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Poetic Agency: Metonymy and Metaphor in Chartist Poetry 1838-1852 [1].

REFLECTING ON THE FIRST NATIONAL CONVENTION, THE ORIGINAL historian of Chartism, R. C. Gammage, commented wryly, "It did not turn out to be a perfectly harmonious body." [2] According to Gammage, the major source of discord was the disagreement between the advocates of "moral" and "physical force" (pp. 106-111). While subsequent Chartist historiography has offered a more nuanced account of the range of opinion within Chartism, it has also confirmed Gammage's assessment that the related questions of strategy and agency bedevilled the Chartist movement throughout its existence. [3] The intention of this article is to demonstrate the extent to which Chartist poetics participate in this central problematic--that of identifying and representing a social force capable of securing the Charter.

Broadly speaking, the article will argue that Chartist poetry represents agency through one of two poetic strategies. The first uses metonymy and metaphor to invoke and evoke agency respectively, whilst the second identifies specific concrete groups which it seeks to interpellate as the agents of change. It will argue that these changes in poetic strategy are symptomatic of changes in political understanding. The displacement of metonymy by metaphors of natural force, and the increasingly self-conscious and sophisticated use of these metaphors combined with the emergence of a strategy of interpellation is, it will be argued, the poetic analogue of the progressive, albeit uneven, development of Chartist political analysis. [4]

Metaphor and Metonymy

Early Chartist poetry (1838-1842) frequently represents both Chartism and Chartists in metonymic terms, with the flag or banner offered as a sign of Chartist activity. Eugene La Mont's "Universal Liberty--The Chartist Reaction" for example begins "See the banner of freedom, now proudly unfurl'd--," whilst the chorus of Edwin P. Mead's "Chartist Song" ("Hark! 'tis the trumpet call") begins "Press around the standard, press." [5] The flag, banner, or standard similarly stands as a focal point for, or as an index of, Chartist action in a number of other poems of the period: "Air" ("Swearing death to tyrant King,"), "Presentation of the National Petition," "Nine Cheers for the Charter," "One and All," "The Enslaved," "Song" ("Ye working men of England"). [6]

In these poems, agency is generally symbolic rather than actual. A typical example is provided by the anonymous poem entitled "Air" ("Swearing death to tyrant King"):

Swearing death to tyrant King.

Heaven guards the patriot heart;

Join'd in hand and heart we'll sing,

Vive la Charte, Vive la Charte!

Ruin seize the tyrant knave,

Can slavery or woe impart

Aught of pleasure to the brave,

Vive la Charte, Vive la Charte!

Bear our conquering standard high,

Terror strikes each miscreant heart;

Onward! Still our battle cry,

Vive la Charte, Vive la Charte!

Raise the brand of liberty,

Dare the foe, brave the smart;

Swell the chorus loud and high,

Vive la Charte, Vive la Charte!

This poem makes use of an established "radical" political rhetoric consisting of abstractions; the "patriot heart" opposes the "tyrant king," and "the brave" join battle for "liberty." Moreover, despite the use of the collective pronouns "we" and "ours," there is no sense of a concrete, collective agent within the poem. Chartists are represented metonymically by means of their "conquering standard" (which is borne aloft apparently without the assistance of human hands) and by the disembodied voices who "Swell the chorus loud and high." Similarly the second half of the poem consists of a series of subject-less imperatives: "Bear," "Onward," "Raise," and "Swell." Even the Charter itself is to some extent alienated by its translation into French, "Vive Ia Chattel" In short, the poem is marked by its inability to instance the agency capable of realizing its political aspirations.

However, by far the most important figure of metonymic representation is that of the "voice." Many Chartist poems either represent political consciousness in terms of the discovery or recovery of a speaking voice, or equate political strength with the loudness of the "people's voice." Nor is this a feature exclusive to early Chartist poetry. Later Chartist poetry, particularly that written after 1848, often represents defeat in terms of silence (see for example Ernest Jones's "The Song of the Future"), or alternatively seeks to construe silence as a sign of subterranean and subversive realignments within the social order, as in Jones's "We Are Silent" and William James Linton's "The Gathering of the People." [7] Considering the importance of oral and song traditions to Chartist poetry it is not surprising that ideas of the "voice" should figure so prominently within Chartist poetics. [8] Yet the presence of the "voice" is also conditioned by political factors. From Thomas Carlyle onwards, concepts of "articul acy" have played an important role in bourgeois discourses on the "Condition of England Question." [9] Of even greater significance, perhaps, is the fact that for many Chartists their only form of participation in parliamentary elections was that of verbally signalling support for "their" candidate at the hustings.

Yet, despite its persistent appearance throughout Chartist poetry, the significance and/or effect of this trope varies greatly. Early Chartist poetry is characterized by the level of abstraction which attends its use of this metonym. Take for example "The Voice of the People" by W.H.C.:

Tis the voice of the people I hear it on high,

It peals o'er the mountains -- it soars to the sky;

Through wide fields of heather, it wings its swift flight,

Like thunders of heaven arrayed in their might.

It rushes still on, like the torrent's loud roar;

And bears on its surges the wrongs of the poor.

It's shock like the earthquakes shall fill with dismay,

The hearts of the tyrants and sweep them away.

Although the poem's title ostensibly identifies the source of the voice it describes, within the poem there is nothing to convince the reader that the voice is anything more than a rather abstract, rhetorical figure. [10] The voice is located in a series of generalized settings, "the mountains . . . the sky . . . wide fields of heather," and its activity is described in terms of transcendence, "it soars," "it wings." [11] Indeed, the only way in which the poem is able literally to ground its activity is by recourse to an extended metaphor which likens the voice to a variety of natural forces ("torrents," "earthquake"). Similar features can also be found in C. Westray's "The Voice of Freedom," where the voice in question, "Borne swiftly on the ev'ning gale," seems to issue from an ethereal realm and moves over a non-specific "land" bringing comfort to the "poor" through a somewhat paradoxical combination of "glorious whisperings" and "heartfelt cheering accents." [12] In both poems the statement of demands is treated as practically identical to their realization as the sound of the voice strikes fear into the hearts of tyrants.

