive apprentice, who seems aghast at the temerity of his master and the grandeur of his surroundings, has come to the Institute in pursuit of Harriet Martineau's work on political economy, although, in his ignorance, he could only muster "Betty Martin" as the author's name.
"Would you be pleased to say what book it was you meant?" Asks the Librarian of the Suttee scholar. "Oh, anything wot's sweeping in its hargyment-- Summut by Betty Martin--what dy'e call her Touching economy." (16)
But if the sweep was unsure of who he wanted to read, he was pretty clear about the author's message: in "dangerous" or "critical" times "the poor they has no chance of freedom." The first two verses of the poem dramatize the sweep's quest for book learning in largely dismissive if humorous terms, underlined by the representation of his speech through the conventions always used after Pierce Egan's Life in London to suggest the plebeian Cockney. (17) The sweep is described, in the kind of elaborate pun entirely characteristic of contemporary humor, as a "Suttee scholar," thus combining the "learned" meaning of Suttee (Indian suicide) with the derogatory vernacular; the sweep's appearance, and thus by implication, his understanding of the world, is "sooty." With unconscious humor, the sweep declares his interest in reading "anything wot's sweeping in its hargyment," thus unknowingly entering a verbal play on his own occupation, a verbal play that became the punning caption to the image.
But the sustained, if relatively gentle, mockery of the sweep's ignorance and foolishly grand ambitions as a reader were quickly turned into another direction by both poem and image. The wood engraving, working within the technical limitations of the medium, depicts the sweep as a threatening figure, covered in soot, standing with arms folded and an inquisitorial stare on his face in an aggressive posture with one foot thrust forward. The sweep's dirtiness and aggression speaks of his presence in the Mechanic's Institute as to some extent an act of trespass, even an irruption. The Librarian, with an emollient spread-handed gesture, curly hair, cut-away coat and turned out feet, clearly represents the cultural values of the literate classes. Standing between the chimney-sweep and the shelves of books for loan, the Librarian is shown here as a gate-keeper to genteel book learning. Here, then, is a classic confrontation over the ownership of cultural capital between the aggressive aspirations of the poorer classes and the meekly genteel defensiveness of the middle classes.
But, as the poem made clear by a sudden turn in its argument, there is also something heroic as well as something threatening about the sweep's attempted engagement with Harriet Martineau's political economy. "Grand, in the abstract ... / Is the idea that knowledge woos the lowly," the poem declares in verse three, thus giving the sweep's presence in the Mechanic's Institute a much wider socio-economic context and value. Admittedly, this heroic vision was partly undercut by the rhetorical appeal to the "patriot puritanical" who has objected not just to the sweep's presence but more widely to the uppity ways of working men. The "processes Mechanical," a further punning allusion to the diffusionist ideas of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and other propagandists for cultural change through the education of the working man, offered an ambiguous evaluation of the changes likely to be wrought by the march of intellect. At this point the argument of the poem veers off again and addresses itself specifically to "high born and rich youth" who were firmly told to abandon facile if fashionable accomplishments like dancing and singing for fear of being "outdone" (an interesting choice of words) by "plebeian seekers after truth and reason." The rhyme word for "reason"--"treason"--reverberates with an echo of the discourses of philosophical radicalism, invoking the "patriot puritanical" to fulfil his social obligations or to suffer the consequences. Suddenly, then, this poem becomes a ' debate about patriotic responsibility. For the "high born" to neglect the pursuit of knowledge and "true wisdom" is to cede the socio-political power to the sweep and his ilk, with all the social consequences that such a world turned upside down implied. Tradespeople, too, need to show a similar commitment to "thinking." Again using the carnivalesque pun as a medium--the butcher-boys' acquaintance with Steele and Lamb was not only a literary one--the poem concluded by authenticating the central project of the march of intellect as one proper for, and indeed incumbent upon, all ranks of society. If the depicted chimney sweep's search for economic understanding looked more like a threat than a request, the wider quest for a more literate, more knowledgeable society run by "wisdom" and "thinking" remained an entirely worthy, patriotic, and necessary one. It is difficult to say how far these apparently contradictory attitudes can be explained by reference to the poems' origins as performance, where the audience's various opinions could be contained within a single conventionalized poem. It is also a matter of conjecture how far the printed versions of these lyrics reflect the performance elements that would be improvised around the topic of the song. Similarly the tonal complexities of performance can only be hinted at through the printed text.
Recent scholars have demonstrated that most mid-Victorians read poetry primarily in periodicals rather than in volume form. (18) The source for much of this verse derived from earlier comic serials, where the link to original performances was much stronger. The complex relationship between text and performance shown by the reprinting of lyrics and verses derived from the theater, song salons, and concert rooms, as a staple element in serial and periodical literature, raises wider issues about genre and print culture. Are these texts poems or lyrics? The origin of most of these verses lie in part-issue song-books, which in turn derive many of their texts from a variety of performances on the stage, in concert halls, and in supper rooms. Frequently songbooks give tune, performer, and place of performance as an integral part of their print manifestation. While the social meaning of these texts might he reconstructed or subverted by re-performance, the tonal variations available to the performer, and the extent to which the performer entered into a complicit relationship with his or her audience over the proper tonal level for each poem/lyric remains difficult to establish. How far were the central lower-class figures engaged in the march of intellect, and either denounced or celebrated in the poetry, subject, in performance, to ridicule, pathos, caricature, or other forms of dramatic re-invention? These fluid and hybrid texts--are they lyrics, songs, dramatic monologues, or even doggerel?--require a critical recreation of their performative context, including some sense of who might have sung or recited these verses, to what kind of audience, in what kind of place. And this information is hard to come by.
