Review of Michael Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History

The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History by Michael Sanders, Cambridge University Press, 2009, 299 pp., £50 (hardback), ISBN 978-0-521-89918-5

Michael Sanders announced that The Poetry of Chartism was in the pipeline in a full-page article in The Guardian in March 2007. This was tremendous publicity for the poets of Chartism, even if the article gave the somewhat unfortunate impression that Sanders was a solitary explorer of the unfathomed caverns of Chartist verse. As Sanders acknowledges in his second chapter, a great deal of research and writing has already been done on the poetry which so strongly permeated this formidable working-class movement. He refers to the ground-breaking anthology edited by that most kind-hearted scholar Yuri Kovalev in the 1950s – though appears unaware that another anthology, drawing heavily on Kovalev’s volume but adding some poems by Ernest Jones and Gerald Massey, was brought out some thirty years later by Peter Scheckner (1). Sanders surveys the literature that has come in the wake of the Kovalev volume. He comments on two of the three book-length studies of the subject – Phyllis Ashraf’s view from the German Democratic Republic and Ulrike Schwab’s highly-theoretical appraisal, but omits entirely the sweeping review of Hughes Journes (2) The most important discussions of Chartist poetry have come in book chapters, and Sanders duly notes the insightful contributions of Martha Vicinus, Anne Janowitz, and Timothy Randall (3).

So how does Sanders himself extend this discussion? He has concentrated his research and reflection on the poetry column of the famous Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star – with a chapter on Gerald Massey tacked on at the end. This means, thankfully, that we have a book on the subject that does not have Ernest Jones centre-stage. It also means, however, that Chartist poets whose work was published outside the columns of the Star – George Binns in the Northern Liberator or William Aitken in McDouall’s Chartist Journal and Republican Advocate, for example – are excluded from Sanders’ appraisal. This is very much a book about the poetry of Chartism rather than the poets of Chartism. Sanders is much more interested in what was written rather than who wrote it, and so we get the names of the poets but little else, even if they were, like E.P. Mead or Benjamin Stott, locally quite important figures in the movement.

I have long wondered about the identity of ‘Iota’ who, from Newport, sent into the Star some of the most interesting Chartist poetry of 1840. Sanders offers no real clues to his identity – though he implies he knew John Frost well – but does make some worthwhile comments about the verses themselves. We are shown how ‘Iota’ sought to explain rather than defend the Newport Rising and how the writer’s confidence, both in terms of what he said and in poetic style, grew with each piece. The march and attack on Newport, in this poet’s view, was a response to tyranny and an act of virtue: Frost led the rising, ‘To minimise the sum of misery/Endured by man’. In seeking to understand how the Chartists themselves responded to the Newport Rising, Sanders’ scrutiny of these poems offers some very helpful hints.

Sanders also provides useful chapters on Chartist poetic activity in the key years of 1842 and 1848. I read profitably, for example, his commentary on the adulatory poems written in honour of Feargus O’Connor, which Sanders plausibly suggests enabled O’Connor to consolidate his leadership in 1842. In these poems O’Connor is seen very much as an heroic figure, his rivals in the Chartist leadership dismissed: ‘Lovett and Vincent and Parson O’Neill/We cannot repose on your honour/Tho’ you profess such religion and zeal/We mean to stick fast to O’Connor.’ Sanders writes at length about what he calls a Chartist mini-epic, ‘The O’Connor Demonstration’ which appeared in the Star in July and August 1842. This poem of 211 lines conveys the power of O’Connor’s oratory: ‘He speaks! And O! this grov’ling soul of mine/Seems the vast hill of certainty to climb/From which she views all ranged in fair array/The peaceful emblems of fair freedom’s sway’. Full of classical allusion, this vast poem was attributed to John Sixty, though I suspect it may have been from the pen of the Chartist lecturer, Jonathan Bairstow.