Yet there is a sense in which the underlying logic of metonymy remains necessarily inhospitable to Chartist aspirations. Firstly, by definition, it substitutes part for whole, and as a result its internal figurative logic is unsuited to the task of securing the coherence and cohesion of the Chartist movement either poetically or politically. [13] Secondly, metonymy is unable to resolve the problem of imagining and representing agency except in the most abstract ways. Within Chartist poetics metonymy invokes rather than evokes agency. It reveals almost too clearly the limitations of Chartist strategy--the absence of a credible means of achieving its desired political ends.

Indeed, in order to concretize political activity, Chartist poetry abandons metonymy and has recourse instead to metaphors of natural forces. In poems such as the anonymous "Chartists and Liberty," E.C.H.'s "Address to the Charter," W.H.C.'s "The Voice of the People," Eugene La Mont's "Universal Liberty--The Chartist Reaction," and W. S. Villiers Sankey's "Ode" ("Men of England, ye are slaves"), Chartism is frequently represented as an irresistible natural force or process. [14] The opening verse of "Chartists and Liberty," for example, has morning replacing night and the sun replacing darkness as analogues of Chartism and liberty. These tropes of daybreak, light, and awakening recur throughout Chartist poetry, and are clearly intended to suggest the inevitability of Chartist victory by identifying Chartism as the culmination of a natural cycle and the restoration of a natural order. [15] "Chartists and Liberty" is somewhat atypical insofar as it establishes Chartism without opposition. Generally speaking, Ch artist poetry written after the failed Newport uprising does recognize the probability of opposition and usually encodes this in images of flood and storm. Indeed, water-related images and metaphors abound in early Chartist poetry. E.C.H.'s "Address to the Charter," for example, begins by describing the Charter as a "bright wave rolling on / With the tide of liberty!" and continues by comparing the growth of Chartism to the progress of a river which gathers strength until it bursts its banks. In the penultimate verse, "towering waves" and a "whirlwind" act as a precursor to the dawn of freedom. Similarly, in W.H.C.'s "The Voice of the People," the strength of Chartism is described in metaphors of flooding, "torrent's loud roar" and "surges" which will "sweep [tyrants] away." Although the Flood is never explicitly invoked, it is hard to resist the conclusion that it informs this poetic as the archetype of the destruction of the old corrupt order and the inception of a new reformed one.

As Brian Maidment has argued, these natural images and metaphors serve a dual purpose. They attempt to describe "the unknown, perhaps even unknowable, nature of dramatic political change" and, simultaneously, "stress the 'naturalness' of the revolutionary process" (p. 38). In short, they are intended to inspire confidence in their readers by stressing both the possibility and the legitimacy of the desired political change. In addition, these natural metaphors are supposed to suggest the inevitability of Chartist victory. Yet, as Timothy Randall has pointed out, these metaphors are decidedly "mixed" as regards their political message. The problem with such metaphors, argues Randall, is that they ignore the fact that "nature is incorrigibly cyclical; if freedom arrives with spring, tyranny will return with winter . . . ; [moreover] in stressing the natural inevitability of liberty's conquest of tyranny, such images appear to foreclose on the need for human action." [16] In effect, these natural images and metap hors mystify the actual political obstacles which Chartism has already encountered and will continue to meet throughout its existence.

That Chartism was not an irresistible natural force was made brutally clear following the rejection of the Second Petition and the collapse of the Mass Strike in 1842. Indeed, in the aftermath of 1842, the Chartist movement was forced to reconsider and revise its strategies (Charlton, p. 54). In the same period there is a corresponding change in Chartist poetry which, according to Anne Janowitz, not only becomes "less militant and more analytical" but is also marked by the increasing dominance of "aesthetic" modes of poetry within the Chartist press (pp. 136, 160). In part this increase in poetic complexity and sophistication is explained, as Janowitz has demonstrated, by an increasing division of "cultural labour" within the Chartist movement which sees the emergence of recognized "labour laureates" (such as Davenport, Cooper, and Jones) and the privileging of print-based poetic forms over those derived from oral culture (pp. 160-192). However, it is my contention that this poetic refashioning is also inform ed by the revisioning of Chartist politics which occurs in the mid-1840s. This new type of Chartist poetry is characterized by a more complex and sophisticated understanding of the political situation which manifests itself in a far more self-conscious and complex use of metaphor than had previously been the case.

Ernest Jones's "Onward," published in The Labourer in 1847, provides a good example of this development within Chartist poetry:

Who bids us backward--laggards, stay!

As soon wave back the light of day!

We have not marched so long a way

To yield at last, like craven things,

To worn-out nobles, priests, and kings.

Go bid the eagle clip its wing!

Go bid the tempest cease to sing,

And streams to burst, and tides to spring;

And, should they listen to your call,

We'll onward still, and face you all!

Oh! We have battled long and true;

While you were many, we were few,

And stronger chains we've broken through:

Think not your paltry silken bands

Can bind Progression's giant hands.

Go stay the earthquake in the rock,

Go quench the hot volcano's shock,

And fast the foaming cataract lock:

Ye cannot build the walls to hold

A daring heart and spirit bold.

Forbid the flowery mould to bloom,

Where years have scathed a tyrant's tomb,

And tell us slavery is our doom:

E'en as the peaceful march of time

Moulders the rampart's stony prime,

So calm Progression's steady sway

Shall sap and sweep your power away.

At first sight this poem appears continuous with the established Chartist poetic tradition. The poem opens with a familiar (if not hackneyed) metaphor, Chartism as dawn, intended to suggest that resisting Chartism is like resisting daybreak. This would appear to locate the poem within the tradition of representing Chartism as an irresistible natural force. However, between first and final couplets a significant ideological and poetic shift occurs. Although the final couplet also asserts the inevitability of Chartist victory, this victory results from the teleology of a social and not a natural process. As the final stanza makes clear, the triumph of "Progression" will be realized in and through time; history replaces nature as the ultimate guarantor of Chartist success. Furthermore, abstract personification replaces natural metaphor as the poetic index of agency.

The lines between the first and final couplets of "Onward" are characterized by a much more complex use of natural imagery than can be found in early Chartist poetry. The second stanza, for example, extends and amplifies the idea found in the opening couplet. It does this by offering a series of images of unstoppable natural power:

Go bid the eagle clip its wing!

