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Mike Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History.

Mike Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009. pp. ix + 299. US $99 cloth.

For many years poetry, like other aspects of the culture of early Victorian radicalism, tended to be treated as peripheral by historians; a mildly interesting adjunct to the serious business of politics. More recently, historians have been chipping away at this prejudicial view rooted, as it is, in an outmoded view of the place of culture in social formations. In a rich and meticulously researched book Mike Sanders has stridently retrieved Chartist poetry from the margins. Sanders advances a bold thesis for his subject: that poetry provided inspiration and leadership during the periods when many of the movement's key personnel were incarcerated. Moreover, poetry offers an invaluable insight into Chartist thinking, or rather 'the movement thinking out loud' (p. 17).

The book is divided into three sections. It opens with an excursion through various theoretical perspectives that might be brought to bear on the subject. This chapter requires careful reading and it will not please some readers. Admittedly, sometimes theory is introduced into the discussion unnecessarily. Do we really need Althusser, Williams, Jameson, and Castoriadis to tell us that the People's Charter symbolised more than a technical program of political reform? The Chartists recognised this in the designation 'Chartist and Something More'--something more than a reform of the procedure for registering votes. On the whole, however, the chapter is a refreshing and sophisticated attempt to engage readers in relevant perspectives that are full of potential as a means for deepening our understanding of political culture. Sanders goes out of his way to write in an accessible way even when discussing complex ideas and, in this way, his chapter is a convincing advertisement for interdisciplinarity and theory.

The second section, comprising three chapters, examines Chartist poetry at three moments of crisis: the aftermath of the Newport uprising of 1839; the Plug Plot general strike of 1842; and during what was both the apogee and the nadir of the movement in 1848. These chapters contain much important and fascinating analysis based upon highly skilled, fine-grained, attention to the texts. No reader of this analysis can doubt the importance of Chartist poetry, and culture more generally, throughout the history of the movement. Moreover, together with an appendix comprehensively listing the poetry published in the leading Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star, these chapters constitute an invaluable resource that will sustain further research. Later scholars will also be encouraged to look beyond the Star to the 'poetical effusions' which undoubtedly sit in the columns of the regional, marginal, and ephemeral radical press.

The final section is a chapter-length 'excursus and exemplum' of the poetry of the late-Chartist, Gerald Massey, through the lens of Walter Benjamin's notion of 'constellating' history, 'bringing the endangered past into a meaningful relationship with an equally endangered present' (p. 203). In particular, Sanders seeks to show that Massey's 'messianic vision of history' anticipated 'many aspects of Benjamin's own messianism'. Both the former factory-boy from Hertfordshire and the German Marxist literary critic, Sanders tells us, 'turned on the opposition between the homogenous, empty time of Capitalist modernity and the charged potentiality of Jetztzeit (the time of the now)' (p. 203). Again, for the careful reader there is much food for thought here, but it has to be said that the chapter reads like a discrete paper with conclusions that have little broader applicability.

As part of the discussion Sanders summarises Massey's biography, which is not true of almost all the other poets whose names appear in the book. Take John Skelton for example. Sanders tells us about Skelton's support for an Anglo-Irish alliance and of the need for a people's uprising as expressed in two poems published in 1848. He also dissects the poems in highly formal terms: the trochaic metre of Skelton's quintains, we are told, oscillated between hexameters and tetrameters (p. 176). But we are told nothing else about him. In fact, most of the poets whose work has been lovingly collected and meticulously analysed remain little more than names on the page. This is a book about the poetry not the poets. Does it matter? Is our understanding of Skelton's poetry and the role it played in the movement enhanced or even altered if we were also told that he was a journeyman shoemaker, veteran of the London Working Mens Association, who had been involved in the general strike and the Complete Suffrage conference in 1842; that at a 'great gathering' at the height of the crisis in March 1848 he was howled down for urging a 'moral force' strategy? Does it matter that Skelton went on to become a naturopath, affect the title 'Dr', and edit a medical reform journal? Given the views expressed in the poems discussed by Sanders, Skelton's biography seems, ostensibly at least, to matter a great deal.

The biography of the poet might be less obviously relevant in a formal analysis of the text in and of itself (although many literary critics no longer regard the author, or in this case, the poet, as dead), but in a book that argues for the social importance of poetry, it is surely a weakness to ignore those who got ink on their hands. Of course, there is only space for so much in a single volume, and this complaint is effectively a call for further research. Mike Sanders has done much to return poetry to the centre of the political stage but the poets are still waiting.


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Author:Pickering, Paul A.
Publication:Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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