The heart of this book is the third chapter in which Sanders examines the number of poets and poems published in the Star each year and the editorial policy adopted by, successively, William Hill, Joshua Hobson and Julian Harney. Sanders has calculated that at least 390 poets contributed to the Star during its lifetime; their verses, he rightly observes, constitute one of the richest archives of Victorian artisan writing. He informs us that it was in the early years of the movement that the newspaper received its largest postbags of poetry – the years 1840-1 in particular saw huge quantities of poems arriving each week at the Star office in Leeds and Hill groaning under the weight of unsolicited poetry, often brutally dismissing what he read as ‘rubbish’. I first drew attention to the editorial line taken on the poetic efforts of contributors in the mid-1990s in an essay entitled ‘Who wrote to the Northern Star?’ – which perhaps deserves better than the somewhat dismissive footnote accorded it here – and Sanders, in truth, adds only a little more detail. (4). He does go on, however, to make several interesting new observations. He notes that the poetry column, re-located from page 7 to page 3 of the newspaper and therefore preceding the editorial page, was close to the ideological centre of the Star. He also points out that from the mid-1840s real efforts were made by Harney to improve the standard of poetry which was published. Alongside frequent extracts from Harney’s favourite poet, Byron, readers were now treated periodically to ‘The Feast of the Poets’, featuring the writings of such men as Alfred Fennell and Edwin Gill who were a cut above the Chartist poets of a few years earlier. Sanders in fact has quite a lot to say about Gill – in whose ‘deft’ poetry he detects ‘a new vocabulary of class struggle’.

It is important to recognize that Chartist poets like Thomas Cooper and Ernest Jones were highly unusual in bringing out volumes of verse and achieving recognition beyond the Chartist ranks. Though there were a few other locally-printed and now long-vanished volumes of Chartist poetry such as The Chartist Warbler by Thomas Haig of Kinross, almost all Chartist poets were published in the Star or another of the movement’s own periodicals. Sanders has written a book which provides much fresh information from a careful trawl of the poetry column of the Star, and commented judiciously on what he has found. Though, surprisingly, he doesn’t pay any real attention to the small number of identifiable female contributors, the poetic voices of such forgotten writers as L.T. Clancy, David Wright or the mysterious ‘Iota’ are once again heard. Usefully, at the end of the book, there is a full list of all the poets and their poems which made it into the Star. Though a conclusion would have been helpful, Sanders is to be commended on writing a book which is not overly-theoretical and therefore clear and comprehensible. We now have, from Malcolm Chase, an impressive narrative history of Chartism, but his long book does not pay sufficient attention to the poetry and poets of Chartism. Sanders reminds us that this aspect of the movement should not be neglected.

Stephen Roberts
University of Birmingham

1. Yuri Kovalev, An Anthology of Chartist Literature (Moscow, 1956); Peter Scheckner, An Anthology of Chartist Poetry (1989).

2. Phyllis Ashraf, An Introduction to Working Class Literature in Great Britain (Berlin, 1978); Hugues Journes, Une Litterature Revolutionnaire en Grande-Bretagne: La Poesie Chartiste (Paris, 1991); Ulrike Schwab, The Poetry of the Chartist Movement (Dordrecht, 1993).

3. Martha Vicinus, The Industrial Muse: A Study of Nineteenth Century Working Class Literature (1974); Anne Janowitz, Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition (Cambridge, 1998), Timothy Randall, ‘Chartist Poetry and Song’ in Owen Ashton, Robert Fyson and Stephen Roberts eds. The Chartist Legacy (1999).

4. Owen Ashton, Robert Fyson and Stephen Roberts eds. The Duty of Discontent: Essays for Dorothy Thompson (1995).

Stephen Roberts is a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Research in Arts and Social Sciences in the University of Birmingham. He is the author of Radical Politicians and Poets in Early Victorian Britain (New York, 1993) and, more recently, of The Chartist Prisoners: The Radical Lives of Thomas Cooper (1805-92) and Arthur O’Neill (1819-96) (Oxford, 2008). He is currently working on Colonel Charles Sibthorp, irascible opponent of reform, railways and the Great Exhibition and, inadvertently, a signatory of the great Chartist petition of 1848.

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