Go bid the tempest cease to sing,

And streams to burst, and tides to spring;

Individually and cumulatively these images are intended to suggest the absurdity or futility of attempting to resist Chartism. Once more, the equation is made between Chartism and natural forces. However, the stanza develops rather unexpectedly from this point by characterizing Chartism as potentially different from and superior to "natural" power, "And, should they listen to your call, / We'll onward still, and face you all!" The reason for this unexpected turn is suggested by the fourth stanza which gives three images of immense natural power successfully contained by human intervention. Here then is a realization that those technological and scientific advances (fostered by the industrial bourgeoisie) which are capable of mastering nature, also problematize the political charge of natural metaphors within Chartist poetics. In short, there is a danger that such metaphors will represent working-class protest not as an irresistible force but as another unruly element which needs to be mastered and managed by the governing classes. It is no coincidence then that the fourth stanza repeats the structure and the argument of the second: three images of constrained natural power followed by a couplet which insists on the qualitatively different nature of Chartist activity.

This conscious reworking of inherited modes of representation stems from a realization that natural metaphors now only provide analogues of process rather than underwriting inevitable victory, and this realization is given formal expression in W. J. Linton's poem, "The Gathering of the People" (published in The English Republic, 1851):

Gather ye silently,

Even as the snow

Heapeth the avalanche:

Gather ye so!

Gather ye so,

In the wide glare of day,

Sternly and tranquilly;

Melt not away!

Flake by flake gather;

Bind ye the whole

Firmly together--

One form and one soul!

Are we all gather'd?

Welded in one?

Hark to the thunder-shout!

Now roll ye on!

Roll ye on steadily;

Steadily grow;

Swifter and swifter roll!

Who stays you now?

Leap from your hill of right;

Burst on the plain!

Ye were born in those valleys;

There shall ye reign.

Roll on in thunder!

Man's buildings are there;

Lo! They mock'd at your movement:

Now hide their despair!

Roll, roll, world-whelmingly!-

Calm in your path

Glory walks harvest ward:

God rules your wrath.

'It is accomplished:'

Melt we away!

The phoenix To-morrow

Is child of To-day.

Gather ye silently!

Even as the snow

Buildeth the avalanche,

Gather ye, NOW!

This poem offers its own form as an analogue of the formation of a revolutionary movement. Just as flakes of snow gather together to form the avalanche, so the poem is composed of a sequence of short semantic units which, the poem hopes to persuade us, cohere to produce a qualitatively new phenomenon. By a similar process of gathering together, "the people" will also be able to form themselves into an irresistible force. This might seem to return us to the traditional Chartist poetic. However, there has been a crucial temporal shift. This poem is not saying that the people are like an avalanche, rather it is saying that the people might become like one. Moreover, the poem's form rehearses the difficulties of achieving such an organization and concludes by drawing attention to the fact that it offers itself as analogy for, rather than the realization of, the process it hopes to initiate:

Gather ye silently!

Even as the snow

Buildeth the avalanche,

Gather ye, NOW!

Furthermore, the examples of natural power used in "Onward" and "The Gathering of the People," particularly those of "earthquake," "avalanche," and "volcano," are perhaps better described as examples of natural disaster and cataclysm. This marks another significant poetic difference between early and late Chartist poetry. In the latter, metaphors of natural cataclysm (particularly those of volcano and earthquake) replace those of natural power, and fire replaces flood as the favorite image of purification and renewal. If water appears in late Charrist poetry it frequently does so in frozen form, as ice or snow, as in W. J. Linton's "The Gathering of the People" or Jones's "We Are Silent."

This change of metaphors is not devoid of political significance. In both Linton's and Jones's poems the emphasis falls on the destruction of the existing social order rather than the inception of a new one. This orientation not only betokens a self-conscious sense of alienation from contemporary society but also indicates the extent to which the more accomplished Chartist poets were ready to occupy, and thereby recuperate for Chartism, certain categories of bourgeois thought. In this case the poems take positive delight in representing revolution as "natural disaster," which is of course precisely how the conservative imagination represents radical social change to itself.

Yet there is also a sense in which these poems seek to menace the bourgeoisie with the phantoms of the latter's own imagination precisely because they are written out of a realization that the forces of revolution are absent. "We Are Silent," for example, offers just such an image of a spectral revolution, "Like ghosts amid your palaces / Thoughts of poor men force their way." The vehemence with which the destruction of the existing order is imagined is, I would suggest, in part conditioned by a sense of frustration at the absence of any concrete agency capable of performing this task.

In addition, later Chartist poetry's concerns regarding agency manifest themselves in the images of gathering and coalescing which dominate "We Are Silent" and "The Gathering of the People." I noted earlier how Linton's poem offers the avalanche as an analogue for Chartist activity, as an example of how the patient, almost imperceptible, accumulation of individual units can issue in a mass movement capable of securing change. Similarly in "We Are Silent," Jones offers avalanche and dam-burst as a double analogy for Chartist action:

Weight on weight, and all in silence

Swells the avalanche's snow,

Till a scarce-heard whisper hurls it

Crushing on the world below;

Drop by drop, and all in silence

At their mound the waters grow,

Till the last wave proves too heavy,

And away the barriers go!

It is not difficult to see why such figures should prove attractive in the early 1850s as the surviving Chartist leadership embarked on a painstaking process of winning adherents to a new analysis and program, which combined both political and social elements under the slogan of "The Charter and Something More." [17] In this context such tropes allowed isolated, individual events (a new recruit here, a small increase in journal sales there) to be interpreted as signs of the first stirrings of a revivified movement rather than the final spasms of a dying one. This trope also enabled isolated individual Chartists to make sense of, and thereby sustain, their own activity in similar fashion. As explanatory figures these natural force analogies represent a political advance on early Chartist poetry insofar as they encode and emphasize process rather than achieved state. Another key difference is the way in which these two poems offer images of the moment when quantitative change is transformed dialectically into q ualitative change, and represent this moment as both inevitable and unpredictable. The intended political lesson to be drawn here is made explicit in the fifth stanza of "We Are Silent":

Silent as the snowflake sinking,

Truth on truth keeps gathering strong,

Till the nations turn to thinking,

Thinking of their right and wrong:

Then some sudden thaw of feeling,

Then some unomened whisper stealing,

Hurls the mighty mass along.