Although public performances were translated into song-books, songsters, annuals, and comic magazines, this verse had characteristics beyond seriality: small page size, relative cheapness, wood engraved illustration, and a shared interest in word-play as the central comic medium. In terms of cultural ambition, the verses published in these print locales lay between the broadside verses pouring out from Pitts and other printer/publishers and the self-consciously literary humor of Hook, Hood, and Poole, although there clearly was a high degree of interpenetration. In terms of their materiality and cultural value, the verse appears to be "low": the periodicals were often small sized, fragile (thus suggesting ephemerality), crudely illustrated, and printed in a bold but unsophisticated way using display type to appeal to the reader willing to be momentarily diverted. But, as we have seen, the frame of reference evoked by these texts--especially their relationship to contemporary theater, song culture, and the politics of literacy--is sophisticated and elaborate. The enjoyment of punning, a central aspect of humorous literature and visuality in the Regency and early Victorian periods, requires of the reader a capacity for linguistic complexity and a recognition of the potential play between settled verbal usage and potentially disruptive secondary meanings. The idea of the pun, in which traditional order is unsettled by newly introduced complexity, might indeed stand for the ways in which the entire discussion of the march of intellect is figured in the images and literature of the early nineteenth century. The poems discussed above, despite their mode of publication and refusal of high cultural status in their form and language, nonetheless do not represent the literary "low." They are essentially middlebrow, borrowing from both vernacular and elite literary models to play out serious social issues in the new diversionary sites of comedy brought into being by periodicals and serial publications in the 1820s to 1850s.
This discussion of poetry, periodicals, and the march of intellect extends the discussion of graphic representations of popular education that forms part of my Comedy, Caricature and the Social Order 1820-1850. (New York: Manchester Univ. Press, 2013).
(1) For the construction of the march of intellect in relation to scientific and technological knowledge, see Jonathan R. Topham, The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction and Cheap Miscellanies in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain," in Science in the Nineteenth Century Periodical: Reading the Magazine of Nature, ed. Geoffrey Cantor (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press 2004); Jonathan R. Topham, "Scientific Publishing and the Reading of Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain: A Historiographical Survey and Guide to Sources," Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 31 (2000): 559-612; Alan Rauch, Useful Knowledge: The Victorians, Morality, and the March of Intellect (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2001).
(2) The implications of the march of knowledge for print culture are discussed for example in Richard D. Altick, The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-1900 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1957); R. K. Webb, The British Working Class Reader 1790-1848 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1955); Louis James, Print and the People 1819-1851 (London: Allen Lane, 1976); Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2001); David Vincent, Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750--1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001); Patricia Anderson, The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture, 1790-1860 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991); Valerie Gray, Charles Knight: Educator, Publisher, Writer (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).
(3) M. Dorothy George, Hogarth to Cruikshank: Social Change in Graphic Satire, rev. ed. (London: Viking, 1987), pp. 177-183.
(4) B. E. Maidment, Reading Popular Prints 1790-1870 (New York: Manchester Univ. Press, 1996); Brian Maidment, Comedy, Caricature and the Social Order 1820-50, chap. 6.
(5) Brian Maidment, Penny Wise, 'Penny' Foolish?: Popular Periodicals and the 'March of Intellect in the 1820s and 1830s," and Michael Hancher, "From Street Ballad to Penny Magazine: March of Intellect in the Butchering Line," in Nineteenth-Century Media and the Construction of Identities, ed. Laurel Brake, Bill Bell, and David Finkelstein (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000).
(6) T. P. Prest, "The New March of Intellect," The Popular Vocalist (London: John Duncombe, n.d.), 2:17-18.
(7) Thomas William Thomas [W. T. Moncrieff], The March of Intellect (London, 1830).
(8) Unsigned, "The Cockney University," The Spirit of the Public Journals for the Year 1825, ed. Charles Molloy Westmacott (London, 1826), pp. 313-314
(9) W. T. Moncrieff [Thomas William Thomas], An Original Collection of Songs (London: 1850). While published in 1850, this volume was a collection of lyrics and poems published over the twenty years between 1830 and 1850. It is thus not always possible to give dates for the first publication of particular texts.
(10) Unsigned, "On the circulation of a dull periodical called The Penny Magazine," Figaro in London 29 (June 23, 1832): 115.
(11) The London Singer's Magazine and Reciters Album, ed. T. P. Prest, No. 90 (London: John Duncombe, n.d.), pp. 221-222.
(12) John Martin, "I lives by Selling Hot Baked Taters," The London Singers' Magazine and Reciters' Album, ed. T. P. Prest (London: John Duncombe, n. d.), no. 70, p. 60.
(13) Louis James, Print and the People (London: Allen Lane, 1976), pp. 149-150.
(14) Unsigned, "The Dustman's Brother," Fairbum's Annual Budget of Songs (London, 1839), unpaginated.
(15) This particular Comic Magazine, one of several magazines with that title all launched in or around 1832, was a weekly published by W. Marshall. It is undated but likely to belong to 1832.
(16) Unsigned, "Sapphic," The Comic Magazine 17 (London: W. Marshall, n. d.): 195-196.
(17) See Gregory Dart, '"Flash Style': Pierce Egan and Literary London, 1820-28," History Workshop Journal 51 (2001): 180-205.
(18) See, for example, essays by Ledbetter, Hobbs, and Hughes in this special issue.
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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