Again, in terms of its value to Chartist activists, it is not difficult to see the worth of this trope--individual activity, no matter how apparently insignificant, brings the moment of dialectical transformation closer. Similarly, the insistence on the inevitability of such change requires little explanation.

However, the representation of the moment of change as essentially unpredictable does invite attention. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it signals the end of the radical-voluntarist paradigm ("That for a nation to be free it is sufficient that she wills it") by emphasizing the role played by historical circumstance. Whereas early Chartist poetry tends to represent change as permanently available, late Chartist poetry tends to emphasize the relative historical rarity of such moments. [18] Secondly, as discussed earlier, history replaces nature as the medium in and through which change will be realized. Taken together, these features give rise to a third, which at first sight appears rather paradoxical, namely an enhanced role for political strategy and activity.

If, as the poems insist, change is both inevitable and unpredictable, then what is the need for either a political strategy or political activity? The answer given by the Chartist poets is that such a strategy is both a necessary and a contingent aspect of the process of change. Agitation, usually represented as the diffusion of "truth," is a necessary precondition of future victory. However, and herein lies the difference with early Chartist poetry, it is no longer considered to be a sufficient condition in itself, but awaits the right historical conditions to become fully effective. As paradoxical as it sounds, this historical uncertainty represents an advance rather than a regressive move in terms of Chartist political understanding and analysis, insofar as it rejects voluntarism and urges that close attention be given to political and social developments and forces beyond Chartism's immediate control. However, by stressing the contingent nature of its own political activity in the face of an inexorable hi storical process, Chartist poetry must also prevent a slide into a dispirited, fatalistic determinism in which the action of history replaces the activity of Chartism. It aims to achieve this by representing contingent political activity as a vital contribution to that decisive future moment. Hence, as we have seen, the importance of images of gradual, incremental processes which suddenly issue in rapid change, or, as in Gerald Massey's "The Red Banner," images which are capable of construing future victory from present defeat:

"All's well!" saith the Sentry of Tyranny's tower,

"Even Hope by their watch-fire is grey and tearblind."

Aye, all's well! Freedom's altar burns hour by hour--

Live brands for the fire-damps with which ye are mined. [19]


However, another tradition within Chartist poetry seeks to define Chartism less in terms of political abstractions (liberty, freedom, justice) and more in terms of opposed social groups and conditions. Greater attention is thus paid to economic sites of struggle within the poetry, producing a much sharper sense of class identity and of Chartism as an essentially class-based movement. This second tradition, therefore, constitutes the beginnings of a class-based/socialist paradigm. In the following paragraphs I intend to trace the emergence of this new paradigm by charting the development of an alternative Chartist poetic which seeks to interpellate (rather than evoke or invoke) a social force capable of securing the Charter.

That interpellation as a poetic strategy predates the consolidation of a class-based analysis is clear from the following two stanzas taken from the anonymous poem "The State Pauper's Soliloquy":

Who gives us our tax-free houses fine,

And finds us wherewithal to dine,

On turtle and on Bordeaux wine?

The People.

Should phaetons be worse for wear,

Or parks or temples want repair,

Who suffers when we take the air?

The People. [20]

These stanzas (like the poem as a whole) are clearly organized around the simple binary opposition of "The Crown" and "The People." Furthermore, the intention clearly is to excite and consolidate a sense of social opposition and antagonism.

In terms of its political analysis (Court vs. People) and its satirical tone, "The State Pauper's Soliloquy" remains within the radical paradigm. [21] However, subsequent poems which adopt similar poetic strategies increasingly move beyond it, thereby demonstrating the ability of emergent content to reinflect and reinvigorate residual forms. [22] For example, "Oppression" by D.C. shares two key formal features with "The State Pauper's Soliloquy." [23] Firstly, it consists of a series of questions and secondly, it adopts a generalized mode of address which turns on the opposition between the Court and the People. However, unlike its predecessor, "Oppression" forswears satire in favor of emphasizing the psychological damage suffered by the "we" of the poem. The poem emphasizes (in a way which is unusual for early Chartist poetry) the emotionally corrosive nature of alienated labor:

Shall we for ever lick the dust

Or fear the tyrant's boding frown,

And cringing, pander to the lust

Of pamper'd minions of a crown?

Shall we for ever bear the scorn

Of heartless wealth and fancied power?

Bequeath to ages yet unborn

Our abjectness--a galling dower?

Shall we for ever be the spoil

Of greedy avarice? and brood

O'er festering wrongs and thankless toil

In calm and melancholy mood?

Shall we behold the festive halls,

Where the loud laugh of revelry

Echoes along the tinselled walls

In mockery of our misery?

Shall we a blind submission pay

To steel'd oppression's ruthless reign?

Quiescent sigh? And meekly pray

Of death to end our rankling pain?

Forbid it, God! the dignity

Of manhood must awaken'd be;

Justice demands and Liberty

Proclaims we must and shall be free!

Social difference is no longer understood and represented in purely external terms but now extends inward to include a socially distinct psychology. This indicates a growing awareness of the depth of social division. In this poem, the collective "we" now possesses a common private identity as well as a common public one. There is though an intriguing mismatch between the psychological specificity of the middle sections of this poem and its recourse to a generalized political rhetoric in the final stanza. We are witnessing here the inability of the older political rhetoric to articulate fully the changed consciousness and experiences of those who comprise the Chartist movement. However, until the emergence of new categories and concepts capable of articulating that changed consciousness, Chartist poetry finds itself with no alternative but to continue using the established form. One notable feature of D.C.'s poem is the absence of the word "people." Although the poem rests on the Court/People opposition, it us es "we" instead of "people" throughout. This is, perhaps, indicative of a realization that Chartism is the embodiment of a new collectivity, which as yet lacks an appropriate name.

A small cluster of poems published in The Northern Star, "Song" ("Ye working men of England") by William S. Villiers Sankey, "Labour Song" by James Syme, and "To The Sons Of Toil" by A.W., provide further examples of poems which seek to ground Chartist identity as much in economic as in political relations. [24]

Sankey's poem, which echoes Shelley's "Song To The Men Of England" (published for the first time in 1839 [25]), begins by identifying a group unified by concrete economic activity:

Ye working men of England,

Who plough your native soil,

Whose hands have reared her fabrics

With unabated toil.

It continues by highlighting the difference between the producers and the consumers of the national wealth:

Though your labours clothe her nobles,

The Monarch on the throne,

Yet bereft, ye are left,

In slavery to groan;

While the wealthy revel proudly,

Still in slavery ye groan.

At first sight this stanza appears to offer little more than another reworking of the People vs. Aristocracy paradigm. The implicitly identified opponents of the "working men" are given as the "nobles" and "The Monarch." Yet by the end of the stanza it is "the wealthy" not the aristocracy who are identified as the enemy. Furthermore, the second stanza identifies and condemns the indifference of the House of Commons and "purse-proud voters" to the rightful claims of Chartism. Given the Chartist perception of the 1832 Reform Act as one which enfranchised the middle class, this stanza clearly sees the middle class as well as the aristocracy as constituting Chartism's enemy. What we are witnessing here, I would suggest, is the transformation of two established radical tropes--people vs. aristocracy, productive vs. unproductive classes--as Sankey (and I would contend that his activity here is symptomatic of a more general tendency within Chartism) tries to accommodate a new analysis within existing forms. In this case, neither "people" nor "productive" necessarily includes the middle class anymore; indeed the terms have in effect become synonymous (perhaps pre-synonymous in that they name that which has not yet been fully conceptualized) with "working class." In short, pre-existing categories activated in changed historical situations may provide a transitional form capable of containing, without fully conceptualizing, new content. [26]

In similar fashion A.W.'s "To The Sons Of Toil," which also contains many Shelleyan echoes, seeks to define a collective identity based on a shared experience of alienated labor and political oppression. Following the opening invocatory stanza, the "sons of toil" are asked:

How comes it that ye toil and sweat,

And bear the oppressor's rod;

For cruel men who dare to change

The equal laws of God?

How comes, that man with tyrant heart

Is caused to rule another;

To rob, oppress, and, leech-like, suck

The life's blood of a brother?

These questions stress the inter-relationship of economic and political oppression but place the emphasis on the former. A sense of collective identity is grounded in the shared experience of economic exploitation which is represented in the poem as the loss of vital fluids both literally as "sweat" and metaphorically through the "leech-like" vampirism of capital.

Both poems formally embody the transition from economically grounded identity to political activity, ending with calls to join in an unspecified future battle to secure freedom. On the one hand this can be seen as an example of a "performative poetics." Both poems identify present economic suffering as the motive force for political action and also seek to redeem current suffering by imagining a future in which it has been abolished. On the other hand, it can also be argued that the failure of both poems to sustain their orginal economic emphasis is symptomatic of the relatively underdeveloped state of class-based analysis within Chartism. Class provides an initial insight, as it were, which is then "worked out" in terms of existing paradigms (which it nonetheless partially transforms) rather than giving rise to a new conceptual system.

An exception to this "rule" and, therefore, an early example of the new Chartist poetic is James Syme's "Labour Song." This poem is remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, as its prefatory letter suggests, it is a poem conceived and executed with the express intention of recuperating for Chartism a particular bourgeois ideological intervention:

Sir.--The following stanzas were suggested by the Accidental perusal of a Whig recommendation to the sons of toil to "sing" at their labour, and thereby render it "almost a pastime."

Like "To The Sons Of Toil" and "Ye working men of England," "Labour Song" is a poem which begins by invoking a collective defined in terms of its capacity to labor. The opening and closing lines of its first stanza make this clear:

Toil, brothers, toil; sing and toil,


You have nothing to do but work.

The ironic use of that phrase, "nothing to do," which is so often associated with either idleness or with an activity which is perceived as relatively trivial, is indicative of the subtle yet total contestation of bourgeois values attempted in this poem. "Labour Song" continues in its next two stanzas by contrasting productivity and idleness, and poverty and wealth. In similar fashion to Sankey's poem (and to the Shelley poem which surely provides the original template), this contrast is concretized by comparing the ragged state of the producers with the opulently dressed idle consumers of their labor:

Go form the richest fabrics,

And the costliest robes of gold,

To deck the legal plunderers,

Whilst you're shivering with the cold.

However, Syme extends the metaphor of production and its attendant ironies beyond the realm of the economic into that of the social. Or, more accurately, he connects the economic and social consequences of capitalist relations of production through the image of the metal-worker who produces, figuratively, the "bars" of his own (and by extension his class's) oppression:

Toil, brothers, toil; let the anvil ring

With clanging blows, and strong;

Go forge the ponderous bars, and sing

(As you pant and sweat) a song.

This image marks a qualitative difference (both poetically and politically) between Syme's poem and those previously discussed. Not only does this image link economic and political oppression in a way which is both poetically satisfying and politically convincing, but it also highlights the potential power possessed by the working class. "To the Sons Of Toil" and "Ye working men of England" both focus on economic exploitation and tend to represent the working class as victim and victimized. "Labour Song" also identifies the evils of economic exploitation but it stresses the agency of the working class, the extent to which they actively produce the conditions of their own exploitation and oppression, and thus, by implication, it suggests that they also possess the means to put an end to these things. The ironic lesson implicit in "Labour Song" matches that drawn explicitly by William Benbow eight years earlier, that it is precisely through the premeditated cessation of its labor that the working class will ac tually realize its own human existence. [27]

Another significantly new feature in "Labour Song" is its recognition of the internally differentiated nature of the working class. If the radical paradigm invoked an apparently homogeneous "people," then the new class paradigm recognizes and seeks to overcome the heterogeneity (usually occupation-based) of the working class. The seventh and eighth stanzas of the poem address precisely this issue:

Raise palace homes upon the land,

Send navies ocean o'er;

The sickle wield with sturdy hand,

The sparkling mine explore.

Toil, brothers, toil, from dawn to dark;

Let not the heart complain,

Though you have hardly aught, save work;

The idler all the gain.

Stanza seven appeals to a variety of occupational groups, builders, sailors, agricultural workers, and miners (earlier in the poem textile and metalworkers have been invoked), whilst stanza eight points to the underlying similarities in their situations: divided by occupation, united by class is the message of these stanzas and of the poem as a whole. In this respect, "Labour Song" anticipates many of the poetic and political features of Ernest Jones's "The Song of the Low," which, I shall argue later, represents one of the greatest achievements of Chartist poetry.

In this emergent tradition then, poetic and political strategies alike operate by identifying a privileged group from which both the poem's speaker and its intended audience are excluded. The causes and consequences of this exclusion are represented as economic, and it is this economic deprivation which is invoked as the motive force for political action. However, it should be emphasized that in this poetic, the economic is always interlinked vitally and intimately with the political and, in particular, the moral. [28] Hence the strong sense in these poems of an inverted moral, political, and economic order; which is why individual poems are frequently organized formally around reversals whether implicit or enacted. For example, "The State Pauper's Soliloquy" depends on the ironic reattribution of "pauper" to one of the wealthier members of society; while "To the Sons of Toil," "Ye Working Men of England," and "Labour Song" begin by depicting a society in which there is an inverse (and, therefore, a perverse ) relation between productive labor and material comfort, and conclude by imagining either a society in which this relation is reversed, or the means (political struggle) by which such a society can be realized. Finally, in poems such as Syme's "Labour Song" and Sankey's "Ye Working Men of England," with their appeal to specific groups identified by concrete economic activity and unified by a set of shared economic relations, it is possible to see the beginnings of a class-based analysis. In these two poems, the agents of social change are no longer the homogeneous "people" of the radical paradigm but an internally differentiated "working class."

A poetics of class is, therefore, discernible within Chartist poetry as early as 1840, although it must also be acknowledged that such poetry is far from common in the Chartist press of this period. Not until the later 1840s and the work of Ernest Jones in particular, does a rhetoric of class find consistent expression within Chartist poetry. [29] As Anne Janowitz has argued, Jones's contribution to the development of Chartist poetry consisted of "his transmuting of custom-based communitarian poetry into more obviously industrial and class-based poems, and endowing them with a firmer sense of the agency of the workers" (p. 183). Janowitz cites Jones's "The Blackstone-Edge Gathering" as an example of a poem which "specifies more clearly than did Davenport or Cooper a poetic which draws on the rhetoric of class division." [30]

Nor does "The Blackstone-Edge Gathering" stand alone in Jones's poetry. Poems such as "A Chartist Chorus," "Our Destiny," "The Factory Town," and "A Song For The People" identify specific economic interests, pay close attention to the effects of alienated labor, deploy a rhetoric of class antagonism, and abound in images of impending class conflict. [31] Certainly these elements often coexist with older and recognizably radical formulations (usually registered in the language of constitutionalism), but these are now ancillary to a poetics and a politics which grounds itself in a class analysis. For example, "Our Destiny" and "A Chartist Chorus" (composed within a month of each other in 1846), whether consciously or not, revisit and develop James Syme's "Labour Song." Like its precursor, "Our Destiny" opens with an invocation of alienated labor: Labour! labour! labour! toil! toil! toil!

With the wearing of the bone and the drowning of the mind.

"A Chartist Chorus" returns to the trope of the manufacture by the working class of the means of its own oppression, and explicitly points to the potential power possessed by the workers in this respect:

You forge no more--you fold no more

Your cankering chains about us;

We heed you not--we need you not,

But you can't do without us.

"The Factory Town" imagines specific industrial sites as the bases for an (ambiguously figured) insurrectionary politics:

Up in factory! Up in mill!

Freedom's mighty phalanx swell!

This poem also concludes by calling for unity between the agricultural and industrial proletariats figured as "farming slave and factory-martyr!" Finally, "A Song For The People" provides an example of the transformation of radicalism's analysis of "Old Corruption" into a proto-socialist analysis of class-based state power, with its declaration:

There's strength in our bands--and our fate's in our hands;

If we knew but to use our power,

The foul-class rule--of the knave and fool,

Needn't last for a single hour.

However, the poem which is most clearly marked by the poetics and politics of class is "The Song of the Low." This poem synthesizes most of the important dynamics within Chartist poetry, combining both oral and written forms to represent an inverted economic, moral and political order which, by declaration, will only be corrected by revolution. In this respect, "The Song of the Low" is organized around the principle of formal reversal characteristic of the emergent tradition of class-based poetry:

We're low--we're low--we're very, very low,

As low as low can be;

The rich are high--for we make them so--

And a miserable lot are we!

And a miserable lot are we! are we!

A miserable lot are we!

We plough and sow--we're so very, very low,

That we delve in the dirty clay,

Till we bless the plain with the golden drain,

And the vale with the fragrant hay.

Our place we know--we're so very low,

'Tis down at the landlord's feet:

We're not too low--the bread to grow

But too low the bread to eat.

We're low, we're low, etc.

Down, down we go--we're so very, very low,

To the hell of the deep sunk mines.

But we gather the proudest gems that glow,

When the crown of a despot shines;

And whenever he lacks--upon our backs

Fresh loads he deigns to lay,

We're far too low to vote the tax

But we're not too low to pay.

We're low, we're low, etc.

We're low, we're low--mere rabble we know,

But at our plastic power,

The mould at the lordling's feet will grow

Into palace and church and tower-

Then prostrate fall--in the rich man's hall,

And cringe at the rich man's door,

We're not too low to build the wall,

But too low to tread the floor.

We're low, we're low, etc.

We're low, we're low, --we're very, very low,

Yet from our fingers glide

The silken flow--and the robes that glow,

Round the limbs of the sons of pride.

And what we get--and what we give,

We know--and we know our share.

We're not too low the cloth to weave-

But too low the cloth to wear.

We're low, we're low, etc.

We're low, we're low--we're very, very low,

And yet when the trumpets ring,

The thrust of a poor man's arm will go

Through the heart of the proudest king!

We're low, we're low--our place we know,

We're only the rank and file,

We're not too low--to kill the foe,

But too low to touch the spoil.

We're low, we're low, etc.

This careful attention to class, then, distinguishes "The Song of the Low," creating a poem which aims to build a unified working class out of a range of separate occupational groups. Each stanza not only invokes a specific group of workers--agricultural laborers, miners, construction workers, textile workers, and finally, soldiers--but also represents their identity as defined by their relation to a class antagonist as well as by their own economic activity. Thus, agricultural workers are ranged against landlords, miners and soldiers against monarchs, construction and textile workers against the rich. In short, the concept of class struggle is encoded in the form of the poem itself. The poem also demonstrates that all of these groups are linked by shared experiences of economic exploitation and social subordination, although (this is indicative of the subtlety of the poem's poetic and politics alike), shared experience is not figured as identical experience; social subordination, for example, is more acute f or the agricultural and construction workers (who literally occupy subordinate positions, "down at the landlord's feet," "prostrate fall.../ And cringe at the rich man's door") than it is for the miners and textile workers. In this way the poem indicates an awareness of the internally differentiated nature of the working class and, therefore, of a corresponding need to build rather than assume class unity. In this respect, "The Song of the Low" is a performative poem--prefiguring the political process it wishes to inspire. Similarly, the poem offers a dynamic of increasing working-class consciousness; beginning with a consciousness of economic exploitation in the first verse, combining this with an awareness of the political mechanisms (taxation) which intensify the economic despoliarion of the working class in the second verse, tracing the interconnections between the ruling groups ("palace and church and tower") in the third, and issuing in the achieved class consciousness of the textile workers who have th e capacity to assess their situation: "And what we get--and what we give,/ We know--and we know our share." This culminates in an intentionally ambiguous final verse in which the "low" are simultaneously "the rank and file" of the regular army and the foot-soldiers of the revolution.

A terrible historical irony is, of course, at work here. The last poetic flowering of Chartism coincides with the decline of the movement itself. As a result of this decline, Chartist poetry is increasingly unable to sustain itself. Indeed, Anne Janowitz argues that by 1855 it is no longer possible to talk of "the Chartist poetic as an independent poetic project" (p. 192). In "The Song of the Low," Ernest Jones had rendered a poetically and politically convincing class-based analysis at a time when there was no longer a mass movement capable of making those words flesh. When such a movement arose with the socialist revival of the 1890s, however, Jones's words were sung again. The Socialist League acknowledged the proto-socialist qualities of "The Song of the Low" by reprinting it (albeit slightly restyled as "Song of the 'Lower' Classes") in a one-penny pamphlet entitled Revolutionary Rhymes and Songs for Socialists published in 1886. [32]

MICHAEL SANDERS is Lecturer in English at Lancaster University and the editor of the four-volume study Women and Radicalism in the Nineteenth Century (Routledge, 2001). He is currently working on a study of Chartist Poetry entitled Songs of the Low: Chartist Poetry and the Canon (to be published by Ashgate/Scolar Press).


(1.) Earlier drafts of this paper were given to the "Nineteenth-Century Seminar Series," Birkbeck College, London, and at the Nene Centre for Research, University College Northampton and I am grateful for those suggestions, comments, and advice received at these events. I should also like to thank Professor Anne Janowitz for reading and commenting on an earlier draft, and Professor Florence Boos and the unnamed reader at Victorian Poetry for their advice and suggestions. Finally, I should like to thank Catherine Cundy without whose insight and intelligence this would be a considerably poorer paper.

All of the poems cited in this article can be found in either Yuri Kovalev, ed., An Anthology of Chartist Literature (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956), or Brian Maidment, ed., The Poorhouse Fugitives: Self-taught Poets and Poetry in Victorian Britain (Manchester; Carcanet, 1992). In the following notes I give references for the original date and place of publication for each poem, and, in brackets, a reference for either the Kovalev or Maidment collections.

(2.) R. C. Gammage, History of the Chartist Movement 1837-1854 (1854; London: Merlin, 1969), p. 106.

(3.) The only strategy which commanded majority support amongst the Chartists was that of the mass platform and petition. Only the most optimistic (or naive) Chartists believed that such a show of moral strength would force the government to concede the Charter. However, there was little agreement about what to do if the petition was rejected. Some Chartists advocated armed insurrection and others felt that whilst the movement was entitled to defend itself forcibly if attacked it should not instigate violence. Many Chartists, therefore, favored mass demonstrations which would provoke state repression which in turn would generate "an explosion of protest sufficient to overwhelm the forces of reaction" ( D. G. Wright, Popular Radicalism: The Working-Class Experience 1780-1880 [London: Longman, 1988], p. 125). Indeed, it would not be entirely inaccurate to say that Chartism was a movement without a strategy. Certainly, as Edward Royle argues, "The truth was that neither [O'Connor] nor most of the other leaders h ad faced up to the problem of Chartist strategy" (Chartism [London: Longman, 1986], p. 57). For a brief summary and discussion of the debate around these questions, see John Charlton, The Chartists (London: Pluto Press, 1997), pp. 59-60, 70-73.

(4.) At the risk of operating an unduly schematic analysis, one might argue that the first strategy is dominated by the "radical paradigm," i.e., those political analyses developed in the period 1790-1830, which asserted that the fundamental political struggle was that between the "Aristocracy" and the "People" and which figured the struggle of the "People" either as an attempt to recover lost rights (constitutionalism, the freeborn Englishman), or as the establishing of natural rights as in the Paineite tradition. This radical paradigm can be thought of as constituting a "dominant-residual" moment within Chartism(dominant insofar as it represented the mainstream of Chartist analysis, residual insofar as that analysis was becoming increasingly anachronistic). The second strategy constitutes an "emergent" moment insofar as it articulates an incipient class consciousness and proto-socialist analysis and, therefore, anticipates developments toward the end of the nineteenth century.

(5.) Eugene La Mont, "Universal Liberty--The Chartist Reaction," The Northern Star, August 15, 1840 (Kovalev, p.73). Edwin P. Mead, "Chartist Song," The Northern Star, May 8, 1841 (Kovalev, pp. 93-94).

(6.) Anon., "Air" ("Swearing death to tyrant King"), The Northern Star, June 20, 1840 (Kovalev, p.35). S.J., "Nine Cheers for the Charter," The Northern Star, October 29, 1842 (Kovalev, pp. 52-53). F., "One and All," "The Northern Star, June 25, 1842 (Kovalev, p. 54). Jonathan Lefevre, "The Enslaved," The Northern Star, March 28, 1840 (Kovalev, pp. 74-75). William S. Villiers Sankey, "Song" ("Ye working men of England"), The Northern Star, April 25, 1840 (Kovalev, pp. 78-79).

(7.) Ernest Jones, "The Song of the Future," Notes to the People, Vol. 2 (1852): 993 (Kovalev, pp. 176-178). Ernest Jones, "We Are Silent," Notes to the People, Vol. 1 (1851): 92 (Kovalev, pp. 165-166). William James Linton, "The Gathering of the People," The English Republic (1851), pp. 136-137 (Kovalev, pp. 188-189).

(8.) For details of the importance of these traditions in Chartist poetry see Anne F. Janowitz, Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 28, 79-82, 135, 140-141.

(9.) In Chartism Carlyle consistently identifies the working class with an essential inarticulacy: for example, "wild inarticulate souls, struggling there, with inarticulate uproar, like dumb creatures in pain, unable to speak what is in them!" (Thomas Carlyle, English and Other Critical Essays [London: Dent, 1915], p. 169).

(10.) W.H.C., "The Voice of the People," The Northern Star, December 4, 1841 (Kovalev, p. 50).

(11.) For a different reading of this poem's landscape, and of the "Chartist poetic landscape" in general, see Janowitz, pp. 152-157.

(12.) C. Westray, "The Voice of Freedom," The Northern Star, February 20, 1841 (Kovalev, p. 100).

(13.) Moreover, there is a sense in which metonymy was providing industrial capitalism with its preferred mode of representing the working classes as "hands." The Chartist emphasis on voice, with its connotations of articulacy and intelligence, is intended to (and indeed does) oppose the capitalist emphasis on "hands."

(14.) Anon., "Chartists and Liberty," The Northern Star, April 10, 1841 (Kovalev, p. 38). E.C.H., "Address to the Charter," The Northern Star, June 6, 1840 (Kovalev, pp. 4748). William S. Villiers Sankey, "Ode" ("Men of England, ye are slaves"), The Northern Star, February 29, 1840 (Kovalev, p. 76).

(15.) In addition, as Anne Janowitz observes, "In the interventionist poetry of revolution and reform, the poetic of reason is often focused through a familiar enlightenment image of the sun" (p. 65).

(16.) Timothy Randall, "Charrist Poetry and Song" in O. Ashron, R. Fyson, and S. Roberts, eds., The Chartist Legacy (Rendlesham: Merlin, 1999), p. 179.

(17.) For an account of this period of Chartist activity, see Margot C. Finn, After Chartism: Class and Nation in English Radical Politics, 1848-1874 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993).

(18.) Consider, for example, the opening line of Gerald Massey's "'The Men of 'FortyEight,"' "They rose in Freedoms rare sunrise.

(19.) Gerald Massey, "The Red Banner," The Red Republican 1(1850) (Kovalev, pp. 205-206).

(20.) Anon., "The State Pauper's Soliloquy," The Northern Liberator, January 18, 1840 (Kovalev, pp. 37-38).

(21.) Gary Dyer argues that "parody was the dominant technique of populist radicalism, in both literary and non-literary media," British Satire and the Politics of Style 1789-1832 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), p.75.

(22.) What I am suggesting here is that in terms of the ideological development of the nineteenth-century labor movement we need to look for subtle longer-term changes rather than sudden ruptures and the abrupt initiation of new paradigms. David Cannadine's recent work on class, for example, notes the longevity and fluidity of both models and languages of class in British culture and emphasizes the need for caution in this respect (Class in Britain [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press 1998]). However, whereas Cannadine draws attention to the ways in which "new" words can contain older meanings I wish to stress the reverse case, which is that "old" words can contain new ideas. There is, however, agreement here that the theoretical model underpinning a specific utterance is not as immediately apparent as some of the "linguistic turn" historians suppose.

(23.) D.C., "Oppression," The Northern Star, September 3,1842 (Kovalev, p. 58).

(24.) James Syme, "Labour Song," The Northern Star, December 26, 1840 (Kovalev, pp. 80-81). A.W., "To The Sons of Toil," The Northern Star, April 3, 1841 (Kovalev, p. 49).

(25.) For a discussion of Shelley's influence on Chartist poetry see, Bouthaina Shaaban, "Shelley in the Chartist Press," KSMB 34 (1983): 41-60.

(26.) Althusser observes that it is the common fate of new ideas to be thought "in existing theoretical concepts" (Louis Althusser, "Freud and Lacan," Essays On Idelogy [London: Verso, 1984], p. 143).

(27.) "The existence of the working man is a negative.... When they fight for themselves ... they will be every thing they were nor before" (William Benbow, Grand National Holiday, and Congress of the Productive Classes [London, 1832], pp. 4-5).

(28.) The concept of the "moral economy" understood as a set of ideas about the way in which the economy ought to operate with regard to the common weal, was first elaborated by E. P. Thompson in "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century," and subsequently defended in "The Moral Economy Reviewed." Both essays are reprinted in E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common (New York: The New Press, 1993), pp. 185-351.

(29.) Although Ernest Jones is the most significant it is important to note that he is not the only Chartist poet whose work registers class-consciousness. Anne Janowitz argues that William James Linton's poetry is "inflected by a strong sense of class-consciousness" (p. 203).

(30.) Janowitz, p. 177. Ernest Jones, "The Blackstone-Edge Gathering," The Northern Star, August 22, 1846 (Kovalev, pp. 140-141).

(31.) Ernest Jones, "A Chartist Chorus," The Northern Star, June 6, 1846 (Kovalev, p. 136); "Our Destiny," The Northern Star, July 11, 1846 (Kovalev, p. 137); "The Factory Town," The Labourer 1:49 (1847) (Kovalev, pp. 141-145); "A Song For The People," The Northern Star, March 4, 1848 (Kovalev, pp. 151-152).

(32.) Revolutionary Rhymes and Songs for Socialists (London, 1886).
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Publication:Victorian Poetry
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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